Aolib.comFragment of Photochrom print of the front of Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany (ca. 1897)

Erasmus and the Age of Reformation »

By Johan Huizinga

Was, then, Erasmus’s cause in all respects inferior? Was Luther right at the core? Perhaps. Dr. Murray rightly reminds us of Hegel’s saying that tragedy is not the conflict between right and wrong, but the conflict between right and right. The combat of Luther and Erasmus proceeded beyond the point at which our judgement is forced to halt and has to accept an equivalence, nay, a compatibility of affirmation and negation. And this fact, that they here were fighting with words and metaphors in a sphere beyond that of what may be known and expressed, was understood by Erasmus. Erasmus, the man of the fine shades, for whom ideas eternally blended into each other and interchanged, called a Proteus by Luther; Luther the man of over—emphatic expression about all matters. The Dutchman, who sees the sea, was opposed to the German, who looks out on mountain tops.

’This is quite true that we cannot speak of God but with inadequate words.’ ’Many problems should be deferred, not to the oecumenical Council, but till the time when, the glass and the darkness having been taken away, we shall see God face to face.’ ’What is free of error?’ ’There are in sacred literature certain sanctuaries into which God has not willed that we should penetrate further.’

The Catholic Church had on the point of free will reserved to itself some slight proviso, left a little elbow—room to the consciousness of human liberty under grace. Erasmus conceived that liberty in a considerably broader spirit. Luther absolutely denied it. The opinion of contemporaries was at first too much dominated by their participation in the great struggle as such: they applauded Erasmus, because he struck boldly at Luther, or the other way about, according to their sympathies. Not only Vives applauded Erasmus, but also more orthodox Catholics such as Sadolet. The German humanists, unwilling, for the most part, to break with the ancient Church, were moved by Erasmus’s attack to turn their backs still more upon Luther: Mutianus, Zasius, and Pirckheimer. Even Melanchthon inclined to Erasmus’s standpoint. Others, like Capito, once a zealous supporter, now washed their hands of him. Soon Calvin with the iron cogency of his argument was completely to take Luther’s side.

It is worth while to quote the opinion of a contemporary Catholic scholar about the relations of Erasmus and Luther. ’Erasmus,’ says F. X. Kiefl,[19] ’with his concept of free, unspoiled human nature was intrinsically much more foreign to the Church than Luther. He only combated it, however, with haughty scepticism: for which reason Luther with subtle psychology upbraided him for liking to speak of the shortcomings and the misery of the Church of Christ in such a way that his readers could not help laughing, instead of bringing his charges, with deep sighs, as beseemed before God.’

The Hyperaspistes, a voluminous treatise in which Erasmus again addressed Luther, was nothing but an epilogue, which need not be discussed here at length.

Erasmus had thus, at last, openly taken sides. For, apart from the dogmatical point at issue itself, the most important part about De libero arbitrio was that in it he had expressly turned against the individual religious conceptions and had spoken in favour of the authority and tradition of the Church. He always regarded himself as a Catholic. ’Neither death nor life shall draw me from the communion of the Catholic Church,’ he writes in 1522, and in the Hyperaspistes in 1526: ’I have never been an apostate from the Catholic Church. I know that in this Church, which you call the Papist Church, there are many who displease me, but such I also see in your Church. One bears more easily the evils to which one is accustomed. Therefore I bear with this Church, until I shall see a better, and it cannot help bearing with me, until I shall myself be better. And he does not sail badly who steers a middle course between two several evils.’

But was it possible to keep to that course? On either side people turned away from him. ’I who, formerly, in countless letters was addressed as thrice great hero, Prince of letters, Sun of studies, Maintainer of true theology, am now ignored, or represented in quite different colours,’ he writes. How many of his old friends and congenial spirits had already gone!

A sufficient number remained, however, who thought and hoped as Erasmus did. His untiring pen still continued to propagate, especially by means of his letters, the moderating and purifying influence of his mind throughout all the countries of Europe. Scholars, high church dignitaries, nobles, students, and civil magistrates were his correspondents. The Bishop of Basle himself, Christopher of Utenheim, was a man after Erasmus’s heart. A zealous advocate of humanism, he had attempted, as early as 1503, to reform the clergy of his bishopric by means of synodal statutes, without much success; afterwards he had called scholars like Oecolampadius, Capito and Wimpfeling to Basle. That was before the great struggle began, which was soon to carry away Oecolampadius and Capito much further than the Bishop of Basle or Erasmus approved. In 1522 Erasmus addressed the bishop in a treatise De interdicto esu carnium (On the Prohibition of eating Meat). This was one of the last occasions on which he directly opposed the established order.

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