The Challenge of “The Third Way”


Desiderius Erasmus, by Holbein

I’ve written in the past about the idea of Christians as “third way” people, who refuse to be drawn into the polarities of which our culture seems so fond. Such people are “both-and” people who prefer the perplexity of paradox to the simplicity of either-or.

I’ve been reading a biography of Erasmus, which suggested to me that there are particular challenges to pursuing this course. Erasmus might be considered the first among humanist scholars. Among his greatest works was a fresh Latin version of Jerome’s Vulgate New Testament, with the Greek text alongside. It was the text Luther used to translate the New Testament into German.

First and foremost he was a scholar, yet he happened to live during the time that has come to be known as the Reformation. As an “apostle of reason”, he argued against some of the excesses of the Church, its monasticism, its scholasticism, and other corrupt practices. Yet he never saw himself as other than a faithful Catholic. He hated taking sides, even though both Catholics and Reformers wanted to claim him. Devotion, moral practice, and the quiet life of a scholar were more important to him than theological disputes. Reading his dispute with Luther on the freedom of the will, one senses how much he detests being drawn into this sort of thing, as different as night from day to Luther. Seeking a “middle way”, at points he had to flee to avoid danger to life and limb from both sides. There were no “here I stand” moments, nor was there martyrdom, as friends like Oecolampadius and Thomas More faced. He died a quiet death as an old man after completing his last publishing projects.

Erasmus’ reputation is that of a great humanist scholar but not that of a hero of the faith, Catholic or Protestant. At times, it seems like he simply thought the conflict between The Church and the Reformers as irrational and that a compromise could be found. He did not want conflict, he wanted quiet. His life reveals what may be true for many of us who believe in a “third way”. Because we don’t like us versus them, we often hope that simply a rational statement of the “third way” will be enough and we can go along with our own lives, while the rest of the world comes to our way of thinking.

It doesn’t seem to work that way too often. As Erasmus found, the “third way” can be the third angle on which the other two triangulate! Perhaps the real test comes at this point. To be a “third way” person is to choose the life of a reconciler, a peacemaker, but this involves wading into the messiness of the either-or and doing the hard work of creating a vision of both-and out of these either-or polarities. Sometimes it is the peacemaker that ends up getting killed, either physically or metaphorically!

Perhaps what is critical to choosing the third way is that this is cannot be “feel good” compromise but a principled way, which for Christians is rooted in the “both-ands” of our theological and lived worlds. This implies hard-thinking and hard choices. And that may suggest why it is often the way not taken….

6 thoughts on “The Challenge of “The Third Way”

  1. Excellent post. I know so little about Erasmus but the little I know has me liking him more and more. I agree with you, this “third way” is indeed a way that never gets loud shouts from either side cheering someone on as do the radicals of extreme positions. Yet, it is the self sacrificial nature of the “third way” that can often make it very Christlike. Very good post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. But conflict is more fun! 🙂 It also can help in better understanding what you believe and why you believe it when faced with the arguments of the other side, e.g., trying to answer a whole bunch of questions from an atheist.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Review: Erasmus and the Age of Reformation | Bob on Books

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