Who the heck was Erasmus and why should I care? (Or…reading the Bible can be a dangerous thing)

29 08 2013

This fall the Ridley Institute, the school of theology at St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant will be hosting “An Introduction to Reformation Anglicanism.”  This lecture series is pulling from some of the most well regarded Anglican church leaders and scholars in the world.  You can click here for details on the course.  By the way, all the lectures are live.

The first lecture in the series is by Gerald Bray, a highly regarded Anglican theologian and historian.  He’ll be teaching on “Erasmus and Tudor Humanism.”  Now if you don’t know who “Erasmus” was, or what “Tudor Humanism” is, then you’re probably more inclined to stay home and watch the Oxygen Network’s new reality series The Real Millionaire Preachers of L.A..  And that would be a shame, because Erasmus has probably played a hugely important role in your Christian life and you may not even know it.

Erasmus was a dutch humanist born in the late 15th century.  “Humanist” in our own day can mean someone who has rejected the claims of revealed religion.  We might even call someone a “secular humanist.”  In Erasmus’ day the term meant something very different.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, a “humanist” was someone who was dedicated to human literature (the philosophy and poetry of the ancient world) rather than the study of theology.  Such scholars were often interested in the ancient languages of Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  In Northern Europe, humanism took on a particularly religious bent where scholars used their newfound skills in the languages to take a fresh look at the texts of the Old and New Testaments.  This was called Christian Humanism.

During the renaissance, if someone said “the Bible” they most likely meant the Latin Vulgate, a Bible translated by a man named Jerome in the fourth and fifth centuries.  Jerome took the Hebrew and Greek texts and translated them into Latin, which was the popular or vulgar (vulgate) language of the day.  Jerome’s translation stood for 1000 years.  When the church discussed matters of faith and practice it was always done in reference to Jerome’s Latin translation, not the original Hebrew and Greek.  

Along came Erasmus (and a few of his friends) and took a fresh look at the Greek New Testament.  One might suppose that reintroducing the Bible and the Biblical languages to the Christian people would be a well regarded service to the Church but this was not always the case.  Some of the clergy in England regarded the study of Greek and Latin as “dangerous and damnable.”  There was a reason that the authorities were so afraid of the Greek New Testament and considered it “dangerous and damnable.”  As scholars across Europe read the New Testament in its original languages what they discovered was that the teaching and practice of the Medieval Church did not always conform to the teaching of Christ in the Bible.  These discrepancies were not minor  and in some instances threatened the very existence of some of the medieval church’s major teachings.

For example, consider Matt 4.17.  Just to more clearly make our point, let’s be good Christian humanists and Bible scholars and consider the text the way Erasmus.  That is, let’s start with the Greek!  In the Greek, the text is as follows:

Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς κηρύσσειν, καὶ λέγειν, Μετανοεῖτε ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

Now this is Jerome’s translation from the Latin Vulgate, the official Bible of the Medieval Church:

Exinde coepit Iesus praedicare et dicere paenitentiam agite adpropinquavit enim regnum caelorum.

For the most part, Jerome got it right.  The translation is good.  However Erasmus noticed one glaring problem between the Latin and the original Greek text.  The problem was Jerome’s translation of mετανοεῖτε (metanoiete).  Jerome translated mετανοεῖτε as “do penance.”  Thus, Matt 4.17 read:

From that time, Jesus began to preach and to say “Do penance:  for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

It was Jerome’s translation as mετανοεῖτε that was largely responsible for the Medieval Roman Catholic penitential system, where sinners were commanded by priests to “do penance,” that is to make satisfaction for their sins before God.  By the 16th century the penitential system had become a way for the church to raise vast sums of money by requiring financial satisfactions for sin.  It was not only a bad translation, but it justified an oppressive system that punished the poor and lined the pockets of the clergy.

Erasmus, taking a closer look at the Greek word, translated mετανοεῖτε (meta = change/ noew = mind) as repent, which he understood to be in reference to an inward psychological attitude of sorrow of sin and a turning away from it.  The changing of one little word, from “penance” to “repentance,” removed one of the main pillars of the medieval penitential system.  The English humanist and scholar Thomas Linacre, upon reading Erasmus’ Greek New Testament and accompanying Latin translation noted “Either this is not the Gospel, or we are not Christians.”  Erasmus’ Greek New Testament called the church to repentance and reformation in obedience to the Scripture, turning them away from the faulty and oppressive penitential system of the medieval church.  Erasmus’ translation permanently altered the course of Western Christianity.

Erasmus reminds us that to read the Bible is a dangerous thing.  The Bible is after all “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit” (Heb 4.12).  Just as western Christianity was never the same after reengaging the New Testament after several hundred years, we should not expect to stay the same either.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the Bible is not tame, neither is it safe.  But it’s good and it’s good for you.

You can learn more about Erasmus and the English Reformation by attending the Ridley Institute’s Fall Course.  Click here to register, or talk to your Rector about the possibility of live streaming the entire course to your local church.


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11 09 2013
Was the Anglican Church Started Because the King Wanted a Divorce? | Awakening Grace

[…] church was started because the King wanted a divorce.”  As can be seen from the previous posts (Click here for Part I.  Click here for Part II) the Reformation was well underway before the King initiated the process […]

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