A Relentless Zeal: Effect of Desiderius Erasmus (Part 2 of 5)

Introductory Note: The last section gave a basic overview to what importance William Tyndale had on the English Reformation, and on our lives today. It was a basic outline for what the paper will cover. This section will begin the overview of the era in which Tyndale lived.

An Overview of the Era

It must be asked, what were the influences that led William Tyndale to blatantly call out a high ranking clergyman? To understand this, one must first look at the major streams influencing England during this time: Erasmus’ writing, Luther’s Theology, and the political upheaval under Henry the VIII.

1. Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus was likely born in 1466 in Rotterdam, Holland, and died in 1536 (the same year Tyndale died). He was born illegitimately, but overcame this to become a great and celebrated humanist (Sauer). Humanism was born in the 14th century as “the intellectual, literary, and scientific movement of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, a movement which aimed at basing every branch of learning on the literature and culture of classical antiquity” (Löffler). Erasmus influenced much of Europe, but did spend some time in England as a pioneer in teaching Greek there, although he never learned English. He taught at Oxford from 1497-1499 and at Cambridge from 1510-1513 (Löffler). His intent was to interest people in the older works, such as Aristotle and Cicero’s writings, and teach the people to read them in the original languages. This also obviously included the Bible.

Alister McGrath states that in England at this time the only Scripture that was available came from the Latin or was in Latin. Also, it was not legally available to the common man. Erasmus, mostly from a humanistic perspective, strongly opposed this with a radical idea by calling for “Trium linguarium gnarus,” the ability for all to be competent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He wanted all people to read the Scripture in Greek and Hebrew, and he founded some schools and taught at others where he could enable people to read these languages. One of the schools that allowed him to do this was Oxford (32), where Tyndale would graduate from in 1512, some fifteen years after Erasmus had been there (28).

In the same year that Tyndale graduated from Oxford, Erasmus published his inspirational De Copia. This book was a rigorous guide for students to learn how to rightly use language, specifically Latin, in order to amplify and embellish it so as to convince and awe audiences. The ideas that sew it together obviously found their origins in the minds of rhetoricians like Aristotle and Plato. Because of the influence of De Copia it has been boldly declared, “Without Erasmus, no Shakespeare” (42).

While De Copia did influence the writing and effectiveness of Tyndale, it was a far cry from his use of Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum, which appeared in 1516. It can be fairly said, but not without objection, that this book laid the foundation for the entire European Reformation. David Daniell, likely the top scholar on William Tyndale, said that “Erasmus’s Latin broke a thousand-year chain, the unchallengeability of Jerome’s Vulgate text. But his Greek was the real breaker of chains. Luther was able to see that the Greek made a new German possible. Tyndale even more, and found in the Greek and English which is still, nearly five hundred years later, modern” (Tyndale 61).

As a humanist, Erasmus’ desire was always to return to the original languages and clear up misconceptions and biases. None but fanatics and scholars were very interested in whether or not Plato’s Republic had been translated completely accurately, but when Erasmus put out the Novum he was walking on thin ice. This book, a massive three volume set, was an updated version of the historic Latin New Testament. In it, Erasmus corrected misconceptions that had been translated by Jerome one thousand years before. For example he translated Jerome’s “do penance” of the original Vulgate New Testament into “repent” (McGrath 33). The beautiful irony of it is that Erasmus seemed not to realize the effect this would have on the Reformation. Largely because of this book it can be said that without Humanism there would have been no Reformation.


The Novum Instrumentum: Greek on the left, Latin on the Right.

Perhaps what is of greatest importance is that, in backing up his claims for the changes to the Latin Bible, Erasmus included the original Greek of the New Testament as a parallel to the improved Latin. The fact that he did not value the Greek as much as the Latin, in contrast to Luther and Tyndale, is evident in his title page that excludes any mention of there being Greek at all in the book; this shows that it was simply an academic exercise to include it (Daniell, Tyndale 60-1).

Erasmus had in his hands the opportunity to now reform the Catholic Church, by correcting the many false views in it. To some degree he did, as in The Praise of Folly, a brilliant and beautifully written book. It pointed out the discrepancies in the church, such as the immorality of the monks and the groundlessness for the pope as supreme (Daniell, Tyndale 63). The book is best seen as a piece of comedy or satire, written from the viewpoint of “Lady Folly”; she points out how all of humanity worships her instead of wisdom, as a parallel to Proverbs 1-9. In The Praise of Folly he introduces the topic to Thomas More, to whom he had written the book, with his fear of “some religious men [that are] so topsy-turvy in their values that they listen more complacently to real blasphemies against Christ than to the mildest jokes about the pope or the local prince, especially if the joke might ‘touch them in the pocketbook’” (5). In a humoristic way, Erasmus uses this setting to go on to speak openly about the worldliness and absolute foolishness of many practices in the Catholic Church, and a general lack of focus on God. Yet it is very curious that he chooses to stop there. He knew the problems, pointed them out, yet would not teach the people about the value of wisdom, being “Lady Wisdom”. Perhaps he was afraid of persecution, or being thought of as radical and intolerant in the scholastic community. Yet, who would dare stand up against the power and dominance of the established Church? All the more this should point out the level of intense commitment and relentless passion that burned in Tyndale, to have him stand against the greatest of odds, in defense of truth (Daniell, Tyndale 69).

Even though Erasmus largely had little more to give to the Reformation after this, he was the spark igniting Martin Luther’s mind, specifically with the availability of the Novum Instrumentum in 1516. Six years later, Luther would complete the New Testament, from Greek, into German that was modern for that day and available to all. It is known as the September Testament and it forever changed Germany as having “caused sensation and [having] permanent effect on the shaping of the modern German language” (Daniell, Tyndale 215).

If something is to be pointed out now, before any more is read, it must be this: Scripture was the source of the Reformation. It was not Erasmus, or Luther, or Tyndale, but sola Scriptura. Yet more specifically, as Alister McGrath explains, there was a dangerous idea that led the Reformation: it was the radical concept that (perhaps) if all people had the Bible readily available to them, each could be saved, understand, apply it and be transformed by Scripture alone (208). The Catholic Church had come to stress that it was perilous to put the Holy Word of God into the hands of the untrained, but the Reformers retorted, in Paul’s words, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-7). It is clear that Luther and Tyndale held to this, but it is shocking that Erasmus, the calm humanist, also desired this, as he stated in the introduction to his Greek New Testament:

I absolutely dissent from those people who don’t want the holy scriptures to be read in translation by the unlearned—as if, forsooth (or indeed; used ironically), Christ taught such complex doctrine that hardly anyone outside a handful of theologians could understand it, or as if the chief strength of the Christian religion lay in the people’s ignorance of it…Christ wanted his mysteries to be disseminated as widely as possible. I should prefer that all women, even of the lowest rank, should read the evangelists and the epistles of Paul, and I wish these writings were translated into all languages of the human race, so that they could be read and studied [by all]. (The Praise of Folly and Other Writings 121; emphasis mine)

Tyndale clearly shared this determination to get the Bible into the hands of the common people so that they too might see God’s love and learn of His Gospel. In 1531, at age thirty-seven, Tyndale was told by the king that he would give him mercy in spite of the heaviest of criticisms, headed up by his archenemy Thomas More, who had “near-rabid hatred” towards him (Daniell, Tyndale 4). Tyndale was moved to tears by the response from King Henry VIII, since William had by this time been in exile for over seven years. At the opportunity the translator responded the king from his heart, with a request that showed his deepest desire:

I assure you, if it would stand with the King’s most gracious pleasure to grant only a bare text of the Scripture [that is, without any explanatory notes] to be put forth among his people, like as is put forth among the subjects of the emperor in these parts, and of other Christian princes, be it of the translation of what person soever shall please his Majesty, I shall immediately make faithful promise never to write more, not abide two days in these parts after the same: but immediately to repair unto his realm, and there most humbly submit myself at the feet of his royal majesty, offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this [translation] be obtained. (Piper)

In essence Tyndale expresses his desire to translate the Bible from the original languages into common English and make it available to all. Were the king to show his mercy in letting this become a reality, Tyndale offers his body to take any and all abuse and torture for the sake of the Scripture. He would even give up his right to write again, which had allowed him to convince people of his interpretation of the Bible, as opposed to Rome’s dogmas. He clearly held the Bible as self-affirming and self-interpreting, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

King Henry VIII refused this offer, as did the Roman Catholic Church, and they would not allow the Bible to be read by the common man, but “Tyndale would [make it possible], even if it cost him his life—which it did five years [after the above response to the king]” (Piper).


3 thoughts on “A Relentless Zeal: Effect of Desiderius Erasmus (Part 2 of 5)

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  1. Great men like links in a chain were used by God. We are in debt to them. May we be used to open doors for the gospel and pass on God’s truth to our generation. I can’t imagine any future generations, at least in this dispensation. Thanks, Kit, for the insights and appreciation for these heroes. Dad

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