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colet’s paul’s erasmus account

The persistent claims of John Colet to a place at the head table in the English Reformation rest on slender props that now appear to have been carefully placed by his Victorian admirers. One was his sermon to the Convocation, formerly seen as the “overture” to the Reformation (Trapp, 130). Others were his interest in education, his peripheral contact with Renaissance humanism through Erasmus* and his trip to Italy, and perhaps most convincing, his troubles with his bishop over the question of images. Erasmus himself describes, in a fictionalized account, Colet’s disdain for relics on a trip to Becket’s shrine. In fact it was claimed that Erasmus was set on his own course of biblical scholarship by Colet’s Oxford lectures on St. Paul and their new type of critical exegesis that emphasized the literal meaning of Scripture over the far-flung allegorical preferences of the scholastics.

Yet something vital was missing from this portrait of Colet as a radical Reformer. Other critics of the church urged a return to the biblical languages where a more vigorous gospel awaited, shorn of the accumulated smoke and grime of the Latin overlay and the institution that supported it. Nearly all clamored, too, for an English Bible and criticized the sacramental system built around an authoritarian magisterium couched in a language no layman understood. Many questioned pluralism and other common practices. Colet did none of these. The denunciation of pluralism in his “Sermon to the Convocation” is conventional hypocrisy since he had three prebends, three churches with cure of souls, and a free chapel all before he received deacon’s orders and retained multiple benefices even as dean of St. Paul’s. As for biblical or vernacular languages, Colet was satisfied that acquisition of Greek was unnecessary, and he published nothing in English. Instead, he devoted his time to writing Latin commentaries on the Neoplatonic tangles he found in the works of Dionysius, whom he wrongly believed to have been St. Paul’s companion. His was not an activist’s stance.

Colet’s interest in Neoplatonism has been seen as the link between his Christianity reforms and pagan philosophy—a link strengthened by the traditional view that Dionysius was an early Greek Christian. His trip to Italy had been, in part, a quest to meet Ficino, who called Dionysius “the Supreme Platonist.‘’ Other scholarly Englishmen of Colet’s generation were interested in Renaissance philosophers and were openly critical of contemporary church praxis. Yet when Thomas More* focused on the Italian Neoplatonist Pico della Mirandola, he did so not on account of his philosophy but because he had rejected philosophy and the intellectual spirit whence it sprang in favor of a life dedicated to Christian good works and conventional piety. If anything, here was the reforming spirit that would link up with Tyndale* and Luther.

The biographical details of his life are relatively well known: Colet’s family was prominent enough to leave substantial traces in the records. Born in 1467, by the time he was in his early teens his father was prominent among the Mercers’ Company, and around John’s twentieth birthday Colet’s father was elected lord mayor of London and knighted. John attended Cambridge, where he received his B.A in 1485 and his M.A. in 1488. By 1504 Colet was a D.D. of Oxford. From 1492 until 1495 he traveled in Italy, but exactly what he did and whom he met there are the subject of much debate. Erasmus claims he went there to study sacred texts and to work on his preaching. Some have him meeting with Ficino, Pico, and others in Florence. He may have heard Savonarola preach. In Rome, where he stayed for the first year, he may have met humanists in the Curia. What is known about his Italian sojourn is that he became acquainted with Piccolomini’s sympathetic account of the Czech heretic Jan Hus and that he expressed a deep interest in the works of Marsilio Ficino.

Colet may have spent some time in Orléans studying law after leaving Italy, but by 1497 he was immersed in his theological studies at Oxford. Sometime around then he began his series of lectures on St. Paul’s epistles that reputedly introduced his novel method of exegesis. The texts for these lectures have not survived. In 1499 he met Erasmus, who heard at least some of the lectures and corresponded with him on matters of scriptural interpretation, so on the remains of their epistolary relationship much of the debate around Colet’s exegetical techniques is centered.

As one would expect from the scion of an established London family, Colet’s career prospered. He garnered more ecclesiastical offices in 1502, completed his doctorate in 1504, and was elected dean of St. Paul’s in 1505—a significant achievement for a man still in his thirties. That same year, as Sir Henry’s sole heir, Colet inherited one of the more substantial fortunes in London, part of which was used to found his famous St. Paul’s school begun in 1508. In 1510 Colet delivered the now-famous convocation speech to the clergy. The speech contains some stinging rebukes to England’s clergy and is held at least partially responsible for the friction between Colet and some of England’s clerical establishment, including his own bishop, between 1514 and 1516. Yet Colet found favor at the hands of his king and a rising young archbishop named Wolsey, and the charges against him had no effect. Erasmus anticipated a glowing future for the dean—the bishop of London was quite old, and it would be only natural for Colet to succeed him. But after repeated bouts of the English sweat, Colet died in 1519.


This outline of Colet’s life has become inseparable from the assessment of his contribution to the English Reformation. Recent scholarship has revised the earlier chronology of his writings and significantly altered the interpretation of his exegetical method as well as his position with respect to the ecclesiastical hierarchy and his allegedly heterodox beliefs. New evidence shows Colet as an active judge of heretics, not a sympathetic and well-placed spokesman for reform. Colet the man appears now as an energetic, even zealous champion of moral integrity among the clergy whose troubles with his cathedral chapter stem more from misplaced attempts to enforce his own personal austerity on his colleagues than heterodox beliefs.

Colet’s writings focus almost single-mindedly on an attempt to elucidate the true—and often hidden—meaning of Scripture, primarily the letters of Paul to the Romans and First Corinthians. Because he believed, as did many in the West, that the fifth-century writer known as Dionysius was actually Dionysius the Areopagite, the companion of Paul and various disciples, Colet was led into an investigation of his Neoplatonic writings in his attempt to get at the true wisdom in Paul’s work. His interests in Hermeticism (and it should be noted that he hosted Cornelius Agrippa* in 1510) led him to believe not only in the existence of a parallel and unwritten revelation, guarded by the church and vouchsafed only to those empowered by the Spirit, but in “still other channels less authoritative and more diffuse” (Gleason, 144). Colet published none of his commentaries, nor is there much evidence that they circulated in manuscript, although a revised chronology of his extant papers suggests he may have been preparing them for publication shortly before he died.

Colet had an unusual view of the nature of the literal sense of Scripture that denied the full play of figurative language. Rather, the ordinary figures of human speech (i.e., the historical or contextual sense) were somehow meant to convey literal truth. He distrusted the ability of everyday language to carry the weight of revelation: “What the words ‘literally’ mean is therefore simply what they mean to men and women, a meaning at an indeterminate remove from the intention of the divine author” (Gleason, 137). Therefore their spiritual truth— the meaning intended by God—could be elucidated only through something akin to direct revelation, not philology. Fasting and prayer were more conducive to proper exegesis than language study. Colet’s indifference, if not hostility, to classical and humanistic rhetoric and to Greek in particular underlines the distance between his approach and Erasmus’. The statutes he drew up for St. Paul’s school so eviscerated the corpus of acceptable pagan authors that his dedication to humanist studies is certainly questionable. In his own words, “No one reads pagan books except out of distrust or scorn of the Scripture” (Gleason, 139).


Two developments have helped recapture the sense of what Colet’s famous Oxford lectures contained and explain their undoubted popularity: redating his surviving manuscripts on Paul, which earlier commentators had believed contained the texts of these, and a closer analysis of the exegetical methods, which found a contemporaneous account. By removing the manuscripts to a later date closer to the end of his career—which Gleason has done plausibly if laboriously—we come to the study of his views on Scripture in a long account by a young priest who came seeking guidance. In this account of Colet’s handling of the very texts he was engaged in lecturing on—Paul’s letter to the Romans— we see an accumulation of scriptural sententiae , wrenched from their literary and historical context, isolated from the rest of the letter as a whole. In short, Colet extracted for the priest a glittering but inconsequential set of moral and theological topoi digested and recombined to illustrate a preconceived truth. This, it seems, was Colet’s method. Compelling, vigorous, and pithy it may have been—Erasmus goes so far as to say he could easily work himself into a “holy frenzy” in discussion over Scripture (Lochman, 83). But a new type of exegesis it was not.

We can now understand Colet’s notoriety. The widespread fame of his austerity, the moral and hortatory exempla he drew from Paul, and his energetic, if sometimes overbearing, manner all point to an effective speaker and tireless moral conscience. But his pursuit of the arcane and esoteric brought him to the brink of heterodoxy, not Protestant reform.

Colie, Rosalie L. (1924–1972) - European History [next] [back] Coles, Johnny (actually, John)

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