Recent Sermon

Erasmus of Rotterdam: Towards the Protestant Reformation

I would like to begin this address with what may seem like a digression, namely a reference back to my school days in Sheffield in the 1960s. I attended a rather traditional boys' grammar school, King Edward VII School, where academic performance and achievement was everything. Somehow I survived four years of doing Latin, though on occasions it was a struggle. With hindsight, of course, some knowledge of Latin has been useful in helping to understand the origins of many of our English words and phrases, as so many derive from the classical languages. We took O Levels at the end of the fourth year at King Edwards, before moving on to A level courses. The headmaster at the time, Mr Clapton, was also rather traditional in his views. He didn't trust his pupils to have too much free time, even when they were studying for A levels, and so at the start of the fifth year he arranged for all the boys to do additional subjects to use up their free periods. One year I had to do Russian, and was amused to learn that the word 'Pravda' (which was the name of the Communist party newspaper at the time) meant 'truth'. Another year I was assigned to take a course in something called 'General Classics', and this proved rather more congenial than my four years of Latin. We read some of the Greek classical plays, including the trilogy by Sophocles about King Oedipus, but we read them in English which was a real bonus. We also studied some texts in Latin by an early 16th century writer called Erasmus, of whom I had almost certainly not heard until that point. After more than fifty years I cannot remember now which particular book by him we read, but I do remember that his Latin was rather more accessible and understandable than, for example, that of Julius Caesar's account of his Gallic Wars.

As a footnote to these reminiscences (and it's rather frightening how much I can still remember about my school days so long ago, in fact I recall rather more than I can remember about what happened last week), I left King Edwards in 1965 to go on to university in Norwich and Mr Clapton the headmaster retired the following year. In 1969 this very traditional grammar school in Sheffield became a comprehensive, and a few years after that it went co-educational. Comprehensive and co-educational. I have to tell you that when I listen carefully I can still hear my old headmaster turning in his grave.

Over the years I have come across Erasmus's name from time to time, and I was pleased to find the piece which formed our second reading in the Times newspaper just over a year ago, in February 2016. Martin Luther's name is of course still very well known today, but that of Erasmus much less so, even though his New Testament edition in Greek and Latin, published in 1516, was truly pioneering and had much influence on later scholars and theologians, including Luther. So it was good to read that the city of Basle in Switzerland was marking this five hundred year anniversary last year in various ways. Erasmus had died in Basle in 1536, and is buried in the cathedral there. Also some of his books had been published there. Incidentally I am told that there is a museum devoted to the life and work of Erasmus on the outskirts of Brussels, in a house in which he lived. I must put it on my visiting list (that is if we Brits will be allowed near Brussels in the future!).

Erasmus was born in Rotterdam about 1466 but his parents were almost certainly not married, and it seems that his father later became a priest. Nevertheless Erasmus was given a good education in a series of monastic schools and he entered an Augustinian monastery near Gouda in Holland in 1487. He was ordained to the Catholic priesthood at about the age of 25 but never seems to have worked as a parish priest. Instead he was offered the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cambrai in France, on account of his great skill in Latin and his reputation already as a man of letters. He was given a temporary dispensation from his monastic vows, which Pope Leo X later made permanent, a considerable privilege at the time. Later he studied and taught in both Paris and at Turin in Italy. After 1499 he adopted the life of an independent scholar, moving from city to city, tutoring, lecturing and corresponding with thinkers all over Europe. He made every effort to avoid any formal ties that might inhibit his freedom of intellect and literary expression. He visited and lived in England at least twice, firstly in 1499 when he was in Oxford, and then from 1509-14 when he was Professor of Divinity and Greek at Cambridge University. During his time in England he met most of the leading theologians and scholars of the day, including John Colet who became Dean of St Paul's, and Sir Thomas More who, much later, became Henry VIII's Chancellor and who of course lost his head because he wouldn't support Henry's break with the church in Rome.

Perhaps I may be allowed my second small digression here, and that is to wonder how scholars and other individuals like Erasmus managed to visit so many countries and cities in Europe when travel at that time must have been so difficult, not to say dangerous. Did he travel on horseback, or perhaps a mule? He was not a wealthy man, so probably didn't have servants. The roads were no doubt poor, always with the possibility of robbers, and crossing the sea to England must have been a major undertaking in itself. By way of contrast, it is often said that up to the 18th century many inhabitants of a typical English village would not have have travelled further than the nearest market town during their whole lives.

But returning to our theme, Erasmus began writing around 1500, on both theological and secular subjects. All his works display great learning and intellectual ability, but also his humanity and wit. His first work seems to have been the Adagia, or Adages, which is an annotated collection of Greek and Latin proverbs, first published in Paris with about 800 entries. These include phrases such as 'No sooner said than done', 'To call a spade a spade' and 'More haste, less speed'. Within a few years this had expanded to 3000 items, and further enlarged editions were produced during his lifetime. One of his most famous works is his In Praise of Folly, dating from 1509. This was written while Erasmus was staying with his friend Thomas More in England, and the Latinised Greek title of Moriae Encomium is said to be a play on More's name ( meaning also 'In Praise of More'). The work is a satirical attack on the traditions of the Catholic church and on popular superstitions. It is considered one of the most notable works of the Renaissance and played an important role in the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. But Erasmus's most influential work of scholarship must be his Greek New Testament, published in 1516. In fact it was a bilingual edition giving both Greek and revised Latin texts. The standard version of the Latin Bible in use at that time was called the Vulgate, dating from the 4th century. Erasmus's translations suggested that the Latin Vulgate had serious flaws in places. Erasmus's new edition was used by Martin Luther for his German version of 1522, and by William Tyndale for his English translation of 1525, which itself provided much of the basis for the King James authorised version of 1611 with which we are still so familiar today. The first two editions of Erasmus's work sold over 3000 copies, and it is estimated that by the 1530s his writings accounted for between 10 and 20 per cent of all book sales, a remarkable achievement. Such was his influence and renown at the time.

Although Erasmus was strongly critical of the pedantries and abuses of the church of Rome, and had some sympathy with the reforming instincts of the Protestants, he himself remained a Catholic and he wished to reform the church from within. Later this year we will probably hear quite a lot more about Martin Luther as we approach the 500th anniversary of his nailing of those 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg in October 1517, but I wanted to put in a word for Erasmus of Rotterdam, who must surely be one of the unsung heroes of the Christian story in Europe today.

Howard Hague
19 August 2017 (for Belper)