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Who was Desiderius Erasmus?

Desiderius Erasmus audio

Desiderius Erasmus (1466—1536) was a Dutch theologian and the scholar behind what is now known as the Textus Receptus. In a day when the only Bible available was the Latin Vulgate, Erasmus sought to produce a textually accurate Greek New Testament. To that end, he compiled several handwritten Greek manuscripts and oversaw their printing in 1516.

Erasmus was ordained as a Catholic priest at the age of 25 but was granted a dispensation from his religious vows that enabled him to accept the post of secretary to the Bishop of Cabrai. In 1495 Erasmus attended the University of Paris and earned his Doctor of Divinity at Turin University, Italy, in 1506. Between 1510 and 1515, Erasmus taught at Queens College, Cambridge, England.

Erasmus produced a version of the New Testament in both Greek and Latin. It was a bestseller. His second edition (1519) of the Greek text was used by Martin Luther in his German translation of the Bible. The third edition (1522) was used by William Tyndale for the first English New Testament. It was also the basis for the 1550 Robert Stephanus edition used by the translators of the Geneva Bible (1599) and the King James (Authorized) Version of the Bible (1611). In 1527 Erasmus published a definitive fourth edition, with parallel columns of Greek, Latin, and Erasmus’ notes. The final edition (1535) did not contain the Latin Vulgate. Erasmus dedicated his work to Pope Leo X and regarded his production of a Greek New Testament as his chief service to the cause of Christianity.

After Erasmus’ death, another edition of his New Testament was published in 1633. The publisher’s preface said, “Textum ergo habes, nun cab omnibus receptum” (“The [reader] now has the text that is received by all”). From that publisher’s notation has come the term “Received Text” or “Textus Receptus.” Erasmus’ work was the dominant Greek text of the New Testament for the next 250 years. It was not until the publication of the Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament in 1881 that the influence of the Textus Receptus waned.

During the Reformation, Erasmus was of two minds. He was critical of the abuses within the Catholic Church and called for reform, but he kept his distance from Martin Luther and continued to recognize the authority of the Pope. Erasmus wanted to introduce humanistic enlightenment into the Catholic Church without breaking with Rome. Erasmus declined to support Luther on the basis that to do so would jeopardize his position as an independent scholar and lessen his influence within the Church to introduce reform. To begin with, there was mutual respect between Erasmus and Luther, but Erasmus later condemned the conduct of the new evangelicals of the Reformation and expressed concern that Luther was setting himself up as the sole interpreter of Scripture. In some ways, Erasmus was caught in a cross fire, each side accusing him of siding with the other.

Between 1524 and 1527, Erasmus and Luther engaged in a bitter dispute over free will. From this exchange came Luther’s famous On the Bondage of the Will. Erasmus debated with other theologians and humanists (those who study the humanities), and, although he opposed abuses within the Church, he usually came down squarely on the side of Catholic doctrine.

Erasmus was respected as a classical Latin and Greek scholar and became known as “Prince of the Humanists.” He is best known as a Dutch Renaissance humanist, social critic, teacher, and theologian. He described the Reformation this way: “Luther was guilty of two great crimes; he struck the Pope in his crown, and the monks in their belly.” And his comment on Luther’s influence: “By burning Luther’s books you may rid your bookshelves of him, but you will not rid men’s minds of him.” Both comments show Erasmus had an astute grasp of the realities of his times.

Throughout the tumult of the Reformation, Erasmus sought to avoid outright conflict while still upholding traditional Roman Catholic doctrine. His middle-of-the-road approach angered scholars in both camps, and the Church of Rome was disappointed that Erasmus failed to sacrifice himself in defense of the Church.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022