Religious Humanism

The Renaissance may be said to be the source of religious humanism, at least in modern times. In its early phases it expressed itself in the revival of “human” learning, the rebirth of classicism, as against the “sacred” learning of the Middle Ages. This in turn involved both the revival of classical languages (incidentally benefiting biblical studies) and the development of a historical perspective made necessary by the rejection of medievalism. In its later phases, religious humanism showed itself in the repudiation of the Augustinianism of the Reformers by Erasmus and, later, Arminius. Thus as a “movement,” if it can be called such, it embraced parts of the Roman Catholic Church (in such individuals as Colet, More, and Erasmus) and Protestantism (Arminius, Socinus, Locke) as well as independent thinkers such as Spinoza. The Moderates* in the Church of Scotland and the “Broad Church” school of Anglicanism, as well as certain themes in German Pietism and in the philosophy of Kant, may be said to have carried many of the emphases of religious humanism into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

These emphases were: (1) a confidence in human nature, coupled with a belief in the power of education. This expressed itself characteristically in a repudiation of the Augustinian (and biblical) teaching on the bondage of the will (see the Erasmus-Luther debate), and in an anthropocentric religiosity. This confidence in human nature was tempered by skepticism, particularly in theological matters; (2) a belief in toleration, due less to conviction about fundamental human rights than to theological indifferentism and skepticism, combined with the belief that what was right in Christianity was but republication of ancient wisdom or, later, a restatement of “natural religion.” Though some individuals such as Colet and More were religiously earnest, for many religious humanists the church was treated in a thoroughly secular way, or thought of as having simply a “civic” function to fulfill.