This is the eighth and final article in our Reformation 500 Series.
The name of Erasmus will never perish.
Erasmus has published volumes more full of wisdom than any which Europe has seen for ages.
It is significant and symbolic that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. There is a sense in which such a date is a portal into what follows in the Christian liturgical year: All Saints and All Souls. Luther, by choosing such a date and seeing himself as a reformer, raised the question of who are the real saints of the historic Church—certainly not the establishment Roman Catholics who had led the Church to Babylon. There is a type of Protestant hubris, though, in thinking that Luther was the real reformer of the Church, and 1517 should be lauded and celebrated. Erasmus and many others had been toiling for reform from within the Church from the late 15th century.
Erasmus had, decades before Luther, been at the forefront of challenging the misdeeds and misbehaviour within the Western Church.
Colet, More, and Erasmus (Oxford-London Reformers), prophet-like, clarified in poignant depth and detail the immense gap and chasm between the ideals of the Church and its toxic and questionable behaviour at the highest levels. Erasmus was also acutely aware, with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, that many from the Eastern Church were migrating westward. The tragedy of such a situation for the Orthodox cannot be missed, but the positive ripple effect was that many in the West (including Erasmus), increasingly so, had greater access to the Orthodox Fathers, their commentaries, and their language.
The issue of church unity and concord became more and more central to Erasmus in the latter decades of his life. The split between the Orthodox East and Roman Catholic West, and the schism between various types of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, deeply troubled Erasmus. He became in many ways the herald of a sort of classical and patristic church unity vision in the mid to late 1520s-1530s. How did he do this? Let me lightly touch on three essential ways this was done.
First, Erasmus was concerned that, as the Church developed, all sorts of additions were added to the essence of the faith. He was convinced that the Apostles’ Creed summed up, in the most succinct and compact manner, what the universal Church shared in common. There could be a variety of debates about all sorts of layered and nuanced theological and exegetical issues, but the Apostles’ Creed was foundational. This is why, in some ways, Erasmus’ fictional dialogue with Luther in March 1524, “An Examination Concerning Faith,” focused on the Apostles’ Creed. Did Luther truly need to split the Church over his reading of Romans and Galatians, and his questionable opposition between Grace-Law and Divine Sovereignty-Human Freedom? If Luther was willing to split the church over an adiaphoric issue, Erasmus had to part paths with him.
Second, did the historic Church universally agree with the filioque clause in the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Creed? If not, why was it added to the Creed? The Orthodox and Roman Catholics parted paths over such an addition. Erasmus took the position, yet again, that the classical and patristic phase of church history was void of a strict definition of the economy of Father-Son-Spirit. In short, there was a mystery within the dynamic life of the eternal Trinity that could not be reduced to a formula. The addition of the filioque clause was yet another adiaphoric move and manoeuver—this time it was the Roman Catholic Church that had inappropriately added to the esse of the faith. Again, it was Erasmus’ commitment to church unity, grounded in the classical credal and theological era of the Fathers, that opposed the position of the Roman Catholic Church on the need to add the filioque clause to the Creed.
Third, just as Erasmus was, without much doubt, one of the finest linguists in both Latin and Greek in the early decades of the 16th century, and one of the best exegetes and annotators of the New Testament, he was also front and centre in the recovery of the Fathers, Western and Eastern. The more Erasmus worked with the Orthodox Fathers and the Western Fathers, the greater the sense of unity he had for the Church West and East. The commonality the Fathers shared made it clear that post-patristic additions to historic Creeds (that fragmented the church) needed to be questioned—such additions were the very thing that led to greater fragmentation, as did the many Protestant confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Apostles’ Creed, yet once again, became the alpha and the omega of church unity for Erasmus. It is significant that one of Erasmus’ final books, An Explanation of the Apostles’ Creed (1533), delves much deeper into the Creed and ponders its significance from a variety of angles (Collected Works of Erasmus: Volume 70). This was Erasmus, yet again, turning to the esse of the Church rather than being derailed into a commitment to a multiplicity of adiaphora. It was the Apostles’ Creed that, in many ways, was the bene esse that illuminated and clarified the esse of the historic Church East and West.
Both Luther’s additions to the faith and the Roman Catholic filioque were the very things that divided the Church. Erasmus questioned such additions by heeding and hearing the wisdom of the Fathers Western and Eastern.
There has been, in the 20th century, an ecumenical desire and longing to reunite the divided Church. The underlying problem with such an approach is that the deeper unity and concord that many so desire is thwarted by the fact that it is not grounded in a classical vision as embodied in the historic Church. Erasmus, more than most then and now, knew that if real unity was ever to occur, a sustained immersion in the life and thought of the Fathers East and West was foundational. Those who add to the esse of the Fathers inevitably divide the Church.
Those who heed and hear what the historic and classical Church shared in common are in a place and position to reclaim and rebuild, with one mind and soul, the vision and reality of one Church, the true body of Christ in this world. The wisdom of Erasmus, if mined, can still offer us a mother lode. This is why his name will never perish, and his wisdom will never fail.
Ron Dart holds an MCS from Regent College in Vancouver and an MA from the University of British Columbia, both with an emphasis in patristics. He had nearly completed his PhD at McMaster University when he went to work for Amnesty International. He currently teaches as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, Philosophy & Religious Studies at University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford BC. He has published more than 35 books, of which the most recent, Erasmus: Wild Bird, appeared earlier this month. A member of the Anglican Church, he has an abiding interest in the Eastern and Western Fathers, the layered turn to the Fathers in the 16th century, and the relationship between the Fathers and the modern and postmodern ethos. He has extensive experience collaborating with Orthodox representatives in various ecumenical endeavours.