God’s Unholy Word

The Renaissance at its most basic level was a rebirth of the ideas and mythologies of the classical era. It seems that most scholars agree that the movement began as early as the fourteenth century in Northern Italy. By the sixteenth century, the Renaissance movement had spread to various parts of Europe. It was a time when both art and learning centered around humanity and the classical model experienced a great resurgence. But it can be difficult to identify exactly what was “reborn” in this period. We know that before the 1500s, the Medievals had been exposed to classical texts and especially to classical mythology. However, between 1200 and 1500, Western culture certainly changed.

Humanist scholars began to work with a more diverse body of classical texts, especially Greek texts, and by 1500, innovations in print occurred which replaced the old incanabula and allowed scholars to circulate more texts. Then with the rise of the secular Medici in Florence, the arts flourished under wealthy non-religious patrons who would turn to classical images of man instead of religious images, which would spark a enormous art movement across Europe. I do not mention these points as criticism of the rise of renaissance humanism; there is nothing wrong with classical texts or art that features images of man. Indeed, I think there is something to be said for understanding a thing in its context. But the central question here is reference. For what purpose does the scholar engage in these arcane texts, or in reference to what does the artist create his work of art? From a Christian perspective, there is indeed something that can be learned from God’s “unholy” word revealed to us in creation.

For example, the Ovide Moralise of the Middle Ages Christianized Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a work retelling Ovid’s myths with reference to Christian morality. While in one sense this translation of pagan myths to Christian morality fables is an act of “redeeming Egyptian gold” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine II.40), there is something to be said for engaging Ovid himself, Ovid’s own text — provided that, as Christians, we understand that any truth we find there is in some sense God’s Truth (Aug., OCD, II.75). Though, this is not to say that we understand everything Ovid says as “God’s Holy Word.” Rather let us take up Ovid as God’s unholy word, a part of creation through which God reveals Himself.

In a similar way, the human-centered arts that men like Leonardo da Vinci explored during the Renaissance, such as the proportions and structure of the human body, when not seen as ends in themselves, can be a glorification of the Creator. Indeed, da Vinci’s anatomical sketches to this day are marveled at and considered accurate. The excellence of the human form, bearing the imago dei, bears reference to the Creator. If we understand that, we can understand that all our human knowledge can bring us closer to God, and not drive us away from Him in praise of man’s own glory. (This is not to say that da Vinci understood his work this way, only that one could understand his work in this way.) We can glorify God by engaging in the “human things” when we understand that those things are excellent to the glory of God. The problem comes when we seek to glory in the human things for their own sake, to bring man glory for the excellence that is all due to God. God and not man is the measure of all things.


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