When we divide world history into discrete periods – realizing, of course, that nothing, in reality, is ever as neat and tidy as it appears in a textbook – the ebb of learning that characterized much of the Middle Ages is followed by the Renaissance (c. 1300-1517). The dependence on institutional authority that defined much of medieval life for common people – not least in the church – was rejected for an individualism manifested primarily as faith in the abilities of humanity. The Humanists, as they called themselves, felt that knowledge had been corrupted and looked back to the wisdom of the antiquity for guidance: they learned ancient languages and studied subjects in the original texts. From back in our school days, we are probably most familiar with the Italian Humanists and their obsession with pagan Greece and Rome. But in northern Europe, Humanism took another form. A Christian form.
We can think of this Christian Humanism as a sort of “Restoration Movement.” These thinkers were not so concerned with wisdom in general, but with Christianity; they did not seek wisdom in the works of Plato and Cicero, but in Scripture and the Church Fathers. The most important of these was Erasmus (1466-1536), who produced a text of the Greek NT that was invaluable for study. They also endeavored to restore the piety of the early church, pointing people away from the irrelevant debates of the clergy to Scripture. Erasmus encouraged people to look to the Bible, which he called the hidden storehouse of everlasting wisdom, to recover the forgotten philosophy of Christ. The Church, resistant to change, ironically attacked this “new” teaching. But Erasmus said they were confused, calling “new” what was oldest of all, and “old” what was really new. They should look instead to what was truly old: Jesus, the Apostles, and the Church Fathers.
With that said, we should not suppose that the Humanists necessarily favored restoring the early church. Their concern was primarily on the spiritual and ethical life of the earliest Christians rather than their forms. But they did lay a foundation for those who would seek restoration in their insistence that the ancient faith was normative. That perspective came to dominate European universities and influenced a new generation to go further.
We sometimes think of the Protestant Reformation as a unified movement, but there were actually 4 main streams, and not all influenced churches of Christ equally. One thing they all had in common was an emphasis on the authority of the Bible, like their Humanist predecessors. This was one of the principles declared by Martin Luther (1483-1546): sola scriptura, “Scripture alone.” What was new about this was not so much a recognition of Scripture as authoritative, but the rejection of church tradition, which had come to take precedence. Luther’s statement when tried for his views at the Diet of Worms in 1521 is characteristic: Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.
That cry, “Scripture alone,” was a central principle of the Reformation. The problem the Reformers soon discovered was, what does that mean in practice? We can see the way this played out between the Lutheran and the Reformed branches of the movement. The Lutheran approach was “reformation”: purify the institutional church, reject its abuses, but preserve what is good. The Reformed attitude could be rightly called “restoration”: restore the essence and form of the primitive church based on biblical precedent without regard for tradition. Each of these believed in “Scripture alone” but applied that very differently. Our roots, as you might have guessed, come primarily through the Reformed tradition.
Not surprisingly, these tended to be the most molded by Humanism. The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), for instance, was very influenced by Erasmus: he made a copy of his Greek NT to carry with him and study wherever he went, read the Fathers, and even learned Hebrew! He came to believe that Scripture must be the standard for all matters in the church, an impulse alien to Erasmus or even Luther. Zwingli thus introduced reforms in Zurich based on emphasizing biblical precedent: the cathedral was stripped of its statues, relics, and pictures; the organ was destroyed (he even went further and forbade singing!); the Mass was reduced to a simple memorial meal. In all of this, the goal was the recovery of primitive worship.
What can we say about the influence of the Renaissance Humanists and, subsequently, the Reformation on us? The stress on Scripture, the rejection of tradition, the insistence on individual Bible study are all legacies of the Reformed branch in particular. We often reject the Protestant label, insisting we are “Christians only,” but we are shaped by this heritage whether we realize it or not. While we would, no doubt, disagree with many of the particular views of these men, we are indebted to them for their willingness to break with the established church at great personal risk and ask instead, “what saith the Lord?”