Erasmus Holbein, 1523

The Following is adapted from: The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. Cross, Livingstone; (OUP, 1983).

ERASMUS, Desiderius (1466–1536), ‘Roterodammensis’ or ‘Roterodamus’, humanist. There has been debate about the date of his birth. He was probably the (illegitimate) son of Rogerius Gerardus. Christened ‘Herasmus’; he took in adult life the name of ‘Desiderius’ as a Latinized form of ‘Erasmus’, itself a supposed Greek equivalent of his baptismal name. He went to school first at Gouda and then at Deventer, where the humanist, Alexander Hegius, was one of his masters and where he came under the influence of the ‘Brethren of the Common Life’. Despite considerable reluctance, he became an Augustinian Canon at St Gregory’s, Steyn, nr. Gouda, in 1487, and eagerly began to read the Classics and the Fathers.

     In 1492 he was ordained priest. Finding about this time a protector in Henry of Bergen, Bp. of Cambrai, with the agreement of his superiors he left his monastery. In 1495 he began to study at Paris, residing at first at the College of Montaigu.

    In 1499 he accompanied his pupil, William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy (d. 1534), who afterwards became his patron, to England. At Oxford he was deeply influenced by J. Colet, who encouraged his dislike of Scholasticism and directed him to the study of the NT. Having returned to the Continent in 1500, he went to Paris and Louvain, where he refused a professorship, and instead began a profound study of Greek. After another visit to England, he made his way to Italy, where he received a doctorate in theology at Turin on 4 Sept. 1506. He continued his Greek studies at Bologna and in 1507 got in touch with Aldus Manutius, who published his Latin translation of Euripides. Erasmus joined Aldus’ ‘New Academy’ in Venice, and while there he published the revised version of his Adagia, the Adagiorum chiliades, with which he finally achieved international fame. He visited Rome on three occasions in 1509 and established important friendships with Giovanni de’ Medici (later Leo X), Cardinal Domenico Grimani, and Tomasso Fedra Inghirami, the Librarian of the Vatican. On the accession of Henry VIII (1509), Mountjoy induced him to return to England and Erasmus stayed for a time in T. More’s house, where he wrote his witty Μωρίας Ἐγκώμιον. Drawn to Cambridge by St John Fisher, Erasmus was the first teacher of Greek there, and also lectured in divinity, possibly succeeding Fisher in the newly created Lady Margaret professorship of theology. The promises of financial support which had made Erasmus leave Italy for England never materialized, and in 1514 he left for Basle, where he prepared his translation of the NT for the press of J. Froben. In 1516 he accepted an invitation to Brussels to the court of the future Charles V, who made him a royal councillor. Having been freed from all his obligations to his monastery by a Papal brief in 1517, he resumed his wanderings, but in 1521 made his permanent abode at Basle, in Froben’s house. In order to keep his freedom he refused many brilliant offers, including one from Francis I at Paris, another from the Archduke Ferdinand at Vienna, and a third from Henry VIII to return to England. When, in 1529, the Reformation was introduced at Basle, he fled to Freiburg im Breisgau, where he lived till 1535, continually advocating religious peace. He died at Basle, whither he had gone to supervise the printing of his edition of Origen.

Among Erasmus’ earliest works are the Adagia (1500), a collection of Greek and Latin proverbs, successively enlarged in later editions, and the Enchiridion Militis Christiani (1504), in which he shows the usefulness of scholarship for the formation of the Christian. His well-known Μωρίας Ἐγκώμιον, seu Laus Stultitiae (1509), is a bitter satire on monasticism and the corruptions of the Church and helped to prepare the way for the Reformation. In 1516 appeared his celebrated edition of the Greek NT with his own translation into classical Latin. Though based on insufficient MS material and not without bias, it exercised a profound influence on theological studies and was several times revised during Erasmus’ lifetime, most notably, in 1519. In 1524 he entered the Reformation controversy by his Diatribe de Libero Arbitrio, in which he emphasized the importance of human free-will against M. Luther. Luther replied in his De Servo Arbitrio (1525), which Erasmus answered in its turn by his Hyperaspistes (1526). Next to his Greek NT, his most important work was probably his attempt to put into print reliable texts of the Fathers, among them his favourite St Jerome (9 vols., 1516), St Cyprian (1520), Arnobius (1522) St Hilary (1523), St John Chrysostom (various works at different dates), St Irenaeus (1526), St Ambrose (1527), St Augustine (1528–9), St Basil (1532), and a Latin version of Origen (1536), though in a few of these Erasmus’ own share probably did not go much further than writing the prefaces.

The most renowned scholar of his age, Erasmus was a man of vast if not always deep erudition, of uncommon intellectual powers, but averse to metaphysical speculation, esp. in its medieval and Scholastic forms. Though he had himself paved the way for the Reformation by his merciless satires on the doctrines and institutions of the Church, his scholarly character, which abhorred violence and sought tranquillity, prevented him from joining the Protestants, and threw him back on the tradition of the Church as the safeguard of stability. In the later years of his life he became suspect to both parties. Luther inveighed against him as a sceptic and Epicurean, and on the other side, though the Popes, esp. Leo X, had been favourable to him, the University of Paris censured various writings of his between 1525 and 1542. After his death his writings were forbidden by Paul IV in 1558; this prohibition was partly modified by the Council of Trent, but reimposed in toto by Sixtus V in 1590. Later editions of the Index long continued to forbid certain works and to permit others only if expurgated.

The editio princeps of his Opera Omnia was prepared by his friend and disciple Beatus Rhenanus (9 vols., Basle, 1540–1). Crit. edns. of his Opus epistolarum by P. S. Allen, H. M. Allen, and H. W. Garrod (11 vols., Oxford, 1906–47, + index by B. Flower and E. Rosenbaum, 1958) and of his Opera Omnia by an international committee of scholars (Amsterdam, 1969 ff.; c.30 vols. expected). The edn. of his Opera Omnia by J. LeClerc (10 vols., Leiden, 1703–6) remains standard for ref. to works not contained in the two modern edns. Eng. trs. of his works and letters are being pub., in Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto, 1974 ff.). His valuable prefaces to his editions of the Fathers, the NT, and certain other works have been collected by R. Peters and repr. in facsimile (Menston, Yorks, 1970). His Greek NT text,, and Annotations on the NT are ed. A. J. Brown and P. F. Hovingh in the Opera Omnia, Section VI (2000 ff.). His early impact on England can be studied from E. J. Devereux, Renaissance English Translations of Erasmus: A Bibliography to 1700 (Toronto, etc., 1983).

There is a vast lit. on Erasmus. Major modern studies available in Eng. incl. those of J. Huizinga (Haarlem, 1924; Eng. tr., New York and London, 1924; also with tr. of some letters, London, 1952), R. H. Bainton (New York, 1969; London, 1970), C. Augustijn (Munich, 1986; Eng. tr., 1991), L. E. Halkin (Paris [1987]; Eng. tr., Oxford, 1993). R. J. Schoek (Edinburgh, 1990 and 1993). J.-C. Margolin (Paris [1995] and J. D. Tracy (Berkeley, Calif., etc., 1996); also J. [K.] McConica, Erasmus (Past Masters, Oxford, 1991 [introductory]). M. M. Phillips, Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance (1949; 2nd edn., Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1981). B. Mansfield, Phoenix of His Age: Interpretations of Erasmus c.1550–1750 (Toronto, etc. [1979]); id., Man on his Own: Interpretations of Erasmus c.1750–1920 (ibid. [1992]); id., Erasmus in the Twentieth Century: Interpretations c. 1920–2000 (ibid. [2003]). E.–W. Kohls, Die Theologie des Erasmus (Theologische Zeitschrift, Sonderband 1; 2 vols., Basle, 1966). M. O’R. Boyle, Erasmus on Language and Method in Theology (Toronto, etc. [1977]); J. Chomarat, Grammaire et rhétorique chez Erasme (2 vols., 1981). E. Rummel, Erasmus’ Annotations on the New Testament: From Philologist to Theologian (Toronto, etc. [1986]); id., Erasmus and his Catholic Critics (Bibliotheca Humanistica & Reformatorica, 45; 2 vols., Nieuwkoop, 1989). L. Jardine, Erasmus, Man of Letters: The Construction of Charisma in Print (Princeton, NJ 1993]) A. G. Dickens and W. R. D. Jones, Erasmus the Reformer (1994). M. Hoffmann, Rhetoric and Theology: The Hermeneutic of Erasmus (Toronto, etc. [1994]). C. Augustijn, Erasmus der Humanist als Theologe und Kirchenreformer (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, 59; Leiden, 1996). H. M. Pabel, Conversing with God: Prayer in Erasmus’ Pastoral Writings (Toronto, etc. [1997]). H. Vredeveld, ‘The Ages of Erasmus and the Year of his Birth’, Renaissance Quarterly, 46 (1993), pp. 754–809 Contemporaries of Erasmus, ed. P. G. Bietenholz and T. B. Deutscher (3 vols., Toronto, etc. [1985–7]), contains biogs. of some 1,900 contemporaries mentioned by Erasmus in his works and correspondence. Bibls. of Erasmian studies by J.-C. Margolin: for 1936–49 (Paris, 1969), for 1950–61 (ibid., 1963), and 1962–70 (ibid. and Toronto, 1977). Works after 1970 are recorded in the annual Bibliographie internationale de l’Humanisme et de la Renaissance (Geneva, 1966 ff.) and in Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte. C. Augustijn in TRE 10 (1982), pp. 1–18, s.v., with bibl.

Erastianism. The ascendancy of the State over the Church in ecclesiastical matters, so named from the Swiss theologian, Thomas Erastus (Ger. Lieber or Lüber; 1524–83).

Born at Baden in Switzerland, Erastus studied philosophy and medicine and was appointed professor of medicine at Heidelberg in 1558. When the extreme Calvinists endeavoured to introduce their ‘Holy Discipline’ in the Palatinate, Erastus wrote against them his Explicatio Gravissimae Quaestionis, which, however, was not published until 1589 in London. In Erastus’ view, the civil authorities in a state which professes but one religion have the right and the duty to exercise jurisdiction in all matters whether civil or ecclesiastical, and to punish all offences; and even such purely ecclesiastical sanctions as excommunication are subject to their approval.

The book was translated into English under the title The Nullity of Church Censures in 1659, but its ideas had begun to take root in this country from the end of the 16th cent. Erastian tenets influenced R. Hooker, who defended the supremacy of the secular power in his Ecclesiastical Polity (1594), and they came to the fore in the Westminster Assembly (1643). They were somewhat modified when applied to the modern secularized state as visualized, e.g., by T. Hobbes. In this case the representatives of the state, though themselves professing any or no religion, assert their right to legislate on religious matters concerning the Established Church, e.g., when, in 1928, the revised Prayer Book was rejected by Parliament. In this modified sense the term is now generally understood. See also establishment.

J. N. Figgis, ‘Erastus and Erastianism’, JTS 2 (1901), pp. 66–101. A. Bonnard, Thomas Éraste, 1524–1583, et la discipline ecclésiastique (thesis, Lausanne, 1894); R. Wessel-Roth, Thomas Erastus: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der reformierten Kirche und zur Lehre der Staatssouveränität (Veröffentlichungen des Vereins für Kirchengeschichte in der evang. Landeskirche Badens, 15; 1954). J. N. Figgis in DECH, pp. 206 f., s.v.


TRE Theologische Realenzyklopädie, ed. G. Krause, G. Müller, and others (Berlin etc., 1977 ff.).

JTS Journal of Theological Studies (London, 1900–5; Oxford, 1906–49; NS, ibid., 1950 ff.).

DECH Dictionary of English Church History, ed. S. L. Ollard and G. Crosse (1912).


DESIDERIUS ERASMUS was born out of wedlock in Rotterdam, or Gouda, probably in 1466. The school in Deventer awakened his love of letters. His poverty drove him into an Augustinian monastery in Steyn, but he had no taste for the monastic life, nor for that of the priesthood, to which he was ordained in 1492. By 1495 he was studying in Paris.


The year 1499 saw him in England, where he made the helpful friendship of John Colet, who directed him toward the study of the Bible and the Fathers. A few years of studious labors, chiefly in France and the Netherlands, saw him once more in England, in 1505, then followed a three years’ sojourn in Italy. In 1509 he again returned to England, and now taught in the University of Cambridge, enjoying the friendship of many of the most distinguished men of the kingdom. The years 1515-1521 were spent for the most part in the service of Charles V in the Netherlands. From 1521 to his death in 1536 Basel, where he could have ample facilities for publication, was his principal home. He may thus be called a citizen of all Europe.

Erasmus was not an impeccable Latinist. His knowledge of Greek was rather superficial. He was, above all, a man of letters, who touched the issues of his time with consummate wit and brilliancy of expression; set forth daring criticism of clergy and civil rulers, and withal was moved by deep sincerity of purpose. Convinced that the church of his day was overlaid with superstition, corruption, and error, and that the monastic life was too often ignorant and unworthy, he had yet no wish to break with the church that he so freely criticised. He was too primarily intellectual to have sympathy with the Lutheran revolution, the excesses of which repelled him. He was too clear-sighted not to see the evils of the Roman Church. Hence neither side in the struggle that opened in the latter part of his life understood him, and his memory has been condemned by polemic writers, Protestant and Catholic. His own thought was that education, return to the sources of Christian truth, and flagellation of ignorance and immorality by merciless satire would bring the church to purity. To this end he labored. His Handbook of the Christian Soldier of 1502 was a simple, earnest presentation of an unecclesiastical Christianity, largely Stoic in character. His Praise of Folly of 1509 was a biting satire on the evils of his age in church and state. His Familiar Colloquies of 1518 were witty discussions in which fastings, pilgrimages, and similar external observances were the butts of his brilliant pen. His constructive work was of the highest importance. In 1516 came the first edition of his Greek Testament, the pioneer publication of the Greek text, for that of Ximenes was still inaccessible. This was followed by a series of the Fathers—Jerome, Origen, Basil, Cyril, Chrysostom, Irenaeus, Ambrose, and Augustine, not all wholly from his pen, but all from his impulse, which placed scholarly knowledge of early Christianity on a new plane, and profoundly aided a Reformation, the deeper religious springs of which Erasmus never understood. Erasmus rendered a service for the Christian classics, much like that of the Italian humanists for the pagan writers of Greece and Rome.

Yet Erasmus did something more than revive a knowledge of Christian sources. In a measure, he had a positive theology. To him Christianity was but the fullest expression through Christ, primarily in the Sermon on the Mount, of universal, essentially ethical religion, of which the philosophers of antiquity had also been bearers. He had little feeling for the sacramental or for the deeply personal elements in religion. A universal ethical theism, having its highest illustration in Christ, was his idea. His way of thinking was to have little influence on the Reformation as a whole, though much on Socinianism, and is that represented in a great deal of modern theology, of which he was thus the spiritual ancestor.


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