Christian Humanism: Definition & Role in the Renaissance

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  • 0:01 The Renaissance & Humanism
  • 0:55 The Northern…
  • 2:34 The Protestant…
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Christian Humanism was a Renaissance movement that combined a revived interest in the nature of humanity with the Christian faith. It impacted art, changed the focus of religious scholarship, shaped personal spirituality, and helped encourage the Protestant Reformation.

The Renaissance & Humanism

The word 'renaissance' literally means rebirth. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Europe experienced a rebirth of Greco-Roman culture, which had died out centuries before. Historians call this time period of rebirth, the Renaissance. This Renaissance included a renewed interest in Greco-Roman texts, a rekindled love of learning, an increased interest in understanding the natural world, and the philosophy of humanism.

Humanism is an optimistic outlook emphasizing the goodness and success of humanity. Before the Renaissance, Christian Europeans often viewed humanity as sinful creatures who needed to be constantly mindful of their souls. During this new period of rebirth, however, there was much more emphasis on the goodness of God's creation and the talents and skills God had granted humanity.

The Northern Renaissance & Christian Humanism

The Renaissance started in Italy, which had always been very aware of its Greco-Roman heritage. As the movement migrated north into places such as England, Germany, and Scandinavia, however, some of the Greco-Roman aspects were downplayed. Instead, there was much more emphasis on the understanding of Christianity, particularly early Christianity. What happened in the north is known as the Northern Renaissance, and its version of humanism became known as Christian Humanism.

In Christianity, Jesus is understood to have both mortal and divine aspects to his being. Before the Renaissance, Christian teachings focused primarily on the spiritual and divine aspects of their belief: Jesus as divine, miracles, salvation, damnation, and so on. During the Northern Renaissance, however, there was much more focus on Jesus the mortal man, including his teachings, relationships, and experiences culminating with his execution via crucifixion. This ultimately affected many different aspects of religious life in northern Europe.

One of the results of this focus on Jesus's mortal aspects was artwork that emphasized the physical and emotional pain associated with the crucifixion. Previously, images of his death were primarily about salvation through sacrifice, and artists depicted Jesus peacefully slumped over, as if he was sleeping. Artists influenced by Christian Humanism, however, often depicted Jesus tightly twisted in agony. Those witnessing his death are shown as wrought with grief rather than reflecting on the joy of salvation.

The Protestant Reformation & Christian Humanism

A movement known as Modern Devotion grew up around a book called The Imitation of Christ, published in the 15th century. Rather than focusing on the rituals of the Catholic Church, The Imitation of Christ focused on how Jesus lived his life and how believers could embrace his teachings in everyday living by being pious, humble, obedient, and charitable.

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