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Faith and reason

Luther was an outspoken scourge of reason, infamously labelling reason the ‘devil’s whore’ and ‘Aristotle’s evil brew’, and even speaking about ‘sacrificing reason’: one must ‘sacrifice reason in the morning and glorify God in the evening’.[1] Nonetheless, Luther also praises reason, the sciences and the practical arts as ‘a divine blessing’, ‘an indispensable guide to life and learning’, with reason in particular being ‘the most important and the highest rank among all things and, in comparison with other things in this life, the best and something divine’.[2] Even the Fall was not able to erase the good gift which God gave to humanity in the form of reason.

Luther adopts the medieval distinction between ‘temporal matters’ and ‘spiritual matters’, or ‘matters below’ and ‘matters above’. In everyday matters, our reason operates just fine. For Luther, ‘reason’ is usually a matter of thinking about practical matters, the things we do, or experiential matters, the things we have felt, seen and experienced. Luther can praise human ingenuity in the arts and sciences and human craftsmanship in building roads, houses and boats, and in planting and raising food. Luther can even say, ‘In all these things exercise your mind to the best of your ability!’[3] Reason can even know the ‘natural law’, which for Luther means the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses. Luther jokes that Moses ‘came too late’ inasmuch as nature itself teaches us what the Ten Commandments ask of us to do.[4] Most people (even princes!) can know what is right and wrong in everyday matters simply by following their reason. Whether they do the right thing or not does not cancel out the fact that reason accomplishes beneficial and creative things.

In spiritual matters, however, Luther is much less confident about reason’s ability. He thinks, for instance, that people can look around at history, nature, human society and even their own lives, and reasonably conclude that there is no God, or that God must hate us, or that God will judge us according to what we do, or that God exists in his own splendid glory far away from the sufferings of his creatures.[5] Even the line about ‘sacrificing reason’ in the morning is about the danger of reason pointing out your sins and leading you to conclude that Jesus Christ is angry with you. The consolation Luther gives to reason is that it cannot know what God is, but can know ‘what God is not’. The primary issue, for Luther, is not whether God exists, but whether or not this God is the God of Jesus Christ, who is merciful, slow to anger, quick to forgive and who loved us before we loved God in return. For Luther, it is better to cling to the promises of the gospel than to a reason which might remind you that in life you can never get something for nothing, so work harder to please God and earn what God might deign to give you.[6] Luther’s worry is that looking around at our everyday experiences, reason might try to tell you that God acts just like humans do, in terms of merit, reward and punishment, and helps only those whom God likes or who can do something for God in return; quid pro quo! Luther thinks that it is to this God, a God who gives only if you give something first, or even an angry God, where thinking about God ‘according to human standards’ will lead us. If this is what reason will conclude when thinking about ‘spiritual matters’, then surely Luther is right to prefer the foolishness of the Cross and the gospel to the wisdom of the world!

In this way, ‘reason’ and faith will certainly do battle over who God is; who we are; and what we are to think, do and hope for. And as Luther thinks, the devil will perpetually try to make us doubt God and his promises and to look at ourselves and despair, and so this battle will continue. Yet Luther can also write about the renewing of reason in the light of faith. He can point to the traditional account of reason following faith in the line of ‘If you do not believe, you will not understand’ (Nisi credideritis, non intelligetis), the pre-Vulgate version of Isa. 7.9 so cherished by Augustine and Anselm.[7] Likewise, just as the life of faith means that our tongues are now used to praise God rather than curse others, so too can illuminated reason further and advance faith:

The understanding, through faith, receives life from faith; that which was dead, is made alive again; like as our bodies, in light day, when it is clear and bright, are better disposed, rise, move, walk, &c., more readily and safely than they do in the dark night, so it is with human reason, which strives not against faith, when enlightened, but rather furthers and advances it.[8]

Study questions

1. What do you find helpful in the two stories at the start of the chapter when thinking about faith? What do you find unhelpful about them?

  • 2. What do you think is the relationship between faith, freedom and love?
  • 3. Does Luther’s distinction about reason’s different abilities in ‘matters above’ and in ‘matters below’ actually work?

Further reading

Luther, Martin, ‘Preface to the New Testament’, in Timothy F. Lull (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 112-117.

-, ‘The Freedom of a Christian’, in Timothy F. Lull (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic

Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp.595-629.


  • [1] Martin Luther, ‘Commentary on Galatians’, in John Dillenberger (ed.), Martin Luther: Selections fromhis Writings (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), pp. 99-165 (131).
  • [2] Martin Luther, ‘Disputation on Humanity’, in Lewis W. Spitz (ed.), Luther’s Works, vol. 34 (Philadelphia:Muhlenberg Press, 1960), pp. 135-144 (137).
  • [3] Martin Luther, A Compend of Luther’s Theology, ed. Hugh Thompson Kerr (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1943), p. 3.
  • [4] Martin Luther, ‘Against the Sabbatarians: Letter to a Good Friend’, in F. Sherman (ed.), trans. MartinH. Bertram, Luther’s Works, vol. 47 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), pp. 59-98 (89).
  • [5] Martin Luther, ‘Bondage of the Will’, in John Dillenberger (ed.), Martin Luther: Selections from hisWritings (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), pp. 166-203 (201).
  • [6] Luther, ‘Commentary on Galatians’, p. 132.
  • [7] Martin Luther, ‘On the Papacy in Rome, Against the Most Celebrated Romanist in Leipzig’, in EricW. Gritsch (ed.), trans. Eric W. and Ruth C. Gritsch, Luther’s Works, vol. 39 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,1970), pp. 49-104 (63).
  • [8] Martin Luther, The Table Talk of Martin Luther, ed. and trans. William Hazlitt (London: Bell & Daldy,1972), CCXCIV, p. 144.
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