Historians have developed the phrase “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.” Erasmus, along with other Christian humanists in Northern Europe, prepared the way for the Protestant Reformation.
In France the major figures were Guillaume Bude, Jacques d’Etaples, and Marguerite of Navarre. Guillaume Bude, a promoter of “New Learning,” pled for a degree of openness in the Catholic Church. Jacques d’Etaples helped prepare for the Protestant Reformation by translating the Bible into French, and his writing influenced Anne Boleyn, future queen of Henry VIII who would break with the Catholic Church. Marguerite of Navarre was a famous patron of humanism. Humanism was the breeding ground for French reform and influenced John Calvin.
In Spain the key promoter of humanism was Cardinal Cisneros who was Queen Isabel’s confessor. He typified Catholic reform by cleaning up the abuses in the Catholic Church. Hebrew learning was strong in Spain through Jewish influence, and the leading product of the time was the Complutensian Polyglot, a huge reference Bible.
The German states produced two great humanists: Rudolf Agricola and Johann Reuchlin. Rudolf Agricola, the father of German humanism, conveyed the fruits of his Italian study to Germany. Johann Reuchlin, although caught up in a controversy over Jewish literature, taught Philipp Melanchthon who would eventually found the University of Wittenberg which was the birthplace of the Reformation.
In England John Colet and Thomas More led the way for Christian humanism. John Colet, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, promoted the grammatical-historical method through lectures and plain preaching. He founded the St. Paul’s Cathedral school and advocated reform for the abuses of the Catholic Church. Thomas More wrote about a humanist utopian society which had no punishment for religious dissent. He became chancellor to Henry VIII but was beheaded for opposing the Protestant Reformation when it came to England.
Erasmus was perhaps the greatest of the Christian humanists. He advocated a “philosophy of Christ”—a life of devotion based on the pattern of Christ. He promoted salvation through education and contributed heavily to Biblical studies through his method of exegesis and popular exposition. Erasmus wrote the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible, and he is famous for his Greek New Testament which would be used in the future by Bible translators. He condemned monastic ignorance and the empty ceremonialism of the Catholic Church. Ultimately, Erasmus rejected Luther and the Reformation, but he did have a direct influence on Zwingli.
Whether he liked it or not, Erasmus had a profound influence on the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Christian humanists changed their known world and prepared the way for even great changes to come through the works of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.
– Hannah S. Bowers