Erasmus, Desiderius

   humanist philosopher and supporter of moderate reform
   one of the most respected philosophers and scholars of his era and the greatest exponent of humanism, Erasmus helped refine some of the ideas and approaches that led to the emergence of the Protestant faiths. However, he also became a powerful intellectual opponent of Martin Luther and worked hard to prevent the religious schisms and wars that accompanied the Reformation.
   Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, around 1466. At the age of nine, he was sent to a school at Deventer run by the humanist Hegius. Humanism was a movement that placed secular studies (the humanities) on a par with theology, focusing on the recovery of classical Greek and Latin learning. Most humanists celebrated the critical spirit, believing that educated individuals could use reason to improve their world, even to reform church and society.
   Erasmus was spurred by poverty to enter a monastic order in 1486 as the only way to pursue his studies. From 1491, he served as secretary of the bishop of Cambrai, who paid for his education at the university of Paris and allowed him to travel. John Colet of oxford introduced him to Bible study as a means of reconciling faith to his humanistic learning.
   His first major work was the "Enchiridion mili-tis christiani" of 1502, which explored true religion and piety while aiming some biting criticism at the church. His satirical The Praise of Folly (1509) was also filled with critical comments on ecclesiastical life. originally meant for limited private circulation, it was quickly reprinted and made Erasmus famous. He subsequently carried on a vast correspondence with intellectuals across the Continent.
   Among his many works, he is most remembered for his scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament, "Novum Instrumentum omne," published in Basle in 1516. it included a new, more accurate Latin translation, which he hoped would replace the Vulgate version then in use. His text later became the standard for Protestants trying to learn the authentic sources of Christianity. His elevation of Scripture to greater authority than theological tradition also influenced Protestant thought. Furthermore, he believed that individuals could interpret the Scriptures on their own. He discounted the value of pilgrimages, the veneration of saints, celibacy, and religious orders.
   Though his ideas might be seen as putting him in the Protestant camp, he argued for limited, gradual reform that would not antagonize the church leadership. Nevertheless, he opposed Luther's excommunication, and suggested that a panel of scholars be established to mediate his disagreements with the church. When he was attacked by Catholics, he argued that while he was against church abuses, he had always adhered to orthodox teachings and the authority of the pope.
   In 1524, Erasmus criticized Luther for disparaging free will, thus beginning a series of polemics both public and private between the two. After his break with Luther, some Roman Catholics welcomed him as a friend of the church, while others distrusted him. Pope Paul III offered him a cardinal's hat, but Erasmus refused, citing old age. He died on July 12, 1536.
   Erasmus devoted years to the preparation of improved editions of the classics and the writings of the ancient Church Fathers - Irenœus, Ambrose, Augustine, Epiphanius, and Chrysostom. He also authored a number of theological works. A biography and complete edition of Erasmus's works was issued in 1540-41. However, in 1559 his works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Council of Trent. His reputation was revived in the 18th century, and later historians came to view him as a major intellectual source for the Reformation.
   See also Bible translations.
   Further reading:
   ■ Cornelius Augustijn, Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence, trans., G. C. Grayson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991)
   ■ Léon-E. Halkin, Erasmus: A Critical Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993)
   ■ James McConica, Erasmus, Past Masters Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)
   ■ Alister E. McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1986).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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