The Reformation

Erasmus started it all. He didn’t mean to; it is the tragedy of great reformers that their efforts are so often hijacked by the revolutionaries. Erasmus wove together two strands of development: the preference for simple, heartfelt faith and rationalism. The convoluted writings of the Scholastics had already triggered a reaction of those who felt that faith shouldn’t require a doctorate. One manifestation of this reaction was the Brethren of the Common Life, a semi-monastic movement that emphasized simple faith. Unlike modern fundamentalists, however, the Brethren of the Common Life was broadly tolerant and prized education. Erasmus was brought up in this tradition and embraced its values; he also proved a voracious student of the classics and earned a place at the university of Paris, then the leading center of Christian education and thought.

Prior to Erasmus, the advocates of faith and those of reason had been distinct social groups; those who argued for faith over reason tended to be less educated and therefore held no sway with the Scholastics. The relationship between the two camps was fairly stable until the late 1400’s, but the coincidence of two events in the 1450s -- the fall of Byzantium and the invention of the printing press -- turned everything upside down. An army of Greek refugees descended upon Italy, bringing with them a treasure trove of classical Greek and Roman books, just in time for those books to be printed and disseminated all over Europe.

Erasmus drank in this flood of new ideas and mastered the entire corpus of classical thought. He realized that the stark choice between cold logic and simple faith was only the result of a narrow view of Christianity. Inspired by the rich heritage of Greek philosophy and the Christian Fathers, Erasmus championed a new approach to faith that reconciled logic with faith by separating them into distinct domains, both of which commanded respect. In effect, Erasmus might have said, "Render unto Aristotle the things that are logical, and unto God the things that are religious." His thinking was subtle and nuanced; the division between faith and logic was not an absolute separation, but rather a world of gray overlap. Religious belief was at its core a matter of personal faith, not provable logic. But personal behavior should be guided by rationalism, what we might now call common sense. Thus, Erasmus contemptuously dismissed the adoration of holy relics as ignorant superstition, yet extolled the joys of simple, pure faith.

When Erasmus began his scholarly career, the Christian world was simple and he saw two clear targets: the Scholastics and the superstitious. In 1512 he wrote The Praise of Folly, poking fun at the excesses of both groups; while he was at it he tossed in jabs at just about every group in Christendom. He concluded the book with a panegyric to faith so pure that it dispenses entirely with any kind of rationalism. The book was a great hit; people all over Christendom roared in delight at his deft skewering of the rich and powerful. The Scholastics, of course, were incensed, but impotent. Erasmus had poked fun at some of the more corrupt practices of the Catholic Church; his hope had been that by making fun of such practices, he might contribute to their eventual elimination. But events outran him.

Anybody else would have been burned at the stake for the impertinence of the book, but Erasmus was invulnerable to reactionary forces. His erudition placed him in the first rank of Christian scholars; his wit sliced into the corrupt elements of the Church without touching the Pope, the princes of the Church, or the kings. He was one slick operator. However, he set the stage for Luther, who shared many of Erasmus’ reformist notions but none of his tact or irenicism. Hotheaded Luther kicked off a civil war in the Catholic Church, and Erasmus took some of the blame from the conservative members of the Church. He died hated by both sides, his hope of a rational and tolerant Church dashed in ruins.

But his ideas continue to affect us to this day, and one of Erasmus’ key ideas, which Luther heartily endorsed, was that everybody should read the Bible themselves. Literacy was expected of every Christian, and it was the duty of every pious Christian to further literacy. This kicked off an educational revolution; primary schools multiplied and millions of Europeans learned to read. Once, again, mass literacy jerked upward. The first spurt of mass literacy made the Glory that was Greece; the second, the Glory that was Islam. This third spurt led to the Enlightenment.

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