Major historical events have a habit of getting caricatured in the public mind, reduced to a few simple strokes that fit with current beliefs. Take, for instance, the Renaissance and the Reformation, those two great parallel movements that gave rise to the modern world, as we know it.

The wider culture sees the Renaissance as a triumph of reason over superstition, of humanists throwing off the shackles of religion to embrace art and science and freedom of thought. That same culture views the Reformation as a dreary religious struggle that led to wars and tribalism and intolerance for people with different beliefs.

Various church traditions have contributed their own brands of reductionism. For some, the Renaissance was a sad victory of the world over the church, a foot in the door for the secularists. By contrast, the Reformation – depending on whom you ask – was either a heretical rebellion, an unfortunate overreaction, or a golden moment when saintly men turned on the lights after 1,500 years of darkness. One can almost picture the angels singing as Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door.

Real history, of course, is far more nuanced, far more interesting, and far more honouring to the God who is sovereign over it.

Historical events don’t occur in a vacuum

In the minds of some Christians, nothing of much historical significance happened between the end of New Testament times and the start of the Protestant Reformation. Then at the right moment, God opened Martin Luther’s eyes and the rest is sacred history, essentially divorced from any other real-world events that had happened in the intervening centuries.

But that’s not how history typically unfolds. To be sure, God can (and does) intervene in the affairs of humanity in miraculous ways, as He sees fit. But most of the time, He governs history via ordinary means, guiding an infinitely complex web of lives and events, causes and effects, to accomplish His purposes. That has always been the pattern, both in Biblical history and outside of it.

The Reformation didn’t happen overnight, solely as the result of Martin Luther opening his Bible. In fact, Luther and the other reformers stressed that they weren’t starting anything new, but were in continuity with the early church in proclaiming the Gospel. In the same way, the Renaissance didn’t occur simply because a few artists and thinkers in Northern Italy got fed up with church dogma and headed down the path of human autonomy.

Factors that led to both Renaissance and Reformation

The Renaissance began more than a century before the Reformation, but the two are essentially parallel movements in world history, rising out of the same network of social, cultural and political factors.

The advent of universities in late medieval Europe brought with it a spirit of inquiry and a thirst for knowledge. Theology was the queen of the sciences, but theologians sought to look beyond traditional universal dogmas and explore the particulars of human experience and the natural world.

The Black Death of the mid-14th century decimated Europe, killing between 30 and 60 per cent of the population. The wholesale devastation rocked people’s faith in the church, and the shortage of labour created social mobility, new jobs, and the beginnings of a middle class.

The rise of the middle class, in turn, created economic prosperity and a newfound sense of personal freedom for many people. They began to resent the authoritarian control and heavy financial burdens being imposed on them by the medieval church.

Earlier reform movements had been sprouting up in various countries over the centuries. Among others, the Englishman John Wycliffe and the Czech Jan Hus had criticized papal involvement in political and economic affairs, and had called for the church to return to the Scriptures as its sole rule of faith.

Political friction with the Papacy came to a head during a period when two and then three rival popes claimed authority over the church. The situation fuelled existing resentment among Europe’s leaders against a rich, corrupt and clearly political institution to which they still owed taxes and allegiance.

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 sent Eastern Christian scholars fleeing to the West, bringing their Greek manuscripts with them, including the New Testament. This was the key to a revival of classical and Biblical studies by returning to the primary sources in their original language.

The invention of movable type at about the same time by Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge and public learning. For the first time, the Bible as well as other books and documents could be mass-produced and placed in the hands of common people at an affordable cost.

The Renaissance made the Reformation possible

The renewed pursuit of knowledge, the loosening of traditional hierarchies, the growing dissatisfaction with worldliness and corruption in the church, and the revival of scholarly interesting in ancient pagan and Christian sources all began during the Renaissance and laid the groundwork for the Reformation.

The first printed edition of the Greek New Testament was published by the great Dutch Renaissance scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, in 1516, the year before Luther’s 95 Theses appeared. Erasmus’ work was the basis for Luther’s own German translation of the Bible begun in 1522, as well as for William Tyndale’s English version of 1526. All three Bibles were widely available to the public, thanks to Gutenberg’s printing technology.

Real people, not stereotypes

The leading figures of the Renaissance such as Erasmus and Galileo are commonly portrayed as humanist heroes who rejected religion in favour of reason and free thought. In reality, however, the humanism of these men had virtually nothing in common with modern secular atheism. Despite their critique of the church, the vast majority remained men of faith who pursued art, science and philosophy through a framework of belief in God.

The public perception of the leading reformers is rather less positive: dour churchmen arguing about fine points of theology, spreading their austere brand of religion across Northern Europe. Much is made of their personal failings, some of which were admittedly quite troubling: Luther’s virulent anti-Semitism, Calvin’s alleged approval of burning the heretic Michael Servetus at the stake in Geneva, a story beset by distortions and half-truths.

Even within the modern church, these men are often viewed as troubled individuals wrestling with personal demons, overreacting to the issues of their day and causing rifts within the church that have yet to heal. Conversely, some church traditions continue to put them on a pedestal as nearly infallible champions of moral and doctrinal purity, almost on par with the apostles and prophets of Scripture.

The truth, as might be expected, lies somewhere in the middle. The leading figures of the Reformation were real people of their time, not cardboard stereotypes. They were neither heroes nor monsters, but merely flawed men of God, seeking to lead the church back to a Biblically faithful standard. Despite their failings, God used them to rekindle a love for Christ and a commitment to His Gospel on a cultural scale unseen since the close of the New Testament.

Parallel strands in a braid of divine providence

God is sovereign over history and over His church. He is engaged in redeeming His people as well as His entire creation. To that end, He uses imperfect people and complex, ambiguous historical events, so that all the glory might belong to Him.

The Renaissance, far from being a godless enterprise, was a rediscovery of the cultural mandate given by God to humanity in the Garden. It was a pursuit of art and science and learning, a commitment to celebrate and explore the created order and the nature of humankind, fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Reformation, for its part, was neither a mistake nor an idealized moment in sacred history. It too was a rediscovery, building upon the achievements of the Renaissance to shine the light of Scripture on the culture and church of its day. In so doing, it released the liberating power of the Gospel to transform lives and societies via faith in the finished work of Christ.

What the Renaissance began, the Reformation reinforced and expanded with Scriptural truth. Taken together, the Renaissance and Reformation are best seen as parallel strands in a braid of divine providence. God used each of them to embody different facets of His Gospel with unprecedented clarity on an individual and societal level. Their influence has echoed through the church and Western culture for 500 years and will likely continue to do so for many more.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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