Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

A New Light Dawning

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
As we study the history of the Church, we note how things just seemed to go from bad to worse. The darkest period was just before the Reformation. The Church was deeply into corruption and those who tried to speak against the decay were persecuted. But, as so often happens, the darkness is deepest just before the light breaks through. We note various developments in this. The greatest and most important was the Renaissance.
The Renaissance
You will recall that when the Roman Empire (West) fell, Western Europe was overrun by tribes of barbarians (see July/August 1999). The old civilization of Greek and Roman learning and art was destroyed, but it survived in the East where the Empire lived on for a thousand years with its capitol at Constantinople.

Although this period of time is sometimes referred to as Òthe Dark AgesÓ in Western Europe, we must not think it was nothing but savagery and ignorance (although there was a good deal of it!) Still, there was also Charlemagne and his great educational reforms under the leadership of Alcuin of York; we had the flow of information from the Middle East brought about by the Crusades--especially in mathematics (algebra was an Arabic invention!) and philosophy from the Greeks. This period of the ÒDark AgesÓ saw the rise of universities as great centres of learning.

All this kept the flame of knowledge alive, but it was given a great boost by what was seen, at the time, as one of the greatest calamities of all time. You will recall how the Islamic religion had taken over control of much of the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia; in fact, it was because of IslamÕs control over Palestine that the Crusades were launched. This control was spreading ever further: to Spain in the West and now, in a pincer movement, through Eastern Europe towards the centre. In 1492 they were finally driven out of Spain (where they had been for 700 years!) But, scarcely forty years before that, in 1453, they had captured Constantinople! Great Fear and Consternation! Many of the cityÕs scholars, artists and craftsmen fled to Italy, taking untold valuables with them, especially rare books. The result was that in Italy, at first, there came a great increase in learning and appreciation for the arts and sciences.

Now, this did not happen only as a result of ConstantinopleÕs fall: for 200 years there had been a growing increase of interest in these things, fuelled in no small way by the growing wealth of the Italian cities. Competition between these Òcity statesÓ was keen and they tried to outdo each other with marvels of art and architecture. We still benefit from this craze. But now, after 1453, this all took on new life and a greater dimension. What was especially important was the revival of the study of Greek and Hebrew.

This ÒrenaissanceÓ or ÒrebirthÓ of learning spread also to the north where in Germany, the Netherlands and Britain it took on a different flavour. Whereas in the south it was sponsored mainly by vain and rich people who wanted to glorify themselves, in the north it took on much more of a religious tone and specialized itself primarily in theological studies.

As already indicated, all this took place under pressure from Islamic forces. But that was not the only matter of political concern. The map of Europe had become a quilt of hundreds of principalities. There were few central powers except around the perimeter where Spain, Portugal, France and England were rising and challenging the power of the pope. The confusing patchwork of principalities of central Europe had loosely federated into the Holy Roman Empire, with one of their own princes chosen as emperor. He had little real power, for he depended on the princes for his support. It is into this confused state that the light of the Reformation begins to break forth.

Although we are running slightly ahead, we do want to look at this situation now in order to place events in their historical contexts. Martin Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet (ÒparliamentÓ) of Worms in 1521. There he made his famous stand and refused to recant. But the Emperor was unable to do anything about it. Why not?

Charles, of the (German) house of Hapsburg, had been made king of Spain and the Netherlands and in 1519 was elected emperor Charles V. Francis I of Spain, almost totally surrounded by the holdings of Charles and defeated by him in 1525, made an alliance with the Ottoman (Turkish, Islamic) empire in 1526. The Turks attacked and stood at the gates of Vienna twice, in 1529 and again in 1532. Charles needed all the help of his princes to defeat these Turks. Some of these princes accepted the teachings of Luther, but Charles could put little pressure on them to stay loyal to the pope for fear of losing their political and military support. Thus, through the striving of nations, God opened a way for the reformation of the church to begin in earnest.

The Condition of the Church
As we have seen, there had been nothing but turmoil for three hundred years. There had been the persecutions of the Albigenses and the Waldensians. The power of the pope had been broken when Philip of France prevailed over old Boniface VIII who died shortly thereafter. The papacy was further weakened by the exile at Avignon, by schisms and counter popes. In England the church had been upset by Wycliffe and the Lollards; in Bohemia by Huss and his followers and the civil war that had broken out. The monks, especially the Dominicans and Franciscans, had become powerful forces in the church. Three councils had failed to provide reform. Heretics were hunted by the Inquisition and burned at the stake.

The power of the popes within the church increased greatly; they became dictators who ruled with little regard for God and His Word, seeking their own good and, sometimes, that of their children(!)

In Holland there was the reform movement of the Brethren of the Common Life, a group of pious and moral men who tried to gain reform through education. One of their most famous pupils was Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam who sharply criticized Rome for its abuses, both moral and spiritual. He wrote various books and issued a new edition of the New Testament, perhaps his greatest contribution to the Reformation (our KJV is based on his work), but he never joined the Reformers. In fact, although it has been said ÒErasmus laid the egg and Luther hatched it,Ó he and Luther became bitter opponents. Erasmus attacked the Church of Rome for its abuses but not nearly enough for its errors of doctrine.

Relation - Renaissance and Reformation
This is still a topic of debate and ongoing study. One basic difference is that the Renaissance sought to study the ancient classic writers (Greek and Roman) and used the study of Greek and Hebrew for that end while the Reformation used Greek and Hebrew to study the Word of God, the only authority for faith and life. The Renaissance was guided by human reason; the Reformation was guided by faith in God, through the Scriptures. They are two distinct movements and the Reformation was not built on the Renaissance. Still, there are various connections:

1. Most Reformers (Luther excepted) had studied the classics before their conversion; they were ÒRenaissance menÓ.

2. The Renaissance, through the providence of God, served the success of the Reformation in these areas:

a. the revival of learning sparked a desire to study the Bible in the original languages;

b. the Renaissance broke the chain of traditionalism and authority of the pope, also within the church;

c. the atmosphere of free enquiry gave a climate in which the Reformers could work, protected from Rome. Many princes protected freedom of study and speech on religious matters;

d. the invention of the printing press around 1450 was a great help in producing the material of the reformers;

e. Political, social and economic upheavals of the times prevented Rome from striking back;

f. the study of classics brought about:

i. a fresh approach to the Word of God

ii. new rules for ÒHermeneuticsÓ (the science of the interpretation of Scripture). It became an established rule that the text must be interpreted according to its obvious, literal meaning.

g. criticism of Rome by the Renaissance men paved the way for doctrinal criticism by the Reformers.

Looking back from the vantage point of some 500 years later, we can see how God directed the events of both church and nation to attain His own purposes. Would people living then have been able to see the same thing? Of course not! What a thing to remember when the events of life today seem to overwhelm us and when it appears that the cause of our Lord is going to suffer defeat.

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