Erasmus and the Anabaptists

Steven Avery

Was Erasmus a Roman Catholic or was Erasmus an Anabaptist?

David Sorenson in Touch Not The Unclean Thing: The Text Issue and Separation, wrote a bit about the question of Erasmus and the Anabaptist movement. Rick Norris quotes only one snippet, since the goal is agitprop rather than actually helping to understand the 1500s.

Erasmus, King James, and His Translators (Part 1 of 3)

Erasmus and the Anabaptists

However, what is most amazing is that in Erasmus's later years, he came very close to becoming an Anabaptist. Though he never joined with them, his theology became somewhat parallel with theirs. Friesen shows that by 1530, his name had come to be associated with the Anabaptists whom the Catholics and many Protestants considered to be the arch-heretics of the sixteenth century. (8) One church historian, Walter Koehler, has gone so far as to assert that Erasmus "was the spiritual father of the Anabaptists" (22). Another historian, Leonhard von Muralt, credits Erasmus with having "prepared the way for Anabaptism and provided material for the construction of their teachings" (22). Friends of Erasmus thus warned him that he was moving dangerously close to an Anabaptist position (36).

Perhaps more than anything else, Erasmus began to advocate baptism by immersion after conversion. Though this was called an Anabaptist heresy by the Catholics and Protestants, it was simply Bible teaching. The third edition of his Greek New Testament of 1522 differed from the second only in its introductory notes. There, Erasmus advocated that Christian youth be taught biblical instruction first - before they were baptized. He even advocated re-baptism for those already sprinkled as infants (45). Moreover, he came to believe that baptism was to be by immersion. In his annotations (i.e., commentary or notes) on Matthew 28, Erasmus wrote, "After you have taught them these things, and they believe what you have taught them, have repented their previous lives, and are ready to embrace the doctrine of the gospel (in their life), then immerse them in water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" (51, emphasis mine).

That teaching concerning baptism is perilously close to, if not synonymous with, Fundamental Baptist theology. It certainly was Ana-baptist doctrine. Balthasar Hubmaier was an early Anabaptist leader. He essentially quoted Erasmus's statement above to establish his own point regarding baptism by immersion in his book of 1526 entitled Old and New Believers on Baptism. After having quoted the above-mentioned statement by Erasmus, Hubmaier noted, "Here Erasmus publicly points out that baptism was instituted by Christ for those instructed in the faith and not for young children" (53). In his annotations (i.e., commentary or notes) on Matt. 28:18-20, Erasmus also went on to write, "The Apostles are commanded that they teach first and baptize later."

(8) Abraham Friesen, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 21.

The notes for 36, 45, 51 and 53 apparently relate to the bibliography.

51 is in:
Menno Simons: Dutch Reformer Between Luther, Erasmus, and the Holy Spirit a Study in the Problem Areas of Menno Scholarship
Abraham Friesen

53 is in:
History and Renewal in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition (1994)
Abraham Friesen

Planned: A few of the more helpful sources on Erasmus and the Anabaptists, and Valladolid.

Steven Avery
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