In a recent foray through David Daniell’s meticulous biography of William Tyndale, I have been stirred more than once by this simple warning: “Beware Erasmus.” It has become a slogan I have begun to frequently whisper to my soul, (for reasons that shall soon become clear) to provoke me to stay on guard against the enchanting fumes of pride. We recognize the perceived deadness of the previous generation and we refuse to follow in that path; we, instead, want a robust and living spirituality. I’ve seen my peers pursue this healthy desire in two very unhealthy ways.
The first is to build upon the sandy shores of postmodern mush; in essence, they reject absolute truth, and embrace the false notion that community and sharing life together matters more than having all our doctrinal “i’s” crossed. They talk circuitously about how Jesus really taught us to love, and that all too often the church is so un-accepting of the hurting, downtrodden and weak and we turn them off to Christ by our unswerving insistence that they must conform to some standard of living. This error, I take to be a grievous one, for it assumes that holding to the unchanging truths of God’s word is actually unloving; and yet, it is a thousand times more unloving to refuse to declare to the sinner the wickedness of his ways, convince him that God is only flowers, hugs, and grace (with nary a drop of justice or holiness), and leave him to pursue his course on the broad way to destruction. The postmodernist despises absolutes because they make certain groups feel uncomfortable, judged, rejected. Thus, we must emphasize acceptance, tolerance, and understanding over and above doctrinal accuracy and objective truth.
The second erroneous pathway that I see my peers following is equally sinister. Rather than building on the sand, they know that truth is objective, absolute, and unchanging and, by golly, we ought to build our lives upon it. Thus, they read books with really big words and really long titles, and they draw a blueprint for a house built, not on these sandy beaches of postmodernism, but upon the rock of Christ Jesus. Here is the problem I see, they are still sitting on the shore, in a shack of intellectual pride, with a wonderful blueprint of a house “on the Rock,” and yet they haven’t built their house on this Rock. God doesn’t say “well done, good and faithful servant” because we hold in our well-manicured hands a flawless copy of what a house on the Rock should look like; He is pleased only when we obey His commandment to believe upon His only Son Jesus. God does not save us on the basis that we know that we are saved by believing upon Jesus; rather, we are saved by believing upon Jesus.
Thus, beware Erasmus.
I fear that many young Christian men and women, who fall into the second camp, are liable to fall into the same pit which Erasmus did in the 1500s. We are adamantly opposed to postmodernism in all its primordial squishiness; and our shelves are well stocked with the greatest names in Christian apologetics and philosophy. The Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican (Luke 18:11).” We are prone to praying, “God, I thank thee, that I am not like the Pharisee.” Professing ourselves to be wise, we become the fools that fashion our God in the likeness of our own corruptible human philosophies.
Now, whatever does this have to do with Erasmus? So glad you asked!
In 1512, almost one hundred years before William Tyndale’s translation of the Scriptures would be authorized by King James, Erasmus wrote a sweepingly influential book “De Copia.” This book revolutionized the academic culture by teaching students to “use all the verbal muscles in order to avoid any hint of flabbiness.” It was designed to develop “methods of varying the form of expression, being ‘copious’ in fact. [. . .] The book’s aim was to license and encourage not only the invention which aided coherence of argument, but copiousness, enlargement, amplitude of mind and phrase. The Scholar was to discover how much both the mind and phrase could do, with a view to choosing the various ways which gave the most wisdom and pleasure.”
At the time, Tyndale was just graduating with his B.A., and beginning his studies for a M.A. He was already discovering the ancient truths of the Gospel–so long clouded by Catholic theology–through Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Erasmus, while he could be called a pre-reformer, and indeed many of the Reformer’s borrowed heavily from his work, he himself sat on the fence and refused to denounce the Roman Catholic heresies directly; his reputation, income, influence, and patronage were too much to risk. But, by God’s glorious providence, there was at least one man, Tyndale, who in studying the Word of God, and being trained in the art of persuasive and pleasurable word construction, plowed forward–unconcerned for the consequences he would certainly suffer–to give to the English speaking world the Bible in common English and thereby make readily available to the “boy at the plow” the glorious Gospel truths.
Thus, Erasmus, with all his eloquence and study of the Scriptures, refused to stand firm on the saving Gospel truths, and thereby deliver the Gospel blow to his generation by exemplifying a life of faith in Jesus Christ. It has been observed that in Erasmus’ work “The activity of Christ in the Gospels, his special work of salvation so strongly detailed there and in the Epistles of Paul, is largely missing. Christologically, where Luther thunders, Erasmus makes a sweet sound: what to Tyndale was an impregnable stronghold feels in [Erasmus’ work] like a summer pavilion. Moreover, though he wanted lay people to study the Scripture continually, and famously longed for Scriptures in the vernacular [. . .] he never went all the way into a lay person’s common language with anything he did. [. . .] Erasmus, for all his importance, did not have the charge: Luther and Tyndale did.” These words terrify me, lest they should not only describe Erasmus, but also myself and my generation of Believers. Erasmus once declared that “things should not be written in such a way that everyone understands everything, but so that the are forced to investigate certain things, and learn.”
However, Tyndale was all ablaze with a passion to impart to the people the Bible, and thereby the Way, the Truth and the Life found therein. As he once stated, “I assure you, if it would stand with the King’s most gracious pleasure to grant only a bare text of the Scripture [that is, without explanatory notes] to be put forth among his people, like as is put forth among the subjects of the emperor in these parts, and of other Christian princes, be it of the translation of what person soever shall please his Majesty, I shall immediately make faithful promise never to write more, not abide two days in these parts after the same: but immediately to repair unto his realm, and there most humbly submit myself at the feet of his royal majesty, offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this [translation] be obtained. Until that time, I will abide the asperity of all chances, whatsoever shall come, and endure my life in as many pains as it is able to bear and suffer.”
Erasmus knew all about Christ, but made Him out to be a summer pavilion. Tyndale discovered Christ in the pages of His Word, and saw Him, and believed Him to be what He in truth always was and will be: a Stronghold, a Rock, a Refuge, an impregnable Fortress of saving grace. Is Jesus simply an appendage to your spiritual life, or is He your life? Is He a point to be argued, or a person to know, cherish, love and obey? I fear that Erasmus’ cunning temptation still lingers today; the temptation to build your spiritual life upon well-reasoned, well-articulated, and well-constructed arguments, rather than standing on Christ alone as your All in All. The Kingdom of heaven is not attained by mere head knowledge; rather, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).”
Daniell sums it up well, “Unlike Erasmus, however, all Tyndale’s amplificatory pictures of human life have one common theme [. . .] the work of Christ.” Tyndale was not toying around with pleasant sounding arguments, nor was he aiming to impress the masses with his sound doctrine. For, inscribed upon the famous picture are the words:
To scatter Roman darkness by this light
The loss of land and life I’ll reckon slight.
The light being God’s Word in text, which fully reveals the glories of the Word made flesh. Tyndale was not playing games, he was a vibrant believer. He didn’t just draw blueprints for houses built on the rock, while living in a shack of pride on the sand; he made His dwelling place “the Rock that is higher than I (Psalm 61:2).” In his own words: “Therefore it [faith] is mighty in operation, full of virtue and ever working, which also reneweth a man, and begetteth him afresh, alterteth him, changeth him, and turneth him altogether into a new nature and conversation, so that a man feeleth his heart altogether altered and changed, and far otherwise disposed than before, and hath power to love that which before he abhorred, and hateth that which before he could not but love. And it setteth th soul at liberty and maketh her free to follow the will of God, and doth to the soul even as health doth unto the body, after that a man is pined and wasted away with a long soking [consuming] disease.”
Thus, beware Erasmus within; i.e. beware of substituting knowing facts for knowing and believing the Truth Himself. Beware of academic and intellectual excellence in spiritual matters, while neglecting to confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord. Beware of talking about the faith, and neglecting so great salvation (Heb. 2:3), by not faithing (i.e. active believing faith). Beware, as C.S. Lewis warned, of becoming “so preoccupied with spreading Christianity that [you] never [give] a thought to Christ.”
Tyndale’s and Erasmus’ quotes were taken from:
Daniell, David. William Tyndale: a biography. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. Print.