How did the Renaissance influence scriptural interpretation in such a way that it set up the Reformation?

What people wanted to know changed. The Renaissance signified the start of the shift from “the collective dreamlike life of medieval Christianity”[1] to the fully Enlightenment rejection of the validity of relational authority. The word Renaissance means rebirth and it is used to explain a remarkable renewal of interest in the “classical Greek and Roman civilization expressed in literature, politics and the arts.”[2] The idea behind the Renaissance is that a person could learn and know the truth for themselves; so, during this period a massive amount of importance was put on education especially in the classics. The impact of the Renaissance on the Reformation cannot be underestimated, there is probably much truth in the saying, “without the Renaissance, no Reformation.”[3] Without the general population being convinced they could discover the truth of an argument for themselves, the Reformation would have gone nowhere. This aspect of the Renaissance would probably best called the beginning of “secular individualism”[4] which would come to true power in the Enlightenment. The impact of the classics was the next piece that the Renaissance brought to Reformation. The Reformers first had a hard look at scripture and saw that there were many Roman Catholic practices that did not seem to add up. For Luther, this started with indulgences notable because of the strong attack on indulgences in the 95 Theses. The suspicions for Luther had to be confirmed when he studied Augustine, we know he was reading Augustine “as early as 1509,”[5] and the other church fathers and saw a very different perspective on grace and justification. It was these two forces, the idea that man could know the truth for himself and this emphasis on the classics, that impacted how the Reformers thought and looked at scripture and it was the affect of these on the culture at large that made Luther and the other reformers successful.

What is truth and how to know it; or, where does the authority rest? This was the questions of Scriptural interpretation in the Reformation period. In all reality, it was the question facing the world at large. The reformers were not the first to question if the authority of the church in matters of interpretation. Wycliffe and Jan Hus had already started the questioning about a century before Martin Luther’s debut in Wittenberg. However, Wycliffe and Hus met with little success with their ideas while Luther was very successful. The reason for Luther’s success was a cultural shift that brought about the idea that a person did not need the Bible explained to them, they could understand it for themselves. Tyndale’s zeal to see the Bible translated is an example of how this cultural imperative for people to examine the evidence for themselves had infiltrated the minds of the Reformers. Luther himself translated the scripture into German. Pettegree’s book Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion explained that the culture was ripe for the preaching, printing, the rhetoric of the Reformation to persuade them.[6] The Reformers task was the “liberation of scripture from all other forms of authority.”[7]

The influence of the classics meant that came from the Renaissance meant that Aristotelian categories of logic, Greek thinkers like Plato, and the church fathers were on the preview for analysis. As mentioned before, there is no doubt that Augustinian thought deeply impacted Luther’s interpretation of scripture.  The impact of the Renaissance of thought was that by the time Luther came on the scene the normal person already begun to have the idea that they could read the text for themselves and not have to ask for an explanation. They could understand. The common man no longer needed to be subservient to the clergy in matters of interpretation. This is why it is appropriate to call the Renaissance the beginning of secular individualism. The individual is now the interpreter. The Renaissance invention of the printing press stirred this fire into an inferno with the help of the Bible translators like Luther and Tyndale.

The great change in how the Bible was interpreted that was fueled by the Renaissance was first that with the rebirth of the classics into society came this idea that each person is able to seek and find the truth for himself. No longer did the Churches interpretation, that according to Luther was not reasonable, hold power. Now each person was called to seek and know for themselves the truth of it.

 

[1]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 75.

[2]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 312.

[3]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 73.

[4]. John Woodbridge, and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 75.

[5]. Martin J. Lohrmann. “The Righteousness of Faith in the Earliest Luther.” Lutheran Quarterly 31, no. 3 (Fall 2017): 322.

[6] Peter Arnade. “Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion Andrew Pettegree.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 38, no. 3 (2007):

[7] Timmerman, Daniel. “Scripture and Pluralism; Reading the Bible in the Religiously Plural Worlds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.” Sixteenth Century Journal 38, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 794.

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