The Renaissance was a time of renewed interest in a study of the Humanities, beginning in Italy and spreading throughout Europe in the 14th through the 16th centuries. The Renaissance brought a revival of art, literature, and learning and constituted the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age. The widespread impact of the Renaissance affected Christianity and helped change the course of church history.
One way that the Renaissance impacted Christianity was that it increased curiosity about early church writings in Greek. In the medieval period, the emphasis was on Scholasticism. In the study of Scholastic theology, students studied commentaries on the Scriptures. The most widely used textbook was Peter Lombard’s Sentences (12th century), which was a commentary on selected passages of Scripture arranged topically. Lombard had accumulated comments from the church fathers and more recent thinkers. A second widely used textbook was Duns Scotus’s commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. Theological students of the Middle Ages studied commentaries and commentaries on commentaries more than they studied the Scriptures themselves!
The Renaissance brought an emphasis upon going back to the original sources. Many of the Greek classics made their way to western Europe as the great Greek libraries of the eastern Roman Empire were moved west to be kept safe from the advancing Muslim armies. Scholars began to want to read these classics in the original languages. Likewise, those who wanted to study the Scriptures began to see the need to study them in the original Greek and Hebrew, not Latin. (At that time, the Latin Vulgate, a 4th-century translation, was the officially recognized Bible of the Catholic Church.)
In an effort to aid this shift to original sources, Erasmus of Rotterdam published a Greek New Testament in 1516, using the Greek manuscripts that he had available. Even though Erasmus’s text was far from perfect, it was a vast improvement over the Latin and was a key to the rise of Christian humanism in the Renaissance. As the Bible was studied in the original languages, errors in the Latin translation were exposed. For instance, Martin Luther discovered that where the Greek has “repent” the Latin Vulgate had “do penance”—two very different things.
It is impossible to separate the Renaissance and the Reformation. Nascent Renaissance thinking helped to bring about the Reformation, which in turn helped to bring about the full Renaissance. Men like Luther began to study the Bible for themselves rather than rely upon the authority of the church to tell them what the Bible said. As they studied, they found something radically different from what they had been taught in official church dogma. These men were also burdened to provide accurate translations of the Bible in the common language of the people, and, thanks to the recent invention of the Gutenberg printing press, they had the means to disseminate the truth. Luther produced a German New Testament in 1522, based on the second edition of Erasmus’s Greek text. Meanwhile, William Tyndale was working on an English translation; Pierre Robert Olivétan was penning a French translation; Jacob van Liesveldtin was working in Dutch; Laurentius and Olavus Petri were working on a Swedish Bible; Christiern Pedersen was producing a Danish Bible; Oddur Gotskálksson was toiling over an Icelandic translation; and Casiodoro de Reina was producing a Bible in Castillian Spanish. The common people, who could not read the Scriptures in the original Greek and Hebrew (or in Latin), could now have a Bible of their own, and literacy rates soared as people determined to read the Bible for themselves.
The natural outgrowth of Reformation thinking, which helped propel the spread of the Renaissance, was to question the authority of the church and to do away with class distinctions between people. If any person could approach God without a priest, if all believers are priests, and if salvation is through faith in Christ without the mediation of the church, then the authority of the medieval church was severely weakened. Likewise, thoughts of equality in Christ and in society came to the fore. Kings who had always assumed that they reigned by divine right were now called upon to justify their actions by Scripture; thus their autocratic freedom was curtailed. In the same way, secular rulers felt they could break with church authority in favor of their own consciences and understanding of Scripture. In the Reformation the seeds of “separation of church and state” were sown.
Renaissance means “rebirth,” and that is certainly what happened to society and culture as art and science came to full flower. Within the time of the Renaissance occurred a “rebirth” of the church as well, as men began thinking biblically and independently from Roman Catholicism. Unfortunately, Renaissance thinking kept going where the Reformation stopped. The Reformation said that one could question the church where it disagreed with Scripture. The secular thinkers of the Renaissance said that Scripture, too, could be questioned where it disagreed with one’s own understanding. For the secular Renaissance thinkers, man was the final authority and arbiter of truth—not God, not Scripture.
Evangelical Christians today are the heirs of the Reformation, which might be called the Christian Renaissance, and modern secular society is the heir of the secular Renaissance.