by John P. Dolan
Students will read both The Praise of Folly and An Inquiry Concerning Faith in this collection. Both works demonstrate the intelligence of Erasmus, who is often referred to as the man who laid the egg that Luther hatched.
Neither Erasmus nor Luther were pleased with that nickname. When someone mentioned it to Erasmus, he replied, “Yes, but the egg I laid was a hen, whereas Luther has hatched a gamecock.” In temperament they were opposites, and Luther’s unwillingness to split hairs led him to quickly despise Erasmus. The latter, slower to anger, eventually learned to reciprocate.
Many men have a greater claim than Erasmus to the title of forerunner of the Reformation: John Wycliffe, John Huss, even (in one man’s opinion) William Langland. Erasmus wanted to purify the Catholic Church, but he never wanted to undermine it. He had the same inherent tendency toward conservatism that Richard Hooker and Samuel Johnson had—admired by timid academics everywhere, but not very useful for upsetting social conventions and administering justice.
In spite of himself, however, Erasmus made one mighty contribution to the Reformation, publishing the first Greek New Testament. This, coupled with his criticism of abuses in the Catholic Church, made him appear to be on the side of Protestants.
He was not. To abandon the Catholic Church would be to abandon three pensions and protection offered to him by Pope Leo X. Besides, his love of the status quo made him fear any revolutionary ideas. Even in the early years, when he was still on good terms with Luther, he counseled him to “denounce those who misuse the Pope’s authority [rather] than to censure the Pope himself. So also with kings and princes. Old institutions cannot be rooted up in an instant. Quiet argument may do more than a wholesale condemnation.” Later, in a letter to the next pope, Adrian VI, Erasmus says “I entirely disagree with Luther” and then recommends, “If possible, there should be a check on the printing presses.”
The man who laid the egg that Luther hatched calling for censorship of all Protestant literature? It’s true. Erasmus disliked the abuses of the Catholic Church, but he had no stomach for change.
by Jeff Baldwin