Imatges de pÓgina
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about in a peaceful way. He had hoped that the progress of learning would soften and enlighten the general mind; that by the diffusion of knowledge the prevailing superstitions would be overthrown; that biblical studies would of themselves promote a truer and purer religion; that perhaps Leo X., the patron of arts and of letters, might become the great reformer of the church. That such were the anticipations of Erasmus at this critical period, there can be little doubt, and that they were entirely futile and fallacious, is equally clear. He understood not the nature of the questions at issue, nor the magnitude of the interests which were depending on either side, nor the strength with which the advocates of the old religion would cling to their favorite superstitions, nor the deadly strife which would be necessary in order to tear them away. The times that were coming were emphatically such as to try men's souls; and the event proved that the soul of Erasmus was not equal to the trial.

In the early part of the Reformation, Erasmus contrived to stand pretty well with both parties. The monks, indeed, and the inferior catholic clergy hated and denounced him, but the pontiff, the cardinals, and the more distinguished prelates treated him with honor and respect.

Of Luther, at this period, Erasmus was accustomed to speak with reserve, but not in terms of hostility or reproach. Thus, in a letter to Melanchthon, in 1519, he says: “All the world is agreed in commending the moral character of Luther; but as touching his writings, there are various opinions. I have not as yet read his works. He hath given us good advice on certain points. God grant that his success may be equal to the liberty he hath undertaken."

The same year, Luther sent a very courteous and civil letter to Erasmus. He took it for granted that Erasmus was on his side, because he had declared himself so strongly against the monks. Erasmus replied, calling Luther “| dearest brother in Christ,” and informing him of the excitement which his works had occasioned at Louvain.

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myself,” says he, “I told the divines of the university that it would be better for them to publish a solid answer to your works, than to rail at you before the populace, especially as no objections could be raised against your moral character. I have read portions of your Commentary on the Psalms, and like it much, and hope it may do great good.” Erasmus goes on to tell Luther that many persons in England and in the Low Countries approved of his writings. He exhorts him to rnoderation in his language, and to content himself with attacking, not the persons of popes and kings, but rather those evil counsellors who imposed upon them, and made a bad use of their authority.

But, notwithstanding all these kind and civil expressions, Erasmus was not prepared to go all lengths with Luther, or to commit himself to the support of his cause.

He hated strife; he hated controversy, and preferred rather to surrender some portion of the truth, than, in maintaining it, to disturb the peace of the world. Besides, he had not the courage or the spirit of a martyr. He confesses as much as this in a letter to the Dean of St. Paul's, written in 1521. “ Wherein could I have assisted Luther," says he, “if I had declared myself for him, and shared the danger along with him? Only thus far, that, instead of one man, two would have perished. It is true that he has given us many a wholesome doctrine, and many a good counsel; and I wish that he had not defeated the good effects of them by his insufferable faults. But if he had written everything in the most unexceptionable manner, I had no inclination to die for the sake of the truth. Every man has not the courage to be a martyr, and I am afraid if I were put to the trial of Peter, that I should imitate him in his fall.

It was well that the world, at that period, had men of sterner stuff than this; men who dared to stand up on God's behalf; who counted not their lives dear unto themselves, that so they might finish their course with joy. Still, "we must not judge too severely those timid spirits who are not endowed with this sublimer virtue." Erasmus desired a reformation, while he unwittingly shrunk from the

only method in which, as things then were, a reformation could be accomplished. He still pleased himself with the hope of a tranquil reformation, carried on and consummated by princes and prelates, popes and kings. As one well expresses it, “he dreamed that the clergy of that day, corrupt as most of them were to the very core, could be persuaded to forego all those accumulated superstitions on which their power and influence rested, and become mild, holy, self-denying pastors; that sovereigns like Charles V., and Francis I., and Henry VIII., each a bigot in his way, might forget their feuds, and conspire for the reëstablishment of a pure and apostolical church; that popes like the voluptuous Leo X., or the cold and narrow Adrian, or the worldly and intriguing Clement VII., should become the apostles of a simple, evangelical creed ; that the edifice of sacerdotal power and authority, which had been growing up for centuries, would crumble away before the genial inAuence of learning and persuasion. Erasmus, we repeat, may have dreamed of such a thing, and for a time directed his course accordingly; but, as might have been expected, the progress of events soon spoiled the dream, and dissi. pated the delusion.

Erasmus's controversy with Hutten was a disgrace to both parties. Hutten had undertaken to drive Erasmus from his position of neutrality, and compel him to take sides with Luther. For this purpose he had, in his letters, expostulated with him, had entreated him, reproached and warned him : “ Will they who have condemned Luther be induced to spare you? No; fly while you can, and preserve yourself for us. Fly to some place of refuge, where the vengeance of your enemies, and of ours, cannot overtake you."

From this time, Erasmus did reside chiefly in the Protestant city of Basle; not, however, as he would allow, from a regard to his personal safety, but for the more convenient publishing of his works. Here Hutten came to make him a visit, but Erasmus refused to see him. On retiring from Basle, Hutten sent back what he called his " Expostulatio,"

which,“ in fury of invective, in bitterness of satire, and in the mastery of vituperative Latin," is said to have exceeded everything which that age of violence had before produced. In none of these properties, however, did it exceed the reply of Erasmus, which, under the title of “ The Sponge," he immediately hurled back. Luther had often been censured for intemperance of language in his controversial papers, but he had never descended to the style of either of these wretched publications. He is said to have - stood aghast at them,” and to have expressed his grave and sober condemnation of them both.

It was too late, after this, for Erasmus to think of acting as mediator between the two contending parties. He had forfeited his position of neutrality, and turned away from the side of the reformers. And subsequent events soon drove him still further away. The peasant war broke out in 1525, desolating southern Germany with atrocities which were surpassed only by the atrocities resorted to to support it. And this was soon followed by the uprising and extravagances of the Anabaptists. Although Luther denounces these proceedings with all the vehemence of which he was capable, inculcating an absolute submission in things temporal, to the higher powers, still his enemies laid hold of them, and endeavored to turn them against the Reformation. “See what your agitation and opposition to the established order of things has resulted in! We told you in season towards what your efforts were tending, but you would not hear. Nought remains, but you must now eat the fruit of your own way, and take the consequences of

your folly.”

Erasmus was shocked with these new commotions, and was more than ever disposed to stand aloof from the reformers. He was half persuaded to listen to the entreaties of his Catholic friends, and take up his pen in their defence. At this juncture, Luther wrote him a long and friendly letter, the principal object of which was, not to induce him to espouse his cause, but to hold him back from open opposition. “ I never wished,” says he, “ that, forsaking or neg.

lecting your own measure of grace, you should enter our camp. You might, indeed, have aided us much by your wit and your eloquence; but, since you have not the disposition and the courage for this, we would have you serve God in your own way. Only we feared, lest our adversaries should entice you to write against us, and that necessity should compel us to oppose you to your face. If you cannot, dear Erasmus, assert our opinions, be persuaded to let them alone, and treat of subjects more suited to your taste.”

Erasmus must have been moved by this friendly and gentle entreaty; and yet he was too deeply committed, or too far advanced in his work, to be deterred from the fatal step. A book must be written against the Lutherans; and on what subject shall he write? He selects a subject quite remote from the great controversy in hand, one which long had been, and still was, debated in the Romish church, the question respecting what had been called by Augustine, and was called by Luther, the bondage of the will. This question did not relate, as some have supposed, to the free, responsible agency of man.

Luther believed in free agency as fully as Erasmus. But the question turned rather on the natural and entire depravity of man, - on what Paul calls “the bondage of corruption," — by which the human will is enslaved. It belonged rather to the Pelagian controversy, than to the great struggle of the Reformation.

And yet Erasmus did not so conceive of it. He did not correctly understand it. He wrote a long and wordy “ Diatribe de Libero Arbitrio,” elegant in style, but lacking in point and substance, which neither convinced the Lutherans, nor satisfied those of the other party. In his reply to the " Diatribe," Luther admits that the composition is very elegant, but insists that the matter is contemptible, comparing it to “an excrement in a golden dish." Erasmus rejoined, in a work entitled “Hyperaspistes;" but the controversy gained him little favor with the Catholics, and added nothing to his fame.

From this time, Erasmus became, in his sympathies,

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