Desiderius Erasmus

Life of Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus was born c.1466-1469 in Rotterdam, Holland, now the Netherlands.  He was the second of two illegitimate sons of  Roger Gerard, a priest, and Margaret, a physician’s daughter.  Their first schooling was at the chapter school of St. Lebuin’s in Deventer. When their parents died, the two boys were sent to a school conducted by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay religious movement that fostered monastic vocations.  Unsurprisingly, each entered monasteries, Erasmus choosing the Augustinian Brotherhood.

After his ordination to the priesthood (April 1492), he accepted a position as Latin secretary to the influential Henry of Bergen, bishop of Cambrai. With the bishop’s encouragement, he then attended the University of Paris to study theology in 1495.  In 1499, one of his pupils, William Blount, Lord Mountjoy, invited him to England. There he met Thomas More, who became a friend for life. John Colet quickened Erasmus’s ambition to be a “primitive theologian,” one who would expound Scripture in the manner of St. Jerome and the other Church Fathers.

By 1502, Erasmus had settled in the university town of Leuven in Belgium and was reading Origen and St. Paul in Greek. It was here that he wrote Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of a Christian Knight) urging readers to study the teachings of Christ using the spiritual interpretation of the “ancients.”

During a subsequent stay in England, he lectured at Cambridge and worked on scholarly projects, including the Greek text of the New Testament. During this period, Erasmus boldly commented on the ills of Christian society—popes who in their warlike ambition imitated Caesar rather than Christ; princes who hauled whole nations into war to avenge a personal slight; and preachers who looked to their own interests by pronouncing the princes’ wars just or by nurturing superstitious observances among the faithful. 

Erasmus’s belief in the unity of the church was fundamental, but he recoiled from the cruel logic of religious persecution. He believed that dissatisfaction with the church was not theology but anticlericalism and lay resentment of the laws and “ceremonies” that the clergy made binding under pain of hell.  In a private letter to Pope Adrian VI, he wrote that reconciliation was possible if the church granted the chalice to the laity and permitted priests to marry.

Erasmus and Martin Luther

Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther, giants of the Reformation era, began their relationship with mutual respect and a shared desire for reform within the Catholic Church. Relations begin to fray when Luther’s radicalism surpassed Erasmus’s more moderate approach. The former railed against abuses of power and demanded radical change while the latter advocated for gradual reform through education and persuasion. Erasmus feared Luther’s fiery rhetoric and violent clashes could lead to chaos and ultimately derail the entire movement for reform.

The climax came in 1524 with Luther’s treatise On the Bondage of the Will,” which rejected free will and emphasized God’s absolute predestination. Erasmus, a staunch defender of human agency, had previously written “On Free Will,” a more nuanced view that reconciled divine grace with individual choice. This theological dispute escalated into a bitter rivalry that widened further as Luther’s influence grew and the Reformation gained momentum. Erasmus, ostracized by both Catholics and Protestants, retreated from the fray, choosing neutrality over potential persecution. He continued to advocate for educational reform and intellectual freedom, but his voice lost its influence in the face of the tumultuous religious landscape.

the encounter between Erasmus and Luther remains a pivotal moment in European history. Their intellectual conflict highlighted the inherent tensions within the Reformation, revealing the divergent trajectories of religious renewal and the delicate balance between individual conscience and collective action.