Expositions of the Psalms. By Desiderius Erasmus. Edited by Dominic Baker-Smith


[Collected Works of Erasmus, vol.64] . Pp. xv, 416 , University of Toronto Press , 2005 , $158.00 .

This is the second volume of Erasmus's expositions of the Psalms in the Toronto University Press edition of his complete works. The first, containing his discussions of Psalms 1, 2, 3 and 4, came out in 1997, and the third is in preparation. The present volume has the expositions of Psalms 22, 28, 33 and 85, written between 1528 and 1531. The translators and annotators of the four pieces are Carolinne White (Psalm 85), Emily Kearns (Psalms 22 and 33), and Michael J. Heath (Psalm 28).

The period covered was, as the editor, Dominic Baker-Smth, stresses, one of growing anxiety for Erasmus. Luther's position was hardening. Hopes of reaching a satisfactory compromise were declining. The grip of the Reformation was becoming firmer, and Erasmus himself left for the nearby Freiburg im Breisgau in 1529 after the outbreak of iconoclasm in Basel. In October 1529, moreover, Suleiman the Magnificent abandoned his siege of Vienna, but the speed of the Turkish advance, and the proximity of Turkish forces to the heart of the Habsburg empire, continued to alarm the Christian West.

The texts in this volume contain more or less direct references to the ecclesiastical and political events of the moment. While the Devout Explanation of Psalm 85 in the Form of a Sermon, completed by August 1528, has an important section on prayer (which Erasmus regarded as a divine gift comparable to prophecy), it also has a hint of Erasmus's growing concern with justification by faith and the value of works. Erasmus was eager to find a middle way between the two positions, and a couple of year later he referred to a double justification in terms which, Baker-Smith points out, anticipate the conciliatory formulas of the abortive Colloquy of Regensburg of 1541. In his Threefold Exposition of Psalm 22, Erasmus stated that ‘righteousness is of two kinds, the first being the innocence to which we are restored through faith and baptism and the second the righteousness of faith working through love.’ In his Exposition of Psalm 33, he introduced the theme of human effort: ‘God wants his elect to be saved, but to be saved in such a manner that they unite their own efforts with the divine will. He saves us through grace, but he wants us to seek that grace through our prayers, our tears, sighs, and almsgiving.’

Erasmus's feelings about the Turkish threat are expressed in his Most Useful Discussion concerning Proposals for War against the Turks, including an Exposition of Psalm 28, dated March 1530. In certain respects, as Michael Heath says, this is reminiscent of the ‘older genre of the crusading oration,’ but again we see Erasmus caught between conflicting positions. He was a pacifist, albeit not an unconditional one. ‘I teach,’ he wrote, ‘that war must never be undertaken unless, after everything else has been tried, it cannot be avoided …’ He condemned the Anabaptists, ‘those who think that the right to make war is denied totally to Christians,’ and found himself close to the position adopted by Luther. He agreed that the rise of the Turks could be blamed on the misdeeds of the Christians, but he also hesitantly admitted that ‘it is lawful to fight off the Turks, unless God sends signs to prohibit it.’ The conditions justifying war, however, were far from having been reached. Christianity itself remained in need of fundamental reforms. Only after these had been applied might it be possible ‘to conquer the Turks' empire in the same way that the apostles conquered all the nations of earth for their emperor, Christ.’‘The best alternative,’ he added, ‘is to conduct an armed campaign in such a way that they will be glad to be defeated.’

In his exegesis of the Psalms (the only book of the Old Testament which he ever tried to interpret) Erasmus tends to avoid the literal sense. However deeply influenced his exposition of Psalm 85 was by Augustine, Erasmus emphasized the mystical meaning rather than the eschatological one. Emily Kearns argues convincingly that one of the most original features of his discussion of Psalm 22 is his application of a threefold interpretation – allegorical, tropological and anagogical – in a manner unique in his own work and generally different to current and earlier approaches (even if it had ‘patristic antecedents’).

It is difficult to praise sufficiently the translators of the four texts and the editor of Erasmus's expositions of the Psalms, Dominic Baker-Smith, whose succinct and perceptive introduction to the second volume complements the more extensive one to the first.