The church mirrors its culture. A worldly corrupt culture produces a worldly corrupt church. An exact cause-effect relationship, however, defies definition. Perhaps culture corrupts the church; but the church clearly fails to take a firm stand based on its convictions.
Fourteenth century Europe found itself undergoing tremendous cultural change. We call this cultural shift The Renaissance. It affected all Europe and thus most of the western world.
When does the Renaissance begin? Carl Meyer dates it from mid-fourteenth century through the mid-1500s. Jacob Burckhardt, a nineteenth century historian, dates it about the same. Roland Bainton argues the period covers 1300 to 1600. Some church historians date its beginning with Nicholas V in 1450. Norman Cantor presents the Renaissance as part of the Medieval period.
What do we mean by the term Renaissance? Carl Meyer defines it as a term referring to humanistic studies and artistic accomplishments. Jacob Burckhardt says it was the discovery of man and the world. The term Renaissance describes an attitude toward life which values earth more than heaven, the immortality of fame over immortality of the soul, the striving for success more than striving for justice, the individual over authoritarian institutions, and humanism over Christianity.
The Renaissance describes a resurgence of education and individual attainment. Other periods experienced times of educational emphasis as illustrated by the Carolingian and Ottonian Empires. These early emphases, however, rested squarely on ecclesiastical authority and support. New views and discoveries were often stifled when in conflict with official dogma. The church officially interpreted Scripture and declared its Latin texts infallible. They allowed no alternate interpretations.
Several factors contributed to the Renaissance. Medieval scholastic developments grew out of newly rediscovered long lost philosophical and scholarly documents. The rediscovery of more Latin and Greek classics increased secular intellectual pursuits in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. When Constantinople finally fell in 1453, many eastern scholars fled west taking with them many documents unknown in the west. As early as 1450 Cosmo de' Medici promoted renewed classical studies. Scholars sacked monastic libraries looking for other Greek and Roman classics. A new interest in aesthetics grew rapidly. The invention of printing offered affordable copies of these long lost documents to scholars throughout Europe.
The period's new learning has six identifiable characteristics:
Lorenzo Valla's work on the Donation of Constantine illustrates the extent Renaissance scholarship challenged the church. Using a primitive "textual criticism," Valla exposed the document as fraudulent. He pointed out that the document's language could originate only in the eighth century; it could hardly come from Constantine as claimed. Perceptive readers recognized references to the iconoclastic controversy, an event occurring long after Constantine. Valla also argued that the document quoted none of Constantine's extant documents from the period. Faced with overwhelming evidence, the church reluctantly gave up the document.
II. The Humanists
Humanism originated with the Renaissance. Its nature remains quite distinct from the twentieth century version, however. Like modern humanists, Renaissance thinkers saw man as capable, a being able to make rational decisions. These decisions may be correct or incorrect -- right or wrong -- but they are individual decisions. Man can understand the world and make moral choices which affect his own destiny. Remember, the church taught (ala Augustine) that man could only sin and his choices were limited to choosing sin. Humanism contradicted Augustine.
What was the period's typical humanist like? He was a good Catholic. Some Renaissance humanists held church offices and almost all faithfully supported the church. However, their support was not an uncritical gullible acceptance. Humanists attacked many abuses but remained devout, orthodox and sincere. One or two occasionally became radical and denied the Gospel but they were few and far between. When taken to extremes, Renaissance humanism led to denial of personal sin and the necessity of forgiveness.
Let me mention just three of the best known Renaissance humanists.
Johann Reuchlin (d. 1522) received his education at the University of Paris from the day's outstanding scholars. In 1477, he received a Master of Philosophy with professorial privileges from the University of Orleans. Then , in 1481, he taught at Tubingen where he received the Doctor of Laws degree. The German Emperor conferred a noble title upon Reuchlin after which he began a study of Jewish literature. Because of his interest in Jewish philosophy, he became increasingly friendly with European Jews. In 1506, Reuchlin published a Hebrew grammar, the first such work published or prepared by a Christian. Reuchlin, like Paul, earnestly desired the Jews' conversion. He felt it best to approach them with love and sincerity. At that point, Reuchlin conflicted with a converted Jew named Pfefferkorn. Pfefferkorn believed the road to Jewish conversion lay over destroyed Jewish literature. The Emperor agreed, and Pfefferkorn set out to destroy all such literature within his grasp. The Emperor ordered Reuchlin to assist, but when asked about the effort he could barely conceal his disgust. Reuchlin wrote a series of tracts defending Jewish literature earning himself a hearing before the Inquisition. Fellow humanists rose to his defense opposing the church's intolerance and bigotry. Their writings ultimately won the Emperor's favorable decision. With that victory, the humanist press issued numerous tracts advocating liberty of thought, speech and the press.
John Colet (d. 1519), an Englishman, became a Renaissance scholar after studying Greek in Italy. Colet is described as a man of genius marked by genuine spirituality. In 1512 Colet advocated reform within the church. He recognized tremendous greed, ambition and pride in his day's clergy. Today, Colet is best known for his more famous pupil, Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536).
Writers describe Erasmus as "the crowning glory of the Christian humanists" or "the prince of humanists." He was born an illegitimate child in Rotterdam to a woman of a good Dutch family and a priest. His father died of plague. Erasmus studied in Deventer where his intelligence thrilled his teachers. In 1481, he studied in a monastery school but he felt the time there wasted At18 he entered a monastery so he could eat. In 1493, he went to Paris to continue his studies. His studies in Paris created a distaste for theology so he left to enter the University of Cologne in 1496. Two years later, he returned to Paris to tutor Englishmen. This tutoring led to an invitation to study Greek with Colet in England. While in England, Erasmus found himself a favorite at court. Later, when Erasmus's views caused him trouble, Henry VIII offered him bed and board in the English court.
Erasmus' satirical writings stand out during the period. His Praise of Folly ridiculed Papal abuses. He argues that life is folly. He successfully illustrated the necessity of folly and the foolishness of wisdom. His satire ran on at the expense of monks, friars, inquisitors, cardinals, and Popes. Julius Exclusus proved even more vitriolic. In this skit, the reader finds a dialogue between Pope Julius II, known as the "Warrior Pope," and Peter. Julius died in 1513 and the satire appeared in 1514. The dead warrior appears at heaven's gates only to find them closed to him. What follows is hilarious to the Protestant reader and embarrassing for Catholics. Erasmus also produced devotional writings and commentaries emphasizing his view of the Christian life.
Like many mystics, Erasmus emphasized inner experience over external devotional forms and ceremonies. He scoffed at the relic cult and rejected many miracles attributed to saints, particularly those of Thomas a' Becket, an English cleric. He labelled monastic orders superstitious and contentious. He considered the church's dietary restrictions a new form of Pharisaism. He rejected the Mass as a repetition of Christ's death along with transubstantiation as descriptive of Christ's presence in the Eucharist. On the whole, though, Erasmus tended to be a peacemaker and undogmatic. At first he supported Luther's reforms, then opposed them as too schismatic.
Were it not for the secular Renaissance and its liberty of thought, the Protestant Reformation probably would have waited. I can't attribute reform only to the Renaissance, but it did make an important contribution. Other reform efforts also made their contributions leaving the Roman Church open for revolt.
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