The dawn of a historical perspective

Many medieval writers appear to have been unaware of the radical differences between their own period, and classical antiquity. This lack of awareness fostered the belief that past ideas, values and methods could continue to be employed in the present, without the need for modification (Burke 1986). The Renaissance witnessed the birth of both artistic and historical perspective, raising a series of issues concerning the authority of the past in present theological debates. The need for criteria by which the past could be interpreted and appropriated became of increasingly pressing importance. The Renaissance itself tended to use aesthetic criteria, where the Reformers would develop theological criteria. Gradually, the potential of reason as such a criterion can be seen emerging. Yet with this development, the authority of the past was itself undermined, in that a present resource was assigned priority over past authorities (McGrath 1990). The transition from reliance on past authorities to an emphasis on reason had taken place.

2 The development of a critical approach to Scripture

Much medieval theology was based upon Scripture, specifically the Vulgate Latin translation (Evans 1985). Largely due to the literary and philological programme of the Renaissance, Scripture came to be regarded in a different light. It was seen as the literary embodiment of an experience, which could be, at least in part, recreated through appropriate interpretative manners (McGrath 1987). The debate over the extent of the canon, which became especially significant in the 1520s, led to the introduction in reforming circles of the category of 'apocryphal' works, of lower theological status than the canonical works. The term 'Scripture' thus underwent a significant change in the period under study; initially, it was generally regarded as meaning 'the Vulgate'; by the end of the sixteenth century, there was conflict between the Renaissance and Reformation approaches, which identified Scripture with 'the canonical biblical texts in their original languages', whereas Roman Catholic theology, following the decision of the Council of Trent, regarded Scripture as both the text and translation of the Vulgate.

3 The shift in meaning of the word 'Church'

Other terms changed meaning over the period; the term 'religion', for example, gradually divested itself of its specifically Christian associations, and came to refer to a wider body of beliefs (Bossy 1987). However, the term 'Church' also undergoes a significant change in meaning. The term was originally understood to refer to the Church, on the assumption, inherent to the notion of Christendom, that there was only one Catholic Church. With the eviction of the reforming faction at Wittenberg in the 1520s, and the rapid growth of evangelicalism in German and Swiss cities in the following decade, this notion became problematical. The term developed competing associations, which would eventually lead to the emergence of the denominational mindset characteristic of modern Western culture.

This is not to say that the period witnessed the espousal of consistently modern attitudes; it was a period of transition, with recognizable continuity with both the medieval period and the modern period. Thus Ernst Troeltsch drew attention to the medieval character of aspects of Melanchthon's thought, whereas Quentin Skinner stressed the modernity of aspects of the political thought of sixteenth-century Calvinism. Like a bridge, the period in question links up with both the eras which it separates. Our concern is not with Church history, but with the manner in which theology functioned during this era and the period can be broken down into four main sections:

1 Late Medieval Scholasticism.

2 Renaissance Humanism.

3 The Reformation.

4 The post-Reformation period.

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