Background Of The Reformation

Erasmus and the Humanist Experiment, by Louis Bouyer (Geoffrey Chapman, 1959, 220 pp., 18s.), is reviewed by Gervase E. Duffield, Secretary to the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research, Tyndale House, Cambridge.

Few people today know much about the humanism of the Renaissance but a knowledge of it is an essential prerequisite for grasping the background and context of the Reformation. To most, humanism has come to mean a system of morality and thought based solely on man’s ideas to the exclusion of everything divine. In the Renaissance era it had an element of this, but it was more a realization of man’s potentiality, his wonder and his achievements. The age was everywhere one of discovery, with Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus finding new lands, and Galileo and Copernicus exploring the mysteries of the universe; but though these were part of the whole movement, the main impact of humanism was in art and literature. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 had driven the Greek scholars westward and sparked off the Renaissance in Italy. Its artistic aspect, the paintings of Raphael and the sculptures of Michelangelo, and so on, are well enough known, so Bouyer concentrates on its literary side. He shows us the changing attitudes of the Popes to the new learning, as it began with the classical studies of Petrarch and the speculative mysticism of Nicholas of Cusa. The author traces it through the education reforms of Vittorino da Feltre, and the brilliant but eccentric cabalism of Pico della Mirandola and so on to Erasmus, the central figure.

There were in fact two humanisms, related but yet distinct. The writer at times seems aware of this, but it is not brought out with sufficient clarity. The ...

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