In search of the Reformation

M.A. Screech

  • The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation by Alistair McGrath
    Blackwell, 223 pp, £25.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 631 15144 3
  • Pastor and Laity in the Theology of Jean Gerson by Catherine Brown
    Cambridge, 358 pp, £35.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 521 33029 7
  • Collected Works of Erasmus: Vols XXVII and XXVIII edited by A.H.T. Levi
    Toronto, 322 pp, £65.00, February 1987, ISBN 0 8020 5602 4

Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Renaissance, Humanism – we all break up the past into periods and movements convenient for study, yet it is impossible to understand the Europe of the 15th and 16th centuries if such labels are mistaken for realities. The Reformation is an infinitely complex and mysterious affair: unless and until there is agreement over what it was there can be no successful search for its causes. The Reformation embraces delicate questions of individual decision, vast political movements, civil wars, petty college rivalries, profoundly opposed pieties, tensions between occasional tolerance and frequent searing indignation. The same martyr who walked in dignity to the scaffold dismisses others burning at the stake as the ‘Devil’s stinking martyrs’. Clergymen as diverse as Luther, Erasmus, Rabelais and Pierre de Ronsard explode at what they see in monasteries and convents. For Luther – and for Rabelais, in a book dedicated to a cardinal – the Vatican was stuffed with unbelievers, pretending to follow Christ in order to diddle Christian idiots out of their money; a staunch Roman Catholic gentleman-soldier such as Montaigne can giggle (in his Journal de Voyage) at the ineffectual fulmintions of his Pope while deeply respecting the magisterium of the Church. We do not know, we shall never know, how much depended on the complex psychology even of well-known men such as Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Bucer or Beza, not to mention that of their wives or mothers, nor of now lesser-known theologians such as Faber (Lefevre d’Etaples) or Girard Roussel, the favourite preacher and bishop of Margaret of Navarre, who was prepared to protect controversial religious thinkers, or a Lutheran court poet such as Clément Marot, from persecutions approved of by her beloved brother King Francis I.

Why did Erasmus, despite it all, not break with Rome? Who was it who enabled the great Greek scholar Guillaume Budé to reconcile St Paul’s likening of humans in the hands of God to pots in a potter’s hand, some of which were predestined to destruction, with a non-Lutheran theology of predestination which left room for merit? What arguments did he use? And why did they not work for Budé’s wife and children, who eventually made their way to Calvin’s Geneva? Women were, then as now, more often in church than their menfolk. What parts did they play in the great upheavals? What brought Guillauppe Copp, Rector of the University of Paris, to leave a lucrative and honoured port to flee to Geneva (with the University seal)? What led Father Rabelais in 1552 to base some of his most effective comedy on an anti-Papist diatribe of Luther’s which is so violent and so scatological that it still raises hackles or causes embarrassment? Why did a French cardinal encourage him to write that book? And why did that French cardinal later marry and become an Anglican? One thing is certain: those men and women – and many small men and women, cobblers, soldiers, valets, servant-girls – were influenced by ideas.

Anyone who attempts today to replace the writings and historical events of the 15th and 16th century in their intellectual contexts has to contend with widespread ignorance and triumphant myths that have remained triumphant: myths, for example, of Luther, as the white knight slaying the Papist dragon, or as a coarse buffoon for ever shitting metaphorically into Papal tiaras, or of a spoil-sport Calvin (responsible of course for Apartheid), or of a Voltairean Erasmus, a mere dilettante in theological matters, or of a Henry VIII hungry for more and more sex, or of a merely temporising Cranmer or a proto-Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell. How many English men and women in the pew have ever been told from the pulpit or from episcopal or archiepiscopal thrones what the Church of England owes to Theophylact, to Chrysostom, to Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Erasmus, Beza – or to Cranmer?

These books – all of them good – throw light on some of the ideas which produced the Reformation and contemporary reactions to it, and which still affect our thinking in domains far removed from dusty theology. Dr Alistair McGrath has written a brilliant little book. Behind its clear exposition and elegant writing lies erudition both wide and profound. He shows how deep in Christian Antiquity and in Medieval thought and piety went the roots of Renaissance theology; how vital were the studies of the early Fathers, of the Scholastics, or the simple learned piety of such as the Brethren of the Common Life. He gives its due place to the Renaissance Humanists’ concern for the nuances of Greek, Latin and Hebrew, which alone, it was thought, could reveal in all their splendour the jewels of the treasure-house of the Church locked up in original Scripture, in the Veritas Hebraica and the Veritas Graeca. Nobody reading this excellent book needs to go on thinking that Rabelais was a Humanist, not because of his study of the litterae humaniores (the Humanities and the thought which they conveyed in philosophy, law, morals and medicine), but because he liked human beings. Dr McGrath is especially clear on the role played in the theology of the Renaissance by late Medieval Nominalism, which, to various extents, denied that ‘universals’ actually exist in the divine mind, and which, again to various extents, replaced argument and intellect by Revelation.

Dr Catherine Brown’s study ploughs a narrower furrow, but this too is based on sound erudition and considerable insight. The great Chancellor, Jean Gerson, has become a shadowy figure outside histories of mysticism or of Medieval literature which touch on his philosophical and moral objections to Jean of Meung’s ‘continuation’ of Guillaume of Lorris’s Roman de la Rose. In France, partly because of fun and games in the Canard Enchaîné, Gerson evokes memories of clerical anguish about masturbation; students of Erasmus may also too readily accept his delight in belittling an author he had studied as a boy. Dr Brown’s approach, a most fruitful one, is to concentrate on Gerson’s writing and preaching for simple folk, with its concern for morality, its seeds of Gallicanism and its strong defence of the collegiality of bishops against a centralising Pope. Gerson had no time for the absolutist claims of the Bull Regnans in excelsis, nor, indeed, for the hated Mendicants privileged by the Papacy. Gerson was paternalistic, deeply opposed to the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. Like all too many clergymen, he was not above the white or grey lie, or even downright deceit, in defence of his Church – of the practice of confession, for instance. Dr Brown shows how much of his thought was ‘typical’ of his time, though some of it was destined to become very influential indeed. Her book is a convincing protest against thinking of the 15th century, with Huizinga’, as the ‘waning’ of the Middle Ages. But I wonder if Gerson really held what would long have seemed to many the puny view of Hell which claimed that a mere three-quarters of the human race would end up in it. I suspect he meant – with unusual charity – that, out of all mankind, a quarter of Catholic Christians might just manage to be saved. Erasmus thought otherwise.

To turn to Erasmus is to enter another world, but not a completely new one. And what a delight it is to see the well-printed volumes of Toronto’s great enterprise rolling off the presses again: not long ago it seemed that cuts in resources would reduce the stream to a trickle. Not that Volumes Five and Six of Erasmus’s literary writings are without inconveniences. All of what should be footnotes are gathered together in pages 449 to 603 of Volume Six: a tedious practice which stops us reading the books in bed. But there is a feast here, including Betty Radice’s emended versions of the Praise of Folly, and the laughing dismissal of Pope Julius II from Heaven in the Julius Exclusus, which shows us Julius locked out of Heaven by St Peter in person, who refuses to acknowledge such a coarse bully as his successor. The books are worth buying for Dr Michael Heath’s edited translation of this work alone. I suppose Erasmus did write it, though he never acknowledged its paternity. The hardest task must have been Betty Radice’s in translating the inflated flatteries of the Panegyric for the Archduke Philip of Austria; her version shows, as does that of the Praise of Folly, what a loss to the art of translation into English has been sustained by her death. It occurred during the over-long gestation of these volumes. And what a pity, too, that the translation of the Praise of Folly (revised from the Penguin edition) was therefore unable to do full justice to the subtleties of Erasmus’s version of Christian ‘folly’: these may pass almost unperceived if the English fails to evoke, as the Latin does, specific echoes of Plato and St Paul.

The Ciceronianus as edited and translated by Dr Betty Knott is particularly welcome, though a brute to translate since much centres on questions of Classical or Erasmian Latin usage. This translation seems at times too colloquial for the Latin but is all the more readable for that. Erasmus believed (rightly, I think) that excessive Ciceronianism was not only a pedantic obstacle to good original writing but a force which could undermine Christianity itself by restricting its concepts to devilishly distorting words and syntax.

Erasmus’s Education of a Christian Prince, well rendered by Neil Cheshire and Michael Heath, is in some ways a trite work once stripped of the considerable charm of its Latin. It has to deal with so many commonplaces of Christian kingship. But Erasmus really did believe in learning and culture as aids to wisdom and morality. And he can make his point in a way that Congressmen would still understand: ‘What is more abject and disgraceful, I ask you, than for him who claims dominion over free men to be himself a slave to lust, anger, greed, ambition?’ Its fiscal morality would once have seemed unexceptional: ‘If necessity requires some taxation of the people, then it is good ... that the least possible hardship falls upon the poor.’

For all its skill and passionate conviction, The Complaint of Peace always seems to taste flat, but since it first appeared in late 1517 it has often been trotted out when even just wars – such as that against Hitler – were in the offing. Betty Radice has made a sound job of her translation, yet (and not for the first time in this great venture) one misses the sinew and the allusiveness of Erasmus’s Latin. Erasmus often sounds fussy or bureaucratic in English – like St Paul in the New English Bible or like Series Three compared to the Book of Common Prayer.

The main reservations I feel about these handsome volumes have to do with the general introduction. Antony Levi fails to make a persuasive case for putting these disparate works into a single category. Worse, he repeatedly returns to his old assertion that Erasmus was a Semi-Pelagian who took care to express his confidence in human nature ‘in terms which carefully allow no one to pin him down as heretical’. Yet Erasmus wrote his various versions of the Praise of Folly at the same time as he was working on the expanding versions of his very explicit and outspoken Annotations on the New Testament. The very same words and phrases can be found in both works. Which is surprising, when you think of it. If a direction must be given to Erasmus’s theology it is not to be found in Semi-Pelagianism but in Origen, Theophylact (the Archbishop of Sophia), and in Greek theology generally, which, like Sir Thomas More, he held to be superior to Latin. The Greek theologians who guided him were, unlike many in the West, less concerned with Original Sin and the Last Judgment, and with Christ’s sufferings as a ransom for sin, than with the Incarnation, the Resurrection and the partial restoration to men and women in this life, through the power of liturgy, grace and the Holy Ghost, of that human nature which at its origin had been founded well and judged good.