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A Web Magazine of Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Martin Luther, the Humanist "Enlightener"

Exactly 500 years ago, on the last day of October in 1517, German professor of theology, composer, priest, monk, and the central figure of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote his famous 95 theses against the practices of the Roman Catholic church. Luther mostly objected to indulgences, the practice of paying for the forgiveness of one's sins. After having refused to recant his writings, Pope Leo X and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, excommunicated Luther from the church the following year and proclaimed him a virtual renegade.

Reformation brought about a division of the already divided church, and a further dilution of Christian faith. If the Roman Catholic Church introduced the premises of Roman law and an essentially materialistic view of the world into theology and human relationship with God, then Protestantism, figuratively speaking, threw out the baby together with the dirty water in which the baby was bathing.

As many historians tried to explain, Reformation directly contributed to the secularisation of the society and the spreading of atheism. All Reformers were Humanists, which means they placed man in the centre of their interest and values, and not God. All the Humanists, on the other hand, desired to reform the church.

So, Renaissance humanism contributed tremendously to the Reformation, and the Reformation, in turn, provided for the continuity of humanism into the seventeenth century or longer.  Without the humanists and humanism there would not have been a Reformation as we know it. Their emphasis on education was essential for the opening of the Scripture to the masses, which initiated intensified Bible study; their insistence on rhetoric, poetry and history was important for the Protestant stress on the spoken word of the Gospel and on preaching of the Word, still evident in Protestant churches today, where ministers are mainly appraised according to their ability to preach. 

Protestant leaders, on the other hand, were the products of humanist schools and adamant supporters of learning. Luther, who was educated at the Wittenberg University where humanism was already well established, viewed the revival of learning in the Renaissance as a kind of John the Baptist that heralded the coming of the resurgence of the Gospel. Later, he instituted a curriculum that stressed languages and rhetoric, which served as a model for the newly founded universities in Protestant countries. Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s disciple and coworker, wrote a great number of tracts on behalf of humanistic studies, declaring, among other things: “No art, no work, not, by Hercules, the very fruits born of the earth, not finally, this sun, which many have believed is the author of life, is as necessary as the knowledge of letters!” 

Some scholars do not see such a tight connection between the two movements, but the idea of discontinuity, a sharp break or disjunction between Renaissance humanism and Reformation religion, historian Lewis Spitz argues, demonstrates insufficient understanding of theology.  He calls this contention “a historiographical convenience that reinforces unfortunate secular and modernist prejudices at the expense of historical veracity."

Humanist theology

The statement of Etienne Gilson that the Renaissance was the Middle Ages minus God seems a little exaggerated, since hardly any writer in that period denied the existence of God, but it is obvious that the humanists were much more concerned with human problems—hence the name—and they gradually placed man in the center of the universe. Humanists who dealt with theological questions used moral philosophy as a bridge uniting their literary and philosophical interests to standard theology, and they used the ancients, such as Cicero and Plutarch, as models. When they discussed standard theological questions such as free will, they did it with little concern for the dogmatic ideas developed in the Middle Ages. Humanists saw theology as a series of religious themes united in a rhetorical form that could provide a functional morality. Theologia rhetorica, the presentation of theological concepts in an eloquent fashion aimed at moving the will of the hearer or reader to embrace them more fully and easily, is a clear development from the principles of ancient rhetoric that displays the full blending of theology with humanistic educational principles.

It was the Italian Renaissance humanists who had first extolled the dignity of man. In Giannozzo Manetti’s 15th-century treatise, the dignitas humanis was based not only on man’s biblical similarity to God, but above all on his varied achievements in the arts and sciences, which are described at great length. No single topic so perfectly epitomised the humanist approach to God and man as this one, because it permitted a humanist to bring together both classical and Christian themes into a unity that expressed their attitude toward man in the world. Anthropomorphic ideas were fundamental to the view of man as a microcosm of the universe and as God’s spiritual image. The need to assure the Christian he was performing valuable service while carrying out his civic duties led the humanists to present man as a positive actor in the cosmos. When restating the Neoplatonic conception of universe as made of degrees of being—extending from God at the summit to the corporeal world at the bottom—Marsilio Ficino revised the scheme, assigning a privileged place in its center to the rational soul of man. Pico della Mirandola went even further. In his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, he stated that man does not occupy a fixed location in the universal hierarchy, but can freely choose his place in it. Pico’s treatise became a classic statement of humanist theology.

A term popularised by the Renaissance scholar Charles Trinkaus, anthropological theology, refers to the humanists’ balancing of the principles of salvation with difficulties people experience on Earth living with families and in society. It addressed the tribulations of secular life, the tensions implicit in any Christian who maintained an active life in the world. The ideal of St. Francis of Assisi—or almost any other Christian saint, for that matter—of giving all to the poor and serving only God clashed with the need of man to feed his family and serve his state. The medieval model was slowly giving way to secular concerns, and the humanists were looking for ways to relieve their conscience and justify their worldly concerns. In an attempt to blend the humanist and scholastic ideas, Coluccio Salutati, the leader of the Florentine humanist movement, found the active will superior to the passive intellect. The active life, therefore, rather than the contemplative life, could provide man with the means of embracing the divine. It necessitated on man’s part the task of choosing the right action; hence, he had to possess free will. Petrarch had already agreed with Augustine that faith is dependent on the will, not the intellect; voluntarism was a natural part of humanist rhetoric, since it was the will that the orator was trying to influence.

The weakening of Christianity and increased interest in other religions brought about prescriptions for religious tolerance, ecumenicalism, even employment of non-Christian practices. Ficino, who helped spread Neoplatonism by translating the major Platonic and Neoplatonic works, insisted that religion was natural to man, and that all religions, though different in their practices and in the degree of their perfection, contained a common core of truth and expressed in some way the worship of the one true God. Pico, on the other hand, believed hermetic and kabalistic writings can be used to establish the truth in Christianity. His works were “rediscovered” in the 20th century by scholars and lay people who were seeking an alternative spirituality.

So, the emphasis on the active life led away from the monastic ideal of the middle ages to the worldly and practical orientation of the modern man. Moreover, the ideal of the theoretical or contemplative life in Western Europe became during the Renaissance dissociated from monasticism, and identified with the private existence of the scholar, writer, and scientist, no doubt under the influence of ancient philosophy. This secularisation of contemplative life was nowhere better epitomised than in Martin Luther, who looked at religion very practically, rationally and through the prism of intellectual "enlightenment."

Svetozar Postic

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