Erastus and Erastianism
Short account of the life and works of Erastus, b. September 7, 1524; and died December 31, 1583
Erastus and Erastianism. —The name “Erastianism” is often used in a somewhat loose sense as denoting an undue subservience of the Church to the State. This was not, however, the principal question on which the system of Erastus turned, but rather a subsidiary one and a deduction from it. This can be explained by a short account of his life and works.
The real name of Erastus was Thomas Lieber or Liebler. He used the latinized form in his works, and accordingly has become known by that name. He was born at Baden, in Switzerland, of humble parents, September 7, 1524; and died December 31, 1583. For his education he went to Basle in 1540, and two years later, he found a patron by whose assistance he was able to enter the university. His zeal for learning may be estimated from the fact that although by disease he lost the use of his right arm, he learnt to write with his left hand, and is said to have been able to take down his notes more fluently than others who had no similar impediment. During his residence at Basle there was an outbreak of plague. Erastus was one of the victims; but he did not suffer severely, and on his recovery, schools having been suspended, he left Basle and proceeded to Bologna, where he studied philosophy and medicine. He was afterwards for a time also at the University of Padua. In 1553 he went to Germany and obtained an appointment as court physician to the Prince of Hennenberg. We next find him in 1558 as court physician to the elector Palatine, Otho Heinrich, and occupying at the same time the chair of medicine in the University of Heidelberg.
Although his work and lectureship were both connected with medicine, the chief interest of Erastus had always been in theology. Heidelberg was at that time the scene of severe controversial strife. Erastus, who was himself a follower of Zwingli, threw himself heart and soul into the conflict against the Lutherans. The Elector Frederick III (who had succeeded Otho Heinrich in 1559) was then enforcing the teaching of Calvinistic doctrines, and Beza was actively defending them as against Breny in Stuttgart. A conference was arranged to take place at the monastery of Maulbronn in 1564, and by request of the elector, Erastus took a prominent part therein. He published a statement defending the doctrine of Zwingli, and on its being attacked, he wrote a second defense the following year. The conference was far from successful in settling the dispute, which continued in an aggravated form. In 1568, Erastus wrote his celebrated “Theses” against what he called the “excommunicatory fever”, which we shall discuss presently. They were violently attacked by Beza, and Erastus answered the following year by his “Confirmatio Thesium”. Notwithstanding his efforts, a full presbyterian system was set up in 1570 at Heidelberg, and the council proceeded to excommunicate Erastus on the ground of his alleged Unitarianism. After a long further controversy, he succeeded in convincing them that this allegation was false; and the excommunication was removed in 1575; but his position had become a difficult one, and five years later he resigned his office. He returned to Basle, where he taught ethics for a short time, until his death. On his tomb in St. Martin’s church he is described as “an acute philosopher, a clever physician, and a sincere theologian”. He left behind him the reputation of an upright life, with great amiability of character, coupled with an absorbing zeal for learning. He took an active part in combating the superstitions of astrology; but he showed that he was not free from the prejudices of his day by advocating the killing of witches.
The great work by which Erastus is known is his “Seventy-five Theses”, to which we have already alluded. They were never printed in his lifetime, but during his last illness he expressed a desire that they should be published, and Castelvetro, who married his widow, carried out his wishes. The “Theses” and “Confirmatio thesium” appeared together in 1589, the printer’s name and place being suppressed from motives of prudence. The central question about which the “Theses” turned was that of excommunication. The term is not, however, used by Erastus in the Catholic sense as excluding the delinquent from the society or membership of the Church. The excommunication to which he alludes was the exclusion of those of bad life from participation in the sacraments. He explains what he means in the introduction to the “Theses” which he wrote at the end of his life. “It is about sixteen years ago”, he writes, “since some men were seized on by a certain excommunicatory fever, which they did adorn with the title of ecclesiastical discipline… They affirmed the manner thereof to be this; that some certain presbyters should sit in the name of the whole Church and should judge who were worthy or unworthy to come unto the Lord’s Supper.” The first eight theses are devoted to a detailed explanation of the various senses in which the word excommunication is used, and in the ninth Erastus defines the issue with which he is concerned: “This, then, is the question, whether any command or any example can be produced from Holy Scriptures requiring or intimating that such persons [i.e. sinners] should be excluded from the sacraments.” In the following thesis (x) he says: “Our answer is that none such can be found, but rather that many, as well examples as precepts, of an opposite tendency, occur everywhere in the Bible.” The following twenty-eight theses are devoted to developing and maintaining his conclusions, before proceeding in the last half of his work to answer possible objections.
The chief argument on which Erastus bases his whole system is an analogy between the Jewish and Christian Dispensations, and it is exactly here that the fallacy of his conclusions becomes manifest. A Catholic, indeed, would be less likely to fall into the error of looking upon the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass as in any close way analogous to the Sacrifices of the Old Law, and the slaying of the paschal lamb; or the relation of the ceremonial law to the political law of the Jews as in any way realized or realizable in the most Christian of states. To a Protestant who looked upon the Bible as the sole source of Revelation this was different. Erastus argued that by the Law of Moses no one was excluded from the offering of the paschal sacrifice, but every male was commanded to observe it under pain of death; and with respect to the ordinary sacrifices in the Temple, not only was no one excluded from them, but there was a positive command for all to assist at least three times a year, on the chief feasts, viz. Pasch, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. In illustration of the Jewish tradition, he also pointed to the conduct of St. John, who administered his baptism to all, good and bad indiscriminately. He laid great stress also on Christ Himself having admitted Judas to the participation of the Holy Communion at its institution; though he grants that this is not certain, as some commentators are of opinion that the traitor had already gone out, at any rate Judas was never publicly or even privately excluded; and, in any case, he shared in the celebration of the pasch, showing that Christ promulgated no law of exclusion.
A further argument is drawn from the nature of the sacraments themselves, again bringing into prominence the different point of view between Protestants and Catholics; for Erastus looked upon the “preaching of the Word” as equal in sacredness with the sacraments. “I ask”, he said, “are the sacraments superior in authority and dignity to the Word? Are they more useful and necessary? None of those who have been saved were saved without the Word; but without sacraments, especially without the Lord’s Supper, there doubtless might be, and there have been many saved who, however, did not despise these ordinances. So seems the Apostle to have judged when he wrote that he was sent not to baptize but to preach the Word. Do not almost all divines hold the sacraments to be visible words and to exhibit to the eyes what words express to the ear? Why, then, do we go about to exclude nobody from the Word, while from the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper, we would exclude some, and that contrary to, or without, the express command of God?” (thesis xxxviii).
He deals at some length (thesis xv) with the Jewish law as to the “unclean”, contending that uncleanness was by no means intended to typify sin; for, in that case, he argues, since the unclean were excluded from sacrifice while the sinful were not, it would follow that those who were blameless—for legal uncleanness was incurred by such acts as contact with the dead, etc.—were, from being types of sinners, punished more severely than sinners themselves; this he considers a reductio ad absurdum. He contended that uncleanness was a figure, “not of a work, but of a quality even our depraved nature”; and he adds, “neither did it prefigure in what manner this ought to be punished [in the Church on earth], for Moses taught this in plain and explicit terms, but what should be our condition in a future life.” In meeting the question of the expulsion from the synagogues alluded to by Christ, Erastus contended (thesis xxii) that this was a merely civil act: for the synagogues were also law courts; and, in fact, those who were expelled from the synagogues were not excluded from the Temple. He added also that he would see no difficulty, even otherwise, in admitting that abuses might have crept into the Jewish as into the Christian Church, and that the Pharisees might have acted in a spirit out of keeping with the true and proper interpretation of the Law.
Out of the seventy-five theses of Erastus, the first seventy-two are devoted to the question of excommunication: it is only in the last three that the general relation of the Church to the State, which comes as a corollary to his theory, is discussed. This can be given in his own words. “I see no reason”, he says, “why the Christian magistrate at the present day should not possess the same power which God commanded the magistrate to exercise in the Jewish commonwealth. Do we imagine that we are able to continue a better constitution of Church and State than that?” (thesis lxxiii). He then proceeds to discuss the position of the magistrate in the Jewish nation, and argues in the following thesis (lxxiv) that “if that Church and State were most wisely founded, arranged, and appointed, any other must merit approbation which approaches to its form as nearly as present times and circumstances will permit. So that wherever the magistrate is godly, there is no need of any other authority under any other pretension or title to rule or punish the people—as if the Christian magistrate differed nothing from the heathen… I allow indeed the magistrate ought to consult, when doctrine is concerned, those who have particularly studied it; but that there should be any such ecclesiastical tribunal to take cognizance of men’s conduct, we find no such thing anywhere appointed in the Holy Scriptures!” It may reasonably be asked how the system of Erastus could work in a state which is professedly un-Christian, and the last thesis is devoted to answering that question. “But in those churches, the members of which live under an ungodly government (for example Popish or Mohammedan), grave and pious men should be chosen according to the precept of the Apostle, to settle disputes by arbitration, compose quarrels, and do other offices of that sort. These men ought also, in conjunction with the ministers, to admonish and reprove them who live unholy and impure lives; and if they do not succeed, they may also punish, or rather recall them to virtue, either by refusing to hold private intercourse with them or by a public rebuke, or by any other such mark of disapprobation. But from the sacraments which God has instituted, they may not debar any who desire to partake.”
The full system of Erastus was never accepted or promulgated by any definite sect or band of followers; but the influence of his opinions was very considerable, both in Germany and in Great Britain. The Presbyterians of course have always vigorously repudiated his doctrines; but in the Westminster Assembly (1643-7) there was a strong Erastian party. After a long controversy, a definite resolution, affirming that the Church has its own government distinct from the civil power, was carried almost unanimously, the sole dissentient being the well-known divine, John Lightfoot. On the general questions of the relation between Church and State, it must be admitted that the opinions popularly denoted by the word Erastian have had unmistakable influence on the Established Church of England, though there has always been a party resisting the encroachments of the civil power. We can, perhaps, take Hooker’s “Ecclesiastical Polity” as an authoritative exposition of this phase of Anglicanism. Hooker was a contemporary of Erastus, and in his preface he gives an account of the controversy of the latter with Beza. The eighth volume, however, in which he deals with the question before us did not appear until 1648, many years after his death. Its authenticity has been questioned; but it is now generally conceded that it is based on rough notes made during his lifetime. He adopts the analogy of Erastus between the Jewish nation and a Christian state. Starting from the truism that a good monarch should look to the spiritual good of his subjects no less than to the temporal, he defends at once the title of the king to be head of the Church. He considers that the consent of the laity is required before an ecclesiastical law can be binding, and looks upon Parliament as their mouthpiece, and accordingly defends the right of Parliament to legislate on ecclesiastical matters. He defends the king’s power of appointing bishops and his jurisdiction over ecclesiastical courts.
We may contrast with this the Catholic system of the union of Church and State which has always been the Church’s ideal, and has often been in great measure realized, and in our own days has been brought into prominence by the solemn pronouncements of Pius IX. The power of the State is maintained to be of God, either immediately, or mediately through the will of the people; and the civil government exists side by side with the ecclesiastical government. Each is complete in its own sphere. The pope has “temporal power”, using the term in its true sense, i.e. of his right to certain interference with the temporal government of states when the principles of religion are at stake. On the other hand, any interference on the part of the State with ecclesiastical appointments, as, for example, by nomination of bishops or by veto on such nomination, or even on the election of the pope, such as has sometimes existed in the case of some Catholic powers, is conceded by courtesy, in consideration of services rendered and by no means acknowledged as a right. See Hergenröther, “Catholic Church and Christian State” (tr. London, 1876). The “Theses” of Erastus and the “Confirmatio Thesium” were reprinted at Amsterdam in 1649. An English translation of the “Theses”, without the Confirmatio”, appeared in London in 1659—a very literal rendering, in places hardly intelligible. A new translation of the “Theses”, by Dr. Robert Lee, with a valuable preface, was published at Edinburgh in 1844 and is still the standard edition.