Was Erasmus a "good" Roman Catholic?

From "The Answer Book" ©1989 Samuel C. Gipp. Reproduced by permission

QUESTION: Was Erasmus, the editor of the Textus Receptus, a "good" Roman Catholic?

ANSWER: Erasmus, who edited the Greek text which was later to be known as the Textus Receptus, was an embarrassment to the pope and a poor example of a "good" Roman Catholic.

EXPLANATION: Desiderius Erasmus was born in 1466 and died in 1536 at the age of seventy. This was no mean feat during the days when the plagues, coupled with primeval medical practices, worked together to limit the average age of a man's life to approximately 35-40 years.

Both of his parents fell victim to that same plague while Erasmus was just a lad. He and his brother were then placed in the care of an uncle who promptly sent them off to a monastery just to be rid of them. Thus Erasmus's destiny was sealed long before he could ever have a say in the matter.

Young Erasmus became well known for his charm, urbanity and wit, and was in possession of an obviously above average intellect. He was later to choose to be an Augustinian on the sole attribute that they were known to have the finest of libraries.

His behavior was somewhat bizarre by Augustinian standards. He refused to keep vigils, never hesitated to eat meat on Fridays, and though ordained, chose never to function as a priest. The Roman Church had captured his body, but quite apparently his mind and heart were still unfettered.

He is known to history as one of the most prolific writers of all times.

Erasmus was a constant and verbal opponent of the many excesses of his church. He berated the papacy, the priesthood and the over indulgences of the monks. He stated that the monks would not touch money, but that they were not so scrupulous concerning wine and women. He constantly attacked clerical concubinage and the cruelty with which the Roman Catholic Church dealt with so called "heretics." He is even credited with saving a man from the Inquisition.

One of his many writings consisted of a tract entitled "Against the Barbarians" which was directed against the overt wickedness of the Roman Catholic Church.

He was a constant critic of Pope Julius and the papal monarchy. He often compared the crusade leading Pope Julius to Julius Caesar. He is quoted as saying, "How truly is Julius playing the part of Julius." He also stated, "This monarchy of the Roman pontiff is the pest of Christendom." He advised the church to "get rid of the Roman See." When a scathing satire, in which Pope Julius was portrayed as going to Hell, written in anonymity was circulated, it was fairly common knowledge that its author was Erasmus.

He was offered a bishopric in hopes that it would silence his criticism. He rejected the bribe flat.

Erasmus published five editions of the New Testament in Greek. They were brought out successively in 1516, 1519, 1522, 1527 and 1535. His first two editions did not contain I John 5:7 although the reading had been found in many non-Greek texts dating back as early as 150 A.D. Erasmus desired to include the verse but knew the conflict that would rage if he did so without at least one Greek manuscript for authority. Following the publication of his second edition, which like his first consisted of both the Greek New Testament and his own Latin translation, he said that he would include I John 5:7 in his next edition if just one Greek manuscript could be found which contained it. Opponents of the reading today erringly charge that the two manuscripts found had been specially produced just to oblige Erasmus's request, but this charge has never been validated and was not held at the time of Erasmus's work.

The Roman Catholic Church criticized his works for his refusal to use Jerome's Latin translation, a translation that he said was inaccurate. He opposed Jerome's translation in two vital areas.

He detected that the Greek text had been corrupted as early as the fourth century. He knew that Jerome's translation had been based solely on the Alexandrian manuscript, Vaticanus, written itself early in the fourth century.

He also differed with Jerome on the translation of certain passages which were vital to the claimed authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Jerome rendered Matthew 4:17 thus: "Do penance, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

Erasmus differed with: "Be penitent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Erasmus was also a staunch defender of both Mark 16:9-21 and John 8:1-12. Zeal which our modern day scholars cannot seem to find.

Possibly Erasmus's greatest gift to mankind was his attitude toward the common man. In the rigidly "classed" society in which he lived, he was an indefatigable advocate of putting the Scripture in the hands of the common man. While Jerome's Latin had been translated at the bidding of the Roman hierarchy, Erasmus translated his Latin with the express purpose of putting it into the hands of the common people of his day. A practice that the Roman Catholic Church knew could be dangerous to its plan to control the masses.

Erasmus is quoted as saying, "Do you think that the Scriptures are fit only for the perfumed?" "I venture to think that anyone who reads my translation at home will profit thereby." He boldly stated that he longed to see the Bible in the hands of "the farmer, the tailor, the traveler and the Turk." Later, to the astonishment of his upper classed colleagues, he added "the masons, the prostitutes and the pimps" to that declaration.

Knowing his desire to see the Bible in the hands of God's common people, it seems not so surprising that God was to use his Greek text for the basis of the English Bible that was translated with the common man in mind, the King James Bible.

It has been said that "Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched." There is probably far more truth to this statement than can be casually discerned. For the reformers were armed with Erasmus's Bible, his writings and his attitude of resistance to Roman Catholic intimidation. Of Luther he said, "I favor Luther as much as I can, even if my cause is everywhere linked with his." He wrote several letters on Luther's behalf, and wholeheartedly agreed with him that salvation was entirely by grace, not works.

He refused pressure by his Roman Catholic superiors to denounce Luther as a heretic. If Erasmus had turned the power of his pen on Luther, it would undoubtedly have caused far more damage than the powerless threats of the pope and his imps were able to do. As it is, only his disagreement with Luther's doctrine of predestination ever prompted him to criticize the Reformer with pen and ink.

Erasmus's greatest point of dissension with the Roman Church was over its doctrine of salvation through works and the tenets of the church.

He taught that salvation was a personal matter between the individual and God and was by faith alone. Of the Roman system of salvation he complained, "Aristotle is so in vogue that there is scarcely time in the churches to interpret the gospel." And what was "the gospel" to which Erasmus referred? We will let him speak for himself.

"Our hope is in the mercy of God and the merits of Christ." Of Jesus Christ he stated, "He ... nailed our sins to the cross, sealed our redemption with his blood. " He boldly stated that no rites of the Church were necessary for an individual's salvation. "The way to enter paradise," he said, "is the way of the penitent thief, say simply, Thy will be done. The world to me is crucified and I to the world."

Concerning the most biblical sect of his time, the Anabaptists, he reserved a great deal of respect. He mentioned them as early as 1523 even though he himself was often called the "only Anabaptist of the 16th century." He stated that the Anabaptists that he was familiar with called themselves "Baptists." (Ironically, Erasmus was also the FIRST person to use the term "fundamental.")

So we see that when Erasmus died on July 11, 1536, he had led a life that could hardly be construed to be an example of what could be considered a "good Catholic."

But perhaps the greatest compliment, though veiled, that Erasmus's independent nature ever received came in 1559, twenty-three years after his death. That is when Pope Paul IV put Erasmus's writings on the "Index" of books, forbidden to be read by Roman Catholics.

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