In the years preceding the Protestant Reformation, the early humanist scholar, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, was deeply engaged in a project of translation that would be published just one year before Luther drew up his famous ninety- five theses and nailed them to the door of the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg. Following a fundamental tenet of the humanist movement, Erasmus had undertaken a systematic examination and new Latin translation of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.2 The translation was destined to update and replace the more than one thousand year-old Vulgate of St. Jerome. Arriving at the Gospel of John, Erasmus made an unconventional but telling translation of the opening words of John’s first chapter. Instead of the conventional translation of John’s Greek into the Latin—In principio erat Verbum, Erasmus translated instead—In principio erat Sermo.3 John’s gospel, according to Erasmus, thus opens not with, “In the beginning was the Word,” but rather, “In the beginning was the Conversation.” The shift is subtle, yet it modifies centuries of traditional assumptions and consequent theology. As this essay will demonstrate, it has profound implications, not only for the creation and the process of the very “coming into being” of the world, but also for prayer.
Erasmus’s new and telling translation makes the act of creation not a unific spoken word that in its singular and isolated way brings the universe into being, but rather a communitarian event based on a dialogic process. The implication of Erasmus’s translation is that the act of creation was, and in a very real sense continues to be, an on-going conversation.
With regard to prayer, it is certainly not false to say that prayer is, in part, an act of speaking. Words are indeed an essential component of prayer. But prayer, as a relationship between God, God’s creation, and God’s people, is multidimensional. It is not simply words spoken at the one true God. Erasmus’s opening translation of the gospel of John touches on a richer, dialogical meaning of prayer. Prayer is discourse; it is a conversation which includes not only words but also silences, not only periods of listening but also hearing, not only times of resting in God but also times of responding to God.