Faith and reason in the Lutheran tradition: An interpretation

The American humourist Garrison Keillor, in his book Life Among the Lutherans, remarks that Lutherans don’t like making speeches, they make the lunch. This says something, I would suggest, to Lutheran attitudes to faith and reason. Lutherans don’t think about it too much, they just get on and do it. This can have both negative and positive aspects. Lutherans can be dangerously unthinking and un-self-reflective people. Keillor notes that that self-pity is not the Lutheran way. Neither is introspection. The flipside of this is that Lutherans affirm practical application of faith. While they do this, they are wary of overt emotional displays of faith. How this fits into Lutheran theological thinking is interesting. There are contradictions here, as well as direct links to Martin Luther’s own theology. Lutherans can see faith and reason as both aligned and opposed.

Lutheran theology remains today tightly tethered to, of course, the Reformer Martin Luther, a figure described by the philosopher Karl Jaspers as “philosophically noxious”. Many other philosophers see Luther as hopelessly medieval, irrational, and anti-intellectual, in part due to his comment that reason is “the Devil’s whore”. This statement needs to be understood in context.
Luther was a dualistic thinker, viewing issues in oppositional terms. One thinks of his treatment of law and gospel, good works and grace, the theology of the cross and the theology of glory, and his two kingdoms theology. He is therefore accused of thinking about faith and reason in the same fashion. And his writings do not always help. He wrote, “Reason in no way contributes to faith… for reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things.” But then: “reason strives not against faith, when enlightened, but rather furthers and advances it”.
Luther was highly educated, and familiar with the humanism of the day, but the image of him as a hothead is not entirely wrong. He was a polemical rather than systematic theologian, and he often seems, if not downright contradictory, at least shifting emphasis depending on the situation he is addressing. It has been up to later Lutheran theologians to tie the threads together and make a cohesive theology. Luther also had a preaching emphasis, a tendency toward practical application of his theology, and a pastoral focus. We can see this perhaps in the fact that he never wrote a systematic theology but spent much time translating the Bible into German.
Luther’s education favoured nominalism, from the school of William of Ockham, against the predominant realism of the times. To crudely simplify, realism, aligned with the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, suggested that nature comes from God and can therefore tell us something about God. We can see here the influence of Plato’s forms. For nominalists, nature is simply as God wills it, and God remains something of a mystery. It is blasphemous or at least putting limits on God to suggest that we can grasp God naturally. We need, therefore, revelation, particularly in the form of Jesus, to tell us about God. This fact was crucial to Luther, to the extent that he has been criticised for focusing too much on Christ, at the expense of Trinitarian theology. We can also see here Luther’s prejudice against reason or philosophy. For Luther, it is naive to think we can think our way to God.
It is interesting that Luther was not wholly critical of pagan philosophers. He, for example, loved Cicero, but because of Cicero’s love of rhetoric. In Cicero was a bond between wisdom and eloquence, so important for Luther, who, in an illiterate age, was preoccupied with wise preaching for the dissemination of the gospel. And in this case, reason, in the sense of unpacking the message, is harnessed to faith.
Furthermore, and here we might question how much Luther remained a nominalist, he argued that reason can tell us something about God. In his commentary on Jonah he remarks that reason will lead us to conclude that “God is kind, gracious, merciful and benevolent”. And as reason is a gift from God it will not contradict revelation.
However, and it is a big however, while we may conclude God is capable of saving us, reason will not illuminate how God will do this. And experience will tell us, with the existence of evil in the world, that perhaps he is not that willing to. God has own logic, and according to Luther, our own logic won’t tell us how God deals with our sin. In fact, thought Luther, it was reasonable to assume we should pay for our sin with good works. But logic doesn’t tell us about the triune God. For Luther, the proof that logic doesn’t lead us to Jesus is in the fact that the world is not full of Christians. So reason is important, but it must defer to faith when it comes to salvation. And personal salvation is key to understanding Luther, a man tormented by feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Luther calls reason a whore perhaps because it promises something attractive we should be getting elsewhere.
Here we come to Luther’s theology of the cross, which he contrasted with what he called a theology of glory. The theology of glory is one centred on God’s majesty, with which reason can help us. The theology of the cross is offensive to reason, suggesting as it does that God can be found in the figure of an executed criminal. What’s more, this theology of the cross operates on a different plane to reason – it is emotional engagement, rather than intellectual assent. (Here Luther is relevant to Kierkegaard.) God reveals himself, not only as He is, but through a relationship with Him.
Luther is also strong on the idea that reason is clouded by sin. Reason is not a neutral thing, as the Enlightenment philosophers thought, but is tainted by our nature; for Luther, our sinful nature.
The debt owed by subsequent philosophers to Luther is not always recognised. He is the forerunner of Kant, Hegel (especially in his dialectic) and even Nietzsche. J G Hamann, the Lutheran philosopher and contemporary and friend of Kant, in many ways prefigured the current postmodern critiques of reason. We can see Luther’s influence in the fact that Hamann said it is a great surprise that God would find joy in communing with us. He takes a lot of humour from the absurdity of the Christian position, against the pretensions of the Enlightenment philosophers. For example, he wrote an essay defending the silent letter “h” as a satirical way of attacking the Enlightenment idea that we can dispense with anything superfluous to rational thought. In Enlightenment thought (if we can use such an all-encompassing term), reason is the only criteria for judging everything, but Hamann turned the scepticism of David Hume back onto this idea by asking how we can rationally come to the conclusion that reason is the only way to knowledge. In our day, this is relevant for the New Atheist debates.

Soren Kierkegaard continued this scepticism over reason’s primacy. He is of course famous for his “leap of faith”, and saw faith as not opposed to but beyond reason. Here he is in tune with Luther. Using reason in relation to coming to God will result only in what Kierkegaard calls “endless parenthesis”, a kind of ever-increasing intellectual fine-tuning that must be overcome with a commitment to an emotional relationship with God. This is why Kierkegaard described faith as “passion”. And like Luther, he believed that reason can undermine faith if we try to measure faith against reason. He reacted against Hegel and Kant’s belief that reason can verify faith, asking, astutely, why then bother with faith at all? Kierkegaard remains relevant to contemporary philosophy by asking whether paradoxes (of which Christian faith is the key example) are opposed to or simply beyond the limits of reason.
Regarding contemporary Lutheran theology, there has been some attempt to recapture Luther’s more nuanced approach to reason and faith. At the popular level, Lutherans often approach issues too crudely, most evident in scientific debates. Pride in elevating faith over reason can result in a poorly considered rejection of anything that seems at first glance to be opposed to Christianity, especially regarding creationist issues, resulting in a kind of knee-jerk fundamentalism.
On the positive side, Lutheran theologians such as Pauline Kaurin have been considering the role of the philosopher in the light of Luther’s writings on vocation. Luther accomplished a degree of levelling of vocation, against the idea prevalent in his day that the clergy and monastic orders were closer to God in their vocations. Luther saw all work as given by God, and in the secular realm, reason is the God-given way of conducting affairs, particularly when it comes to the legal and political arenas. Following this, we can conclude that philosophy is a worthy vocation. Philosophy is a God-given tool for thinking clearly, especially about moral issues.
Kaurin cautions that philosophy must also be pastoral. We might here remember Luther’s pastoral focus. The task of philosophy is not just to question, but must also show, as Kaurin puts it, “how to put the pieces back together”. Philosophers must be counsellors, as well as prophets.
Finally, it might surprise both Lutherans and feminists to find that Lutheran theologians are finding common ground with, and speaking to, feminists. Feminism’s concern that human beings should not be reduced from subjects to objects is mirrored by Luther’s concern that God should not be reduced from a subject to an object through the use of reason, resulting in Kierkegaard’s “endless parenthesis”. For some feminists, it is important to challenge reason as the dominant path to knowledge. Reason is not, of course, actually male, but has been aligned with masculinity, in contrast to feminine emotion. It is not exactly this interpretation that some feminists are challenging, but simply the fact that ultimately it is assumed (perhaps subconsciously) that reason is superior because the male is superior. For some feminists, as with Luther, Kierkegaard and Hamann, it is important to see reason and the emotions (or experience) as working together, and this brings us to a more holistic view of what knowledge actually is.
Further reading:
Barth, Hans-Martin, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment, Fortress Press.
Braaten, Carl, Principles of Lutheran Theology, Fortress Press.
Betz, John, After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann, Wiley-Blackwell.
Evans, C. Stephen, Kierkegaard: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press.
Hockenbery Dragseth, Jennifer (ed.), The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition, Fortress Press.


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