The Renaissance and Reformation

In 1453 the city of Constantinople, the capital of Greek Christendom, fell to the Islamic Ottoman Empire, and many refugees fled to the West.  Among them were Greek scholars.  Some of them ended up in Italy and made a living the only way they knew how–by teaching Greek to the Italians.

The world was changing in many ways.  The empire was dissolving and nations were rising.  Latin was giving way to national languages.  People were traveling and discovering new things.  You remember what Columbus did in 1492?

In the 15th century while the New World was being discovered, the ancient world of the Greeks was rediscovered.  Scholars began searching for ancient Manuscripts, Greek and Latin.  During the Middle Ages classical Latin literature was taught in school as models of elegance and precision and for lessons in virtue, as far as they were compatible with Christian civilization.

During the time of the Renaissance (a “rebirth” of learning) the ancient authors were studied in their own right.  Renaissance scholars discovered a great civilization independent of Christendom.

Not only Greek but Hebrew too was rediscovered.  In 1506 Johann Reuchlin published the first Hebrew grammar for the Christian West (De Rudimentis Hebraicis).

Many of the Renaissance scholars believed they had found in the ancient classical world a civilization superior to that of the middle ages.  Their motto was ad fontes, “to the sources,” by which they meant the ancient classics, and in particular to the original manuscripts (original as reconstructed by the new science of textual criticism).

Martin Luther and John Calvin were trained in the renaissance tradition.  They had studied the classics and the original languages, including Hebrew and Greek.  They applied the motto “ad fontes” to the original sources of the Christian faith: the Bible and the church fathers.

The scholars of the Reformation generally rejected the allegorical method of the middle ages.  They did retain a belief in typology and, of course, in prophecy.  Luther believed the whole Bible was a witness to Christ.  The key to interpretation was “was treibet Christum.”  “Treiben” is a strong word, literally ‘drive’ or ‘propel’ but also ‘produce.’  Luther’s phrase could be paraphrased, “what brings Christ into our lives.”

In an important sense, during the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, Christian scholars  for the first time in a thousand years (nearly the first time in 1500 years) were looking at the text of the Bible, in the original languages, and seeing what was actually there.

Calvin’s commentaries on the Old Testament books showed a respect for the historical character of the Old Testament and a sensitivity to the grammar and literary features of the writings, while at the same time having a conviction that the events and words of the Old Testament were ultimately leading to fulfillment in Christ.  Luther loved the Psalms and the prophecies in Isaiah and other places.  He also made a strong distinction between the Law and the Gospel, though he believed both were present in both Testaments.  Luther did not try to comment or preach on every verse of the Old Testament; he ignored whatever did not bring Christ forth.

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