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BellaOnline's History Editor


Humanism Making Religion Personal Again

Guest Author - Rebecca Graf

As Luther “carried the study of Ovid, Virgil, and Cicero, in particular, farther than was customary with the professed students of Humanism, and the same with the political works of more modern Latin writers”, he began to find the personal side of religion. At this point in history, access to the Christian Bible was extremely limited. Most priests had never set eyes on the holy words. They preached from summaries and paraphrases. Around twenty years old, Luther saw his first Bible. It was then that “he saw how much more it contained than was ever read out and explained in the churches.” The Pope and the Church had just lost its most trusted hold on this young monk.

The Christian Humanistic movement “embraced study of both pagan and Christian antiquity and the mastery of ancient languages as a means to achieve both religious reform and the formation of a more just, more peaceable, and better educated secular society.” Luther’s desire for reform and not destruction of the Catholic Church pulled many followers. The majority “came from the ranks of young humanists.”

The humanistic education that Luther received not only gave him the sources and the ideas that would lead to the Protestant Reformation, but his education also gave him the tools to communicate his thoughts to society and to the Church. Humanist studies “taught students to express themselves coherently and fluently…would provide man with the proper skills of reasoning, eloquence and writing… and would assist the new Christians in voicing the truth of their religion in the most convincing way.” The rhetoric of the ancients would give these educational and religious warriors all their training and weapons needed to win the day. By studying the ancients and the history surrounding them, they acquired “knowledge of God’s work through the ages, and taught practical wisdom.”

As Luther studied more and more, he began to see how far the Church had strayed from the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Within his 95 Theses, Luther uses more than once the phrase, “seems unproved, either by reason or Scripture” which gave evidence to the Church that he had looked into the scriptures at length and was not relying on the preaching of the Church but of that of the original church founders. He went even further to show how the priests had corrupted the path to salvation by removing it from faith and even from man imposed works. Salvation came down to money which was revolting to Luther: “Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.” Using the Bible as his foundation, Luther fills his 95 Theses with words such as ‘error’ or ‘wrong’ when addressing the actions of the Church. In Theses 21, Luther states that “those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope's indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved.” The Church was taking too much power and was lying to the masses in order to obtain money and power over lives. In fact, he accuses the Church of stepping into God’s shoes and performing only the acts that can be done by God: “To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God -- this is madness.”

Religion was to become personal again and between man and God. Luther ends his original 95 Theses by saying that “Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell.” The actions of the Church were, in themselves, to be the wound that humanism attacked. The fact that “religion should again become an affair of the individual and of his own personal feeling was inevitable when the Church became corrupt in doctrine and tyrannous in practice.”

As the artists and sculptors brought the saints and holy figures down to ordinary man’s level where a relationship could be developed, so did Martin Luther do with the contemporary religious figures. During the Middle Ages as the Catholic Church grew in acceptability, it became one of the most important parts of man’s life: “The lives of the Medieval people of the Middle Ages was dominated by the church. From birth to death, whether you were a peasant, a serf, a noble a lord or a King - life was dominated by the church.” The power led to the masses looking at the Church and its leaders with awe and worship. To not view them as such resulted in excommunication which ultimately meant eternity in hell. The 95 Theses pointed out where the Church was at fault and where it needed to be brought back to the people and the original outline.


Buckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001.

Busak, Robert P. “Martin Luther: Renaissance Humanist?” podcast audio, http://robertbusek.podomatic.com/entry/2011-02-12T17_11_00-08_00 .

D’Amico, John F. Renaissance humanism in papal Rome: humanists and churchmen on the eve of the Reformation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
Gersh, Stephen and Bert Roest, ed. Medieval and Renaissance Humanism: Rhetoric, Representation and Reform. Boston: Bill Academic, 2003.

Hale, J.R. Renaissance Europe 1480-1520. Malden: Blackwell, 2000.

Kostlin, Julius. Life of Martin Luther. New York: Amazon Digital Services, Kindle Edition, 2009.
Luther, Martin. “95 Theses.” Project Wittenburg. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/ wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html (accessed February 20, 2011).

Mazzocco, Angelo, ed. Interpretations of Renaissance Humanism. Brill: The Netherlands, 2006.

Middle Ages Religion.” http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/middle-ages-religion.htm (accessed February 20, 2011).

“The Protestant Reformation.” http://www.historyguide.org/earlymod/lecture3c.html (accessed January 19, 2011).
Vandiver, Elizabeth, Ralph Keen, Thomas D. Frazel, ed. Luther’s Lives: Two Contemporary Accounts of Martin Luther. New York: Manchester, 2002.
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