Folly of the Theologians

Erasmus’ Praise of Folly spares no one from the withering critique of personified Folly. Folly chastises Scholars who waste their lives writing Books full of the most abstruse and exquisitely refined intellectual wranglings just so they can receive the praises of “one or two blear-eyed fellows,” their colleagues. She ridicules the Philosophers, and dares to assault the sacrosanct halls of the Theologians. These asses, who frighten everyone with the thunderbolt of being called a “heretic,” are such that

while being happy in their own opinions, and as if they dwelt in the third heaven, they look with haughtiness on all others as poor creeping things and could almost find in their hearts to pity them; while hedged in with so many magisterial definitions, conclusions, corollaries, propositions explicit and implicit, they abound with so many starting-holes that Vulcan’s net cannot hold them so fast, but they’ll slip through with their distinctions, with which they so easily cut all knots asunder that a hatchet could not have done it better, so plentiful are they in their new-found words and prodigious terms.

Having earlier described the Theologians as those who so vividly describe Hell that they must have spent years living there themselves, Folly attacks the theological schools “in which there is so much doctrine and so much difficulty that I may as well conceive the apostles, had they been to deal with these new kinds of divines, had needed to have prayed in aid of some other spirit.” Paul knew what faith was, but he didn’t define it “doctor-like.” The Apostles consecrated the Eucharist without having the slightest notion about the “terminus a quo” and “terminus ad quem” of transubstantiation, let alone having any understanding of the difference between Christ’s body in heaven and in the Sacrament. They knew the mother of Jesus, but had no inkling of philosophical demonstrations that she was sinless. Peter received the keys of the kingdom, but himself had not the subtlety of knowledge to receive the “key of knowledge” spoken of so grandiosely by the scholastics and canonists.

Indeed, regarding much of the theological knowledge of the Church in the 16th century, Follly brazenly claims that no one can conceive it “unless he has spent at least six and thirty years in the philosophical and supercelestial whims of Aristotle and the Schoolmen.” From Folly’s point of view, “Christians would do much better if instead of those dull troops and companies of soldiers with which they have managed their war with such doubtful success, they would send the bawling Scotists, the most obstinate Occamists, and invincible Albertists to war against the Turks and Saracens; and they would see, I guess, a most pleasant combat and such a victory as was never before.” These quacks vainly imagine that their pleasant trifles of scholastic reasoning (including the sophisticated Realist and Nominalist arguments about the possible modes of the Incarnation) hold up the Church like Atlas holding up the world, and if and when they ever bother to look at Holy Scripture, they treat it like a wax nose so that they can “force everyone to a recantation that differs but a hair’s breadth from the least of their explicit or implicit determinations” which they pronounce like oracles. Indeed, “neither baptism, nor the Gospel, nor Paul, nor Peter, nor St. Jerome, nor St. Augustine, no nor most Aristotelian Thomas himself can make a man a Christian, without these bachelors too be pleased to give him his grace.”

This is all very, very funny and, satire that it is, oh so provocative to reflective thought. Keep in mind that no less a Catholic than Thomas More collaborated with Erasmus in writing this delightful stuff, and it is reported that even Pope Leo X found it very humorous.

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