Baptized Humanism?

The Reformation arose out of the Renaissance. Protestants are ready to acknowledge the fact that the Renaissance emphases upon classical literature and a return “ad fontes,” to the sources, played an important part in the birth of their movement. This dependency is obvious in the Protestant insistence upon Scripture alone. But were there any other Renaissance influences upon Luther and his allies?

It seems to me that the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Another element of Renaissance culture had its effects as well: humanism. I do not mean to say that the Reformers were secularists, nor that the Renaissance humanists were essentially no different from modern secular humanists. That would be anachronistic. But humanism emphasizes the human by its very definition. One author has said that the Renaissance humanists “asserted ‘the genius of man… the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind.’”

Man as the measure of all things: this is the watchword of humanism. And this was an integral part of Renaissance culture. It would be absurd to pretend that such influences had no effect upon the Reformers, particularly given assertions such as this from Luther: “Accursed into the abyss of hell be all obedience that is rendered to government, father, and mother, yea, and the church, too, at the cost of being disobedient to God!” (The quotation is from a book called What Luther Says. I pulled this quotation from an email to a friend. I used to own this book, but I wound up giving it to a Lutheran friend who could make much better use of it than I; unfortunately, this means I cannot provide a full citation). There isn’t really much left to question here: Luther has rejected the authority of governments, of parents, and of the Church to instruct him as to what God requires of man.

Sola scriptura means that the Protestant not only rejects Sacred Tradition; it also means, on the assumption that all men err, that he will not submit to anyone else when it comes to understanding the Bible. Oh, he may do so formally speaking – that is, he may agree that a particular Protestant creedal formulation presents the truth of the Bible – but if at any time he finds himself in disagreement with that formulation, his sole allegiance becomes clear: he will deny the validity of that creed or confession, and stick to what he understands the Bible to be saying. Solo Scriptura.

Now it must be said that Protestant devotion to the Bible is a commendable thing. By no means do I wish to be misunderstood about that. But the point here is that Sola Scriptura is, it seems to me, clearly and unambiguously a fruit (a baptized fruit, but a fruit nonetheless) of Renaissance humanism: “I, with my Bible, will determine what it is that God says. I will ignore the testimony of the centuries, and return to the very sources themselves, and discover what it is that God says.”

This is what I mean by an unexamined presupposition of Protestantism: unwittingly they have not imported only the Renaissance interest in source documents, but just as significantly a measure of Renaissance humanism: “I will decide.” Man as the measure of all things. The Protestant declares that he will decide for himself.

I am admittedly putting things rather coarsely. What I want to show, however, is that – however unwittingly – the Reformers and their heirs owe more to the Renaissance than merely an interest in ancient manuscripts. They also owe their determination to decide for themselves what those manuscripts mean, without reference to the teaching of the Church. To this extent, the Protestant approach to the Bible’s meaning amounts to a sort of baptized humanism (please note that I am not saying that Protestantism in its entirety can be described this way).

[This post is drawn for the most part–with some amendments–from this article of mine written several years ago.]

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Posted in Apologetics, Church History, Protestantism, Solo Scriptura

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