A Foolish Christ

James McConica

  • Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly by M.A. Screech
    Duckworth, 267 pp, £24.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1044 9

Erasmus is the Reformation’s orphan. Illegitimate at birth and deprived of his parents as a boy, his origins seem in retrospect oddly prophetic of his fate. He was passionately concerned about the faith and enlightenment of Europe, but quite unable to give unqualified assent to any of the rival orthodoxies which the civil war in Christendom had spawned. Before the time of Luther, he was the most widely read and persuasive critic of the Church that he wanted – like Luther – to reform, but Luther found him equivocal and faint-hearted. To the end of his life he was stubbornly loyal to Catholic unity, but he suffered the posthumous excommunication of having all his works placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. He lived away from his native Holland and found his most lasting domicile with the Froben press, but his true homeland was the one he constructed with his pen through his vast correspondence, his tireless publication of the sources of Christian faith, and the alluring warmth of his intimate, lucid and insinuating style. In the centuries that followed, it is not surprising that the professional defenders of religion have been slow to claim him as their own, nor that his general reputation has been that of the dauntingly witty, erudite and corrosive critic of official belief. For his irenic and rational faith, however, he has received the steady devotion of such as Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, who regarded him as one ‘who thought himself no Martyr, yet one who may passe for a Confessor, having suffered, and long by the Bigotts of both Parties’.

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