It is the 7th of September 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Much in the world of Early Modern academics was remarkably unified. Unlike the specialized, atomized, and the particular world of the modern University, the early Modern mind was relatively unified.
One of the problems for modern historians is that we often come from the world of specialization and thus “specialize” on those aspects of Early Modern life and sometimes, unfortunately, produce one-dimensional pictures of complicated figures.
Imagine if in the future, the world of coffee roasting, sound engineering, and being a pastor splinter into very specific disciplines. Who would tell the story of Christopher Gillespie? I use the example to introduce you to, or reintroduce you to Thomas Erastus who was born on the 7th of August in 1524.
Here’s an example of a common short entry on Erastus:
Swiss physician and theologian, father of Erastianism (the belief that the state should have supremacy over the church).
Here’s a tip: if you see the term “Erastian” used it needs to be a reference to a particular kind of English Presbyterian argument well after Erastus’ death whereby the term is used to scare folks by positing an all-powerful state crushing the church. Words do what words do, and language is funny, but “Erastian” is divorced from the life and thought of the man Thomas Erastus.
To get an accurate thumbnail sketch of Erastus we need to examine his political, theological, and medical contexts and beliefs. Let’s break it down.
Thomas Erastus was Anti-Paracelsius. You remember him, right? Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim aka Paracelsus who attempted to rip modern medicine away from its ancient Greek foundations. Erastus may have joined the Protestants in theology, but his medical practice remained heavily influenced by the classics and he called out Paracelsus’ medical heresies such as his over-insistence on the use of astrology.
Erastus was anti-witch. And this not in the “I don’t believe they exist” but rather, he REALLY believed that they existed and he believed that the state had the responsibility to hunt, arrest, and kill them.
Erastus was Pro-Zwingli. That is, when his territory was deciding its Reformation flavor he argued for Zwingli’s positions- especially pertaining to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Erastus believed that the elements remained wholly bread and wine but were a spiritual “sign” of the heavenly things signified.
Erastus would be anti-presbyterian insofar as he rejected the Swiss Calvinist model of a church organization based on external consistories that arranged for church business (especially ex-communication).
The idea that Erastian means “state supremacy” over the church has to do with Erastus’ 75 Theses that were published after his death. It became shorthand for his opponents who wanted the church consistory, or Presbytery, to have a say in the punishment of church members.
And for all the confusion of Erastus and Erastianism (which isn’t helped by “Erastus” and “Erasmus” being contemporaries) the biggest point of confusion has to do with Erastus’ idea of “Excommunication”. Erastus believed that in a Christian state punishment for moral failings needed to be dealt with by the Christian magistrate. The church had been withholding Communion from sinners and Erastus believed that no one who truly wanted Communion should the blocked from taking it. Keeping Communion from those it deemed unworthy had been one of the most powerful tools the church had and obviously wasn’t keen on Erastus’ argument against them.
Last fun story- he was almost ruined by charges of Socinianism. If you don’t know that heresy, it doesn’t matter because Erastus was certainly not a Socinian. Get this: people would use terms they didn’t know the meaning of, but knew the term signified “bad stuff from bad guys” and then would liberally use the ill-defined term to attack their enemies. I’m glad we all stopped doing this.
Thomas Erastus- a multi-faceted and complicated man who was neither Erastian nor Socinian was a Swiss Zwinglian Physician and he was born on this, the 7th of August in 1524.
The last word for today is from Matthew 15:
29 And Jesus went on from there and passed along the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain, and sat down there. 30 And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, 31 so that the throng wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of September 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by Christoper Theophrastus von Hohenheim Gillespie.
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.