The theology of Erasmus

It is remarkable that so little attention is paid to Erasmus at our Erasmus University. As the Erasmus Economics & Theology Institute, we therefore draw attention to the core of Erasmus' thought, his theology. In his theology, as well as in his personal life, Christ is the center. This is perhaps surprising, because Erasmus is usually praised for his pursuit of unarmed peace, tolerance, freedom of the intellect and of conscience. His struggle against religious fanaticism, hypocrisy and ecclesiastical show-off is also well known. Nevertheless, Erasmus put theology above philosophy. His attitude to life was fundamentally determined by his pursuit of eternal redemption and, related to this, a relationship with Christ.

Wetenschapscafé: Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus anno nu

Erasmus makes this explicit in the Paraphrase, which is based on the Prologue of the Gospel of John. To be saved it is enough, says Erasmus, to believe what God Himself has made known in His Word through His disciples. Once incarnate, it pleased God to reveal things to these disciples. The philosophia Christi is "to hold fast to these things in simple faith." To worship Christ with a pure heart is true piety and religion.

The striving for a bond with Christ therefore resonates most in Erasmus' philosophia Christi. This doctrine starts with faith in Christ. Through that faith one can become free from earthly desires, live according to Christ's teachings and example, and thus develop virtues. Only then, according to Erasmus, is it possible to understand Christ as God's Word: as a Blueprint of cosmic laws and a Guideline for the good life at the same time.

Erasmus describes the humanistic method as the method most suitable for the development of the philosophia Christi:

"When I realized that this wholesome teaching is poured much purer and fresher from the streams of water and the springs themselves than from pools and brooks, I corrected the whole New Testament after the Greek—not by rash, leisurely labour, but by consulting many manuscripts in both languages and not just some manuscripts, but only the oldest and the best".

Erasmus wrote this to Pope Leo X. Of course Erasmus wanted to please the humanistic pope, adding that he had read commentaries and made notes to justify his corrections to the standard text of the New Testament. But he does not shy away from describing humanism as a means of building up the philosophia Christi. It's not the other way around. The return ad fontes mainly involved a study of the books of the evangelists and apostles, books which Erasmus describes as "the purest sources", "much easier than Aristotle's philosophy from thorny tomes".

Religion and philosophy went together for Erasmus. But when insights from theology and philosophy clashed, philosophy was subordinate to his striving to discover the truth of the Word, as encountered in a relation with Christ. The ancient sources were the servant of the New Testament. It was not the other way around for Erasmus, the theologian.

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