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Professor Korey Maas, And Eventually Dr. Larry Arnn, On Erasmus

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HH: It is time for the Hillsdale Dialogue. Now normally, we do that on Friday. But we’re doing it on Thursday this week, because tomorrow is the annual sojourn to the Happiest Place on Earth, to Disneyland, and we cannot let anything get in the way of the Disneyland thing. So the Hillsdale Dialogue is coming in on Thursday. Those of you who are never in your car on Friday in the third hour are happy you finally get to hear one. And we are leading off today, by the way, all the Hillsdale Dialogues dating back to January of last year are available at Everything that Hillsdale does online is available at for free, including their incredible speech digest, Imprimus, which you need only provide your mailing address for, and they will send it to you, one of the great speech digests available in the United States today. But we are going to press on. We may be joined by Dr. Larry Arnn later, but we’re beginning with Dr. Korey Maas, who is a professor at Hillsdale specializing in the period into which we are now thrown, which is the period of Erasmus, Luther and More. But as I got ready for this, Dr. Maas, and welcome, it’s great to have you.

KM: Oh, thanks for having me. And I hope all back in my old stomping grounds of Orange County.

HH: I noticed that you were a professor at Concordia.

KM: I was indeed.

HH: So that must mean you are a Lutheran.

KM: That is correct.

HH: And so this is like setting, this is stacking the deck against poor Erasmus and Thomas More, isn’t it?

KM: That’s right. I’ll try not to be too partisan.

HH: But this is absolutely, you know, I had a friend named Chuck Manske, who was one of the founding presidents of Concordia.

KM: Oh, yeah.

HH: And we used to sit down and talk Luther stuff all the time, and I always would point out to him that but for Luther, everything would have been calm for a couple of centuries.

KM: That’s exactly right.

HH: Well, he would argue the point. He said if not Luther, somebody else would have come along. What do you think?

KM: Sure, sure. No, I think that’s the case.

HH: All right, well, we’re starting with the first of the great reformers. This week, Erasmus, next week, Luther, and then the following week, Dr. More. And I want to set up for people Erasmus was born in 1466, which is 20 years, it’s 17 years before Luther. And he dies ten years before Luther dies. But they are in essence contemporaries, correct?

KM: That’s right. That’s right.

HH: Can you give us a sense of the differences between the men’s temperament, their, just the way they handled their lives and they moved around?

KM: Yeah, very different temperaments, very different biographies, very different contexts. And Erasmus is very irenic. He doesn’t like conflict, whereas Luther is very famous for conflict. Erasmus is kind of an idealist. Luther is, well, to put it politely, he’s very earthy. And Erasmus is very much a cosmopolitan. You know, he’s born in the Netherlands, he hops around Europe his entire life, never stays in one play for long. Luther rarely leaves East Germany, actually is born and dies in the same town, doesn’t spend his entire life there, but doesn’t get around much.

HH: And do you attribute to their differences and outlooks that cosmopolitan, because as you noted, Erasmus, the man born in Holland, spends most of his time in Paris, England and Switzerland. And he’s always bouncing around. He really is like, you know, a year here, a year there, back here.

KM: That’s right. That’s right. I don’t want to put too much stress on the way that their biographies shape their ideas, but there’s certainly something to this. I mean, very famously, Luther talks constantly about some of the sort of spiritual crises that he had throughout his life, and you know, attributes that to his search for a sort of true comfort in theology. Similarly, Erasmus’ early biography is in some ways very tragic. He’s born illegitimate. His father is actually a priest who is not supposed to be having children. And then both of Erasmus’ parents die while he is still fairly young.

HH: His mother dies of the Plague, right?

KM: They both end up dying of the Plague. And it’s, I mean, it’s not the sort of thing that Erasmus necessarily tries to hide from the world, but it’s the sort of thing that he doesn’t advertise.

HH: And so this period of time in which he’s moving around Europe, is it convulsing? Or is it on the precipice of convulsing?

KM: Well, it’s, depending on what aspect of European life we’re talking about, it’s both of the above. I mean, geographically, things are happening. This is the age of discovery. Columbus is sailing to the new world, Vasco da Gama is traveling to India, early 20th Century, Copernicus is starting to float the idea of a heliocentric universe, all sorts of things going on at the political level. There are territories uniting into nation-states. There are territories that are sort of pulling themselves away from the Holy Roman Empire. I think you’ve been talking about Machiavelli in previous weeks.

HH: Right.

KM: And he’s very much a part of this. He writes that famous Prince in part because he wants to see Italy unified like a strong, central state like France or like Spain.

HH: Now Erasmus also writes a letter to a Christian prince, but he could not have known of Machiavelli’s work, correct?

KM: Well, he writes it three years after Machiavelli publishes. I don’t know that there’s any real direct indication that he’s aware of Machiavelli, but they do form an interesting point of contrast. I mean, Erasmus is very much of the opinion that a prince, if he has to choose, should prefer to be loved by his people rather than feared by his people, which Machiavelli famously dismisses.

HH: Now there, I think history is full of people like Erasmus. You know, Howard Baker died today, and Howard Baker was famous if for nothing else as being a man of moderate temperament, not particularly a great intellectual, not a great accomplisher of things in the Senate, something of a place keeper as chief of staff. Or if you look back, there are always people like Erasmus who get in the middle of a shooting war, and they would prefer not to be there, right?

KM: No, that’s right. He famously says, and I’m not entirely convinced that he’s over-exaggerating, he famously says at one point that the sum and substance of our religious is peace and harmony. So he’s absolutely terrified and disillusioned by the things that he sees happening not only with the Reformation, but even prior to the Reformation, some of the things that you talked about with my colleague, Dr. Gaetano, a couple of weeks ago with the fallout from the Avignon Papacy, and then the so-called Papal schism, when you’ve got two popes, two men claiming to be pope at the same time. That gets resolved at a Church council, which raises the question of whether or not a council of bishops actually has authority superior to that of a pope. And then even within the papacy itself, we have this string of, well, you know, Renaissance popes who let’s just say aren’t ideal popes for various reasons.

HH: But I also want to ask you in this period of time, there are people like Henry VIII running around, and they are fighting wars, and they are invading France, and they are decapitating the Church, in essence, and taking all the property. And you have Machiavelli running around with the Borgias and all that sort of stuff going on in Italy. Erasmus is an intellectual. And Luther is just a priest, and yet they managed to shape the world. That doesn’t seem possible anymore.

KM: No, that’s right. But they both have big microphones. I mean, Erasmus is, I mean, this is obviously before radio, before television, before the internet. But there is this astonishing correspondence network. I mean, Erasmus throughout his life has ongoing correspondence with something like 500 different people. And this is the way that news travels. This is the way that Luther’s early writings and ideas gets discussed. Whether they agree with him or not, people are forwarding them to one another for comment. And it’s astonishing how quickly these ideas spread and take hold.

HH: I’m talking with Professor Korey Maas of Hillsdale College. This week’s Hillsdale Dialogue on a Thursday as opposed to a Friday, and we’re talking about Erasmus. Next week, we’re going to throw ourselves into Luther. But Erasmus is a bridge figure. He’s very famous for being a bridge figure, a man torn between recognizing what was wrong with the Catholic Church, but also would you say repulsed by Luther’s vigor?

KM: Well, I would certainly say that, yeah. His, in one of their most famous exchanges, this great debate over free will or the bound will, I mean, this, really more than the point itself, Erasmus is constantly counseling Luther just to dial it down. Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong. I happen to think you’re wrong, but whatever the case, you’re too insistent, you’re too earthy, and frankly, dangerous.

HH: And what did Rome think of Erasmus, who was also not part of an inquisition like, and that of course comes later. But he’s not part of an inquisition like blowback at Luther, either.

KM: Well, yeah, what did Rome think of Erasmus is a complicated question. I mean, some of Erasmus’ great friends are those that we think of as sort of champions of the sort of traditional church, people like Thomas More. And Erasmus’ famous little booklet, The Praise Of Folly, it’s dedicated to More. More gets a great kick out of it. But still within Erasmus’ lifetime, it’s condemned by the University of Paris. It’s condemned in Spain. It’s condemned in Portugal. So I mean, there are people that think Erasmus is also dangerous. He might hold the right theology, but he’s a little too free with sarcasm, with satire, with criticisms of the way that the Church is actually working.

HH: And not something I think is a bad thing. When we come back from break, we’ll continue the conversation on this, the Hillsdale Dialogue on a day when we’re saying goodbye to a man who stood in the middle of much of American political scramble for many years, Howard Baker, but how left really almost no imprint upon it. That’s the interesting thing about it. Erasmus left an imprint, but it’s very hard to say what it was in the aftermath of the earthquake that Luther unleashed and the counterrevolution that came thereafter.

— – – –

HH: Talking about a great genius of Europe. I was going to say of Holland, but I’m going to retract that, because Erasmus was really a man of Europe. My guest in doing so is Dr. Korey Maas of Hillsdale College, formerly of Concordia University, I believe an ordained Lutheran minister. So he’s got, you know, some suspicion to overcome on behalf of those of us on either side. You know, the Protestants are going to say you’re not really a Protestant, and the Catholics are going to say you’re not really a Catholic, right?

KM: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

HH: And so did they quarrel over the nature of the Sacraments?

KM: Well, they certainly did. I mean, as part of, again, Erasmus’ satire and sometimes sarcasm, he’s got questions about the way that the Sacraments are taught in the Church. But at the end of the day, the Church is the Church, and what the Church says is obviously right, which is one of the things that Luther finds suspicious about Erasmus, that he’s convinced that Erasmus doesn’t really have any opinions.

HH: And because he was trying to go along and get along with everyone, right?

KM: Yeah, again, I think there’s a bit of exaggeration here, but at one point, he’s commenting on his dislike of the rule in the Church, and the rule in the Holy Roman Empire, both sort of ecclesiastical and political. And he says but I don’t buck the system, because I want to remain safe.

HH: And so what is it that you have your students read of Erasmus? What ought they to know about him?

KM: That’s a really good question. And when you’ve got a hundred volumes and counting of Erasmus works, we actually don’t right now assign Erasmus in the core freshman history course. They read some of the early Italian humanists, but not so much the northern humanists of the later 15th and 16th Century. But if I were recommending something, I mean, I’d certainly suggest The Praise Of Folly, just because it’s perhaps the best known, and it gives you a flavor of Erasmus’ satire, but at the same time, real concern for the Church and concern about Christendom. He’s not criticizing because he’s sort of an Enlightenment skeptic like Voltaire. He’s criticizing because he thinks that the Church can reform and ought to reform. And he loves the Church and he wants it to do that.

HH: Well, as I went through this, I got the idea that we was very much a public intellectual. That would be its counterpart to today.

KM: That’s right.

HH: …that he was a man of the middle. He did not like the confrontation, which you already articulated, that he’s best known for his translations rather than for his original work, because those translations allow others to take it further, and the further translations lead to conflict, but that he is more bon vivant than anything else. And we have those people. He’s sort of like Davos before there was Davos.

KM: Well, that’s right, and that’s one of the conflicts I have when people ask me what would I recommend for Erasmus, because things like the Praise Of Folly, I mean, there what we know, those are the works that are popular. But Erasmus himself probably wouldn’t have recommended that. I mean, he spends an enormous amount of time pulling together editions of the Church fathers, and compiling multiple editions of the New Testament in its original Greek, and then with his new Latin translation. And he thinks those works are far more important. But those really aren’t the works that get the attention these days.

HH: And In Praise Of Folly does, because people like the title. I’m not sure they read it much, but they like the title.

KM: That’s right.

HH: But it’s really the translations, isn’t it, Professor Maas?

KM: It really is, and especially, I mean, his translation of the New Testament, which is part and parcel of Erasmus’ whole program of reforming the Church. He wants the Church to have the best edition of Scripture that it can. And so again, he’s a little perplexed and offended when it becomes the favorite Biblical text of Protestants. And they sort of run with some of his comments and retranslations, and begin to build a new church on those.

HH: And why is he offended by that?

KM: Well, it’s a good question, because well, let me put it this way. He is accused in his day of having laid the egg that Luther hatched. And so he’s caught in the middle. Protestants don’t like him, because he’s not a Protestant. But his fellow Catholics don’t like him, because they think that he’s sort of responsible for initiating and inaugurating this reformation. And he very much wants to distance himself from that charge. So he doesn’t want to be seen as having critiqued the received Latin text of Scripture, the Vulgate, in a way that made it possible for Protestants to further push those.

HH: So he didn’t want to be the bridge that let Luther loose?

KM: That’s right. That’s right.

HH: But at the same time, he’s buddies with Thomas More, who is the great defender of Church authority. What does More think of his buddy?

KM: Well, he does consider him a real friend. He occasionally, if I’m recalling, he does sort of counsel him to be cautious, even more cautious than Erasmus himself is, because you know, these things can be taken too far. One example that comes to mind, More, although he’s very much a humanist like Erasmus, and so like Erasmus, very suspicious of some of these sort of popular traditions of the Church, about who’s, which saints are buried here, buried there. And so you have humanists making quips like there are enough pieces of the true cross floating around Europe that we could build an ark. And More is conflicted by this.

HH: Which are very subtly undermining, right?

KM: Yeah.

HH: Those are very subtle attacks.

KM: That’s right, and you can see More squirm at one point, because he’s well aware of fellow humanists commenting on the number of churches throughout Europe that claim to have the head of John the Baptist, who was you know, famously decapitated. And More sort of feels backed into a corner, and he finally concludes, well, they must all have parts of the head.

HH: Oh, you see, and that’s just an attempt to keep his own head.

KM: Well, that could be.

HH: Now what the question this raises is whether or not people like Erasmus are good or bad for cultures, because if the conflict is coming, and you’ve got people who are running around pretending that it’s not coming, and throwing, trying to paper over differences and being friends with both sides, are they actually helping things along? Or are they going to make the convulsion worse?

KM: Yeah, that’s a good question, and it’s really hard to say. A part of me thinks that Erasmus is, I mean, he’s actually surprised by all of this. It’s, he’s convinced that this doesn’t have to happen, that Christendom does not have to be divided. It doesn’t have to split. And especially someone with his fame, his celebrity, his authority, that if he stands in the middle, perhaps he can prevent this.

HH: And when we come back from break, I’m going to give you two examples of people who thought maybe they can prevent this. One of them was Lincoln, right? And the other one is very contemporary. You know, if you looked down at Mississippi, there is civil war now between Republicans, between the McDaniel people and the Cochran people. And there are a whole bunch of us who would prefer that this just not happen, that it can’t help anybody out. And the folks like Erasmus, though, they don’t really do much good in any situation. They don’t really prevent that which is inevitable, which is a reckoning.

— – – – –

HH: Back to Erasmus. And for those who have just joined us, would you summarize, Dr. Maas, why he matters?

KM: Why he matters? Well, he matters for a whole number of reasons. I mean, he does, his reform program, if we can use that term, it does bear real fruit both in the short term and the long term. I mean, if we think of something like this revised edition of the New Testament, it in various editions comes to be what is called the received text. And so it undergirds something like the King James version, which you know, if you grow up in an English-speaking nation for the last 300 years, I mean, you’re familiar with this. His compendium of adages, you know, sort of quips and quotes in Greek and Latin, it’s sort of a horn book for people like Cervantes and Shakespeare. A lot of the stuff that you’re reading in Shakespeare, and you’re thinking this is Shakespeare, it’s Shakespeare quoting Erasmus. So I mean, his, I mean, one prong of his reforming program, a sort of educational reform, a reform of letters, you know, bears fruit. And it’s worth recalling, especially for those of us who love and cherish a liberal education, that Erasmus did a great deal of good in this respect.

HH: Now I’ve got to ask you, though, Thomas Kempis, the man who wrote The Invitation of Christ…

KM: Yes.

HH: …which is a few hundred years before, I believe, he warned against witticisms. He warned against quips and jokes and In Praise Of Folly as being quite detrimental to one’s spiritual development. Obviously, Erasmus doesn’t agree with that.

KM: No, that’s right. There’s a bit of a debate about whether or not Erasmus is in his early days educated by the same group of which Thomas Kempis is a part. He famously dislikes his early education in part because he thinks they’re a little too stern and a little too strict.

HH: And, but he, and so he goes to England, and for five years, in fact, he was at Cambridge.

KM: That’s right.

HH: I was going to bring this up with Dr. Arnn. He went to Cambridge, not to Oxford.

KM: That’s right.

HH: And he was Lady Margaret’s professor of divinity.

KM: Correct.

HH: And he stayed there for five years. And that’s a long time to be in a university town if you’re kind of an overbearing pedant, aren’t you? I mean, people…

KM: Well, especially if you’re Erasmus and you’re constantly complaining about the whether and the warm beer.

HH: Yeah, and the food. He didn’t like the food.

KM: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

HH: He didn’t like anything about England. In this regards, he was correct. But nevertheless, he sort of just, I want going to work up to this with you and Dr. Arnn, and say he’s the modern professor, do you think?

KM: Well, I mean, he does, although he does resist multiple offers for sort of a permanent professorship, he does enjoy, at least his time in England. More is there. John Colet is there. Fisher is there. He likes the company. And because he’s famous, he can more or less do what he wants to do.

HH: Well, that’s it. It’s like the AAUP, the American Association of University Professors.

KM: Yeah.

HH: And they move around, and they don’t really get much done, and we know that there are some of them who are genuinely influential in the public square like Erasmus is, but when it comes to actually doing the heavy lifting of leaving something behind that changes public opinion, did Erasmus do that?

KM: Well, that depends. I mean, this is a great debate. I mean, some people look at the debate between Luther and Erasmus as a sort of defining debate.

HH: And they throw thunderbolts at each other, right?

KM: …sort of on…

HH: They write letters.

KM: They do. That’s right. And I mean, some people look at this, I think sort of hyperbolically, as you know, right on the cusp of modernity, and even sort of foreshadowing some of the things that we see in the modern age. And the question then becomes well, in what sense is Erasmus a modern? Or in what sense is Luther a modern? And I mean, on the one hand, you look at this and you say obviously, well, Erasmus stayed with the traditional church. He defended the traditional church. He’s not modern in that sense. But in the 18th Century, I mean, the Enlightenment, rationalists, they’re claiming him as one of their own, as a critique, critic of theology, a sort of skeptic, and even bit more absurdly as a secret atheist.

HH: One more segment coming up with Dr. Maas. Don’t go anywhere, America.

— – – – –

HH: I have argued, and I want to ask Dr. Maas, who is a member of the faculty at Hillsdale College and my guest this week on the Hillsdale Dialogue, I thought Luther was the greatest figure of the millennium, and I made that argument that but for Luther, nothing would have been the same. Other people argued Churchill, and other people argued Lincoln. But I argued Luther shook the foundations. He brought it all down, and from it had to be rebuilt everything that there is. And so he is a great man. I think of Erasmus as an interesting man, but not a great man. What do you think of my distinction?

KM: Yeah, I mean, there’s something to it. I mean, let’s put it this way. Erasmus is probably the more famous, the more liked, the more loved today. But whether he had the more significant impact on the development of the West, I think that would be very debatable.

HH: Yeah, there aren’t any Erasmus churches on the corner of every city in America, right?

KM: That’s right. That’s right.

HH: And there aren’t any people who are going on pilgrimages to Erasmus’ home town, although there might be a few. And I doubt there are any Erasmus people looking for his table notes. And this sort of leads me to bridge to Luther next week. Contrast him, if you will, with what Luther accomplished.

KM: Well, let’s say this. Erasmus has a very definite program from early in his career. He knows what he wants to accomplish. Luther doesn’t. Luther stumbles into this. You might even say he’s sort of dragged into this. I mean, he has no intention to found a church, to divide Christendom, to inaugurate the Protestant Reformation. But it happens, and once it happens, he’s going to very adamantly defend his part in that.

HH: But now is it fair to say that Erasmus lacks courage and Luther maybe has too much of it?

KM: That’s probably fair to say. I mean, Erasmus sometimes pokes fun at himself. He famously says that the mind is not the spirit of a martyr. I mean, he kind of knows that he’s…

HH: In an age of martyrdom?

KM: That’s right, in an age of martyrdom. And Luther also pokes fun at himself. He praises his colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, because Melanchthon can actually write things without swearing, and you know, sort of pretty up the rhetoric. He’s not quite so earthy. So I mean, Luther is well aware of his perhaps, I don’t know if overly-courageous is the term, but…

LA: Can I say something for Erasmus?

HH: Uh oh, here comes Arnn in to save Erasmus. All right, at the last minute, and I had totally vanquished the man.

LA: So I walk in here, and Erasmus is being called a coward. And Korey’s agreeing with it. Okay, so I want to say one thing for him. First of all, the guy was a friend of Thomas More. No coward.

HH: True.

LA: He will have grieved when More was killed. The second thing is if you think of the Reformation as a great fight between a corrupt Church and a bunch of reformers, there’s, the greatest evidence is that that won’t work, that I know of, are in Thomas More and Erasmus, because they were reformers. And they thought the Church could be cleaned up from its sinful and arrogant and prideful ways, and that that’s what they wanted to do. And they both took risks for that, Thomas More unto death.

HH: Well, More will get a much nicer reading from me in two weeks. I have been pointing out that Erasmus, and this is not meant to be a critique of any particular professor, but that he lived a professor’s life, and he avoided drawn swords. He did not want to get in the middle of this thing.

LA: Yeah, but More tried to do that very hard, right? I mean, in a way, he did, but also, after he had his breach with Henry, he did write a few things that were a little provocative. So yeah, but the reason to study him is that there’s an argument about how God’s authority is instituted in the Church, and you can’t understand that argument by reading Luther alone, or the popes alone, you know, whoever…these guys had something very serious to say, and they made a record as honest people who weren’t just partisans of their clan.

HH: Oh, that’s well said. And in fact, he, in my reading for this, he hated the partisanship. He was a reluctant defender of the Church, correct?

KM: Well, he’s a reluctant defender of parts of the Church, or aspects of the Church. I mean, he’s very clear that what he wants to defend is the Church, and the moral sanctity of the Church. So he’s going to defend a moral Church, and sometimes that means critiquing an immoral Church.

HH: And he does defend transubstantiation in the final analysis, doesn’t he, Dr. Maas?

KM: He does in the final analysis. That’s right.

LA: You know who he sounds like, Hugh, to me?

HH: Who?

LA: Thomas More, and when they talk about these Church things, Thomas More and Erasmus, and I don’t know as much about this as Korey, I being by admitting. I’m just not going to call him a coward. They sound like John Paul II to me. John Paul II is a reformer, right? And he very much wants the Church to be clean, and is not afraid to speak out about, you know, he’s reconciliation, right? And he talked about, and helped to purge, the spirit of them, anyway, some of the things the Church had done wrong over the years. And he was pope when he did that, and he was a student of Erasmus.

HH: Well, that is the highest praise you could possibly give the fellow, to say that he sounds like a saint. On the other hand, unlike John Paul II who threw himself into the fight against the Nazis and the communists, and was on the front war and would face them down, Erasmus stayed in his rooms at Cambridge. And I thought you would be against him because he was a Cambridge man, not an Oxford man. But he really didn’t want to get into the middle of it, Larry. And there is no greatness there, right? In the shadows writing letters, there is no greatness.

LA: Well, there can be great letters in the shadows writing letters. That’s why you read him. You don’t, you know, if you want to know about the conflict and who came forward, you’re dead right, as Thomas More was dead right. That’s the one, right?

HH: It’s the next two. It’s Luther next week and More the following week. And they’re the hero and the antihero, however you want to label them.

LA: Yeah, but again, these, you know, to figure out what these issues are, what Thomas More knew about those issues, by his own account, he learned partly from Erasmus.

HH: Okay, okay. Well, next week we will continue, and perhaps then the president of Hillsdale will be timely.

LA: I was about my father’s business.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and Professor Maas, Korey Maas, thank you so much. To Luther next week as the Hillsdale Dialogues continue.

End of interview.


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