The theological impact of humanism

The impact of humanism upon the theology of the early sixteenth century was considerable, and may be illustrated by considering its implications for biblical scholarship. The literary and cultural programme of humanism can be summarized in the slogan ad fontes—back to the original sources. The squalor of the medieval period is bypassed, in order to recover the intellectual and artistic glories of the classical period. In much the same way, the 'filter' of medieval biblical commentaries was abandoned, in order to engage directly with the original texts. Applied to the Christian Church, the slogan ad fontes meant a direct return to the title deeds of Christianity—to the patristic writers, and supremely to the Bible, studied in its original languages. This necessitated direct access to the Greek text of the New Testament.

The first printed Greek New Testament was produced by Erasmus in 1516. Erasmus' text was not as reliable as it ought to have been as Erasmus had access to a mere four manuscripts for most of the New Testament, and only one for its final part, the book of Revelation. As it happened, that manuscript left out five verses, which Erasmus himself had to translate into Greek from the Latin of the Vulgate. Nevertheless, it proved to be a literary milestone. For the first time, theologians had the opportunity of comparing the original Greek text of the New Testament with the later Vulgate translation into Latin.

Drawing on work carried out earlier by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla, Erasmus showed that the Vulgate translation of a number of major New Testament texts could not be justified. As a number of medieval Church practices and beliefs were based upon these texts, Erasmus' allegations were viewed with something approaching panic by many conservative Catholics (who wanted to retain these practices and beliefs) and with equally great delight by the reformers (who wanted to eliminate them). Three classic examples of translation errors will indicate the relevance of Erasmus' biblical scholarship.

(a) Much medieval theology justified the inclusion of matrimony in the list of sacraments on the basis of a New Testament text which—at least, as in the Vulgate translation—spoke of marriage being a sacramentum (Eph. 5:31-2). Erasmus pointed out that the Greek word (musterion) here translated as 'sacrament' simply meant 'mystery'. There was no reference whatsoever to marriage being a 'sacrament'. One of the classic proof texts used by medieval theologians to justify the inclusion of matrimony in the list of sacraments was thus rendered virtually useless.

(b) The Vulgate translated the opening words of Jesus' ministry (Matt. 4:17) as 'do penance, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand'. This translation suggested that the coming of the kingdom of heaven had a direct connection with the sacrament of penance. Erasmus, again following Valla, pointed out that the Greek should be translated as 'repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand'. In other words, where the Vulgate seemed to refer to an outward practice (the sacrament of penance), Erasmus insisted that the reference was to an inward psychological attitude—that of 'being repentant'. Once more, an important justification of the sacramental system of the medieval church was challenged.

(c) According to the Vulgate, Gabriel greeted Mary as 'the one who is full of grace (gratia plena)' (Luke 1:28), thus suggesting the image of a reservoir full of grace, which could be drawn upon at time of need. But, as Erasmus pointed out, the Greek simply meant 'favoured one', or 'one who has found favour' (a translation which was eventually adopted by the Jerusalem Bible in the 1960s). Once more, an important feature of medieval theology seemed to be contradicted by humanist New Testament scholarship.

These developments undermined the credibility of the Vulgate translation, and thus opened the way to theological revision on the basis of a better understanding of the biblical text. It also demonstrated the importance of biblical scholarship in relation to theology. Theology could not be permitted to base itself upon translation mistakes, even when hallowed by centuries of tradition. The recognition of the vitally important role of biblical scholarship in relation to the foundational texts of Christian theology thus dates from the second decade of the sixteenth century. It also led to the theological concerns of the Reformation, to which we now turn.

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