Friday, January 28, 2022

The First Humanist


Christendom reached a fateful turning point during the fourteenth century.

The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland

The West, according to Strickland, had fallen away from the idea of paradise, understanding Adam’s banishment to mean that man would not again taste paradise until the Second Coming.  Drawn largely from the doctrines of Augustinianism, a sharp line would be drawn between divine grace and human nature. 

This as opposed to the old Christendom view, still held in the East, of a “transformation-centered” piety.  The world was constantly in a process of heavenly transformation.

Before continuing, I would offer my thoughts on where this is headed, because where I see Strickland drawing sharp distinctions between East and West, I see shades, variability, nuance.  Maybe this nuance is enough to make the difference.  Then again, given the failings of Christendom in both the East and West, maybe it isn’t. 

I have noted before that what the East refers to as theosis, someone in the West would describe as becoming more Christ-like.  In both cases, the Christian is striving for transformation, in this world.  Yes, I know that there are examples offered at the extreme to disprove this point (this world is not my home…), but extremes don’t make for good analysis.

Further, I have yet to understand that there is a view of man in the Eastern Church that recognizes anything other than his fallen nature and his inability to solve this problem on his own.  In other words, Christ was crucified and was resurrected for some reason.

Strickland offers that in the East, human salvation is presented as the process of deification; in the West, a one-time release from an impending punishment.  In the East, optimism, in the West pessimism.  But in each case, is it only the one thing and not the other?  Or, to put it differently, can it not be both? 

Not using the stark words of Strickland, but…with salvation comes a life of becoming ever more Christ-like (theosis) and also an avoidance of punishment?  Isn’t this understood both in the East and in the West?  Strickland presents this as a clear distinction, but just because I am presenting his views, it does not mean I fully agree.  It might be so, but I have seen too many examples contrary to this view.

With this, I will continue.  And there are important points made by Strickland to be examined.  We are introduced to Petrarch, known as the first humanist.

But three centuries after the Great Division, penitents like Petrarch found little in Western piety to encourage them.  Most troubling was the system of penances that was now associated with the practice of confession.

Sin and the penances that negated sin were codified.  It was a system more concerned with punishment and satisfaction that it was one of human transformation.  Strickland offers that men like Petrarch could have looked East for a different example, namely Byzantium or Russia, where…

…the paradisiacal culture was flourishing, even if the political system of each was mortally threatened by, respectively, Turks and Mongols.

And this is the bump in the road that I keep running into, and that, as of yet, remains unexplored by Strickland.  Sure, one can point to the decline in the West – greatly evident in the last 125 years, but with signs pointing this way much earlier.  But does not being overrun by Turks and Mongols count as a decline as well?  Not, perhaps in the same sense, but still in a tremendously meaningful sense?

Having said all of this, the West certainly offered a negative view of man and this world.  Strickland cites a treatise written by Innocent before he was pope: On Contempt for the World, with a subtitle, On the Misery of the Human Condition.  An excerpt:

Man has been formed of dust, clay, ashes, and a thing far more vile, of filthy sperm. …His destiny is to be a putrid mass that eternally emits a most horrible stench.

These are some of the more positive words in the statement.  Strickland describes Innocent’s document as evidence of the disfiguration of Western culture derived from Augustine’s doctrine of original guilt…

…to which the Eastern fathers never subscribed.  According to this doctrine, mankind was guilty of the Fall of Adam and Eve, and through the act of procreation every human being deserved eternal punishment in hell.

Look, something happened in the Garden, something that separated man from God.  That something holds for every subsequent generation – otherwise, why bother with theosis?  We are already there.  It isn’t clear to me what “deserve” has to do with it.  The reality of the fall is obvious; we see it in every human.  That this reality is something to be dealt with, even the Eastern Church admits.

Again, the nuances are almost overwhelming.  I am not suggesting that these are all meaningless distinctions, but the overlap on a Venn diagram seems to me quite high.

Yet…it is so that the treatise by Innocent became a bestseller, so to speak.  And it depressed Petrarch.  He was despondent, and instead of considering what Strickland calls the West’s “lost” doctrine of deification, Petrarch turns to a utopian humanism.  This mortal misery is seen as a psychological condition requiring a remedy.  And man, not God, would be the source of that healing.


That man, for Petrarch, would be Cola di Rienzo.  On the day of Pentecost, 1347, he would address an assembled crowd in Rome.  He spoke of creating a utopian commonwealth.  A few days later, he took the title of tribune.  New laws were passed; the calendar was changed, marking time not from the birth of Christ, but from Rienzo’s reign. 

Petrarch, having received news of this coup d’etat with joy, would provide intellectual support.  He was invited to Rome to act as some sort of minister of enlightenment.  But before he could arrive, a counter-revolution of nobles would overthrow Rienzo.  Oddly enough, he was not captured, and in 1354 would return to Rome to try again. 

Fool me once, shame on you…

This time, however, few people were prepared to follow him.  surrounded by a mob, he was dragged to the Capitoline Hill – once the site of the pagan Temple of Jupiter Optimus, ancient Rome’s most revered place of worship – and there ceremonially stabbed to death.

His body was then hung upside down.  Then burned to ashes and thrown into the Tiber.

Petrarch would outlive Rienzo by two decades, never repenting of encouraging the revolution.  For him, Christian culture was in need of new values, and political violence was an acceptable means to this end.


  1. You are moving on target. Being overrun by enemies is a sign of failing to serve and obey our Lord. God gave us his law so we would know his will, so we would know right from wrong based on his revealed word. Humanism says we will be the determiners of right and wrong, good and evil, based on our human standards. This was the fall. One consequence was they lost the garden, a loss of their home land. Obedience to God’s law results in success. It results in restoration. It is Christ’s work. Obedience works. Sin doesn’t. Sin never works for long. It self-destructs. It destroys.

    “The expression of their faces bears witness against them, And they display their sin like Sodom; They do not even conceal it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves. Say to the righteous that it will go well with them, For they will eat the fruit of their actions. Woe to the wicked! It will go badly with him, For what he deserves will be done to him.”
    ‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭3:9-11‬ ‭NASB1995‬‬

  2. One note of follow up. That warning message in Isaiah was directed to God’s covenant people.

  3. ‘Again, the nuances are almost overwhelming. I am not suggesting that these are all meaningless distinctions, but the overlap on a Venn diagram seems to me quite high.’

    Perhaps it would be good to look more closely for a moment at the ideas of unity and diversity in the Church. But to do this properly, let us step back into the Old Testament to the proto-Church of Old Israel. They were given commands to follow by Abraham, Moses, and the other holy patriarchs and prophets. Were they allowed to have their own opinions about these commands/laws, to form their own denominations? No; the Lord strictly forbade it. The consequences that followed upon Korah’s rebellion against Moses (Numbers ch. 16) tell us what the Lord God thinks of efforts to cause division in the Church, even by those who have good intentions. Korah, after all, sounds a lot like Christians who declaim against an exclusivist view of the Church:

    ‘They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?”’ (Num. 16:3)

    If the Holy Trinity did not countenance division in the assembly of the Old Israel, if he did not allow a Korahite, etc., denomination of Judaism, why do we think He would do so in the New Israel, the Church?

    The Lord does not change: ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8). In the New Testament, the emphasis is again on unity. For example: ‘There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’ (Ephesians 4:4-6).

    And again, when the Holy Apostles were confronted with the Judaizers, who taught that Gentile converts had to follow Jewish customs in order to be welcomed into the Church, they did not allow a Judaizer denomination and non-Judaizer denomination to develop and divide the Church and become the norm. They sat together in a council and stopped the heresy before it could grow any further, denying that circumcision, etc., are necessary for salvation (Acts 15), retaining the unity of the Church.

    Subsequent councils of bishops, the successors of the Apostles, whether local or ecumenical, would function in a like manner. They did not allow denominations of Gnostics, Donatists, Pelagians, Arians, Macedonians, Eutychians, etc., to rise up. They corrected the errors in those teachings, anathematized the heretics who taught them, and preserved the unity of the Church.

    The Roman Catholics, to their credit, held onto the importance of unity after they left the Orthodox Church, although their unity is based on loyalty to the Pope’s teaching, rather than loyalty to the teachings of the Apostles.

    It is after the Wars of Western Religion, as Fr John Strickland calls them, the wars between the RCs and the Protestants which ended in 1648 with Treaty of Westphalia, that the idea of Church unity disappears and the idea of permanent division appears, the idea that the Church can be described as a hallway with many doors/rooms or a train with one engine pulling many cars and so on. Here begin the grievous troubles with relativism, that I have my truth and you have yours, and that it is impossible to judge between them.

    ‘But does not being overrun by Turks and Mongols count as a decline as well? Not, perhaps in the same sense, but still in a tremendously meaningful sense?’

    Undoubtedly, the Orthodox have been chastised for our sins, but again a look back at Old Israel is instructive. There were numerous fallings away by the Jews in the Old Testament, but that did not invalidate their claim to being the true people of God in the world; it did not necessitate or permit the establishment of new Jewish communions/denominations.

    1. "...hallway with many doors/rooms..."

      Walt, what is "the Church"? As long as you insist (if you insist) that no one who professes a Catholic or Protestant faith is in "the Church," you will get no traction here.

      If you do not insist this, then it would be good to stop sowing division.

    2. BM,

      As I said before, I make no claims as to knowledge of the eternal state of anyone’s soul. I just wanted to look at the ideas of Church unity and diversity from a wider perspective. Peace to all.

    3. Walt, and I Have said before that this blog is not intended for theological debate. I have commented in order to focus on the commonality. You have commented to focus on division.

      A point is made in this podcast regarding Orthodox Christians who turn other Christians away from Orthodoxy by continually pointing out the so-called inferiority of other Christian traditions.

      You are certainly doing so with me.

  4. Then as now, people still falter because human nature has not yet gained the stability in God’s Grace that we will attain in the next life, to borrow the words of St Maximus the Confessor. Because we see the Orthodox stumble, that does not mean that there is something lacking in the revelation and praxis of the Orthodox Church, only that sinful, broken people seeking healing are part of her Body.

    The better metric of validity is not the spiritual sickness of the people in each communion, but the spiritual attainments one finds in them. And it is here also that the Orthodox show themselves to be the Church of the Apostles, as for 2,000 years there have never ceased to be miracle workers, prophets, healers, clairvoyants, etc., just as one finds in the Acts of the Apostles. Human nature is really and truly transcended/transformed; we become more Christ-like not simply in an outward way as it regards our actions and thoughts, but through a true union of body and soul with the uncreated energies of God.

    As for diversity, the Orthodox Church honors this also in the variety one finds in the liturgies, architecture, icons, singing, and so on amongst the many peoples of the world. The many ethnoi in the world and their cultures are diverse; the Orthodox Faith will manifest itself slightly differently in its outward forms among them. The Syrians are great hymn writers and poets (Sts Ephraim and Romanos, for example); the Romanians have created a unique form of church painting in the world: . Such things are not displeasing to God, so long as the underlying teachings received from the Apostles remain unchanged.

    As for the emphases of the RCs and the Protestants, there is no need for separate denominations for these (just as there is no need for a separate ‘painted church’ denomination for the Romanians, an onion dome denomination for the Russians, etc.). They may be found in abundance in the Orthodox Church.

    The saints, churchly arts, and intricate theological treatises loved by the Roman Catholics? They will find these in the Orthodox Church.

    The sermons and scriptural expositions of the traditional Protestants? They will find these in the Orthodox Church.

    The focus on being filled with the Holy Ghost of the charismatics/Pentecostals? They will find this also in the Orthodox Church (see, e.g., St Basil the Great’s short book titled On the Holy Spirit or St Seraphim of Sarov’s conversation with Motovilov - ).

    Truth and love are inseparable. If we teach people that Christianity is a mix of truth and unavoidable human error, we are not giving them the fulness of truth and therefore not giving them the fulness of love either. Relativism then flourishes and chaos abounds. Such is the sad lot of the West today. Fr Zechariah Lynch wrote a good article on this recently. We will close with a couple of quotes from it, followed by the address for those who want to read the whole thing:

  5. ‘Truth and love may never be separated. “God is love” proclaims the holy theologian John (cf. 1 Jn. 4:8). Our Lord proclaims, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (cf. Jn. 14:6). Truth and love exist only in God. They are of Him, without Him there is neither truth nor love.In our times, many people seek a truthless love. Such a thing is not love, it is an anti-love. St. Theophan the Recluse calls this pseudo-love “Indifferentism.” “Let us examine how contemporary wise men have made use of this teaching. They possess a special kind of vain wisdom called “Indifferentism” by which they reason and say: believe as you like, it makes no difference – just love everyone like brothers, be charitable to them, and have a good influence on them.”[1] This indifferentism likes to clothe itself in “compassion” and “understanding.” Commonly, those embracing indifferentism like to label those who are not indifferent as “fundamentalists,” or some such thing.’

    ‘St. Theophan teaches us, “When someone begins to expound to you about love or fruitful action independent of true belief, tell him: Wait, first believe correctly. By faith acquire all the salvific precepts of Christianity. Through them be united with the Lord, make your life and strength depend on Him like you would on an injection for your health and then you will begin to act in a fruitful way. It is a fact that the witness to a righteous life is fruitful activity in love, but in order to attain it and to remain in it one must accept all of God’s Truth with faith and pass through all of God’s sanctifying actions [on one’s self]. Only under these conditions, i.e., by abiding in True Love, may we grow up into Him in all things, Who is the head, even Christ (Eph. 4,15).

    ‘We could summarize thus: he who does not have the right Faith cannot enter into the proper state, and he who does not enter into the right state cannot properly act. Now do you see how one cannot say: Believe as you wish, only love?”’

    Full article:

  6. I think that John Wesley's view of three tenses of salvation; "I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved to the uttermost," as well as his concept of Christian "perfection" are enough to show that Strickland is missing the mark on those sharp distinctions.

    1. It is funny that you mention this. A few chapters ahead in the book (I am far behind in my writing), Strickland notes Wesley as an exception of sorts.

      A new birth, cultivation, and a practical method of life. All influenced, apparently, by Makarios of Egypt.

      In any case, it strikes me that many Protestants hold to such views, using different words and demonstrating this growth in their lives differently than do the Orthodox.

      In other words, I see this as applicable to Protestants much beyond those directly influenced by Wesley, as you do.