Volume One — Article 3

Birth and Death of the Renaissance
by Jack D. Zwemer, DDS, Ph.D.

The Renaissance was born in the co-called Middle Ages of the fourteenth century. With masterful energy this revival of learning sought to restore the thought and culture, the spirit and aspiration, of classical times. The classical Greeks and Romans of the pre-Christian era had taught that there is "fulfillment" for men in this life. And ultimate fulfillment, they said, is found in the search for beauty, for life, for value, for position and reward.

Then Christianity had burst upon the ancient world and turned it upside down with the truth of the gospel message of the forgiveness of sin and eternal life only through repentance towards God and faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The apostles vigorously denied that there was any lasting fulfillment in this present life of sin and death. They gave powerful witness to the gospel message Christ.

That message, so contrary to classical thought, was desperately opposed by the world. For that matter, the simple Christian gospel message was soon so distorted by the distortions, additions, and outright pagan traditions of the post apostolic "fathers" and churchmen that it was nearly unrecognizable within the papal system of the dark and middle ages.

Catholicism began to teach that the forgiveness of sin and eternal life was only available through the priesthood and sacraments of the Roman church. The over-riding emphasis began to be placed upon some quality of holiness poured into the soul, which gives a mystical fulfillment to life on earth.

Men like Augustine sought to extend this ideal to all mankind. They conceived of an ideal new world-wide Christian society governed by the church. They claimed that the kingdom of God on earth was being established by the growth of the Catholic Church. They turned men's faith from Christ's forgiveness, imputed righteousness, and the hope of a heavenly city whose Builder and Maker is God, to the growth and enlargement of an earthly church and the society of the church on earth.

The result was the development of a system of salvation offered only through the sacraments of an earthly and corrupt priesthood. The forms of religion were multiplied and the people were burdened with rigorous repetitious ceremonialism. The age was dark. For more than a thousand years the Western world was sunken in an ignorant stupor, filled with superstition and fear, and abounding only in filth, disease and vice.

Finally the true light of God's word, the bible, again began to dawn upon men. The abominations of Romanism so disgusted society that the world was ripe for the Reformation. And the great Reformation truth was to revive the doctrine of justification by faith. As in apostolic times, men were taught not to look to this life, nor to any earthly government or to the church of God on this earth, for fulfillment.

It was an exciting time to be alive, not only because of the Reformation, but also because the Renaissance had already gripped the hearts and minds of people. Realizing the inhibitions and shackles imposed on human minds by the distortions of the Catholic Church, men vainly sought deliverance in classical wisdom revealed to them by Greek, Byzantine and Islamic scholars. They were filled with a passion for learning and freedom, a desire for the cultivation of the arts and sciences, and a dedication to human progress. They became obsessed with the promise of fulfillment in this life through human effort, art and ingenuity.

For a time it seemed that the Renaissance and Reformation were to be linked together and finally liberate the human race. The Renaissance gave to the Reformation such scholars as John Wycliffe, Erasmus and Melancthon. It restored a knowledge of the Biblical languages and recovered the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Scriptures. It provided the invention of movable type and faster modes of transportation. It bred a spirit of inquiry, of tolerance, and of individual freedom of expression. Finally, it gravely weakened the historic absolutism of the papacy.

But the ancient differences between true apostolic Christianity and Greco-Roman thought were a fundamental barrier to the union of the Renaissance and the Reformation. The faith and hope of the Reformation were in heaven; for the Renaissance they were on earth. The means and end of the Reformation were found in Jesus Christ; for the Renaissance they were found in man. The concern of the Reformation was spiritual; for the Renaissance it was material. The interest and focus of the Reformation was in the revealed and the dogmatic truths of the bible; for the Renaissance it was in the rational and the experimental.

Few Renaissance scholars embraced the Reformation. Most of them broke with it and determinedly fought it. Even such a man of great learning and conviction as Erasmus, with his inestimable contribution to the Reformation, ended by breaking with Luther.

Ultimately, the Renaissance stands with the Roman Catholic Church. This should not be surprising since both pursue an earthly perfectionism. Such perfectionism is the ideal of fulfillment on this earth. Catholicism pursues this ideal through the sacraments and institutions of the Catholic Church; the Renaissance seeks this same ideal through the secular wealth and energies of humanism. The Renaissance promised men that through the untrammeled pursuit of science and the humanitarian arts, the race could find answers to all its problems, whether political, social, medical or psychological. It was an age of great promise. It was the great hope held out to mankind. And those hopes and promises of the Renaissance have extended down the centuries even to our own day. Its nascent energies bred the Age of Enlightenment, produced the Industrial Revolution, ushered in the Golden Age of biology and medicine, and unleashed the present technologic and scientific revolution on the world.

Yet it is one of the paradoxes of history that the scientific, technologic and cultural advances of modern times have been so widely attributed to the ethic of the Protestant Reformation. The facts are rather that the secular perfectionism of the Renaissance has invaded Protestant thought and vitiated and supplanted the great truth of justification by faith.

Three hundred years after the Reformation, the Protestant bodies in America bitterly opposed the doctrine of the soon coming, literal second advent of Christ. They declared for a temporal millennium on earth to be ushered in largely by man's ingenuity and all the great learning of the universities. The Protestant universities had not continued to build on Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. The "mainline" Protestant denominational universities, with their higher education and learning, became wholly permeated social Darwinism and with the classical philosophy and humanism of the Renaissance. They wanted none of the pure religion of the apostle Paul and of Martin Luther. They traded it all for the hope of the Renaissance.

So two hundred years or more have gone by since those days, and the whole world has surfeited more and more on the hope of scientific progress. And what an age has been spanned in our own brief lifetime with all the changes and the acceleration of human learning. The progress seen even since World War II is staggering beyond the imagination.

Apple of DeathBut can you sense what has happened in the last 70 years? Suddenly it has dawned on society that aspirations for fulfillment through scientific idealism are as dead as the moon.

In the late 1960's modern man was so over filled with the hope of science and the promise of the Renaissance, that the youth rebelled in revulsion and revolution. You could sense in America the grand disillusionment that all the prosperity and progress had done little for man after all. They had only polluted his air, defiled his streams, corrupted his children, broken his homes, decayed his cities and ruptured his social amity. Suddenly the false hope of the Renaissance was dead!

Again the world is ripe. But ripe for what?

Today modern society has turned to occultism, opioids, Pentecostalism, the Charismatic movement and ecumenism. Multitudes despair of life fulfilled on earth except through some inner ecstatic experience. But this, of course, is the essential and mystical ethic of Roman Catholicism.

So today man's vain hope of fulfillment in this life has again been demonstrated until the world is once again ready for the pure bible truth of the forgiveness of sin and eternal life by faith in the sinless life and atoning death of Christ alone and a mighty revival of hope in the coming of Jesus Christ in glory.