Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Luther's Use of Reason (AKA: Atheists Need To Do Some Homework)


From my mailbox:

"Here's an alleged Luther quotation that is being at least misapplied by some atheists: “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but - more frequently than not - struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God." (source) I know you are one of the on-line experts when it comes to debunking Luther misuse, so I thought I'd bring it to your attention. Perhaps, if you have time, you could respond to this particularly outspoken atheist website."

Ah, Atheists, freethinkers, skeptics, and agnostics love these type of Luther quotes. I could send them 50 similar in content to put on their websites and blogs. Unfortunately, they usually have no idea what Luther actually means. The person above may actually grip it a bit, but after reading his de-conversion story, I was impressed by the fact, once again, that there is no happy union between Jerusalem and Athens, particularly since Athens steals capital from the worldview of Jerusalem.

Note his commentary on the above Luther quote: "Martin Luther could scarcely have worded it better. For the greater part of my life, I held a faith that I believed was unified with reason." I would suggest, fallen, unregenerate reason, will never produce a faithful Christian worldview. This person was bound to a non-Christian position.

He then says, "I was a devout Christian in every sense of the word, living a life for Christ and striving to place him (or at least my perception of him) at the center of all my endeavors." I would note, he was devout not in every sense of the word, because he sought to unite some form of natural theology with Christian theology. This is a recipe for failure.

He comments, "... I committed the same crime of reason that nearly all believers are guilty of committing throughout the whole of their walk: I never truly questioned my faith." I would suggest, he has not even begun to question his faith. If he was trained like I was in secular philosophy, he would be faced with questioning every aspect of his very being, and arriving where I did: everything, and I mean everything, is reducible to faith a claim. It is not simply Christians who begin with basic presuppositions, it is everyone. At some point, every person can be reduced down to some unproven beginning point. It is simply naive to think Christians accept things on faith, while others do not.

Now, this particular de-conversion story appears to be from a youngster, so I expect him to think reality is not what his parents told him, and he now knows better. He is welcome to e-mail me privately, and I will gladly send him the Bahnsen Stein debate, free, and answer whatever epistemological questions he has.

But, as to the Luther quote: This quote comes from the older version of Luther's Tabletalk. Here is the context:
The anabaptists pretend that children, not as yet having reason, ought not to receive baptism. I answer: That reason in no way contributes to faith. Nay, in that children are destitute of reason, they are all the more fit and proper recipients of baptism. For reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but - more frequently than not - struggles against the Divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. If God can communicate the Holy Ghost to grown persons, he can, a fortiori, communicate it to young children. Faith comes of the Word of God, when this is heard; little children hear that Word when they receive baptism, and therewith they receive also faith.
An immediate comment must be made: Luther did not write this. The Tabletalk is a collection of sayings attributed to Luther, written down by either his students or friends. That being said, note the context: Luther is responding to Anabaptists who say children should not be baptized. Luther insists that they should, and adds that their reasoning against it is not Biblical reasoning. Whether you agree with Luther or not, something should strike the reader as very odd: Luther is using "reasoning" to denigrate reason! What is going on here?

Luther was quite familiar with “reason.” It is usually the situation that those examining Luther’s use of “reason” lack a significant understanding of his theology. My comments below are largely based on my notes on lectures by Lutheran scholar Robert Kolb, and Siegbert Becker's book, The Foolishness of God (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1999). Becker's books is, in my opinion, the best book in print on Luther's use of reason.

When Luther approached the Scriptures, he rejected the medieval use of the logical, “ergo” (therefore). He thought that theology is not systematic theological "reasoning." It is not simply the matter of moving from one human conclusion to another. Theology is always a matter of “denote.” For instance, instead of making an argument X + Y therefore= Z, Luther would express the same argument by his use of “nevertheless.” That is, X + Y nevertheless Z. A good example of this would be Luther's approach to the atonement and predestination. Luther believed that specific individuals were chosen and predestined, and that Christ died for these specific individuals. This is Calvinism 101. Nevertheless, according to Luther, Christ died for every single human being. His blood was shed for every single person. This is not Calvinism 101. Do you know what this called? Paradox. Luther was the king of paradox.

Luther though, did not reject natural theology completely (even though he felt it gave rise to false theology attempting to define the “hidden God”). Still, he didn’t think it worth a whole lot. For Luther, God reveals himself in the Scriptures or in the sacraments. Here alone God becomes present to reveal himself.

But what about general revelation? Does not God also reveal Himself there as well? Luther believed that man through philosophy can know something about God, but it cannot determine what God’s attitude toward us is, or how He wants to relate to us. This crucial knowledge can only be known by revelation.

Luther rejected the popular “prove it” mentality found in the popular theology of his day. The popular theology demanded “signs” (empirical epistemology), and also demanded “wisdom” (rational epistemology). In Luther’s concept of the “theology of the cross,” he posited a different presupposition about human knowledge and salvation. In terms of knowledge, God has placed himself above human control; He reveals Himself in the promise that elicits faith. Sometimes these promises will not seem rational to fallen human beings.

In Luther’s theology, faith is a gift from God. God is in charge of our hearing His Word and our learning of Him. God controls access to Himself. The human heart responds to God by faith. God must step out of “hiding” and reveal himself to us. He doesn’t reveal Himself with signs or wisdom (through empirical epistemology or rational epistemology). He reveals Himself with a promise that invites faith. We know God only by the faith that He creates in us. Faith is active and embraces God. Faith places us at the mercy of God. God informs us that the baby in the crib is God almighty, and the tortured man on the cross is God almighty. Human reasoning will never arrive at this, that the supreme God of all reality is found crying in a crib or suffering in agony on a cross. Only faith will embrace this, and if you think about it, it is quite a paradox... that God is found most clearly in a crib or a cross.

In a “traditional” concept of faith, faith is put into something that we can empirically or rationally verify. With this mind, Luther says by looking at the God of the Bible, one comes to know a “weak and foolish God,” since this God is not known by wisdom and signs (or by a process we can control). The God of the Bible reveals himself in what “reason” would think is foolishness: God is found in a crib, and on a cross.

Luther though, must not be seen as rejecting human reason. He did teach that God had fashioned His human creatures so we could learn a great deal about Him through empirical ways of learning, but reason was always to play the role of a servant. Hence, when one reads strong statements by Luther against reason (say, in some anti-Luther work from the late 19th Century), one must keep in mind that Luther valued reason, but it must be the “handmaid” to theology. It must be the servant. It is not that Luther didn’t understand the use of “reason,” it is simply the fact that “reason” must be kept in its place in theological matters.

I have only one question to ask the Atheist using this quote. While he claimed to be a Christian, did he ever read 1 Corinthians 1?
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE." Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, "LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.

7 comments:

Turretinfan said...

Thanks very much for the exposition! Excellent work!

e i e said...

"An immediate comment must be made, Luther did not write this. The Tabletalk is a collection of sayings attributed to Luther, written down by either his students or friends"

He didn't write it, but did he say it / believe it?

E i E

EgoMakarios said...

There are two types of reason.

1. Simple grammatical logic, such as is necessary to interpret any language whether spoken or written.

2. High minded philosophical reason, such as confuses men with a variety of ridiculous concepts contrary to the Gospel, which Paul condemns in Col 2:8 and other passages.

So, it is unreasonable (against the first sort of reason) to state that reason (of the first sort) has not part in religion. But it is also unreasonable (against the first sort of reason) to say that reason (of the second sort) is allowable in religion.

EgoMakarios said...

Now having established the two point above, let us analyze Luther's madness, where he says "The anabaptists pretend that children, not as yet having reason, ought not to receive baptism. I answer: That reason in no way contributes to faith."

now, certainly philosophical reason contributes nothing to faith, but grammatical reason does. In fact, without grammatical reason no one can have faith, for Paul says in Romans 10:17, that faith comes from hearing the word of God. But even if the sound enters your ears, it is of no profit without grammatical reason whereby you understand what is said. So Paul also says in 1 Cor 14:11 "Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me."

Turretinfan said...

EM wrote: "There are two types of reason. 1. Simple grammatical logic... [and] 2. High minded philosophical reason...." If this dichotomy is an example of (1), then (2) must not occupy much of the nuosphere.

James Swan said...

He didn't write it, but did he say it / believe it?

Yes, Luther believed in infant baptism. He also had a particular view of reason, as my post explains.

I don't know if he said this or not, but it would be in line with his beliefs.

Morgan Hastings said...

you wrote, "Luther didn't reject reason. Rather, it was to be subject to and ruled by faith." that is actually a rejection of reason as faith is unreasonable.