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January 11, 2021

Erasmus and Luther

Sometimes two people respect and despise each other in equal measure. Two prominent men in the Reformation period had just such a complicated relationship. Luther once wrote of the scholar Erasmus, “I hold Erasmus of Rotterdam to be Christ’s most bitter enemy . . . and the vilest miscreant that ever disgraced the earth. . . . Whenever I pray, I pray for a curse upon Erasmus.” But Martin Luther also called Erasmus “one of the most learned men in the whole world.” Luther wrote harshly against him in their theological disputes—and yet he respected and built on Erasmus’s work. Erasmus’s Greek New Testament was a landmark of biblical scholarship. Luther relied upon it for his translation of the New Testament into German. Erasmus initially sympathized with Luther and the Protestant Reformers. He even lobbied behind-the-scenes to save Luther from people who wanted him dead. Nonetheless, Erasmus refused to stand publicly against the Catholic Church. This was one of the sources of Luther’s contempt. In a letter to one of Luther’s colleagues, Erasmus explained his position, “I know nothing of your church; at the very least it contains people who will, I fear, overturn the whole system and drive the princes into using force to restrain good men and bad alike.” Even in the midst of his explosive disputes with Luther, Erasmus produced scholarly work that informed and influenced a new generation of regional translations and, ultimately, the Reformation itself.

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