Today, we celebrate Reformation Day—the day Martin Luther nailed Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg. Our devotional reading today comes from The Renaissance and Reformation Movements by Lewis W. Spitz, where we learn of the historical impact the Reformation had on the time period.
- Revelation 14:6–7
- Psalm 46; antiphon: v. 7
- Romans 3:19–28
- John 8:31–36
- Matthew 11:12–19
Read the propers for today in Lutheran Service Builder.
During the first years of the Reformation many humanists viewed it as the religious expression of the general cultural Renaissance. The Erasmian humanist Johann von Botzheim, a canon at Constance, praised Luther as the man who, “after all the other disciplines have been renewed, is now renewing theology itself.” In Augsburg another Erasmian, Bernhard Adelmann, equated the terms doctus and Lutherus, learned man and Lutheran. Erasmus’ own alter ego, the young humanist Beatus Rhenanus, responded to the Reformation with the cry: “I see the whole world reviving!” And Luther himself viewed the Renaissance revival of learning as a kind of John the Baptist serving as a forerunner for the advent of the pure gospel. “No one knew,” he wrote, “why God allowed the study of the languages to come forth until it was finally realized that it was for the sake of the gospel which He wished to reveal thereafter.”
Many ties bound the Reformation to the Renaissance: the drive back to the pure sources, the reaction against scholastic philosophy, the criticism of formalism in religious practice, and the concern with an educational and religious revival. The humanists had sought their model in the golden age of classical letters, the reformers in the early church and the Scriptures. This drive to the sources was recognized as a characteristic mark of the Reformation by Francis Bacon, who wrote in his Advancement of Learning (Book 1):
Martin Luther, conducted (no doubt) by an higher providence, but in discourse of reason finding what a province he had undertaken against the Bishop of Rome and the degenerate traditions of the church, and finding his own solitude, being no ways aided by the opinions of his own time, was enforced to awake all antiquity, and to call former times to his succours to make a party against the present time: so that the ancient authors, both in divinity and in humanity, which had long time slept in libraries, began generally to be read and revolved.
The humanists made basic contributions to the recovery of Christian as well as classical antiquity. The new philology and linguistic studies, the discovery and editing of patristic texts as well as new critical editions of the Scriptures in the original languages, the new historical sense of distance from the pure and more perfect age, all these belonged to the Renaissance inheritance of the reformers.
The reformers shared with the humanists a low assessment of the centuries just past. If Petrarch and the humanists evolved the concept of a dark age separating them from antiquity, the reformers viewed the three preceding centuries as the nadir of the church’s history, a period of corruption in the hierarchy, of abuses, ignorance, and indifference among the lower secular clergy and monks, and of gross superstition and “work righteousness” on the part of the laity. They reserved special scorn for medieval scholastic philosophy. Like the humanists, they were critical of the “barbarous” Latin of the scholastics, and elevated rhetoric above dialectic as a method for ascertaining and expressing truth. Luther’s young lieutenant Philipp Melanchthon thus described medieval learning as a barbaric mixture of two evils: ignorant yet garrulous philosophy and the cult of idols. The English reformer John Bale, popularly known as “bilious Bale” for his talent for invective, declared that the mere description of this sordid, obscure, and ignoble kind of writing was enough to move generous and wellborn minds to nausea. Luther opposed scholastic logic as unsuitable to religious study. The objection of the reformers to scholastic learning went far beyond criticism of its language and dialectic to rejection of the religious presuppositions of scholastic theology, propositions they considered to be semi-Pelagian, stressing man’s contribution to his salvation rather than his total dependence upon God’s grace and forgiveness. The reformers’ drive against the church’s religious teaching and practice proved to be a far more radical and revolutionary force than Renaissance religious philosophy had generated. From 1520 on, the Reformation began to derail humanism in the religious realm.
How revolutionary was the Reformation? Edward Gibbon observed toward the end of the second volume of his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “After a fair discussion we shall rather be surprised by the timidity than scandalized by the freedom of our first reformers.” Luther recognized in himself and others the difficulty of overcoming inertia and undertaking something that challenged established custom. “How very true is the saying ‘To leave behind customary things is difficult and custom is second nature,’ ” he reflected. Moreover, the magisterial reformers viewed their program as a restoration of the ancient and honorable faith, not as an innovation or novelty. Melanchthon, in fact, believed that their moderate reforms had prevented tumults that would have been much more serious. A movement that was not revolutionary by intent, then, nevertheless turned out to have very revolutionary consequences. Revolutions are not created, they are unleashed. Controversy drove Luther to take positions more radical than any he had anticipated. Much of Europe was ready for that historical change to which the reformers gave actual form and shape. Paradoxically the Reformation was moderate in intent and radical in consequence.
Devotional reading adapted from The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, revised edition, by Lewis W. Spitz, pages 304–6. Copyright © 1987 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.