Happy Birthday, Erasmus! You’re 550!

10/28/2016 § 2 Comments

I could say with Roland Bainton:

I have long been drawn to Erasmus on a number of counts. I share his aversion to contention, his abhorrence of war, his wistful skepticism with respect to that which transcends the verifiable; at the same time I am warmed by the glow of his piety… I relish his whimsicality and satire. I endorse his conviction that language is still the best medium for the transmission of thought, language not merely read but heard with cadence and rhythm as well as clarity and precision.

Like generations of schoolboys, I first met Erasmus in Latin class (reading “The Shipwreck”), where I was delighted with a living Latin, as conversation and repartee.   Who was this guy? I soon found that he was more than a schoolmaster — as I was coming to terms with the draft, he was the first person to speak to me in spiritual terms about war, and helped me see that war among other things is a symptom, and part of a larger system of interests, motives, and values.  It sharpened my ear for the 20th century voices that were telling the same story about my times, my world.

It took a few years more for me to hear what Erasmus had to say to me about the gospel.  By then I’d found Friends, and was reading Fox and Woolman and other guides to that path.   The battles that Erasmus fought for freedom of conscience, and (beneath all his passionate erudition) a “philosophy of Christ” that transcended party and forms, in a time of sectarian conflict, helped me think about ecumenism (Quaker and beyond).  I was moved and inspired by his committed if sometimes petulant moderation, and his willingness not to know, not to rush to certainty.  I came to treasure and learn from his trust in the divine wisdom, and in the knowledge that those who in some measure incarnate that living Wisdom will surely appear foolish and weak in the eyes of most people.

All this has been put in the past tense– but I keep learning from Erasmus, and from the many others who learn from him, and are stimulated by his example and his writings to look on their own times, tasks, and lives with fresh eyes.

On the occasion of his birthday, I re-read the “Paraclesis,” the introduction to his epochal edition of the Greek New Testament.   Here is a snippet that I love, in which he invites the reader to learn the “philosophy of Christ” (I slightly modify John Olin’s translation). There is much Erasmus in this!

The journey is simple, and it is accessible for anyone….Only be teachable, and you have advanced far in this philosophy. It itself supplies inspiration, as a teacher which communicates itself to no one more gladly than to minds that are without guile. This doctrine in an equal degree accommodates itself to all, lowers itself to the little ones, adjusts itself to their measure, nourishing them with milk, bearing, fostering, sustaining them, doing everything until we grow in Christ. Again, not only does it serve the lowliest, but it is also an object of wonder to those at the top. The sun itself is not as common and accessible to all as is Christ’s teaching.


§ 2 Responses to Happy Birthday, Erasmus! You’re 550!

  • The problem with the regularity of your blog lies in the reliable repetition of voices that feel like temptation … Am I wasting my time translating and quakercrating and teaching when I should be out there on the road with Brian and our Guide?

    Eramus kept working after he was gone, and in the Spanish Erasmistas Domingo Ricart, a few others and I continue to hear vocabulary, insights, and perhaps even a whole structure of feeling that, if pursued under the clear guidance of the Spirit, might have, would have led to a radical protestantism not unlike what the Quakers were given.

    Francis is headed for Sweden to show up at a large gathering of Lutherans. Francis seems to want the most irascible of the early reformers back in the list of the Augustinians. I wonder what Eramus would have thought. He went through such an honest failure trying to talk to Luther.

    If anybody is going to give Francis formula for reconciliation a chance —let’s hand over to the theologians our theological differences, and meanwhile let’s work together on so many things that we can work together on as Christians— it would be nice, perhaps even important to have Eramus back on the saddle. I would trust him.


    • briandrayton says:

      Yay, nice to hear from you, Benigno. Hans Kung a few years ago wrote advocating, just as you do, that the Church and the Churches re-examine and revive the “Erasmian program” for the church. There is much that Friends could love about him, and I find myself drawn to write more about him. In the same tract, the Paraclesis, he writes that the Philosophy of Christ is ‘nothing other than the restoration of human nature which was originally well-formed’, and builds his spirituality from there– as you say, so many people have been encouraged by him over the centuries. When I read him, as when I read some of our Friends, I find renewed longing on behalf of the Gospel lived and preached among us, and in the world.
      I should point out that of your “distractions,” Erasmus shared at least two– translating and teaching. He did escape Quakercrating (or Cathlicrating), for sure — something I am trying to emulate, too! But to everything there is a season, brother!


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