When Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch scholar and former monk, wrote The Praise of Folly in 1509, he satirized his world and called on bishops and popes to follow the example of Christ.
The young Martin Luther may have seen Erasmus as a kindred spirit in his call for reform of the Church. After Erasmus published a new Latin translation of the New Testament in 1516, Luther appreciated the Dutch scholar even more.
Now Erasmus was the world’s most famous scholar, and watched the Reformation unfold after Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses.
Erasmus wrote “Luther is so great that I shall not write against him. I hope that all the tumult Luther has stirred up will, like a drastic medicine, somehow bring about the health of the Church.”
But Erasmus and Luther parted ways in the conflicts about religious doctrine. In his 1524 The Freedom of the Will, Erasmus insisted that humans have free will to choose between good and evil.
Luther replied in his 1525 On the Bondage of the Will that humans have free will in all non-spiritual matters, but after the Fall of Man, can’t choose to please God.
Their disagreements escalated. Eventually Luther wrote that Erasmus was “the worst foe of Christ that has arisen in the last thousand years.”
When monks accused him of “laying the egg that Luther hatched,” Erasmus replied that he had expected “quite another kind of bird.” Erasmus had hoped for peace and a purified Church. He remained loyal even when the Church resisted reform—refusing the path of Luther and the Reformation movement.
Was Erasmus guilty as charged?