How Erasmus’ Mood Impacts the Development and Posture of an Evangelical Calvinist

When I first came across the reality of late medieval scholasticism at work in the Roman Catholic Church, and then later in the Post Reformed orthodox period of the Protestant Reformation, it brought a lot together for me. As a method the scholastic approach was a dialectic, one that went like this: 1) thesis, 2) anti-thesis, 3) synthesis, 4) synthesis becomes the new thesis, 5) so on and so forth. It’s easy to see how an approach like this over a period of centuries could remove the exegete and theologian further and further away from the realities disclosed afresh and anew in Holy Scripture. It was this commentary-building tradition, which had become normative for the medieval church, which someone like Martin Luther protested against. It was the movement known as Christian Humanism that kicked against such an approach, and instead trumpted a call of ad fontes (‘back to the sources’).

Lorenzo Valla was one of the forerunners of Christian Humanism and helped to foster the culture which would finally allow for the Protestant Reformation; a culture wherein folks, like Luther and Erasmus, were encouraged to read the Bible and the Church Fathers for themselves; in the original languages to boot. I want to highlight the contribution that Erasmus made to all of this in this post. It is this type of mood that turned me to someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and allowed me to see how the Reformation actually turned into a type of magesterium in itself, regulated by its own commentary tradition which the Westminster Confession of Faith illustrates.

Erika Rummel writes this of Erasmus’s approach, and his posture against scholastic theology:

Erasmus strongly objected to scholastic theology with its emphasis on dialectical reasoning. In his eyes, a purely academic theology was useless for providing guidance to Christians in their daily life. Rhetoric, by contrast, fulfilled that mediating function which allowed God’s injuctions to take root in the human heart. The Word of God was inherently rhetorical in the sense that it had persuasive and redemptive power; theologia rhetorica, unlike scholastic theology, pointed the way to the Word and aroused ‘a new zeal for the true religion of the gospel’. This message remains constant in Erasmus’ writings. It informs the Paraclesis (‘Invitation’), first published with his New Testament edition in 1516, and constitutes the dominant theme in his last original work, a manual of preaching entitled Ecclesiastes (‘The preacher’). In the Paraclesis Erasmus devoutly wished for an eloquence that would not only beguile the reader but enter his heart and transform his very soul. In the Ecclesiastes Erasmus outlines the task of the preacher in similar terms. He must be persuasive so that the congregation can hear in his sermons the voice of God. Again he uses the images of rapture and transformation to indicate the power of the theologia rhetorica. The practical moral impact of the preacher and the theologian – that is, of sermon and exegesis – is of utmost importance to Erasmus. The parallels between the prolegomena to the New Testament and his manual of preaching show that in his opinion the task of the preacher and that of the exegete converged. It was therefore appropriate to focus attention on language and on the rhetorical power of scripture. Because the Word of God has the power to transform, Erasmus wanted the laity directly exposed to the text: ‘Let the farmer sing a passage from the Bible at the plough, the weaver hum a passage to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of his journey with biblical stories!’[1]

There is some irony here. If you speak to a classically Calvinist person today they will claim to be part of the ad fontes tradition; and, indeed, in the beginning Reformed theology was motivated by that tradition (catch the irony of how tradition is inescapable). But over time, and particularly as it once again became ensconced within a Ramist/Agricolan locus methodology, the scholastic dialectic was once again imbibed and a whole new magisterium was created. Today we can witness, when speaking to a classically Calvinist person, the role that the three forms of unity might have (i.e. Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt), or more significantly the Westminster Standards. It really isn’t possible, even though they affirm that all else is subordinate to Scripture, for them to come to Scripture in an ‘back to the sources’ type of way since they see their standards as regulative and the most faithful interpretations of the text.

This is what evangelical Calvinism, of the sort I endorse, repudiates, and instead follows the lead and sense of someone like Erasmus. Clearly, we, as evangelical Calvinists don’t come to the same conclusions, theologically, as Erasmus on many things—in fact we probably agree much more with our classically Reformed brethren on many things, at least at an inchoate level—but we do follow his approach when it comes to bucking scholastic theology and always already moving back to the sources (i.e. Holy Scripture as the normative attestation to its reality in Jesus Christ).

Evangelical Calvinists are committed to a dialogical theology, an approach that works immediately after the fact that God has spoken (Deus dixit) in Christ as His most faithful and authoritative self-explication. We believe, like Erasmus, in pointing to an immediate encounter with the lively reality of the text of Holy Scripture as that breaks off in Christ who mediates us by grace through his vicarious humanity into the inner sanctum of the Triune life. We believe that Revelation, and Scripture as a subset of revelation, is an event; it isn’t something that we can control, or layer through tradition-making, but instead it is God in Christ confronting us afresh and anew moment by moment speaking His Lordly and Sovereign self to us as He draws us deeper and deeper into the realization of all that He is and all that we have because of who He is for us and with us.

Solo Christo; Sola Scriptura; Soli Deo Gloria

 

[1] Erika Rummel, The theology of Erasmus in David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz eds., The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33-4.

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