Luther and the divorce between faith and reason

Many Christians, like those in an Anglican church close to where I live, are inviting people to come and celebrate with them in coming weeks because October 31, 2017 marks the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. That was the day Brother Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses against the practices of the Catholic Church on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, beginning a schism from which the Christian West has not yet recovered.

One of the major sources of division between the two Christianities, the Catholic one and the Reformed one, was Luther’s insistence that we are justified by faith alone and not works. I am not going to attempt to arbitrate the rights and wrongs of the question of salvation here. But it is clear that Luther’s proposition left good works in a very precarious position. If you were not justified by them, why even do them? And yet common sense dictated that it was still better to do good works than bad ones.

Wasn’t it better, for example, to get up and serve people at the table than be lazy and allow yourself to be served? Or to give alms rather than not to? Unwittingly perhaps, Luther eviscerated good works, stripping them of value except as evidence that you had been saved. This put everyday virtues in a bad light, so much so that the idea of virtue is still dangerous territory for evangelical Christians if only at the theoretical level.

Reason, “the greatest enemy of faith”

This scepticism about good works is allied to another Lutheran theological assertion; that human nature is completely corrupt after original sin. There are no good works in a human being because of that totally corrupt nature – not just pretty badly wounded nature, as in Catholicism’s understanding of the situation. If Luther’s idea of a completely corrupt human nature is the starting point, a person who exercises herself in good works thinking that they will bring her close to God is like a person digging a hole; the more she digs, the bigger it gets and the harder it is to get out of. The exercise of works has a practical value, but one would be deluded to think they had supernatural value.

Luther’s understanding that original sin has wreaked havoc on our human nature also led him to deny the value of using one’s reason to understand God. Luther’s most famous words in this regard are the following:

Reason is a whore, 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.

This is not the only reference to reason as a whore in Luther. There are plenty of other statements along the same lines often involving the devil, and Aristotle, in the mix. Luther did claim that reason had a vital place in the organization of the world, in politics and economics, for example – that is, practical reason; but the use of philosophical reason in theology was like uniting oneself to someone faithless for a price and not to one’s real wife for love.

Analogously to the problem of good works, then, the more you use your reason to approach God, the more you are digging a hole for your damnation. As one contemporary Lutheran scholar says, “Reason is not just insufficient; its fallen nature has placed it in perpetual conflict with the will of God.” Reason entices a person simply to dabble in rational or intellectual delights and these will only lead them further and further away from the true knowledge of God.

The split between faith and reason

It is easy to see how one of the most profound effects of Luther’s approach to reason was a generalized distrust of it amongst the theologians and adherents of the reformed tradition, the theological and spiritual tradition that dominates the Anglo-Saxon world. Luther’s distrust of reason was broader however, than its application to theology. It was not long before philosophy, that branch of knowledge most closely associated with reason, was itself regarded as something detached from religion. If Luther thought that his knowledge of God through the Scriptures (faith) was superior to human reason, others began to regard human reason as superior to faith. That movement was called the Enlightenment; the Age of Reason with capital letters.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the West inherited from Luther two “thought worlds”: one which, putting reason aside, believed in God relying only on conclusions drawn from Scripture; and the other, putting the “question” of God to one side, relied on the application of reason to human realities. Thus, Luther’s deprecation of reason is one of the factors that gave rise in the West and particularly in the English-speaking world to the split between faith and reason. From there it was a small step to a supposed conflict between religion and science. The origins of this conflict certainly owed something to propagandist use of the Galileo affair by Enlightenment writers, but at a more basic level, it had to do with the perceived distance between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of the universe first insisted upon by Martin Luther.

The consequences of the split between faith and reason were also personal. Many people began to live in two thought-worlds – one of faith, which purportedly could attain a certain knowledge of God (as a Trinity, for example) and how God wanted people to act (the commandments), and one of practical science.

In the centuries immediately after Luther, the second of these two thought worlds started to prove its worth in the form of the technological advances it spawned. Despite hiccoughs along the way, the world began to become a less cruel place to live in as machines did more work, medicine cured illnesses and the mysteries of the universe  were given scientific explanations. The achievements of science could not be denied. Luther’s stark separation of the two thought-worlds induced some to think they had to choose between the two. There seemed to be no doubt as to which option was rational.

One of the worst consequences of the two thought world view of society is becoming more and more obvious today: the branding of religious reasons for doing things as not valid in the public square. Religious reasons are, according to the “reason = science” way of thinking, no reasons at all. They do not stand up to the tests of sight and touch. They are beyond measurement and calculation and are therefore alien to what our culture is and ought to be.

‘If it’s religious it can’t be rational’

Another nefarious consequence of the situation I have described is that the rationality of some arguments is obscured for many people simply because these arguments align with religious positions. The propagandists for the opposite side of these arguments are very ready to claim we live in a secular society and therefore religious arguments do not count. There are very good arguments, for example, against abortion, same-sex marriage or gender theory, but they are almost always cast as religious arguments. Their opposites are cast as secular (and therefore necessarily rational) arguments and the contentious issues themselves are framed as if there are only two alternatives.

As a result many common-sense views that were once regarded as reasonable are regarded as irrational. And, at the same time, we are asked to believe that quite ridiculous things are rational. Here is a short list of the latter: many of our neuroses are caused by our incest longing (thanks Mr Freud); even though we use the term natural justice, we don’t really mean there is such a thing; humans cannot possibly make a commitment for their whole lives; homosexual sex is of the same nature as heterosexual sex; a man is not a man but a woman if he feels like one; the only things which distinguish a man from a woman are menstruation, lactation and ejaculation (courtesy of a feminist university professor at a boys education conference in 2005).

In other words, what we are really seeing is that reason severed from an understanding of God loses its way. If we begin by saying reason cannot access God, in some way at least, we end by saying that we cannot access reality.

As Chesterton said in the 1930s while observing the directions supposedly serious philosophy had taken us,

The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.

It is unfair to lay all of this mental destruction at the feet of a sixteenth century

Augustinian monk who railed rightly against some serious defects in the status quo of his time, but I wonder if he had his time over again, whether he would label reason a whore.

Martin Fitzgerald is a teacher at Redfield College, in Sydney. This article first appeared on