At the center of the Renaissance was man, expressing his idolatry of self in humanism—the non-gospel alternative to medieval Europe. The Renaissance (French: re– ‘back, again’ + naissance ‘birth’) boasted a kind of “rebirth” that promised hope in itself. To a very large degree, this rebirth was itself the celebration. But rebirth, revival, or renewal speaks of an action and not a substance. What was being reborn in the Renaissance? This more important matter is concerned with the substance of rebirth, not merely the idea. For instance, the rebirth of a philosophical disease could hardly warrant a celebratory movement. What should be celebrated in the Renaissance? To state it plainly, the Renaissance acknowledged a true need for change but had not the means for true change. The rebirth of man's world would require the rebirth of man himself, and man cannot rebirth himself.
The Renaissance came largely in response to the deep decadence of a culture reaping the corruptions of the medieval Roman Catholic Church that had forgotten the Gospel. Its movement was roughly from A.D. 1350 to 1650 and its flare was a new interest in humanity by going back to the ideas that once were—before Christianity. The works of ancient Roman thinkers, like Cicero, and ancient Greek thinkers, like Aristotle, were everywhere being revived. Originally it was a reawakening to the ancient philosophers and their philosophies.
The renown Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, considered to be the "prince of humanists," had an overly optimistic vision of a "golden age" of peace through the renewal of learning. This is not very different from our day, where education is championed as the prince of peace and the savior of the world. The fatal flaw in both Erasmus and the thinking of our day is the failure to prize truth. Revival of deceptive ideas is deadly—so revival in and of itself is no ground for hope. Education imparts knowledge, even if that knowledge consists of erroring opinions and is riddled with untruths. So, education in and of itself is no ground for hope. Whereas Erasmus once boldly declared, "I believe I see a golden age dawning in the near future," at the end of his life, he sadly despaired that his age was "the worst century since Jesus Christ." The Renaissance offered no real hope for humanity.
But the even greater blunder of the Renaissance is found in its drunken assumptions about the inherent goodness of man and the authoritative powers of his reasoning. What was altogether assumed was that if man is given the right information, he will make the right choice. This is a tragic misinterpretation of human nature. (See Man)
The Renaissance gloried in the Renaissance, with no ambition larger than man.
The greatest hope the Renaissance offered was a return to the past, on the one hand, and an engrossment of self in the present, on the other.
No one thinks in a vacuum. Every thinker is in some measure a product of his time. [Left to ourselves, we would be victims of an unending sequence of evolving influences. Humanity would ride on meandering philosophies without any true goal or ultimate purpose to pursue.] But this does not preclude interjection by God. In ancient times, such a divine interjection more typically involved new revelation. But since the final revelation of God for this last age has come in the coming of Christ and has been substantiated in the apostolic era, new revelation of new thought is no longer the means of God’s interjection. Instead of new revelation, the Reformation is marked by a return to the revelation of Christ in the Scriptures. It is true that every thinker is in some measure a product of his time, but God can and does take products of historical development and use them as instruments of His providence to change the course of history. The Reformation marks such a course-change through the divine interjection of the Gospel—a rediscovery of truth that had been obscured by the meandering philosophies and purposes of man. Sacred Scripture—the very written Word of God—was the ancient source that the Renaissance stumbled across in its gay pursuit of learning. What it didn’t anticipate was the power of the Scriptures when ignited by the Spirit of the living God.
Those who assume that the Reformation was the product of the Renaissance fail to appreciate their inherent differences and the spiritual realities behind them.
There is great irony in the comparison of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Renaissance stood for a kind of “rebirth” yet it produced no real and lasting change in the heart of man. The irony is that this is precisely what the Reformation brought about—a real and lasting change in the heart of man that impacted the world. The Renaissance boasted the slogan, ad fontes—“to the sources.” And that is precisely what marks the Reformation. Not Renaissance thinking, but a return to the very source of Christianity—Christ in the Scriptures. Again, irony is seen in that while the Renaissance was interested in returning to man-centered ideas, the Reformation was marked by a return to a God-centered worldview. Yes, both were returning to the sources, but the differences in their sources led to opposite conclusions. Here we seem to observe a divine play on words.
The Reformation moved in a radically different intellectual direction from the Renaissance philosophers … and from medieval philosophy as well.
(John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 168)
The Renaissance, in its humanism, placed great emphasis on the individual. The Reformation had its own new emphasis on the individual, an emphasis that would understand the Gospel as a personal interchange between God and man. The irony is seen in that both demonstrate a focus on the individual, yet with opposite centers of gravity. The Renaissance found man’s worth apart from God compelling; the Reformation found man’s worth derived from God as more compelling.
Unlike the Renaissance, the Reformation glories in God and not in the Reformation. The Reformation is celebrated to make much of Christ, not the Reformation. The Renaissance had over a hundred years to achieve its goal, yet Geneva’s motto Post tenebras spero lucem (“After darkness I hope for light”) was not changed by the Renaissance. It was the Reformation that changed a dark world hoping for light into a world that could now say, Post tenebras lux—“After darkness light!” The Reformation teaches us to live for the glory of God and that in Him alone do we find true and lasting purpose, fulfillment, and happiness. True rebirth from the source—for God’s glory and man’s joy—that’s much more than the Renaissance could offer, and much more than revolution could accomplish. That’s the grace of God as rediscovered in the Reformation (See A Unique Providence). May we steward it well.