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A Gentle Soul: Erasmus of Rotterdam

Desiderius Erasmus (1468-1536) was a leading figure of the European Renaissance and contemporary of Martin Luther. Erasmus was born in the city of Rotterdam, orphaned at an early age, and educated by the Brothers of the Common Life. He became an Augustinian monk in 1486. Eventually, Erasmus moved to Paris, where he met William Blount, who introduced him to his friend, Sir Thomas More (who we will look at after Thanksgiving), a. leader of the English Renaissance. Erasmus was instrumental in creating a new, standard Greek New Testament. [1] Though he admired Luther, he refused to join the Protestant Reformation. During the Reformation, Erasmus engaged in a controversy with Martin Luther concerning free will and predestination, which had negative consequences for their friendship.

At this point, I want to relate a personal experience. In the late 1980’s, our church in Houston went through a divisive vote concerning leaving a mainline denomination. Many people spent a long time reading various study papers on the situation. I began my own thinking by reading Luther’s Bondage of the Will and Erasmus’ reply. I could never overcome the notion that, as impressive as Luther was in argument, Erasmus might have the better view. In the end (after a lot of study of the issues), Kathy and I formed a group that simply tried to keep our local congregation intact. Years later, we ended up leading a congregation that departed the same mainline denomination, but we did not leave with the kind of anger that characterized many departures. I credit God’s grace for this (not Erasmus), but the figure of Erasmus is one I have long admired and his example one that our society might embrace. His example has been a source of guidance more than once—and may be again.

This blog is not as detailed as some previous blogs. I decided that I would experiment with a different format. This post is largely a dialogue between Erasmus and a figure I have called, “Socrates” in honor of the dialogues of Plato in which Socrates plays such an important role.

Erasmus as a Renaissance Humanist

Socrates: My dear Erasmus: It is good to see you, for I have long desired to know more about your teaching. I understand that, like me, many people do not consider you as a technical philosopher, and systematic theologian, but as a brilliant a dilatant with an agreeable personality. In my case, many people thought me a busybody for the trouble I caused! They even put me to death! Yet, I was and am a searcher for truth, not necessarily a possessor of it.

Erasmus: I am so glad to meet you, Founder of Philosophy: My critics are correct. I was not a systematic philosophical thinker. Instead, I was what is sometimes called a “Man of Letters.” I wrote no technical philosophical treatise in either philosophy or theology. I was a Biblical Scholar, monk, moral writer, and wise counselor throughout my active life. Because of my pleasing personality and wit, I made friends easily and was an advisor to many influential people, most particularly Sir. Thomas More, who I understand will be reviewed in a following blog. In other words, like you I was a simple searcher for truth, not necessarily its possessor. Like you and your pupil, Plato, I also felt that living a set of beliefs was just as important as having them.

The Philosopher King

Socrates: I am glad to have learned a bit more about you—and I hope to understand a bit more as our conversation continues. In 1516, you published a work known as “The Education of a Christian Prince,” dedicating the treatise to Charles, King of Spain, who succeeded his grandfather Maximilian as Holy Roman Emperor, as Emperor Charles V. [2] I love the book because in it you evoke my most famous student, Plato, and the idea that no government is fortunate unless and until philosophers are kings or their kings embrace philosophy. [3] Tell me more about it!

Erasmus: I certainly will. However, to begin with by “philosophy,” I did not mean the technical disciplines of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and the like, that modern people call “philosophy.”  Instead, I meant that a good king should be a lover of wisdom with the practical ability to govern wisely after the model of Christ. The figure of Marcus Aurelius is more what I had in mind than Thomas Aquinas or even my great student Plato.

Socrates: So, my friend, what did you believe was necessary in a good governmental leader?

Erasmus: Like Luther, I was Augustinian in my education. It is not surprising, therefore, that I believed that the state cannot be governed without justice and that a true commonwealth must somehow reflect the will of the people in order to be rightly and justly administered, whether by one monarch, by a few, or by the many. I was also aware, from City of God and other readings, that earthly kingdoms do not approach the perfections of Christ. [4]Nevertheless, I believed that rulers could and should emulate Christ. [5]

Socrates: I suppose you know that this idea that a prince in this world should emulate The Prince of Heaven has caused many to ignore and criticize your writing. How could any earthly ruler, for example, “turn the other cheek” to the invasion of his or her nation? This, and other advice of the New Testament, seems foolish indeed to those with a practical or skeptical frame of mind.

Erasmus: I have heard and pondered this critique. I think I can give two responses in my defense:

  1. First of all, I did not say, nor do I believe, that a Christian Prince inside of human history can perfectly perform all the teachings of Christ in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament and the Gospels are designed to show human beings that they cannot achieve justice on their own and need a savior. This includes those who have political authority.
  2. Second, to say that something is impossible to achieve is not to say that it should not be attempted. In fact, the greatest virtues of the human soul cannot be fully achieved in this life, but these values, like Justice, continue to drive us towards a better perfection. Princes may not be able to perfectly follow Christ, but they can endeavor to do so.

Socrates: Say more about this.

Erasmus: I was a Christian, and I believed then and now that even a Christian prince should seek to emulate Christ in all things. In this you may also see my background at work and my early education among the Brothers of the Common Life. [6] They were devoted to Christ and to following Christ in all things.

The basic teaching of the New Testament concerning leadership is found in the synoptic gospels in this form:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45).

I knew this passage well, for I was a student of the Greek and a translator of the New Testament. Our Lord made it clear that the standards of this world would not be the standards of his kingdom, as this passage indicates. Nevertheless, Christians (even leaders) are called to undertake to conform our lives so much as we can to the teachings of the Lord. To give you another example, although perfect peace may not be possible in this world, Christian Princes should be peacemakers.

Consensus and Peace

Socrates: Indeed, one aspect of your thought that many people fail to understand is your devotion to consensus and your opposition to war, if indeed you were opposed to war. This is another area in which those of a more practical mind cannot understand your thinking.

Erasmus: In my writings, I suggest that rulers should set out to rule by discussion and consensus and seek arbitration when disputes could not otherwise be settled. As I ponder the democracies of the modern world, I think that they would do well to set out to limit conflict as much as possible and to dialogue instead of engaging in constant political debate and combat. I hope to see David Bohm in Eternity, who also believed this, and learn more about his ideas. [7]

Socrates: It is easy to see that the world would be a better place if conflict could be avoided and rulers would seek consensus. Nevertheless, I was a soldier in the wars of Athens, and so have many other people been over the years. War, it seems, will always be with us. As my pupil Plato says, “Only the dead will never know war again.” [8] I find it hard to understand your thought in this area. Can enlighten me”

Erasmus:  As you have said, my thought about war was dominated by a vision of universal peace. My pacifism is well-documented in my writings and I even wrote a treatise on the subject. Perhaps it will be easier for you to understand my thinking about war and peace if you remember my life as an Augustinian monk. St. Augustine taught that the goal of all government is peace. The goal of all conflict is peace. Even earthly rulers seek peace even as they engage in war. The Christ is referred to as “The Prince of Peace.” Therefore, it seemed to me that Christian Princes and followers of Christ should seek a kind of universal peace, even though we understand that war is inevitable.

Socrates: Why, therefore, did you not simply endorse a kind of Just War theory, as did Augustine and Aquinas?

Erasmus: My critics often mention my stated belief that some wars are justified. Where there is danger to the state or to freedom of Christian faith, my views were that war was justified. For example, in my day, the Muslim nations were seeking to invade Europe, and I justified those wars to prevent a military conquest of our homeland by a foreign religion. I am not sure how this would be applied to circumstances beyond my times.

I would say that I am something like a “Just War Pacifist.” War is and evil to be avoided if at all possible, and Christian leaders should be willing to take risks to avoid war. However, if the survival of the state and its central institutions is at risk, then war may be justified if all reasonable alternatives to war are exhausted. I know that this position will not satisfy my pacifist critics, but it is the best way to understand my thought, I think.

In my thinking about war, there is a subtle, but important, difference between my thought and that of St. Thomas and Augustine. In my mind, the great division between the kingdoms of this world and the Ruler of Heaven, which Augustine and Luther maintained, was a mistake. You might say that it was my belief that, in the persons of Christians and the Christian Prince, some small part of the heavenly kingdom was to be brought upon the earth.

Conclusion

Socrates: This might be a good place to stop, for our discussion has gone on longer than I imagined. However, I wonder if you might answer one more question: You agreed with much of the critique of the Catholic Church by Martin Luther, yet you were never willing to leave it. Can give us some reason why?

Erasmus: As you know, I was a critic of the church of my day, just as I would be a critic of the church of any period of human history. Some might think my unwillingness to leave the mother church was because I was an orphan and the church was my home, and so it was. More importantly, I was wise enough to see that all human institutions are imperfect. This alone, however, does not mean that good men and women should not work to improve them rather than destroy them. In my mind, my calling was to renew and restore not to tear down and rebuild. This is the best defense I can make of my thinking. Others have felt and acted differently, and I respect them all. In the place where we now dwell, Martin Luther and I have renewed our friendship, for the battles of your world are now long behind us.

Socrates: Thank you for this time we have had together today. Eternity is a big place, but I hope we will see each other again.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] On March 1, 1516, Desiderius Erasmus published the Greek New Testament’s first ever “critical edition”—a version that drew from all available Greek manuscripts to compile a text with wording as close as possible to that of the original inspired authors. That work, which went through four revisions, was the first published Greek text available to the public. It is credited with changing Bible translation, preaching and even the course of church history. David Rouch How Erasmus’ Greek New Testament Changed History” http://westernrecorder.org/825.article Western Recorder (March 22, 2016, downloaded November 17, 2020).

[2] Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince ed. Lisa Jardine, tr. Lisa Jardine (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997).

[3] “Desiderius Erasmus” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://iep.utm.edu/erasmus/#H1 (downloaded November 9, 2020. This section is based upon this article.  See, Plato. Republic. From Book VII.” Morality and the Good Life: An Introduction to Ethics through the Classical Sources. 5th ed. Eds. Robert C. Solomon, Clancy W. Martin, and Wayne Vaught. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2009 for further information about the notion of the Philosopher King.

[4] St. Augustine, City of God tr. Gerald G. Walsh, S.J. et all, abridged ed. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958)

[5] Avinish, Erasmus’ The Education of a Christian Prince (August 21, 2016) found at http://www.theeducationist.info/erasmus-education-of-christian-prince-summary-and-review/ (Downloaded November 9, 2020).

[6] The Brethren of the Common Life was a Roman Catholic pietist religious community founded in the Netherlands in the 14th century by Gerard Groote, a secular educator who had had a religious experience and preached a life of simple devotion to Jesus Christ. Without taking up irrevocable vows, the Brethren banded together in communities, giving up their worldly goods to live chaste and strictly regulated lives in common houses, devoting every waking hour to attending divine service, reading and preaching of sermons, laboring productively, and taking meals in common that were accompanied by the reading aloud of Scripture. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brethren_of_the_Common_Life(downloaded November 12, 2020).

[7] The thought of David Bohm will be the subject of a later blog. I am much indebted to David Bohm and especially to the digest of his thought published as On Dialogue (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996).

[8] This quote appears in movies like “Patton” and “Black Hawk Down”. Douglas MacArthur attributed the quote to Plato in his famous “Long Grey Line” speech at West Point. It was used by George Santayana and is found in the British War Museum, all attributed to Plato. However, scholars have difficulty actually finding then quote in Plato.

Because of Easter: Nothing Need Ever Be The Same Again

Many of our church  members and readers of this blog have seen a recently released movie, “Risen.” [1] Risen is the story of a Roman soldier named, “Clavius.” imgresThe movie begins with Clavius putting down a rebellion begun by Barabbas just after he was released. Upon returning to Jerusalem, he is sent by Pontius Pilate to oversee the crucifixion of Jesus. On the way, he experiences the earthquake and the darkened sky. Clavius arrives at Golgotha just after Jesus dies. The next day, he is summoned again by Pontius Pilate, this time to seal the tomb into which Jesus has been placed. The next morning, he is summoned by Pontius Pilate and given the task of finding the now missing body of Jesus. The story line involves Clavius’ search for the body of Jesus.

Clavius is a kind of typical cynical, world-weary American  who happens to be a soldier looking forward to retirement. What he wants is a place away from the battle and peace. The movie is the story of Clavius’ journey from being an ambitious, competent, intelligent, and surprisingly intelligent and sensitive Roman soldier, who is convinced he will eventually find the body of Jesus, to a believer in the resurrection. Critics have liked the movie because of its acting and because it is not too preachy. It simply follows the spiritual journey of a Roman Tribune caught up in the events of the resurrection.

Many people first hear the Easter story in the same way Clavius begins his spiritual journey: suspicious and certain that it can’t possibly be true. I began my own spiritual journey in just that frame of mind. This blog is not intended to prove the resurrection. Many other pastors and not a few evangelists have written very fine defenses of the truth of the resurrection. When I was a young Christian one of those defenses meant a lot to me. It was the first time I sat down and examined the facts. Today, however, we are going to be talking about the results of the resurrection, the difference it makes in our lives.

The Day the World Changed Forever.

Jesus was most probably crucified at about 9:00 in the morning on Friday, April 3, 33 A.D. [2] He died about 3:00 that same afternoon. It probably took some time for the soldiers to recognize this fact and verify that he was dead. After the soldiers confirmed that Jesus was dead, he was taken down from the cross (John 19:31-37). At about the same time, Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and prominent member of the Sanhedrin, went to Pontius Pilate and asked for permission to bury Jesus (Matthew 27:58). Because it was getting late, and it was the Day of Preparation for Passover, Jesus was hurriedly placed in the tomb. His body was not fully prepared for burial (Mark 16:1). Joseph simply wrapped the body as was the Jewish custom in linen cloths and rolled the large stone that would have sealed the tomb into place (Matt. 27:60).

The next day, on Passover, the chief priests and the Pharisees, who rarely cooperated on anything, went to Pilate and asked for an official seal on the tomb (vv.62-63). Pilate agreed and placed an official Roman seal on the tomb. This meant that anyone tampering with the tomb would be subject to Roman punishment. The remainder of Saturday was quiet, so far as we know. The disciples were in hiding. We pick up the story at Matthew 28:1:

imgres-1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matt. 28:1-10).

Prayer: God of Hope, who have us eternal hope this Easter, please come into our hearts and give us all renewed hope in the power of your Holy Spirit to change our lives so that we may become more like you. Amen.

His Life and Ours.

This Easter season we have focused on Jesus as our Deliverer. We began by noting that the notion of God as Deliverer is deep in both the Old and New Testaments. The Jews were delivered from captivity in Egypt and in Babylon by the power of God who was their savior. The idea of the Messiah as it developed was that the Messiah would come and free Israel, delivering them from bondage and forming a kingdom that would never end. All Christians believe that we are saved (or delivered from our captivity to sin and death  through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). Too often, we restrict that salvation to eternal life that we will receive in heaven. Our salvation means a lot more than that. It is for today.

In this series of blogs, we are focused on the kinds of human suffering we all endure—and the fact that Jesus endured the same kind of suffering. We’ve had a reason for this: it is our hope that our members experience the healing power of God right now, so that the Holy Spirit can work in us to give us a new kind of eternal life right now in this world. We noted that God delivers us from something and to something else. It is not enough to saved from sin. We are delivered from sin to righteousness and a new kind of life that will never end.

Jesus, in the last twenty-four hours of his life endured betrayal by Judas Iscariot. He endured disappointment with the behavior of Peter and the other disciples. He endured injustice at the hands of the leaders of the people of Israel and the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. Pilate, who knew he was an innocent man, subjected Jesus to scourging (a terrible punishment). The soldiers who crucified Jesus mocked him. Once crucified, he endured the ridicule of his fellow prisoners, the chief priests, the rulers of the people, and ordinary passersby. He even experienced feeling abandoned by God, a Dark Night of the Soul.

The meaning of all this is that God, in Christ, understands our suffering and sympathizes with us when we are undergoing times of trial. God unconditionally desires to deliver us from the negative experiences we have to joy and new life. God is always with us in our suffering , even when we believe he is absent, and wants to relieve our suffering if at all possible. We can’t understand God’s sovereignty or why he answers some prayers and does not seem to answer other prayers (Job 40:3-5). What we can know is that God desires to answer all prayers that are in his will and God does not want his people to suffer. He wants us to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and all the other gifts of the Spirit (I Peter 1:6-9; Galatians 5:22-25).

The Great Reversal.

We can imagine the feelings of the disciples and followers of Jesus. They had hoped that Jesus would reveal himself to be the Messiah during this Passover. They had hoped that all of their hopes and dreams would come true. Then, suddenly, in a few hours, their hopes and dreams were shattered. They saw Jesus arrested, and they knew it could happen to them. They saw Jesus subjected to an unfair trial, and they knew it could happen to them. They saw Jesus mocked and scourged, and they knew it could happen to them. They saw Jesus crucified and put to death, and they knew it could happen to them. They were scared and hopeless.

The next day, what we call “Sunday” and the Jews the “First Day of the Week,” the women rose early and hurried to the tomb hoping to finalize the embalming of Jesus body before it decayed any further. As they arrived, there was an earthquake that broke the Roman seal, while an angel rolled away the stone covering the Tomb (Matt. 28:1-3). The Roman guards were frozen with fright and apparently ultimately ran away (v. 4). This left the angel to tell the women that Jesus was no longer in the tomb but alive (vv. 5). He told the women to go tell his disciples (v. 7). As the women were returning home, they met the risen Christ and worshiped him. Jesus then also commanded the women to tell the disciples that he would see them in Galilee (v. 7, 10).

I don’t have time today to tell you the rest of the story; however, by the end of that first day the gloom of the disciples and the followers of Jesus had turned to joy. They had seen and experienced the risen Christ. They were certain of the power of the resurrection. They were changed forever. A day that began with their hopes and dreams shattered ended with their hopes and dreams answered in an unimaginable way. [3]

Our Great Reversal.

The great reversal that the disciples and followers of Jesus experienced that first Easter is available to us today. Just as the disciples experienced a reversal of their shattered hopes and dreams that first Easter, we also by the power of the Holy Spirit can experience a reversal of our shattered hopes and dreams today.

Jesus said, “I came that you may have life abundantly” (John 10:10). Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Paul says in Romans, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism in to death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead to the glory of the father so we too may have new life” (Romans 6:4). in other words, Jesus came to deliver us from a kind of spiritual and emotional death so that we can be delivered into a completely new way of living and being in the world.

The promise of the Christian life is not that bad things will never happen to good people. The Bible and human experience clearly teach that Christians are subject to the same problems to which everyone else in the world is subject. We experience betrayal, disappointment, injustice, mocking, ridicule, feelings of abandonment, and all of the other negative experiences that afflict human beings. The difference is that we look forward to a great reversal that we believe can be experienced in this world, and if not in this world, in a world to come by the power of the resurrection we celebrate on Easter Sunday.

He is Risen—and So Are We!!

One of my favorite characters in the movie Risen is Bartholomew. As Clavius seeks to find the body of Jesus and investigates rumors of the resurrection, he ultimately arrests Bartholomew. During the course of his interrogation, Clavius threatens to harm Bartholomew and even to have him executed. imagesDuring this entire scene, Bartholomew has a kind of childlike expression on his face. When Clavius finishes threatening him, Bartholomew invites Clavius to go ahead, indicating that he is certain that death and suffering can have no final victory in his life. Bartholomew has seen the risen Christ, and fear of Rome no longer has a hold on him.

This feature of the movie is not in Scripture; the writers made it up. However, it is not unbiblical. The Bible and the Christian tradition are filled with examples of Christians, from Stephen who was stoned, through the death of other disciples, through the experience of the early church martyrs, and even the experience of martyrs today, who have endured great suffering with joy. We are here today to celebrate the fact that death will not have a final victory over us nor can anything separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Paul puts it this way:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

It is Easter 2016. This year, God has put on our hearts the hope and prayer that the Holy Spirit will come upon us in a mighty way. We can be certain that God loves us and wants to hear this prayer. We can be sure that God wants us to experience his Divine Life by the power of the Holy Spirit. God wants to heal our families, our colleagues, our friends, our neighbors, and others we know and care about. We can be sure that God wants to heal all of us from old hurts, betrayals, disappointments, injustices, ridicule, abandonment, and even death. The God who is love loves us and wants all of us to experience the power of the resurrection now and in the world to come. We cannot know when or how God will answer our prayers, but we can know that God will answer our prayers!

Easter is the ground of this  hope. We can be certain of our deliverance, now or in the world come come, for today we celebrate the resurrection and victory of our Deliverer. As the old hymn says, “Because he lives we can face tomorrow. Because he lives all fear is gone. For we know who holds the future. Life is worth the living just because he lives.”  1

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Risen, wr. Kevin Reynolds & Paul Aiello, dir. Kevin Reynolds. Starring Joseph Fienes, Tom Felton, Peter firth, Cliff Curtis (LD Entertainment, 2016).

[2] A careful examination of the facts reveals that it is most likely that Jesus was crucified on April 3, 33 A.D. See, Jimmy Akin, “Seven Clues tell us * Precisely * when Jesus Died” National Catholic Register (March 20, 2016). Mark 15:25 places the crucifixion at the third hour (9:00 am) Matthew 27:45-56 tell of the crucifixion and give us the times of the darkness (noon) and death in the ninth hour (3:00 pm).

[3] Although Matthew does not record them, Mark, Luke and John all indicate that his disciples saw Jesus during that first day. First, he was seen by the women as Matthew records, then by two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, and finally by the Twelve in the Upper Room (see, Mark 16:12-14; Luke24:13-43; John 20:19-29).

Notes:

  1. I have slightly paraphrased the old Gospel Hymn, “Because He Lives,” written by Gloria and Bill Gaither, music by Bill Gaither (1971).