Religious Thought

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Religious Thought

The Renaissance brought many new ideas and trends to the study of theology*. Religious scholars began to reexamine sacred texts in the light of classical* knowledge. They studied the Bible in its original languages (Greek and Hebrew) and applied the doctrines of ancient philosophers to religious ideas. The Kabbalah, a mystical* Jewish system of interpreting the Scriptures, also played a major role in the ideas of both Christian and Jewish thinkers during this period.


During the Middle Ages, most Europeans were members of the Roman Catholic Church. However, a number of different schools of religious thought existed within this single church. Catholics differed over such issues as whether the pope should be subject to the authority of church councils. These theological divisions became more pronounced during the Renaissance. Scholars began to question many traditional doctrines of the Catholic Church and to adopt new views based on their reexamination of ancient religious texts.

Attacks on Scholasticism. Religious scholars of the Middle Ages had favored a philosophy known as Scholasticism, which combined Christian faith with the ideas of the Greek thinker Aristotle. The most important explanation of this belief system appeared in Summa Theologica, by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). During the Renaissance, however, many scholars attacked Aquinas' work because it relied heavily on abstract ideas and formulas. Humanists* such as Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1466–1536), as well as some Protestant reformers, favored another approach. They urged Christians to follow the example and teachings of Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church responded to attacks on its doctrines at the Council of Trent, which took place between 1545 and 1563. The church reaffirmed the views of Scholastic thinkers that it had supported throughout the Middle Ages.

Christians and the Bible. Biblical studies blossomed during the Renaissance as humanist scholars began reviving the original Greek and Hebrew versions of the text. For most of Christian history, theologians had relied on a Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate. Renaissance scholars such as Lorenzo Valla compared the Vulgate with the original texts and found many flaws in the translation. Their work helped translators such as Erasmus prepare new versions of the Bible that followed the original sources more closely. Erasmus also wrote a set of "paraphrases" of the New Testament. The paraphrases aimed to make biblical passages easier to understand by rewriting them in simpler terms.

The Protestant Reformation* of the early 1500s spurred efforts to interpret and analyze the Bible. Martin Luther, the central figure of the Reformation, viewed the Bible as the sole source of religious knowledge and placed a great deal of importance on understanding it. In his commentaries on the Bible, he focused on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. He noted that while the Old Testament had value for Christians on its own terms, its chief value lay in its hidden links to characters and events in the New Testament. Other Protestant leaders, such as Philipp Melanchthon, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin, also prepared commentaries on the Bible designed to help spread Protestant doctrines and train clergy members.

Patristics. Another major development in Christian thought at this time was the recovery of patristic works. The term patristics refers to the writings and doctrines of the church fathers, the theologians of the early Christian era. Throughout the Middle Ages, the writings of the church fathers often had been available only in translations or in incomplete versions. During the Renaissance, however, renewed contact between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, centered in the city of Constantinople, helped restore the original texts to western Europe.

Renaissance humanists, aiming to recover the wisdom of the ancient world, made the revival of patristics an important part of their studies. Humanists such as Erasmus discovered, edited, and translated the writings of the major Greek and Latin church fathers or the 300s and early 400s, including Augustine of Hippo, St. Jerome, and John Chrysostom. Unlike scholars of the Middle Ages, humanists viewed the church fathers less as authorities on doctrine than as sources of Christian teaching. They believed the church fathers had special understanding of Christianity because they had lived so close to the time of Jesus. Many humanists also praised the church fathers for their knowledge of languages and literature.

New Directions in Christian Thought. During the Renaissance, many humanists sought to revive the ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. These scholars, known as Neoplatonists, had a major impact on religious thought. Various factors shaped the growth of Neoplatonism, including the expanding knowledge of Greek, the increased contact between eastern and western churches, and the renewed study of the church fathers. Scholars such as Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) sought to replace the ideas of Aristotle, which had held a central place in Scholastic thought, with those of Plato. They saw Plato's works as being closer to the philosophy of the Greek church fathers, especially St. Augustine.

The Neoplatonists played a key role in one of the biggest debates in Renaissance theology, the question of whether the human soul was immortal. The roots of the conflict lay in the writings of Averroes, an Arab philosopher who had commented on Aristotle in the 1100s. According to Averroes, Aristotle's works denied the immortality of the soul. For centuries, followers of Averroes—known as Averroists—continued to claim that only faith, and not reason, could prove that the soul was immortal. Throughout the Renaissance, various Italian scholars attacked the views of the Averroists. Ficino took a strong stand against them, making the immortality of the soul a key part of his belief system. However, another noted thinker, Pietro Pomponazzi, claimed that according to reason, the soul must be mortal.

Many Neoplatonic thinkers also took an interest in mysticism. Several of them became students of the Kabbalah, a Jewish system of seeking hidden symbolic meanings within the Scriptures. Armed with a newfound knowledge of Hebrew, philosophers such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) and Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) explored the Kabbalah to seek a deeper understanding of Christian beliefs.


Many of the same ideas that affected Christian scholarship during the Renaissance also played a role in Jewish thought. Like Christians, Jews explored the links between their faith and the ideas of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle. They also studied and wrote commentaries on the Bible and other sacred works.

Religion in Jewish Philosophy. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jewish philosophy and theology were closely connected. One of the most influential Jewish philosophers was Moses Maimonides of Spain (1135–1204). His work sought to link the divine wisdom of the Torah (the most sacred Jewish religious text) with human wisdom, as revealed in the works of Aristotle. Followers of Maimonides believed that Greek philosophy and the Torah taught the same truths in different ways.

During the 1400s Jewish thinkers in Spain became more familiar with the works of Thomas Aquinas and other Christian Scholastics. Drawing on these texts, they developed the notion that the truths of theology complete and perfect those of philosophy. Some Jewish thinkers sought to prove that the Jewish faith was in harmony with reason, while Christian doctrines were not. Other Jewish philosophers explored a variety of religious issues, such as the nature of God, the origin of the universe, prophecy, miracles, and human perfection. Some scholars also blended the ideas of the Kabbalah into their worldview. They linked the hidden meaning of the Torah to the ideal order of the universe, as contained within the mind of God.

Jewish philosophy in Renaissance Italy relied heavily on the ideas of Aristotle and Maimonides. In addition, Italian Jews explored the works of Averroes and Plato. Some Jewish philosophers played a major role in the growth of Neoplatonic thought. For example, Yohann Alemanno (ca. 1435–ca. 1504) became the teacher of the philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and introduced him to both the Kabbalah and Jewish texts on Plato.

In 1492 Spain forced all its Jews to leave the country. Many Jewish exiles fled to the Ottoman Empire* and spread their philosophy there. Scholars in eastern cities began to focus their attention on the Bible and other sacred texts. A leading philosopher of the 1500s was Moses Almosnino, who developed a moral philosophy based on Scholastic sources, Jewish and Muslim thought, and the Kabbalah. His belief system declared that humans could achieve union with God through moral action.

Jews and the Bible. The Bible played a key role in Jewish scholarship during the Middle Ages. Jews studied the Old Testament in terms of both its language and its role in Jewish law and custom. The understanding of the Bible also informed the study of secular* philosophy and mysticism. Most scholars drew on all these areas of knowledge—language, tradition, philosophy, and mysticism—in their teaching.

During the Renaissance, Jewish exiles from Spain brought their studies to other regions, especially in eastern Europe. Most of these biblical scholars saw the Torah as the ultimate source of human knowledge. However, they also believed that the Scripture was vastly complex, filled with symbols and allegories* that required explanation. To unearth the layers of meaning within the Bible, they used a method borrowed from Christian Scholasticism. This technique involved laying out a series of questions and objections and then resolving them in a long discussion. Jewish scholars tended to focus on complex issues rather than straightforward ones, and they enjoyed discovering hidden connections between distinct fields of knowledge.

Jewish Messianism. Several Jewish thinkers in the 1400s and 1500s argued that the end of the world, or apocalypse, was near. They believed that this coming crisis would bring forth a Messiah—a hero who would save the Jews both as individuals and as a people. The Messiah, some claimed, would bring God's revenge upon the enemies of the Jews and establish a miraculous kingdom on earth. Many also believed that the coming of the Messiah would put an end to death and restore the dead to life.

Several writers of the late 1400s and 1500s predicted the arrival of the Messiah. A few even claimed to be the Messiah or someone else who would play a major role in the apocalypse. One of the most important messianic writers was Isaac Luria (1534–1572), a student of the Kabbalah. He claimed that the Messiah would be a spiritual leader, rather than a political or military one. This figure, he argued, would restore the power of God on earth and would fight the forces of evil.


In most parts of the Islamic world, philosophy fell into decline in the 1100s. Theologians in the east opposed the study of metaphysics*, which they saw as being in conflict with the revealed word of God in the Qu'ran, the sacred text of Islam. As metaphysics sank in importance, religious scholars turned to mysticism. The most noted mystical thinker of this period was Muhyi al-Din ibn al 'Arabi of Spain. His works and those of his students focused on such themes as the divine unity of all creation and the powers of rare individuals who are "friends of God."

In the late 1200s and early 1300s, many Muslim thinkers rejected mysticism, which they feared would dissolve the legal and ethical system of Islam. Scholars such as Ibn Taymiya of Damascus, Syria (1263–1328), insisted that the goal of Islam was not to understand or love God but to obey him. According to Ibn Taymiya, the only way to do this was to return to the teachings of the Qur'an and the practices of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Similar ideas arose in the Muslim empire of India in the 1600s, where scholars called for a purification of religion through a return to the Qur'an and Islamic law.

(See alsoChristianity; Classical Scholarship; Ideas, Spread of; Jewish Languages and Literature; Jews; Philosophy; Religious Literature. )

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* mystical

based on a belief in the idea of a direct, personal union with the divine

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

Renaissance and Reformation

In some ways, the humanist ideas of the Renaissance played a crucial role in the spread of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Protestant reformers relied on the text of the Bible as the chief source of religious authority. Thus, their ideas rested on the work of humanists who had helped to recover biblical texts in their original Greek and Hebrew versions. However, the reformers disagreed with humanist thinkers on many points of theology. For instance, the reformers placed a great deal of emphasis on the idea of original sin. They saw humans as sinful, fallen beings whose only hope lay in the grace of God.

* Ottoman Empire

Islamic empire founded by Ottoman Turks in the 1300s that reached the height of its power in the 1500s; it eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* allegory

literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface

* metaphysics

branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of reality and existence