Desiderius Erasmus, born in 1466 in Rotterdam, Holland, was the illegitimate son of a priest. He was orphaned in childhood, swindled out of his inheritance, and forced into a monastery that he hated—except for its library. Reaching adulthood, Erasmus approached theology with freshness, sought out scholars, then eclipsed them. He became the most cultivated man of his age.

In appearance, his skin was fair, hair blond, eyes blue, voice pleasant. His manners were polished. In temper, he could be irritable. He repeatedly visited England (though complaining of its “bad beer and inhospitable weather”) where John Colet urged him to master the original language of the New Testament. He did, and in 1516 Erasmus published his Greek New Testament. “Would that these were translated into every language,” he said. In studying Erasmus’s New Testament, ministers found themselves returning to the truth of the Bible. Erasmus’s translation became Luther’s fodder, and the primary source for his German translation of the Bible (and later, of Tyndale’s English Version).

But Erasmus, having spent his first years advocating reform, spent his latter ones resisting it. He initially supported Luther, but retreated when he saw the church splitting. On May 30, 1519, he wrote Luther, suggesting that it might be wiser of you to denounce those who misuse the Pope’s authority than to censure the Pope himself. … Old institutions cannot be uprooted in an instant. Quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation. Keep cool. Do not get angry.

Erasmus neither supported nor flatly condemned the Protestants. As a result, he lost friends on both sides. “Men of learning,” he wrote, “who were once warmly attached to me, and old friends, are the most dangerous of foes.”

Erasmus had expected the new wine to ferment in old skins. It wouldn’t and couldn’t, to his dismay. But never mind, he did his part. In giving the church back its Greek New Testament, he had in effect squeezed the grapes.

No one pours new wine into old wineskins. The wine would swell and burst the old skins. Then the wine would be lost, and the skins would be ruined. New wine must be put into new wineskins. Both the skins and the wine will then be safe. (Matthew 9:17)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). May 30.

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