History Optional Paper- 2 Solution – 2006: Q.6

Q.6 “The Renaissance scholars laid the eggs which Luther; the father of the Reformation later  on hatched.” Discuss. [2006, 60 marks]


Renaissance and Humanism

Renaissance was the ‘Rebirth’ of classical learning in the late medieval period which encouraged people to think for themselves rather than blindly accept what they were told. Humanism had become increasingly important in the scholarly world of the highly educated during the fifteenth century as the Renaissance had spread northwards from its birthplace in Italy. At its heart was a belief that life in this world need not be viewed largely as a penance to be served by sinful men. Instead, there was a great emphasis on people reaching their potential, pushing themselves to their limits, challenging accepted viewpoints.

The humanists were scholars who were particularly interested in studying the writings of ancient Greece and Rome to provide practical lessons for life. Central to this idea was that scholars should read the earliest, therefore purest, texts, a notion referred to as ad fontes (‘back to the original’). This ran counter to the medieval idea of scholasticism, which argued that readers should take the most recent edition, debate and clarify its meanings, and then publish a new version to provide an ever-deepening body of understanding. The aim of the humanists was to discover the meaning that the author had initially intended, rather than accepting interpretations that had been made in the Middle Ages based on incomplete texts and poor translations. This approach was generally unwelcome in the Church, where the normal requirement was unquestioning obedience. But not all prominent churchmen were hostile to it, because it could be argued that by looking at the evidence afresh one might be able to come to a clearer understanding of God and His will. So the humanists were allowed to continue their researches unmolested as long as they did nothing to challenge the existing power structure within the Church.


The Protestant Reformation was a major 16th century European movement aimed initially at reforming the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. It was religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval that splintered Catholic Europe. In northern and central Europe, reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII challenged papal authority and questioned the Catholic Church’s ability to define Christian practice. Having far-reaching political, economic, and social effects, the Reformation became the basis for the founding of Protestantism.

Renaissance scholars laid the eggs which Luther; the father of the Reformation hatched

The humanist movement during Renaissance, led by Desiderius Erasmus, is often presented as one of the major short-term causes of the Reformation.

Desiderius Erasmus become the leading humanist scholar of the early sixteenth century. From his home in the Netherlands he built up a network of correspondents in many countries via which the latest scholarly findings were widely circulating and the issues of the day discussed. His advice was sought by many of Europe’s leading political figures. His publications were written in Latin, the language of scholars, and were to be found in all centres of learning throughout western Europe. His speciality was the study of the New Testament of the Bible, and in this he showed the typical humanist approach. He was not prepared to rely on the generally accepted text – the Vulgate, which was a translation into Latin of the original texts –but insisted on studying the earliest known manuscripts, which were in Greek. He drew attention to the ways in which some of the Church’s teachings were based on texts that were in fact mistranslations made by St Jerome, the author of the Vulgate.

One of the greatest contributions of Erasmus was to publish, in 1516, an accurate version of the New Testament in Greek, which other scholars could use in preparing vernacular editions of the Bible. He worked to make it clear, to those with the education and intellectual ability to understand, that the teachings and practices of the Church were riddled with errors and inconsistencies. He felt particularly strongly that the Church should be encouraging people to live Christ-like lives rather than teaching them to seek salvation through the practice of empty formalities. In this he was echoing the views of a large but unorganised band of reformers throughout Europe which had been seeking a spiritual regeneration of the Church for at least a century.

Erasmus had a great deal in common with Luther. In particular, they both felt that the Church was in desperate need of reform which would sweep out the errors and inconsistencies which had crept in over the centuries. Luther’s own studies of the Bible used Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, and in the opening stages of the Reformation Luther corresponded with Erasmus frequently.

However, Erasmus fundamentally differed from Luther in the following ways:

  1. In his book The Free Will (1524) Erasmus utterly rejected Luther’s doctrine of predestination by arguing that predestination was a cold and frightful concept which removed any incentive for good behaviour.
  2. Erasmus shared Luther’s anticlericalism. However, when Luther drifted from anticlericalism (criticism of Church practices) into heresy (criticism of fundamental Church beliefs) Erasmus came out against Luther in outright opposition and the relationship between the two men broke down. Erasmus felt that Luther’s heresy would ‘tear the seamless robe of Christ’ and lead to terrible bloodshed. Erasmus always preached reconciliation rather than confrontation and deeply regretted the division of the Church into Protestant and Catholic factions.

Erasmus and many of the other leading humanists refused to join Luther, preferring to remain within the Church and to campaign for change from within. They denied that they were in any sense responsible for what they thought of as Luther’s excesses. Erasmus’s views were shared by many humanists. Some, such as Sir Thomas Morein England, were even prepared to die rather than renounce their allegiance to the Church. So it cannot be argued that the Reformation was the deliberate work of humanists.

Erasmus said that ‘I laid a hen’s egg, but what Luther hatched was a bird of a quite different sort’ and Luther described him as ‘the worst foe of Christ that has arisen in the last thousand years’. On this basis, it could be argued that ‘Erasmus laid the egg which Luther smashed’.

However, inadvertently they provided Luther with the tools which he used as weapons against the Church: the idea of returning to original scriptures, a new (Greek) version of the New Testament, and a ready audience for controversial religious debate.

In this sense, had it not been for the work of Erasmus and his fellow humanists, the Reformation may not have happened. Although it was not their intention, they helped create an intellectual climate in which Luther’s ideas were not only acceptable but positively welcomed. The German historian Bernd Moeller famously argued ‘No humanism, no Reformation’.

Hence it can be said that Renaissance humanist scholars laid the egg which Luther later  on hatched.

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