Erasmus on Reform and the Philosophy of Christ

Erasmus of Rotterdam

Erasmus of Rotterdam

Erasmus of Rotterdam was the superstar academic of his era. Writing in a witty and generally well-received manner, he propagated the message of Classical Humanism throughout Europe, including calls to ad fontes (back to the sources) humanism and Church reform. This essay focuses on the Erasmian concepts of the Philosophy of Christ and the reform of the Church found in Sileni Alcibiadis (1515) and Paraclesis (preface to the Novem Testamentum, 1516). Evident throughout both of these works is that Erasmus believes adherence to the Philosophy of Christ will cultivate better Christians who are willing to reform the Church in accordance with the roots of faith in Christ.

Beginning Sileni Alcibiadis Erasmus compares several historical “sileni,” figures that outwardly were unimpressive or ugly but were in reality deities or important characters, with the late medieval Church. Taking note especially of Christ’s humble, unassuming, and servile character and life, Erasmus contrasts the extravagant, expensive, and warring Church of Rome with the character and life of true Christians. The Church has forsaken the “sileni” nature and character of Christ and has pursued the “worldly” pleasure of wealth, power, prestige, and land. Rome has forsaken the “pearl” of the message of Christ in favor of the gold and the riches of Old Imperial Rome. Forsaking inner values that are in accordance with the Gospel, the Church has turned to gold and political power. Those who claim to represent the Apostles do not live in the manner that the Apostles lived, nor do the things the Apostles do.[1] Clearly from Erasmus’ perspective the Church was in need of a reform movement. His suggestions for reformation are in line with his general Classical Humanist program, in that he desires that the Church return to her roots in Christ, the Gospel, and the writings of Holy Scripture. Erasmus’ most enduring work, the 1516 Novem Testamentum edition of the Greek New Testament that was the foundation for numerous subsequent translations of the New Testament, represents an integral part of his program of reform, as he desired that the Church return to the basics of the faith.

Erasmus indicates that for proper reform the Church must return to its “sileni” roots in Christ and the truth of the Gospel. On this point he is characteristically ambiguous, as he neither opens the door on doctrinal modification nor closes it, though given the integrated nature of dogma and polity in Erasmus’ day, nearly any form of modification would seem to necessitate doctrinal revision. Erasmus’ most empathetic critiques seem to focus on organization and hierarchical reform, as he calls for a cultivation of Christian knowledge instead of greed, for the Church to give up many of their claims to political power and accept a limited “state” influence, and for Church hierarchy to serve and not be served. Additionally, Erasmus calls for a rethinking of “just war” theory, which while not surprising coming from a pacifist, demonstrates the lengths to which Erasmus was willing to rethink “doctrine,” even concepts as ancient as St. Augustine.

Erasmus also calls for modifications to the life of the Christian at the common level, though again here he speaks with some ambiguity, imploring the common Christian to live in manner that Christ taught, becoming servants of the world, and calling for a “joint confession” with the whole Church begging for God’s forgiveness. By such calls for “popular” reform, Erasmus seems to acknowledge that Church reform was needed not only on the official ecclesiastical level, but amongst the common Christian as well, perhaps even including a form of “revival” call (though he almost certainly would not have called it that, especially with today’s implicit understandings). Thus it seems important to note that while Erasmus’ chief suggestions and calls for reform entailed the modification of official Church hierarchy and power structures, his reforming ideals also allowed for doctrinal reconsideration and changes in popular forms of Christian religion in the medieval context.

[1]Reading Erasmus’ critique of Rome, I am reminded of a later Roman Catholic’s critique, that of G.K. Chesterton, when he noted that the Pope, following in Peter’s footsteps, can no longer say that “Gold and silver I have none”, but neither can he say “stand up and walk,” referencing Peter and John’s healing of the crippled man in Acts 3.
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