Desiderius Erasmus

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What role did Desiderius Erasmus play in the Reformation?

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Erasmus played an important role in providing some of the intellectual foundations for the Reformers' attacks on the Church. Though Erasmus never became a Protestant himself, he certainly made an enormous contribution to the ferment of ideas out of which the Reformation emerged. Throughout his writings, Erasmus was highly critical of certain practices within the Church. He used his enormous erudition and great wit to satirize some of the more absurd aspects of late medieval devotional life. For instance, Erasmus was openly contemptuous of the veneration of sacred relics, the sale of which he thought was nothing more than a money-making scam. He had a similar attitude towards indulgences, a notorious practice whereby people could gain remission of sins in the next world if they paid a certain amount of money to the Church.

Generally, Erasmus was pretty scathing of the Church's rampant corruption and its many abuses. Yet he remained a loyal Catholic until his dying day. Erasmus wanted to reform the Church, not replace it with something else as the Reformers did. This earned him the contempt and derision of full-blooded Reformers like Luther, with whom Erasmus engaged in an ill-tempered, rancorous correspondence.

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Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) was a Dutch scholar and humanist whose humorous treatments of Roman Catholic orthodoxy endeared him to many reformers while subjecting him to enormous criticism from Church hierarchy.  While Erasmus is considered, and was, an advocate of reform of the Church, neither was he willing to go as far as his contemporary, Martin Luther, in splitting the Church and creating seemingly irrevocable divisions among Christians. 

Erasmus’ most well-known work was The Praise of Folly, written in 1509, and discussed in the eNotes document a link to which is provided below.  If Erasmus didn’t have enemies among Church hierarchy before, he certainly did with the publication of The Praise of Folly.   In discussing the more scurrilous of mankind, following corrupt merchants, lawyers and philosophers, he castigates theologians as

“that short-tempered and supercilious crew [that] is unpleasant to deal with. . . They will proclaim me a heretic.  With this thunderbolt they terrify the people they don’t like.  Their opinion of themselves is so great that they behave as if they were already in heaven; they look down pityingly on other men as so many worms.”

Erasmus continues in that vein to rhetorically attack “the religious and monks,” suggesting that

“both are complete misnomers, since most of them stay as far away from religion as possible . . . They are so detested that it is considered bad luck if one crosses your path, and yet they are highly pleased with themselves. . . These smooth fellows simply explain that by their very filth, ignorance, boorishness, and insolence they enact the lives of the apostles for us. . . They forget that Christ will condemn all of this and will call a reckoning of that which He has prescribed, namely, charity.”

As critical of the Catholic Church as this God-fearing man was, his criticism rarely translated into action beyond his writing.  As noted, he was not a follower of Martin Luther, and was careful not to extend his rhetorical attacks to the Pontiff.  Unlike Luther and his followers, who established an entirely new denomination within Christianity, Erasmus never forsook his Catholicism and remained a member of the Roman Catholic Church until his death.  He agreed with much of what Luther preached, but placed a higher priority on his academic standing within the Church than with Luther’s separatist notions.  Erasmus was not a revolutionary, and criticized the Lutherans for their theological excesses, asking of Luther whether “. . . a stable mind [would] depart from the opinion handed down by so many men famous for holiness and miracles . . .” Why, he asked of Luther, should one “depart from the decisions of the Church, and commit our souls to the faith of someone like you who has sprung up just now with a few followers . . .” [Hyperaspistes I]

Erasmus was a truly religious man, but not a doctrinaire follower of Church orthodoxy as interpreted by the leading theologians of the time.  He was certainly not, however, a radical.

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