How the Renaissance challenged the Church and influenced the Reformation


The Renaissance, spanning approximately from the 14th to the 17th century, marked a time of cultural, intellectual and scientific progress. From European discoveries of continents and sea routes to new visions of mathematics and astronomy through the advent of printing, the period of “renaissance” that followed the Middle Ages was marked by changing ideas, lasting masterpieces of architecture, art and literature (this was the time of Shakespeare, Galileo, Da Vinci and Machiavelli) – and a movement towards political and religious freedoms.

The shift towards political and religious freedom in turn helped spawn the Reformation movement, which caused a division within the powerful Catholic Church, leading many Europeans to turn to the new Protestant faith.

An era of new ideas

Martin Luther Burning a Papal Bull Exsurge Domine issued by Pope Leo X, c. 1520.

Stefania Tutino, professor of history at UCLA and intellectual and cultural historian of post-Reformation Catholicism, argues that the Reformation and the Renaissance were two parallel but closely related movements.

“The first concerned the theological nature and the ecclesiological structure of the true Church of Christ,” she says. “The latter was about the renewal of some key cultural, intellectual and artistic principles in light of the fact that what made sense in the Middle Ages was no longer appropriate, useful or inspiring for a society that had undergone many fundamental changes. “

According to Tutino, scientific advances, including 15th- and 16th-century alternatives to traditional Aristotelian physics and cosmology, and technological innovations such as printing, were important factors of novelty.

“Both the Renaissance and the Reformation arose out of the realization that the ‘old’ medieval order was no longer sustainable, and scientific discoveries and technological innovations were some of the elements that clearly showed how old structures were inadequate, ”she says.

The humanism movement

The Renaissance included an intellectual movement known as humanism. Among its many principles, humanism has promoted the idea that humans are at the center of their own universe and should embrace human achievements in education, classical arts, literature, and science. As part of this philosophy, academics, authors, political leaders and others have sought to revive the study of the Greek and Latin classics.

“Many humanists began to apply these principles to the study of the Bible and, therefore, to the political, cultural, liturgical and theological principles by which the hierarchy of the Catholic Church ruled its flock,” says Tutino. “In the process, a few humanists found much to criticize, and some of their criticisms echoed those of (Martin) Luther and other early Protestant leaders. “

However, she adds, while the goals and objectives of the humanist and reform movements were fundamentally different, “there were also areas in which the two met.”

According to Ada Palmer, associate professor of modern European history at the University of Chicago, the humanist movement has broadened the range of ideas people think about.

“The movement started out as an interest in reading texts from ancient Greece and Rome because Europe, especially Italy, had become so war-torn, desperate and unstable that people really wanted a solution, ”she said.

Because ancient Rome was powerful and stable with long periods of strength and unity, Palmer adds, it was believed that reading ancient books from this period could teach people how to replicate Rome’s success.

“So they started looking for ancient texts and translating them, reading them and copying them, until having antiquities became something that signals political power and political ambition,” he says. she. “Soon everyone was to have a classic library as a way to show off their power. ”

But while the goal of increasing stability failed, according to Palmer, one of the unintended effects of the movement was a new demand for books, which led Gutenberg to invent the printing press.

“It also meant that there were a lot more ideas on big questions like how the world works, how the world was made, what are good and bad deeds, how religion works, etc”, says- she. “And it also meant that they were studying Greek more and realizing that their old translations of the Bible and other texts were wrong in many places, and they started doing new translations and corrections.”

Martin Luther and Protestantism

German theologian and reformer Martin Luther, seated in the center, with other German reformers Melancthon, Pomeranus and Cruciger.

German theologian and reformer Martin Luther, seated in the center, with other German reformers Melancthon, Pomeranus and Cruciger.

Palmer says the Reformation was a culmination of long, slow processes that began before the Renaissance, including the corruption of the Catholic Church. In her next book on the Renaissance, she describes a “prisoner‘s dilemma”. “To corrupt the Pope or the Bishop was a huge advantage in politics, ”she said. “Whoever does would win in a conflict, so no one could afford to not bribe the Pope because if someone otherwise I bribed the Pope, you were doomed.

Disillusioned with bribes and other church corruption, including indulgences, which allowed citizens to purchase absolution from sins, German monk Martin Luther wrote the 95 theses in 1517, would have nailed them to the door of the chapel of the University of Wittenberg in Saxony.

“The gradual build-up of corruption has come to mean that indulgences were the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Palmer.

The power of the printing press

The printing press allowed the theses to be widely and quickly distributed throughout Europe, and although he was labeled a heretic by the church and excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521, Luther’s words in brought in a lot.

Luther hit the right time to be the first featured pamphlet preacher, such as being one of the early featured bloggers, or star YouTubers, and he hit the right political spot for the governments of the region he was in for the see it as a great excuse to do something they wanted to do anyway: get out of the giant papal prisoner’s dilemma, ”says Palmer.

In this way, says Palmer, the intellectual movements of the Renaissance led to the Reformation – stimulating demand for books and encouraging people to read more and think about how to reform the present. This included proofreading the Bible, as Luther did.

Luther, who founded the Lutheran Church, translated the New Testament into German. Its translation played a role in initiating the split in the Catholic Church between those who are faithful to the Pope and Protestants and those who protested against the rules of the Catholic Church.

At about the same time, in 1534, King Henry VIII caused a new division within the Catholic Church when he appointed himself head of the Church of England after Pope Clement VII failed. did not allow her to divorce Catherine of Aragon.

WATCH: How Henry VIII’s divorce petition led to the English Reformation

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