Is Humanism Evil?

David asks,

The term “humanism” seem to incite disgust in most conservative Christians today but I have heard Calvin and other reformers referenced as “humanists.” What is the difference between the word’s use in that context and the present one?

Renaissance humanism was a movement beginning in the late medieval period and running through the 16th century across Europe and Britain. There were several facets to this movement.

1) The recovery and appropriation of aspects of classical culture for the renewal of Christendom;

2) Closely related to #1, the return to original literary sources made possible by the recent influx of Greek texts into the West;

3) A renewed concern for humans as such;

4) A renewal of concern for what they often termed “good letters,” i.e., good rhetoric;

5) A renewal of concern for moral self-improvement;

6) A renewal of concern for educational reform.

The roots of the Renaissance were in the early medieval appropriation of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (math, geometry, music, and astronomy). These 7 liberal arts were the educational foundation of European learning centuries before the “Renaissance” began. Indeed, that we speak of “the dark ages” and “the Renaissance” is more a function of the success of the attempt by 15th- and 16th-humanists(and the later Enlightenment) to distinguish themselves from their predecessors than it is an accurate description of the nature of things.

Nearly all theologians studied both the arts and theology and they taught in both fields from the early medieval period until specialization began to develop in the high medieval period (by the 13th century) and distinct university faculties began to develop. This happened as the West began to recover original classical texts requiring and enabling scholars to focus on only on discipline. The rise of university departments in the 13th and 14th centuries in both the arts (think, “the English dept”) and theology (i.e., “the Bible dept”) began to create tension between the two disciplines.

As this tension between the two depts developed, the theology dept came to be denoted as “scholastic.” As Erika Rummel has noted, the theologians attacked the Arts faculty for sloppy thinking and the Arts faculty attacked the theologians for their poor Latin and rhetoric.

It was long held that there was a particular ideology attached to the Renaissance, but modern scholarship has questioned that claim. P. O. Kristeller is right when he says (as Muller says about scholasticism) that it was more a movement about method than a movement that entailed a particular philosophy.

protesantscholasticismcovernewjpgThe relations between humanism and Christianity were complicated. There were Christian humanists but there were also humanists who were more attracted to ancient paganism. It was a complex movement that cannot be accurately assigned wholly to Christianity or to paganism. The theology of the Christian humanists tended toward moralism, but also favored, in certain respects, the Reformation call for liturgical reform. One should be aware, however, of a tendency in some of the secondary literature to divide the Reformed “humanists” from the “Protestants.” The assumption behind this taxonomy is that a humanist is more concerned about moral renewal than about the theology of the Reformation. Some writers speak as if virtually all the Swiss German Reformers were “humanists” and not really genuine Protestants at all, i.e., not genuinely committed to justification sola fide at all. Though it seems true that Zwingli was both deeply influenced by humanism and ardently concerned for moral renewal and simplicity in worship and he wasn’t as precise about justification as Luther (who was not particularly or immediately influenced by humanism) it doesn’t follow that humanism corrupted the Reformation. On this you might see the opening chapters of my book on Caspar Olevian.

Many of the 16th century Protestants were trained in the arts and therefore may be called humanists. Calvin combined his legal and classical studies into what has come to be called “legal humanism,” wherein the the points above were applied to the study of law. There is no evidence that Calvin’s humanism perverted or corrupted the Reformation doctrine of justification. Tyndale was influenced by humanist ideals and practices, but contra the claims of Clebsch, he remained a firmly convinced Protestant to his martyrdom. Melanchthon was a humanist and one of the chief exponents of the doctrine of justification sola fide.

Certainly there is a distinction to be made between modern Enlightenment inspired “humanism” and the incipient humanism of the medieval church and the more developed humanism of the Renaissance. The Enlightenment asserted a sort of autonomy largely unknown prior to the modern period, but there were precursors in the Renaissance. They were, however, a minority voice.

It is most unfortunate that some have chosen to speak of “humanism” indiscriminately as a sort of bogeyman. Such a rhetorical move reveals more about their ignorance and antipathy to learning that it does about the history of ideas or the history of the Renaissance or the nature of Enlightenment secularism.

Those with roots in the Reformation (and with a concern to perpetuate the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation) have roots in the Renaissance as well. We should not be frightened of “humanism” per se and we should be deeply skeptical of the Enlightenment rhetorical move to arrogate the Renaissance wholly for Enlightenment secularalism just as we should be skeptical of fundamentalist acceptance of that attempt. There is nothing about the methods of the Renaissance that is inimical to the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation just as there was nothing inherent to the methods of “scholasticism” (i.e., the academic practice of theology) that opposed or corrupted the Reformation. On this see the massive work of Richard Muller, e.g., Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics or Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark, eds. Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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