Erasmus: God’s Unwitting Pre-Reformer


It is often told that when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, that he would have been shocked to his boots to learn that this routine academic maneuver would begin a seismic reformation rivaling the sending of the Spirit of the glorified Christ on the day of Pentecost. Thus, the 95 theses are often portrayed as the protesting action of an innocent German monk pulling the string of his bow “at a venture,” but sending a fatal arrow into the heart of the meritocracy of the Roman Catholic Church.

As true as the above observation is, there is another “at a venture” event that predated Luther’s protest and that quickened the quickener of the Protestant Reformation. Although distinguished church historians such as Merle D’Aubigne believe that the metaphor of Erasmus of Rotterdam laying the Reformation egg that Luther hatched to be somewhat gratuitous, nevertheless, there are cogent reasons to believe that had Erasmus excluded himself from the drama, the Reformation as we know it would not have occurred. For Desiderius Erasmus was a catalyst for Luther’s baby-steps, whose steps would later elongate into adult strides and deliver the Church from the shackles of centuries’ old merit-mongering and legalism, and guide the Church into the promised land of justification by faith alone, together with the four other Reformation solas. In Erasmus of Rotterdam, we have the first of two archers whose arrows unbeknownst to them would help turn the world upside down. As Merle D’Aubigne rightly notes, “By his conversation and by his writings Erasmus had prepared the way for the Reformation more than any other man;….” (The History of the Reformation of the 16th Century, Vol. I, American Tract Society, NY; p. 129, undated)


Before spelling-out Erasmus’s role, we must retrace his life with the broadest paint-strokes so that his influence might be duly appreciated. Who was this forerunner and eventual friend, and then foe, of Martin Luther? Erasmus was of Dutch ancestry, being an illegitimate child born in 1466 in Rotterdam, to Gerard, who, knowing that his lover was with child, took flight to Rome. When he returned a few years later and learned that the child’s mother— Margaret—was no longer beclouded with grief, he chose to enter the priesthood, after which he faithfully supported his son’s education, although remaining celibate. Although his mother provided tender care, his fatherless home contributed to his sense of weakness and loneliness that haunted him all his life. In his early years before reaching thirteen, his academic prowess was already evident, with his teacher Sinthemius of Deventer taking him in his arms and exclaiming, “This child will attain the highest pinnacle of learning!” It was a prophecy that would be fulfilled; Erasmus would become the most cultured man in Europe.
After his mother died of the plague (with his father’s demise shortly following) he was raised by a reluctant guardian who dispatched him and his brother to a life of monastic seclusion in an Augustinian monastery. It was an incongruous match for the cerebral young man who hated the asceticism of the cloister with its stern discipline and wooden rituals, of which fasting was a perennial staple. Accordingly, Erasmus immersed himself in books, scanned the works of Augustine, drilled himself with the writings of Jerome whom he came to love, and mastered the classical writers of ancient Greece and Rome. His mastery of the classics would eventuate in his first book that was titled, “The Book against the Barbarians,” which was modeled after Lorenzo Valla, and which promoted the idea that the writings of pagans were not contrary to the Christian Faith and that the true barbarians were the scholastic theologians. In those years the notion of “pious heathen” abounded and Erasmus himself was so enamored by the Greeks and Romans that he confessed that he could almost cry out, “Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis,” meaning “Holy Socrates, pray for us.”

As his literary talents blossomed, he devoted himself to ancient literature, and bypassed the scholasticism of the day, which was the study of theology in the schools, such as the famous University of Sorbonne in Paris. He majored in attacking the convents and the doctrines of the schools, especially the rampant impiety and mechanical rituals which turned worshippers into heartless robots. He leap-frogged over the scholasticism of the day and doted upon the humanism of the Greeks and Romans, especially Plutarch who is known as the “father of Humanism.” Lest the radioactive word “humanism” be misunderstood, it had less to do with rejecting God’s word and replacing it with a system of morality based upon human autonomy. On the other hand, the humanism of the Renaissance pertained more to human virtue and piety instead of esoteric doctrinal formulations which seemed alien to a rubber-meeting-the-road morality. In some ways, humanism dwelt more with being human than getting lost in a pie-in-the-sky theorizing that did not touch the heart and lives of the common man. Erasmus’s rejection of a dry and hair-splitting scholasticism reflected a doctrinal indifferentism that he would later try to sell with an appeal to the bare-bones’ creed of the converted thief on the cross. For Erasmus, Christianity was more a life than doctrine and definitive creeds.

His experiences in the monastery suffocated his creative juices and depleted his unquenchable zest for life. This eventually led to his being relieved of his monastic vows which freed him at the age of twenty-one to indulge in literary adventures, starting with the publication of his Adagio in 1500, which made him a rising star throughout the Holy Roman Empire. This book which was composed of thousands of proverbs (e.g., “one swallow doesn’t make a summer,” “to have an iron in the fire,” etc.). This inspired a series of other popular books, which won over the masses by his depictions of flesh and blood heroes, packaged in a lively style and enlivened by his keen humor, searing wit, and sprinkled with spirited people who were truly human. The down-to-earth aphorisms of the Classics were more practical and human than the esoteric speculations of the Sorbonne in Paris.


As a popular writer (indeed, no one was more the cosmic rock star than Erasmus with his letters, which sometimes numbered over forty a day!) he was famous for a keen wit and ironic humor, having few peers among his contemporaries. His wit, while entertaining and endearing, was never intended to make him a stand-up comedian, but was the wrapping paper of his pre-reformation books and letters. For example, when his enemies within the Church of Rome complained that “Erasmus laid the egg of the Reformation, and Luther hatched it,” Erasmus was quick to retort that while Erasmus may have laid an egg, Luther hatched a gamecock. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Thomas More, argued for the transubstantiation of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper to a questioning Erasmus, he urged, “Believe that you have the body of Christ and you have it really.” Erasmus was mostly mute until after he left England with a horse that was loaned him by Sir Thomas More, which he transported to the continent without More’s assent. More was not amused. He wrote Erasmus to express his dismay and Erasmus responded with the following doggerel:

You said of the bodily presence of Christ:
Believe that you have, and you have him!
Of the nag that I took, my reply is the same:
Believe that you have, you have him!

Single and outwardly chaste all his life, he lamented the marriages of the leading reformers who broke their monastic vows. Erasmus parodied the Reformation by observing that the Reformation began as a “tragedy,” and then mutated into a “comedy,” and always ended with a “wedding”! His reviews of German inns in his Colloquies would make the modern traveler reverence a Motel 6 as a veritable Shangri la. In one of his books he advises the chaste maiden Catherine who aspires to be a nun to remain at home because the monks are more often “fathers” than eunuchs.


An indefatigable workhorse, Erasmus labored wherever he traveled; sometimes even writing copy in the same room as Johannes Froben’s printing presses in Basel. It is safe to assert that he was the first retail theologian in the history of the Church. While visiting England he was encouraged by his good friend Sir Thomas More, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to compose his most popular work, The Praise of Folly (Encomium Moriae). This book (which was a play on More’s name) was written on the road as he journeyed from Italy to England, probably much of it on horseback! The book, which was a monumental best-seller, was freighted with a biting satire that lampooned the Church establishment together with her heartless ceremonies and abstract theology. The book was a blockbuster and put Erasmus on the map as the “Nobel Prize” winner of his time. The short book went through twenty-seven editions in Erasmus’ lifetime and continues to this day, in spite of Erasmus’ downplay of its quality, to be his most popular work.

The Praise of Folly pictured Moria, who was born in the Fortunate Isles and who fed on drunkenness and impertinence, and was the queen of a powerful realm which included all the churchmen who refused to acknowledge her largesse. She ridicules the doctrinal formulations and syllogistic fancies of the Church’s leaders. The Church is loaded with ignorance, filth, and chaos, her left hand does not know what her right hand is doing. And the monks, in particular, are portrayed as the rascals that Martin Luther would later describe as pesky fleas on the fur coat of the Almighty. Moria comments on the subjects of her realm:

Alas! what follies. I am almost ashamed of them myself! Do we not see every country claiming its peculiar saint? Each trouble has its saint, and every saint his candle. This cures the toothache; that assists women in childhood; a third restores what a thief has stolen; a fourth preserves you in shipwreck; and fifth preserves your flocks. There are some who have many virtues at once, and especially the Virgin-mother of God in whom the people place more confidence than in her Son.” Again, he even has Folly saying: “Without me, the world cannot exist for a moment.”

Amazingly, In Praise of Folly also depicts the ungodly Popes “who by their silence allow Jesus Christ to be forgotten; who bind him by their mercenary regulations; who falsify his doctrine by forced interpretations; and crucify him a second time by their scandalous lives?” Amazingly, the Roman Pope of the time (Julius II) read the scathing work, found it amusing, although obviously not applicable to his own reign and person. Perhaps the main reason was that–unlike Luther’s salvos against indul-gences—The Praise of Folly did not threaten the financial foundation of the Roman See.

From these daring and well-publicized broadsides, it is not difficult to imagine how Martin Luther would be favorably impacted and wonder if Erasmus would become a friend who would stick closer than a brother. But tragically, such an alliance never materialized, for Erasmus was never a Protestant, nor did he seek to become one. He was a pre-reformer; perhaps at best, a half-reformer. If he reformed anything, it may have been some of the clerical changes that transpired during the Counter-Reformation.

Tragically, Erasmus eventually found himself in a no-man’s-land between the Lutheran and Papist camps. He liked to say that while his heart was Roman Catholic, his stomach was Lutheran. He ripped the Lutherans for their “new Gospel” which he believed made men prouder than peacocks, whited-sepulchers, and hateful flame-throwers. But he also criticized the schoolmen’s quibblings, a taste of which was whether God the Son could have become a woman, or an ass, or a cucumber, or a flint stone? On the other hand, hate-mongering papists indulged themselves in cruel sarcasm, even at the expense of his name. Historian Philip Schaff points out that they re-wrote his name: Errasmus: meaning “errors,”; Arasmus: meaning “ploughed up old truths and traditions,” and Erasinus since he rendered himself “an ass” by his writings. (The History of the Christian Church, Volume 7, page 411) After his death many of his books were placed on the Index, including his own version of the Greek New Testament. The Church Council of Trent dubbed him “an impious heretic.” One even wonders if Erasmus had lived, would he have lived? His reputation was so sullied that Philip Schaff speculates that it would have been better for him if he had died after his Greek New Testament appeared in 1516. (Ibid., page 411)


Initially, both Martin Luther and Erasmus enjoyed a fair share of common ground: First, both believed that the Church had apostatized into lifeless formalism and soul-injuring legalism, even preferring (as Erasmus observed) abstention from cheese and butter at Lent instead of godly living. Second, both had an adversarial relationship with the Pope, but for different reasons. Luther believed that the Popes were responsible for soul-murder, whereas Erasmus emphasized the curtailment of what we today call “academic freedom” and investigation. Third, both thundered against the profligate monks, who were infamous for pharisaical hypocrisy. Fourth, both would come to question the infallibility of the Pope, with Erasmus complaining that many exalted “a single Roman pontiff, who cannot err on faith and morals, thus ascribing to the pope more than he claims for himself,…” [The doctrine of papal infallibility would not be officially defined and owned until 1870.] Finally, the personality of Erasmus was not all French vanilla, as some would have us believe. The self-proclaimed Erasmian and scholar, Roland Bainton, in his Erasmus of Christendom, keenly observed:

….Erasmus was not so very gentle. He did indeed insist that debate should be conducted with civility. He was not blunt, smashing, and abusive, but he was cutting. If one is to be demolished, does it so much matter whether one is bludgeoned with a club or punctured by a rapier? In some respects Luther’s technique was less galling. If he said to an opponent Du Schwein (you hog), the other could reply Du Esei (you ass), and they could have a merry bout with the same weapons. But when Erasmus lodged an oblique shaft of irony the victim might prefer to writhe in silence than by a retort to reveal how deeply he was touched and hurt.” (Erasmus of Christendom, Hendrickson Publishers, 1969, page 298)

Erasmus’s relationship with Martin Luther was tenuous at best, with Luther initially (even before the publication of the 95 Theses) suspecting Erasmus of craving the praise of men more than the praise of God. He could not have been more right, as Erasmus basked in the sunshine of human praise, coveting and then bragging about his endearment to the Pope himself, who was ready to wreathe him for his prodigious literary achievements. Thus from the moment of Luther’s first public appearance, we find Erasmus vying for the middle road in the name of moderation and peace. Yet, in private, he wrote John Lang, who was one of Luther’s friends, “I hope that the endeavors of yourself and your party will be successful. Here the Papists rave violently….All the best minds are rejoiced at Luther’s boldness: I do not doubt he will be careful that things do not end in a quarrel of parties!…We shall never triumph over feigned Christians unless we first abolish the tyranny of the Roman see, and of its satellites, the Dominicans, the Franciscans and the Carmelites. But no one could attempt that without a serious tumult.” Still, the leavening advance of neutrality gradually won the day so that he became increasingly aloof from the fray, and even disingenuously claimed he was too busy to do more than peruse some of Luther’s writings! Pilloried on the basis of guilt-by-association, he finally begged Luther to stop all correspondence, with Luther respectfully replying: “Very well, then, I shall not again refer to you, neither will other good friends, since it troubles you.” He seemed to have wanted his niche in history to be “the fading star of the Reformation.”

Significantly, Erasmus’ assessment of the momentous Diet of Worms in 1521 in which Luther defended God’s truth before the world, found an unimpressed Erasmus lamenting, “I should have endeavored that this tragedy would have been so tempered by moderate arguments that it could not afterward break out again to the still greater detriment of the world.” Yet, Luther’s “last stand” at Worms before Charles V was so appreciated by the German people that he became a national hero, although their euphoria was momentarily dashed by Luther’s abrupt kidnapping shortly thereafter. Expressing the despair of the German people, Albrecht Durer, inscribed in his diary the need for Erasmus to stand in the gap; he famously yearned: “O Erasmus of Rotterdam, where will you be? Hear, you knight of Christ, ride forth beside the Lord Christ, protect the truth, obtain the martyr’s crown. For you are an old manikin. I have heard you say that you have allowed yourself two more years, in which you are still fit to do some work; spend them well, in behalf of the Gospel and the true Christian faith….O Erasmus, be on this side, that God may be proud of you.” Durer’s yearning for a second Luther would be unrealized.

Perhaps Erasmus’s bloodiest joust with Luther came in 1524 after he published his book, A Disquisition upon Free Will. The purpose of the book seems not only a defense of the Roman Catholic faith, but an implicit attack upon Luther’s theology, which was based upon Paul’s letter to the Romans. Space forbids us to say too much about the content of the book other than Erasmus cast his roses before the shrine of contingency, even writing that the salvation of the sinner relies “most upon grace.” Luther’s volcanic response to this mostly grace Gospel appeared in his The Bondage of the Will, which pulled out all stops, titling his book De servo arbitrio (On the Will not Free). In the book he affirmed absolute predestination, alluding to Augustine’s famous analogy of a horse that is mounted by the Devil or by Christ so that the beast was impotent to move toward either of the two competing riders. Luther’s language was boorish, polemical, and as fierce as “the sons of Boangeres,” who begged Christ to incinerate a Samaritan village. Still, Luther’s rebuttal was preeminently Scriptural, despite its thunderbolts, and when the skirmish ended Erasmus’s arguments (and fledging friendship!) were reduced to rubble.

In spite of Erasmus’ moral pronouncements against the Church of Rome, he remained a life-long Roman Catholic, who was willing–if need be–to commit intellectual hari-kari to remain in good standing in the Church. Thus as the battle raged we find him softening his views, praising the Church rituals, becoming more amenable to fasting, more compliant with church festivals and even speaking well of the worship of the saints and the veneration of images. For example we hear him arguing, “He who takes the imagery out of life deprives it of its highest pleasure; we often discern more in images than we conceive from the written word.” (Ibid, p. 168)


But of all the books “produced” by Erasmus, his magnum opus was his Greek edition of the New Testament that appeared in 1516, one year before Luther’s 95 Theses. From the printing press of Johannes Froben in Basel, a beautiful edition emerged which featured an ornate Greek type of manuscript that resembled older copies, constellated with Erasmus’ instructive annotations. Providentially, the Greek New Testament reached Wittenberg when Luther was lecturing on Romans 9 and immediately became his primary instrument of pedagogy, both for his students and for his own devotions. Extremely crucial for Luther was Erasmus’ improvements of the old Latin Vulgate, which included the correction of the Vulgate’s “do penance,” his opting for the more accurate translation of “be penitent,” which inspired Luther to understand that it was an egregious error to promise a sinner escape from purgatory and hell by means of self-flagellating financial penances. Thus the salesmanship of Tetzel who promised that “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs,” was viewed by Luther as cheap grace and an insult to the august holiness of God, Who required sorrow for sin and repentance. Significantly Erasmus’ Greek New Testament helped to inspire both the composition and nailing of the 95 Theses.

Most importantly, the Novum Testamentum moved others to consecrate themselves to study the Greek of the New Testament so that the Church would be edified by a plethora of translations into the vernacular of people everywhere. The first of these was Luther’s own translation into the German language which he composed while “imprisoned” in the Wartburg Castle, shortly after the Diet of Worms in 1521.

The impact of his Greek New Testament was world-wide and astounding. The Erasmus-Catholic Paul Johnson wrote of its impact and distribution:

“There were some years, it has been calculated, when between one-fifth and one-tenth of all books sold in Oxford, London, and Paris were by Erasmus. In the 1530s, 300,000 copies of his Greek New Testament were circulating, and over 750,000 of his other works. He was a new phenomenon, a living world best-seller.” (A History of Christianity, p. 271)
The bottom line is that Erasmus’s Greek New Testament paved the way for, and proved Luther’s dictum that the Reformation was the Reformation only because “the Word did it all.”

Erasmus’ most egregious blind-spot was his assumption that the mere fact of having the Bible available in Greek was enough to produce the kind of moral reformation that he longed for. He does not envision Spirit-led teachers and preachers who might not spew Rome’s party-line even trash cherished Church teachings that were palpably unscriptural. Herein lay Erasmus’ “at a venture” moment that paralleled Luther’s. The shibboleth of sola scriptura played no small role for “the Word did it all.” Erasmus’ primary goal was to see a revival of life, love, and virtue in the Church. Erasmus the archer took dead aim to bring this moral reform, but God directed his arrow to strike another target that brought seismic change in a behemoth bewitched by hundreds of years of superstition, icy formalism, and works’ righteousness. Johannes Huizinga is right when he said that Erasmus’s positive contributions were “extensive rather than intensive, and therefore less historically discernible at definite points….” (Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, 190)
Erasmus, “the fading star,” died when 70 on October 12, 1536. Yet, his last words were beautiful and seemingly heartfelt, appealing betimes to the mercy of Christ. “O Jesu, misericordia; Domine libera me; Domine miserere mei!” Then he prayed in Dutch: “Lieve God,” which means “Dear God.”


The meeting of Sir Thomas More with his daughter after his sentence of death by William Frederick Yeames, 1872

In Erasmus we see a man disinterested in martyrdom and who craved flowery beds of ease, content to rest in the velvety bosom of an infallible Church. That he was willing to slam on the brakes of Scriptural investigation and study is mind-

boggling, considering his brain-trust credentials and commitment to research. Yet, in one sense, he mirrors ourselves, for who among us does not long to be delivered from the hardships of Christian-soldiering, even to grow wings of a dove that will fly us to an arbor of lasting serenity and rest? His being weak in body most of his life together with his insatiable passion for churchly peace contributed to his unrealistic commitment to the neutrality that Roland H. Bainton has called “a neutral in an age intolerant of neutrality” (Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, p. 99). For him, peace and unanimity were the marks of the Church; thus his lionization of the minimalist creed of the thief on the cross. He was a reformer who did not want reform, believing somehow that the moral requirements of the Bible can be achieved apart from their doctrinal foundations. He seemed indifferent to justification by faith alone, emphasizing the fruit of the Spirit more than a justifying faith that produces such fruit. For him the fruit of Galatians 5 was more important than the faith-alone pronouncements of Galatians 1 & 2.

Dare we preach Erasmus into heaven? When he recounts his personal trust in Christ in language that sounds resoundingly Protestant, we want to extend the right hand of fellowship and offer him our chair at the table of the marriage feast of the Lamb. We love Erasmus; we enjoy his company; we want to banquet with him over a glass of wine and discuss the themes of his books; we are entertained by his humanness; most of all we want him saved. On the other hand, we also remember the terms of discipleship that Elijah preached to the wobblers on Mount Carmel, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him….” (1 Kings 18:21) Accordingly, Martin Luther compared Erasmus to Moses, whom God “buried…in a valley in the land of Moab….” outside the Promised Land.

Whatever the degree of our adoration and whatever good we attribute to Erasmus needs to be balanced by question and answer 30 of the Reformation creed, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563): “Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?” The answer is: “No, although they make their boast of Him, yet in deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus, for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.”