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Church History: Erasmus' Philosophia Christi
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Erasmus' Philosophia Christi 
Author: Jeff Wheatley 
© 2000-2001 Erasmus Enterprises 

     In 1516, before Luther's reformation had gotten under way, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam dared to ask the following question: "Who is truly Christian?"  He was even more daring to give the following answer: "Not he who is baptized or anointed, or who attends church. It is rather the man who has embraced Christ in his innermost feelings of his heart, and who emulates Him by his pious deeds." (DeMolen, p.75)  If this is representative of the whole of Erasmus' writings, it is understandable that Luther would view Erasmus as a potential ally in the reformation, willing to sacrifice all for the sake of the truth.  But Erasmus seemed to recoil from the fight by both warning Luther of the dangers of splitting Christianity and refusing to openly challenge the Catholic Church.  Luther would have nothing more to do with Erasmus, and ignored him as a half-hearted Christian, too caught up in the worldly church to stand for the pure truth on which the reformers held a monopoly. 
     Attacked by people on both sides of virtually every argument, Erasmus did not seem to be able to decide where to stand... at least that is the way his accusers saw it.  While Catholics and Protestants alike polarized over the issues they saw as important, in the background a 'still, small voice' could be heard quietly saying, "Philosophia Christi" (Christ’s Philosophy).  Is it possible, that in the middle of all of these theological debates, with each side refusing to budge on even the smallest issue for fear of losing the basis for their 'system' of theology, that a new system had begun to emerge, based not on intellectual, doctrinal precepts, but on the character of Christ (you remember Him, the one all these debaters claim to be trying to follow).  But alas I have tipped my hand to my personal views, and must restrain myself to conveying only what Erasmus himself has shown to be his true intentions. 
     In the first part of this essay, I plan to show that Erasmus' spirituality has three major sources, namely: the Devotio Moderna, Renaissance Humanism, and his personality.  A fourth and most important source is of course love for God, but being at the same time such a simple thing as a personal goal and such a complex thing as the sum of all Erasmus' writings, his devotion to God is best expressed by Erasmus himself when he spoke of a pious life as being "that true and perfect kind of friendship which consists in dying with Christ, living with Christ, and forming one body and one soul with Christ." (CWE, 2:103)  This devotion, permeating the three sources mentioned above, is the essence of the Philosophia Christi.  This is Erasmus' personal spirituality, and as it is formed, it naturally finds expression both in his writings, especially the Enchiridion, and in his relationships, of which Luther will be my example of choice.  These two outlets, through which I feel Erasmus' Philosophia Christi finds its clearest expression, will be the subjects of the last half of my essay. 
     Erasmus' early relationship with the Devotio Moderna is not exactly clear (The Devotio Moderna was a movement connected to the “Brethren of the Common Life” which was an Augustinian monastic order which stressed piety and spiritual connection with Christ).  This is not surprising in light of the fact that various accounts about his early life, including his own, do not agree with each other.  The main point of dispute is his date of birth.  This seems trivial, but becomes important later on due to the question of the legitimacy of his birth, and the question of his age upon entering the Augustinian Monastery.  He was born in the mid to late 1460's, and around 1478 was sent to Deventer to attend school.  He stayed in a Hostel run by the Brethren of the Common Life, and one of the members taught at the school he was attending.  Before he left in 1484 because of the Plague, he came in contact with Alexander Hegius who became headmaster of the Deventer school, which would later become known for its humanistic education.  About this time, both his parents were killed by the Plague, and Erasmus and his brother were sent to another school in 's-Hertogenbosch.  Here, too, he stayed with the Brethren.  It must be known that later in life, Erasmus did not have the greatest admiration for the Brethren.  Probably in reaction to his own experience, Erasmus would later describe the Brethren as a group whose "chief purpose, if they see a boy whose intelligence is better bred and more active than ordinary, as able and gifted boys often are, is to break their spirit and depress them with corporal punishments, threats, and recriminations, and various other devices-taming him, they call it- until they make him fit for the Monastic life." (McConica, p.7)  After two years with them, he went on to join the Augustinian order.  It is apparent that during Erasmus' time with the Brethren, he was deeply affected by their piety, and would later, as a monk, write a defense of monasticism entitled "On the Contempt of the World."  For various reasons, however, Erasmus would quickly long for the outside world, and when the opportunity came, he left the monastery. 
     More than just borrowing a title for a book, the extent to which the Devotion Moderna influenced Erasmus can be seen in the similarities between Kempis' and Erasmus' philosophies.  Take, for instance, their attitude toward learning.  In the Imitation of Christ, Kempis said, "Well-ordered learning is not to be belittled, for it is good and comes from God, but a clean conscience and a virtuous life are much better and more desired."  Almost like a commentary expounding on a verse, Erasmus says in the Enchiridion, 

If you are interested in learning, certainly this is a fine quality, provided you turn your knowledge to Christ.  If, on the other hand, you love letters only for the sake of knowledge, you have not gone far enough... Let your study bring you to a clearer perception of Christ so that your love for Him will increase and you will in turn be able to communicate this knowledge of Him to others. 

This is seen throughout Erasmus' life as he always places learning in subordination to devotion to Christ, making the latter the only reason for the former. 
     In a similar way, the focus on the priority of interior devotion over outward actions is a parallel theme for the two authors.  Erasmus gives numerous examples in the Enchiridion, constantly emphasizing that the outward act is meaningless without the heart's involvement.  "You observe fasts and abstain from things that do not defile a man, and you do not refrain from obscene speech which defiles both your own and another's conscience." (Rummel, p.152)  Kempis echoes this as he says, "If we place the end and perfection of our religion in outward observances, our devotion will soon be ended."  It is interesting to note that these ideas do not necessarily invalidate the acts themselves, but shows that the point of the actions is in the interior life of the individual. 
     These kinds of ideas are seen throughout Erasmus' works.  One other parallel that will be seen later in the discussion of the Enchiridion is the constant exhortation away from the visible world toward the invisible or spiritual reality.  Whether or not Erasmus draws actual doctrinal ideas from the Devotio Moderna, suffice it to say that Erasmus does catch on to the attitude and spirit of their teachings. 
     In terms of personal beliefs, Erasmus' strongest influence was the European Renaissance Humanism, which is virtually synonymous with his name.  Erasmus never seemed to actually form a system of doctrine as the scholastics had done, and Luther and Calvin were later to do.  Instead, Erasmus had a method, thoroughly Renaissance in style, by which to study and understand the scriptures.  Many times this leaves apparent contradictions, but Erasmus would openly admit to believing God did not intend for us to understand all things fully and without ambiguity.  The roots of this come from Erasmus’ Humanist education. 
     True to his Renaissance roots (intellectually speaking) Erasmus affirmed the value of the classics insofar as they could be used in subjection to the philosophy of Christ.  Erasmus used references to Plato's allegory of the cave as a call for people to seek the true reality of the spirit by realizing the shadowy transience of this present world.  In reaction to the virtue espoused by the classics, Erasmus spoke of some Christians as "so removed... from the perfection of Christ that they do not even possess the common virtues that the pagans acquire either through natural reason or the experiences of life or the precepts of philosophers." (Rummel, p.148)  In all of this, Erasmus intended to take the "spoils of the Egyptians" and to adorn the temple of the Lord with them.  For this reason, Erasmus translated works of Euripides into Latin.  "In the preface he explains that he has undertaken this translation as a first venture, to try his hand on something difficult, but belonging to profane literature, as a preparation to translating the text of Scripture.  At least, he though, if mistakes crept in, they would not be insults to Holy Writ." (Mann Phillips, p.54) 
     A concentration on classical writers for a Christian would naturally lead to an interest in the church fathers who were seen as closer to the events of the New Testament than modern man.  Erasmus said "They [the Church Fathers] will lead you to an inner penetration of the word of God, to an understanding of the spiritual worth it contains." (DeMolen, p.47)   In his search for understanding, and encountering the philosophy of Christ, Erasmus recognized a need for the original languages of both the fathers and scripture.  Erasmus' wish was, "that the simplicity and purity of Christ could penetrate deeply into the minds of men; and this I think can best be brought to pass if with the help provided by the three languages we exercise our minds in the actual sources." (DeMolen, p.71)  This all shows how Christian Humanism was very important in guiding Erasmus' methods in study and life. 
     The influence of Erasmus' personality on his spiritual life is a tricky subject.  Not only am I not a psychoanalyst, but also I am very wary of using personality as a means of filtering a persons words.  With this in mind, I must also say that in this paper, "personality" is not just the specific quirks that make us individuals, but also those habits that have been developed, by which others describe us.  Of the psychological aspect of Erasmus I only want to point out two things:  First, that it is generally accepted (in the sources I read) that Erasmus was a deeply emotional person, which can be especially seen in his early letters.  Also notable is that he disliked conflict, for in his treatise On The Freedom of the Will, de describes himself as having an "inner temperamental horror of fighting."  As speculative as this can be, I feel that more important than this are his habits by which he was recognized. 
     In most everything he was involved in, Erasmus was cautious about jumping to conclusions.  This is one of the primary sources of strong attacks from both Catholics and Protestants.  Even so, he stood his ground, refusing to "break a bruised reed" by condemning Luther.  Biblical quotes used by Erasmus quite often focus on the aspects of Christianity which pertain to character traits.  He apparently lived what he was preaching as John Watson witnesses in a letter to Erasmus, "Your fame is spread throughout all the Christian world; but... nothing strikes me so much as the modesty with which you are ready to take the lowest place, while the general suffrage sets you in the highest." (Mann Phillips, p.90)  Erasmus expresses the philosophy of Christ in a letter to Cardinal Wolsey in 1517: "I have taken every precaution, that nothing should proceed from me, which would either corrupt the young by obscenity, or in any way hinder piety, give rise to sedition, or draw a black line across any one's character." (DeMolen, p.100) 
     As I said before, the connecting link between the Devotio Moderna, Renaissance Humanism, and Erasmus' personality is a devotion for God.  As this all flows into the Philosophia Christi, Erasmus puts it all into perspective when he says, "May I lose the favour of Christ, if I do not desire whatever I have of talent or of eloquence should be wholly dedicated to His glory, to the Catholic Church, and to sacred studies." (DeMolen, p.100)  If this was his goal, how was it worked out in his life?  We can find out by looking at the major themes of Erasmus' writings, focusing on the Enchiridion, and at his relationship with the reformer Martin Luther. 
     The Enchiridion is the main expression of the Philosophia Christi from Erasmus. Its focus is the personal spiritual life of individuals.  In the dedicatory letter, Erasmus shows the connection of humanism and personal piety in his life. 

I shall try to cause certain malicious critics, who think it the height if piety to be ignorant of sound learning, to realize that, when in my youth I embraced the finer literature of the ancients and acquired... a reasonable knowledge of Greek as well as the Latin language, I did not aim at vain glory or childish self-gratification, but had long ago determined to adorn the Lord's temple, badly desecrated as it has been by the ignorance and barbarism of some, with treasures from other realms, as far as in me lay; treasures that could, moreover, inspire even men of superior intellect to love the Scriptures.  But putting aside this vast enterprise for just a few days, I have taken upon myself the task of pointing out to you, as with my finger, a short way to Christ." 

The entire book is "an eloquent and impassioned plea for a return to the realization of the inwardness of the spiritual life." (Mann Phillips, p.50)  This focus strongly follows a biblical dualism between flesh and spirit.  "Be so convinced of the existence of invisible things that those things that are seen become but mere shadows, which present to the eye only a faint image of invisible realities." (Rummel, p.142)  This is great, but on a practical level, many Christians miss this because they focus on the outward acts too much. 

"You say: 'I am not a whore-monger, not a thief, not guilty of sacrilege, and I observe what I have professed.'  What does this recall but those words: 'I am not like other men, robbers, and adulterers, and I fast twice a week'?"  “You were baptized, but do not think that ipso facto you became a Christian.  Your whole mentality still smacks exclusively of the world; outwardly you are a Christian, but in private you are more pagan than the pagans. Why is that so?  Because you possess the body of the sacrament, but you are devoid of its spirit." 

Actions, therefore, are subject to the inward, spiritual life, and it is only this interior piety, which is the evidence of the true Christian. 
     In the same way, Erasmus subjects the intellect to the authority of the personal, spiritual life.  For "the body may be covered with a monk's cowl, but what good is that if the mind wears a worldly garb?" (Rummel, p.152)  What is thought is important, and it is Erasmus' advice that "you should never study anything, which does not nourish the soul, for the fruits of study are the strengthening of the soul and the acquisition of virtues." (DeMolen, p.50)  The underlying assumption throughout the Enchiridion is that by this knowledge, we can experience God more fully.  Thought then, rightly devoted to God, is an act of worship.  For "He [God] is mind, the purest and the simplest of minds.  Therefore he must be worshipped above all with a pure mind." (Rummel, p.151)   This pure mind for Erasmus is not ignorant about secular though or philosophy but is wholly subject to the philosophy of Christ. 
     It is this subjection of the mind to the Philosophia Christi, in a way very characteristic of Renaissance education, which gives Erasmus such a big problem with Martin Luther.  Luther would agree that the mind was subject to Christ, but to him this meant certainty on doctrinal questions.   Luther had an organizing principle of his own, a central point from which a totally non-scholastic but nevertheless systematic theology developed.  For Erasmus, however, who was using a philological approach, some things just can't be said for sure.  His Humanism would not allow him to overlook the glaring inconsistencies of most any systematic approach to God. 
     The differing views on the Holy Spirit held by these men serve well to illustrate this difference.  Luther held the view that "through the Holy Spirit or the particular gift of God, each man is enlightened so that he can judge in complete certainty in what concerns himself and his own personal salvation, and decide between the doctrines and opinions of all men." (McConica, p.78)  This loudly echoes Kempis in the Imitation of Christ: "I [Christ] am the One who teaches men knowledge, and I impart to little ones a clearer knowledge than can be taught by man... I in a moment can lift up the humble mind, and make it enter more deeply into the principles of Eternal Truth than if one had studied ten years in the schools." (Mann Phillips, p.9) This is directly opposed to the communal view held by Erasmus.  McConica summarizes Erasmus' view in this way: "Through the common agreement of men at once learned and pure of life we have the only assurance we can have that we are reading correctly the luminous text of the Holy Spirit at work among men, which is the mind of the Church." (McConica, p. 78)  In his discourse on the freedom of the will, Erasmus addresses this problem.  "I confess that it is right that the sole authority of Holy Scripture should outweigh all the votes of all mortal men.  But the authority of the Scripture is not here in dispute.  The same Scriptures are acknowledged and venerated by either side.  Our battle is about the meaning of Scripture." (Luther and Erasmus, p.43)  It was not the question of whether or not scripture was right, but what that scripture said.  Luther believed that we could know for sure in this case (as in most, if not all), but Erasmus believed that in many cases Scripture just was not as explicit as Luther claimed.  For "Luther attributes very little importance to scholarship, and most of all to the Spirit." (Luther and Erasmus, p.37) 
     Just as it appears above that Erasmus' humanist spirituality couldn't agree with Luther in dogmatics, so too was Erasmus' Personality and Devotio Moderna influences at odds with Luther's fiery personality and his stronger emphasis on theological issues than on moral and character issues.  While Luther's attitude was 'if you are not for us, you are against us,' "Erasmus would have looked on Luther's views as he would a striking manuscript variant: interesting and possibly significant, but needing the critical reflection of the devout, informed, and learned consensus before its true merit could be appraised." (McConica, p.80)  Erasmus' concern for Luther's affect on the well being of humanist education and the Church, which is the glory of God, can be heard in Erasmus' own words: 

Luther is piling on both liberal studies and myself a massive load of unpopularity.  Everyone knew that the church was burdened with tyranny and ceremonies and laws invented by men for their own profit. Many were already hoping for some remedy and even planning something... Oh, if that man had either left things alone, or made his attempt more cautiously and in moderation!  Luther means nothing to me; it is Christ's glory that I have at heart; for I see some people girding themselves for the fray to such a tune that, if they win, there will be nothing left but to write the obituary of gospel teaching." 

Luther was a little more forceful when after Erasmus' death he was known to say that Erasmus died without God and without hope. 
     A great humanist of the Northern Renaissance, Erasmus was also influenced by the piety and personal devotion of the Devotio Moderna, and his own non-combative personality.  He did not have a theological system by which to organize all doctrinal assertions, but instead focused on the "mosaic" of scripture, which doesn't always make sense unless viewed as a whole, at which point Erasmus would say one could find an overall philosophy of Christ.  Using all his learning and experience, Erasmus sums up this main idea of his Philosophia Christi as: "to correct the erring gently, teach the ignorant, lift up the fallen, console the downhearted, aid the struggler, support the needy, in a word, devote all your resources, all your zeal, all your care to the one end, that you benefit as many as you can in Christ." (Erasmus Reader, p.150) 

    DeMolen, R L. The Spirituality of Erasmus. De Graaf, 1987. 
    Erasmus:  The Collected Works of Erasmus (CWE). University of Toronto Press. 1974-. 
    Luther and Erasmus: Free will and Salvation. Library of Christian Classics: Ichthus Edition. Westminster Press. 1969. 
    Mann Phillips, Margaret. Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance. English Universities Press. 1949. 
    McConica, James. Erasmus. Past Masters Series. Oxford Press. 1991. 
    Rummel, Erika. The Erasmus Reader. Toronto Press. 1990. 

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