Humanism as the Foundation of the Reformation

Updated on September 20, 2017
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

When religious scholars began to read the original texts and look back to classical and early church writings, humanism stepped in to help those that were appalled by the actions of the church to try to bring it back to the format and heart of the original church that could be found in the New Testament. Rhetoric returned. Self-awareness multiplied. Everything did not go through the Church anymore. It went from man to God.

Defining Humanism

Over the years, the definition of humanism has changed. During the Protestant Reformation, it was not an anti-religious movement as many see it as today. It was a movement to look back to the old ways and question the validity of new ways. Okay, that is rather simplified. Let me use and example instead.

The Catholic Church was the predominant religious institution. It had a massive amount of influence in education, government, and all parts of society. During the Reformation, learned people, including priests, turned back to read the classical literature of people such as Aristotle and even read the Holy Bible more closely. Many of them began to notice how tradition couldn't be justified within the holy scriptures. As they began to question the legitimacy of many of their acts and beliefs, the classical literature began to question society and government. Those who were looking deeper didn't want to end it all. They wanted to correct it.

The essence of humanism was the power of man. It is through man that things can be accomplished which was how the Reformation happened - through man.

Intent

The intent of Luther was to reform the Church and not destroy it. He just did not believe that the men within the Church were doing things right and the way Jesus and the early Church leaders wanted. The Protestant Reformation was not the goal of Martin Luther though the inevitability of it became obvious to him. Neither was what the Reformation would do in the next several hundred years could be foreseen. It would have effects that would astound the Western world.

Western history is greatly influenced by the Reformation. It was the teaching of the humanists in support of the Reformation that gave Henry VIII his weapons he needed to fight the Papacy for his own personal desires. Blood has flowed on English, French, Spanish, African, and American soil due to the humanist thoughts that prompted Luther to challenge the corruption within the Church and the arrogance that prevented the Church from using the Christian humanism to strengthen the Catholic Church and let it tear its power away from it.

Source

Luther Wasn't a True Humanist

Despite all this, Martin Luther could not be called a true humanist. It was humanism that inspired him and taught him. It was humanism that helped direct him. It was not humanism that was the basis of his beliefs. A humanist believes in the power of man. Luther believed that “only God can improve man.” Man’s nature is seen as evil. This does not go along with the ability of man to choose his destiny as mainstream humanism touted.

The humanist movement was the catalyst to the Protestant Reformation and the thoughts and ideas of Martin Luther. It was the humanist education that exposed Luther to the classics and the early Church fathers that previously had been known by name only. Humanism gave Luther the chance to see an actual Bible and read the scriptures for himself. Humanism gave Luther the ability to fluently communicate his findings and debate intellectually his standings. Without the humanist movement and the influence of the humanist education, Luther’s reformation might never have happened though he never embraced the movement. Humanism, through the Protestant Reformation, completely changed the course of history and sent silent shockwaves across all lands.

Sources

Buckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001.

Busak, Robert P. “Martin Luther: Renaissance Humanist?” podcast audio, http://robertbusek.podomatic.com/entry/2011-02-12T17_11_00-08_00 .

D’Amico, John F. Renaissance humanism in papal Rome: humanists and churchmen on the eve of the Reformation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Gersh, Stephen and Bert Roest, ed. Medieval and Renaissance Humanism: Rhetoric, Representation and Reform. Boston: Bill Academic, 2003.

Hale, J.R. Renaissance Europe 1480-1520. Malden: Blackwell, 2000.

Kostlin, Julius. Life of Martin Luther. New York: Amazon Digital Services, Kindle Edition, 2009.

Luther, Martin. “95 Theses.” Project Wittenburg. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/ wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html (accessed February 20, 2011).

Mazzocco, Angelo, ed. Interpretations of Renaissance Humanism. Brill: The Netherlands, 2006.

Middle Ages Religion.” http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/middle-ages-religion.htm (accessed February 20, 2011).

“The Protestant Reformation.” http://www.historyguide.org/earlymod/lecture3c.html (accessed January 19, 2011).

Vandiver, Elizabeth, Ralph Keen, Thomas D. Frazel, ed. Luther’s Lives: Two Contemporary Accounts of Martin Luther. New York: Manchester, 2002.

Questions & Answers

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      • jo miller profile image

        Jo Miller 

        13 months ago from Tennessee

        Luther is an interesting person. Though I'm a Protestant, I wish he had been successful in reforming the Catholic Church.

        I think we work against ourselves in our divisions and I would still like to see us be all one church.

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