A Brief Introduction to Christian Humanism: As the Social Impetus for the Protestant Reformation

Here is a post I wrote when I first started blogging, maybe about eleven years ago. At this point I had never read any T.F. Torrance, only a little of Karl Barth, but I had read a lot of John Calvin and other Reformers like Luther et al. Maybe this post will illustrate why I was ever open to Barth and his dialecticism in the first place; there is some kinship, I think, between his style of theological dialectic and the Christian Humanist tradition. You will notice some grammatical errors in the post, but I still think for what it is it gets some good points across.

Christian Humanism is not some sort of weird hybridizing of Christianity and Secular Humanism; rather it represents a movement that helped foster and motivate the theological climate change which led to what we all know as the Protestant Reformation. Below I will briefly highlight some of the features and emphases of Christian Humanism, in contrast to Scholasticism; and hopefully you will have a greater appreciation for what Christian Humanism is all about after reading this short article.

Basically Christian Humanism was a movement that desired to get back to the original sources of contemporary belief systems. Humanism was not necessarily a theological discipline (and by the way, everything was “theological” in this cultural time frame– premodern), or better–attitude–but it definitely had transferable principles that ended up creating a sociological climate which would give rise to the Protestant Reformation. Let me explain.

In the early fifteenth century there was a linguist named, Lorenzo Valla, he, early on was part of this attitude (humanism) that desired to get back to source material (i.e. rather than appealing to contemporary tradition: e.g. scholastic methodology). Valla made great strides by using his philological/linguistic acumen to undercut a commonly held tradition that the temporal power of the Pope was supported by the tradition supposedly provided teeth by a document known as the Donation of Constantine (supposedly an edict issued by the Constantine on papal authority in Rome and the world). Valla’s work illustrated, and in fact helped foster a climate that said, if we just take the time to understand what the original authors said, on particular topics of interest (i.e. what did the New Testament say about justification by faith [?]), then there is a possibility that all of the long standing TRADITION used as the standard for substantiating the Roman Catholic’s choke hold (on the populace) could similarly be undercut.

Consequently this new atmosphere, illustrated and fostered by people like, Valla, engendered people to take the time to learn the original languages of the Bible (i.e. Hebrew/Aramaic and Koine Greek); which in turn would allow them to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, instead of relying on the Magesterium of St. Peter’s Chair and the Holy Roman See. With this new found attitude, and cultural climate, people like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, et al had the motivation; and tools to begin to engage the text of Scripture, on its own terms, which ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation (as we know it today).

Furthermore, in contrast to scholastic methodology— the methodology that has inherent to its process, tradition building (commentary tradition), via the dialectical approach—Christian Humanism was not driven by the need to have logical coherence in all of its teaching; in other words Humanism was comfortable with leaving some things in tension (didn’t feel the need to provide syllogistic precision to everything). Also, Humanism was much more black and white in its approach (in other words it didn’t need to synthesize everything, like scholasticism)–it said either Yes or No on issues (i.e. Yes the Bible teaches justification by faith alone, or No it doesn’t–it didn’t need to qualify it like scholastic theology would do–i.e. the drive to synthesize all of its dogma). Steven Ozment says on this climate and methodology:

. . . For Protestants everywhere the studia humanitatis remained a more appropriate tool for reform than scholastic dialectic; humanist studies taught the new Protestant clergy the languages needed to deal authoritatively with the original text of Scripture and helped them acquire the rhetorical skills required to communicate Protestant doctrine effectively.A fundamental and lasting kinship existed between humanism and Protestantism. Neither had been able to find in the dominant late medieval scholastic traditions either attractive personal models or an educational program appropriate to the changed society of the sixteenth century. Finding the chivalric and clerical traditions of the Middle Ages inadequate to both their literary interests and political aspirations, humanists turned instead to classical antiquity, the church fathers, or both; Protestants, finding medieval religion incapable of resolving their religious problems, turned back to the Bible and the church fathers. . . . (Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe, 302-03)

Ozment elucidates nicely the conceptual distinction between people like Valla, and Protestant Reformers; but he also highlights the similarity in methodology: viz. the common goal to under-cut scholastic tradition via appealing to original sources through the humanist tools of linguistics, rhetoric, and historiography.

It is interesting to see how God moves in culture to work out His sovereign plan. Christian Humanism indeed was the vehicle (much like He used the Hellenistic culture, and Roman world to bring His son to the World cf. Gal. 4:1ff) which He used to foster a socio/cultural milieu which would motivate the kind of paradigmatic turn around that we so often take for not today (i.e. the Protestant movement–and Reformation).


The point I have been aiming at, with this article, is to highlight something that I think has been lost on many of us involved in the theological game; and of course this is going to hit close to home with many of you who read here. I believe, ironically, that many of us, whether, Calvinist, Arminian, Free-Grace, or whatever have fallen prey to the scholastic methodology of tradition building–and constant appeal to commentators on particular Christian teaching; instead of following the attitude of the Christian Humanist who believes that we should go back (via the humanist tools mentioned above) to original source material (the Bible), and actually challenge contemporary Protestant Interpretive Tradition. I said, in the last clause that there is irony because I do not believe many Protestant theological traditions out there (i.e. Calvinism, etc.) realize that they follow the scholastic methodology which appeals to its layer’s of tradition (e.g. building since the time of the Protestant Reformation–post magesterial Reformers such as Luther and Calvin represent) to substantiate their interpretation of the Bible–instead of the biblical categories themselves. I think many Evangelical Reformed Christians believe, rather, that they follow the Christian Humanist tradition that goes to Scripture alone for their dogma. But as the history of ideas clearly substantiates, and current theo-bloggers demonstrate everyday–appeal to “tradition” a la scholastic methodology has and is happening on an on-going basis.

Christian Humanism was a movement and attitude that I believe we as Protestants should get back to . . . the problem is, is at the popular level it appears scholasticism is on the rise via a host of popular “Bible Teachers”. Humanism challenges the attitude evinced by such ministries, since these ministries are driven to provide logical coherence to doctrines that many times the Scriptures leave in tension (i.e. human responsibility and Divine Sovereignty). My challenge is to all those who would think critically about God’s self-disclosure to man, go the Christian Humanist way; I believe it is much more fruitful and leads to a more healthy body of Christ (so did the magesterial Reformers).

[my discussion on Humanism is very oversimplified, if you are curious in going more in depth on this topic let me know, and maybe I can point you to further reading.]


One thought on “A Brief Introduction to Christian Humanism: As the Social Impetus for the Protestant Reformation

  1. So I guess the way to engage with tradition according to the Christian Humanists would be to read the Scripture with tradition in order to see how tradition drew its conclusions and not simply quote tradition verbatim?


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