The following is from the web page Luther, Exposing the Myth, under the heading "On Reason":
“One should learn Philosophy only as one learns witchcraft, that is to destroy it; as one finds out about errors, in order to refute them” [Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Fol. (1516). Ficker, II, 198. Cf. Three Reformers, By Jacques Maritan, Pg. 31].
Luther Exposing the Myth says their stated purpose is to show that "from Luther’s own words we shall see him for what he really was, that is a rebellious apostate, who abandoned the faith and led many into apostasy from God under the guise of “reformation” in order to follow his perverse inclinations." This is a quote highlighting Luther's alleged denigration of human "reason". They attempt to show Christ exhorted his hearers to use reason and be wise, while Luther says philosophy (where "reason" plays a crucial role) is basically evil and should only be learned as a subject to be refuted.
Luther Exposing the Myth cites "Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Fol. (1516). Ficker, II, 198. Cf. Three Reformers, By Jacques Maritan, Pg. 31." "Three Reformers" is the work of Roman Catholic scholar Jacques Maritain. Page 31 states:
Has [Luther] a grudge against particular system? No. He is attacking philosophy itself. "Barking against philosophy is a homage he thinks to give to God... One should learn philosophy only as one learns witchcraft, that is to destroy it; as one finds out about errors, in order to refute them" [Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, fol. (1516). Ficker, II, 198].The quote was most likely taken from Maritain's book rather than any study of Johannes Ficker's two-volume publication of Luther's Romans material (Die Glosse; Die Scholien) published in 1908. Ficker was part of recovering this long lost writing of Luther's. The section Maritan appears to be citing is actually on page 199 of Ficker II,
The text can also be found in WA 56:371. There are a few different English translations of this quote: "one should learn philosophy only as one learns bad arts, that is to destroy them" [source], and also, "Do not seek to establish and defend philosophy, but rather study her as we do evil arts and errors, to destroy and to refute" [Plass, What Luther Says, II:1053 (entry 3350)]. The most complete English context has been provided in LW 25:361-362.
This quote comes from Luther expounding on Romans 8:19. "For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God." The exposition on this verse from Luther is pre-Reformation writings (1515-1516).
19. For the creation waits. The apostle philosophizes and thinks about things in a different way than the philosophers and metaphysicians do. For the philosophers so direct their gaze at the present state of things that they speculate only about what things are and what quality they have, but the apostle calls our attention away from a consideration of the present and from the essence and accidents of things and directs us to their future state. For he does not use the term “essence” or “activity” of the creature, or its “action,” “inaction,” and “motion,” but in an entirely new and marvelous theological word he speaks of the “expectation of the creation,” so that because his soul can hear the creation waiting, he no longer directs his attention to or inquires about the creation itself, but rather to what it is awaiting. But alas, how deeply and painfully we are ensnared in categories and questions of what a thing is; in how many foolish metaphysical questions we involve ourselves! When will we become wise and see how much precious time we waste on vain questions, while we neglect the greater ones? We are always acting this way, so that what Seneca has said is very true of us: “We do not know what we should do because we have learned unimportant things. Indeed we do not know what is salutary because we have learned only the things that destroy us.”
Indeed I for my part believe that I owe to the Lord this duty of speaking out against philosophy and of persuading men to heed Holy Scripture. For perhaps if another man who has not seen these things, did this, he might be afraid or he might not be believed. But I have been worn out by these studies for many years now, and having experienced and heard many things over and over again, I have come to see that it is the study of vanity and perdition.
Therefore I warn you all as earnestly as I can that you finish these studies quickly and let it be your only concern not to establish and defend them but treat them as we do when we learn worthless skills to destroy them and study errors to refute them. Thus we study also these things to get rid of them, or at least, just to learn the method of speaking of those people with whom we must carry on some discourse. For it is high time that we undertake new studies and learn Jesus Christ, “and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
Therefore you will be the best philosophers and the best explorers of the nature of things if you will learn from the apostle to consider the creation as it waits, groans, and travails, that is, as it turns away in disgust from what now is and desires that which is still in the future. For then the study of the nature of things, their accidents and their differences, will quickly grow worthless. As a result the foolishness of the philosophers is like a man who, joining himself to a builder and marveling at the cutting and hewing and measuring of the wood and the beams, is foolishly content and quiet among these things, without concern as to what the builder finally intends to make by all of these exertions. This man is empty-headed, and the work of such an assistant is meaningless. So also the creation of God, which is skillfully prepared for the future glory, is gazed upon by stupid people who look only at its mechanics but never see its final goal. Thus are we not completely off the track when we turn our thoughts to the praises and glories of philosophy? Look how we esteem the study of the essences and actions and inactions of things, and the things themselves reject and groan over their own essences and actions and inactions! We praise and glorify the knowledge of that very thing which is sad about itself and is displeased with itself! And, I ask you, is he not a mad man who laughs at someone who is crying and lamenting and then boasts that he sees him as happy and laughing? Certainly such a person is rightly called a madman and a maniac. Indeed, if only the rude common people foolishly thought philosophy was of some importance and did not know how to interpret the sighing of the natural order, it would be tolerable. But now it is wise men and theologians, infected by this same “prudence of the flesh,” who derive a happy science out of a sad creation, and from the sighings they laughingly gather their knowledge with marvelous display of power.
Thus the apostle is right in Col. 2:8 when he speaks against philosophy, saying: “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition.” Clearly if the apostle had wanted any philosophy to be understood as useful and good, he would not have condemned it so absolutely. Therefore we conclude that whoever searches into the essences and actions of creation rather than its groanings and expectations is without doubt a fool and a blind man, for he does not know that creatures are also a creation of God. This is clear from the text [LW 25:361-362].
Contexts are helpful! Luther's contrast between philosophy and theology is an exhortation to study the Scriptures as divine revelation. He passionately appeals to his students that no one makes a prey of them by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition. Luther says elsewhere, Philosophy does not understand sacred things, and argues against mixing it with theology. Rather than pursuing philosophical speculation, Luther exhorts his pupils to "undertake new studies and learn Jesus Christ, 'and Him crucified' (1 Cor. 2:2)." Rather than "abandoning the faith and leading many into apostasy" as Luther Exposing the Myth states, the context of this quote shows quite the opposite.
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2010. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.