Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Two Great Men of the High Middle Ages

Alice C. Linsley

1466-1536:  Erasmus, Christian Humanist

1483-1546:  Martin Luther, Fiery Reformer


The Medieval Period is divided into the Early and Late Middle Ages. The earlier period is largely concerned with reconciliation of Christian theology and Greek philosophy. The synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian theology reached its climax in the 11th century (called the “High Middle Ages”). In the Late Middle Ages, ethics was tied to Scholasticism and the universities. Scholasticism influenced the development of Renaissance humanism in the 16th century. During the late Middle Ages the Jesuits established over 200 universities.

The Middle Ages are sometime termed “the Dark Ages.” This label was first applied by 17th century Humanists who regarded the entire period as mired in superstition and useless debate. Today the Middle Ages are recognized as a time of extraordinary creativity and innovation. Objects that we take for granted were invented in the Middle Ages: clocks, eye glasses, buttons, forks, gunpowder and the telescope.

Great cathedrals and monasteries were constructed. These fostered exceptional words of art in stained glass, icons, paintings, sculpture, and illuminated manuscripts. Great musical works were composed for use in the cathedrals and monasteries.

Universities were established in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and England. Three of these remain the oldest in continuous operation universities in Europe: The University of Bologna, Italy (founded 1088), the University of Salamanca, Spain (founded 1134), and the University of Oxford, England (founded 1167). The universities fostered learning in philosophy, math, science, literature, and theology. They produced the most learned men of Europe, among them: Erasmus, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Rene Descartes.

It was also an age chivalry, one of the more remarkable features of the Middle Ages. Chivalry refers to the knightly system and the virtues of loyalty and courage that characterized its followers. Chivalry directed knights and squires to honor and serve their lords and to protect ladies and maidens. Often romantic love developed between the knight and his lady. After 1600 AD tales of chivalry and romance went out of fashion, and Miguel de Cervantes satirized the genre in his famous novel Don Quixote.

This early centuries of this period were termed “the Dark Ages” by 17th century Humanists who regarded the collapse of Rome and Greece as a great tragedy. Today the Middle Ages are recognized as a time of extraordinary creativity and intellectual brilliance. This was a time of innovation during which many objects that we take for granted were invented, such as clocks, gunpowder, spectacles, buttons, forks and the telescope.
The gradual collapse of the Roman Empire left a political vacuum in Europe. The potential for chaos was prevented largely by the Roman Catholic Church which had a hierarchical structure similar to a military chain of command. After the 12th century there were many challenges to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. These challenges reached a peak in the 15th century.

Erasmus Seeking Reform Within the Church

The Dutch scholar Erasmus was one thinker who challenged the Church’s corruption. He was a moderate and refined voice during a time of religious conflict and violence. The English scholar John Colet said, "The name of Erasmus will never perish." Sir Thomas More wrote, "Erasmus has published volumes more full of wisdom than any which Europe has seen for ages."

Erasmus advocated referring to the Bible for guidance on how to live a good life, and study of classical Greek and Roman writings for guidance on how to achieve an orderly civilization. He integrated Renaissance humanism and Christian theology and proposed significant educational reforms.

After living in Rome for three years where he observed clergy corruption, Erasmus wrote of his contempt for their immoral and unethical practices in the Praise of Folly. He wrote a satire in which Pope Julius and St. Peter discuss Julius’ entry into heaven. Erasmus believed that Pope Julius was a hypocrite, preaching peace while he “stirs up the world with tempests of war for the sake of his authority over a small town.”

Although Erasmus criticized the Papacy, he remained a Catholic and was committed to a Catholic understanding of free will, which many Reformers rejected in favor of the doctrine of predestination. This angered leading Reformers, such as Martin Luther.

Erasmus was sympathetic with some points of Luther’s criticism of the Church, stating that, “It is clear that many of the reforms for which Luther calls are urgently needed.” So it was said that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.” Erasmus respected Luther and Luther admired Erasmus' superior learning, urging him to join the Lutheran movement. Erasmus declined, believing that his life’s purpose was as a leader in the movement for humanistic scholarship and as a translator of the Bible. If he were to influence the reform of the Church it would be as a scholar. 

Unfortunately, when Erasmus hesitated to support the Lutheran movement, Luther accused him of either cowardice or a lack of purpose. Erasmus believed that the reforms he valued could be achieved within the existing structure of the Roman Catholic Church. His attempts to remain neutral during this time of unrest caused both Catholics and Protestants to accuse him of siding with the other. Erasmus wrote, “I detest dissension because it goes both against the teachings of Christ and against a secret inclination of nature. I doubt that either side in the dispute can be suppressed without grave loss.”

Erasmus and Luther Debate the Question of Free Will

In 1524, Erasmus wrote a treatise in which he dealt with the Lutheran notion of the bondage of the will to sin. He systematically set out the weaknesses of Martin Luther’s Augustinian view in his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio(The Freedom of the Will). In response, Luther wrote On the Bondage of the Will which directly attacks Erasmus, going so far as to claim that Erasmus was not a Christian.

To Erasmus, the Bible and the Classics were two sides of the same coin, thus he strove to combine them. This is reflected in Erasmus’ definition of education: "The task of fashioning the young is made up of many parts, the first and consequently the most important part of which consists of implanting the seeds of piety in the tender heart; the second in instilling a love for, and thorough knowledge of, the liberal arts; the third in giving instructions in the duties of life; the fourth in training in good manners right from the very earliest years.”

To Erasmus, “a man without education has no humanity at all; that man’s life is a fleeting thing; that youth is an easy prey to sin; that adulthood is afflicted with numerous cares; and that old age, which few are permitted to reach, is barren and sterile...” He believed that the seeds for a good life are in us ‘by nature’, and teachers are to cultivate these seeds. He wrote: “The seeds that nature has implanted in us to attain this goal are bursting with life; the only thing that is required, in addition to this natural inclination, is the effort of a dedicated teacher.”

While Luther began his theology with the depravity of man, Erasmus started with the goodness of the teacher and the student, making Christ’s teachings the objective of all learning. To Erasmus, classical antiquity showed the best method for teaching. He wrote, “I would not want you to imbibe pagan morals together with pagan writings. On the other hand, you will find many things there which are conducive to a holy life, and the good precepts of a pagan author should not be rejected...” Luther held that since the Fall of Adam and Eve man’s will is not free to choose or even desire God, and that we lost our humanity. Luther believed that it is only through Christ that people regain their full humanity and he thought that Erasmus made too little of this point: “I am afraid, however, that he [Erasmus] does not advance the cause of Christ and the grace of God sufficiently.... Human things weight more with him than the divine.”

Luther countered Erasmus’ belief in the freedom of the will, saying: “Free will after the fall exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do it commits a mortal sin... The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin.”

This question of whether humans have free will to elect the Good continues to be debated throughout the history of Ethics, but the Lutheran view of utter depravity and bondage of the will receives less consideration as we move into the modern and post-modern periods. In fact, his position will be completely rejected by most philosophers from the mid 1700s to the present.

Luther maintained that God teaches us about justification, focusing on the inner man for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Human instruction prepares us to live in the finite earthly kingdom, but divine revelation prepares us to live in the eternal Kingdom of God. This is the basis of Luther’s Two-Kingdoms Theory, the earthly kingdom being separate from and subordinate to the Kingdom of God. Luther recognized that what happens on earth is important for eternal life. He saw education as a means to protect children from the devil’s attempts to take them away from God and as a way to teach them how to live wisely in the earthly kingdom.

Because he believed that the human will is held in bondage by sin, Luther saw education as a way to fight the devil: “Let this, then, my dear sirs and friends, be the first consideration to influence you, namely, that herein we are fighting against the devil as the most dangerous and subtle enemy of all.” It also means that the government has responsibility to promote the spiritual welfare of its citizens, while not neglecting its temporal responsibilities.

Related reading:  Ethics of the Middle Ages; Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

No comments:

Post a Comment