Reflections on the Past XI: Desiderius Erasmus

This blog post is based on the Covenant Reformed Seminary of Asia’s lesson on Church History Module – The Forerunners of the Reformation (Part 5): The Approach of the Dawn

During the middle ages, there was practically nothing of the simple faith. It was very dark. There was only but pomp and outward show.

In nature, it is darkest just before the dawn. Similarly, in the Church thick darkness prevailed during the close of the 15th and the first decades of the 16th century.

But the day had at last arrived when God was to demonstrate his power and to begin a thorough reform of His Church. He himself came with “his fan in his hand to purge His floor thoroughly, to gather the wheat into His garner, and to burn up the chaff with fire unquenchable.”

This great event in history is known as the Reformation. It is the most important epoch in the history of the world since the events of which we read in the New Testament.

The real power lay in the gospel of grace and the preaching of it, and the direct cause was the raising up by God of a number of men whom he had chosen to take the leading part in this work.

External causes of the Reformation

One of the most important of the external causes of the Reformation was the movement known to us as the Renaissance, or The Rebirth of Learning. It prepared the minds of men to throw off the yoke of illiteracy and serfdom, the agents by which the clergy kept the masses of men under their authority.

Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536) came to the picture. He was the son of a priest (and priests were denied by the Church the right to become fathers) and educated by the “Brethren of the Common Life” at Deventer and at The Hague

Erasmus attended several of the chief universities of western Europe, and spent a considerable time at Oxford where he met a scholar named John Colet who persuaded him to turn his attention from secular scholarship to biblical

Erasmus’ Contribution to the Reformaton

Erasmus, though a man of profound learning, was not really a reformer. He was not without Christian consciousness, but possessed neither the purity nor strength of faith necessary in a reformer. He was, however, a promoter of the Reformation in two chief ways:

  1. Erasmus exposed the abuses in the Church by writing against the moral corruption of all ranks, and by unsparingly denouncing the ignorance, idleness, and dissoluteness of the monks. In one of his books called, ironically, “In Praise of Folly,” he tells how most men “rested their hopes for salvation on a strict conformity to religious ceremonies, little thinking that the Judge of all the earth at the last day would say, “Who has required these things at your hands?”
  2. The second contribution made by Erasmus to the Reformation was his editing of the first printed Greek New Testament in the year 1516. This called scholars’ attention to the true gospel of Christ, and to that gospel as explained by the apostles of Christ. It reminded men of the way in which the Church was founded and taught them the essential requirements of God. Above all, it taught that salvation was by grace and not by works. The Bible was, as it were, taken from under a bushel and placed upon a candlestick to shed its light in the world of men. The Scriptures were soon translated into various European languages, and the printing press, invented about 1454 in Germany, made them available in large numbers at a price which many were able to afford.

I would to God that the ploughman would sing a text of the Scriptures at his plough, and that the weaver would hum them to the tune of his shuttle…I wish that the traveler would beguile the tediousness of his journey with this pastime. All communication of the Christian should be of the Scriptures. – Erasmus

In these ways Erasmus helped to introduce reformation but he lacked the convicting power of truth. He loved peace so well that he would sacrifice a part of truth rather than cause dissension.

“Erasmus has pointed out the evil, but he is unable to point out the good and to lead into the promised land. Perhaps he will at length die with Moses in the fields of Moab, for he does not lead into the better studies of God’s Word, those which concern piety.”

Martin Luther

“[his] writings accomplish nothing because [he] refrained from chiding, biting, and giving offence.”

Martin Luther, on the writings of Erasmus [and Capito], 1521

“Erasmus laid the egg, but Luther hatched it.”

In other words, Erasmus by his literary work prepared the way for the Reformation, but it was the work of others to re-establish the truth of God, through the Scriptures, in the souls of men.

With Erasmus dawn set it; with the reformers the light of divine truth reached it zenith. God can use anyone, and definitely, He used Erasmus.



  • Houghton, S. M., & Bennink, B. J. (1980). Sketches from church history. Banner Of Truth Trust, , Printing.‌
  • Tomlin, G. (2012). Luther & his world. Lion Books.

Published by Jeff Chavez

Sinner saved by grace

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