Last Updated:

Aug 30, 2010

A Hard Look at Erasmus

Material adopted and expanded from: Inst. Basic Life Principles, Understanding the Biblical Foundations of Marriage, The Rebuilder's Guide Series, (Il., 1988)

Page Index

Desiderius Erasmus: Reformer?
    Erasmus - an introduction
    Background - childhood, education
    Erasmus' View - Divorce and Remarriage
    The Reformers - 'Protestant' remaking of Marriage
    Conclusion - The Shipwreck of Christianity

Erasmus (1466-1536)

Father of Modern 'Marriage'

"Erasmus knows well how to expose error, but he knows not how to teach the truth!"

- Martin Luther

Ironically, both Martin Luther and many other Reformers were heavily influenced by Erasmus on the subject of marriage, and this had lasting negative consequences that reach to our day in the Western nations.

Erasmus was an outspoken critic against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church of his day. However, his methods and motives were quite different from those of the great Reformers who followed afterward.

His sharp wit and cutting pen exposed the vices of the Church and lashed out at the monks. One of his famous books was In Praise of Folly, which exposed the disorders, ignorance, impurity, and absurd conduct of Church leaders.

Rejecting Church teachings, Erasmus turned to classic Latin and Greek literature: He studied Hippocrates for medicine, Plato for philosophy, and Pliny regarding natural history. He also studied the writings of the early church fathers and the New Testament.

Erasmus' New Testament in Greek and Latin:

In his reaction to current Church practice, Erasmus turned to the New Testament. He made a scholarly re-translation of the Greek text into Latin and published both in parallel columns, in 1516, one year before the official "Reformation". In this effort, Erasmus had inadvertantly restored the NT to the learned, just as later Martin Luther would do for the German people by translating it into German.

Thus along with exalting Scripture, he had spoken up against distorted Church teachings, that corrupt priests used to enrich themselves while oppressing the ordinary people. Erasmus had a genuine hunger for God, though his views were mingled and weakened by humanist philosophy. He wrote:

"The sum of all Christian philosophy is reduced to this: to place all our hope in God, Who, through grace, without our merits, gives us everything by Jesus Christ..."

- Erasmus


His Infamous Background

Erasmus held traditional Christian marriage in low esteem. He had a dim view of the Church's position on divorce. To see how this came about, we need to look into his early life. Erasmus' childhood experiences provided ample motivation for him to compose his lenient views on divorce and remarriage.

Erasmus was an illegitimate child. His father, Gerrard, grew up in the Netherlands and was attracted to a physician's daughter named Marguarit. Gerard did not live by Christian principles, and soon Marguarit was pregnant. Gerrard's parents and 9 brothers urged him to enter a monastery and become a monk. Instead, he fled to Rome leaving Marguarit behind, soon to give birth.

Later, Gerrard was falsely told by his parents that Marguarit had died. In a siege of grief he then entered the priesthood and took the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

Years later he returned to Holland to discover Marguarit and his son Desiderius were really alive. She had refused to marry anyone but Gerrard. However, he stayed loyal to his vows (prohibiting marriage). The two parents continued to give Desiderius their affection, and focussed on his education.

Early Tragedy

When Desiderius Erasmus was 12 years old, his mother died. A short time later his broken-hearted father also followed her to the grave.

Erasmus' guardians sent him to a monastery to become a monk. He spent 8 difficult years there, reacting against what he saw and also the vows he had taken. Finally, he turned from there to the universities, where he could pursue his interests freely.

He made friends with powerful men such as John Colet, who became dean of St.Pauls College, and Thomas More, future Lord Chancellor of England.

Thomas More: (1477-1535) - More served as Lord Chancellor in the court of King Hengry the 8th. This was the highest judicial office in England.

However, More resigned in 1532 because he opposed King Henry's plan to divorce his queen. Three years later, Thomas More was beheaded for refusing to accept a mere king (Henry) as the head of the Church of England.


His Disastrous Influence re: Marriage

On the one hand, Erasmus was plagued by the fear of being branded a heretic. On the other, he strongly wanted to expose superstition and error in the Church. His new friends, along with his parental memories and writing talent, gave him the boldness to express his new and revolutionary views on divorce and remarriage.

Erasmus' new ideas on divorce/remarriage caused him to be courted by rulers such as Charles V and Frances I of France, and Henry VIII of England. Henry had special interest, since he wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon and then (re)marry Ann Boleyn.

The vigorous work of Erasmus helped prepare the way for Luther's Reformation. But in spite of being a daring critic, Erasmus remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, rather than breaking with it, as Luther did.

The Church's View on Divorce and Remarriage

The Church had begun teaching that salvation was earned by observing the Seven Sacraments of:

  • Baptism
  • Confirmation
  • Communion
  • Confession
  • Last Rites
  • Holy Orders
  • Marriage

In attacking the abuse of the doctrine of Sacramental Marriage, Erasmus also rejected the almost unanimous view of all the early Church fathers that there were no Scriptural grounds for divorce (and remarriage), and that if divorce should occur, there was postively no Scriptural basis for remarriage. (The only historical dissenter to this view was Ambrosistar, a 4th cent. Latin writer.)

The Strict Church view on Divorce and Remarriage was very old.

Augustine (354-430 A.D.), believed in the absolute indissolubility of marriage. He emphasized that even an innocent party could not remarry if a divorce occurred because of adultery.

Augustine exalted marriage as a sacred institution, ordained by God and confirmed by Christ, which illustrated the unity of Christ with the Church as expressed by the Apostle Paul in Eph. 5:31-32.

Thomas Aquinas (1222-1274) treated marriage as a church sacrament by which saving grace is transmitted to ones seeking salvation. Aquinas viewed marriage as equal to the other six sacraments, which he taught were instruments of God to dispense saving grace.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) confirmed this view as official Church doctrine. Both Erasmus and Luther reacted strongly to the idea that any sacrament could bring about salvation.

In spite of strong teaching on the permanence of marriage, many church goers in the days of Erasmus were dissolving their marriages through divorce. Church leaders differentiated between two types of divorce. The first type was a separation from bed and board. Augustine, Jerome, and other advocated this type.

The second type of divorce was an Absolute Annulment of the marriage by insisting that the marriage had been unlawfully contracted at the outset. Those who wanted such an annulment would seek it from the Church and were obligated to pay whatever fee was demanded.

Erasmus' Changes to Divorce and Remarriage

The abuse of marriage together with the longing of many Church leaders and members for acceptance of divorce and remarriage prompted Erasmus to dilute the firm teachings of Scripture with humanistic philosophies.

Erasmus emphasized the idea that love should come before any law on marriage. He held the opinion that it was not a loving act to allow many thousands of couples to continue in an unhappy partnership. Thus he reasoned that if they could be allowed divorce and remarriage, many could be saved from unhappiness.

The humanistic premise of Erasmus was that love must at times be allowed to do what is legally forbidden, but seems justified in the situation. He argued that the Church should seek to deliver those in suffering marriages like Jesus sought the lost sheep.

The views of Erasmus on the Sermon on the Mount are significant. He believed this Scripture (including Matt. 5:31-32) was not spoken to the multitudes, but to the disciples, who were the purest part of Christ's Body.

THese were the ones whom he thought belonged to the Kingdom of Heaven, and thus, were able to live above the need to divorce.

Within the Church however, he thought there existed another group which did have need of divorce, oath-taking, and the like. These, in his mind, were the imperfect ones who are found in large numbers and constitute the kingdom of the world. In this sphere, Erasmus concluded, it was not wrong to:

go to court (vs. Matt. 18:15/Luke 12:58),
take an oath (vs. Matt. 5:34/James 5:12), or
obtain a divorce (vs. Matt. 19:9/Mark 10:11).

Protestant Views

re: Divorce/Remarriage

The Reformers' View on Divorce and Remarriage

In their rush however, to free the people from the 'false doctrine' that sacraments (like marriage) provided grace for salvation, Luther and other Reformers also adopted Erasmus' views on divorce and remarriage!

Divorce for Adultery

Martin Luther based his reasoning on OT law which required adulterers to be stoned. He and other Reformers reasoned that even though the (current) civil government didn't carry out this sentence, the adulterer could still be considered 'dead' in the eyes of God. Hence, a spouse victimized by adultery would be free to remarry, as if their partner were dead!

Although a harsh judgment against the adulterer/adulteress, the net result was that more and more allowance was made to justify divorce and remarriage.

Divorce for Desertion

Again, if a man deserted his believing wife and children, he was to be considered no better than a Gentile (Barbarian) or unbeliever who deserved the same punishment as an adulterer.

Divorce for Disobediance

Finally, if a wife refused to submit to her husband, "then the husband should let a 'Vashti' go, and take an 'Esther', just like King Ahasuerus did." (see Story of Esther).

Divorce for Barrenness

Still another reason put forward (supposedly to protect the right of a Nobleman to heirs) was 'impotence'. A barren woman could then be put away, and another fertile woman put in her place.

Soon convenience and emotion had replaced reason and longstanding tradition regarding how to handle marriage difficulties.


The Debasement of Marriage and Doctrine

As Protestantism evolved further and further away from mainstream Christian values and principles, more and more reasons for divorce were added to the list. In the 1980s for instance, the list of legal reasons for divorce grew to this:

  • Adultery
  • Desertion
  • Mental or extreme cruelty
  • Physical Cruelty
  • Impotence
  • Nonsupport / Wilful Neglect
  • Insanity
  • Alcoholism
  • Drug Addiction
  • Conviction of a felony
  • Living Apart
  • transmission of a venereal disease
  • Public Defamation
  • Sodomy
  • Child neglect or abuse

While all these reasons are severe, and each appears justified in proper circumstances, the fact is that many of these problems involve either gray areas or problems which could or should have a plausible (even if difficult) Christian solution beyond easy divorce. But this wide list itself was only a short stop-gap for a quickly deteriorating legal situation.

The question of who could petition for divorce, and whether it should be granted unilaterally, is also a difficult one. Prior to the 80s, the party petitioning had to be themselves innocent. by about 1985, most states in the USA allowed "no fault" divorce, with no other reason needed than "irreconcilable differences". This effectively replaced the whole list above.

It can't be denied that with the new 'no fault' view of divorce/remarriage, it is much easier to disolve a marriage than at any previous time in Christian history. The net effect is to discourage partners from resolving differences, greatly increasing the number of divorces.

This sadly, is the final legacy of following Erasmus and his humanistic philosophy down the path further and further away from the clear and plain teaching of Jesus Himself.

Now Christians, living in a Sodom-like environment in their own countries, are quickly arriving at the foretold time in which a nation of adulterers and adulteresses (James 4:4), will no longer endure sound doctrine (2nd Tim. 4:3-4).

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