Christianity’s Greatest Satirist – WSJ

“I do not deny that I seek peace wherever possible”, wrote Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) at the start of the Protestant Reformation. “I believe in listening to both sides with open ears. I love freedom. I won’t, I can’t serve any faction.

No one else spoke like that in the pulpit or in the European courts. In 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, he was an obscure monk pleading for the church to be reformed. Four years later, his defense of the rights of conscience at the Diet of Worms – “Here I am! – created a social movement which terrified and exasperated the Roman curia. Erasmus – philosopher, scholar, satirist – has become a singular voice calling for peace, charity and mutual respect. “No one can deny that Luther calls for many reforms which suffer no delay,” he wrote. “Luther’s abrasiveness can only be tolerated on the pretext that our sins perhaps deserve to be beaten with scorpions.”

Martin Luther (1483-1546)


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The authorities did not agree. The day after Luther’s act of defiance of Worms, the emperor declared him an outlaw. The Catholic Church excommunicated Luther; religious and political authorities burned and banned his writings. The princes began to choose sides in the growing conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Soon all of Europe was ready for a religious and cultural war.

While declaring himself faithful to the Catholic faith, Erasmus defends Luther. Luther’s writings could not be suppressed, he said, without suppressing the gospel itself. Although Erasmus does not intend to be a martyr for Luther, he refuses to call him a heretic: “The world is full of rage, hatred and wars,” he wrote. “It is no great achievement to burn a little man. It is a great achievement to persuade him.

Erasmus led a reform movement known as Christian humanism: a revival of classical learning to bring others to a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures and a more authentic experience of the faith. His Philosophia Christi, “The philosophy of Christ”, was addressed to the individual believer, with a view to the moral and spiritual transformation of society. “What is this philosophy of Christ, which he himself calls being born again, if not the renewal of a well-formed human nature?

In his satirical blockbuster “The Praise of Madness”, Erasmus exposed the claims of religious with as much contempt as those of the political class. Referring to the theologians’ academic hats, he warned, “Don’t be surprised to see them in public disputes with their heads so carefully wrapped in strips of cloth, otherwise they would clearly explode. An unscrupulous individual could not be a good governor, he said, for his venality would spread “like a deadly plague.” The just prince, rejecting the rage of factions and his own selfish ambition, must “think only of the common good”.

As Christian unity began to disintegrate, Erasmus tried to avoid violence. “You cannot address a credible prayer to the father of all men”, he writes in “The complaint of peace”, “when you have just stuck a sword in the bowels of your brother”. Erasmus constantly invoked the example of Christ’s love and mercy towards sinners, but he could not prevent the wars of religion of the sixteenth century. Protestants despised him for his loyalty to Rome, while Catholic leaders condemned his pro-Lutheran sympathies. Luther called him “the king of the amphibians” and his works ended up on the Index to the Forbidden Books of Rome.

Yet Erasmus’s spiritual perspective has survived. The Netherlands, his birthplace, produced the most tolerant society in 17th-century Europe, and the English Reformation was shaped by his attraction to rational argument and moderation. English philosopher John Locke, an admirer, wrote his most important defense of religious freedom while in exile in the Netherlands and in close contact with the followers of Erasmus. Eventually, the Catholic Church embraced much of its spiritual vision. For decades, the religious journal First Things, influential among Catholic intellectuals, has hosted an annual Erasmus conference.

The desire to abandon partisanship in the pursuit of moral truth: here is a partial remedy for the political and cultural divisions which seem to threaten our democratic republic. Jean Le Clerc, a Protestant scholar from Amsterdam, sums up the influence of Erasmus: “We cannot doubt that he greatly contributed to enlightening his time and to preparing men to accept a day which he himself never saw. that dawn. “America could benefit from another enlightenment, this time in Erasmus’s mind.

Mr. Loconte is director of the Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of “God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West” (Lexington, 2014).

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