Erastus, Thomas

Erastus, Thomas (properly LIEBER or LIEBLER, which he put into the Greek form, Erastus), was born at Baden, in Switzerland (according to another account, at Auggen, in Baden-Durlach), September 7, 1524. He studied divinity and philosophy at Basel, and afterward at Pavia and Bologna, where he graduated M.D. In 1558 he became physician to the prince of Henneberg. The elector palatine, Frederick III, also appointed him first physician and professor of medicine in the University of Heidelberg. In 1560 and 1564 he attended the conferences of Lutheran and Reformed divines at Heidelberg and Maulbronn on the Lord's Supper, and vigorously maintained the Zuinglian view. He maintained the same doctrine in a treatise .De Caena Domini (1565; transl. by Shute, Lend. 1578, 16mo). He was charged with Socinianism, but without just ground. But his name is chiefly preserved for his views on Church authority and excommunication. "A sort of fanaticism in favor of the use of ecclesiastical censures and punishments had been introduced by Olevianus, a refugee from Treves, and by several fugitives from the cruelties of the duke of Alva in the Low Countries, and had spread among the Protestants of the Palatinate. Erastus termed it 'febris excommunicatoria,' and thought it an unwise policy for the Protestants, surrounded by their enemies, to be zealous in cutting off members from their own communion. He examined the principles and Biblical authority of ecclesiastical censures, and carried on a controversy in which he was violently opposed by Dathenus, and more mildly by his friend Beza. This controversy would have probably died as a local dispute had it not been revived by Castelvetro, who had married the widow of Erastus, publishing from his papers the theses called Explicatio Quaestionis gravissimnce de Excommunicatione, which bears to have been written in 1568, and was first published in 1589. The general principle adopted by Erastus is, that ecclesiastical censures and other inflictions are not the proper method of punishing crimes, but that the administration of the penal law, and of the law for compelling performances of civil obligations, should rest with the temporal magistrate. He held that the proper ground on which a person could be prohibited from receiving the ordinances of a church — such as the sacrament or communion of the Lord's Supper was not vice or immorality, but a difference in theological opinion with the church from which he sought the privilege. The church was to decide who were its members, and thereby entitled to partake in its privileges, but was not entitled to take upon itself the punishment of offenses by withholding these privileges, or by inflicting any other punishments on the ground of moral misconduct. Few authors so often referred to have been so little read as Erastus. The original theses are very rare. An English translation was published in 1669, and was re-edited by the Reverend Robert Lee in 1845. By some inscrutable exaggeration, it had become the popular view of the doctrines of Erastus that his leading principle was to maintain the authority of the civil magistrate over the conscience, and to subject all ecclesiastical bodies to his direction and control, both in their doctrine and their discipline. In the discussions in the Church of Scotland, of which the result was the secession of a large body of the clergy and people because it was found that the Church could not make a law to 'nullify the operation of lay patronage, those who maintained within the Church the principle that it had no such power were called Erastians as a term of reproach. As in all cases where such words as Socinian, Arian, Antinomian, etc., are used in polemical debates, the party rejected with disdain the name thus applied to it. But it is singular that in the course of this dispute no one seems to have thought of explaining that the controversy in which Erastus was engaged was about a totally different matter, and that only a few general and very vague remarks in his writings have given occasion for the supposition that he must have held the principle that all ecclesiastical authorities are subordinate to the civil. Erastus died at Basel on the 31st December- January 1, 1583." — English Cyclopaedia; Wordsworth, Ecclesiastes Biography; Hoefer, Nouv. Biog. Gener. 31:174; Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 4:121.

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