The Whole Church of Jesus Christ Needs to be ‘Always Reforming,’ Not Just the Reformed: Christian Humanism’s Significance for the 21st Century Church

In the past I have referred to Christian Humanism in my blog posts, and the significance I see in that medieval movement towards fostering the atmosphere where the Protestant Reformation could foment and burn. Personally I have been motivated by this ad fontes (back to the sources) movement, particularly with its desire to get back to the Bible and paleo-Christianity; without that erasmusimpetus, in fact, The Evangelical Calvinist would never have become a reality. To this end, let me share a bit more about Christian Humanism, or the studia humanitatis, as Alister McGrath describes that with particular focus on one of its most important promulgators, Erasmus. McGrath writes:

In a prefatory epistle, written in 1518 to Paul Volz, a monastic reformer, Erasmus indicated that his intention is publishing the Enchiridion was to provide a simple and yet learned philosophia Christi for the educated layman. Erasmus directed most of his criticism against scholastic theologians towards the specialised theological language they used, which made their writings unintelligible to the layman. Indeed, it is a hallmark of Erasmus’ criticism of scholastic theologians, that their verbal formulations are singled out as being of greater importance than the actual theological substance of these formulations.

In the Enchiridion, Erasmus lays great emphasis upon the need to study scripture incessantly, and to read commentaries upon them written by the fathers, rather than the schoolmen, as the former were much closer in time to the sources of doctrine than latter. In general, Erasmus’ interest in scripture and the fathers reflects the general humanist desire to return to antiquity, rather than any profound skepticism concerning the orthodoxy of later medieval theology. Although his personal creed remains elusive, Erasmus’ method is clear: the Christian church must return to her sources, and break free from the scholasticism which so addled her of late. With this end in mind, Erasmus himself undertook extensive editorial work, including the publication of the Novum Instrumentum omne in 1516. This work not only included the full Greek text of the New Testament, but also a new Latin translation which differed from the Vulgate at points of potential theological significance, along with extensive notes justifying these alterations. Erasmus’ editions of patristic texts were notable in two respects. The first is their accuracy and comprehensiveness, which made them indispensable to scholars. It is, however, the second respect which particularly claims our attention: the works of St Augustine were not given any pride of place among these texts. This reflects Erasmus’ marked preference for Jerome, whom he regarded as the essential embodiment of the ideals of the Renaissance. In a letter of 21 May 1515 to Leo X, Erasmus declared his intention to encourage the re-emergence of Jerome as the Christian theologian. As early as that year, Erasmus had defined Jerome, not Augustine, as summus theologus. Although the western theological tradition may be regarded as essentially an extended commentary upon the works of St Augustine particularly with respect to the theological renaissance of the twelfth century, Erasmus effectively called this foundation into question with his predilection for noster Hieronymus. The humanist concern for accurate texts was thus not without its theological overtones.[1]

Christian Humanism may sound like a purely literary movement, but even as McGrath underscores, it was more than that; a movement with serious theological implications. It might also appear that humanism of this sort was antagonistic towards specialized theological or ecclesial vocabulary, but that would be a mis-reading. Instead, humanism was critical of such language-systems becoming terminal in themselves; with the result of creating a culture that was too inwardly focused. Indeed, a culture that in effect cut Christian people off from the fount of Christian reality and truth as found in the Apostolic Deposit of the New Testament. What Christian Humanism brought was not just a method, but a spirit that fostered critical space for critical engagement with the church and of course other areas of engagement.

Here at The Evangelical Calvinist I am still motivated by this kind of reformational spirit, and committed to the ad fontes of Christian Humanism. The thing is, I think, at this point, that spirit and those tools need to be turned on Protestant Reformation theology itself. I see a need for reinvigoration and renewal within Reformed Christianity; that’s what has motivated me for years, i.e. to bring reformation to church of Jesus Christ by pointing people to the terminal source of all reality, Jesus Christ Himself. I believe Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, both as Reformed theologians, represent what it looks like to be involved in this type of Christian Humanist and reformational spirit; both seeing the need to bring critique and theological development to Reformed theology. It isn’t, obviously, just Reformed theology that needs to be ‘always reforming’ (semper reformandum), but Christian theology and the Christian church in general. The spirit we find in Christian Humanism, I believe, is a spirit that should live on!

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross  (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 44-5.

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  1. Pingback: The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis | The Evangelical Calvinist

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