Christ taught: “ Be therefore, wise as serpents and simple as doves”[Matt 10:16], “You know then how to discern the face of the sky: and can you not know the signs of the times?” [Matt 16:3]. Luther teaches: “No good work happens as the result of one’s own wisdom; but everything must happen in a stupor . . . Reason must be left behind for it is the enemy of faith” [Trischreden, Weimer VI, 143, 25-35]. (Underling in the original)
According to this quote, Christ exhorts his hearers to "be wise" [Matt. 10:16]. Matthew 16:13 appears to have Christ saying one can know the signs of the times, but this passage is being used grossly out of context. It is a passage in which Jesus is chastising the Pharisees and Sadducees over their ignorance. By contrast, Luther is quoted as saying good works are the result of stupor, and reason (or wisdom) is the enemy of faith. The caricature being set up is Christ commands people to be wise, while Luther puts forth the bliss of ignorance.
It's possible that this Luther quote was plagiarized from this secondary source: Verbum the newsletter of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Ridgefield, CT, Spring 1985. Note the similarities:
Luther, Exposing the Myth says the quote comes from "Trischreden, Weimer VI, 143, 25-35." There is no such thing as "Trischreden," it's Tischreden. The Tischreden is Luther's Table Talk, a collection of second hand comments written down by Luther's friends, published after his death. There is no such thing as "Weimer," it's Weimar. This is the German collection of Luther's works. Despite these haphazard spelling errors, if Luther, Exposing the Myth is referring WA BR, volume VI does contain the Table Talk, WA TR 6:143, lines 25-35 can be found here:
Despite this reference, Luther, Exposing the Myth is actually citing two different statements from Luther. The first sentence, "No good work happens as the result of one’s own wisdom; but everything must happen in a stupor" is not on page 143 of WA TR 6:143. It appears to come from WA BR 1:175, lines 21-22,
This 1532 Table Talk statement has been translated into in English in LW 54:64. The next sentence, "Reason must be left behind for it is the enemy of faith”" does correspond to statement from WA TR 6:143, lines 25-35 (lines 25-26). To my knowledge, this complete Table Talk statement has not been fully translated into English. Below an English translation has been provided by Thoughts By Brigitte.
Context: Quote #1
The title of this Table Talk says it all: Youth, Not Age, Is Venturesome. The point is that young people are impulsive and prone to get them in to things that older people might not.
No. 406: Youth, Not Age, Is Venturesome December, 1532
“No good work is undertaken or done with wise reflection. It must all happen in a half-sleep. This is how I was forced to take up the office of teaching. If I had known what I know now, ten horses wouldn’t have driven me to it. Moses and Jeremiah also complained that they were deceived. Nor would any man take a wife if he first gave real thought [to what might happen in marriage and the household]. Here Philip said that he had diligently observed that in history great deeds had never been done by old men. “This was so,” said Luther, “when Alexander and Augustus were young; afterward men become too wise. They didn’t do great things by deliberate choice but by a sort of impulse. If you young fellows were wise, the devil couldn’t do anything to you; but since you aren’t wise, you need us who are old. Our Lord God doesn’t do great things except by violence, as they say. If old men were strong and young men were wise it would be worth something. The sect leaders are all young men like Icarus and Phaeton. Such are Zwingli and Karlstadt. They are novices in the sacred Scriptures” [LW 54:64].
Context: Quote #2
Therefore leave reason at home, because it is the archenemy of faith, if you are fighting sin and death, so that you do not lose the righteousness of Christ or faith (because it [reason] does not know what that is [righteousness of Christ/faith]), but it is always relying on its own righteousness, or when it is doing its best, on the righteousness of the law.
But whenever reason and the law come together (unite) faith then has immediately lost its virginity and purity. For there is no thing which opposes faith more than the law and reason, and you cannot battle them down unless with great effort and work; and yet, it has to be done; they must be conquered, if you want to be saved.
The reason why Luther saw "reason" as an enemy of the faith is because it deems the things of God to be absurd nonsense. In a traditional concept of faith, faith is put into something that we can empirically or rationally verify. Luther held that 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, 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.
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.