Johan Huizinga’s Erasmus and the Age of Reformation

869817Johan Huizinga’s Erasmus and the Age of Reformation (which can be had free for Kindle here) is a fascinating, well-researched, and engagingly-told tale of one of the most famed intellectuals ever to live.  The 15th/16th century humanist Desiderius Erasmus, self-styled as Erasmus of Rotterdam, was the illegitimate son of a priest.  He possessed a stunning mind, a sincere love of Christ, an independent spirit, and a desire to see Europe return ad fontes and usher in a return to classical learning, ordered society, a love of pure learning, and an appreciation of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.  He was also, as Huizinga tells the story, arrogant, thin-skinned, probably a hypochondriac, overly-obsessed with cleanliness, unable to admit when he was wrong, quick to offend and quick to be offended, a person who lived so much in the via media on so many of the crucial theological and ecclesiological issues of the day that he was unable to take strong stands when such were needed, lacking in courage, and not above manipulating people for money.

All of that is to say, Erasmus was a human being.

Erasmus was a Catholic though many of his works would later be put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Catholic church.  His Greek translation of the New Testament played a significant role in the Protestant Reformation, and in the development of New Testament studies in general.  He initially had some sympathies with Luther, yet Erasmus eventually recoiled in horror at Luther and his work and even entered into intense debate with Luther on the question of the will.  (Interestingly, Huizinga tells us that Erasmus was ill-equipped to enter into that debate, did not really even understand the issues involved, and was essentially bested by Luther.)  There were times when Erasmus was being harangued by Protestants and Catholics alike.  Perhaps he still is.  (A friend mentioned to me that Erasmus was brought out for a thrashing at the Together for the Gospel conference last week.  On the other hand, Baptist theologian Timothy George wrote an interesting essay largely commending Erasmus in First Things a few weeks back.)  His debate with Luther officially and openly placed him on the Catholic side, though many within Catholicism remained very skeptical of him.

Erasmus simply could not understand how his translation of the New Testament upset so many.  He approached the work, he said, objectively and wondered aloud how working to bring an uncorrupted and more accurate translation of the scriptures to the public could be seen as anything but commendable. In this, he showed an astounding naiveté to the dynamics of how people viewed and felt about scripture.  Or perhaps he was fully aware of these after all?

Erasmus basically moved about Europe soliciting the benevolent care of various rulers and ecclesiastics he felt might be sympathetic to him.  When challenged to settle down in a stable home, he countered that he was emulating the best elements of antiquity through his nomadic life of learning and writing.  He could be bitingly critical of those whom he felt had failed to feed and clothe him properly and especially of places and meals that he felt were dirty or uncouth.  (Huizinga offers a telling little collection of Erasmus’ letters at the end of the book that illustrate this point very effectively.)  He saw himself as a shining star of wisdom and wit and erudition and, at his best, he played the role well.  He truly was prodigious.  He was friends with intellectual greats like Thomas More and with popes and primates and kings and princes.  He was offered numerous offices and comfortable livings in the Church and refused them all.  Early in life, he entered the monastery but then came to hate the very idea of it.  He eventually was officially released from his monastic vows upon his request.

He spent his life writing, often in printers’ offices, and overseeing the publication of his works, or condemning the shoddy or unauthorized publication of his works, or defending himself in debates against his detractors, or writing letters voluminously and exhaustively about his own life (referring to himself in the third person a little too often for modern sensibilities).

What to make of Erasmus?  There is much to admire and emulate:  his mind, his work habits, his independence of thought, his ability to see the problems within his own ecclesial home, and his courage in naming aloud the problems in print, oftentimes at great personal risk.  There is also much to regret and avoid:  his elitism, his selfishness, his arrogance, his lack of courage, his refusal to take real and risky steps on the basis of what he knew and saw, his reticence to act, his snobbishness, and his over-simplicity and narrow-mindedness concerning the world and church affairs and problems.

Erasmus had an over-inflated view of his own importance to world history…yet here I am, five hundred years later, typing a blog-post about him.  The University of Toronto Press is publishing his complete works, a project that will eventually result in over eighty volumes.

For all of his faults, I do appreciate a great deal about Erasmus.  It was a big age of big characters who had big virtues and also big problems.  But it was indeed an age of giants.  And among them, the name of Erasmus continues on.  There is much about him that needs to be remembered and even imitated today.

Ole Erasmus would like that a great deal!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *