Christian humanism as foundation for the faith and work conversation, part IV (final part)


Protestant Reformers, unknown artist (18th c.), Wikimedia Commons

Social dimensions of Christian humanism – scholastic, renaissance, and Reformation developments

This article continues from part III.

The theology of the world operative within Christian humanism has been not just a theology of material creation or nature. It has also been a theology of the human, social world in which we live, and which Christian humanism navigated through the culture-creating development of such areas of our life together as ethics, law, and both political and economic theory and practice.

Scholastic humanism and the social world

For example, in parallel to the scholastic humanists’ pursuit of natural philosophy (as science was then called), and at first surpassing it in its power to bring order and peace to the world, was the study and systematization of law. Of course in that Christendom age, that law was religious, or “canon” law. This connection had deep historical roots – when in the 4th century the Benedictine monk Gratian had combined “the theoretical principles and legal procedures of the existing Roman law code with the content of ecclesial canon law,” he was providing “the first basic, universal textbook in response to the growing need for the legal administration of emerging Christendom” – and not surprisingly, it was the papal courts that became the ultimate recourse for most matters, fatefully cementing the church’s political as well as spiritual power.[1]

The scholars whose trust in human reason underwrote their approach to these social dimensions of flourishing (and science too could certainly be included as having a strong social dimension) grounded this trust not only in the doctrine of creation, but also – not surprisingly – in “the concept of the incarnation as God’s reconciliation with creation and his most intimate fellowship with humanity.” The resulting “medieval synthesis” “wove nature, humanity, reason and religion into a meaningful tapestry of ennobling purpose that was central to medieval theology from the twelfth century onward.”[2]

In sum, the three powerful legs of this great platform of scholastic humanism were “[the assurance of] God’s love, the intelligibility of creation and the trustworthiness of human reason.” And on this platform, medieval Christians built the foundational institutions of Western societies—the hospital, the university, a nascent scientific establishment, a growing artistic establishment, the superstructure of European law, and more.[3]

The next phase of Christian humanist attention to the social dimensions of the world and of flourishing was Renaissance humanism, which flowered in the 14th through the 16th centuries in part as a turn against what was seen as a kind of creeping rationalist aridity in scholasticism. Renaissance humanist representatives stretch from early Italian thinkers such as Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio to Reformation-era figures such as Erasmus.

Renaissance humanism developed as a movement of faithful Christian reflection, and Christian appropriation of classical reflection, on human moral and civic life. The movement was especially marked by close attention to the role of education (at all levels) in developing the sorts of public virtue that had been part of Christian humanism from the beginning, but had arguably been inadequately treated during the scholastic age.

A theology of the world meets a theology of humanity

We have time only to touch on this Renaissance phase of humanism here, which unifies a theology of the world and a theology of humanity, but we must at least address the elephant in the room: It is still today often assumed that this movement, with its expansive vision of human capability and greatness, represented some sort of move away from orthodox Christianity and toward a modern secularism, because (again) interpreters read its anthropocentrism as theologically untethered, or even anti-theological.

But it should give us pause that CS Lewis, knowing the period as well as any scholar of his age, resolutely refused to make this sort of sharp distinction between medieval and Renaissance Christian thought, or to treat the Renaissance as a sort of proto-secularism. And in fact, the scholarship has increasingly come to support Lewis’s insight, as starting in the 1970s and 1980s, the interpretation of the renaissance thinkers as progenitors of secularism was soundly discredited in Renaissance studies.

Contrary to that older stereotype, Zimmermann shows that “Renaissance humanism was largely based on a recovery of patristic theology,” with its “incarnational focus on the imago Dei,” its insistence on the “compatibility of faith and reason,” and its understanding of the human telos in terms of theosis. With all of those factors in play, it is clear that what anthropocentrism there was in Renaissance humanism was in fact of the “theo-anthropocentric” sort, grounded in humanity’s origin and destiny in God, and in the event of the Incarnation as the signal moment tying together that origin and that destiny. As Zimmermann put it, “the reason for Renaissance humanists’ study of classical antiquity, their passion for language and for moral education, was their essentially Christian vision of humans becoming like God, that is, the achievement of our full humanity in Christ.”[4] This should not surprise us, since many humanists were either church leaders, including several popes in fact, or worked under the patronage of senior church figures.

The essential quality of renaissance humanism was that it offered what Renaissance scholar Charles Trinkaus called “possibly the most affirmative view of human nature in the history of thought and expression,” but that it grounded that view securely in our relationship to God.[5] In other words, we see in renaissance anthropology the full flowering of that humanist through-line of attention to the imago Dei in Genesis.[6]

The primary practicaloutworking of that new confidence in human powers was, as John O’Malley has argued in his book Four Cultures of the West, essentially a humanist takeover of the universities from the older scholasticism, and the steering of those institutions increasingly toward moral and civic ends.[7] Inasmuch as scholasticism’s high confidence in the power of reason to answer all questions and secure all knowledge began to take on an abstracted and mechanical feel, the renaissance humanists pushed back with a new exaltation of the classically “humanistic” studies such as history, poetry, drama, and (famously in the work of Petrarch) biography. The renaissance goal was less to command all knowledge, and more to become better people, both individually and in civic society. Thus the Renaissance brought back to the Europe of its day the old Christianized Greek emphasis on virtues and character formation, and pushed those closer to the center of the work of the university.

Reformation humanism

While Christian humanism has continued through today – in the work of such leaders as C S Lewis and Pope John Paul II – the last phase of humanism that we will consider here is the distinctive Reformation humanism, which while it joined renaissance humanism in turning its back on elements of scholasticism, and in building on close attention to the patristic humanists, brought its humanistic themes into conjunction with the characteristic Reformation theological emphases.

While Luther was less influenced by humanism than some other Reformers, there seems to me to be an intriguing argument to be made that one place we see the fingerprints of Renaissance humanism in Luther’s work is in his emphasis on God’s general provision for human flourishing through ordinary work—that is, his formulation of the Christian’s ordinary vocations as providential, God-ordained mutual service in obedience to the “love commandment.” Luther’s treatment of vocation can be seen as a profoundly humanist social vision, with continuing direct applicability to both the culture-creating and economic dimensions of work.

The humanist influence on John Calvin is well-known. In fact, he has been characterized by Nicholas Wolterstorff as a humanist thrice over: First, as a renaissance humanist—whose emphasis on character formation was based in study of texts in their original ancient languages. Second, as what Wolterstorff calls an anthropological humanist—viewing the human person as “possessing inherent dignity and even sacrality” and affirming that God has made many things for our use and enjoyment, and we are to approach that world sacramentally.[8]

Thirdly, Wolterstorff argues, Calvin was what he calls a social humanist—affirming the “deep and fundamental solidarity among all human beings” as divine image-bearers, of which—interestingly—Calvin found economic exchange of goods and services to be an important sign. Comments Wolterstorff, “It is in this context that the proverbial Calvinist emphasis on hard work in a worldly vocation must be placed.” Contrary to Weber’s thesis, Wolterstorff points out that “What Calvin himself actually said [was that] self-initiated hard work in our worldly vocations is an expression of our solidarity and is to be done for the sake of the common good.”[9]

The modern disenchantment of the world and the “abolition of man”

The modern retreat from the Christian form of humanism has happened as a part of what some call the “disenchantment” of the world. I believe (and among others, C S Lewis famously observed) that the scientific revolution and its sequels—such as the Enlightenment—began to sap the material world of its spiritual and moral significance, and that this diminishment has only continued and intensified through today. Whenever and whyever it happened, the modern disenchantment of the material universe has hidden from us the spiritual importance of our material and social lives, which for Christians should be anchored both in creation (God making all flesh) and in incarnation (God becoming flesh).[10]

That disenchantment of the world, as Lewis argued, threatens to bring with it, unless we revive an older Christian humanism, the total “abolition” of humanity qua humanity (that is, our abolition as something more than a mere biological species among other biological species). It has also effectively created what today is often called “the sacred-secular divide” – the chief problematic that the FWE conversation intends to address—a separation between religious and so-called secular realities which is felt deeply by Christians working in what seem to them completely secular institutions and sectors (but which in fact had their origins in the Christian west and their foundations in Christian humanism).

This sense of division or alienation between workers’ faith and their work has been intensified for Western evangelical Protestants by what I call that religious movement’s immediatism – its habit, in its quest for unmediated access to God through naïve biblicism and affective encounter, of shrugging off any practice or perspective that puts religious value on material or social forms, including a sacramental perspective on the world.

In short, I argue that the evangelical conversation on FWE has carried on in its attempt to address the sacred-secular divide in ignorance of the long and rich history of Christian humanism that could fund it, and the sacramental view of the world that accompanied that humanism. I propose a research agenda that could produce a Christian humanist re-grounding of this conversation within modern western Protestantism—particularly of the evangelical variety.


[1] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 117.

[2] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 117–118.

[3] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 118–120.

[4] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 133.

[5] Charles Edward Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), 1:xiv; cited in Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 135.

[6] Zimmermann, Incarnational Humanism, 135.

[7] John O’Malley, Four Cultures of the West (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2004).

[8] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Christian Humanism of John Calvin,” in Zimmermann, ed., Re-Envisioning, 87 – 89.

[9] Wolterstorff, “Christian Humanism,” 92.

[10] Chris R. Armstrong, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (Brazos, 2016), 22.

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