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Thomas Erastus

Thomas Erastus Swiss theologian

Swiss theologian
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Swiss theologian
Countries Switzerland
Occupations Religious scholar Theologian Physician Educator
Type Academia Healthcare Religion
Gender male
Birth 7 September 1524 (Baden, Baden District, Aargau, Switzerland)
Death 31 December 1583 (Basel, Basel-Stadt, Switzerland)
Star sign VirgoVirgo
Education University of Basel, University of Bologna
The details

Thomas Erastus (September 7, 1524 – December 31, 1583) was a Swiss physician and theologian. He wrote 100 theses (later 75) in which he argued that the sins committed by Christians should be punished by the State, and that the Church should not withhold Sacraments as a form of punishment. They were published in 1589, after his death, with the title Explicatio gravissimae quaestionis. His name was later applied to Erastianism.


He was born of poor parents on 7 September 1524, probably at Baden, canton of Aargau, Switzerland. In 1540 he was studying theology at Basel. The plague of 1544 drove him to Bologna and from there to Padua as student of philosophy and medicine. In 1553 he became physician to the count of Henneberg, Thuringia, Saxe-Meiningen, and in 1558 held the same post with the elector-palatine, Otto Heinrich, being at the same time professor of medicine at the University of Heidelberg. His patron's successor, Frederick III, made him a privy Councillor and member of the church consistory in 1559.

In theology he followed Huldrych Zwingli, and at the sacramentarian conferences of Heidelberg (1560) and Maulbronn (1564) he advocated by voice and pen the Zwinglian doctrine of the Lord's Supper, replying in 1565 to the counter arguments of the Lutheran Johann Marbach, of Strasbourg. He ineffectually resisted the efforts of the Calvinists, led by Caspar Olevian, to introduce the Presbyterian polity and discipline, which were established at Heidelberg in 1570, on the Geneva model.

One of the first acts of the new church system was to excommunicate Erastus on a charge of Socinianism, founded on his correspondence with Transylvania. The ban was not removed until 1575, Erastus declaring his firm adhesion to the doctrine of the Trinity. His position, however, was uncomfortable, and in 1580 he returned to Basel, where in 1583 he was made professor of ethics. He died on 31 December 1583.

Works and Erastianism

Erastus published several pieces focused on medicine, astrology, alchemy, and attacked in his publications the system of Paracelsus. In doing so, he defended medieval tradition in general, and Galen in particular, while conceding some merit to specific points in Paracelsus. His name is permanently associated with a posthumous publication, written in 1568. Its immediate occasion was the disputation at Heidelberg in 1568 for the doctorate of theology by George Withers, an English Puritan (subsequently Archdeacon of Colchester), silenced in 1565 at Bury St Edmunds by Archbishop Parker. Withers had proposed a disputation against vestments, which the university would not allow; his thesis affirming the excommunicating power of the presbytery was sustained.

The Treatise of Erastus (1589) was published by Giacomo Castelvetro, who had married Erastus's widow. It consists of seventy-five Theses, followed by a Confirmatio in six books. An appendix of letters to Erastus by Heinrich Bullinger and Rudolf Gwalther, showed that the Theses, written in 1568, had been circulated in manuscript form. An English translation of the Theses, with a brief account of the life of Erastus (based on Melchior Adam's account), was issued in 1659, entitled The Nullity of Church Censures; it was reprinted as A Treatise of Excommunication (1682) and was revised by Robert Lee, D.D., in 1844.

In his Theses, he explained that sins of professing Christians are to be punished by civil authority, and not by the withholding of sacraments on the part of the clergy. Those holding this view in the Westminster Assembly included John Selden, John Lightfoot, Thomas Coleman and Bulstrode Whitelocke, whose speech in 1645 is appended to Lee's version of the Theses. However, after much controversy, the opposite view was carried, with Lightfoot alone dissenting. The consequent chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith ("Of Church Censures") was not ratified by the English parliament.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "The Theses and Confirmatio thesium appeared together in 1589. The central question about which the "Theses" turned was that of excommunication. The term is not, however, used by Erastus in the Catholic sense as excluding the delinquent from the society or membership of the Church. The excommunication to which [it] alludes was the exclusion of those of bad life from participation in the sacraments."

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