{ir - as' - tee - uhn - izm}

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The idea of absolute state primacy over the church is known as Erastianism. The doctrine derives its name from Thomas Erastus (1524 - 83), a Swiss Protestant theologian and physician involved in a controversy over the right of Calvinist religious leaders to excommunicate sinners or doctrinal deviates. He held that only the state could punish such offenders because civil authorities had final jurisdiction in all areas, even in matters such as excommunication.

From 1558, Erastus was a professor at Heidelberg, where he opposed the efforts of Caspar Olevianus to enforce a Calvinist form of church discipline as practiced in Geneva. His Latin book of 75 theses on the subject was published in London in 1589, and appeared in an English translation in 1659 as The Nullity of Church Censures. The book had a powerful influence on the English theories of state control over the church during the 17th century. The theory of church - state relations, to which the name Erastianism is given, usually goes well beyond the authority Erastus would have granted to the state.

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Lewis W Spitz


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Erastianism takes its name from Thomas Erastus (1524 - 83), who was born at Baden, studied theology at Basel, and later medicine, becoming professor of medicine at Heidelberg. He was a friend of Beza and Bullinger and was a Zwinglian.

A controversy arose in Heidelberg over the powers of the presbytery. Erastus emphasized strongly the right of the state to intervene in ecclesiastical matters. He held that the church has no scriptural authority to excommunicate any of its members. As God has entrusted to the civil magistrate (i.e., the state) the sum total of the visible government, the church in a Christian country has no power of repression distinct from the state. To have two visible authorities in a country would be absurd. The church can merely warn or censure offenders. Punitive action belongs to the civil magistrate alone. The church has no right to withhold the sacraments from offenders.

In practice, the term "Erastianism" is somewhat what elastic. Figgis calls it "the theory that religion is the creature of the state." Generally it signifies that the state is supreme in ecclesiastical causes, but Erastus dealt only with the disciplinary powers of the church. When the Roman emperors became Christian, the relations of civil and ecclesiastical rulers became a real problem. It became universally accepted until modern times that the state could punish heretics or put them to death.

The name Erastian emerged in England in the Westminister Assembly (1643) when outstanding men like Selden and Whitelocke advocated the supremacy of the state over the church. The assembly rejected this view and decided that church and state have their separate but coordinate spheres, each supreme in its own province but bound to cooperate with one another for the glory of God.

A M Renwick
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

W Cunningham, Historical Theology; J N Figgis, "Erastus and Erastianism," JTS 2.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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