Thursday, October 06, 2022

Erasmus’ Letter to Maarten van Dorp (1515)

4
I’ve been reading Erasmus lately.
Erasmus, according to Wikipedia
In 1514, Erasmus’ friend Maarten van Dorp in Leuven had written a public letter to Erasmus (published as Ep. 304 in the Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 3) which touched on In Praise of Folly, Erasmus’ edition of Jerome, and his work on the New Testament. Erasmus responded with a public letter back to Dorp (Ep. 337), which he wrote from Antwerp in 1515. I wanted to quote some of the parts of their correspondence about Erasmus’ New Testament here, but bear in mind that at this point, it was still a work in progress. Still, word gets around, and Dorp had some concerns.

Dorp suggests that it might be dangerous for Erasmus to presume to mess with the received text of the Vulgate:

DORP: “For it is not reasonable that the whole church, which has always used this edition and still both approves and uses it, should for all these centuries have been wrong. Nor is it probable that all those holy Fathers should have been deceived, and all those saintly men who relied on this version when deciding the most difficult questions in general councils, defending and expounding the faith, and publishing canons to which even kings submitted their civil power.” (CWE 3, p. 21)

It interested me as well to see that Dorp touched on the idea of certainty when it came to Erasmus’ work:

DORP: “And how can you be sure you have lighted on correct copies, assuming that in fact you have found several, however readily I may grant that the Greeks may possess some copies which are correct?” (CWE 3, p. 21, emphasis mine)

Looking back, we can see that Erasmus was not deterred by these questions; he would go on to publish his New Testament in five editions.

Erasmus also distinguishes between what is Scripture ontologically and what are the copies of Scripture that we receive, even ‘we’ on a broad scale (i.e. the church):

ERASMUS: “You think it wrong to weaken in any way the hold of something accepted by the agreement of so many centuries and so many synods. ... For no one asserts that there is any falsehood in Holy Scripture (which you also suggested), nor has the whole question on which Jerome came to grips with Augustine anything at all to do with the matter. But one thing the facts cry out, and it can be clear, as they say, even to a blind man, that often through the translator’s clumsiness or inattention the Greek has been wrongly rendered; often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes, which we see happen every day, or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep. Which man encourages falsehood more, he who corrects and restores these passages, or he who would rather see an error added than removed?” (CWE 3, pp. 133, 134, emphasis mine)

Erasmus then talks about his critics. He doesn’t name names, but he does poke at what he thinks are likely motives for some of the criticism of his work on the New Testament text:

ERASMUS: “These are the men who do not like to see a text corrected, for it may look as though there were something they did not know. It is they who try to stop me with the authority of imaginary synods; they who build up this great threat to the Christian faith; they who cry ‘the Church is in danger’ (and no doubt support her with their own shoulders, which would be better employed in propping a dung-cart) and spread suchlike rumours among the ignorant and superstitious mob; for the said mob takes them for great divines, and they wish to lose none of this reputation. ... St Augustine, that very great man and a bishop as well, had no objection to learning from a year-old child. But the kind of people we are dealing with would rather produce utter confusion than risk appearing to be ignorant of any detail that forms part of perfect knowledge, though I see nothing here that much affects the genuineness of our Christian faith. If it were essential to the faith, that would be all the more reason for working hard at it.” (CWE 3, p. 136)

Erasmus goes on, but I will stop here. He’s worth reading if you have the time and want to know more about the history of the New Testament text.

[Note: I wrote this post on Sept. 30th but scheduled it to post on Oct. 6th in order to space out the content here.]

4 comments

  1. //For no one asserts that there is any falsehood in Holy Scripture (which you also suggested), nor has the whole question on which Jerome came to grips with Augustine anything at all to do with the matter. But one thing the facts cry out, and it can be clear, as they say, even to a blind man, that often through the translator's clumsiness or inattention the Greek has been wrongly rendered; often the true and genuine reading has been corrupted by ignorant scribes, which we see happen every day, or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep. Which man encourages falsehood more, he who corrects and restores these passages, or he who would rather see an error added than removed?//

    Warfield was so influential that four centuries before his time his view on inerrancy was universally accepted.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you, Elijah! (Both interesting and timely.)

    I suppose the question now becomes, how much is too much? In other words, how many individual variant readings are in need of correction in our common translations, versions and manuscripts on average? In our own day the heavy hand of the Lachmannian school has incited many to react in ways that can only be described as extreme and illogical, but what of the initial thrust to ultimately scrap the TR and present a text that differs in say 5-6 thousand places from what was commonly received?–Is such an outlook even within the bounds of Divine preservation? Whatever our attempts at answering such questions amount to, in the end it would seem that both sides must bend...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for this. There's definitely a part of me that agrees with you, but I also think that presentation of the situation is something that needs to be improved. Too often we focus on how many differences there are (without getting into what they are beyond a few scary famous ones) and give the impression that it's two completely different texts, and a group of people want to get rid of a bad one for a good one instead of what it really is—taking a very good (and at minimum, sufficient) representation of a text and making it slightly better by removing copyist errors and changes that only affect a small percentage of the text. I think a better representation would be the approach Maurice Robinson took at the recent apologetics conference, when he started with the observation that the Byz and 'Alexandrian-priority' texts are 94% identical, and then he went through a passage and showed that even where they disagreed in translatable ways, no reasonable person would say that they say something meaningfully different (e.g. "the father" vs. "his father" or "was satisfied" vs. "was filled"). True that's not the case all the time, but it is the reality that stands in stark contrast with the baseless assertion that "any verse in the NT is completely in jeopardy and up for grabs unless you adopt a TR and/or KJV position." In my experience, when we frame the discussion with similarities rather than differences, we end up with less division and fewer doubts. I think I could admittedly do a better job of being more intentional about framing the discussion this way though. I don't think I have always had that approach, but it's also not something I really thought about until more recently, no doubt due to influence from Robinson and Pierpont.

      Delete
  3. Maurice A. Robinson10/07/2022 1:27 am

    "Slowly he turns, step by step, inch by inch..."

    ReplyDelete