Desiderius Erasmus: Humanist of Rotterdam Page 2 | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Foundations of the Faith

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Lithograph by Fr, Schenck after Hans Holbein, 1849. Click for full image. [Image no. 4437]

As the “Father of the Reformation,” Desiderius Erasmus (1466/69-1536) and his writings influenced theologians, scholars, and common people. But ultimately, Erasmus was a humanist, not a theologian or a radical reformer, and he remained a member of the Catholic Church for his entire life. Decades after his death, the Council of Trent listed his writings on the Index of Prohibited Books.

Portrait of Erasmus from Theodore Beza's Icones, 1580. [CR GU4 B46i]

For his time, Erasmus held rather unconventional teaching views. He encouraged physical education, criticized the use of harsh discipline, and insisted that students learned better when teachers stimulated their interest. As the foremost scholar and humanist of the period, his acquaintances included Thomas More, John Colet, and Henry VIII.

Page from Erasmus' 1516 Greek translation of the New Testament. Click for full image. [Image no. 999]

With the upheaval of religious thought during the Renaissance, new versions of scripture emerged. One of the first was Erasmus’ 1516 New Testament in Greek and Latin which he derived from several partial Greek manuscripts. This new edition comprised a vastly different interpretation from the Vulgate, the Latin version of the Bible accepted and used for centuries by the Catholic Church. In the preface to his New Testament, Erasmus urged others to continue his work by translating the Bible into their native languages. Many reformers, such as Martin Luther, did just that. In addition, scholars and theologians into the modern era used Erasmus’ text as the basis for other important biblical translations and commentaries. As Erasmus wrote, “it is an unscrupulous intellect that does not pay to antiquity its due reverence” (Works of Hilary, preface, January 5, 1523).

Page from Erasmus' Familiarium colloquiorum opus, containing Coronis apologetica, 1533. Click for full image. [Image no. 2033]