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.





Martin Luther: On skepticism, scripture and Christ

20 12 2011

The following is an excerpt from Martin Luther’s exchange with Erasmus which has come to be known as “The Bondage of the Will”.  If you are lucky enough to have this volume in Martin Luther’s collected works you will find the following excerpt in vol. 33 pg starting on pg 23.  However, the translation below is not what you will find in Luther’s Works but comes from an online edition that you can findhere.  To set the scene Martin Luther wa a reasserter of classic Christian doctrine in the Augustininian tradition, which upheld (among many things, but relevant for this discussion) that the will of a human being was corrupted by sin and therefore sinful by nature.  For the sinful human it is unnatural to do anything in a “Godly” manner, therefore the human’s nature must be changed by “new birth” from above (1 Pet 1.3).  The reassertion of this fundamental truth of the scriptures and of Christian theology caused a massive stir (called the Reformation) in medieval Europe.  Enter Erasmus, who had Reformation sympathies but who also wished to maintain peace within the Roman Catholic Church.  In seeking middle road to stroke his Reformation sympathies while also seeking to appease the Roman Catholic Church he developed a squishy theology which Martin Luther was swift to address.  The excerpt below is remarkable for several reasons and the whole section is really worth a read.  Below Luther deals with the role of skepticism in the life of the believer, the clarity of scripture, and the purpose of scripture.  Enjoy mining these paragraphs.  You could do it for weeks.

In a word, these declarations of yours amount to this—that, with you, it matters not what is believed by any one, any where, if the peace of the world be but undisturbed; and if every one be but allowed, when his life, his reputation, or his interest is at stake, to do as he did, who said, “If they affirm, I affirm, if they deny, I deny:” and to look upon the Christian doctrines as nothing better than the opinions of philosophers and men: and that it is the greatest of folly to quarrel about, contend for, and assert them, as nothing can arise therefrom but contention, and the disturbance of the public peace: “that what is above us, does not concern us.” This, I say, is what your declarations amount to.—Thus, to put an end to our fightings, you come in as an intermediate peace-maker, that you may cause each side to suspend arms, and persuade us to cease from drawing swords about things so absurd and useless.

What I should cut at here, I believe, my friend Erasmus, you know very well. But, as I said before, I will not openly express myself. In the mean time, I excuse your very good intention of heart; but do you go no further; fear the Spirit of God, who searcheth the reins and the heart, and who is not deceived by artfully contrived expressions. I have, upon this occasion, expressed myself thus, that henceforth you may cease to accuse our cause of pertinacity or obstinacy. For, by so doing, you only evince that you hug in your heart a Lucian, or some other of the swinish tribe of the Epicureans; who, because he does not believe there is a God himself, secretly laughs at all those who do believe and confess it. Allow us to be assertors, and to study and delight in assertions: and do you favour your Sceptics and Academics until Christ shall have called you also. The Holy Spirit is not a Skeptic, nor are what he has written on our hearts doubts or opinions, but assertions more certain, and more firm, than life itself and all human experience.

Sect. 3.—Now I come to the next head, which is connected with this; where you make a “distinction between the Christian doctrines,” and pretend that some are necessary, and some not necessary.” You say, that “some are abstruse, and some quite clear.” Thus you merely sport the sayings of others, or else exercise yourself, as it were, in a rhetorical figure. And you bring forward, in support of this opinion, that passage of Paul, Rom xi. 33, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and goodness of God!” And also that of Isaiah xl. 13, “Who hath holpen the Spirit of the Lord, or who hath been His counselor?”

You could easily say these things, seeing that, you either knew not that you were writing to Luther, but for the world at large, or did not think that you were writing against Luther: whom, however, I hope you allow to have some acquaintance with, and judgment in, the Sacred Writings. But, if you do not allow it, then, behold, I will also twist things thus. This is the distinction which I make; that I also may act a little the rhetorician and logician—God, and the Scripture of God, are two things; no less so than God, and the Creature of God. That there are in God many hidden things which we know not, no one doubts: as He himself saith concerning the last day: “Of that day knoweth no man but the Father.” (Matt. xxiv. 36.) And (Acts i. 7.) “It is not yours to know the times and seasons.” And again, “I know whom I have chosen,” (John xiii. 18.) And Paul, “The Lord knoweth them that are His,” (2 Tim. ii. 19.). And the like.

But, that there are in the Scriptures some things abstruse, and that all things are not quite plain, is a report spread abroad by the impious Sophists by whose mouth you speak here, Erasmus. But they never have produced, nor ever can produce, one article whereby to prove this their madness. And it is with such scare-crows that Satan has frightened away men from reading the Sacred Writings, and has rendered the Holy Scripture contemptible, that he might cause his poisons of philosophy to prevail in the church. This indeed I confess, that there are many places in the Scriptures obscure and abstruse; not from the majesty of the thing, but from our ignorance of certain terms and grammatical particulars; but which do not prevent a knowledge of all the things in the Scriptures. For what thing of more importance can remain hidden in the Scriptures, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled from the door of the sepulcher, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light, Christ made man: that God is Trinity and Unity: that Christ suffered for us, and will reign to all eternity? Are not these things known and proclaimed even in our streets? Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what will you find remaining in them?

All the things, therefore, contained in the Scriptures; are made manifest, although someplaces, from the words not being understood, are yet obscure. But to know that allthings in the Scriptures are set in the clearest light, and then, because a few words are obscure, to report that the things are obscure, is absurd and impious. And, if the words are obscure in one place, yet they are clear in another. But, however, the same thing,which has been most openly declared to the whole world, is both spoken of in the Scriptures in plain words, and also still lies hidden in obscure words. Now, therefore, it matters not if the thing be in the light, whether any certain representations of it be in obscurity or not, if, in the mean while, many other representations of the same thing be in the light. For who would say that the public fountain is not in the light, because those who are in some dark narrow lane do not see it, when all those who are in the Open market place can see it plainly?