When the Plowboy Delights in God’s Word
“I WOULD have these words translated into all languages, so that not only Scots and Irish, but Turks and Saracens too might read them . . . I long for the ploughboy to sing them to himself as he follows his plough, the weaver to hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveller to beguile with them the dullness of his journey.”
So wrote Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus in the early part of the sixteenth century. It was his fervent hope and desire that the “words,” that is, the Scriptures, be widely translated so that even the ‘plowboy’ could read and find delight in God’s Word.
Since that time the Bible has been widely translated, and today it is readable in the languages of 97 percent of the world’s population. It is not without good reason that the Bible has become the world’s best-seller. Its influence has moved men of all kinds to work for freedom and truth. Particularly was this so during the sixteenth-century Reformation in Europe. Some of the dominant figures of that time were bold and outspoken, like Martin Luther, while others, such as Erasmus, sought changes by more subtle means. So it is said of the Reformation that Luther opened the door to it after Erasmus picked the lock.
Erasmus was recognized as a great scholar. As to his character, the Catholic Encyclopedia says: “He had . . . a surpassing power of expression; for strong and moving discourse, keen irony, and covert sarcasm, he was unsurpassed.” Thus, when Erasmus visited Sir Thomas More, lord chancellor of England, even before Erasmus identified himself, More was so charmed with his conversation that he abruptly said: “You are either Erasmus or the Devil.”
Typical of Erasmus’ character was the answer he gave to Frederick, elector of Saxony, when asked what he thought about Martin Luther. Erasmus said: “Luther has committed two blunders; he has ventured to touch the crown of the pope and the bellies of the monks.”
But how did the Bible influence Erasmus, and what, in turn, did he do to further its study and to help bring it to the common people, such as the ‘plowboy’? Let us first take a look at Erasmus’ early life.
Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1466. He was the illegitimate son of a Dutch priest and was very unhappy during his early years. His mother died when he was about seventeen, and soon thereafter his father died. Although he desired to go to a university, he finally yielded to the pressure of his guardians and entered the Augustinian monastery of Steyn. There he pursued his studies in Latin, the classics and the church fathers. Soon, however, he came to detest this way of life. So, at the age of twenty-six, he seized the opportunity to leave the monastery to become secretary to the bishop of Cambrai, Henry of Bergen, in France. Shortly afterward he was able to continue his studies in the Paris university. But he was often ill and suffered from poor health throughout his life.
In 1499 he accepted an invitation to visit England. There he met Thomas More, John Colet and other theologians in London, which strengthened his resolve to apply himself to Biblical studies. In order to understand the Bible’s message better, he applied himself intensely to the study of Greek, until he was able to teach it to others.
During this time he wrote a treatise entitled Handbook of the Christian Soldier, in which he counseled the young Christian to study the Bible, saying: “There is nothing that you can believe with greater certitude than what you read in these writings.”
Between trying to make ends meet, due to a shortage of money, and endeavoring to escape the plague, Erasmus found himself at Louvain, Belgium, in 1504. Visiting the monastery of Parc, he discovered in the library a manuscript of Italian scholar Lorenzo Valla’s Annotations on the New Testament. This collection of notes on the Latin Vulgate text of the Christian Greek Scriptures excited his interest in textual criticism, which involves making a comparison of early versions and manuscripts of the Bible in order to determine the original reading. Erasmus became determined to work toward the restoration of the original text of the Bible.
Erasmus then visited Italy and afterward set out once again for England. As he crossed the Alps he thought again of his meeting with Thomas More, and pondering on the meaning of his name (moros, Greek for “a fool”) he was moved to write a satire, which he called Praise of Folly. In it folly is personified and intrudes in every sphere of life, but nowhere is folly more in evidence than among the theologians and clergy. In this way he exposed the abuses of the clergy, one of the very causes of the Reformation, which was now simmering. “As to the popes,” he wrote, “if they claim to be the successors of the Apostles they should consider that the same things are required of them as were practised by their predecessors.” But instead of doing this, he observed, they consider that “to teach the people is too laborious; to interpret the scripture is to invade the prerogative of the schoolmen; to pray is too idle.” No wonder it was said of Erasmus that he had “a surpassing power of expression”!
Publishing the First Greek Text
While he taught Greek at Cambridge University in England for a time, Erasmus continued with his work of emending the text of the Christian Greek Scriptures. A friend, Martin Dorpius, tried to convince him that the Latin translation needed no correction from the Greek. Was it likely, Dorpius argued, “that the whole Catholic Church would have erred for so many centuries, seeing that she has always used and sanctioned this translation?” Thomas More joined Erasmus in replying to these criticisms, stressing the need for an accurate Bible text in the original languages.
In Basel, Switzerland, a printer, Johannes Froben, urged Erasmus to speed up the completion of his work. He had heard that Cardinal Ximenes of Toledo, Spain, had been working on a Greek and Latin Testament in 1514, but had delayed publication until the whole Bible was completed. It was finally issued as the Complutensian Polyglot in 1522. Erasmus’ edition was published in 1516, the first time a text of the “New Testament” in the original Greek had ever been issued.
The haste with which it had been completed meant that it contained many errors.* More than anyone Erasmus realized this, and in later editions he corrected as many of them as possible. Both Luther and William Tyndale used these for their translations of the Bible into German and English. This was the hope and desire of Erasmus, and it was in the preface to this volume of the Greek text that he wrote: “I would have these words translated into all languages. . . . I long for the ploughboy to sing them to himself as he follows his plough.” However imperfect was the text of Erasmus, it began the important work of textual criticism, which has led to accurate Bible translations in our time.
Not everyone, however, welcomed this publication. Some of Erasmus’ notes were very critical of the clergy. For example, take the text of Matthew 16:18, which says: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Douay) Erasmus expresses his surprise that these words should have been applied exclusively to the pope, and he rejects entirely the primacy of Peter. This was a bold statement in a volume that was dedicated to the pope. Little wonder that many of the writings of Erasmus were prohibited, even in the universities.
That Erasmus was concerned about the understanding of God’s Word is evident from a work written by him in 1519 entitled Principles of True Theology (shortened to The Ratio). This sets out his method for studying the Bible, with a set of rules for its interpretation. These include never taking a quotation out of its context nor out of the author’s line of thought. He saw the unity of the Scriptures as a whole. Interpretation then comes from within, he argued, and is not imposed from outside its pages.—Compare Genesis 40:8.
Erasmus and Luther
In 1518 Erasmus wrote a treatise called Familiar Colloquies, which again attacked the corruptions of the Church and the monasteries. Just the year before, Martin Luther had boldly nailed his ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenberg, protesting against indulgences, which had become a scandal in many countries. For a time it seemed as though Erasmus and Luther would combine to bring about the necessary reforms, but their ideas on how to achieve them were radically different. It was not long before Luther began to condemn Erasmus because the latter was a moderate and wanted to work by peaceful means from within the Church. It might be said that Erasmus thought and wrote, while Luther acted.
The rift finally came in 1524 when Erasmus wrote an essay entitled On the Freedom of the Will. Luther rejected the idea that man had free will, but Erasmus reasoned that this would make God unjust, since it would mean that man would not be able to act in a way that results in his salvation.
As the Reformation took hold in Europe, circumstances forced many of its leaders to separate from the Catholic Church. Although they had not foreseen its consequences, they went forward on the path they had chosen, often to their death. But Erasmus drew back from controversy, and he even refused a cardinal’s hat, admitting on one occasion that if put to the test, he might fall like Peter. (Matthew 26:69-75) He tried to keep to a middle course. So while Rome considered his writings to be heretical and placed them on the Index of prohibited books, many reformers denounced him as being ready to compromise to save himself. Sensitive to any criticism, yet anxious to receive praise, Erasmus was often too cautious, fearing the consequences of any break with Rome.
The relations of Erasmus to the Reformation have been summed up as follows: “He was a reformer until the Reformation became a fearful reality; a jester at the bulwarks of the papacy until they began to give way; a propagator of the Scriptures until men betook themselves to the study and the application of them; depreciating the mere outward forms of religion until they had come to be estimated at their real value; in short, a learned, ingenious, benevolent, amiable, timid, irresolute man, who, bearing the responsibility, resigned to others the glory of rescuing the human mind from the bondage of a thousand years. The distance between his career and that of Luther was therefore continually enlarging, until they at length moved in opposite directions, and met each other with mutual animosity.”—Edinburgh Review, lxviii, 302.
The reformers could not agree among themselves as to doctrine and practice, so the changes made in the sixteenth century failed to eradicate some of the basic traditions that had hidden the truth of God’s Word over the centuries. But the advances made in giving the Bible to the common people have continued from that time to the present day. From these struggles, in which Erasmus played a part, have emerged reliable and accurate Bible translations.
Thus, today the ‘plowboy’ can pick up the Bible, or at least part of it, in just about any language and can delight in learning about God’s great purpose for mankind. The Scriptures warmly encourage us to do just that. As it says in Psalm 1:2, 3 regarding the righteous man: “His delight is in the law of Jehovah, and in his law he reads in an undertone day and night. And he will certainly become like a tree planted by streams of water, that gives its own fruit in its season and the foliage of which does not wither, and everything he does will succeed.” May we never let a day go by without finding delight in God’s Word.
In fact, his copy of Revelation being incomplete, Erasmus simply retranslated the missing verses from the Latin Vulgate back into Greek.
[Picture on page 10]
Erasmus, a reformer until the Reformation became a fearful reality