Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1469-1536), Greek scholar and Christian humanist, is widely regarded as the greatest man of letters and intellect of the 16th century. He was highly critical of corruption in the Church and was initially somewhat favorable to the Protestant cause, but soon (after 1521 or so) turned against it after he saw the direction it was going, and remained a lifelong Catholic. He engaged in a famous written debate with Luther on the issue of free will. These are some of his words about the early Protestants and Martin Luther himself:
Nothing was ever seen more licentious, and, withal, more seditious; nothing, in a word, less evangelical than these pretended evangelists. . . All is carried to extremes in this new Reformation. They root up what ought to be pruned; they set fire to the house in order to cleanse it. Morals are neglected; luxury, debauchery, adulteries, increase more than ever; there is no order, no discipline among them . . . I find more piety in one good Catholic bishop than in all these new evangelists.
(in Bishop James Bossuet, History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches, 2 volumes, translated from the French, New York: D. & J. Sadler, 1885 [orig. 1688], vol. 1, 155-156)
What can be more ruinous than to let such words as the following come to the people's ears? -- 'The Pope is Antichrist; Bishops and priests are mere grubs; man-made laws are heretical; confession is pernicious; works, merits and endeavors are heretical words; there is no free will; everything happens by necessity' . . . I see, under the pretext of the Gospel, a new, bold, shameless and ungovernable race growing up -- in a word, such a one as will be unendurable to Luther himself.
(in John L. Stoddard, Rebuilding a Lost Faith, New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1922, 97)
The Reformation seems to have had no other purpose than to turn monks and nuns into bridegrooms and brides.
(In Stoddard, ibid., 92)
Luther has covered us and good learning with hatred. Everyone knows that the Church is overburdened with abuse of authority and ceremonies and man-made decrees for the purpose of gain. Many people are now wishing for a remedy, but often an imprudent attempt at a cure makes things worse. I wish that man had either been more moderate or else left things alone!
What a mass of hatred Luther is bringing down on good learning and Christendom!
(in Margaret Phillips, Erasmus and the Northern Renaissance, New York: Collier Books, 1965, 171. From the year 1521)
I greatly wonder, my dear Jonas, what god has stirred up the heart of Luther, in so far as he assails with such license of pen the Roman pontiff, all the universities, philosophy, and the mendicant orders . . .
Perhaps there were some who out of honest zeal favored calling the orders and princes of the Church to better things. But I do not know if they are those who under this pretext covet the wealth of the churchmen. I judge nothing to be more wicked and destructive of public tranquility than this . . . This certainly is a fine turn of affairs, if property is wickedly taken away from priests so that soldiers may make use of it in worse fashion; and the latter squander their own wealth, and sometimes that of others, so that no one benefits.
I do not even agree with those men, my dear Jonas, who say that Luther, provoked by the intolerable shamelessness of his adversaries, could not maintain a Christian moderation. Regardless of how others conduct themselves, he who had undertaken such a role ought to be faithful to himself and disregard all other matters. Finally, a way out should have been provided before he descended into that pit . . . We see the affair brought to that point that I reasonably see no good outcome, unless Christ through His own skill turn the rashness of these men into a public good . . .
How great a swarm of evils this foolhardiness now yields! And ill will greatly weighs down the study of letters as well as many good men who in the beginning were not particularly hostile to Luther, either because they hoped he would handle the matter differently or on account of the enemies they had in common . . .
And here, my dear Jonas, I have been forced at times to wish for evidence of the evangelical spirit when I saw Luther, but especially his supporters, strive with skill, as it were, to involve others in a hateful and dangerous affair.
. . . So far am I from ever having wished to be involved in a faction as dangerous as this! . . . Moreover, I am desperately afraid lest among the other nations this affair bring a great disgrace to our Germany, as the great mass of men are accustomed to impute the foolishness of a few to the entire nation.
What else has been accomplished, therefore I ask, by so many harsh little books, by so much foolish talk, by so many formidable threats, and by so much bombast . . . ? . . . Luther could have taught the evangelical philosophy with great profit to the Christian flock, he could have benefited the world by bringing forth books, if he had restrained from those things which could only end in disturbance.
. . . Above all, I am of the opinion that discord, ruinous for all, must be avoided. And that thus by what I might call a holy artfulness the needs of the time must be served, that by no means the treasury of the Gospel truth be betrayed, whence can come the reformation of corrupt public morals. Perhaps someone will ask whether I have another mind regarding Luther than I had formerly. No, indeed, I have the same mind. I have always wished that, with changes made of certain things which were displeasing to me, he discuss purely the Gospel philosophy, from which the morals of our age have departed, alas, too far. I have always preferred that he be corrected rather than suppressed. I desired him to carry on the work of Christ in such a way that the leaders of the Church either approved or certainly not disapproved . . .
(in Christian Humanism and the Reformation, [selections from Erasmus], edited and translated by John C. Olin, New York: Harper & Row, 1965, 152, 157-159, 161-163; Letter to Jodocus Jonas, from Louvain, May 10, 1521)
Wherever Lutheranism prevails, learning and liberal culture go to the ground.
(in Johannes Janssen, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 volumes, translated by A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910; orig. 1891, vol. 3, 355; Letter to Pirkheimer)
The study of tongues and the love of fine literature is everywhere growing cold. Luther has heaped insufferable odium on it.
(in Hartmann Grisar, Luther, tr. E.M. Lamond, ed. Luigi Cappadelta, 6 volumes, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917, vol. 6, 32)
All this laziness came in with the new Evangel.
(in Grisar, ibid., vol. 6, 32; regarding the downfall of the schools of Nuremburg)
When I admonished Zwingli in a friendly way he wrote back disdainfully:
What you know is of no use to us; what we know is not for you.
As if he had been caught up like Paul to the third heaven and learnt some mystery which was hidden to us earthly creatures!
(in Phillips, ibid., 195; Zwingli was a Protestant founder who had previously – like Luther – admired Erasmus)
Sound human reason teaches me that a man cannot honestly further the cause of God, who excites so great an uproar in the world, and finds delight in abuse and sarcasm, and cannot have enough of them. Such an amount of arrogance, as we have never seen surpassed, cannot possibly be without some folly, and such a boisterous individual is not at all in harmony with the apostolic spirit.
(in Stoddard, ibid., 97)
All good people lament and groan over the fatal schism with which you shake the world by your arrogant, unbridled and seditious spirit.
(in Archbishop Martin J. Spalding, The History of the Protestant Reformation, 2 volumes, Baltimore: John Murphy, 1876, vol. 1, 464)
I shall show everybody what a master you are in the art of misrepresentation, defamation, calumny and exaggeration . . . In your sly way you contrive to twist even what is absolutely true, whenever it is to your interest to do so. You know how to turn black into white and to make light out of darkness.
(in Grisar, ibid., vol. 4, 100-101. From Erasmus’ work Hyperaspistes, , I, 9, col. 1043)
. . . The whole world knows your nature, according to which you have guided your pen against no one more bitterly and, what is more detestable, more maliciously than against me . . . The same admirable ferocity which you formerly used against Fisher and against Cochlaeus, who provoked it by reviling you, you now use against my book in spite of its courtesy. How do your scurrilous charges that I am an atheist, an Epicurean, and a sceptic, help the argument? . . . It terribly pains me, as it must all good men, that your arrogant, insolent, rebellious nature has set the world in arms . . . You treat the Evangelic cause so as to confound together all things sacred and profane, as if it were your chief aim to prevent the tempest from ever becoming calm, while it is my greatest desire that it should die down . . .
(Letter from Erasmus at Basel to Martin Luther at Wittenberg, April 11, 1526; in Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1911, 209)
It is part of my unhappy fate, that my old age has fallen on these evil times when quarrels and riots prevail everywhere.
(in Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Volume VII: History of Modern Christianity, Chapter IV, section 71, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910)
This new gospel is producing a new set of men so impudent, hypocritical, and abusive, such liars and sycophants, who agree neither with one another nor with anybody else, so universally offensive and seditious, such madmen and ranters, and in short so utterly distasteful to me that if I knew of any city in which I should be free from them, I would remove there at once.
By the bitterness of the Lutherans, and the stupidity of some who show more zeal than wisdom in their endeavors to heal the present disorders, things have been brought to such a pass, that I, for one, can see no issue but in the turning upside down of the whole world. What evil spirit can have sown this poisonous seed in human affairs? When I was at Cologne, I made every effort that Luther might have the glory of obedience and the Pope of clemency, and some of the sovereigns approved of this advice. But, lo and behold! the burning of the Decretals, the 'Babylonish Captivity,' those propositions of Luther, so much stronger than they need be, have made the evil, it seems, incurable ... . The only thing that remains to us, my dear Berus, is to pray that Christ, supreme in goodness and in power, may turn all to good; for he alone can do so.
(in Schaff, ibid., Chapter IV, section 72; letter to a friend in Basel, Louis Berus, dated Louvain, May 14, 1521)
An iconoclastic riot took place in Oecolampadius' Basle, Switzerland, on February 9, 1528. Erasmus was an eyewitness of this event, and described it in a letter to his friend Pirckheimer:
Not a statue has been left, in the churches . . . or in the monasteries; all the frescoes have been whitewashed over. Everything which would burn has been set on fire, everything else hacked into little pieces. Neither value nor artistry prevailed to save anything.
(in Phillips, ibid., 197)
One cannot help but be greatly disturbed by this vivid image of crazed mobs dashing through sublimely beautiful churches, with self-righteous fury, slashing to bits handcarved crucifixes representing our Lord's death on our behalf, on grounds that all such works of art were idolatrous. Erasmus, fearing that "the reign of the Pharisees will be followed by that of the pagans" (Phillips, ibid., 198), left Basle on April 13th, despite the pleas of his friend Oecolampadius. Blessedly, the later Protestants softened their hatred of art, and Martin Luther had always strongly opposed iconoclasm, and promoted art and music (hence the magnificent Bach was to emerge from the Lutheran milieu). Luther, of course, had plenty to say about Erasmus in return:
Erasmus of Rotterdam is the vilest miscreant that ever disgraced the earth . . . He is a very Caiaphas.
(Table-Talk, translated by William Hazlitt, Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society: n.d., #667, 350-351)
Shame upon thee, accursed wretch! . . . Whenever I pray, I pray a curse upon Erasmus.
(Ibid., #668, 351)
Erasmus was poisoned at Rome and at Venice with epicurean doctrines. He extols the Arians more highly than the Papists . . . he died like an epicurean, without any one comfort of God.
(Ibid., #675, 355)
This I do leave behind me as my will and testament . . . I hold Erasmus of Rotterdam to be Christ's most bitter enemy . . . the enemy to true religion, the open adversary of Christ, the complete and faithful picture and image of Epicurus and of Lucian.
(Ibid., #676, 355)
Erasmus writes nothing in which he does not show the impotence of his mind or rather the pains of the wounds he has received. I despise him, nor shall I honor the fellow by arguing with him any more . . . In future I shall only refer to him as some alien, rather condemning than refuting his ideas. He is a light-minded man, mocking all religion as his dear Lucian does, and serious about nothing but calumny and slander.
(Letter to Montanus About Erasmus, May 28, 1529; from Preserved Smith, ibid., 211)
I thank you, my excellent friend, that you give me so candidly your opinion on my book. I care not at all that the Papists are offended: I did not write on their account, for they are not worth my writing or speaking in Consideration of them any more. God has given them up to a reprobate mind; so that they even fight against that, which they know to be the truth.
My cause was heard at Augsburg, before the emperor Charles, and the whole world, and found to be irreprehensible, and to contain sound doctrine. Moreover, my Confession and Apology are made public, and set in the open light throughout the world. By these, I have answered an infinity of my adversaries' books, and all the lies of the Papists past, present and to come!
I have confessed Christ before this wicked and adulterous generation, and I doubt not but that He will also confess me before His Father, and the holy angels. My light is set on a candlestick! - Let him that seeth it, see it more clearly still; let him that is blind, be blinder still; let him that is just, be juster still; let him that is filthy, be filthier still; - their blood be upon themselves; - I am clean from their blood! I have declared to the unrighteous his unrighteousness, and he will not be converted; - let him therefore die in his sins; - I have saved my own soul! There is no need, therefore, that I should write, or care to write on their account, any farther.
. . . Your judgment of Erasmus I much admire: wherein you say plainly, that he has no other basis wherein to build his doctrine but the favour of men; and attribute to him, moreover, ignorance and malice. And if you could but convey this judgment of yours with conviction to the minds of men in general, you would in truth, like another stripling David, by this one blow, lay our boasting Goliath prostrate, and at the same time, eradicate the whole of his sect. For what is more vain, more fallacious, in all things, than the applause of men, especially in things spiritual! For, as the Psalms testify, "There is no help in them:" again, "All men are liars."
. . . I at one time attributed to him a singular kind of inconsistency and vain-talking, for he seemed to treat on sacred and serious things with the greatest unconcern; and on the contrary, to pursue baubles, vanities, and things laughable and ridiculous with the utmost avidity; though an old man, and a theologian; and that, in an age, the most industrious and laborious. So that I really thought, that what I had heard many men of wisdom and gravity say, was true - that Erasmus was actually mad.
When I first wrote against his Diatribe, and was compelled to weigh his words, (as John says "try the Spirits,") being disgusted at his inconsiderateness in a subject of so much importance; in order that I might rouse up the cold and doltish disputer, I goaded him as if in a snoring sleep; calling him a disciple, at one time, of Epicurus, at another, of Lucian, and then again, declaring him to be of the opinion of the sceptics; supposing, that by these means he might, perhaps, be roused up to enter upon the subject with more feeling. But all was in vain. I only irritated the viper, . . .
. . . But the truth is, he hates all the doctrines together. Nay, there can be no doubt in the mind of a true believer, who has the Spirit in his nostrils, that his mind is alienated from, and utterly hates all religion together; and especially, the religion of Christ. Many proofs of this are scattered here and there . . .
. . . He published lately, among his other works, his Catechism, a production evidently of Satanic subtlety. For, with a purpose full of craft, he designs to take children and youths at the outset, and to infect them with his poisons, that they might not afterwards be eradicated from them; just as he himself, in Italy and at Rome, so sucked in his doctrines of sorcerers and of devils that now all remedy is too late . . .
. . . he does nothing but set before them those heresies and offences of opinions, by which the Church has been troubled from the beginning. So that in fact, he would make it appear, that there has been nothing certain in the Christian religion . . .
. . . I began to suspect him of being a plain Democritus or Epicurus, and a crafty derider of Christ: for he every where intimates to his fellow Epicureans, his hatred against Christ: though he does it in words so figurative and insidious, . . .
. . . This observation fixes in me a determination (let others do as they please) not to believe Erasmus, even if he should openly confess in plain words, - that Christ is God. But I would address to him that sophistical saying of Chrysippus, 'If you lie, you lie even when you speak the truth.'
. . . Our king of ambiguity, however, sits upon his ambiguous throne in security, and destroys us stupid Christians with a double destruction. First, it is his will, and it is a great pleasure to him, to offend us by his ambiguous words: and indeed he would not like it, if we stupid blocks were not offended. And next, when he sees that we are offended, and have run against his insidious figures of speech, and begin to exclaim against him, he then begins to triumph and rejoice that the desired prey has been caught in his snares. For now, having found an opportunity of displaying his rhetoric, he rushes upon us with all his powers and all his noise, tearing us, flogging us, crucifying us, and sending us farther than hell itself; saying, that we have understood his words calumniously, virulently, satanically; (using the worst terms he can find;) whereas, he never meant them to be so understood . . . . .
(Letter to Nikolaus von Amsdorf, Concerning Erasmus, from the web page of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Covenanted – no date for the letter indicated)
Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff paints quite a different picture of Erasmus, strikingly contradictory to that of Luther:
Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) was the king among scholars in the early part of the sixteenth century. He combined native genius, classical and biblical learning, lively imagination, keen wit, and refined taste. He was the most cultivated man of his age, and the admired leader of scholastic Europe from Germany to Italy and Spain, from England to Hungary . . . No man before or since acquired such undisputed sovereignty in the republic of letters . . . Erasmus shines in the front rank of the humanists and forerunners of the Reformation, on the dividing line between the middle ages and modern times. His great mission was to revive the spirit of classical and Christian antiquity, and to make it a reforming power within the church. He cleared the way for a work of construction which required stronger hands than his . . . He did more than any of his contemporaries to prepare the church for the Reformation by the impulse he gave to classical, biblical, and patristic studies, and by his satirical exposures of ecclesiastical abuses and monastic ignorance and bigotry.
. . . Protestants should never forget the immense debt of gratitude which they owe to the first editor of the Greek Testament who enabled Luther and Tyndale to make their translations of the word of life from the original, and to lead men to the very fountain of all that is most valuable and permanent in the Reformation . . . His exegetical opinions still receive and deserve the attention of commentators. To him we owe also the first scholarly editions of the Fathers, especially of Jerome, with whom he was most in sympathy . . . he cannot be charged with apostasy or even with inconsistency. He never was a Protestant, and never meant to be one.
. . . Erasmus was, like most of the German and English humanists, a sincere and enlightened believer in Christianity, and differed in this respect from the frivolous and infidel humanists of France and Italy . . . He devoted his brilliant genius and classical lore to the service of religion. He revered the Bible as a divine revelation, and zealously promoted its study. He anticipated Luther in the supreme estimate of the word of God as the true source of theology and piety . . . He had a sharp eye to the abuses of the Church, and endeavored to reform them in a peaceful way. He wished to lead theology back from the unfruitful speculations and frivolous subtleties of scholasticism to Scriptural simplicity, and to promote an inward, spiritual piety. He keenly ridiculed the foolish and frivolous discussions of the schoolmen about formalities and quiddities, . . .
(Schaff, ibid., Chapter IV, section 71)
Schaff renders his own judgment as to the personal conflict between the two men:
Luther abandoned Erasmus, and abused him as the vainest creature in the world, as an enraged viper, a refined Epicurean, a modern Lucian, a scoffer, a disguised atheist, and enemy of all religion. We gladly return from this gross injustice to his earlier estimate, expressed in his letter to Erasmus as late as April, 1524:
The whole world must bear witness to your successful cultivation of that literature by which we arrive at a true understanding of the Scriptures; and this gift of God has been magnificently and wonderfully displayed in you, calling for our thanks.
(Schaff, ibid., Chapter IV, section 73)