- in the context of the Reformation, humanism refers to a scholarly movement during the Renaissance that placed secular studies (the humanities) on a par with theology. Humanists worked to revive classical Greek and Latin learning. They wanted to foster a critical spirit, believing that educated individuals could use reason to improve their world, even to reform church and society. By the 16th century, many humanists felt that their learning, especially their knowledge of Greek, could be used to bring much-needed reform to the church.Humanism's first major success was a book by Lorenza Valla (1405-57) that proved that the Donation of Constantine (which had been used to justify the pope's temporal power) was a fake. Valla also discovered a number of errors in the Latin Vulgate Bible.Humanists used their new linguistic expertise to correct the available Greek texts of the New Testament, from which new translations could be produced. In Spain, for example, the University of Alcalâ, founded in 1500, became a humanistic center. Under the guidance of Cardinal Archbishop Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros (c. 1436-1517), the first printed Greek New Testament appeared in 1520, followed by a polyglot Bible (multiple texts printed side by side) two years later.French humanist Jacobus Faber (Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples) (1455-1536) paired a study of the ancient texts with an interest in mysticism (including Jewish forms). Through the 1520s, as the Reformation flowered in Germany, he worked on commentaries and a new translation of the New Testament. putting aside medieval commentaries, he studied the Greek text directly and found in it a simple message of love and faith that had strong resonance with Reformation themes. Faber's student Guillaume Briçonnet (1470-1533) went on to become the bishop of Meaux and turned the city into a humanist center. John Colet (c. 1467-1519) and Sir Thomas More (14781535) were the leading humanists in England. From his base at Oxford, Colet's lectures on Paul's epistles earned him the post of dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, which he turned into another center of humanist learning. More went from Oxford to a career in politics, rising to the post of lord chancellor under Henry VIII. He is remembered for his novel Utopia, picturing an ideal society. A devout Catholic, he refused to support Henry's supremacy of the church in England, and was executed in 1533.The most famous of the humanists, however, was the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (c. 1469-1536). Through his studies, he developed a vision of the simple Christian life lived out of what he termed the "philosophy of Christ." He believed that purifying the New Testament as it then existed would promote such a life. His Greek text became the basis of Martin LUTHER's German translation.As a whole, the humanists remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. Many did show sympathy with Reformation concerns, having themselves long been seeking reforms in the church. Whatever their loyalties, their work to create accurate, readable biblical texts made plausible the reliance on biblical authority that was to become the hallmark of the Protestant movement.Some humanists, especially in Germany, did openly support the reformist cause. Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523), for example, became an outspoken critic of the papacy, monasticism, and Catholic scholarship in general. Possibly more important was Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), one of the most widely traveled and linguistically adept of the German intellectuals. Reuchlin introduced the study of Hebrew into Germany (thus preparing the way for Luther's Old Testament translation), and fought the Dominicans, who were trying to have a variety of Jewish books destroyed.Further reading:■ Cornelius Augustin, Erasmus: His Life, Works, and Influence; trans. by G. C. Grayson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991)■ John D'Amico, Renaissance Humanism in Papal Rome: Humanists and Churchman on the Eve of the Reformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1983)■ Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980)■ Charles Trinkhaus, The Scope of Renaissance Humanism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.