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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 72. Erasmus and the Reformation.


I. Erasmus: De Libero Arbitrio diatribe (1524), in Opera ed. Lugd. IX. Pars I. 1215 sqq., in Walch, XVIII. Hyperaspistae diatribes libri duo contra Servum Arbitr. M. Lutheri, in 2 parts (1526 and 1527), in Opera IX. Pars II. 1249 sqq., and in Walch, XVIII.

Luther: De Servo Arbitrio ad Erasmum Roterodamun, Wittembergae, 1525. On the last p. of the first ed. before me is the date "Mense Decembri, Anno MDXXV." German in Walch, XVIII. Erl. ed. Opera Lat. VII. 113 sqq. Letters of Luther to Erasmus and about Erasmus in Walch, XVIII., and in De Wette, I. pp. 39, 52, 87, 247; II. 49; III. 427; IV, 497.

II. Chlebus: Erasmus und Luther, in "Zeitschr. f. Hist. Theol.," 1845. Döllinger in his Die Reformation, 1846, vol. i. pp. 1–20. Kerker: Er. u. sein Theol. Standpunkt, in the "Theol. Quartalschrift," 1859. D. F. Strauss: Ulrich von Hutten, 4th ed. Bonn, 1878, pp. 448–484, 511–514, and passim. Plitt: Erasmus in s. Stellung zur Reformation, Leipz., in the "Zeitschrift f. Hist. Theol.," 1866, No. III. Rud. Stähelin: Eras. Stellung z. Reformation, Basel, 1873 (35 pp.; comp. his art. In Herzog2, quoted in § 71). Froude: Times of Erasmus and Luther. Three Lect., delivered at Newcastle, 1867 (in the first series of his "Short Studies on Great Subjects," New York ed., 1873, pp. 37–127), brilliant but inaccurate, and silent on the free-will controversy. Drummond: Erasmus, etc., 1873, vol. II. chs. xiii.-xv. E. Walter: Erasmus und Melanchthon, Bernburg, 1879. A. Gilly: Erasme de Rotterd., sa situation en face de l’église et de la libre pensée, Arras, 1879. Comp. also Kattenbusch: Luther’s Lehre vom unfreien Willen, Göttingen, 1875, and Köstlin: Luther’s Theologie, vol. II. 32–55.


Erasmus was eighteen years older than Luther, and stood at the height of his fame when the reformer began his work. He differed from him as Jerome differed from Augustin, or Eusebius from Athanasius. Erasmus was essentially a scholar, Luther a reformer; the one was absorbed in literature, the other in religion. Erasmus aimed at illumination, Luther at reconstruction; the former reached the intellect of the educated, the latter touched the heart of the people. Erasmus labored for freedom of thought, Luther for freedom of conscience. Both had been monks, Erasmus against his will, Luther by free choice and from pious motives; and both hated and opposed monkery, but the former for its ignorance and bigotry, the latter for its self-righteousness and obstruction of the true way to justification and peace. Erasmus followed maxims of worldly wisdom; Luther, sacred principles and convictions. The one was willing, as he confessed, to sacrifice "a part of the truth for the peace of the church," and his personal comfort; the other was ready to die for the gospel at any moment. Erasmus was a trimmer and timeserver, Luther every inch a moral hero.

Luther wrote upon his tablet (1536), "Res et verba Philippus; verba sine re Erasmus; res sine verbis Lutherus; nec res nec verba Carolostadius." But Luther himself was the master of words and matter, and his words were deeds. Melanchthon was an improved Erasmus on the side of evangelical truth.

It is easy to see how far two men so differently constituted could go together, and where and when they had to part. So long as the Reformation moved within the church, Erasmus sympathized with it. But when Luther, who had at first as little notion of leaving the Catholic Church, burnt the Pope’s bull and the decretals, and with them the bridge behind him, Erasmus shrank back, and feared that the remedy was worse than the evil. His very breadth of culture and irresolution became his weakness; while Luther’s narrowness and determination were his strength. In times of war, neutrality is impossible, and we must join one of the two contending armies. Erasmus was for unity and peace, and dreaded a split of the church as the greatest calamity; and yet he never ceased to rebuke the abuses. It was his misfortune, rather than his fault, that he could not side with the Reformation. We must believe his assertion that his conscience kept him from the cause of the Lutherans. At the same time he was concerned for his personal comfort and literary supremacy, and anxious to retain the friendship of his hierarchical and royal patrons. He wished to be a spectator, but not an actor in "the Lutheran tragedy."

Erasmus hailed the young Melanchthon with enthusiastic praise of his precocious genius and learning, and continued to respect him even after his breach with Luther. He stood in friendly correspondence with Zwingli, who revered him as the prince of humanists. He employed Oecolampadius as his assistant, and spoke highly, though evasively, of his book on the eucharist. He was not displeased with Luther’s attacks on indulgences and monasticism, and wrote to Zwingli that he had taught nearly every thing that Luther teaches, but without his coarseness and paradoxes.526526    "Videor mihi fere omnia docuisse quae docet Lutherus, nisi quod non tam atrociter, quodque abstinui a quibusdam aenigmatibus et paradoxis." In Zwingli’s Opera, ed. Schuler and Schulthess, vol. VII. 310. In a letter of reply, dated Louvain, May 30, 1519, he courteously but cautiously and condescendingly accepted Luther’s compliments and friendship, but advised him to moderate his tone, and to imitate Paul, who abolished the law by allegorical interpretation; at the same time he frankly admitted that he had not read his books, except portions of the commentary on the Psalms,527527    After the bull of excommunication, it required special permission to read the books of the heretic. In a letter to Bombasius, Sept. 23, 1521, Erasmus says that he begged Jerome Aleander for permission, but was denied unless he were to obtain it in express words from the Pope. Drummond, II. 85 sq. and that he considered it his duty to keep neutral, in order to do the more for the revival of letters. In conclusion he expressed the wish: "May the Lord Jesus grant you daily more of his Spirit for his glory and the general good."528528    Ems., Epist. 427. See the first letter of Luther (March 28, 1519), the reply of Erasmus (May 30), and a second letter of Luther (April, 1524), and the reply of Erasmus (May 5), in Latin in Er. Epist., in German in Walch, vol. XVIII., 1944 sqq., and in the Appendix to Müller’s Erasmus, pp. 385-395. The two letters of Luther to Erasmus are also given in Latin by De Wette, I. 247-249, and II. 498-501.

So far, then, he objected not so much to the matter as to the manner of Luther, whose plebeian violence and roughness offended his cultured taste. But there was a deeper difference. He could not appreciate his cardinal doctrine of justification by faith alone, and took offence at the denial of free-will and human merit. He held the Catholic views on these subjects. He wished a reform of the discipline, but not of the faith, of the church, and cared little for dogmatic controversies.

His gradual alienation may be seen in the following extracts from his letters.

To Albrecht, Cardinal-Archbishop of Mainz, he wrote from Louvain, Nov. 1, 1519: –


"Permit me to say that I have never had any thing to do either with the affair of Reuchlin or with the cause of Luther. I have never taken any interest in the Cabbala or the Talmud. Those virulent contentions between Reuchlin and the party of Hochstraten have been extremely distasteful to me. Luther is a perfect stranger to me, and I have never had time to read his books beyond merely glancing over a few pages. If he has written well, no praise is due to me; if not, it would be unjust to hold me responsible .... Luther had written to me in a very Christian tone, as I thought; and I replied, advising him incidentally not to write any thing against the Roman Pontiff, nor to encourage a proud or intolerant spirit, but to preach the gospel out of a pure heart .... I am neither Luther’s accuser, nor advocate, nor judge; his heart I would not presume to judge—for that is always a matter of extreme difficulty—still less would I condemn. And yet if I were to defend him, as a good man, which even his enemies admit him to be; as one put upon his trial, a duty which the laws permit even to sworn judges; as one persecuted—which would be only in accordance with the dictates of humanity—and trampled on by the bounden enemies of learning, who merely use him as a handle for the accomplishment of their designs, where would be the blame, so long as I abstained from mixing myself up with his cause ? In short, I think it is my duty as a Christian to support Luther in this sense, that, if he is innocent, I should not wish him to be crushed by a set of malignant villains; if he is in error, I would rather see him put right than destroyed: for thus I should be acting in accordance with the example of Christ, who, as the prophet witnesseth, quencheth not the smoking flax, nor breaketh the bruised reed."


To Pope Leo X., from Louvain, Sept. 13, 1520 (three months after the excommunication of Luther, June 15): –


"I have no acquaintance with Luther, nor have I ever read his books, except perhaps ten or twelve pages, and that only by snatches. From what I then saw, I judged him to be well qualified for expounding the Scriptures in the manner of the Fathers,—a work greatly needed in an age like this, which is so excessively given to mere subtleties, to the neglect of really important questions. Accordingly, I have favored his good, but not his bad, qualities, or rather I have favored Christ’s glory in him. I was among the first to foresee the danger there was of this matter ending in violence, and no one ever hated violence more than I do. Indeed, I even went so far as to threaten John Froben the printer, to prevent him publishing his books. I wrote frequently and industriously to my friends, begging that they would admonish this man to observe Christian meekness in his writings, and do nothing to disturb the peace of the church. And when he himself wrote to me two years ago, I lovingly admonished him what I wished him to avoid; and I would he had followed my advice. This letter, I am informed, has been shown to your Holiness, I suppose in order to prejudice me, whereas it ought rather to conciliate your Holiness’s favor towards me."


On Dec. 5, 1520, five days before the burning of the Pope’s bull, Erasmus, being asked for his opinion about Luther by the Elector Frederick of Saxony, whom he happened to meet at Cologne, hesitated a while, and looked blank; but being pressed by the Elector, who stood square before him and stared him in the face, he gave the well-known answer, –


"Luther has committed two sins,—he has touched the Pope on the crown, and the monks on the belly."529529    See p. 232.


The Elector smiled, and remembered the expression shortly before his death. Returned to his lodgings, Erasmus wrote down some axioms rather favorable to Luther and disapproving of the "Pope’s unmerciful bull," and sent them to Spalatin, but concealed the manuscript from fear that Aleander might see it; but it had been already published.

From a letter to a friend in Basel (Louis Berus), dated Louvain, May 14, 1521:–


"By the bitterness of the Lutherans, and the stupidity of some who show more zeal than wisdom in their endeavors to heal the present disorders, things have been brought to such a pass, that I, for one, can see no issue but in the turning upside down of the whole world. What evil spirit can have sown this poisonous seed in human affairs? When I was at Cologne, I made every effort that Luther might have the glory of obedience and the Pope of clemency, and some of the sovereigns approved of this advice. But, lo and behold! the burning of the Decretals, the ’Babylonish Captivity,’ those propositions of Luther, so much stronger than they need be, have made the evil, it seems, incurable .... The only thing that remains to us, my dear Berus, is to pray that Christ, supreme in goodness and in power, may turn all to good; for he alone can do so."


In the same month, during the sessions of the Diet of Worms, he wrote to Nicholas Everard, from Mechlin, 1521: –


"If Luther had written more moderately, even though he had written freely, he would both have been more honored himself, and done more good to the world; but fate has decreed otherwise. I only wonder that the man is still alive .... They say that an edict is in readiness far more severe than the Pope’s bull;530530    The edict was passed May 26, 1521, but dated back May 8. (See p. 318.) but from fear, or some other reason, it has not yet been published. I am surprised that the Pope should employ such agents, some of them illiterate men, and all of them headstrong and haughty, for the transaction of such affairs. Nothing can exceed the pride or violent temper of Cardinal Cajetan, of Charles Miltitz, of Marinus, of Aleander. They all act upon the principle of the young king who said, ’My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.’ As to Aleander, he is a complete maniac,—a bad, foolish man."


After the Diet of Worms, several events occurred which seemed to confirm his worst fears about the effects of the Reformation, and imbittered him against its leaders; namely, the disturbances of Carlstadt at Wittenberg (1521), Luther’s invective against Henry VIII. (1522), and the fierce attack of his former friend and admirer Ulrich von Hutten (1523).531531    Erasmus had disowned the poor fugitive Hutten, who turned on him like a wild beast in his Expostulatio cum Erasmo, published at Strasburg, July, 1523. Erasmus wrote to Pirkheimer, "Emoriar si crediturus eram, in universis Germanis esse tantum inhumanitatis, impudentiae, vanitatis, virulentiae quantum habet unus libellus Hutteni." He answered by Spongia Erasmi adversus Adspergines Ulrici Hutteni, Basel, 1523. (Opera, vol. IX. Pars II. 1631-73). Luther judged: "I am not pleased with Hutten’s attack, but still less with Erasmus’s reply." The Expostulatio and the Spongia were also translated into German. See on this bitter personal controversy, Strauss, Ulrich von Hutten, pp. 448-484; and Drummond, II. 120 sqq.

Nevertheless, he advised Pope Adrian VI. to avoid all harsh measures, to deal gently with errors, to pardon past misdoings, to reform abuses, and to call a general council of moderate men. The counsel was disregarded.

Glareanus (Loriti) of Basel described Erasmus very well, when he wrote to Zwingli, Jan. 20, 1523, "Erasmus is an old man, and desires rest. Each party would like to claim him, but he does not want to belong to any party. Neither party is able to draw him. He knows whom to avoid, but not whom to attach himself to." Glareanus added, however, that Erasmus confessed Christ in his writings, and that he never heard any unchristian word from his lips.532532    Opera Zw., VII. 263.



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