|Erasmus' Philosophia Christi
Author: Jeff Wheatley
© 2000-2001 Erasmus
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
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
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)
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DeMolen, R L. The Spirituality of Erasmus. De Graaf,
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
Rummel, Erika. The Erasmus Reader. Toronto Press.