Renaissance Humanism and the Reformation: Is the latter a discrete philosophical movement or was it just a rip-off of the former?

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Answered by: Christopher, An Expert in the History of Catholicism Category
When people think of Renaissance Humanism and the Reformation, the latter usually eclipses the former in terms of the influence the two of them had on the broader culture. Although Renaissance Humanism and the Reformation are closely tied, on closer inspection, it would appear the latter is just an outgrowth of the former, one which very quickly collapsed in on itself and became stagnant and reactionary.

Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam were the foremost writers and intellectuals of Renaissance Humanism (who were both faithful, although critical, Catholics) and they both began espousing their views prior to October 31, 1517, when Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the chapel at the University of Wittenberg. Luther was an Augustinian monk, and it was the Augustinian Order that sent him to the (Catholic) University of Wittenberg for study. It was there that he became exposed to Renaissance Humanist thought.

Among the themes of Renaissance Humanism was that one needed to go back to the original documents upon which one's beliefs are based in order to re-discover the true nature of those beliefs. In other words, Renaissance Humanists believed that the original writings or beliefs of the ancient world had been adulterated and obscured by subsequent interpretations down through the Middle Ages. It was the Renaissance Humanists, for instance, who advocated going back to the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible to render translations into the vernacular (instead of using St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate).

Martin Luther was certainly a proponent of this belief, but for Luther and the other Reformers, the ideals of Renaissance Humanism soon gave way to political considerations. As a result, the aspects of Renaissance Humanism that were incorporated in the Reformation became fossilized in time. In philosophy and other non-religious fields, Renaissance Humanism soon gave way to new advances in thought, but the Reformation remained static to a large degree (to maintain strident opposition to Rome).

An example of a Protestant belief that was co-opted from Renaissance Humanism and then became frozen or fossilized in time is the Protestant rejection of the deuterocanonical books (Baruch, Sirach, Judith, Wisdom, etc.) that are in the Catholic Bible, but not the Protestant Bible. Up until the 1960's, the Jewish community believed that there had been a so-called Council of Jamnia around 70-90AD, which consisted of Jewish rabbis from Jerusalem who determined which writings were properly part of the Jewish canon of Old Testament Scripture. This supposed canon excluded the deuterocanonical books.

Christians from 100AD were mostly Greek and therefore followed the canon as set out in the Greek Septuagint, which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew religious texts that existed around the time of Alexander the Great (hundreds of years earlier). The Septuagint included the deuterocanonical books. From 100AD onward, Jewish rabbis passed on what became known as the Masoretic Text, which continued to exclude the deuterocanonical books according to the supposed dictate of the Council of Jamnia. Since the late 20th Century, most Jewish scholars doubt that there was ever a Council of Jamnia or, perhaps, that there was even a concept of a Jewish "canon" at that time in history. So, whatever reason the rabbis had for passing on an authoritative text that excluded the deuterocanonical books, it probably was not because they were making a judgment about authenticity or divine inspiration.

Many scholars, both ancient and modern, believe the rejection of the Greek Septuagint by the ancient Jews was a reaction against the Greek-speaking Christians. Also, when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70AD, the Jews dispersed and no longer widely spoke Greek as they had before the destruction of the Temple. Perhaps this was yet another reason for their rejection of the Greek Septuagint. In any event, the rejection of the Septuagint was apparently not for any reason related to its faithfulness to the original Hebrew texts.

Furthermore, scholars now agree that the Masoretic Text is/was not the "original" version of the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament. Both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint were apparently derived from another ancient text(s), which itself was taken from the "original" Hebrew texts. But to Martin Luther, with the information available to him at the time, he believed the Masoretic Text to be the true Jewish canon of the Old Testament, and therefore, that it corresponded most accurately to the original Hebrew Scriptures (a major theme of Renaissance Humanism was faithfulness to the original ancient texts). This was his reason for rejecting the Septuagint (and therefore, the deuterocanonical books that are/were not in the Masoretic Text).

But now, it turns out that was, in fact, historically wrong. Luther's supposedly principled reason for excluding the deuterocanonical books derived from prevailing Renaissance Humanist thought at the time. So, in that sense, the beliefs that have been carried on from the Protestant Reformation are frozen in time, and based upon a scholarly consensus among Renaissance Humanists of the time that has since been disproven.

The question then arises: why did Protestants in the 16th Century abandon their idealism so quickly?

To answer this question, one must go back in time. Renaissance Humanism started over 100 hundred years before the Reformation and was slowly influencing churchmen and society at large. By the time of the Reformation, there were even many members of the College of Cardinals who were Renaissance Humanists and were pushing for reform in the Catholic Church along those lines (Cardinal Cajetan, who opposed Luther at the Diet of Augsburg, was one). But when the Reformation came, it was quickly co-opted by various European rulers who cynically endorsed it for political purposes (like re-directing the anger and resentment of the peasants toward Rome instead of toward themselves). Because religion in Europe was suddenly infused with all of this contention, the cause of Renaissance Humanism was halted for the most part within religious institutions.

The Counter-Reformation within the Catholic Church following (and in reaction to) the Protestant Reformation resulted in the suppression of Renaissance Humanist ideas, which the Church associated with Protestantism. And their efforts at squelching Renaissance Humanism were soon mimicked by all of the Protestant denominations (ironically). This resulted in philosophical (and even scientific) development being continued mostly among just the non-religious (such as all of the major Enlightenment philosophers, who mostly spurned and ridiculed Christianity for its narrow-mindedness). In that sense, the Reformation was actually a negative development in regard to all of the contemporaneous societal advances that were occurring, and actually contributed to the sharp division and hostility between religion, on the one hand, and science and philosophy, on the other, that persists to a large degree today.

Even though Protestantism was arguably an outgrowth of Renaissance Humanism, the institutions (denominations) that took root within the context of Protestantism did not continue to be innovative and open to new thinking. Rather, they became institutions whose main purpose was to support the various governments of Europe that were their patrons. The ideas developed by the Reformers became mere slogans that were used to distinguish Protestants from Catholics. The Church of England, for instance, was by no means an institution that valued and cherished enlightened thinking. They were the reason our American forefathers fled England for liberty and freedom elsewhere.

The same goes for the other Protestant institutions in continental Europe. As a result, innovation and development of thought was relegated to the secular, non-religious world. One present-day consequence of that development is that many people have chosen to leave the Christian religion, considering it be fossilized and irrelevant in the context of the modern world.

As a movement, Renaissance Humanism itself was sparked mostly by the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. When Muslim Turks conquered Constantinople, most of the Greek scholars from the former Byzantine (Roman) Empire fled to the West and brought with them all of the learning they had preserved from the ancient world. This opened up a whole new phase in Europe, where innovation flourished as the West became exposed to the great thinkers of the ancient world.

Conceivably, this could have resulted in all sorts of exciting developments for all of the West, both secular and religious. And it did, to a certain degree. But to a great extent, the advances continued exclusively in the secular realm, due to the shortcomings and negative consequences of the Protestant Reformation.

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