How did Lutheranism and Calvinism respond to the political and cultural challenges of the Renaissance?

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The Renaissance was characterized, as the common usage of the word suggests, by a revitalization of European culture following the political turbulence, social disruption and physical devastation of the Middle Ages, appropriately labeled by many historians as “the Dark Ages” in recognition of the collapse of Roman civilization and the advance of more barbarous, less “civilized” forces. Into the literal and figurative period known as “the Renaissance” came Martin Luther and John Calvin, Christian theologians who rejected the corruption and cynicism that permeated the Catholic Church. These two men, along with others, precipitated the Reformation that fundamentally and, potentially, altered Christianity forever. While theological distinctions exist between Lutheranism and Calvinism, those distinctions are largely irrelevant for the discussion at hand. The religious reformation ushered in by Luther and Calvin, the latter introducing a modified version of Protestantism, was integral to the political, social, artistic and cultural transformations that characterized the Renaissance. The relationship of politics to religion across Europe, in stark contrast to the secular democratic principles underlying the later American Revolution, was symbiotic. Catholic clergy wielded enormous influence over the monarchies that reigned across Europe, and the enormous influence of Christianity was felt in all aspects of European life, including the arts, science and politics.

The Renaissance began in the late 14th century, as Europeans, mainly Italians resurrecting the “humanist” principles and practices of their Roman forbears, as well as the wisdom of early Greek philosophers, increasingly began to reject the barbarism and, more importantly, the ignorance of the Middle Ages. The concept of scholarship – knowledge attained through observation, experimentation, and objective thought – began to flourish, and Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, a development of enormous consequence for the evolution of humanity, enabled later revolutionaries to advance their perspectives to ever-wider audiences. The convergence of the Renaissance in education coincided with Gutenberg’s development of moveable-type and facilitated the later efforts of Martin Luther to spread his insurrectionary movement far and wide. In short, the emergence of Protestantism and its relationship to the Renaissance may not have been possible without the invention of the printing press, as the written word facilitated the proliferation of treatises in a way heretofore physically impossible.

In a very real sense, the student’s question – how did Lutheranism and Calvinism respond to the political and cultural challenges of the Renaissance – could logically be inverted. It is entirely possible that, absent the opening to new ideas and concepts that characterized the Renaissance, Luther and, later, Calvin would not have been able to challenge the enormously powerful Catholic Church as they did. The Reformation remains one of the most important developments in history, and its occurrence during the years of the Renaissance was no accident. Luther and Calvin did not so much respond to the challenges of the Renaissance as they exploited it for their own purposes, irrespective of how one views the split of the Church into two major halves. And, let’s not forget about what was occurring in England during this same period: Henry VIII’s revolt against the Church over his desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, desperate as he was for a male heir to eventually succeed him to the throne. Could Henry have pursued this dangerous course of action had Luther not nailed his “95 Points” to the gate of a Catholic Church in Germany ten years earlier?

The Renaissance and the Reformation are inextricably linked. Lutheranism and Calvinism were a manifestation of the flowering of thought and of the scientific development of a means of disseminating information more efficiently than had ever been the case before, meaning Gutenberg’s earlier contribution should remain an intrinsic part of this discussion. Luther in particular represented an enormous challenge to the Catholic Church. Whether that challenge could, or would have been undertaken absent the broader cultural transformations then taking place is impossible to say, but we can conclude that the two phenomena – the Renaissance and the Reformation – were equally reinforcing.