Two perennial theological questions—"What must I do to be saved?" and "Where can I find the true church?"—took on special urgency in the Reformation era as the Christian world experienced an unprecedented crisis of authority. This crisis and its various resolutions all had roots in Renaissance learning.

As Copernicus and Galileo opened the heavens, and Columbus and Magellan mapped the world, humanist scholars such as Petrarch and Bruni encouraged a new interest in the study of history, especially the history of ancient Greece and Rome. The motto of all Renaissance scholars was ad fontes, "back to the sources," and the heart of this enterprise was the careful study of documents and texts. Sometimes these studies led to a radical critique of the institutional church and traditional theology (see "Church History's Biggest Hoax," page 35).

By the time of the Reformation, Desiderius Erasmus was applying the same kind of scholarly analysis to the Scriptures themselves. He produced a new edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516, and Luther used a copy in his famous attack on the practice of indulgences. Thus it was said that "Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched."

Luther would later part with Erasmus on crucial theological issues, but the textual and historical studies of humanist scholars enabled the Reformers to challenge many church practices and teachings in their efforts to restore "the true and ancient face" of biblical Christianity.

Reclaiming a hidden tradition

The role that history would play in subsequent Reformation debates was foreshadowed by Luther's 1519 confrontation with the Catholic theologian John Eck at Leipzig. Eck accused Luther of echoing Jan Hus, the Czech Reformer who had been burned at the stake at the ...

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