« PreviousContinue »
activitom being are rath we have both op With oed spired;
in a antagon would
Biblical Protestantism attacked him on the other in the person of Martin Luther.
With the mention of this well-known name we arrive at the point of greatest interest in the career of Erasmus. In all popular histories of the Protestant Reformation two names stand side by side as the leaders of the great movement, reflecting, moreover, its two chief phases : these are Luther and Erasmus. It is true that their activities and their relations to the great upheaval are far from being similar or coincident. Indeed, their antipapal energies are rather complementary than identical and harmonious. As we have already remarked, the functions assigned to each were both contributory, though in a different way, to the new thought. Without Luther the antagonism of the forward and determined spirits of the time would have lacked the stimulus it needed; without Erasmus the energies of the moderate reformersthose who wished the corrupt condition of the Church to be dealt with from within-as Gerson, Cardinal Cajetan, Erasmus's schoolfellow and friend Pope Adrian VI., Sir Thomas More, and Bishop Fisher-would have wanted a central mind round which to converge and from which to irradiate. As invariably happens in such cases, the moderates were attacked by the extremists. On the one hand, Erasmus was assailed somewhat vehemently by Luther and his friends; on the other, he was attacked by his own party, who could not understand his moderation in the face of Luther's violence. Erasmus, however, held his ground with indomitable firmness. Sympathising largely with Luther and his unsparing attack on the corruptions of the Church and the ill manners and lives of the clergy, he nevertheless distrusted his dogmatic tendencies. They merely repeated in another direction the very worst abuses of the Papacy. Professor Froude has devoted two or three of the most brilliant pages of his book to a clear, incisive description of Erasmus's mental attitude to Luther on the one hand, and his own medium party on the other. He says: --
• The danger [of Lutheran tendencies) in the mind of Erasmus was infinitely enhanced by the construction of a new theology. The Church had burdened the consciences of men with too many dogmas already. Were wretched mortals to be further bound to particular opinions on Free Will, on Predestination, or Original Sin? Such new definition was a symbol of war, an emblem of division, an impulse to quarrel. Dogmas which did not touch moral conduct were a gratuitous
trial of Faith. From the nature of the case dogmatic propositions did not admit of proof, and the appeal was immediately to passion. The Catholic Church had been brought to its present state by these exaggerated requirements. If out of the present controversies there was to rise a new body of doctrine, a rival symbolum fidei, as a criterion of Christianity, there was nothing to be looked for but an age of hatred and fury. ... To Erasmus religion was a rule of life, a perpetual reminder to mankind of their responsibility to their Maker, a spiritual authority under which individuals could learn their duties to God and to their neighbour. Definitions on mysterious subjects which could not be understood were the growth of intellectual vanity. The hope of his life had been to see the dogmatic system slackened, the articles essential to be believed reduced to the Apostles' Creed, the declaration that God was a reality, and the future judgment a fact and a certainty. On all else he wished to see opinion free. The name of heresy was a terror, but so long as the Church abstained from deciding there could be no heresy. Men would tolerate each other's differences and live in peace together.' (P. 291.)
From the point thus indicated we have no difficulty in inferring, even if direct testimony were not forthcoming, Erasmus's attitude to Luther. It was one of determined neutrality. Luther appealed to him to take a more decided part in the great controversy. Gently but resolutely Erasmus declined. On the other hand, he was equally determined in refusing, in obedience to the requests of his warmest friends, to enter the lists against Luther. Professor Froude has giren large extracts from the most important letters in Erasmus's collection bearing on this point, which may be summarised in these sentences :
I am neither Luther's accuser, nor his patron, nor his judge. I can give no opinion about him, least of all an unfavourable one.' (P. 229.)
I was the first to oppose the publication of Luther's books. I recommended Luther himself to publish nothing revolutionary. I feared always that revolution would be the end, and I would have done more had I not been afraid that I might be found fighting against the Spirit of God. (P. 239.)
Tbe relation of Erasmus to Luther and their respective influences in advancing the cause of the Reformation naturally direct our attention to the point of all others whenever their energies were directed to the same object and were most lasting—we mean their Biblical labours. Estimated by the respective areas of the prime defects and needs of the time which those labours supplied, the palm must, we think, be assigned to Erasmus and his Biblical works. On the one hand, his Greek New Testament, with all its defects on the score of textual criticism, ministered to the needs of scholars, while his New Testament paraphrases supplied not only a text but a commentary for the use of the illiterate. On the other hand, Luther's Bible, with its many excellences, catered only for those who could read German. Froude has given his readers sundry extracts from Erasmus's 'Para
phrase of the New Testament,' but he has failed to notice a curious characteristic of that remarkable book-viz, its more pointed application to Romanism in its various successive editions. Thus, to take a single example, this is the Erasmian paraphrase of Matt. xix. 27---the passage on “whited sepulchres ?-in the later copy used by Froude :
What would Jerome say could he see the Virgin's milk exhibited for money, with as much honour paid to it as to the consecrated body of Christ; the miraculous oil; the portions of the true cross, enough, if they were collected, to freight a large ship? Here we have the hood of St. Francis, there our Lady's petticoat, or St. Anne's comb, or St. Thomas of Canterbury's shoes, not presented as innocent aids to religion, but as the substance of religion itself—and all through the avarice of priests and the hypocrisy of monks playing on the credulity of the people. Even bishops play their parts in these fantastic shows, and approve and dwell on them in their rescripts.
But the same verse is paraphrased with a wholly innocuous generalisation in the edition of 1548 (translated by Nicholas Udal) :
Woe be to you, Scribes and Pharisees, Hipocrites, which be so farre from true cleanes, that ye be more lyke unto whyted graves, and a fayre coverypg shewyng outwardly a counterfeyted cleanes, whereas inwardly they be full of bones, of dead karkases, and all filthynesse. Even so ye with long prayers, brode Philactaries, large gardes, palenes and fasting, and lyke coulours and counterfeytinges, seme outwardly religiouse and perfect, whereas your minde is full of hipocrisye on every syde, berayed with all kynde of vice.' (Vol. i. fol. cx. a.)
These passages, illustrating as they do the method and spirit of Erasmus's Biblical work, indicate clearly both its great popularity and that curious feature in our earlier Biblical exegesis-viz. the general belief that the Bible was written of set purpose as a book of controversy on the Protestant side. The paraphrases of Erasmus were directed to be set up in all the churches, in some cases they were chained to the lectern or reading-desk,* and they acquired for that
* In • Notes and Queries' (Series IV. vol. viii. p. 293) are some interesting entries relating to the purchase by church wardens of a Paraprasye (or Paraphrasis) of Erasmus. The dates of these are in the year 1548.
reason a inore widely extended, as well as more popular diffusion than some of the other earlier translations of the Bible, as, e.g., Wicliff's Bible, &c. It was no uncommon inference inevitable among the rude 'mechanical folk,' who failed to discriminate between text and paraphrase, between St. Matthew and St. Erasmus-nay, even among those who were accustomed to read to the occasional crowds that gathered round the reading-desk of the parish church, to which was chained either a Wicliff Testament or the Paraphrase of Erasmus, that the Bible was directed from its earliest origin against the Pope and the Romish Church, and by a kind of ex post facto anticipation in the immediate interests of Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and the other Reformation leaders of the then present day.*
There are several especial points, rising in a scale of graduated importance with regard both to the man and his career, to which Froude rather incidentally than purposely has directed his readers' attention. First, his monograph brings out the immeasurable influence of the great Rotterdam scholar in the many-sided controversies of the time. It is a fact which stands forth prominently and decisively in the forefront of his correspondence: it is almost proved by the number and rank of his correspondents. These range from the Pope and the Emperor to poor students and servantgirls; they touch every conceivable point of dispute in the political, the ecclesiastical, and the social world of the time. Erasmus was, in short, the great consulting physician of Europe for every kind of sufferer, from every species of ailment. The Emperor consulted him on the highest imperial interests, political as well as ecclesiastical. German princes and dukes asked for his advice in the administration of their narrower confines and policies. Papal emissaries came from Rome with magnificent presents and suites of attendants to request his opinion on some detail of papal policy, wbile, on the other hand, Luther, Melanchthon, and Von Hutten were equally solicitous for his judgement on their own Anti-Romanist crusade. The oracle at Delphi was not more consulted by the perplexed Hellenes, nor were its deliverances received with profounder deference. Erasmus is pardonably vain of the position, as honourable as unsought, of being father confessor to all the potentates of Europe, lay as well as ecclesiastical. Froude has made extracts from two letters in which this feeling betrays itself in a sufficiently amusing manner. In one of the fits of depression to which, like all men endowed with a sensitive nervous organisation, he was occasionally subject, he writes thus:
* Among the earlier Bibles in which this antipapal exegesis assumes a violent and even indecent excess may be mentioned that rare edition published by Jhon Daye and William Seres, August xviith, 1549.' Those who would see to what lengths the Reformers were prepared to go in this direction may be referred to the notes on Matt. ch. xix.
•You think my words will have authority. Alas, my popularity, such as I had, is turned to hatred. Once I was Prince of Letters, Star of Germany, Sun of Studies, High Priest of Learning, Champion of a purer Theology. The note is altered now. One party says I agree with Luther because I do not oppose him. The other finds fault with me because I do oppose him. I did what I could. I advised him to be moderate, and I only made his friends my enemies. At Rome and in Brabant I am called heretic, heresiarch, schismatic. (P. 288.)
It may have been on this or a similar occasion-when, in allusion to the last syllable of his name, his controversy with Luther was said to have brought forth only a 6 ridiculus mus'—that he adroitly parried the punning reproach by an epigram, subsequently assigned to or possibly claimed by Audoenus--to give the Martial of the sixteenth century' his Latin name :
• Quæritur unde tibi sit nomen Erasmus ? eras mus :
Si cum mus ego, te judice, Summus ero.' Still more charged with self-consciousness are the words of a subsequent letter :
“I have a room full of letters from men of learning, nobles, princes, and cardinals. I have a chest full of gold and silver plate, cups, clocks, and rings which have been presented to me... of the givers some are sages, some are saints, like the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of London and Rochester. I have not sought their liberality, ... Some call me, as you say, a sower of heresies, and deny that I have been of service to literature. If this be so, how came I by the favours of so many distinguished men ?' (P. 140.)
Nor can it be said that the response which the European oracle gave to those who consulted it was dictated, so far as we may judge, by any but the highest prudence—the supremest human wisdom. At a period when toleration was regarded not only as a mistake but a sin, a wilful falsification of truth, Erasmus inculcated it on Romanists and on Protestants, on Lutherans and on Anabaptists, the hot-headed partizans—as all earnest men of that age were wont to be- of all creeds and all policies. At a stage of perverted ecclesiastical evolution, when the idea, both