Erasmus: The Christian Scholar’s Scholar

Erasmus by Holbein the Younger
1523 portrait of Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536) by Hans Holbein the Younger – Wikimedia

You generally see the birthdate for the great Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus given as October 27, 1466, but both the day and year are a bit uncertain. So since I don’t blog on Sundays, I’ll take advantage of the confusion and celebrate the second date suggested, October 28th. To be honest, I’d need a lot less excuse than that to write about Erasmus…

In Bethel’s foundational Christianity and Western Culture course (CWC), we often frame our task as enlarging students’ “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) through historical study. If you were to ask the faculty of the course (past and present) whom CWC had added to their cloud of witnesses, my guess is that Erasmus would be the most common answer. Even as evangelical Protestants, we tend to admire this Catholic reformer not least for his concern that the reformation of the Church not lead to violent schism. (As always, this seems especially timely during the week of Reformation Sunday.) When I lecture on Erasmus in CWC, I invariably quote his December 1524 letter to the brilliant young evangelical theologian Philipp Melanchthon:

I am no judge of other men’s consciences or master of other men’s beliefs. There are actors enough on the stage, and none can say how all will end. I do not object generally to the evangelical doctrines, but there is much in Luther’s teaching, which I dislike…. The violent party carries all before it…. I would have had religion purified without destroying authority. Licence need not be given to sin. Practices grown corrupt by long usage might be gradually corrected without throwing everything into confusion. Luther sees certain things to be wrong, and in flying blindly at them causes more harm than he cures. Order human things as you will, there will still be faults enough, and there are remedies worse than the disease.

I also appreciate Erasmus’ commitment to Christian ethics within the political realm. I wish we did more in CWC with the contrast between his contemporary Machiavelli’s advice to The Prince and Erasmus’ own Education of a Christian Prince. (I blogged about the latter work last November, for Election Day, and also a few months earlier, in response to a David Brooks’ column on leadership.)

But I’ve also come to admire Erasmus as a kind of patron saint of Christian scholarship. When I applied for promotion last year and wrote an essay on my vocation as a Christian historian, I held up Erasmus as a model of a Christian scholarship that predated modern conventions about disciplinarity, professionalism, and Wissenschaft. First, he moved comfortably not just between disciplines, but audiences, effectively modeling what historian Tracy McKenzie has called the Christian scholar’s “dual vocation” to Church and Academy. Second, Erasmus regarded teaching as an integral component of that calling, not merely a necessary evil that permits the “true” work of producing knowledge. (See this essay on Erasmus as “The Educator’s Educator.”)

Erasmus' hands by Holbein
Sketch of Erasmus’ hands by Holbein the Younger – Wikimedia

And with all due respect to Jerome, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and the others who could well claim to be the Christian scholar’s scholar, Erasmus seems to best exemplify the unique blend of faithful piety and thoughtful curiosity — at once zealous and humble, clever and simple — that ought to characterize those seeking to love God with their heart, soul, and mind.

When I teach CWC, I tell students that they’ll probably never again read most of the primary sources in their reader. But I encourage them to find a reason to revisit Erasmus’ Weapon [or Handbook] of a Christian Warrior (1503; we use a 1533 translation paraphrased by our former colleague Neil Lettinga). Exhorting his reader not to be fooled by the illusion of late medieval Christendom into living “as though our lives were a party and not a war,” Erasmus reminds us “that you were consecrated by God at your baptism, and agreed to be a faithful soldier to Christ your captain, to whom you owe your life twice over.” To serve in this “army,” we are told to arm ourselves with two weapons: prayer and knowledge.

Here we tend to focus on his conviction that while “there is no enemy attack, no temptation so great that fervent study of the holy scripture cannot turn it away,” knowledge can also be found in pre-Christian poetry (he makes multiple allusions to Homer in the work) and philosophy (“I would suggest the Platonists” as coming “close to the patterns of the prophets and the Gospels”). We ask students to consider Erasmus’ argument that such knowledge helps to “sharpen your mind” for proper reading of Scripture.

But this past week I was more struck to read again Erasmus’ description of the relationship between such knowledge and prayer, one of the core disciplines of the “Modern Devotion” that so shaped him as a young man:

Paul wants us to be armed at all times when he tells us to pray continually. Pure and perfect prayer lifts us up to heaven, and builds a tower beyond the enemy’s reach. Learning, or knowledge arms the mind with sound ideas and honest opinions. The two depend on each other, and stick together like best friends, each needing the help of the other. The one intercedes while the other shows us what to pray for. Learning and sound doctrine teach you how to pray in the name of Jesus; to desire what is good for your soul. Didn’t Christ say to the sons of Zebedee, “You don’t know what you are asking”? Sound teaching is necessary so that you can talk to God on familiar terms, the best kind of prayer.

In practical terms, I take this as an encouragement to start class with prayer — if only to “lift us up to heaven” for a moment before we study what has happened down here in finite time and space. But sometimes I strive to better integrate prayer and knowledge. For example, last Friday I mentioned this passage at the conclusion of our discussion in HIS354 Modern Europe of John Merriman’s The Dynamite Club, an account of a young French anarchist named Emile Henry who threw a bomb into a crowded Paris café in 1894. (blogged about here) I suggested that, as a way to reinforce Merriman’s attempt to “get inside the mind of a bomber,” we might draw on the deep Christian tradition of praying for our enemies. (Start with Jesus’ words in Luke 6:28b and 23:34a, plus Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:60; continue on with Erasmus’ friend Thomas More praying for those about to behead him.)

Even more ambitiously, I wonder how we might rethink the entire project of Christian scholarship and higher education if we were to take seriously the idea that we aren’t seeking knowledge for its own sake, but to teach people how to pray — defined by Erasmus as “the fervent desires of your heart beating on the ear of God.”

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