The Medieval Review 11.11.16

Baker-Smith, Dominic. Erasmus, Expositions of the Psalms. Collected Works of Erasmus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Pp. 299. $100. ISBN 978-0-8020-9979-2. . .

Reviewed by:

Michael P. Kuczynski
Tulane University

With this volume, the University of Toronto's Collected Works of Erasmus project (hereafter CWE) completes its excellent series of three carefully annotated collections of translations of Erasmus' Expositions of the Psalms. Like the two previous installments, this one--elegant English versions of Erasmus' commentaries on Psalms 38, 83, and 14, each with a short introduction of its own and impeccable notes--manages to balance scholarly thoroughness and readability. Reception of the Psalms has taken on, in the past decade or so, a new prominence in discussions of medieval and early modern literature and cultural history. So this trinity of texts was completed at just the right time. The books are likely to come in for wide use and enthusiastic appreciation.

Any review of the volume at hand, CWE 65, has to acknowledge the aims and achievements of its two predecessors, CWE 63 and 64. This is especially so because the first volume of Expositions of the Psalms (CWE 63) begins with a first-rate introduction of seventy- two pages, really a small scholarly monograph in itself, by the series editor Domenic Baker-Smith, which situates Erasmus' Psalm commentaries in the complementary traditions of humanist textual scholarship, "affective...exegesis" of the Bible (CWE 63, xxx), and "spiritual counsel" (CWE 63, ix). Erasmus' skills as a philologist were formidable, although he preferred the Greek version of the Psalms to their original Hebrew. His approach to the Psalter was primarily pastoral, not scholarly. Erasmus located the higher, more than literal truth of the Psalter in what it can teach Christians about saving their souls, with the result that he became frustrated with scholars who either fussed at the literal sense of verses or who inflated the Psalms' meaning by windy allegorizing. As Baker-Smith states in his introduction, "piety" was more important than "ingenuity" to Erasmus in understanding Scripture: he saw the church as "a community of readers" and was sensitive to how "our engagement with language shapes our humanity, and thus [how] engagement with godly language will draw us towards God" (CWE 63, lvii). Such a perspective is crucial both to the method of treatment and operation of Erasmus' Psalm commentaries. Because personal salvation depends on the Church, one theme that links Erasmus' individual expositions is his concern for the unity of Christians in the wake of the Reformation. This theme is especially strong in the three commentaries collected in the present volume, CWE 65, the second of which, on Psalm 83, was entitled De sarcienda ecclesiae concordia ("On Mending the Peace of the Church").

Erasmus considered writing a commentary on the entire Psalter, like one of his patristic heroes, St. Augustine, whose Enarrationes in Psalmos dominated the medieval and early modern exegetical imagination. (In fact, Erasmus was responsible for the collective editorial title of this text, which he knew was originally composed by Augustine as discrete sermons or expositions of particular psalms.) Ultimately he commented by the end of his life on only eleven of the 150 Davidic poems. His initial enarratio, on Psalm 1, was his first attempt at biblical commentary; his final exposition, on Psalm 14, the last product of his pen, was published three months before his death. The editor of the three CWE volumes has wisely restored the commentaries to Erasmus' order of composition, rather than presenting them according to the numerical order of the Psalter itself, as was done in the Leiden and Amsterdam editions. [1] This decision allows us to see not only how Erasmus' exegetical technique developed from commentary to commentary, but also how his hopes and frustrations concerning Church unity shifted. The commentaries span the period 1515-1536--those in the present volume were written in the 1530's--and chart Erasmus' growing disillusionment with the state of his Church, especially following Luther's break with Rome (an event that postdates the first commentary he wrote, on Psalm 1).

Balanced against Erasmus' disillusionment is his healthy awareness in the commentaries printed in this third volume of the fallibility of human reason, especially when applied to theological matters. His skepticism was aroused even by the Church Fathers, whose views on doctrine and biblical interpretation could be irreconcilable or frankly erroneous. In the first commentary translated in CWE 65, on Psalm 38, he asks, "Now if someone were to examine the records of earlier church councils, would he not discover many things which are nowadays unjustly criticized on many counts?...But why should I embark upon this vast ocean? The reverence and civility of the theologians should be praised--those who either ignore such errors (as they themselves often make) or interpret them in a suitable manner whenever they come across them" (52-3). Erasmus was no pollyanna. He recognized, however, the need for civil dispute in spiritual matters and tries to infuse his own commentaries with a tone of understanding and, where appropriate, conciliation. Later in the same exposition, while critiquing a detail from the Enarrationes in Psalmos, Erasmus notes that Augustine was in this particular "misled by a textual error," only in the next breath to add the extenuating observation that the erroneous reading "can also, however, have a pious meaning" (103). Erasmus' indulgence recalls Augustine's own observation, in On Christian Teaching, that any explanation of Scripture accordant with the rule of charity is somehow valid and is echoed during the second commentary printed here, on Psalm 83, when Erasmus appeals to those who chastise clerical and theological error:

We should remind ourselves how stupid it is to indulge in such loathing of the behaviour of certain popes or priests or monks that we become worse than they...We are human, and we deal with human beings...If we make an honest estimate of people's virtues, we shall be less troubled by their vices. (197-8)

Erasmus adopts a similar generous spirit toward his own habits as a commentator, implying in an oddly moving passage later in this same enarratio both self-critique and acceptance. Admitting that he is pursuing an idiosyncratic line of reasoning regarding a certain psalm verse, he nevertheless explains that his interpretation seems better to him than the historical sense, within the pastoral context of the entire psalm: "To show that this interpretation is not a figment of my imagination...I may point out the words which follow [in the psalm]...There is no reason why we should not interpret these words in their less important sense...I have preferred to pursue a less obvious line of interpretation" (190). Other Psalm commentators throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance embraced a wooden, rigidly stratified approach to the levels and variety of exegetical interpretation, beginning with a hard distinction between the Psalms' literal and spiritual senses. Erasmus' approach, by contrast, is more fluent, always grounded in Christocentric readings of the Psalter (David for him, as for Augustine, represents either Christ or his Mystical Body) but nuanced too, responsive to the vagaries of the commentator's own ecclesiological passions, his personal hopes and fears for his Church.

One comes away from reading these commentaries with a double but not contradictory sense of Erasmus' character. There are the persistent medieval elements to his approach, not in the form of scholastic straining, which he deplored, but in the indebtedness to Augustine and Augustinianism to which I have already referred. His final commentary, on Psalm 14, Qui est de puritate tabernaculi sive ecclesiae christianae ("On the Purity of the Tabernacle or of the Christian Church"), takes as one of its key points a preoccupation of the Enarrationes in Psalmos: the conflict between outward acts of devotion and inner piety--and the necessary priority of the latter. (One favorite Augustinian topos, for example, which contributes to Erasmus' concern with interiority, contrasts the prayer of the mouth and the prayer of the heart. In his commentary on Psalm 47, Augustine goes so far as to charge that the Christian who is devout in public but sinful in private is actually guilty of blasphemy.)

Erasmus dedicated his Psalm commentaries to individuals, this last one to his friend and admirer Christoph Eschenfelder, a customs officer--a layman whose piety, maintained amid the world's distractions, surpassed that of many monks. Like Church unity, to which it is essential, Christian purity had to be worked at and soldiered after, to invoke a repeated martial image from Erasmus' commentary on Psalm 83. Good Christian humanist that he is, Erasmus therefore frequently pursues his struggles for the truth among the collisions and convergences between the Psalmist and the Platonists (in his enarratio on Psalm 38) and between the Psalms themselves and Horace's Epistles (on Psalm 83). Despite the medieval roots of his commentaries, he cannot shake his respect for pagan Latin literature and its authors, many of whom anticipated, in a veiled way, Christ's truth.

Erasmus' last written work, however, the enarratio on Psalm 14, turns more obsessively biblical and bitter. Apart from three passing references to Lucretius, Terence, and Seneca, the matter is scriptural throughout and made of sterner stuff than the biblical allusions in the commentaries on Psalms 38 and 83. No longer hopeful, at least explicitly, that the souls of pagans such as Virgil, Horace, and Cicero are among the blessed, Erasmus is instead aware that while "Heretics and schismatics also fast, pray, sing hymns, give alms, live chastely, preach the word of God, and perform other deeds which have the appearance of virtue...these things are but faults because they are performed outside the tabernacle" (246). His tone here, never less than elegant, can burn on occasion with the fire of the medieval pulpit, although that fervor is mitigated finally by a "Valedictory Letter," whereby he offers his commentary to Christoph as "a token of our friendship" (267).

A special achievement of the third volume of Erasmus' Expositions of the Psalms is its record, in graceful translations of these texts, of the complex humanity of Erasmus during his final years--the concerned and even turbulent self behind the exegete. As Baker-Smith observes in a short preface to CWE 63, "Erasmus' expositions of the Psalms make up a substantial portion of his writings on spiritual counsel...[but] had only a limited impact" on the contentious ecclesiastical politics of his own day (CWE 63, ix-x). Now that this impressive three-volume edition is complete, these commentaries, one hopes, may exert their influence anew, by complicating our understanding of their author and speaking, however indirectly, to the anxieties of our own fractured age.



1. Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami opera omnia, ed. Jean Leclerc (Leiden, 1703-6) and Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami (Amsterdam, 1969- ).