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Desiderus Erasmus


Erasmus by
Hans Holbein the Younger

Desiderus Erasmus was the most important Christian Humanist. His commitment to humanism led him to study the humanities as developed in the Greek and Roman classics while his commitment to the Christian Gospel led him to promote the "philosophy of Christ," which he found most clearly stated in the Sermon on the Mount.

Erasmus's early education was with the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay brotherhood dedicated to living a Christian life. It was there that he first read the classics. He completed his education at the University of Paris. He appeared to be destined for a clerical career and was even ordained a priest. But instead of following the religious vocation, he became one of the first to make his living as a writer.

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Erasmus believed that the ideal Christian life was to follow a life of virtue based on Christ's example. The ancients also provided insights into the virtuous life. Because he advocated a life of simple virtues, Erasmus felt that the Roman Catholic Church needed to reform its superstitious and corrupt behavior. He attacked the Church for its pomp and for its magical beliefs about relics, cults of saints, and indulgences. He criticized the lax practices of monks and clergy and was against philosophical scholars for debating petty theological issues that mocked the New Testament faith. Many of his ideas were expressed in his most famous work, In Praise of Folly in 1509. This book attacked monks, theologians, and other Christians for not seeing the true purpose of life, which is to imitate Christ. Based on his ideals of Christian humanism, Erasmus preached piety, literary scholarship, and the study of the Scriptures. Through scholarship of the Scriptures, he reasoned that salvation is based on deeds of love, not asceticism. He believed strongly in a simpler and more intense Christianity modeled on Christ.

As Luther's reform movement proceeded, Erasmus found his position on Church reform increasingly difficult to maintain. Those who defended the Roman Church against Luther found him an unreliable ally and the Reformers thought his moderate positions did not go far enough. He remained loyal to the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, trying to work for reconciliation, peace, and civility. Eventually, Erasmus's disagreements with Luther became an open rupture. In 1524, Erasmus wrote a reasoned defense of the role of free will in salvation. He defended free will against Luther's doctrine of justification by grace through faith and its implicit belief in predestination. Without free will, Erasmus argued, human moral action would not have any meaning. Luther responded with his treatise "On the Bondage of the Will."

While Erasmus's moderation was lost in the conflict of the Reformation, his position resurfaced in the Seventeenth Century to contribute to the end of the Wars of Religion.


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Perry, Marvin, Joseph R. Peden, and Theodore H. Von Laue. Sources of the Western Tradition. (Boston, MA; Houghton Mifflin, 1995).

Sulivan, Richard E., Dennis Sherman, and John B. Harrison. A Short History of Western Civilization. (New York; McGraw-Hill, 1994).

Huizinga, Johan. Erasmus and the Age of Reformation. (New York; Harper, 1957).

Smith, Preserved. Erasmus; A Study of His Life, Ideals and Place in History. (New York; London: Harper & Brothers, 1923).

Sowards, J. Kelley. Desiderius Erasmus. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975).

Schoeck, Richard J. Erasmus of Europe: The Making of a Humanist. (Savage, MD; Barnes & Noble Books, 1990).

McConica, James. Erasmus. (Oxford and New York; Oxford University Press, 1991).

Edited by: Matthew S. Johnson
Researched by: Susan J. Blauwkamp
and Sarah D. Nietering
Written by: Luthy Chu
April 5, 1997

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