Wright’s third chapter moves to the Northern humanists. They were inspired by both Southern schools of humanism, the rhetorical and mystical. Wright briefly summarizes Rudolph Agricola, noting that he was the first to introduce the “loci” method of theological writing. Agricola continued Valla’s emphasis on rhetoric, rejecting assertions of truth in favor of persuasion of the heart. Wright also mentions that the humanist-emphasis on history and philology lead to them rediscovering “the views of Christian antiquity in the works of the Greek Fathers and the Greek New Testament” (83).
Wright then moves to Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus saw himself as following ancients like Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, and Origen. Wright lists Erasmus’ humanist distinctives involving skepticism:
Erasmus doubted the ability of reason to know reality and religious truths with any certainty. He demonstrated the skeptical penchant for severely questioning all dogma. He tended to doubt that Christian spiritual realities could be certainly known. Hence, the prince of the humanists sought some external source of verification or probability in attempting to understand even the Scriptures, which he thought often obscure or ambiguous. This was the origin of his emphasis of developing a consensus of the church over time, from the days of the church fathers to the present.
Erasmus was more of a follower of the Neoplatonic humanists than of Valla. This is why, according to Wright, previous scholars have been reluctant to see Luther as a full-blown humanist. They rightly noted his sharp disagreements with Erasmus and the Neoplatonists. For Erasmus, the “two worlds” were the intelligible and angelic world and the visible world. They were the mind and the body. Wright states:
In this hierarchical Neoplatonic scheme, the invisible things were “higher” and man was held to partake of both the higher world of the spirit and the lower world of the flesh. Humankind possessed three parts: spirit, soul, and flesh. The spirit drove people toward heaven, while the flesh drove people again toward hell… Reason (held by philosophers, especially Plato), was synonymous with spirit, inner man, and law of the minds. Opposite them were passions– flesh, body, outer man, and law of the members… This we will see separated Erasmus, along with the Scholastics, from Luther, who placed the mind and reason safely within the realm of the body and flesh.
Because of this form of dualism, Erasmus believed that the true meaning of the Bible was the allegorical one. Erasmus also believed that “Christ had only improved on the knowledge of the philosophers and Old Testament prophets and was, in a word, simply another lawgiver” (88).
There were other Neoplatonic Northern humanists. Wright lists Conrad Celtis, Conrad Muth, and Johannes Reuchlin. None of these were directly influential upon Luther, and, in fact, Luther explicitly critiqued the last two men. Due to the contrast between Luther and these sorts of humanists, many scholars have seen some considerable distance between Luther and humanism. Wright argues, however, that “when one distinguishes between the two paths of humanism coming out of the Italian Renaissance, the humanists influence on Luther is clearly revealed” (95). And of course, the chief influence remains Lorenzo Valla.
Valla was important for Luther’s own studies in the Biblical texts, as well as Church history. Luther’s reading of Valla’s On the Donation of Constantine moved him to finally view the pope as antichrist. The two reasons for this were “a deliberate misappropriation of temporal authority” and that it was “contrary to his spiritual calling” (97). Luther also appreciated Valla’s approach to religious rhetoric, as it was free of skepticism. Luther shared skepticism about worldly things, but not with regard to religious matters. Religion, rather than reason, was based on faith.
Wright also treats Luther’s relationship with Neoplatonism. It is mostly critical, as is well known, though there is some nuance along the way. “Luther clearly praised Plato in his early works” (101). “Following Augustine, he saw the similarity with the Gospel of John and, in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, he declared that Plato’s system was superior to that of Aristotle.” Wright also mentions that Luther agreed with the concept of natural law “because it was based on Scripture.” Luther named “Aesop, Aristotle, Plato, Zenophon, Cicero, and Cato as examples of such sensible heathen writers whose source was natural knowledge” (101-102).
Another important aspect to keep in mind with Luther is that he “used Neoplatonic terminology but changed the meaning greatly” (102). Wright notes that when Luther used “the terminology of inner versus outer, he was not referring to seeing ‘the exemplar (Platonic form) under its opposite image’ (Platonic copy), but rather the fact that God mysteriously revealed Himself in opposites.” It is critical to remember, however, that “Luther did not conceive of the intellect as a mediate place between the sensory and the supersensory” (104). Luther retained what we mind refer to as a creature-Creator distinction.
Wright concludes this chapter with a brief review of earlier twofold concepts of reality. He mentions Ockham and Augustine. Wright sees Ockham as less influential on Luther than Augustine. Augustine, according to Wright, “did not hold the medieval hierarchical idea of Christian society” (110). His “two cities” were not simply the Church and the State, but something closer to Luther’s “two kingdoms.” Wright continues:
The two cities were two communities of people. Those who pursued eternal life and salvation were in the heavenly city, while those who pursued selfish ends and worldly things were in the other city. Human nature apart from God was lost and sinful, so that nothing but grace could free man and turn him to God. Since temporal, worldly things were common to both cities, both were afflicted by temporal ills until the Last Judgment.
Wright notes other similarities between Luther and Augustine. “Augustine made the same distinction between the law and the gospel that the Reformer made” (111). Augustine also held to natural law and the goodness of God’s creation. “The things of the earth were not only good, they were gifts of God” (112). This allowed for an immediate view of worldly goods, notably the good of worldly government.
Wright concludes that the two most important influences for Martin Luther were Augustine and Valla. “In fact,” Wright says, “Lorenzo Valla, upon whom Luther built, learned much about the use of rhetorical tools and classical skepticism from Augustine” (112).