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New learning, old theology: Renaissance biblical humanism, scripture, and the question of theological method

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By the end of the fifteenth century, if not already by the middle of the thirteenth century, interpretation of the Bible and the practice of theology – though in theory still interrelated – sat uncomfortably with one another. The increasing sophistication of scholastic method after the twelfth century resulted in a theology in which exegesis (and by extension, scripture on its own terms) played a role of diminishing importance. The humanists, especially the biblical humanists of the late fifteenth century and early sixteenth centuries, identified this dichotomy as deeply problematic for sacred studies and decried this state of affairs in their conflict with scholastic theologians. This essay seeks to describe concisely the method of scholastic theologians in order to understand what the biblical humanists were reacting against. The key figures for this discussion are Lorenzo Valla and Desiderius Erasmus, and attention is given both to their criticisms of scholastic method and to the alternative model they set forth. Central to the discussion of both theological models (scholastic and humanist) is the place of scripture, and the relationship between scripture and theology. The fundamental contention is that the biblical humanists were important not only for their development of the tools of grammatical-historical exegesis, but also of an alternative model of theological method. To the extent that the Protestant Reformers continued this critique and were influenced by it in their own practice, we witness a lesserrecognized connection between the Renaissance and the Reformation. (pp. 39–54)
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Keywords: Desiderius; Erasmus; Lorenzo; Reformation; Valla; biblical exegesis; biblical humanists; exegesis; scholastic method; theological method; theology

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: St Mary's College, University of St Andrews

Publication date: 01 March 2003

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