Protestation, Reformation, and Humanism

Toward the end of the 15th Century, the ancient classics were re-discovered; they and new thinking were made available to all with the education sufficient to utilize it; the merchant class was rising, expanding the population of those who were able to benefit from political and material power; through the printing press literature and the power of ideas was more readily available to all; commerce was expanding throughout the Mediterranean and Europe and throughout the region, as far as India; a wider segment of society found and shared the benefits of this new learning and wealth available. Some of the results of that growth were more effective communication, more profuse distribution of wealth, and greater broadcast and receipt of ideas.

There had long been divergent streams of religious ideas, practices, and zeal apart from the church, as has been discussed, but none of it threatened the primacy of the western church within its sphere. In the 15th century, dissatisfaction with the church increased, its privileges among its own were increasingly resented, and protest against its growing wealth at the expense of its congregations and of the lower class became more visible, more effective and more broadly cast. Will Durant states in his Story of Civilization, Volume V, The Renaissance, at page 569, “Enlightenment is of minorities, and emancipation is individual; minds are not freed en masse.” The former rules of social and moral order were changing. Durant notes at page 571: “The church might have sustained the supernatural sanctions provided by the Hebraic Scriptures and the Christian tradition, if her personnel had lived lives of decency and devotion.” Nonetheless, to resist the church yet had its costs. Durrant writes, “In 1478 Galleotto Marcio was condemned to death for writing that any man who lived a good life would go to heaven whatever his religion might be; but Pope Sixtus IV saved him.”

The floodgates of protest were burst open when Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517 on the door of the all Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Once the vessel was split, the part that fell away fractured into many pieces, which would continue to fracture to the present day. I have found a graphic and timeline at quite helpful.


Within what remained of the Catholic Church, it cleansed itself by Counter Reformation. Although there are some distinguishing practices, it appears to me that there is yet more similarity between Catholicism and Protestantism than is suggested by the proponents and adherents of either. It is remarkable how such minute differences create so many fissures.

In my posting concerning the consolidation of authority within the Roman Catholic Church, I noted that Augustine not only influenced Catholic theological thinking as redirected by the Council of Nicaea, to Aristotelian scholasticism, but many of his notions were later adopted by Protestants. Certainly, among my more fundamentalist friends and family, I note Christian language and concepts that are taken directly from the Confessions. Doing some more research at this writing, I note that I am not the first to see the great influence that Augustine has had upon Protestantism. I note at, an article entitled, “How Augustine Became the Father of Not Only Roman Catholicism but also…… Evangelicalism! That post refers to the “Roman Catholic website, New Advent, in which was posted the article, 'Teaching of St Augustine of Hippo.'” Of the mutual reliance of Protestants and Catholics upon Augustine, it cites the following:

Luther and Calvin were content to treat Augustine with a little less irreverence than they did the other Fathers, but their descendants do him full justice, although recognizing him as the Father of Roman Catholicism."

There is no doubt that Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430AD) became the major theological 'heavyweight' whose writings largely influenced and fashioned not only Roman Catholicism, but also Protestantism, and – through that route – modern evangelicalism.

Because I do not see great substantive theological differences among Roman Catholicism, Greek orthodoxy and the various Protestant denominations. I will refer the reader to Adam Hamilton’s Christianity’s Family Tree, published by Abington Press. I believe he more than adequately articulates the fundamental differences among them in a respectful manner. He has also published other books that might be of interest to the reader, particularly, Christianity and World Religions. I find his purposes to be quite consonant with my own purposes in this blog site, and articulate. In his Introduction to Christianity’s Family Tree, he states,

. . . The aim of this book is not to critique the various churches and traditions we will study. Neither is it to compare and contrast them. Instead my aim is to help you learn from your brothers and sisters of other denominations so that your faith might be enriched and that we might be more authentic and effective disciples of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, fine theological differences do not particularly interest me. Philosophy in the Flesh in, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson addresses my view of such distinctions. I gather from their book that unless our ideas can relate to us and our world in concrete ways, ie., A “in the flesh,” they lack any significance to the life in the flesh which we must live. I see theology to be simply philosophy applied to religious, or metaphysical, notions. I believe that Jesus addressed that when he was asked by his disciples to judge others who are doing good works but not in his name: good fruits and good works mark the life within the Kingdom of God, not logical constructs based upon disembodied premises.

More significant to me are the beliefs that help us to relate to the world in which we live and to produce good fruit. Eric Fromm notes in his book, Fear of Freedom, which I had purchased in the 60s under the title, Escape from Freedom , that a mentally healthy life requires a balance of individuation and relatedness, freedom and a sense of social responsibility, dependency and independency.

There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties, but as a free and independent individual.

European and American history since the end of the Middle Ages is the history of
the full emergence of the individual.

I am again reminded of Eric Fromm’s definition of religion: that which gives us a sense of orientation and an object of devotion. A healthy religion will help the individual and its society to orient itself in a way that dynamically balances individual and social freedom with individual and social responsibility. I see the humanism of Eric Fromm as consistent with “you will know them by their fruits.”

Eric Fromm discusses the origins of contemporary religious orientation and devotion:

[It begins in] the cultural scene in Europe during the late Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era. In this period the economic basis of Western society underwent radical changes which were accompanied by an equally radical change in the personality structure of man. A new concept of freedom developed then, which found its most significant ideological expression in new religious doctrines, those of the Reformation, Any understanding of freedom in modern society must start with that period in which the foundations of modern culture were laid, for this formative stage of modern man permits us, more clearly than any later epoch, to recognize the ambiguous meaning of freedom which was to operate throughout modern culture: on the one hand the growing independence of man from external authorities, on the other hand his growing isolation and the resulting feeling of individual insignificance and powerlessness. Our understanding of the new elements in the personality structure of man is enhanced by the study of their origins, because by analysing the essential features of capitalism and individualism at their very roots one is able to contrast them with an economic system and a type of personality which was fundamentally different from ours. . . .

Of the Reformation and its significance for the contemporary individual and society, Eric Fromm writes:

The Reformation is one root of the idea of human freedom and autonomy as it is represented in modern democracy. However, while this aspect is always stressed, especially in non-Catholic countries, its other aspect–its emphasis on the wickedness of human nature, the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual, and the necessity for the individual to subordinate himself to a power outside himself–is neglected. This idea of the unworthiness of the individual, his fundamental inability to rely on himself and his need to submit, is also the main theme of Hitler’s ideology, which, however, lacks the emphasis on freedom and moral principles which was inherent in Protestantism.

I see much of religion, from its earliest times, as a response to the wonder of spirit in matter, and their relationship. Is man fundamentally corrupt because of the “sin of Adam,” or is he reflective of “the image of God?” To what degree is present life derived from, or influenced by, prior life? What is God: more than what you see and experience, or above it? What is the significance of life; what is the significance of death; what is left after death? Or, as Joseph Campbell described the function of myth, does it show us how to live?


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