Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Theology, Renaissance

  • Gianluca De CandiaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_1047-1


Renaissance theology is characterized by a profound demand for renewal that affects both academic theology and the theology pursued outside theological faculties.

In the fifteenth century, alongside the two greatest currents of scholastic theology, Thomism and Scotism (the via antiqua), Ockhamism (the via moderna) becomes more and more significant. The latter argues for a clear separation between metaphysics (as the science of being) and theology (as a practical science) and reaffirms the primacy of divine will (potentia absoluta Dei) over every effort of natural reason. In the early Renaissance, theological Ockhamism, as well as the Scotist notion of distinctio formalis, would give rise to a kind of hypothetical and formal theology. This “degeneration” of theological hermeneutics would contribute to a widespread demand for unification and essentiality that emerges, though in different ways and different degrees, in the movements of spiritual renewal, in the Platonic theology, in the project of biblical humanism, and in the Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s thesis of justification by grace through faith goes hand in hand with a radical mistrust of man’s natural forces and thus of reason. Against Luther’s antimetaphysical prohibition, the Catholic Church responds with a renewed return to scholasticism (second scholasticism), first by the Dominicans and then the Jesuits. A certain continuity between the natural order of reason and the supernatural order of faith, between metaphysics and revealed theology, is reestablished in the Disputationes Metaphysicae of Francisco Suarez (1548–1617). Returning to Scotist teachings, Suarez identifies the appropriate object of metaphysics with the concept of ens (as genuinely transcendens), in which both infinite being (God) and finite being are comprised, each according to its own order. The Disputationes would not only be imported into the reformed Schulmetaphysik that distanced itself from Luther’s skepticism about natural reason but would also contribute to the birth of modern ontology itself.

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

In the long period of time that goes under the name of Renaissance (1350–1650), theology goes through a season of extraordinary richness and complexity. The historical-political scenario that brings about and influences the different paths traveled by theological reflection in these three centuries is marked by a climate of uncertainty and radical novelties. The period opens with the great epidemic of plague which, between 1347 and 1353, exterminates almost one-third of the European population, and it is marked by the crisis of unity affecting the major late-medieval institutions (the monarchies and the Church), which will lead to the affirmation of the national states, to the failure of reconciliation attempts between the Eastern Church and Western Church, and to the division between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches.

Even the boundaries of the known world change: if the fall of Constantinople, in 1453, marks a setback in the expansion to the East, the discovery of America (1492) opens new possibilities to the West and gives rise to an extraordinary season of exploratory journeys around the globe. The contacts with the East would then find new vigor not only through the reports from these journeys but also through the work of the missionaries of the newborn Company of Jesus (approved by Pope Paul III in 1540 with the bull Regimini militantis ecclesiae), whose writings would bring to Europe the echo of those distant worlds.

There are also many cultural factors that helped shape the various faces of Renaissance theology. Some of them are, so to speak, internal to school theology itself, others refer to religious practice, and others relate to important cultural innovations which, although not originating in theological reflection sensu stricto, changed it profoundly. Think, for example, of the transformation of scholastic theology from the via antiqua to the via moderna; the need for renewal expressed by the devotio moderna (fourteenth to fifteenth centuries); the explosion of mysticism on German (fourteenth), Flemish (fifteenth), Spanish (sixteenth), and French (seventeenth) ground; the troubled events in the Papacy and Roman Curia ending with the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation; the humanists’ philological claims; the rediscovery of Plato and the Neoplatonists; the cosmological rethinking by Copernicus and Galileo (in sharp discontinuity with the Aristotelian physics); and the resulting challenge of forming a scientific method.

To properly grasp the movements of Renaissance theology, it is therefore necessary to abandon historiographical schemes that are excessively neat, whether from a chronological or from a disciplinary point of view. In fact, the relationship between the Late Middle Ages and the Humanist-Renaissance era is much better understood as “continuity in discontinuity” and “discontinuity in continuity” (Leinkauf 2017, 17) than as the clear fracture that has long been depicted in historiography. This is the criterion that should be applied to both areas where theological discourse takes place during Renaissance: inside the universities and studia generalia of religious orders and outside the traditional academic institutions, that is, in the intellectuals’ philosophical-theological writings.

In the Renaissance, the scholae remain the privileged centers for teaching and studying theology and, by virtue of that role, the place of continuity with respect to tradition. Yet they themselves will become the place of renewed debates and the necessary condition for the revival of scholastic theology, as the case of Salamanca demonstrates. And similarly on the other side, the novatores will place themselves in clear discontinuity with the formalism and the verbositas of scholastic disputes but nevertheless will continue to use and to be inspired by that same scholastic theology, whose contents and images date back to the Church Fathers. It should be remembered, furthermore, that in the Renaissance, theology, philosophy, and textual criticism (and also the natural sciences) were not disciplines studied and practiced by distinct people. Not infrequently, Renaissance intellectuals were dealing with many of these areas simultaneously. Therefore, a novelty introduced in philosophical, literary-critical, or scientific fields had unavoidable repercussions on theological thought and vice versa. Any historian of Renaissance theology must take into account these interactions.

The task of providing a brief introductory summary inevitably implies some choices. Here the two major focal points will be (1) the theology of the schools (universities and the studia generalia of religious orders) as a clear example of a “break” in continuity and (2) innovative aspects of theology developed outside the schools and their influence on “institutional” theology.

School Theology Between Via Antiqua and Via Moderna

As far as the province of university theology is concerned, between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the two great lines of scholastic theology, Thomism and Scotism, continue (the via antiqua). At the same time, the so-called via moderna – that is, the theology that harks back to the teaching of William Ockham (1285–1347) – is establishing itself in an ever more significant way (D’Onofrio 1995). In opposition to the via antiqua – that is, to the “way” of a realism of universals ante rem – according to Ockham, universal names represent determinations that are purely conceptual (De Libera 1999). According to the princeps nominalium, therefore, universal names imply nothing about the existence or nonexistence of anything: the concept is thus reduced to a logical element (signum), to a “name” which points to reality only by virtue of convention. This rejection of the reality of universals on a metaphysical level introduces a situation of uncertainty that no longer has to do merely with the gnoseological realm but that also affects moral principles and extends even to the realm of soteriology (Oakley 1961; 2002).

As far as the constitution of theology is concerned, with Ockham, the Thomist conception of theology as a science – already criticized by Scotus (1265–1308) – is brought to a crisis. Against the Thomist attempt to adapt a definition of theology to the Aristotelian concept of science, Scotus redefines both the distinction between metaphysics (speculative science) and theology (practical science) and their relationship: metaphysics provides theology with the subject it needs, the infinite entity, which it can give a philosophical demonstration. Conversely, according to Ockham, who radicalizes Scotus’s positions, philosophy is the science of being and is based on reason and experience (speculative science), while theology is the science of God and is based on revelation and therefore on Sacred Scripture (practical science). In contrast to what Scotus affirms, therefore, Ockham declares that the conceptual representation required by theology does not derive from metaphysics but only from revelation. The clear separation between the two different orders of knowledge brings theological discourse to place greater emphasis on the primacy of Scripture and consequently to focus on the unfathomable and absolute divine will. This last doctrinal aspect will have an immense influence in Renaissance Ockhamism – as demonstrated by the extensive discussions dedicated to the theme of potentia absoluta Dei (Oberman 1960). The reasons which led Ockham to detach theology decisively from the essentialism and intellectualism native to the Greek-Arabic Peripatetic tradition, and to valorize, consequently, a version of the absolute power of God verging on pure arbitrariness, can be identified in an event which marked a real turning point in late-medieval theological debate.

In 1277, Bishop Tempier of Paris, with the help of a commission of theologians he established, condemned any mingling of theology with Peripatetic determinism (Hisette 1977; Piché et al. 1999). The Aristotelian vision of the God-world relationship, in fact, imposed a necessitarianism incompatible with the Christian doctrine of God as free Creator of the world and consequently set a limit to God’s omnipotence. Aware of these problems, Duns Scotus first proposed a redefinition of the logically possible (and consequently of the Aristotelian relationship between necessity and contingency) in the light of which the status of essences was redefined. In this way he managed to interrupt the millennium-long tradition that had necessarily linked these eternal models of reality – i.e., essences – with the divine intellect (Hintikka 1973; Knuuttila 1981). Furthermore, by retrieving the distinction between potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta – actually already (Courtenay 1990) present in a number of twelfth-century debates – Scotus restores the divine will’s priority over the intellect, rendering it meaningless to search for any foundation for divine action prior to the divine decision itself.

Ockham, for his part, radicalizes Scotus’s position. The distinction between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata, derived from legal language, does not indicate two distinct powers in God but only two modi loquendi about the same object: divine omnipotence. While for Duns Scotus, God’s power has a limit, and this is the principle of noncontradiction, for Ockham the potentia absoluta Dei is bound by no principle or rational order. It follows that all things are contingent: God might have created them differently from how they are, or He might not have created them at all, and He may change them at any time – and this is what happens in the case of miracles. This position, which draws inspiration from an Augustinian background, would lead Ockham to deny any natural moral law, which depends rather on the free creative will of God only, as well as any rigid causal determination of Aristotelian provenance. By denying the assumption according to which there are necessary links between contingent things, therefore, Ockham establishes the premises for the overcoming of Aristotelian physics, eventually leading to the development of the new Copernican scientific paradigm (Grant 1996).

Ockhamism had a great influence through the seventeenth century. Two of its fundamental theological theses, defended in various ways, would be the strong limitation of the reason’s cognitive ability when faced with the questions of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul and the development of a conception of the divine will which is so absolute that it verges on arbitrariness, with repercussions in the area of justification and grace. In this connection one may think of the positions of Gabriel Biel, Martin Luther’s master (Hägglund 1955; Oberman 1987; Murphy 1979; Crucius 1989). The relationship between divine omnipotence and human freedom would be a central issue throughout the Renaissance, not only within the currents of Ockhamism but also in the humanistic theology that placed itself in open controversy with the special jargon of the schools (see Will, Free). From this point of view, it can be seen how Nominalism anticipates the “human anxiety in the face of the world” (Blumenberg 1974, 175) that would be a distinctive trait of Renaissance thought.

During the early Renaissance, Ockham’s positions about language – that is, the analysis of a term’s meaning through its properties (virtus sermonis) – and about potentia absoluta Dei, as well as the same distinctio formalis proposed by Duns Scotus, would progressively tend to develop autonomously, giving rise to a hypothetical theology that is attentive to the distinctions and to the formal aspect of theological argumentation (Dettloff 1954). A deep discomfort about this theological formalism was felt both inside the theological faculties (Piana 1977) and outside them, by the “humanists” (so called in order to distinguish them from those occupied with the studia divinitatis and the other disciplines proper to the scholae, namely, Law and Medicine). This aversion of the intellectuals outside the university toward the abstract formalism of the scholastic “quaestiunculae” and “disceptatiuncule” dates back, on closer inspection, to the time of Petrarch (1304–1374). It should also be said that the humanists’ aversion is often directed more toward degenerations of the scholastic method than toward scholasticism itself. Think, for example, of the Encomium sancti Thomae Aquinatis by Lorenzo Valla (Mesnard 1955) or of Erasmus’s harsh criticisms of the Nominalists and Scotists, who had reduced a doctrine worthy of being taught with seriousness to vaniloqium (Margolin 1979). The novatores’ demand would be, instead, to find new answers to the traditional theological problems, in order to translate theological knowledge into a language more appropriate to the emerging bourgeois mercantile and financial class, for which the schools’ theological elaboration was too technical and distant from life.

Protestant Reform and Second Scholasticism

In the province of school theology, starting from the fifteenth century, one sees a revival of scholasticism, which was able to take up once again the themes most dear to the medieval masters without betraying the achievements of humanistic culture, namely, the centrality of the subject, the attention to the sources, and the revaluation of contingency and history. In this regard, as E. Lewalter has said, “Humanism enters the schools, becomes ‘scholastic,’ or – what is the same thing – the tradition of the schools (scholasticism) becomes humanist” (Lewalter 1935). Along with the humanistic renewal, the second decisive factor contributing to the revival of scholasticism was the historical and political crisis of Catholic universalism.

The exhortation to unity in the Church is in fact one of the constantly recurring themes of the time, as already testified in Petrarch’s letter to Pope Urban VI, dated to 1366, wishing for a return of the Holy See to Rome (Epistolae Variae, 3). The effort – ultimately vain – of restoring unity between Eastern and Western Churches would be the dominant theme of theological debates taking place around the Councils of Constance (1414–1418), Basel (1431), and Ferrara-Firenze (1438–1449) and until the summoning of the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517). Only a few months after the closing of this Council, on 31 October 1517, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther makes public his 95 theses centering on the issue of indulgences, unleashing a debate (with implications on the political and financial planes) that would give rise to the Protestant Reformation. It is a dramatic event, marking a turning point in European culture and in theological debate.

Luther studied theology under the auspices of late-scholastic Ockhamism (Dieter 2001), but after taking over the chair of biblical exegesis at Wittenberg (1512), he placed himself in sharp disagreement with the metaphysically Pelagian way of thinking about the relationship between God and man. Against the scholastic’s theologia gloriae, which wanted to understand the glory of God from the horizon of being and creation, Luther builds his own theologia crucis, founded on the Augustinian antagonism between sin and justice. Justification cannot be made either by the law – as already in St. Paul – or by works. This is the premise of what would become the real point of doctrinal rupture with Latin theology: justification by grace through faith (sola fide, sola gratia, sola Scriptura, solus Christus crucifixus, soli Deo gloria). If human nature is so corrupt as to be unable to make itself worthy of grace by its natural powers, reason would be likewise incapable of knowing God. Luther believes the radicalization of the fracture between reason and faith to be necessary in order to restore absolute primacy to faith in revelation. The need to bring the Church back to the essence of the evangelical faith (sola Scriptura) would lead him to reject the Catholic system of ontological and sacramental mediation and to affirm the subjective immediacy of the relationship between the believer and God.

To this crisis, Roman theology reacts by reaffirming the primacy of tradition and the magisterium for a correct interpretation of the Bible (apologetical and controversistic theology) and further reasserts the congruence of revealed faith with natural reason (the praeambula fidei) (Buzzi 2000). According to the Aristotelian-Thomist canon. It should also be noted that in the debates within the Protestant milieu – already beginning with Melanchthon, in the wake of Erasmus – a more conciliatory tendency would develop with respect to the relationship between Christianity’s reasonableness and rational analysis (Melanchthon, De loci communes rerum theologicarum, 1521; De dialectica, 1528; Erotemata dialectices, 1547); it would lead to a recovery of scholasticism in the reformed context as well. With the reform of studies undertaken by Melanchthon, indeed, the form of disputation comes to be standard in almost all reformed universities (Paulsen 1919).

At the time of the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and afterward, there is, therefore, a theological return to the medieval scholasticism of the twelfth century. This development is given the name “second scholasticism”; it should be kept in mind that it runs parallel to the other trends of thought mentioned above (the revivals of Platonism, Augustinianism, and Averroism or Alexandrian Aristotelianism). Catholic second scholasticism rises in Spain. It had been anticipated by Dominican scholasticism, but it finds renewed impulse among the representatives of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, and spreads swiftly to Germany and Central and Northern Europe as well as the wider world (Africa, India, Japan, China, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Canada). This new trend in the philosophy of the schools, therefore, enters not only into Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Catholic institutions (Alcalà, Coimbra, and Padua) but also into those in Belgium (Leuven) and to the large universities dominated by the Reform (Altdorf, Basel, Heidelberg, Leipzig, and, in Holland, Leida, and Haarlem) – giving rise in the latter to an interesting academic exchange between Lutheran and Calvinist philosophers and Aristotelianism of Catholic and Jesuit provenance (Eschweiler 1928).

A good example of the two tendencies of post-Tridentine theological scholasticism is the controversy that arose between Spanish Dominicans and Jesuits about the problem of the foundation of theology as a science. The controversy began with Melchior Cano (1509–1560). While fully aware of the Counter-Reformist orientation advocated by the Council of Trent, which he attended, he disputes the possibility of founding theology on the data of natural reason. In his De loci theologici Canus, Melchior. 1563, indeed, Cano reverses the order of priority between philosophical praeambula and theological assumptions, denying any pretension of being able to found theology on rational arguments. Theological argumentation should instead start from the data revealed and transmitted by tradition and the magisterium of the Church (which represent the first eight of ten loci theologici he defined), in order later to add philosophical questions having to do with natural reason and history. If on one hand Cano wants to emphasize the autonomy of theological reason with respect to philosophical, by the same token, he risks presenting the data of revelation without regard to natural reason – exactly as Luther himself sought to do. It is precisely to overcome such a consequence that Jesuit scholasticism attempts to establish, in various guises, a renewed synthesis between metaphysics and revealed theology in order to uphold the continuity between the natural order and the theological order (or the order of grace). For instance, according to Benito Pereira (1535–1610), as well as Pedro de Fonseca (1528–1599), the texts of Aristotle remain the philosophical manual for students of theology. But, above all, the Disputationes Metaphysicae by Francisco Suarez (1548–1617) – designed as a propaedeutic course in philosophy for his theology students – represents a truly complete refiguring of the relationship between metaphysics and theology.

One of the great elements of novelty which would make this Spanish theologian the initiator of the modern form of metaphysical thought (Esposito 1995; Hoenen 1998) is his resumption and reinterpretation of Scotus’s univocity of being (Honnefelder 1990), with which he distances himself from Thomas’s conception of being as absolute perfection and act. Suarez argues instead for a conceptus simplicissimum of being, namely, a general concept of being (ens in quantum ens) that includes both infinite being (God) and finite being (the totality of entities), each according to its own order (ordinate). This decision radically redefines the relations between metaphysics and theology: from the doctrinal point of view, revealed theology is the point from which the philosophical search starts and to which it is directed; from the methodological point of view, it is metaphysics that establishes the ontological order within theology.

In response to Luther’s distrust about the possibility of reaching God through the created order, Suarez thus identifies in the concept of ens (as true transcendens) the key that allows him to translate the truth of revelation into an ontological language in such a way that revelation coincides with the very order of nature. This, so to speak, “neutral” character of Suarez’s ontology – engaged with nothing but the purest essential constitution of being – will make it fruitful far beyond the Catholic milieu (Grabmann 1926; Freedman 1984; Esposito 2007). The Disputationes in fact became not only a theology manual for Jesuit students but also one of the most used manuals in Protestantism, which found in it a neutral or indifferent conception of being more compatible than that of Thomism with the native theology (Courtine 1990; Lamanna 2011, 2012).

Innovative and Original Aspects

Renaissance theology is characterized by a profound demand for renovatio, affecting the theology of the schools, the movements of spiritual renewal (devotio moderna and Frömmigkeitstheologie), the new Platonic theology, the philological hermeneutics of Sacred Scriptures, the Protestant Reformation, and the Roman Church’s reaction to it.

What is characteristic of the renovatio theologica in each of these realms is the meaning given, time and time again, to the “return ad fontes,” namely, the recuperation of a perfect past whose rebirth is somehow sought in the present. The guiding inspiration for this rebirth changes from occasion to occasion: Plato and the Neoplatonists; the pagan classics; a new way of interpreting Aristotle or the masters of medieval scholasticism (Thomas, Scotus, Ockham); original documents (including the Bible); the Fathers of the Church; or the evangelical radicalism of early Christians.

Alongside the problem of the relationship between divine freedom and omnipotence, which has already been discussed, the following are examples of the most innovative aspects of theological discussion outside the schools: the concept of a prisca theologia, the problem of the immortality of the soul, and the philological criticism of the Bible and ancient documents. Not a few of these novelties from outside the academic environment would also affect in various ways the speculations of professional theologians.

Platonic Theology and Prisca Theologia

To those who have thought of the Renaissance as an era of the liberation of reason from its theological dependencies, it may perhaps seem paradoxical that at its beginning there is the fascination exerted by the myths of an ancient Eastern mystery religion (Toussaint 2003). In fact, one of the distinctive elements of Renaissance humanist culture is the search for the ancient wisdom with the help of which it was held to be possible for people to come into direct relationship with the divinity (Hankins 1990). This tendency is in part reinforced by the rebirth of Platonism, which profoundly marks the whole spiritual climate of philosophy and, more generally, of European culture itself (Vasoli 1995b).

Plato’s entry into Renaissance philosophy has to be attributed first of all to the material arrival of the Platonic writings, previously unknown in the West (except for the Meno, the Phaedo, and the Timaeus), with the Byzantine experts who came to Europe with the Patriarch of Constantinople John VII Palaeologus on the occasion of the Ecumenical Council of Ferrara and Florence proclaimed by Pope Eugene IV (1438–1439). It stems, secondly, from the birth of the Platonic Academy in Florence, an extremely important center of studies, translations, and relationships brought about by Cosimo de’ Medici (1462) and strongly influenced by the contribution of Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499).

Therefore, who is rediscovered in fifteenth-century Florence is not the Plato of the fourth-century B.C. Athenian Academy but the Plato studied in Byzantium and already strongly characterized by Neoplatonic interpretations like those of Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus. Interestingly, this reception of Plato, mediated by the Byzantines, once inside the Renaissance academies, assumes a completely different profile and scope. A prime example is the historical reconstruction of Platonic thought made by Ficino, to whom we owe, among other things, the first complete Latin translation of the works of Plato (as well as translations of the works of many Neoplatonists, including Plotinus).

In his reconstruction of the development of this ancient human-divine wisdom (Plotini Epitomae, Proemium), Ficino almost totally neglects to mention the contribution of Byzantine philosophy. He identifies its birth, by divine revelation, in ancient Egypt. It then goes through Pythagoras and Plato to Christ and, thanks to the mediation of the Neoplatonic philosophers, comes to the Fathers of the Church and to Dionysius, and from these it reaches the representatives of its fifteenth-century rebirth. The reconstruction provided by Ficino, who showed himself well aware of being the heir and protagonist of this wisdom, provides a good example of what philosophy was meant to be in this age: a divine wisdom underlying the entire history of thought and bringing philosophy and religion together (prisca theologia). In fact, to Ficino the origin of philosophy is an illumination of the human mind by a real divine revelation that has shone the light of a single truth throughout the world, although along paths that are often hidden and in need of unveiling. That truth is the presupposition and the unitary summit of both philosophical and religious wisdom (Garin 1947).

And that is why Ficino, to describe such a wisdom, adopts the terms “docta religio” (learned religion) and “pia philosophia” (pious philosophy): his ambition, in the wake of Plato, is to bring these to fulfillment. He speaks of the possibility of reestablishing an agreement between the via philosophica and the via sacerdotia to the truth (as he writes in a letter to Martino Uranio in 1489), both based on a single sapientia or on the supreme value of amor and charitas (Beierwaltes 1978).

This work of restoration of Platonism, understood as praeparatio evangelica, culminates with his Theologia platonica de immortalitate animorum published in 1482. In this work he harmonizes the doctrines of Plato, Plotinus, and Proclus, as well as of the Corpus hermeticum, with doctrines derived from Aristotle, Thomas, and Bonaventure. The result is an ontological-metaphysical structure of reality subdivided into degrees, where a central role is played by the human soul with its spiritual and cognitive vicissitudes.

The universal concord between Platonic and Christian wisdom is also the dominant note in the reflections of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494). Familiar with both Arabic and scholastic Aristotelianism and a reader of Proclus and Iamblichus (in Ficino’s translations) as well as the works of the Fathers of the Church, Pico would appropriate the interpretative method of Jewish mysticism (the Cabala), with the intent of demonstrating the convergence between the revelation contained in Sacred Scriptures and in Pythagorean and Neoplatonist wisdom (Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalisticae et theologicae, Mirandolensis 1486).

The myth of prisca theologia, born outside the theological faculties, would affect in various ways bold theologians such as Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) – who reprises with great originality terms derived from different traditions in order to show the original unity and infinity of everything – as much as it would affect the work of stricter apologists for Catholic doctrine who were committed to countering the Protestant Reformation. Think, for example, of the idea of perennis philosophia promoted by the Augustinian Agostino Steuco (1542), who was concerned to show how the theological positions newly contested by the Reformation were really an inheritance of ancient wisdom that arrived at its full completion with Catholic teaching. Traces of a universal concordism among Neoplatonic-Stoic wisdom, Judaism, and Christianity are also present in the work of the Franciscan Francesco Zorzi (1466–1540), the Augustinian Egidio Canisio da Viterbo (1469–1532), and the regular canon Agostino Steuco (ca. 1497–1548) and would inspire the De vera philosophia of Cardinal Adriano Castellesi (1507).

The Immortality of the Soul

The theme of the soul, so central in Platonic theology, provides an interesting vehicle for capturing many new aspects, not only of the Renaissance theology that refers back to Aristotelianism but also of the Frömmigkeitstheologie (Hamm 1982) that develops outside the schools (in the devotio moderna, in the phenomenon of mysticism, in Catholic figurative art).

A lively debate about the immortality of the soul arises between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Factors of both historical and cultural kinds contribute to its rise. Among the historical events that came together to reignite the eschatological demand, one must remember both the Black Plague (1347–1353), with its subsequent epidemic waves all over Europe, and the crisis of medieval monarchies, which had created a state of general insecuritas. A trace of this can be found, for example, in the sermons of many preachers of the fifteenth century (Girolamo Savonarola, Giacomo della Marca, Bernardino de’ Busti, Michele Carcano, Gabriele Barletta), who reserved a great deal of space for the problem of death and the destiny of the soul. The two cultural factors that contributed to fueling the discussion were the discovery, on the one hand, of Platonism and Neoplatonism and, on the other hand, of the ancient Greek commentators on Aristotle, in particular Alexander of Aphrodisias. The arrival of these traditions increased the number of possible philosophical solutions to the problem of the immortality of the soul: Neoplatonists in the area of Florence, headed by Marsilio Ficino, maintained the immortality of the soul and its superiority over the body, considering it to be a middle term in the conjunction between the intelligible and sensible worlds (copula mundi). Alexandrists – those who related their thinking to Alexander of Aphrodisias – affirmed the mortality of human soul and that only the intellectus agens (God) was immortal. Averroists – who defended instead the Aristotelian commentary developed by Averroes – claimed that there were two separate and immortal intellects, the possible intellect and the agent intellect, in which all humans shared (Sgarbi 2014). The main place of confrontation between the positions of Alexandrists and Averroists was the University of Padua (Kristeller 1990).

A testimony of the importance of this debate, in which interpretations contrary to Catholic teaching on the immortality of the individual soul were espoused, is the edict of 4 May 1489, issued by Pietro Barozzi, Bishop of Padua, with the help of the commission of the theologians he established (Martino da Lendinara and Antonio Trombetta), in which it was forbidden to hold public disputes (publice disputare) about the immortality of the soul.

Despite this ban, Averroism would continue to have in Padua its avowed followers: Marcantonio Zimara (ca. 1470–1537), Tiberio Bacilieri, Pietro Trampolin (1451–1506), and Agostino Nifo (ca. 1473–ca. 1546). The fact that this interdict failed to prevent the professors of Padua University itself from continuing to teach Averroist doctrines in schools (Nardi 1958), and that Platonic theses continued to circulate in universities outside the diocese of Padua, is demonstrated by the fact that years later the Roman Curia, with the seal of Pope Leo X, issued the bull Apostolici regiminis sollicitudo (19 December 1513). In this papal document, the Catholic doctrine of the individual immortality of the soul was reaffirmed, and the theses of those who claimed the identity of the human intellect for the entire species, the mortality of the individual soul, and the eternity of the world were condemned. The philosophers are then urged to clarify their doctrines according to the truth of the Catholic magisterium and, as far as possible, to try to show the agreement of the latter with philosophy. As has been observed (Grendler 2002), this last assertion reveals that not all members of the theological commission appointed to write up the bull considered it possible to demonstrate philosophically all the truths believed by faith – particularly the immortality of the soul. This is attested by the presence on the commission of the Dominican Tommaso de Vio, who in both his commentary to Aristotle’s De anima (1510) and in his Parabolae Salomonis (1542) asserts the philosophical indemonstrability of the immortality of the soul.

The same thesis was strongly supported by Pietro Pomponazzi in his De immortalitate animae (1516). Pomponazzi states that the interpretation of Aristotle given by Thomas cannot be maintained, since for the Stagirite the intellectual soul always needs the body and therefore is, like the body, essentially mortal. The publication of this text aroused sharp controversy. The first to rebut the position of Pomponazzi was his former disciple Gasparo Contarini (1483–1542), a Venetian patrician, later destined to become the greatest personality of the Catholic reform movement (Sgarbi 2004; D’Onofrio, 445ss.). Pomponazzi would answer with an Apologia (1518) presenting his answers to Contarini and other opponents (Ambrogio Fiandino and Vincenzo Colzade). The controversy would begin again after the De immortalitatae animae libellus adversus Petrum Pomponacium (1518) by Nifo (Blum 2007).

The fact that the destiny of the soul was a crucial theme for Renaissance theology is also clear from its persistence in Catholic figurative art (Panofsky 1962). In fact what is accomplished by, to give only one example, Michelangelo Buonarroti in the Giudizio universale (1536–1541) is a “theology in pictures,” influenced by the preaching of Giles of Viterbo (1469–1532) and guided by a precise iconographic program previously elaborated in the theology of Sixtus IV. Thus papal patronage early on, and Counter-Reformation preaching later, attempted to make the pattern of the Catholic doctrine of immortality available to the widest possible audience. During and after the Council of Trent, this led to a pictorial translation of the official doctrine. Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1538–1584), author of an important treatise on sacred architecture, and Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti were crucial figures for the politics of the image in this era (Verdon and Hendersson 1990).

The problem of the soul returns to the forefront in the famous controversy of Valladolid (1550–1551), which featured the opposing positions of the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484–1566) and of the jurist Juan Dinés de Spúlveda (1490–1573). The object of the dispute – commissioned by Charles V in order to legitimize himself in the face of the denunciation of abuses committed by the Spaniards toward the Native Americans – was to discuss the legal and spiritual nature of the indigenous people. The controversy about the presence of the soul and therefore about the natural rights of the Native Americans, which remained unresolved in Valladolid, had already received a definition in the papal bull Sublimis Deus (1537), by which Paul III recognized for the indigenous, as creatures of God and rational beings, the rights to property and to freedom. Only with Philip II, 20 years after the controversy, would the wars of conquest end and a process of pacification with the New World populations begin.

Soul is the protagonist of two other phenomena important for the theology developed outside the universities: that of the devotio moderna (fourteenth to fifteenth centuries through the seventeenth century’s Frömmigkeitstheologie) and that of mysticism (XIV–XVI). It is crucial that the care of the soul leads both these spiritual movements to amply value the body as well as, for example, in the “spiritual senses.” Catholic scholastic theology – which is a discourse (Logos) – “in fact lacked a body” (de Certeau 1982). There was, of course, the system of sacramental signs, which gave laymen access to a symbolic experience of mystery. Yet it was also heavily burdened by an apparatus of legal norms and directed by priestly mediation in an exclusive way. Secondly, ecclesiastical theology was the province of male religious orders. In spite of the substantial differences between devotio moderna and mysticism, each involves a renewal of theology in which women and the laity also become protagonists, and centrality is attributed to bodily immediacy. Among the mystics, that immediacy comes about through experiments with new expressive and symbolic languages in which visions, transverberations, and ecstasies are narrated; in the case of the Devotio moderna (which would be one of the preconditions of the Protestant Reformation; Kaufmann 2016; Lourdaux 1972; Stupperich 1967) through a direct reading of the Gospel, a valorization of sentiment and a concrete experience of charity (imitatio Christi) lived in the light of an imminent eschatology (praeparatio ad mortem).

Philological Criticism and Theology

With the renewal of the studia humanitatis, and therefore of the trivium, and with the increasing importance attributed to the value of philological criticism in understanding and translating classical texts, the approach to Sacred Scripture and patristic sources undergoes a significant change, throwing new light on their original meaning (Lorenzo Valla, Lefèvre d’Étaples, Erasmus). Against the technicality and the proliferation of meanings assumed by theological hermeneutics, the humanists looked for a single literal meaning capable of unifying the entire discourse.

Lorenzo Valla stood at the origin of a demand for returning to the original biblical text that would animate Erasmus – according to whom “theology without philology is not possible” – as much as it animated the vernacular translations of the Bible undertaken by the Frenchman Lefèvre d’Étaples and, on its basis, by the German Martin Luther. Valla was also the initiator of modern historical criticism.

The project of biblical humanism was essentially accomplished in two moments (Bedouelle 1989): at the beginning, the humanists worked to make glosses and philological improvements of the text, correcting single expressions or words, and even discovering misunderstandings in Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgata. In this direction lies Valla’s Collatio Novi Testamenti (Lorenzo Valla 1442–1443); its second improved version was edited by Erasmus in 1505 (Adnotationes in Novum Testamentum).

In a second phase, however, the original sense of the text was reestablished in the light of a translation of the sources from their original language. Here the humanists did not limit themselves to reestablishing the original version of Scripture but took care to recover the interpretation given to it by the Fathers. Indeed, if in the theology of the Middle Ages classical and patristic auctoritates were cited in a way that was directed toward the organization of the quaestiones, in the Renaissance, ancient sources instead represented indications of an alternative way of thinking (Buck 1968). It is therefore understandable why, in the Renaissance, there began a large wave of publications of the works of the Fathers, especially in Paris and Basel.

The critical and philological method promoted by humanism produced at least two results. On the one hand, it served to awaken the interest of official theology in biblical sources and refocused attention on the importance of translations and therefore on the need to study the original languages. Consider, for example, the Trinitarian debate between Catholic and Orthodox theologians which was a central issue of the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438–1439) concerning the historical and terminological questions related to the doctrine of the Filioque (Vasoli 1995a). Or consider the foundation of various colleges for teaching and learning ancient languages (like the Trilingual College of San Ildefonso de Alcala founded in 1502 by Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros, who created the famous Poliglotta Complutense, or the College of the Young Greeks commissioned by Papa Leo X in Rome), which eventually would lead to the establishment of instruction in Sacred Scripture in the process of clergy formation that the Council of Trent sanctioned. Finally, think of the creation of several critical editions of the Old and New Testaments, such as the Vulgata Clementina of 1592 and the Settanta of 1578.

On the other hand, philological method and its associated historical criticism greatly contributed to increasing skepticism about the claim to truthfulness of certain pillars of the Catholic religious edifice of the time. That happened, for example, when Valla demonstrated that the famous Donatio constantini – according to which Constantine I was said to have endowed Pope Silvester I and his successors with primacy not only over the patriarchates of the Orient but even over the Emperor himself – was a forgery (Valla 1517). De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione, ed. B. C. Coleman. (Yale 1922).

The emergence of skepticism concerning the actual value of religious assumptions is therefore in some respects a natural outcome of the critical maturation of the historical and philological methods, which would receive a new stimulus after the publication of the cosmological theses of a canon of the diocese of Warmia, Nicholas Copernicus. When in 1543 the six books of De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium appeared, there were no direct oppositions from the Roman Curia. With the nomination of the Dominican Gianmaria Tolosani (1470–1549) as Master of the Sacred Palace, some allegations directed against the Copernican theory began to appear, since it “contradicted the principles of Sacred Scripture” (De coelo et elementis, 1549). Years later, in 1615, another Dominican, Tommaso Caccini, would go to Rome to denounce the Copernicanism of Galileo Galilei. Galileo’s scientific discoveries required revision not only of the canons of Aristotelian cosmology but also of the scope ceded to biblical interpretation. Beyond the events of Galileo’s own biography (e.g., his repudiation of Copernicanism on 22 June 1633), the “Galilean affair” brings to center stage an interpretive question about the distinction between the language of nature (mathematics) and the language of faith (history) which would continue to animate the debate over the subsequent centuries.

Impact and Legacy

The Renaissance is an age in which theology is challenged on several fronts to redefine its position with respect to other disciplines: philosophy, textual criticism, and natural science. The confrontation between each of these areas and theological discourse bears fruits not yet mentioned (1). It is also true that these same disciplines, though in themselves autonomous with respect to theological themes, more and more come to define their own “modern” status in an essential confrontation with developments arising within theology itself (2).

1.1 One of the versions of Christian Neoplatonism that will have particular influence through the seventeenth century is that of Augustine, who was already a crucial author for Petrarch. Augustinian gnoseological themes return, in fact, not only in Blaise Pascal (Wills 2012) but also in Cartesianism, especially in Nicolas Malebranche doctrine of ideas (Gori 2007). Augustine’s dialectic of sin and grace – which runs through the entire Renaissance, from Luther to the famous controversy de auxiliis between Jesuits and Dominicans – would continue in German Pietism and Jansenism. The latter, initially developed in Belgium and the Netherlands, had its core in the Cistercian Abbey of Port-Royal of Paris, where Blaise Pascal (+1623) and Antoine Arnauld (+1694) – brother of Mère Angélique, the monastery’s abbess (Sainte-Beuve 1871) – worked. Traces of a universal concordism in religious matters, peculiar to Renaissance Platonism, can be found in Pascal, who founds his Christian apologetics more on the hope of truth than on the presumption of acquiring irrefutable certainty. And those traces appear even more clearly in the “rational religion” proposed by Cambridge Platonism, whose religious and philosophical syncretism has its explicit sources in the Augustinian tradition and in the resumption of Renaissance Neoplatonic themes.

1.2 The philological attention to the New Testament inaugurated by Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus would encourage many editions of the Bible between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Particularly worth mentioning are the works of Johann Jakob Wettstein (1693–1754), who begins modern textual criticism with his New Testament edition in 1751–1754, followed by those of Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745–1812), Karl Lachmann (1793–1851), Constantin von Tischendorf (1815–1874), and his disciple Gaspar René Gregory (1846–1917). The pioneer of the textual criticism of the Old Testament, on the other hand, was Luigi Cappel (1585–1658), followed by Benjamin Kennicott (1718–1783) and Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1742–1831). These works lay the foundations for the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century development of the historical-critical exegetical method.

(2) The most significant results of Renaissance theology for subsequent thought are its impact on the codification of modern empiricism and on the canonization of modern ontology.

2.1 Modern empiricism, rightly regarded, has its characteristic theoretical presupposition in that “radical empiricism” (Grant 1996) which is at the root of the Ockhamist teaching on the potentia absoluta Dei. The knowledge possessed by humans living in a contingent world governed only by divine will is not founded on abstract universal ideas (species intelligibiles) but on a sensible experience (through the cognitio intuitiva). This epistemology establishes the premises for the development of Copernicanism and of a conception of physics different from any philosophy of nature of an Aristotelian stamp. Think, for example, of Hume’s empiricism or of modern mechanism, in which the universe is seen as a clock set in motion by a watchmaker-God who, once the initial start-up work is completed, remains completely indifferent to the subsequent operation of the mechanism that he has started (Randi 1987).

2.2. Jesuit scholasticism, born as a conceptual tool of the Catholic Reformation, was the model for the elaboration of Reformed and Lutheran Schulmetaphysik (Werner 1861, 1887; Paulsen 1896; Wundt 1939; Leinsle 1985, 1988; Courtine 1990; Kuhn 2002) and thus the presupposition for the birth of modern ontology (Lohr 1988). Suarez’s Disputationes played a prominent role in this connection. With the Scotist resort to the concept of ens as true transcendens, Suarez overcomes the division between general and special metaphysics. Unlike Thomas, whose notion of ens constitutes only a part of metaphysical discourse, which is in itself governed by the concept of cause, Suarez, in the wake of Duns Scotus (Honnefelder 1990), assumes the ens in quantum ens as the adequate object of the entire science of metaphysics, under which fall the other special sciences and theology as well. In this way the Disputationes represent one of the clearest points of passage from the classic to the modern meaning of the term “transcendental” (Esposito 2007).



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Seminar für Philosophische Grundfragen der Theologie, Katholisch-Theologische FakultätWestfälische Wilhelms-Universität MünsterMünsterGermany

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anna Laura Puliafito
    • 1
  1. 1.Universität BaselBaselSwitzerland