Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
Luther and the Protestant Reformation
It's October 31. No one is trick-or-treating. The year is 1517. A young monk named Martin Luther approaches the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, and posts a list of 95 complaints against the Catholic Church. Though small, this would prove to dramatically alter the course of European history. Ultimately, it would help lead to individualism, democracy, capitalism, and much that we associate with modern life.
If you don't already know, I'm referring to the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was an anti-Catholic European movement sparked in 1517 by a monk named Martin Luther. Luther was basically fed up with corruption and what he considered false teachings in the Catholic Church, and he sought to 'reform' it by posting his 95 Theses.
This event was a lightning rod. It sparked mass anti-Catholic uprisings throughout Europe, particularly among the lower classes. Suddenly, everyone had an opinion: on Luther, on the Catholic Church, on the rights of the lower classes. People were pretty much forced to take sides.
Who Was Erasmus?
One man who desired to remain neutral and stay above the conflict was Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536). Pretty cool name, at least I think so. Erasmus was a highly influential Dutch scholar and Catholic priest. Erasmus was a brilliant intellectual who held to the values of Renaissance humanism. I think we better explore this.
The Renaissance was a European cultural movement that took place between the 14th to 17th centuries. The word 'renaissance' literally means 'rebirth.' The Renaissance involved a renewed appreciation for Greek and Roman art and culture. One of the central themes of the Renaissance was humanism. In its simplest form, humanism is a belief system that emphasizes human actions and places great value on human nature. Modern humanism tends to be anti-religious, but Renaissance humanism was a little different. Renaissance humanism merged the very 'human' themes of Greek and Roman culture (like philosophy, art, and science) with accepted Christian teachings. Erasmus was deeply influenced by Renaissance humanism.
It is believed that Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1466. As a young man, he received an education from the University of Paris. He went on to teach theology (which is the study of God) at the University of Cambridge in England. He rose to become a respected intellectual. He prepared high-quality versions of the New Testament in Greek and Latin. These versions would be helpful to other Bible translators, like William Tyndale. He also wrote popular works such as On Free Will, The Praise of Folly, Handbook of a Christian Knight, and On Civility in Children. Erasmus appreciated classic Greek and Roman literature, and he became a well-respected literary figure.
Erasmus and the Reformation
Okay, so now back to the Protestant Reformation. As I said before, once the Reformation broke out, everyone was basically forced to take sides. Erasmus tried to stay above the strife by emphasizing a balanced approach. As a contemporary of Martin Luther, Erasmus had great respect for Luther. He even praised Luther by calling him 'a mighty trumpet of gospel truth.' Erasmus recognized the need to reform certain aspects of the Catholic Church. He recognized the need to deal with corruption.
Yet, Erasmus did not go as far as Luther in certain areas. He felt Luther was a bit too radical. He declined to publicly support Luther, something that deeply angered Luther. Erasmus continued to hold to the tradition and teachings of the Catholic Church. In particular, he refused to go along with Luther's view that God controlled the future through predestination. Instead, Erasmus held to the view of free will.
Have you ever tried to do the right thing by not taking sides, only to make everyone upset with you? That's how it was for Erasmus. By emphasizing a balanced approach and not taking sides, he caused both the Catholics and the Protestant reformers to become upset with him. But in his heart, Erasmus felt he was doing the right thing, especially after the Protestant Reformation turned radical and violent. Partly as a result of the Reformation, widespread war broke out. The German Peasants' War was a mass revolt of peasant and lower-class Germans against the aristocracy that took place throughout 1524 and 1525. Many historians regard the conflict as stemming from the Protestant Reformation.
By not taking sides in the Protestant Reformation, Erasmus opened himself up for criticism by both sides. Nevertheless, today he is remembered for being an influential scholar. He is sometimes referred to as the 'Prince of Humanists' because he held to the values of Renaissance humanism.
Let's review the key terms in this lesson:
- The Protestant Reformation was an anti-Catholic European movement sparked in 1517 by a monk named Martin Luther. It had profound social, political, and economic implications throughout Europe.
- Erasmus was a highly influential Dutch scholar and Catholic priest. He held to the views of Renaissance humanism.
- The Renaissance was a European cultural movement that took place between the 14th to 17th centuries. The word 'renaissance' literally means 'rebirth.' The Renaissance involved a renewed appreciation for Greek and Roman art and culture.
- Humanism is a belief system that emphasizes human actions and places great value on human nature.
- The German Peasants' War was a mass revolt of peasant and lower-class Germans against the aristocracy that took place throughout 1524 and 1525. Many historians regard the conflict as stemming from the Protestant Reformation.
Erasmus respected Luther, but felt he went too far. He refused to take sides in the Protestant Reformation and tried to maintain a balanced approach.
After this lesson ends, you should be able to:
- Detail the history of Desiderius Erasmus
- Describe the Protestant Reformation and the role of Martin Luther
- Recall Erasmus's belief in humanism and respect for Luther
- Identify the influence of the Renaissance on Erasmus's work
- Recognize that Erasmus took a moderate approach to the opposing views of the Catholics and Protestant reformers
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