Story of the World and Secular Humanism

Dr Martin Luther

Dr Martin Luther (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was recently reading aloud to my children at lunch on the topic of the Renaissance and was quite taken aback by the following paragraph. It began a lively discussion around the ham sandwiches:

The Renaissance wasn’t just a time when people relearned old ideas. It was also a time of new discoveries. For the first time, ships were sailing all over the world. Explorers were realizing that their old ideas about the world (like boiling seas in the south and water that poured forever off the edge of the world) were wrong. So during the Renaissance, men and women began to make new theories about the world. They compared their new theories with the old Greek and Roman ideas. They started to ask, “Which ideas about the world are right? Let’s go try to find out for ourselves.”

When Prince Henry the Navigator sent ships south to see the southern waters, rather than just accepting the old stories about boiling seas, he was thinking like a Renaissance man. When Columbus insisted on going to India by sailing west, instead of trying t go around Africa like everyone else, he was acting like a Renaissance man. When Martin Luther told the people of Wittenberg that they should look at the Bible for themselves, instead of believing everything that the Church told them, he was talking like a Renaissance man.

During the Renaissance, men and women began to believe that they could find out the truth by looking at the world and figuring out how it worked. After all, they argued, God had created the world. Why couldn’t man, who was also created by God, look carefully at this world and understand it? So they observed the world: the sky, the earth around them, the people who lived on the earth. They drew conclusions from what they observed.

Today we call this the scientific method of getting knowledge. When you observe something and try to draw conclusions from your observations, you are thinking scientifically. This way of thinking had its roots in the Renaissance.

- Susan Wise Bauer in Story of the World: Volume 2: The Middle Ages (revised, 2009) pp321,322

The value judgements are subtle but nonetheless dangerous for biblical homeschoolers. Notice that the reformer Martin Luther is equated with explorers Henry and Columbus. The definition of Renaissance man given in the text is one who “looks at the Bible for themselves, rather than believing everything the Church told them.” Columbus (along with most “Renaissance men” from Spain and the Vatican, as well as later loyalists in Britain) would strongly disagree with that definition. Inquisition, anyone?

And is the movement Martin Luther and his theological descendants began merely the foundation of the scientific method? Did Martin Luther nail the 95 Thesis on the door of Wittenberg Church and then risk his life in debates to declare that man is the objective source of truth?

I would argue that the injunction of “scientific observation” into the study of biblical truth – rather than vise versa, allowing biblical truth to illuminate the sciences – is what the Reformers were actually fighting against. After all, the Roman Church severely persecuted scientists and theologians who did not conform to the popular scientific models of the day.

Christ Himself rebuked the Sadducee of His day for this error, putting man’s reasoning above the revealed truths of His Word. It should surprise us not to find it continues to our day in religious humanism.

For further discussion of this topic, see my recent article “Syncreticism in the Sacred Mount of Homeschooling” in the recent issue of Home Educating Family Magazine.
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2 Responses to Story of the World and Secular Humanism

  1. Cheryl says:

    A friend just sent me the link to get here. I respectfully, VERY respectfully, disagree with Susan Wise Bauer here. (I have just used and adored her first SOTW with my daughter this year. We haven’t gotten this far in history yet.) Back in the “Dark Ages,” philosophers studied natural philosophy–what we now call science–to advance their understanding of the Queen of sciences, theology. In other words, they studied the natural world to know and understand the Mind of God. For example, it was a well-known scientific fact that the world is round. Yes, even during the Dark Ages. There are many people who think that Columbus sailed west because he thought the route was shorter; he had in fact underestimated the size of the earth.

    And, as a Lutheran, I know and understand that Luther did not spring up from a vacuum. There were many, many brave priests and monks who knew that certain practices of the Roman Church were hurting her. Some spoke out. Some spoke out radically. Luther’s protests happened at a time of ripeness for his ideas, but he was not unique. I know that God’s hand was in his thinking and praying and acting, but he wasn’t alone. (And sometimes I wonder if we moderns didn’t take it a little far. That is really saying something considering how fiery Luther could be!)

    For a completely different reading of the “Dark Ages,” you can’t do better than James Hannam’s “The Genesis of Science.” He also has a really interesting blog. The book would be good for a high-schooler, especially one who has read enough as a homeschooler, and it was great for this homeschooling mom. I would put a link in but I am link-challenged!

  2. Betsy Price says:

    We were just reading the same portion of SOW last week, and I definitely noticed the humanistic elements. Thanks for pointing them out and making others aware.

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