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Erastianism

Erastianism Complete control of Church affairs by the State. It is named after Thomas Erastus (1524–85), a Swiss physician and theologian, who denied that the Church alone had disciplinary powers, especially of excommunication. Hence, Erastianism is a distortion of his position, which assumed cooperation between Church and State.

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Erastianism

Erastianism. The view that the state has the right and responsibility to intervene in and control the affairs of the Christian Church as it appears in a particular State. The view was proposed by Thomas Erastus (Germ. Liebler, Lieber, or Lübler), 1524–83, against the Calvinists.

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Erastianism

ERASTIANISM

Erastianism is the doctrine of complete subjection of the Church to the power of the State. This thesis was not specifically held by Thomas Erastus although his name is attached to it.

Career of Erastus. Erastus (Thomas Lüber, Lieber, or Liebler) was born in Baden, Switzerland, on Sept. 7,1524. Most of his early education was received at Basel, where he was given a patron's aid for his university training. After his recovery from the plague, which had struck Basel, he went first to the University of Bologna and then to the University of Padua where he studied medicine and philosophy. In 1553 he became the court physician to the Prince of Hennenburg, and later to Otto Henry, the Elector of the Palatinate, while he taught medicine at the University of Heidelberg.

Although the subject of his work and teaching was medicine, his chief interest was theology. In the religious controversy that raged at Heidelberg, the Elector Frederick III (155976) fostered Calvinism in the Palatinate (see reformed churches). At first, Erastus was sympathetic but he opposed the Calvinist party which was led by Caspar Olevianus, when it tried to introduce the Geneva system of church discipline. As a Zwinglian, Erastus was opposed also to the Lutherans on the doctrine of the Eucharist.

Erastus's great work is the Seventy-Five Theses (1568) based originally on 100 theses. Seventy-two were against the ideas on excommunication set forth by the English Puritan, George Withers, who was supported by the Calvinists, especially Theodore beza. Because of his statements, his opposition to the Presbyterian views, and his alleged Unitarianism Erastus was excommunicated. After a long controversy, he proved the charges false and the excommunication was lifted in 1575. As Lutheranism was restored to the Palatinate by Louis VI in 1579, Erastus resigned from the University of Heidelberg in 1580. He returned to Basel where he taught ethics and medicine until his death, Dec. 31, 1583.

Theories and Doctrines. The central question in the Theses, which was written about 1568, was excommunication. The term was used by Erastus not in the Catholic sense of exclusion of a notorious sinner from membership in the Church or communion of the faithful. Erastus wrote against Withers's interpretation of excommunication, which excluded people of bad lives from participation in the Sacrament, on judgment by presbyters or laymen sitting in the name of the whole Church. Erastus insisted that excommunication could not be supported from the Scriptures and that the Sacrament should not be withheld from those who wish to receive it. Erastus argued from the Protestant viewpoint that the Bible is the sole source of faith. The chief argument of his whole system was based on an analogy between the Jewish and Christian dispensations. He noted that the Mosaic Law excluded no one from offering the paschal sacrifice, and that Christ had not excluded Judas from holy communion. Erastus admitted, however, that some exegetes thought that the betrayer left the cenacle before the Holy Eucharist was instituted.

The last three theses state the theory of Church-State relations to which his name is attached, even though the interpretation put upon them was not that of Erastus. He considered the ruler responsible for the external government of the Church, but he limited this responsibility to Christian rulers. Erastus judged that when a ruler is Christian, there is no need for corrective jurisdiction other than that of the State. He thus assigned the ruler the same power he had in the Jewish state. Therefore, according to Erastus, a Christian magistrate might pass judgment on men's conduct, settle disputes, and work with the ministers in admonishing and reproving those who "live unholy and impure lives," but he could not debar anyone who wished to receive the Sacrament. Nowhere did Erastus hold that the interests of religion are subordinate or subservient to those of the State. Nor on the other hand, did he accept the Church as a visible society with its own completely independent government.

Erastus's entire system was never accepted nor promoted by any sect, but his theories on Church-State relations had great influence in Germany and England in the 17th century. The Presbyterians rejected them, but England's Established Church had an Erastian group. The Presbyterians used the term "Erastian" as an unfavorable epithet for their opponents in the Westminster Assembly in 1643. The Anglican Richard hooker, in his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, borrowed the Erastian analogy between the Jewish and Christian states to defend the English sovereign's title as head of the Church as well as his appointment of bishops. Hooker required the laity's consent before an ecclesiastical law was binding and believed in a single society that assigned all coercive authority to the civil functionary.

Erastus's real purpose seems to have been to deny to the Church any right to coercive authority apart from the State. He was opposed to any political role for the Church whether that in a theocracy or that of the Church as an independent society within the State. Erastus was not a modern "Erastian." He considered only the case of a state in which a single religion is tolerated as the true one. Moreover, he labored to prevent the Evangelical Church from embracing the Genevan doctrine that the Church is a perfect society in and by itself.

Bibliography: l. c. mcdonald, Western Political Theory (New York 1962). j. y. evans, j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 5:358366. r. hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 2 v. (New York 1925). w. s. crowley, "Erastianism in England to 1640," Journal of Church and State 32 (Sum 1990), 549566. r. e. rodes, "Last Days of Erastianism: Forms in the American Church State Nexus," Harvard Theological Review 62 (July 1969), 301348.

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