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.

  • The recovery and appropriation of aspects of classical culture for the renewal of Christendom;
  • Closely related to #1, the return to original literary sources made possible by the recent influx of Greek texts into the West;
  • A renewed concern for humans as such;
  • A renewal of concern for what they often termed “good letters,” i.e., good rhetoric;
  • A renewal of concern for moral self-improvement;
  • 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-century 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 departments 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.

The 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 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 or Willem van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism.

This post first appeared in 2009 on the HB and has been updated.

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  1. Having just finished Olevian, I now need to go back to the first chapters in light of this post. So much to absorb for this aging brain…

  2. I call myself a humanist (with a small h) in recognition that humans have inherent sacred worth as created in the Image of God. “Secular Humanism”, which states that Man is to be celebrated as the measure of all things, but deny that he is anything more than a bag of chemical reactions created by chance, should be an oxymoron. Nihilism at least is logically consistent.

  3. Thank you for this post. Unhappily, such concepts as “humanism” and “natural law” have been hijacked by the worshipers of science, state, and/or cosmos to the point where we forget their Christian roots.

    For example, I teach world history in a public high school. Our textbooks and curriculum hold that the natural law ideas of the 16th-18th century were the fruit of something called the “Scientific Revolution”. Yet I invariably correct this by informing my students that the idea really describes an innate moral sense implanted in man by virtue of his bearing the image of God and hence had its roots in the Christian faith (at least in Europe).

    Having had a great deal of exposure to Chinese culture as well (my second language), I have also reached the conclusion that when Chinese versions of the Bible translate “logos” as “dao 道”, it was a very wise and legitimate linguistic choice (although I admit I have my quibbles with the Chinese Union Version and Xin Yi Ben).

    Come to think of it, the ease with which so many signors of the 20th century’s “Humanist” Manifestos ended up as apologists for totalitarian regimes (especially of the Marxist variety) makes me think that they are the ones who have no claim to the title at all.

    And while we’re on to humanist reformers, let’s not forget the likes of Huldrych Zwingli and Jan Laski!

  4. This is a very interesting post. I think it is best to consider humanism, epecially the Christian humanism, as a method rather than a school or doctrine that is necessarily opposed to Christianity. In general, these thinkers were concerned to give greater attention to real human experience instead of (or in addition to) abstract deductions. Hence the focus on languages, history, the Bible, classical resources, et cetera. For example, Calvin appropriated and used certain elements of stoic philosophy in his exposition of Christian religion. Similarly they tended to be concerned with real, experienced human problems. The pastoral impetus of many of the Reformers is closely related to this emphasis. There is nothing objectionable from a Christian point of view from an anthropological emphasis—a study of the imago Dei—as long as it points beyond itself to God. Christian anthropology should never become anthropocentric.

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