Erasmus and the Authority of Scripture
Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536) was perhaps the greatest forerunner of the Reformation. Although he did not break with the Roman Catholic Church, he exposed it to severe criticism, thereby encouraging others to call for ecclesiastical change. For at the turn of the sixteenth century the church exercised a burdensome authority and abused numerous customs and ceremonies. Moreover, the Roman Catholic clergy taxed the people with financial and spiritual demands. The payment of indulgences, excessive fasting and the veneration of relics are but three of the many customs which the church foisted on its people. Erasmus, however, observed that these false church practices had no basis in Scripture.
Erasmus revealed the error of such practices by pointing to the source of Christianity; the Word of God. Rather than to accept meekly the statements of the church, Erasmus argued that the decrees issued by the hierarchical clergy should be tested in light of the Bible. Consequently, decisions of councils, papal edicts, and ceremonies justified by years of ecclesiastical tradition came under the critical scrutiny of reform-minded theologians who wished to lead the church according to Scripture. One of Erasmus' contributions to the reformation of the church was his insistence that the Bible be the guide in the church's decisions of doctrine and practice. If any single work from the prolific pen of Erasmus Sent support to the Reformation cry "Sola Scriptura" it was the new edition of the New Testament which appeared in 1516. For in it Erasmus showed the believer that the authority of Scripture is greater than the decrees of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.
In this article I shall consider Erasmus' role in the development of the confession of the authority of Scripture. The insistence of reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli that the church base it’s decisions regarding doctrine and conduct solely on the Bible is due, in part, to the work of Erasmus. The confession that the Bible is all-sufficient for salvation and that it is the infallible and inspired Word of God is one which characterizes all churches of the Reformation. The belief that no man-made pronouncements and no ecclesiastical tradition may supplant the authority of Scripture was articulated most emphatically in the sixteenth century. Today, when the authority of the Bible is being challenged severely, perhaps even by church federations claiming to be Reformed, it is appropriate to reaffirm our confession that the Word of God is the only guide for our lives.
"To the Sources!"
In the fall of 1499 Erasmus visited Oxford, England, where he listened to John Colet as he lectured on the letters of Paul. It struck Erasmus that Colet did not follow the scholastic tradition; instead, he focused on the text of Paul, and sought to explain Scripture from a careful study of the document and the writer rather than the doctrine and the tradition. E. Rummel summarizes Colet's approach to the Bible in this way:
"Here was a man who applied the humanistic call Ad fontes to the subject of theology, directing his listeners, not to medieval commentaries and glosses, but to the words of St. Paul."1
It refreshed Erasmus to meet a scholar who studied the Word of God and not the words of men.
Colet was not the only theologian who directed his attention closely to the text of the Bible. Jacques Lefevre was preparing a translation and commentary of the Pauline epistles, while Johann Reuchlin examined the Hebrew Old Testament. In numerous places theologians realized that the degeneration of the church was due to centuries of tradition which obscured the very source of the church's knowledge of God in Christ, namely the Bible. The time had come to return to that source.
In 1504 Erasmus visited a monastery near Louvain, Belgium, and blew the dust from a copy of Lorenzo Valla's notes on the New Testament. Valla, who had published his work in 1444, applied to Scripture the methods of grammatical and literary criticism which were the domain of secular literature. He argued that the student of theology should read the Bible without the burden of scholastic pronouncements. The reader required merely a thorough knowledge of the languages and civilizations in which Scripture was inspired. What mattered was the original text. Erasmus was so impressed with Valla's suggestion to "go to the sources" that he promptly reprinted Valla's work.
What Colet, Valla, and other theologians unhindered by scholasticism had done was to return to the methodology of the church fathers (especially Augustine, Jerome, and Origen). Erasmus noted that these writers were not weighed down by the heavy and cumbersome authority of a self-serving Roman Catholic church, but approached the Bible with a mere knowledge of the languages and circumstances in which it was written. The explanations of the church fathers were based on the text of the Bible. Erasmus read Augustine's On Christian Doctrine, which was, to use A. Rabil's term, "a Christian hermeneutic,"2 in part written to defend Augustine's exegesis of Scripture. Thus, together with contemporary theologians, Erasmus returned to the patristic approach to the Bible.
Yet despite his appreciation of the exegetical prowess of the church fathers, Erasmus did not place Jerome, Augustine, and Origen on a par with Scripture itself. In a letter to Christopher Fisher he writes:
"I would prefer to see the original with my own eyes rather than through someone else's."3
Nevertheless, influenced by the patristic writings, Erasmus set his sights on editing the New Testament, in the hopes of producing the true text of the Word of God.
Erasmus' Edition of the New Testament
In February of 1516 Erasmus set the academic world on its ear when he published his edition of the New Testament. A fresh Latin translation accompanied a newly reconstructed Greek text, which was followed by extensive notes. In the preface Erasmus exhorts his readers to study Scripture and he defends his methodology. Based on a collation of some manuscripts and a comparison of the Greek text with the Vulgate and other Latin translations, the edition was nothing less than revolutionary. Motivated by his disdain for errors in the manuscripts, blunders in translation, and the inaccuracies of sleepy scribes (noted in Epistle 182), Erasmus produced a work which altered the course of textual criticism. The annotations reveal that besides the manuscripts Erasmus employed classical authors, the church fathers, and the better scholastics in his arguments on matters of philology, literary criticism, exegesis and preaching. It is no wonder that John Colet, upon seeing the edition, exclaimed: "the name of Erasmus will never perish."
In dedicating the work to Pope Leo Xth, Erasmus writes that the teaching of salvation is acquired "in a much purer and livelier form if sought at the fountainhead and drawn from the actual sources than from pools and runnels."
Convinced that salvation is found in the Bible and not in the writings of scholastic clerics, Erasmus believed that it was crucial to produce an accurate version of the Bible. Accordingly he brought to bear all the philological, grammatical, and exegetical methods which he had employed in his study of secular texts.
The ''Handmaiden'' theory
As Valla and Jerome had done before him, Erasmus applied knowledge gained from the study of classical Greek and Latin literature to the Bible. Grammar, philology, rhetoric, and textual criticism were some of the tools of the sixteenth century humanist, and Erasmus saw what results these tools could produce. He was convinced that the humanist methods – which to him were the methods of Jerome and Origen – should be placed in the service of theology. In his Adagia (4.5.1) Erasmus writes:
"Theology is rightly the queen of the sciences, but she will possess more glory and learning if she includes such useful handmaidens."
For this reason Erasmus championed a thorough knowledge of Hebrew (though he himself knew very little), Greek and Latin. Like Jerome and Augustine, Erasmus was steeped in classical literature. Yet he was careful, especially in his later years, to place Scripture above all other literature. In arguing for a careful consideration of the text, Erasmus writes (Epistle 182),
"the sin of corruption is greater, and the need for careful revision by scholars greater also, where the source of corruption was ignorance: but it must be done with the caution and restraint with which all books, and particularly the Holy Scripture, deserve to be treated."
Precisely because the Bible contains "that teaching which our salvation is," it is crucial to establish a good text of it.
The Ratio Verae Theologize appeared in 1518 to defend Erasmus' contention that "God speaks to us truly and efficaciously in the sacred books to the extent that he spoke to Moses in the burning bush…" Revealing the influence of Augustine's On Christian Doctrine, this work shows that Erasmus appreciated the church fathers because they, unlike the scholastic writers who taught only faith in the church, were unfettered by religious formalism, and sought to derive doctrine purely from the Scripture. Erasmus observed that the petty arguments and vain debates which characterized medieval scholasticism had clouded the reading of Scripture. As C. Augustijn observes,
"Erasmus wished to explain the Scriptures, unconstrained, and not squeezed into the harness of doctrinal decisions and tradition."4
Reaction to Erasmus' edition
Reaction to Erasmus' edition was fast and furious. Indeed, even before the work appeared in print the Louvain theologian Maarten van Dorp claimed (Epistle 337) that the forthcoming edition would be useless. Van Dorp said that the existing Vulgate edition did not contain errors, as the Roman Catholic Church, which treated the Vulgate as the received text, could not err. For generations the clergy assumed that the (Latin!) Vulgate was the inspired Word. The new edition caused traditional Roman Catholic theologians to realize that Erasmus was undermining the ill-founded practices of the church. For, as Augustijn notes:
"on the basis of the text Erasmus exposed the practice and dogma of the church, and the rules of canon law, to criticism."5
In short, Erasmus' edition revealed not only the weakness of scholastic traditionalism in matters of exegesis and text analysis, but also the customs of the church which had no basis in Scripture. A glance at the annotations reveals Erasmus' criticisms regarding a host of vices of the sixteenth century church: penance, use of relics, vestments, ceremonies, corruption, hierarchy, and the sacramental system. Conservative Paris and Louvain theologians called Erasmus a heretic, and one opponent, Nicholas Egmond, claimed that the publication of Erasmus' New Testament was a sign of the coming Anti-Christ!6
The reaction of reform-minded theologians was different. Erasmus' edition strengthened the bond which united the so-called biblical humanists, scholars promoting renewal founded on the Bible. Especially at Basel Erasmus was hailed as first among equals. To use the words of B. Hall, Erasmus "had in common with the Protestant Reformers their great principles of appeal to the Scriptures as the source of theological truth and Christian life."7 The influence of Erasmus' new edition upon the reformers was remarkable. In his lectures Luther used Erasmus' 1516 edition of the New Testament, while in their writings Calvin and Theodore Beza reveal more than a passing familiarity with Erasmus' annotations. Huldrych Zwingli shared with Erasmus a repudiation of scholastic methodology for the study of Scripture.8 Though Luther clashed with Erasmus over the doctrine of free will, both men strove to use the Bible as a basis for their arguments, and both men assumed the unity of Scripture.9
Unfortunately Erasmus did not pursue his convictions concerning the authority of Scripture to their logical consequence. Perhaps his unpolemical character prevented Erasmus from breaking with the Roman Catholic Church, although he was well aware of the numerous abuses and vices therein. Even his annotations reveal a hesitation to refute the church. At times Erasmus notes that the exegete must "obey the church's decision." In one comment (on Romans 5:12) he states:
"A single testimony from Scripture suffices for me; sometimes the authority of the church suffices even without Scripture."
His vacillation is also seen in his note on Romans 9:5, where he again states that he wants to "obey the church's decision." However, he adds that "if the church further claims that its interpretation is the only one consistent with the wording of the Greek, a mere glance at the passage will be enough to refute that claim." Here the humanist in Erasmus allows for a difference of opinion in the explanation of Scripture.
Nevertheless Erasmus alerted both the clergy and the laymen of his time to the wrongs in the church by showing the incongruity between many false practices and the Word of God. In emphasizing the prime place of Scripture in the life of the Christian Erasmus provided the impetus for the cry which Luther, Calvin, and other reformers would cause to resound through the cold cathedrals of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. And that cry was "Sola Scriptura!"