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Erasmus exposition




“Lack of culture is not holiness.”


Introductory Comments



A] Erasmus is often regarded as a Reformer, but in fact he died saying he had always been Catholic.

At first Protestants cherished him because he criticized “Monastic” reliance on rituals.  In addition he denied that scripture mandated auricular confession.  (Here he earned the ire of confessors who profited financially from hearing confessions.)  Only his stomach was “Lutheran.”

He adopted mediaeval Catholicism’s understanding of the relation of nature and grace, even as he repudiated utterly its scholasticism.


B] Erasmus was the most brilliant in the firmament of humanist scholars.  His talents in the areas of languages (both classical and modern-vernacular), linguistics and philology are prodigious.

He aimed at promoting Christian civility.  The humanist deployment of language soothes savage passions and promotes sociability.

He saw secular clergy as allies (or at least not inimical) to the humanist agenda, and ordered priests (“Mendicant Tyrants”) as its sworn enemy.  Concerning the Franciscan Observants he maintained they took a fourth vow: “to have no shame whatever.”


C] His greatest gift to the Reformation was the Textus Receptus, the best Greek New Testament without which the Reformation wouldn’t have been possible.

Note, however, that he wanted a better Greek Testament not for the sake of the best vernacular translation (he despised common people – “When the wine goes in, the grease comes out”) but for the sake of a Latin translation better than the Vulgate had been.  Despite his “Tyndale-sounding” remark that the farmer behind the plough should be equipped with the gospel, his New Testament Paraphrases were written and published in Latin.

Latin should be learned not by appropriating the rules of grammar but by immersing oneself in the Latin usage of the greatest Latinists: Cicero to Quintilian (106 BCE – 95 CE.)


D] In his era he was without peer in Greek and Latin.  (Upon his death Philip Melanchthon was the acknowledged prince of humanists.)  He loathed Hebrew and didn’t learn it.  (Luther, if alive today, would be Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature.  Calvin was a superb Hebraist and expounded huge areas of the Older Testament.)


E] The humanists, supposedly the prosecutors of “tolerance” and the arch-enemies of prejudice, were the worst anti-Semites in Europe .  Erasmus was considered the most vehement of all.  While he admitted there could be exceptions among the “Mendicant Tyrants” he loathed, no exception pertained to Jews: their leader was Satan.  Consider Erasmus’ “fondness” for Paris : there one “couldn’t find even one living Jew.”


F] Erasmus’ Philosophia Christi never approached the logic of the gospel.  He remained a religious moralist.  He thought Origen worth ten of Augustine on account of Origen’s less severe understanding of the Fall (Original Sin.)  He borrowed Origen’s tri-partite understanding of the human misunderstanding Paul on flesh/spirit.


G] His dispute with Luther (1525: cf. L’s Bondage of the Will) displayed his failure to grasp the heart of the Reformation: is the righteousness we sorely need gift or achievement?


H] He derided abuses and superstitions; however he never criticized either the institution of the Catholic church or its theology.  He saw little or no point in doctrinal disagreement.  He never grasped the Reformers’ perception: regardless of how many institutional and moral abuses are remedied, elements of Catholic theology obscure the gospel.  Therefore doctrine has to be re-forged.

It remains fashionable in some circles to pine for a might-have-been “Reformation along Erasmian lines.” Those who wish for this appear not to understand that “Erasmian Reformation” spells no Reformation at all.


I] While the Reformers repudiated scholasticism because its theology stifled the gospel, Erasmus repudiated it because it stifled the “new learning.”  Aristotle in particular was suffocating.  Scholasticism in general aimed at contention, dispute, refutation.  Erasmus preferred a theology nourished by a rhetorical rather than a dialectical culture.  Contention doesn’t yield edification.


J] His undisputed gift to the world is the boost he gave humanist studies and the foundation he and others laid for modern education.


K] He never lacked self-confidence.  “Please explain to her {Anna van Borssele, Belgian patroness} how much greater is the glory she can acquire from me, by my writings, than from the other theologians in her patronage.  They merely deliver humdrum sermons; I am writing books that may last forever.”

“I would rather win a fame that is a little delayed, but endures, than a speedier reputation which I must afterward regret.”






Areas of Theological Divergence from the Reformers


  1.   Erasmus maintains the content of pagan morality and Christian exhortation to be similar.  Certainly there is a phenomenological similarity.  But is the essence of each identical?


The Reformers differ markedly from Erasmus with respect to the nature of ‘obligation.’

(a) God’s characteristic work is not the dissemination of instructions.

(b) God gives himself to us in grace, then insists we give ourselves to him in gratitude.  (God wants the heart-obedience of those whom he has called into personal relationship with him; he does not want conformity to a code.)



  1.   Erasmus looks upon the New(er) testament as a sourcebook for ethics.

(i) Does the New(er) testament itself support this understanding?

(ii) Why does Erasmus undervalue the Old(er) testament?  With what consequences?



  1.   Erasmus seldom speaks of grace, concupiscence, or the bondage of the will.  Why?



  1.  What do the Reformers mean by “Total Depravity?”  “Total” doesn’t mean “utter.”  It doesn’t mean that we are as bad as we can be.  The Reformers admit that there is much that fallen humankind can do, and can do superbly well: science, mathematics, government, art, music, painting (“culture” in general), and what Calvin calls “mechanical” arts (i.e., engineering.)


However, “total depravity” does mean

[A]  the scope of the fall is total: there is no human undertaking that isn’t fallen, sin-riddled, corrupted.


[B]  the penetration of the fall is comprehensive: there is no aspect of the human being (reason, will, affect) that is unaffected and by which we can restore ourselves.

E.g. (i), we can still reason (or else we shouldn’t be human; the structure of reason survives the fall), but now our reason subserves the wrong end or purpose, particularly as we approach the specifically human or divine.  Reason now applies itself to aggrandizement of ourselves, or exploitation of others, or the legitimization of unconscious motivation (i.e., rationalization).

E.g. (ii), we can still will (to be without will is to have ceased to be human), and can still will moralgood, but we cannot will the good: the kingdom of God .  We cannot will ourselves out of our sinnership, cannot will ourselves into the kingdom.  (Note John 3:3: apart from Spirit-regeneration we cannot so much assee the kingdom, much less enter it.)  The will is “bound” or “enslaved” (not free) in that it cannot will righteousness.  But such bondage is never to be confused with philosophical determinism: the Reformers never say that genuine choice is denied us with respect to creaturely matters.

E.g. (iii), we can still love, but now our affections are misaligned; we love what we ought to hate and hate what we ought to love.  At the very least we love the creature above the Creator; our loves are “disordered affections:” lesser loves (legitimate in themselves) usurp our greater love (for God.)  In addition our creaturely loves are riddled with self-interest.



[3]  No one part of the society can save the rest.  The individual cannot save the society as a whole, or the society the individual. Economics cannot put right what sociologists identify as the human problem; neither can sociologists put right what economists identify as the human problem.

While Marx reduces all considerations (Freud’s explanation included) to the dialectical laws of materialism (and one’s place in the economic spectrum), and while Freud reduces all considerations (Marx’s explanation included) to intra-psychic unconscious conflict, the doctrine of Total Depravity exposes both as one-sided and short-sighted.


Note too that culture, however sophisticated (Kulturprotestantismus) is not the kingdom, is not even the vestibule to the kingdom, at the same time that culture remains a creaturely good, albeit fallen.


(Wesley insisted that he differed “not a hair’s breadth” from the Reformers on this point.)



  1.   Erasmus differs from the Reformers in that the latter insist that


(i) redemption, not ethical instruction, is the content of revelation.


(ii) scripture logically begins with redemption, not with creation (with                                                           exodus/cross rather than with creation).


(iii) the ordo salutis governs the ordo cognoscendi.  In other words, if salvation is                                       from God to us, then the knowledge of God (an implicate of salvation)                                             must also be from God to us.  Neither natural theology nor speculative                                                             theology may obscure the gospel (revelation).


(iv) religion, so far from being the vestibule or antechamber or anticipation of the                                        kingdom of God , is the contradiction of the gospel.  The harlots and tax-                                          collectors enter the kingdom ahead of the Pharisees.


(v)  Coram Deo (before God) humankind is dead, not merely sick.  We need                                               resurrection, not assistance.


(vi)             the sphere of God and the sphere of humankind (i.e., the spheres of Creator and the creaturely) are distinctand are united by grace, not by ontology (being).




The Reverend Dr. V. Shepherd