Born October 27th, 1466 in Goud, the Netherlands, Desiderius Erasmus overcame a difficult childhood to become one of the great thinkers in the history of Christianity. Erasmus was born at the beginning of a new era of Christian thought, with the split between Catholicism and the followers of Martin Luther soon to come. However, Erasmus had to overcome poverty, his humble upbringing to an educated priest and washwoman (an upbringing he tried his best to avoid), and the questions about whom his father was before he was able to become a mediator between Catholics and Lutherans. Erasmus joined an Augustinian monastery in 1487 at the age of 21 and was ordained a priest in 1492. Erasmus’ reputation as a humanist developed during his year at Cambridge in 1505, where he argued incessantly with scholars and began some magnificent theological pieces that would resonate for centuries to come. After years of travel, Erasmus died on July 12th, 1536 at the age of 69.
Erasmus’ personality would be best defined as enigmatic and disillusioned. Erasmus’ experience in higher education planted the seed of frustration with intellectualism and he saw much of society as a source for satire and criticism. He is perhaps best known for his work De Libero Arbitrio (On the Freedom of the Will), which used Scripture and the thoughts of church fathers to prove the freedom of the will in contravention of what Martin Luther believed. Erasmus defined free will as the power of choice by which every human being can apply himself to the things which lead to everlasting safety or turns himself away from them. In contrast to the fiery oratory of Martin Luther, Erasmus’ works were calmer and provided a voice for reason in the rocky period of Christianity in Europe. Erasmus’ satirical side was expressed in the work “In Praise of Folly” which criticized the shame and fear inherent within the God-fearing human. Erasmus felt that man should overcome these inadequacies, abstain from politics and “commerce” and turn to nature as the sole guide for how to live. Finally, Erasmus was a strong advocate of the use of Latin instead of Greek in writing the New Testament and provided such a translation over his lifetime. His feeling was that the more natural use of Latin exposed the weaknesses and mistranslations of Greek writings.
Erasmus’ importance in the grand scheme of things is multi-layered. Erasmus was a lifelong advocate for the use of Latin in Christian services and writings. The growing approach to humanism and a more open approach to intellectual endeavors was fused with Church tradition during Erasmus’ life much to his credit. Erasmus was also a renowned pacifist and while he was frustrated with social mores, he was an advocate for tolerance to those outside of the Church. Erasmus’ two most important contributions, however, were probably the idea of a free will within Church theology and the need to separate religious and political will in Europe. Erasmus’ contributions were seen as moderate at the time but in the grand spectrum of theological thought, they were fairly activist and only eclipsed by the more vocal activism of Martin Luther.