Ad Fontes!—Was Erasmus’ NT a Threat or a Blessing?

Why would Erasmus’ new Latin translation send a shock wave through Europe 500 years ago?

The controversy surrounding Erasmus’ “revised and improved” New Testament began before it was published. Maarten Dorp wrote an open letter to Erasmus in September 1514 (although Erasmus did not receive it until May/June 1515) expressing grave concern over the idea that the Vulgate should be corrected on the basis of the Greek. Dorp asserts the importance of Church tradition and usage, suggesting that Erasmus’ translation casts doubt upon the truthfulness of what the Church has said in the centuries in which they relied upon an “incorrect” text:

For it is not possible 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. (Maarten Dorp, letter 304. Quoted in, A.K. Jenkins and P. Preston, Biblical Scholarship and the Church [Ashgate: UK, 2007], p.54)

What right has one man to suggest that the Fathers of the Church were wrong!

Dorp not only asserts Church tradition and authority. He also fears Erasmus is casting doubt upon Scripture itself. He cites Augustine’s concern over Jerome’s translation to make his point:

Many people will begin to discuss the integrity of the text of the Sacred Scriptures, and many will begin to doubt even if only a small part appears to be false, not, I say, because of your work, but only through hearsay. Then what Augustine writes to Jerome will happen: “If one admits, even with the best intentions, that there are errors in the Sacred Scripture what will remain authoritative in it?”(Quoted in C. Asso, “Martin Dorp and Edwards Lee” p.172, in ed. E. Rummel, Biblical Humanism and Scholasticism in the Age of Erasmus [Brill: Leiden 2008], pp.167-195)

Why would Erasmus’ translation cast doubt on the integrity of Scripture? The reason is found in Erasmus’ trusting the original Greek text, which he publishes alongside his translation. The revised and improved translation claims authority from a source text and so casts doubt on the text that Jerome used for his translation. Erasmus said as much in his dedicatory letter to the Pope Leo X, where he states that he wants Christians to “draw from the fount rather than the muddy ponds and rivulets. And so I have revised the whole New Testament (as they call it) against the standard of the Greek original.” Ad Fontes! was for Erasmus essential for the health of the Church. For Dorp it appeared as a threat to its very existence!

Dorp’s recourse to Augustine, although somewhat ironic, makes sense. Jerome wanted to return to the Hebrew source for his Old Testament translation. Augustine knew there were differences between the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the Church (either in the original Greek or in Latin translation) and the Hebrew OT. Claiming authority for the Hebrew source over against the Greek translation undermines the translation and so, argued Augustine, undermines the ordinary Christian’s faith in Scripture. Dorp and others were afraid of exactly the same thing and so claimed that the Vulgate was without error. Dorp went as far as to say that if the Vulgate was different to Erasmus’ Greek text, he would defer to the Latin over the Greek! For Dorp the Vulgate is the pure fount and the Greek source that Erasmus cited is the muddy pool! This position became enshrined in Catholic teaching in the Council of Trent:

Moreover, the same sacred and holy Synod—considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic—ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever. (Council of Trent IVth session, 1546)

Both of Dorp’s arguments can be found here: The Vulgate is authentic on account of lengthened usage.

Dorp, just like Augustine with Jerome, eventually came around to acknowledging the importance of the original languages, yet the effects of Erasmus’ translation remained. Several important doctrines of the Church relied on the wording of the Vulgate. That wording was now challenged and, as a necessary consequence, so were the doctrines it spawned.

Timothy Edwards is editor of the Hebrew program for the BibleMesh Institute. He also serves as academic dean and fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.