Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Importance of Being Doctor: The Quarrel over Competency between Humanists and Theologians in the Renaissance

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Importance of Being Doctor: The Quarrel over Competency between Humanists and Theologians in the Renaissance

Article excerpt

In modern usage the "Renaissance Man" is associated with wide-ranging interests and encyclopedic learning, but in the age that brought forth men like Pico della Mirandola and Michelangelo Buonarotti, the ideal of the uomo universale often conflicted with the institutional reality of compartmentalized, hierarchic universities. Records and published polemics from the fifteenth and early sixteenth century document the desire of faculties for a rigid delineation of disciplines and a tendency of university teachers to jealously guard their professional turf against outsiders. The resulting maneuvers and jockeying for rank and position led to dissension and issued in pamphlet wars, in which theologians and humanists often found themselves in opposite camps.(1) In many cases their disputes were pugnacious versions of the conventional laudato disciplinae; in others the polemics had wider implications. One of the most serious issues involved the question whether the philological method championed by the humanists could be applied to scriptural texts. It was a complex issue touching not only on competency and academic qualifications, but on theological principles as well. Humanists were clamoring for a revision of the biblical text based on a collation of manuscripts and a clear and correct translation following classical usage. Traditionalists protested that the Bible was divinely inspired and therefore flawless.(2) Their notions of textual tradition were hazy, however. Jerome was generally regarded as the "author" of the Vulgate, and any criticism of that text was condemned as blasphemy and an insult to the honor of the great Church Father.(3) Lorenzo Valla pointedly asked the actionaries: "What is Holy Writ?" Not every translation of the Old or New Testament qualified for that title, he noted. There were numerous versions in circulation. Where among them was Holy Writ? "Strictly speaking, only what the saints themselves wrote in Hebrew or Greek is Holy Writ: he observed, "for there is nothing in Latin(4) As always, the majority occupied a middle ground between reactionaries and pioneers of textual criticism. They acknowledged that the revealed text had been corrupted by human error and accepted the need for some revision, but rejected radical changes, especially if they affected doctrine. Another question remained undecided: Even assuming that textual criticism of the Bible was a legitimate undertaking, was it within the competency of humanists? Many theologians denied that it was and accused humanists of encroaching on their professional territory.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the wariness and misgivings of the theologians had become the stock-in-trade of satirists. The essence of the complaints against "meddling" humanists is captured in an anonymous skit, pitting three theologians against Erasmus and Reuchlin. In this dialogue Magister Lupoldus dissuades the humanists from revising the Bible. "What business of yours is it to correct the Magnificat?" he fumes. The exchange continues:

Erasmus: What is our business, then? Will you explain this to us, so that we may be made wiser by your counsel and mend our ways.

Lupoldus: Take care of your Latin, compose verses, make grand orations, print books about Latin composition.

Reuchlin: And nothing concerning God?

Gingolphus: Nothing, by the devil] Nothing, for it's none of your business]

Erasmus: Whose business is it then?

Ortvinus: That of the most illustrious and most zealous magistri nostri, who know the art of arguing for and against propositions.(5)

The satirist indicates that the theologians were willing to acknowledge the expertise of the humanists in philology and language studies, but wanted to limit the application of these skills to the secular sphere.

Two positions, generally accepted throughout the Middle Ages, sup ported such a limitation: Theology occupied a unique place among academic disciplines; indeed, it was the "queen" of all sciences; and only those were entitled to discuss, interpret, translate, or paraphrase Scripture, who were divinely inspired, authorized by the Church, and/or academically qualified by a degree in theology. …

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