Volume One — Article 3


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

The Renaissance was born in the torpid world 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 had taught that there is fulfillment for men in this life. And fulfillment, they said, is found in the search for beauty, for life, for value, for position and reward. This was their "righteousness."

Then Christianity had burst upon the ancient world and turned it upside down with the truth of justification by faith. The apostles vigorously denied that there was any fulfillment in this present life. They declared with power that righteousness resides only in heaven and not on earth, alone in Another and never in themselves.

That truth so contrary to classical thought was desperately opposed by the world. For that matter, it was never fully accepted by the church. And it was finally violently assailed by the papal system, which grew out of the early church.

Catholicism began to teach that Christian righteousness is some quality poured into the soul, which gives a mystical fulfillment to life on earth apart from any secular status or position, indifferent to intellectual learning or attainment, and contrary to any bodily exercises or condition.

Men like Augustine sought to extend this ideal to all mankind. They conceived of an ideal Christian society governed by the church. They claimed that the kingdom of God on earth was established by the growth of the Catholic Church. They turned men's faith from a heavenly righteousness and their hope from 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 religious absolutism. Salvation was offered only through the sacraments of an earthly and corrupt priesthood. The forms of religion were multiplied and the people were burdened with rigorous actions. 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 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 Catholic Church, men saw deliverance in classical wisdom revealed to them by Byzantine and Islamic scholars. They were filled with a love of learning and of freedom, a desire for the cultivation of the arts and sciences, and a dedication to human progress. They saw 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 to 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 antithesis between primitive Christianity and Greco-Roman thought was 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; for the Renaissance they were found in man. The concern of the Reformation was spiritual; for the Renaissance it was material. The interest of the Reformation was in the revealed and the dogmatic; 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 invaded Protestant thought and vitiated 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 built on Luther. The Protestant universities, with their higher education and learning, were wholly permeated with the classical philosophy of the Renaissance. They wanted none of the pure religion of St. Paul and of Martin Luther. They traded it all for the hope of the Renaissance.

So a 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 decade? The 1960's began with the hope and aspiration expressed in a young and vigorous American President. There was a charm and mystique about John Kennedy. He expressed the hope of America the New Frontier. It was the decade in which man reached the moon. But suddenly it dawned on him that his aspirations for fulfillment through scientific idealism were as dead as the moon.

In the late 1960's man was suddenly so surfeited with the hope of science and the promise of the Renaissance, that he was filled with revulsion. 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 Renaissance was dead!

Again the world is ripe. But ripe for what?

Today in America there is a tremendous turning to occultism, to Pentecostalism, and to the Charismatic Movement. 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.

Time once proved and irrefutably demonstrated the error of this Catholic concept until the world was ripe for justification by faith. So today man's vain hope of fulfillment in this life has again been demonstrated until the world is ready for the pure truth of justification by faith and a mighty revival of hope in the coming of Jesus Christ in glory.