One of my favourite historical personalities is Erasmus of Rotterdam. With a blatant lack of modesty I should say I won an essay prize at College for a study of Erasmus as Humanist Reformer, and from that immersion in his life and thought I've remained fascinated by a man who in an age of lines in the sand, embattled walls and precious few bridges, he was an admirer, and frequent occupant, of those fences you can sit on, and see both sides.
We are coming up in 2017 to the 500th Anniversary of Luther's posting of the 95 Theses. Incidentally, the verb "to post" makes me wonder what would have happened if Luther had Facebook and he published his rant against the abuses of the Catholic church and invited his friends to "like" them! But in 1516 an event of equal significance took place - the publication of Erasmus's edition of the Greek New Testament, Novum Instrumentum omne, diligenter ab Erasmo Rot. Recognitum et Emendatum. The text was accompanied by Erasmus's own new and fresh Latin translation and with annotations to the text.
The influence and impact of a New Testament, in the original language, and with a serious if rushed attempt to ascertain the most accurate text, is difficult to overestimate. It was a Renaissance masterpiece of vast and at the time incalculable theological import and far reaching literary consequence. Luther's own venracular German New Testament leaned heavily on Erasmus's work; but in addition to literary dependence, there was the breaking of the stranglehold of the Roman curia on the accessibility of the text. Greek and German, not Latin, became the language of translation, exegesis, reading and increasingly the text for preaching.
One of the finest short accounts of Erasmus, his character and significance, is hidden away in the large volume by Owen Chadwick, The Early Reformation on the Continent, (ch 3 Scholarship and Religion). I've long run out of superlatives for the erudition and lucidity of Owen Chadwick's writings on church history; this volume is authoritative, entertaining, fresh and crammed with the kinds of details that make history a study of human life and culture as it is shaped by, and shapes, religion and politics. Here is Chadwick on the young and as yet largely unknown Erasmus the Humanist, and I haven't read a better vignette on the Humanist Reformer from Rotterdam:
Since he made ends meet by coaching the young, it was the nature of education about which he first wrote. Literature should revive education, and through schools transform the culture of Europe. From this time he already had misty ideals of a better society because more cultivated. It was an ideal which assumed the dignity and sacredness of the human being. Every member of the species should treat every other member with respect, and strive for peace and harmony and settle disputes by reasonable argument and not by violence. Revolution could never be his ideal. This sweet reasonableness was fostered by religious sensibility, the Christian ideal of gentleness and pity and forgiveness, and not pushing the self forward. And as children develop they must be led to practise eloquence, how to use words and the perception of truth. It brings precision of mind because words have different meanings in different contexts, and this habit of exactness is of the first importance to learn at school.
That kind of writing is why I love the work of Owen Chadwick; and that kind of humanism is why I love the thought of Erasmus of Rotterdam.