Beckett: Renaissance Humanism – The Predecessor to Luther’s Theology

If there were no Renaissance period, there would not have been a Lutheran Reformation. Luther’s exegetical priorities can be divided into four categories: exegesis faithful to the biblical languages, the daily life of people in society, the role of the human will, and anthropology (what makes humans human). Yet these emphases are not unique to Luther. These matters arose before Luther’s time in the Renaissance period. Without the challenges of the Renaissance and its humanists—both admirable and questionable—there would have been no Martin Luther the reformer and, consequently, no Lutheran Reformation.

Faithful Exegesis to the Biblical Languages

Luther had a strong dedication to biblical interpretation that was faithful to the Scriptures in their original language and original meaning. Dedication to emphasise the original illocutionary force of classical authors—for Luther, the Church Fathers and biblical authors—predated Luther: “Recovery of ancient classical sources was the main agenda of humanist enterprise. Resorting to the best possible texts and using original languages was done with a view to applying their teachings to contemporaneous social and intellectual problems” (Dost, 37). This led to the recovery of Latin and Greek, which Greek and Roman wisdom heavily influenced, as well as Hebrew.

Humanists also “repristinated the sources, restoring ancient teachings corrupted by various scholastic and ecclesiastically tradition-bound interpretations based on late texts and translations,” which enabled the humanists to ascertain original meaning of the authors’ intent.

If this return to the original languages of classical sources had not occurred, would Luther have returned to the original Greek and Hebrew of the Old and New Testaments with such vigor? It is doubtful. Furthermore, had the Renaissance not strongly emphasised and encouraged human expression in the arts, would Luther have composed copious amounts of writings? This, too, is doubtful. Contrary to popular belief, the Renaissance period was not merely the advancement of philosophy and science, but primarily had a literary emphasis. This is Kristeller’s contention:

Thus Renaissance humanism was not as much a philosophical tendency or system, but rather a cultural and educational program which emphasized and developed an important but limited area of studies. This area had for its center a group of subjects that was concerned essentially neither with the classics nor with philosophy, but might be roughly desribed as literature. It was to this particular literary preoccupation that the very intensive and extensive study with the humanists devoted to the Greek and especially the Latin classics owed its particular character… Moreover the studia humanitatis includes one philosophical discipline, that is, morals, but it excludes by definition such fields as logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics, as well as mathematics and astronomy, medicine, law, and theology… This stubborn fact seems to me to provide irrefutable evidence against the repeated attempt to identify Renaissance humanism with the philsophy, science or the learning of the period as a whole.

Dost, 40.

With the humanist emphasis on literature and the rise of universities further emphasising liberal arts, therefore, by the time Luther came of age to enlist in education, he was well-positioned to similarly return to the classical languages of the biblical authors and Church Fathers to ascertain both their illocutionary forces in their writings, and to have this on printed record to be distributed amongst the German peoples over against Papal error.

The Daily Life of the People in Society

Luther’s theology had a strong emphasis on the daily life of the Christian that was threefold: vocation, daily repentance/daily Baptism, and the daily cycle of oratio, meditatio, tentatio, which have to do with the role of the human will under the format of the two kinds of righteousness.

For Renaissance humanists, “A conception of education arose, whose object was not only to train learned men but to produce good citizens; an education that inspired men to take part in daily life and in the public affairs of the community” (Dost, 42). Historian Hans Baron describes this concept as man’s virtù, which was “geared toward civic duty, pride in one’s surroundings and a new outlook toward benevolence and patronage” (Dost, 43). Luther held a similar view on a person’s civic duty in society, emphasised in his theology on vocation.

Reacting against the three layers of medieval society—in order from highest to lowest: church, nobility, and commoners (those who prayed, those who fought, and those who worked)—Luther argued one’s vocation is God-given and, therefore, God-pleasing insofar as it is done in faith. These vocations are “masks of God,” he called them, in which God cares for His human creatures. Thus, the mother who breastfeeds her child, the shoemaker who makes shoes, and the farmer who milks his cows all fulfil their God-given duty in society. Such vocations, Luther contended, are more pleasing and honourable in God’s sight than the monk who prayed incessantly for hours on end.

In a similar fashion, the Christian life is a life of daily repentance (daily Baptism) in daily confessing one’s sins before God and daily trusting in God’s promise in Christ, which Luther further delineates in the cycle of oratio, meditatio, tentatio.

The Centrality of the Human Will

On the detrimental end, the centrality of the human will in humanist thinking gave possible rise to the centrality of the human will in conversion on which Luther and Erasmus debated. For historian Eugenio Garin, “humanism consisted ‘in a renewed confidence in man and his possibilities and in an appreciation of man’s activity in every possible sense,'” which was “a human-centered perspective” (Dost, 43). It is no surprise, then, that this humanist thinking infected theological thinking in the Papacy.

Another possible influence of Luther’s was Renaissance humanism’s opposition toward Aristotelian philosophy and physics. Humanists were already challenging Aristotle’s heavily historic influence, which aided Luther’s invective treatment of Roman transubstantiation and the Papal view on grace and the cross that used Aristotelian logic and physics to promulgate what Luther called the theology of glory, which stands in stark contrast to the theology of the cross. (Luther delineates this in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, specifically theses 19 [theology of glory] and 20 [theology of the cross]. Luther’s entire Disputation stands in direct opposition to Aristotelian logic and physics.) 

Renaissance humanism opposed Aristotelianism because it “limited individual expression,” and thus limited humanism’s ideology for “change and progress” (Dost, 44). However, as Renaissance humanists opted out of Aristotelianism, they converted to Platonism and thus fell on the polar opposite error because, “Humanists preferred the added liberty and depth of Plato’s teachings, despising Aristotle’s work as weak and corrupted” (Dost, 45).

Even though Aristotelian logic and physics runs counter to God’s Word, converting to Platonism was a poor about-face for biblical interpretation. This is not surprising, however, considering humanists were concerned with human individual expression (i.e. man is the centre) more than they were with orthodox biblical interpretation (i.e. God’s Word is the centre). Luther reacted against both Aristotelianism and Platonism and instead worked with merely God’s Word (with supplemented help of the Church Fathers) through the lens of the theology of the cross.


Charles Trinkaus did not believe that “Renaissance humanism was essentially a pagan enterprise, with non-Christian goals and aspirations.” Instead, he contended “they were essentially pious and believing Christians, who held an interest in the studia humanitatis and humanist activities” (Dost, 45). It cannot be argued against Trinkaus that there were genuine Christian humanists who exhibited holy reverence for God’s Word (for this appears explicitly in Christian humanist art), yet good intent does not necessarily preclude one from error.

For example, influenced by Augustine’s anthropology, “Petrarch was described as stretched between despair and grace, employing an anthropology that represented man as creature with non-dependent, positive qualities. Human lives depended on both God and fortune. God’s predestination could not be altered, but fortune allowed some room for man to maneuver. People could not overcome fortune, but they could remedy it” (Dost, 45-46).

It is salutary that Petrarch emphasised man’s dependence on God, yet his contention that man apparently as “positive qualities” does not altogether align with Luther’s anthropology. For Luther, insofar as man remains alienated from God, man has no positive qualities; everything he does is evil. The only positive qualities man possesses are those God gives as gracious gifts.

For Luther, what it means to be human is to be restored in God’s image (in the narrow sense, which is true knowledge and service of God). Without this restored image, man is wicked and has nothing good in him (cf. Romans 3:10-18). Thus, Petrarch’s error is that his anthropology is synergistic, placing man’s supposed manoeuvreability of “fortune” alongside his passive dependence on God.

To be sure, after man receives God’s alien righteousness, the works or “positive qualities” of man then become God’s proper righteousness, where man’s works, or manoevreability, is finally considered good (“positive”) qualities. Luther’s point is that these good qualities do not rise from within man, but they strictly come from God as a gift.


Following Luther, these matters are sufficiently covered in the Formula of Concord. With Luther, its theological authors return to the Scriptures in their original languages to ascertain the original illocutionary forces of the original authors, it emphasises God’s care of creation in human vocations as well as His care for His children in daily repentance/daily Baptism, it deals sufficiently with God’s monergistic will in conversion, and teaches man’s restoration into God’s image from original sin.


Dost, Timothy Paul. Renaissance Humanism in Support of the Gospel in Luther’s Early Correspondence: Taking all things captive. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2001.


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