08 February 2013
Church History (full-time): 8.1: New questions: Lollards, Hussites and Erasmus
Church of Ireland Theological Institute,
Church History Elective (TH 7864)
Friday 8 February 2013, 9 a.m.:
8.1: New questions: Lollards, Hussites and Erasmus
8.2: Reformation readings: Luther, Calvin and Zwingli
8.3: The Anglican Reformation.
When we last met, we discussed the ways in which Church developed in the wake of the Crusades, in both the Byzantine world and in Western Europe.
We also looked at key thinkers and developments in the Church on Continental Europe, including the development of the mendicant orders of Friars, including the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Carmelites.
We looked at key figures and thinkers that shaped the late mediaeval period, including Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus and Francis of Assisi.
We also discussed the we had looked at the Church in Ireland in the late Middle Ages, looking at the Anglo-Norman Church and how it moved closer in its liturgical practice and its diocesan structures to the Church in the rest of Western Europe.
We took note too of the way the Church was in need of reform, how these demands were articulated, for example, by people like Pope Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus and Francis of Assisi, by the friars in Ireland and England, and, of course, by women, who were often an invisible dynamic in the demand for change and reform in the Church.
With the benefit of hindsight derived from today’s debates, it would be easy to ask why women were never fully incorporated into the visible expressions of the Church, including ministry and administration, when you consider the contribution to developing Christian thinking by such diverse women as:
● Julian of Norwich (ca 1342-post 1416),
● Saint Catherine of Siena (ca 1347-1380),
● Lady Margaret Beaufort (ca 1443-1509), who founded Saint John’s College and Christ’s College, Cambridge and was the grandmother of Henry VIII,
● the later Teresa of Avila (1515-1582),
● or perhaps even Joan of Arc (1412-1431).
Was the Church’s reaction to women’s contribution to brick them up, marry them off or burn them, or marginalise them as mystics rather than recognise them as theologians?
This morning we are going to look at some of the key figures and movements that prepared the way for the Reformation movements of the 16th century; introduce ourselves to some of the key figures in the Continental Reformation movements; and then at the beginnings of the Anglican Reformation on these islands.
8.1: New questions: Lollards, Hussites and Erasmus
But perhaps the question that has exercised many Church Historians until now is why the Church could incorporate the Franciscans but not the Lollards, could find a place for Francis of Assisi but not for John Wycliffe, could revere Thomas Aquinas but burn John Hus.
And, we must ask too, to what degree did John Wycliffe and John Hus at one level of criticism of the late Mediaeval church, and Erasmus of Rotterdam at another, prepare the way for the 16th century Reformation movements?
1, John Wycliffe and the Lollards:
The Lollards were a political and religious movement that lasted from the mid-14th century up to the English Reformation. The Lollards were the followers of John Wycliffe, a prominent theologian who was dismissed from the University of Oxford in 1381 for criticising the Church, especially in his teachings on the Eucharist.
The word “Lollard” was a popular derogatory nickname and was given to people without an educational or academic who were reputed to be followers John Wycliffe and were fired by reading the translation of the Bible into English.
By the mid-15th century the term Lollard came to be used for any heretic. The alternative, “Wycliffite,” is generally accepted to be a more neutral term and was usually reserved for people with an academic background. The modern Dutch word lallen means to babble, to talk nonsense, to talk drunkenly.
The word is probably from the Middle Dutch, lollaerd, meaning “mumbler” or “mutterer.” However, some people trace the term back to Lolhard, a Franciscan friar who converted to the Waldensian way, becoming eminent as a preacher in Guienne, in a part of France was then under English rule. He was burned at Cologne in the 1370s.
John Wycliffe (ca 1330-1384) was an early Reformer and an early translator of the Bible into English, whose principles led to him losing his academic posts at Oxford. He was a close follower of Augustine and is seen as one of the first writers to formulate two major principles of the Reformation: the unique authority of the Bible, and justification by faith.
Wycliffe has been called the “Morning Star of the Reformation.” His followers were known as the Lollards, are their movement is seen as a precursor of the Reformation. At the end of his life, he completed his translation of the Bible directly from the Vulgate into common English in 1382-1384. In those final years of his life, he increasingly argued for Scriptures as the authoritative source of Christianity, that the claims of the papacy were unhistorical, that monasticism was irredeemably corrupt, and that the moral unworthiness of priests invalidated their office and sacraments.
He was a member of the Wycliffe family of Richmond in Yorkshire and was born in the village of Hipswell in North Yorkshire, before 1330, probably in the mid to late1320s. His family took its name from Wycliffe-on-Tees, about 15 km north of Hipswell.
By 1345, he was at Oxford, where his influential cotemporaries included Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Bradwardine, William of Occam, and Richard FitzRalph, later Archbishop of Armagh.
Wycliffe showed an early interest in the natural sciences and mathematics, but concentrated his efforts on theology, canon law and philosophy. He became deeply disillusioned both with the Scholastic theology of his day and with the state of the Church and the clergy.
He was a fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and by 1361, Wycliffe was the Master of Balliol College, Oxford. In the same year, the college appointed him the Rector of Fylingham, Lincolnshire. He had to retire from Balliol, but he continued to live at Oxford, where he had rooms in the Queen’s College.
In 1365, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Islip, appointed him Warden of Canterbury Hall, Oxford, where 12 students were preparing for ordination to the priesthood. That year, Pope Urban V claimed a feudal tribute that dated back to the reign of King John but that had not been paid for 33 years. In response, Parliament declared that neither King John nor any other had the right to subject England to any foreign power. Pope Urban recognised his mistake and dropped his claim. Wycliffe, who served as a theological adviser to the government, wrote a tract on the Pope’s claims.
Archbishop Islip died the following year, in 1366, and his successor, Simon Langham, replaced Wycliffe at Canterbury with a monk. Wycliffe appealed to Rome, but lost his case.
Later, Canterbury Hall would be incorporated into Christ Church, Oxford.
In 1368, he moved from Fylingham and became Rector of Ludgershall in Buckinghamshire. The parish was near Oxford, allowing Wycliffe to keep his connections with the university. Six years later, in 1374, he received the crown living of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he remained rector until he died.
In that same year (1374), when France and England were involved in negotiations in Bruges, Wycliffe was one of commissioners sent from England to deal with papal delegates from Avignon about Church complaints.
Soon after his return from Bruges he began to write his great work, De civili dominio, in which he argued that the Church should renounce all claims to temporal dominion.
Sometime between 1372 and 1384, Wycliffe became a Doctor of Divinity, giving him the right to lecture on theology at Oxford.
He was summoned before William Courtenay, Bishop of London, on 19 February 1377 “to explain the wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth.”
Meanwhile, Pope Gregory XI had issued a bull condemning Wycliffe, and on 22 May 1377 he sent five copies to England from Rome – one to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the others King Edward III, to the Bishop of London, the Chancellor, and Oxford University. The Pope also denounced 18 theses of Wycliffe as erroneous and dangerous to Church and State. But Edward III died on 21 June 1377 and was succeeded by Richard II, so that the bull against Wycliffe did not become public until 18 December.
In March 1378, he appeared at a church court in Lambeth Palace and for a time he was confined by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University in Black Hall. Wycliffe was released on threats from his friends, but he was excommunicated.
However, before any further steps were taken against him, Pope Gregory XI died in 1378.
In the space of two years, Wycliffe tried to refute his opponents by writing books dealing with the Church, the office of king, and the power of the Pope. For Wycliffe, the Church is made up of all who are predestined to holiness, including the Church triumphant in heaven, those in purgatory, and the Church on earth. No one who is eternally lost has part in it. There is one universal Church, and there is no salvation outside.
However, his denial of the teaching of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as expressed in the concept of transubstantiation – not yet an officially defined dogma – lost him his royal protection. In the summer of 1381, when Wycliffe formulated his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in 12 short sentences, the bishops of England acted against him, and the Chancellor of Oxford University had some of the declarations pronounced heretical.
In the midst of the controversy, the Peasants’ Revolt broke out in 1381. Although Wycliffe disapproved of the revolt, he was blamed for it. William Courtenay, now Archbishop of Canterbury, called an ecclesiastical assembly in London in 1382, but as it met the city was hit by an earthquake. Those present were terrified, but Courtenay declared the earthquake a favourable sign, indicating the earth’s purification from erroneous doctrine.
Of the 24 propositions attributed to Wycliffe, 10 were declared heretical and 14 erroneous. On 17 November 1382, Wycliffe was summoned before a synod at Oxford, and while he was not excommunicated or ejected from his parish, he was forced from his offices at Oxford University.
He returned to his parish in Luttertworth, where he wrote tracts and preached sermons castigating the monks and Pope Urban VI, who disappointed Wycliffe’s hopes of being a reforming pope. He completed translating the Bible directly from the Vulgate into common English in 1382-1384.His last work, Opus evangelicum, was never completed.
While he was celebrating Mass in his parish church on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, 28 December 1384, John Wycliffe suffered a stroke. He died three days later, on 31 December 1384.
A law passed in 1401 extended persecution to Wycliffe’s remaining followers. The Constitutions of Oxford in 1408 banned Wycliffe’s writings and made unlicensed translation of Scripture into English a punishable crime and a heresy.
In 1415, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic and decreed that his books should be burned and his remains exhumed. At the command of Pope Martin V, his body was dug up and burned, and the ashes were thrown into the River Swift, which flows through Lutterworth.
Wycliffe and the Lollards
Although Lollardy can be said to have its origins in Wycliffe’s writings, the Lollards had no central belief system and no official doctrine. Indeed, Lollardy was a decentralised movement, without any single authority.
The movement associated itself with many different ideas, but individual Lollards did not necessarily have to agree to every tenet. Indeed, some Lollards may have been anti-Trinitarian in their thinking.
The Lollards looked to the Bible as the basis for their beliefs. They sought a translation of the Bible into the vernacular so that those who could read English could read the Bible. Wycliffe had already translated many passages before his death in 1384.
Lollardy taught the concept of the “Church of the Saved,” holding that there was an invisible true Church that was the community of the faithful. This Church overlapped with, but was not the same as, the visible Church.
One group of Lollards petitioned Parliament with ‘The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards’ by posting them on the doors of Westminster Hall in February 1395. These ‘Twelve Conclusions’ allow us to discern certain basic Lollard ideas. These include:
1, A rejection of the acquisition of temporal wealth by Church leaders, as accumulating wealth leads them away from religious concerns and toward greed.
4, The Sacrament of the Eucharist is a contradictory topic that is not clearly defined in the Bible. Whether the bread remains bread or becomes the body of Christ is not specified uniformly in the Gospels.
6, Church officials should not concern themselves with secular matters when they hold a position of power within the Church, because this constitutes a conflict of interest between matters of the spirit and matters of the State.
8, The Lollards object to the reverence shown to images: “If the cross of Christ, the nails, spear, and crown of thorns are to be honoured, then why not honour Judas’s lips, if only they could be found?”
The Lollards argued that the Church had been corrupted by temporal matters and that its claim to be the true Church was not justified by its heredity. Among the corruptions they identified were prayers for the dead and chantry chapels. These were seen as corrupt since they distracted priests from other work and that all should be prayed for equally.
The Lollards also exhibited a type of iconoclasm. Expensive church artwork was seen as an excess; they believed the needy should be helped and the Gospel preached rather than spending time and money on expensive decorations. Icons or images were seen as dangerous as many people seemed to be worshiping them rather than God.
They believe in a lay priesthood, and challenged the Church’s authority to invest or deny the divine authority to make a man a priest. Denying any special status to the priesthood, the Lollards said confession to a priest was unnecessary because priests did not have the ability to forgive sins.
The Lollards challenged the practice of clerical celibacy and believed priests should not hold government positions as temporal matters interfered with their spiritual responsibilities.
They denounced teachings such as transubstantiation, exorcism, pilgrimages, and blessings, believing these led to an emphasis on Church ritual rather than on the Bible.
The other Conclusions expressed their opposition to capital punishment and their belief that the clergy should be held accountable to civil laws.
Outside the ‘Twelve Conclusions,’ Lollards held many diverse opinions. Their scriptural focus led them to refuse to take oaths. They believed in millenarianism or the imminent second coming of Christ and his Kingdom on earth. Many believed that in their time they were approaching the end of days.
Some Lollard writings denounced the Pope as the Antichrist. Although generally the Lollards did not believe any particular Pope was the Antichrist, they believed the office of the Pope embodied the prophecy of the Antichrist.
At first, the Lollards was denounced as heretics. Wycliffe and the Lollards were sheltered by John of Gaunt and other anti-clerical nobility, who may have wanted to use the demands of the Lollards for clerical reform to acquire new sources of revenue from the monasteries.
The Lollards first faced serious persecution after the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. While Wycliffe and other Lollards opposed the revolt, one of the peasant leaders, John Ball, preached Lollardy.
The Lollards then came to be seen not only as a threat to the Church, but as a threat to English society in general, and the small measure of protection they had once received was dissipated. They lost further protection in 1386 when John of Gaunt left England to pursue his efforts to become King of Castille.
A group of gentry active during the reign of Richard II (1377-1399) were known as “Lollard Knights” because of their acceptance of Wycliffe’s ideas. Henry Knighton, in his Chronicle, identifies the principal Lollard Knights as Thomas Latimer, John Trussel, Lewis Clifford, John Peachey, Richard Storey, and Reginald Hilton. Others may have included William Nevil and John Clanvowe. However, there is little evidence that they were known as Lollard during their lifetimes and they rarely gave any hint of open rebellion.
A key opponent of the Lollards was Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury (1397, 1399-1414), assisted by bishops like Henry le Despenser of Norwich.
Although King Henry IV was the son of John of Gaunt, he passed the De heretico comburendo in 1401. The statute declared in its preamble that it was directed against a certain new sect “who thought damnably of the sacraments and usurped the office of preaching.” Although this legislation did not specifically ban the Lollards, it prohibited translating or owning the Bible and authorised burning heretics at the stake.
It empowered the bishops to arrest, imprison, and examine offenders and to hand over to the secular authorities such as had relapsed or refused to abjure. The condemned were to be burnt “in an high place” before the people.
The passing of this act was followed immediately by the burning of William Sawtrey, curate of Saint Margaret’s, Lynn. He had previously abjured but had relapsed, and he now refused to declare his belief in transubstantiation or to recognise the authority of the Church.
By the early 15th century, stern measures by Church and State were driving the Lollards underground. In 1407, Archbishop Arundel presided at a synod in Oxford that passed a number of constitutions to regulate preaching, the translation and use of the Scriptures, and theological education at schools and the university. In 1410, a body of Oxford censors condemned 267 propositions collected out of Wycliffe’s writings. These measures seem to have been successful as far as the clergy were concerned, and Lollardy came to be more and more a lay movement, often connected with political discontent.
No further Lollards were executed until 1410, when John Badby, a layman and craftsman who refused to renounce his Lollardy, was burned at the stake, becoming the first layman executed in England for the crime of heresy.
Sir John Oldcastle was a close friend of King Henry V and his character provided the basis for Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. In 1413 he was put on trial when evidence was uncovered indicating his Lollard beliefs. Oldcastle escaped from the Tower of London and organised an insurrection, including an attempt to kidnap the king. The rebellion failed, and Oldcastle was executed. About 70 or so supporters of the Oldcastle Revolt were hanged in 1414, and a minority of these were also burned.
Oldcastle’s revolt made the Lollards seem a greater threat, and they were persecuted more severely. Many Lollard martyrs were executed in the century that followed, including the Amersham Martyrs in the early 1500s and Thomas Harding (1532), who was one of the last Lollards to be executed.
With the beginning of the English Reformation, the demands of Lollards moved into the mainstream, so that it is difficult to estimate how widespread the Lollards and their ideas were at the time of the Reformation.
Thomas More and other critics of the Reformation identified the Reformers with Lollards. Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, referred to Lollardy too, and Bishop Cuthbert of London called Lutheranism the “foster-child” of the Wycliffite heresy.
We could debate whether the Reformers were influenced by the Lollards or whether they referred to Lollardly to create a sense of tradition. The similarity between Lollards and later English Protestant groupings such as the Baptists, Puritans and Quakers may suggest some continuity of Lollard ideas at the Reformation.
2, John Hus (1369-1415) and the Hussites:
Jan Hus (1369-1415), often referred to in English as John Hus or John Huss, was a Czech priest, philosopher, reformer, and theologian at Charles University in Prague. After John Wycliffe, Hus is considered the first Church reformer, coming a century before Luther, Calvin and Zwingli.
Hus was burned at the stake on 6 July 1415 for heresy on ecclesiology, the Eucharist, and in other areas. We can see Hus as a key predecessor to the Reformation movements of the 16th century.
Between 1420 and 1431, the Hussite forces defeated five consecutive papal crusades against followers of Hus. A century after the Hussite Wars, as many as 90% of inhabitants of the Czech lands may have been followers of Hus and his successors.
Hus was born in Husinec, Bohemia, in 1369. He moved to Prague at an early age and there he supported himself by singing and serving in churches. He graduated at the University of Prague in 1393, and earned his master’s degree in 1396. He was ordained priest in 1400 and became rector of the university in 1402 or 1403. At the same time, he was appointed a preacher at the new Bethlehem Chapel.
Hus was strongly influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe, although many of Wycliffe’s works were proscribed, and he translated Trialogus into Czech.
Hus’s demands for reform began by criticising the morals of the clergy, the bishops and the Pope from his pulpit. Archbishop Zbyněk Zajíc was lenient with Hus and appointed him preacher to the biennial synod. However, in 1405, Pope Innocent VII to counter the heretical teachings of Wycliffe, especially the doctrine of impanation in the Eucharist.
In 1406, a document was brought by two Bohemian students to Prague bearing the seal of the University of Oxford and eulogising Wycliffe. Hus proudly read the document from his pulpit. Pope Gregory XII wrote to Archbishop Zbyněk in 1408, condemning Wycliffe as a heretic and King Wenceslaus’s sympathies for non-conformists. The university handed over all Wycliffe’s works and Hus, condemning the errors in these writings.
Meanwhile, the Church was divided by the continuing papal schism, in which Pope Gregory XII in Rome and Pope Benedict XIII in Avignon both claimed the papacy. King Wenceslaus, who was ambitious to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor, ordered his bishops to observe strict neutrality towards both claimants.
However, Hus avowed neutrality. At his instignation and the instigation of others, King Wenceslaus issued a decree that led to thousands of foreign doctors, masters, and students leaving the University of Prague in 1409. This exodus resulted in the founding of the University of Leipzig and other universities. Prague University lost its international importance and became a Czech-only school, and rumours of Bohemian “heresies” spread throughout Europe.
Archbishop Zajíc became isolated and Hus was at the height of his fame. He became a rector of the Czech university, and enjoyed the favour of the court.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to end the papal schism, the Council of Pisa met in 1409, and elect Alexander V as a new pope and a third claimant to the papal throne. Hus, his followers, and King Wenceslaus transferred their allegiance to Alexander V.
Alexander V issued a papal bull on 20 December 1409, empowering Archbishop Zajíc to proceed against Wycliffism. All books of Wycliffe were to be given up, his doctrines revoked, and free preaching discontinued. Hus appealed to Alexander V in vain, and Hus and his adherents were excommunicated.
Riots broke out in Bohemia, and the government took the side of Hus, who continued to preach in the Bethlehem Chapel. Prague and the churches in the city were put under an interdict but without effect.
Archbishop Zajíc died in 1411, and the religious movement in Bohemia entered a new phase, focused on debates about indulgences.
The Antipope John XXIII succeeded Alexander V in 1410, and in 1411 John XXIII proclaimed a crusade against King Ladislaus of Naples, the protector of Gregory XII. This crusade was preached in Prague as well, and this developed into a traffic in indulgences that was seen as a sign of the corruption of the church.
Hus spoke out against indulgences, and in 1412 he delivered his address Quaestio magistri Johannis Hus de indulgentiis. In it, he quotes directly and fully from Wycliffe’s book, De ecclesia and from his treatise De absolutione a pena et culpa. Hus stated that no pope or bishop had the right to take up the sword in the name of the Church; he should pray for his enemies and bless those that curse him; and sins are forgiven by true repentance, not money. A few days later, some of Hus’s followers burnt the Papal bulls publicly.
In response, three men who had called the indulgences a fraud were beheaded. They were later considered the first Hussite martyrs. Meanwhile, the theology faculty in Prague condemned the 45 articles and Hus’s teaching as heretical.
In 1412, the called a synod that met in the archbishop’s palace in Prague, but no reconciliation was achieved.
“Even if I should stand before the stake which has been prepared for me,” Hus wrote “I would never accept the recommendation of the theological faculty.”
Hus wrote his De Ecclesia in 1413 in a castle of in Kozí Hrádek and sent it to Prague, where it was publicly read in the Bethlehem Chapel. From Kozí Hrádek, his teachings were carried into Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Austria.
The Council of Constance was called in 1414 to put an end to the papal schism and Hus likewise agreed to go to Constance with a promise of safe passage from the Emperor Sigismund.
Hus made his will before setting out for Constance, where he said Mass and preached each day, in violation of a prohibition order. He was imprisoned and then held in the dungeon of the Dominican monastery.
Hus was put on trial as a heretic in 1415, but refused to accept all formulae for his submission, declaring he was willing to recant only if his errors could be proven from the Bible. He said that he could only wish his soul might some time attain unto that place where Wycliffe’s was. But he denied having defended Wycliffe’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper or the 45 Articles.
At the last trial, on 8 June 1415, 39 sentences were read to him, 26 of which had been excerpted from his book on the Church, seven from his treatise against Páleč, and six from that against Stanislav ze Znojma. Hus again declared himself willing to submit if he could be convinced of errors. This declaration was considered an unconditional surrender, and he was asked to confess:
● that he had erred in the theses which he had hitherto maintained;
● that he renounced them for the future;
● that he recanted them;
● that he declared the opposite of these sentences.
He asked to be exempted from recanting doctrines he had never taught. But he was condemned on 6 July 1415 before the council in the cathedral. After the High Mass and Liturgy, he was led into the church, where the Bishop of Lodi preached on the duty of eradicating heresy, before quoting from both Hus and Wycliffe.
When the sentence of condemnation of Hus and his writings was pronounced Hus protested, saying he did not wish anything but to be convinced from the Bible. He fell on his knees and asked God with a low voice to forgive his enemies.
His priestly vestments were taken from him, he was cursed, and he was led to the stake under an armed guard. At the place of execution he knelt down, spread out his hands, and prayed aloud. As he was about to die, he cried out: “Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on us!”
The people of Bohemia reacted with horror to the news of his execution. Pope Martin IV issued a papal bull against all supporters of Hus and Wycliffe, but three crusades against the Hussites failed. A century later, as much as 90 per cent of people in the Czech lands were said to be followers of Hussite teachings.
The Legacy of Jan Hus
For some, Hus was first and foremost trying to rid the Church of ethical abuses, rather than demanding sweeping theological changes. Others see in the writings of Hus and Wycliffe the seeds of the Reformations. The Hussite Wars resulted in the Basel Compacts which allowed for a reformed church in the Kingdom of Bohemia – almost a century before the Lutheran Reformation, and Hus had a strong influence on Luther.
After Hus’s death, his followers, the Hussites, split into several groups including the Ultraquists, the Taborites and the Orphans.
In 1999, almost six centuries after Hus’s execution, Pope John Paul II expressed “deep regret for the cruel death inflicted” on Hus. The Unitas Fratrum or Moravian Church considers itself the spiritual heir to many of Hus’s followers and formally entered dialogue with the Church of Ireland at talks in Kilkenny last week.
3, Erasmus (1466-1536), Bible translator and ‘Prince of Humanists’:
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536), or Erasmus of Rotterdam, was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian. He was a classical scholar who wrote in a pure Latin style. He was an early proponent of religious toleration and was known as the “Prince of the Humanists” and the “the crowning glory of the Christian humanists.”
He prepared important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament, raising questions that would be influential in the Reformations and in the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Erasmus was critical of the abuses in the Church and called for reform, but he kept his distance from Luther and Philip Melanchthon and continued to recognise the authority of the Pope. He emphasised a middle way, with a deep respect for traditional faith, piety and grace, and he rejected Luther’s emphasis on faith alone and was committed to reforming the Church from within.
Desiderius Erasmus was born on 27 October, in 1466 or 1467. Although identified with Rotterdam, he lived there for only four years. His father, Gerard, was a priest and curate in Gouda; but little is known of his mother other than that her name was Margaretha Rogers and she was a doctor’s daughter. His parents died from the plague in 1483.
Erasmus was educated in monastic and church-run schools. In 1492, poverty forced him into the religious life. He took vows as a canon regular in Stein, and was ordained a priest when he was 25.
Soon after his ordination, he became secretary to Henry Bergen, Bishop of Cambrai, and was given a temporary dispensation from his vows, although he remained a priest.
In 1495, he went on to study at the University of Paris. He was in Italy from 1506 to 1509, received his DD (Doctor of Divinity) degree in Turin in 1506 and later spent time in Venice.
Later, in England, he became friends with the leading English intellectuals during the reign of Henry VIII, including John Colet, Thomas More, John Fisher, Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn. While he was the Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge from 1510 to 1515, he was a member of Queens’ College, where he mastered Greek and began to prepare a new edition of Jerome’s translation of the Bible.
The moon dial at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where Erasmus lived while he taught Greek in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
From Cambridge, he moved to Leuven, where he lectured at the Catholic University, before moving to Basel.
His revolt against some forms of monasticism and scholasticism was not based on doubts about the truth of doctrine, nor on hostility to the Church. He saw himself as a preacher of righteousness by an appeal to reason, but sought to remain faithful to traditional doctrine, and was convinced he could criticise all.
In 1512, he began work on his Latin New Testament, and collected all Vulgate manuscripts to prepare a critical edition, saying “It is only fair that Paul should address the Romans in somewhat better Latin.”
The first New Testament printed in Greek was part of the Complutensian Polyglot (1514).
Erasmus synchronised or unified the Greek and the Latin traditions of the New Testament. His Greek text is the main basis for his Latin translation, but in places he edits the Greek text to reflect his Latin version, including the last, missing six verses of Revelation which he translates from the Vulgate back into Greek.
His hurried first edition was published in Basel in 1516 and became the first published Greek New Testament. His second edition (1519) was used by Luther in working on his German translation of the Bible.
The first and second edition texts did not include the passage known as the Comma Johanneum (I John 5: 7-8) because he was unable to find these verses in any Greek manuscript. However, one was supplied to him while was working on his third edition (1522). This 1522 edition was probably used by Tyndale for the first English New Testament (1526) and was the basis for the 1550 Robert Stephanus edition used by the English translators of the Geneva Bible and King James Version of the Bible.
A fourth edition (1527) contains parallel columns of Greek, Latin Vulgate and Erasmus’s Latin texts. In this edition, Erasmus also supplied the Greek text of the last six verses of Revelation from Cardinal Ximenez’s Biblia Complutensis. The fifth (and final) edition (1535) was published without the Latin Vulgate column. Subsequent versions of his Greek New Testament became known as the Textus Receptus.
Ersasmus and the Reformation
Luther’s movement for reform began a year after the publication of Ersamus’ New Testament. Erasmus, now at the height of his literary fame, was called upon to take sides, but he refused to be partisan.
“Free will does not exist,” Luther said in his letter to Erasmus in 1526. Noting Luther’s criticism of the Church, Erasmus described him as “a mighty trumpet of Gospel truth,” while agreeing “it is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed.” Erasmus had great respect for Luther, while Luther spoke with admiration of Erasmus’s superior learning.
Luther expressed an early admiration for Erasmus for advancing a sound and reasonable Christianity and urged him to join the Lutheran party. But Erasmus argued that this would endanger his position as a leader in the movement for pure scholarship. Only as an independent scholar could he hope to influence the reform of religion.
When Erasmus hesitated, Luther accused him of avoiding responsibility due either to cowardice or a lack of purpose. However, any hesitancy on the part of Erasmus stemmed from his concern over the mounting disorder and violence of the reform movement.
He wrote to Melanchthon in 1524: “I know nothing of your church; at the very least it contains people who will, I fear, overturn the whole system and drive the princes into using force to restrain good men and bad alike. The gospel, the word of God, faith, Christ, and Holy Spirit – these words are always on their lips; look at their lives and they speak quite another language.”
Again, in 1529, he writes “An epistle against those who falsely boast they are Evangelicals” to Vulturius Neocomus (Gerardus Geldenhouwer). In this letter, Erasmus complains of the doctrines and morals of the Reformers:
“You declaim bitterly against the luxury of priests, the ambition of bishops, the tyranny of the Roman Pontiff, and the babbling of the sophists; against our prayers, fasts, and Masses; and you are not content to retrench the abuses that may be in these things, but must needs abolish them entirely...
“Look around on this ‘Evangelical’ generation, and observe whether amongst them less indulgence is given to luxury, lust, or avarice, than amongst those whom you so detest. Show me any one person who by that Gospel has been reclaimed from drunkenness to sobriety, from fury and passion to meekness, from avarice to liberality, from reviling to well-speaking, from wantonness to modesty. I will show you a great many who have become worse through following it... The solemn prayers of the Church are abolished, but now there are very many who never pray at all ...
“I have never entered their conventicles, but I have sometimes seen them returning from their sermons, the countenances of all of them displaying rage, and wonderful ferocity, as though they were animated by the evil spirit ...
“Who ever beheld in their meetings any one of them shedding tears, smiting his breast, or grieving for his sins?... Confession to the priest is abolished, but very few now confess to God... They have fled from Judaism that they may become Epicureans.”
Erasmus dreaded any change in doctrine, citing the long history of the Church as a bulwark against innovation. In book I of his Hyperaspistes he puts the matter bluntly to Luther: “We are dealing with this: Would a stable mind depart from the opinion handed down by so many men famous for holiness and miracles, 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, although the leading men of your flock do not agree either with you or among themselves – indeed though you do not even agree with yourself, since in this same Assertion you say one thing in the beginning and something else later on, recanting what you said before.”
Although Erasmus remained firmly neutral, each side accused him of siding with the other. “I detest dissension because it goes both against the teachings of Christ and against a secret inclination of nature,” he wrote. “I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss.”
In his catechism or Explanation of the Apostles’ Creed (1533), Erasmus took a stand against Luther, asserting tradition as a source of revelation alongside the Bible, by listing the Deutero-canonical books in the canon of the Bible and by acknowledging seven sacraments. He described as “blasphemers” anyone who questioned the perpetual virginity of Mary and those who defended the need to occasionally restrict the laity from access to the Bible.
In a letter to Nikolaus von Amsdorf, Luther objected to Erasmus’ Catechism and called Erasmus a “viper,” a “liar,” and “the very mouth and organ of Satan.”
On the other hand, the monks who stood against the Reformation accused Erasmus, saying he had “prepared the way” and was responsible for Luther. They said Erasmus had laid the egg and Luther had hatched it. Erasmus wittily dismissed the charge, claiming Luther had “hatched a different bird entirely.”
In his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collation (1524), he lampoons the Lutheran view on free will. In response, Luther wrote his De servo arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will) (1525), in which attacks Erasmus, claiming he was not a Christian. Erasmus responded with a lengthy, two-part Hyperaspistes (1526-1527).
When Basel was officially “reformed” in 1529, Erasmus moved to Freiburg im Breisgau. From there, he planned to move to Brabant, but he died suddenly in 1536 during a visit to Basel, and was buried in the Basel Minster, the former cathedral.
Erasmus is credited with phrasing the adage: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” He is also credited with originating the phrase “Pandora’s box,” arising through an error in his translation of Hesiod’s Pandora in which he confused πίθος, pithos (storage jar) with πυξίς, pyxis (box).
Erasmus translated the greatest classical and patristic writers, including Saint Ambrose, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Basil, Saint John Chrysostom, Cicero and Saint Jerome.
Moderate Catholics see him as a leading figure in attempts to reform the Church, while many Protestants recognise his initial support for Luther’s ideas and the groundwork he laid for the future Reformation. His writings were banned by Pope Paul IV. Yet he had an incalculable influence on the English Reformation, and he remains an important figure too in European culture and academic life to this day.
8.2: Reformation readings: Luther, Calvin and Zwingli
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This lecture on 8 February 2013 was part of the Church History Elective (TH 7864) on the MTh course, Year I.
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