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The radical humility of Christ in the sixteenth century: Erasmus and Calvin on Philippians 2:6–7

  • Kirk Essary (a1)


The christological hymn in Philippians 2, rich as it is in theological potential, has always been a fruitful locus in the history of biblical interpretation for engaging in a number of doctrinal disputes which revolve around questions of the nature of Christ. Thus, an analysis of any chapter in the history of interpretation of the hymn (or at least parts of it) is necessary for understanding the ways in which Paul's text has informed christological discourse or, vice versa, how certain ways of thinking about Christology inform interpretations of the passage. In the sixteenth century, the hymn also serves as a jumping-off point for discussions of the authority of scripture in matters of doctrine, for whether Paul provides sufficient doctrinal fodder to ground an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity (particularly of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son) will be brought into question, in particular, by Erasmus. Erasmus’ understanding of the passage, as it appears in his Annotations, was criticised by numerous Catholics, and the ensuing debate (especially between Erasmus and Lefèvre) is fairly well known. The response Erasmus (and the surrounding debate) elicits from John Calvin, however, has scarcely been mentioned and, to my knowledge, never been examined in depth – this, despite the fact that Calvin's engagement with Erasmus on Philippians 2:6–7 departs from his usual method of perspicua brevitas in commentary writing, and constitutes a significant digression on an array of christological and hermeneutical issues. These two verses, and their reception in the sixteenth century, provide a useful lens for analysing the christologies and the hermeneutical strategies of two biblical humanists who, perhaps, are not often enough considered alongside one another. A close reading of these two exegetes’ interpretations of Philippians 2:6–7 will be followed by a consideration of the significance of their emphasis on the radical humility of Christ, which emphasis serves as a departure from the bulk of the antecedent exegetical and theological tradition.



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1 Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Idiot, tr. Pevear and Volokhonsky (London: Vintage, 2008), p. 624, n. 19.

2 Ibid., p. 218.

3 On the possible connection between Holbein's painting and the christological debates involving Erasmus in the early sixteenth century, see Neuchterlein, Jeanne, Translating Nature into Art: Holbein, the Reformation, and Renaissance Rhetoric (University Park, PA: Penn State, 2011), esp. ch. 3.

4 For an overview of the debate and the ensuing fallout see Rummel, Erasmus and his Catholic Critics, vol. 2 (Nieuwkoop: DeGraaf, 1989), pp. 48–58. For a little bit more of a detailed overview of the christological stakes of the debate, see the introduction in Collected Works of Erasmus (CWE), vol. 83 (pp. xviii ff.). Also two articles: Payne, John, ‘Erasmus and Lefèvre d'Etaples as Interpreters of Paul’, Archiv fur Reformationsgeschichte 65 (1974), pp. 5483; Tracy, James D., ‘Humanists among the Scholastics: Erasmus, More, and Lefèvre d'Etaples on the Humanity of Christ’, Erasmus of Rotterdam Society Yearbook Five (1985), pp. 3051.

5 Indeed, while humanist influence on Calvin has long been recognised, his indebtedness to Erasmus in particular represents a vast lacuna in Calvin scholarship. Many Calvin scholars who do recognise the impact of humanist trends on Calvin's thought often point only to Protestants with humanist proclivities as vessels of influence. This sort of compartmentalising could be said to have been inaugurated by Calvin himself, who employed it in his discussion of his exegetical forebears (all Protestants – Melanchthon, Bullinger, Bucer) in his oft-cited dedicatory letter appended to his Commentary on Romans – but it is an incomplete picture. While the extent of Calvin's humanism is not the purpose of this paper, the notion that Calvin engaged with Erasmus’ Annotations very closely (and not always negatively) when writing his own commentaries informs our study. For specific studies, see Faber, Riemer, ‘The Influence of Erasmus’ Annotations on Calvin's Commentary on Galatians’, Dutch Review of Church History 84 (2004), pp. 268–83; Essary, Kirk, ‘Milk for Babes: Erasmus and Calvin on the Problem of Christian Eloquence’, Reformation and Renaissance Review 16/3 (2014), pp. 246–65; idem, ‘Calvin's Interpretation of Christ's Agony at Gethsemane: An Erasmian Reading?’, Toronto Journal of Theology 30/1 (Spring 2014), pp. 59–70; idem, Pauline Folly in the Sixteenth Century: Erasmus, Calvin, and the Christian Philosophy (in review). On the topic of Erasmus’ influence on Calvin broadly speaking, see Millet, Olivier, Calvin et la dynamique de la parole: Etude de rhétorique reformée (Bibliothèque littéraire de la Renaissance, Série 3; Paris: Champion, 1993); Parker, T. H. L, who has provided many examples (and compiled statistics) of Calvin's reception of Erasmus in Calvin's New Testament Commentaries (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993, pp. 164–84), although his analysis there is meant to be a broad overview, and primarily of Calvin's indebtedness (or lack thereof) to Erasmus’ text-criticism. Also, for early influence, see Wendel, Francois, Calvin: Origins and Development of his Religious Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), esp. p. 31; Battles, Ford Lewis, Calvin's Commentary on Seneca's De Clementia, (Leiden: Brill, 1969), pp. 7981. The strongest arguments come from Bouwsma, William; see his ‘Calvinism as Theologia Rhetorica?’ in Wuellner, Wilhelm (ed.), Calvinism as Theologia Rhetorica (Berkeley, CA: Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1987), 121; ‘Calvin and the Renaissance Crisis of Knowing’, Calvin Theological Journal 17 (1982), pp. 190–211; and his biography, John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (New York and Oxford: OUP, 1988).

6 See n. 5, and one recent exception: Shuger's, Debora KullerThe Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice, and Subjectivity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010) has demonstrated, among other things, how much there is to be learned from a comparison of Erasmian and Calvinist readings of the suffering of Christ.

7 The christological dispute between Erasmus and Lefèvre started when Erasmus, in the Novum Instrumentum of 1516, criticised Lefèvre's interpretation of Hebrews 2:7, which consists of a quotation of Ps 8:6 ‘For a little while you made him lower than the angels'. Phil 2:6 becomes, in Erasmus’ response, the crucial text on which his rebuttal to Lefèvre turns. Erasmus’ Apologia ad Fabrum was first printed in 1517. For details, see the introduction in CWE 83, and Rummel, Erasmus and his Catholic Critics.

8 The controversy with Lee took place over 1517–20, with Lee's remarks culminating in the printing of his Annotationum libri duo against Erasmus in Paris in 1520; Erasmus replied in the same year. For details of the controversy and the printing history, see the introduction in CWE 72.

9 The Annotationes were first published as an appendix, consisting primarily of philological commentary, to Erasmus’ Novum Instrumentum of 1516, and they grew through successive editions to include more historical and theological commentary; the Paraphrase of Philippians was first printed in 1521.

10 Erasmus’ 1535 Novum Testamentum reads: ‘qui cum esset in forma dei, non rapinam arbitratus est, ut esset aequalis deo’.

11 Opera Omnia Desiderii Erasmi (hereafter ASD) VI-9 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 290 (all translations of Ann. Phil. are my own): ‘Forma enim, inquiens, Dei, quid est, nisi exemplum quod Deus apparet, dum mortuos excitat, surdis reddit auditum, leprosos mundat?’

12 ASD VI-9, 289–90: ‘Diuus Ambrosius formam interpretatur “specimen” seu “exemplum”, quod in corpore humano obambulans aederet tamen argumenta diuinitatis’.

13 ASD VI-9, 290: ‘Iam quod accepit formam serui, non proprie referri videtur ad humanam naturam assumptam, sed ad speciem et similitudinem hominis nocentis, cuius personam pro nobis gessit, dum flagellatur, damnatur, crucifigitur.’

14 ASD VI-9, 290: ‘Siquidem ad exemplum Paulus huc produxit Christum sponte humilitatum et Patris autoritate exaltatum.’

15 ASD VI-9, 290: ‘Non hic agit Paulus quid esset Christus, sed qualem se gereret videlicet nobis aedens exemplum.’ This line in particular will come into play when we turn to Calvin's commentary on Philippians.

16 CWE 43: 371.

17 This is the wording of Tracy, James D.; see his essay, ‘Erasmus and the Arians: Remarks on the “Consensus Ecclesiae”’, Catholic Historical Review 61/1 (1981), p. 3.

18 Magnus Deus is contrasted with verus Deus by the Arians (the latter of which is reserved for the Father alone) (see Tracy, ‘Erasmus and the Arians’, p. 5). Tracy notes that elsewhere Erasmus cites the creed of Rimini in support of his defence of the Arians that they weren't quite as orthodox as everyone thought they were, but that he attributes a more orthodox theology to the creed that isn't in fact there.

19 ASD VI-9, 290: ‘Atque hanc praecipuam habent clauam, qua conficiantur Ariani qui solum Patrem vere volunt esse Deum. Atqui si veris agere fas est, quid magni tribuit Paulus Christo, si cum Deus esset natura, intellexit id non esse rapinae, hoc est nouit seipsum? Illud autem compertum est nusquam maiorem vim fieri scripturis sacris quam ubi cum hareticis agentes nihil non detorquemus ad victoriam. Tametsi non video quid hic locus proprie faciat adversus Arianos, qui non negabant Dei Filium esse Deum, imo et magnum Deum fatebantur et benedictum super omnia Deum, sed arbitrabantur Patrem aliquo modo peculiari dici Deum, quo Filius aut Spiritus sanctus non diceretur.’

20 Tracy, ‘Erasmus and the Arians’, pp. 3ff.

21 ASD VI-9, 292: ‘Proinde totus hic locus mihi videtur violentius detorqueri ad Christi naturam, cum Paulus agat de specie exhibita nobis.’

22 ASD VI-9, 291–2.

23 CWE 72: 393. See ASD IX-4 for Latin.

24 CWE 83: 33–4. See ASD IX-3 for Latin of the Apologia ad Fabrum.

25 CWE 83: 35. Passages like these make me hesitant in following John Payne and James Tracy in their estimation of Erasmus as a subordinationist. There is no question that he emphasises the humanity of Christ, and this as much as any thinker in the history of the tradition who remains christologically orthodox, but I don't see the evidence for suggesting that the divine aspect of Christ is subordinate to the Father. For a recent treatment of Erasmus’ position on the Trinity and its orthodoxy, mostly through an evaluation of his Paraphrase of John, see Christ-von Wedel, Christine, Erasmus of Rotterdam: Advocate of a New Christianity (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 2013), pp. 111ff.

26 CWE 83: 60–1 (Lefèvre had suggested that Erasmus was in need of Anticyran hellebore for his insane interpretations, and Erasmus repeats the adage a number of times in the Apologia).

27 It is worth mentioning, perhaps, that here he actually quotes the Vulgate exinanire, while his own Latin edition beginning in 1519 provides the verb inanire – meaning, presumably, that he didn't think the difference to be all that significant. He also offers submisit and deiiecit as possible translations of ekenose (see ASD VI-9, 294).

28 The relationship between the philosophia Christi and Erasmus’ preference for moral, or tropological, interpretation is long recognised; see Rabil, Albert, Erasmus and the New Testament (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 1972), p. 101; Payne, John, ‘Toward the Hermeneutics of Erasmus’, in Coppens, Joseph (ed.), Scrinium Erasmianum, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1969), p. 47; Faber, Riemer A., ‘Desiderius Erasmus’ Representation of Paul’, in Holder, R. Ward (ed.), A Companion to Paul in the Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 2009), p. 49.

29 The idea of Erasmus as a theologian took on full force in North American scholarship in the 1970s. An exceptional overview of these trends with bibliography up to the turn of the century can be found in Mansfield, Bruce, Erasmus in the Twentieth Century (Buffalo, NY: Toronto University Press, 2003). See more recently, Wedel, Christine Christ-von, Erasmus of Rotterdam: Advocate of a New Christianity (Buffalo, NY: Toronto University Press, 2013).

30 For the Latin provided in the notes, I provide Feld's critical edition, COR II/2 (Geneva: Librarie Droz, 1992). I've consulted the original 1548 Geneva printing (by Jean Girard), and the final 1556 printing (by Robert Estienne) for variants.

31 The best treatments of Calvin's method in this regard are Parker, Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, and Muller, Richard A., The Unaccommodated Calvin (Oxford: OUP, 2000), esp. ch. 2. As Muller shows, in many places Calvin sets out an exegetical method which purports to avoid Bucer's burdensome style (in favour of ‘lucid brevity’) while retaining his method of providing a running commentary, which latter is opposed to Melanchthon's method of gathering together loci at the expense of commenting on every single verse (the latter Calvin sought to accomplish in his Institutes). His digression on Phil 2:6 is uncharacteristic, and thus all the more worth a closer look.

32 Comm. Phil. (tr. Parker), p. 247. ‘Forma Dei hic maiestatem significat. Quaemadmodum enim homo ex formae adspectu cognoscitur: ita maiestas, quae in Deo relucet, ipsius est figura. Aut si aptiorem similitudinem malis, forma regis est apparatus et splendor, qui regem indicat: ut sceptrum, diadema, chlamys, apparitores, tribunal, et catera regni insignia . . . Christus ergo ante mundum conditum in forma Dei erat: quia apud patrem, gloriam suam obtinebat ab initio, ut dicit Ioan. 17, 5. Nam in Dei sapientia, priusquam carnem nostram indueret, nihil humile erat vel abiectum, sed magnificentia Deo digna. Talis quum esset, absque iniuria poterat aequalem Deo gerere: sed non prae se tulit quod erat, neque palam sumpsit in oculis hominum quod iure suum erat’ (COR II/2, 320).

33 Philippians (tr. Parker), p. 247.

34 ‘Verum contextus requirit modum subiunctivum’ (COR II/2, 321).

35 COR II/2, 321: ‘Nec satis verecunde Erasmus, qui tam hunc locum quam alios similes eludere suis cavillis conatur. Fatetur quidem ubique Christum esse Deum. Sed quid me iuvat orthodoxa eius confessio, si nulla Scripturae authoritate fulciatur mea fides?’

36 Philippians, pp. 247–8; modified. COR II/2, 321: ‘Fateor sane Paulum de divina Christi essentia non facere mentionem. Sed non sequitur propterea, quin locus ad profligandam Arrianorum impietatem sufficiat, qui fingebant Christum Deum creatum et Patre minorem, consubstantialem negabant.’

37 Philippians (tr. Parker), p. 248; COR II/2, 322: ‘Forma figuram significat, vel apparentiam, ut vulgo loquuntur. id quoque fateor: sed an extra Deum reperietur talis forma non fallax, neque ementita? Sicut ergo a suis virtutibus cognoscitur Deus, et opera eius testimonia sunt aeternae eius divinitatis, Rom. 1, 20: ita rite divina Christi essentia probatur ex Christi maiestate, quam aequalem cum patre habebat, antequam se ipsum humiliaret. Mihi certe ne omnes quidem diaboli hunc locum extorqueant: quia in Deo firmissimum est argumentum a gloria ad essentiam: quae duo inseparabilia sunt.’

38 Randall Zachman deals with this line of reasoning briefly in Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), pp. 260–1.

39 Indeed, as Peter Bietenholz has noted, Servetus was well aware of Erasmus’ Annotationes when crafting his own De Trinitatis erroribus, and he repeats Erasmus’ assertion that Paul did not have Christ's two natures in mind when composing his letter to the Philippians: Encounters with a Radical Erasmus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), p. 36.

40 Defensio orthodoxae fidei de sacra trinitate contra prodigiosos errores Michaelis Serveti Hispani, written somewhat hastily, and printed in 1554.

41 ‘Nego aliquid de gloria divinitatis fuisse imminutum: sed quia in carnis infirmitate obscura et contempta delituit, Christus ipse, qui unus est homo et Deus, dicitur exinanitus fuisse.’ Ioannis Calvini, Scripta Didactica et Polemica, vol. 5, ed. Kleinstuber (Geneva: Droz, 2009), p. 32.

42 COR II/2, 322. My translation; ‘Quaeritur an id fecerit quatenus homo. Erasmus affirmat. Sed ubi erat forma Dei antequam homo esset? Itaque respondendum est, de toto Christo Paulum loqui, ut est Deus manifestatus in carne: hanc tamen inanitionem non convenire nisi soli humanitati.’

43 COR II/2, 322: ‘Inanitio haec eadem est cum humiliatione, de qua postea videbimus. Sed emphatikoteros hoc dictum, pro in nihilum redigi. Non potuit quidem Christus abdicare se divinitate: sed eam ad tempus occultam tenuit, ne appareret sub carnis infirmitate. Itaque gloriam suam non minuendo, sed supprimendo in conspectu hominum deposuit.’

44 Modified Battles’ translation (my emphasis). ‘Nam, ut eius exemplo nos horttetur ad submissionem ostendit, quum Deus esset, potuisse mundo gloriam suam conspicuam statim proponere; cessisse tamen iure suo, et sponte se ipsum exinanisse; quia scilicet imaginem servi induit, et ea humilitate contentus, carnis velamine suam divinitatem abscondi passus est. Hic certe non docet quid fuerit Christus, sed qualiter se gesserit.’ Erasmus, against the anti-Arians: ‘Non hic agit Paulus quid esset Christus, sed qualem se gereret videlicet nobis aedens exemplum.’ Erasmus, summarising Ambrosiaster: ‘Iam quod accepit formam serui, non proprie referri videtur ad humanam naturam assumptam, sed ad speciem et similitudinem hominis nocentis, cuius personam pro nobis gessit, dum flagellatur, damnatur, crucifigitur’ (ASD VI-9, 290).

45 Payne, John, Erasmus: His Theology of the Sacraments (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1970), p. 54.

46 Indeed, Payne himself will go on to point out Erasmus’ ‘Antiochian’ proclivities in his discussions of the two natures of Christ.

47 Payne, Erasmus: His Theology of the Sacraments, p. 58.

48 Gregory of Nazianzus (de facto Bishop of Constantinople during, and co-convener of, the Second Ecumenical Council of 381, whence comes the final version of the only truly authoritative document regarding orthodox trinitarianism in the entire Christian tradition) uses this language (in Greek, arche), as does Calvin. On Gregory, see Beeley, Christopher, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God (Oxford: OUP, 2008), esp. ch. 4; For Calvin, see Institutes 1.13.6, 1.13.25.

49 Tracy concurs with Payne's estimation of Erasmus’ subordinationism, but provides no argument (see his ‘Erasmus and the Arians’).

50 Ibid., p. 64.

51 Shuger, The Renaissance Bible, p. 102.

52 Ibid., pp. 102–3, for a discussion of Christ as a model of the riven self, with a divided will. If Shuger is correct in her interpretation of Erasmus, we might suggest that his concept of the fragmented self, articulated so clearly by Augustine in his Confessions, is not, as it is in Augustine, a result of sin, but is an innate fact of what it is to be human. Even more intriguingly, Shuger connects Erasmus’ divided self to the self-as-audience of the later Calvinist passion narratives (see pp. 104–5).

53 See e.g. Comm. John 1:14.

54 Willis, Calvin's Catholic Christology (Leiden: Brill, 1966), p. 62.

55 See Essary, ‘Calvin's Interpretation of Christ's Agony’, pp. 59–70, for a brief discussion.

56 Inst. II.16.10–11 (McNeill/Battles), 516.

57 For Erasmus on a similar point, see CWE 83: 36–7.

58 Inst. II.16.12 (McNeill/Battles), 519.

59 For a very helpful article on Erasmus taking seriously Christ's psychological suffering at Gethsemane, see Tracy, ‘Humanists among the Scholastics’, pp. 30–51.

60 Shuger, Renaissance Bible, pp. 104–5. Shuger argues that the anxiety of the Calvinist saint is modelled after Erasmus’ Christ.

61 Ibid., p. 113.

62 Ibid., p. 97.



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