Erasmus and His Writings -- By: Edward Ulback

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 094:374 (Apr 1937)
Article: Erasmus and His Writings
Author: Edward Ulback


Erasmus and His Writings

Edward Ulback

Member of the Archaeological Institute of America

During the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, a little comedy was acted in the dininghall of Charles V., to amuse him and his guests. A man in doctor’s dress first entered the hall, bearing a bundle of billets of wood, crooked and straight, threw it down on the broad hearth, and in retiring, revealed the word Reuchlin written on his back. The next actor was also clad in doctor’s garb, and he set about making fagots of the wood; but having labored long to no purpose, in fitting the crooked billets to the straight, he also went away out of humor, shaking his head; and a smile went round among the princes as they read upon his back Erasmus. Luther came next with a chafing-dish of fire, set the crooked billets thereon, and blew it till it burned. A fourth actor, dressed like the Emperor himself, poked the fire with his sword, meaning thereby to put it out, but making it instead burn brighter than ever. And lastly, a fifth actor came, in pontifical robes, and, by mistake, poured oil instead of water on the flames.

The part assigned to Erasmus in this little comedy, four centuries ago, is very much the part assigned to him by historians of the struggle which it was intended to represent. It is the part which he undoubtedly seemed to play as an actor on the Protestant stage. At a certain point he seemed to turn from the Reformation in fear and disgust. It was very natural that Protestants should, therefore, conclude that, so far as regards religious reform, he was a time-server; and this has ever been the Protestant verdict.

Such a verdict is not, however, a logical deduction from the evidence, unless it be proved that, in turning away from the Protestant cause, he was departing also from his own conscience. It may be that he was adhering throughout to his own previously formed opinions; and that the reason why he seemed to forsake the Protestant path was, that he and the Protestant Reformers, though walking for a while in company, were really traveling different roads. How far this was the case must be learned by the comparison of his early views with his subsequent writings; and none of these are better fitted for this comparison than his satires. We have The Praise of Folly, written before Luther was heard of; and we have The Familiar Colloquies, written after the Pope’s Bull had issued against Luther, and after the epithet of “Antichrist” had been hurled back upon his Holiness by the excommunicated heretic. And, finally, we have a defense of these Colloquies, written in the midst of the Anabaptist riots, and after Erasmus had himself entered the lists against Luther. If...

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