Next to the false idea that he believed Christians, freed from sin by grace, could live any way they wished – the heresy of antinomianism – probably the greatest popular caricature of Martin Luther is that he despised the operations of human reason and advocated a form of faith that veered dangerously close to irrational, ungrounded human fancy. Consider the following remark of his:
Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom … Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism… She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.:”(Note that at present I have not verified this citation, which I found in a secondary source. That source gave the following attribution: Martin Luther, Erlangen Edition v. 16, pp. 142-148. If anyone can verify this source, I would appreciate it.)”:
Or again, this one:
But since the devil’s bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she’s wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil’s greatest whore.:”(Note that at present I have not verified this citation, which I found in a secondary source. That source gave the following attribution: Martin Luther’s Last Sermon in Wittenberg … Second Sunday in Epiphany, 17 January 1546. Dr. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. [Weimar: Herman Boehlaus Nachfolger, 1914], Band 51:126, Line 7ff)”:
Sometimes opponents of the Reformation make citations like these the foundation of attacks on the Reformation, using them as attempts to show that the Reformers’ program was fundamentally irrational and against authority. They point to the fact that at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther said that one of the things from which he would require a demonstration of his errors was “plain reason.” But how could this have been provided to him if in his own view reason was a worthless whore who should be “trodden underfoot and destroyed”?
Other times even friends of the Reformation seize on citations like these and take them as literal descriptions of the fundamental hostility of human reason to Divine Scripture. This literal reading of Luther is made part of campaigns to denigrate whatever conclusions of “mere human rationality” are found to disagree with what such people consider to be “the plain meaning of Scripture.” Reason and Faith are drastically opposed, and it is our duty as Christians to always follow the latter.
Before we examine what Luther actually meant by his remarks about “the Devil’s whore,” we need to understand that attacking reason itself is foolish, since the only way that any of us can ever evaluate anything, the only way any of us can understand the difference between “true” and “false,” let alone choose between options competing for our intellectual allegiance, is to accept the basic reliability of our rational processes.
We can neither prove nor disprove that reason is reliable, because all attempts to prove or disprove it would have to use it to make their arguments. Reason, defined as our basic human rational ability, is literally the standard by which we determine whether a thing is true or false. We have to just accept its reliability because without it we cannot think at all – let alone think that reason is unreliable!
The next thing we need to understand is that the Reformers were not operating in an intellectual or doctrinal or cultural vacuum. They were not sitting around with minds empty of all preconceptions, just mining out pure truth from the Bible Alone, as if no one had ever read the Bible before them and as if nothing from outside of them could be admitted into the process of their thoughts.
The Reformers were, in fact, deeply influenced by the intellectual currents of Medieval philosophy and of the Renaissance, and to understand Luther’s remark that reason is “the Devil’s whore,” we need to grasp a few things about Medieval philosophy and the Renaissance.
Medieval philosophy is also called “Scholasticism,” since it was done in the Schools, first the monastic and cathedral schools, and later the Universities. The course of Scholasticism may be roughly divided into two phases. The first was largely Platonic in orientation, driven by St. Augustine’s conception of human knowledge as coming from divine illumination of the human mind.
The tradition of theology that Augustine set in motion downplayed sensory experience and essentially “fused” faith and reason. The Christian Faith was reasonable, and what was reasonable was the Christian Faith. For Augustine, even the doctrine of the Trinity could be proven by rational argument in the same fashion as reason could prove anything. The height of this form of theologizing is found in St. Anselm (1033-1109), who argued that God-given human reason could conclusively demonstrate all the truths of the Christian faith without appealing to divine revelation.
The second phase of Scholastic theology started when Thomas Aquinas brought Aristotle into the service of Christian truth in the mid-13th century. Aristotle, unlike Plato, featured a heavy focus on empirical reality. Several key things that Aristotle had believed ran contrary to Christian doctrine, and so Christian Aristotelians had to introduce the principle that what can be demonstrated by human reason alone is limited. Human reason can demonstrate some things that are compatible with the Faith, but other things, especially the central mysteries of the Faith, are totally unknowable apart from the authority of divine revelation.
Unlike Augustine, then, Aquinas did not believe that the Trinity could be demonstrated via human reason. It had to be accepted simply on the authority of faith. Like the Augustinians, Aquinas believed that Christian faith was rational. Nevertheless, many of the Augustinians accused his work of separating the spheres of reason and revelation, of making it possible for one and the same proposition to be absolutely true in the sphere of faith, yet absolutely false in the sphere of reason.
For the Augustinians, this doctrine would have made nonsense of much of the Christian heritage, and they reacted vehemently against it. Several times, most notably in 1277 with the Bishop of Paris’ condemnations, they managed to cast deep suspicion on the Aristotelians.
It should be understood that Thomas was not actually guilty of the separation of faith and reason of which the Augustinians accused his work. In fact, Thomas was fighting against that sort of separation, in the form of a belief called “Latin Averroism,” a thinly-veiled Christian compromise with a form of Aristotelian belief coming from Muslim intellectual circles and which actually did separate faith and reason.
The Latin Averroists embraced such Aristotelian doctrines as the denial of the immortality of the soul and the eternal duration of the physical world – doctrines which contradicted the Christian Faith, but which they could accept if they simply divorced the claims of faith from the claims of reason.
Thomas Aquinas fought this view vigorously, agreeing with the Christian Platonists of the Augustinian tradition that the Christian Faith was inherently reasonable. Again, where he disagreed with the Augustinians was on the idea that some of the doctrines of the faith were beyond the ability of reason to demonstrate.
At any rate, over time Aristotelianism took Christian intellectual work by storm and became the accepted norm for doing academic theology. Throughout the fourteenth century, as Scholastic theology progressed in the Aristotelian mode, the separation between faith and reason against which Aquinas had been fighting actually did come to characterize much of the work in the Schools. Many Scholastic philosophers held that theology was simply beyond the ability of reason to assess – a view which called into question several key accepted truths about God, human freedom, and salvation.
Other Scholastic theologians redoubled the effort to harmonize Christianity with Aristotelianism. The fifteenth century was particularly important for the dominance of an “Aristotelianized” theology in the Universities. The Aristotelian method of logical analysis, while not a bad thing in and of itself, came increasingly to be seen as the way to know truth.
A major result of all this Scholastic infighting was that in terms of culture in general, the natural and the supernatural started to go their own ways, to pursue standards of reason and knowledge that were independent of each other. This trend, which basically separates the sources from commentaries on the sources helped to give birth to the Renaissance, which was a multi-faceted attempt to re-engage the original sources of the past and reappropriate their wisdom for contemporary life. The claims of faith and the claims of reason were increasingly seen to be very different things, and since piety demanded that faith always trump reason, reason came to be darkly suspected by many theologians.
An interesting statement of this view comes from a directive issued by the University of Oxford. Although this citation is from 1586, almost 30 years after Luther’s death, it is the same Renaissance-based view that motivated Luther. The Oxford directive said, “whether according to the old and laudable standards of the university Aristotle or other authors following Aristotle’s thought should be defended, all the sterile and inane questions of antiquity disagree with the true philosophy, and are to be excluded and banished from the university’s schools.”:”(James McConica, “Humanism and Aristotle in Tudor Oxford,” in The English Historical Review, Vol. 94, No. 371 [Apr., 1979] pp. 301-202, fn. 5. This is my translation of text which McConica gives in Latin: “vel Aristotelem secundum vetera et laudabilia universitatis statuta, vel alios authores secundum Aristotelem defendendos esse, omnesque steriles et inanes quaestiones ab antiqua et vera philosophia dissidentes, a scholis excludendas et exterminandas”.)”:
This was a classic statement of the Renaissance humanist approach. That approach was profoundly influential on the Reformers, and directly underlies their appeal to going back to the sources and letting them speak for themselves. As the humanists saw it, the whole developed apparatus of Scholastic theology in the Aristotelian mode caused the reading of Scripture to be overlaid with commentaries based on material extraneous to Scripture itself. This had the effect of obscuring Scripture’s own language and the theologian’s ability to consider the original contexts of the biblical writers. Text and interpretation essentially became fused, so that to question the interpretation was treated as questioning the text itself.
As a trained Renaissance humanist and an intensely practical, pastorally-oriented leader, Luther saw the huge problems that this developed mode of engaging the Scriptures created. He was convinced that much of the problem with the Church’s theology in his day stemmed from the syncretization of the Catholic religion with Aristotle. This is why he said in one place “The Devil takes the Bible from us, and gives us the accursed fictions of Aristotle.” And in another, “When I was a monk they used to despise the Bible. Nobody understood the Psalter. They used to believe that the Epistle to the Romans contained some controversies about matters of Paul’s day and was of no use for our age. Scotus, Thomas, Aristotle were the ones to read.”:”(Cited by B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther [Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1962], pg. 36.)”:
In this light, it is not difficult to understand why Luther made a translation of the Scriptures into German and deliberately excluded from it the traditional Medieval marginal glosses on the text. By removing the extraneous commentaries of others from the pages which confronted the reader, Luther hoped to force the reader to deal directly with the text of the Scriptures, to hear the very voice of God speaking rather than the voices of His many learned interpreters.
In this connection, Luther was particularly hard on the school of Scholastic thought known as Nominalism. We cannot go into Nominalism in great detail here, but will have to content ourselves with a very brief summary of its objectionable points for Luther.:”(Much of the following summary is drawn from Gerrish, Grace and Reason, pp. 122 ff.)”:
A commonplace of Medieval Scholastic theology was the ancient Greek and Roman view of “justice” as “giving to each one what he deserves.” The Nominalist school of theology for about a century and a half prior to Luther had been developing this understanding of justice into a scheme in which man was thought to have a natural ability, that is, an ability apart from God’s grace, to do good works.
This ability was called merit de congruo, or a merit that was “suitable” to man’s condition apart from grace. Being a form of merit, it was related to the definition of justice in that logically speaking it ought to require some form of recompense. Having fulfilled certain obligations which were suitable to his nature as man apart from grace, a man would be entitled to the reward specified by the definition of justice.
However, the Nominalists were Christians, and they knew that the Scriptures teach that God owes no man anything. As they put it, “Deus non est debitor,” or, “God is not a debtor.” Still, although God was not strictly speaking a debtor to man and did not have to give him a reward for fulfilling the conditions of merit de congruo, the Nominalists spilled a great deal of ink arguing that it was “fitting” for God to reward men who did “quod in se est,” or “what it was in their power to do.”
Consequently, said the Nominalists, God would give such a person grace, thus enabling them to go on to do a second class of works called merit de condigno. This class of works, being empowered by grace, would, in fact, obligate God to give the reward of eternal life which would, by the definition of justice we have already mentioned, be due to the man who fulfilled the condition.
This is the type of theology that Luther was referring to when he spoke of “reason” proudly presuming to tell us what God requires of us for salvation. This is why in one place he railed against what he called “the accursed fictions of Aristotle,” and in another place of how “this damned, conceited, rascally heathen [Aristotle] has with his false words deluded and made fools of so many of the best Christians. God has sent him as a plague upon us for our sins.”
Let me close this short treatment with one of the clearest citations of Luther’s view of reason, from the 1522 Postil for Epiphany on Isaiah 60:1-6:
In temporal affairs and those which have to do with men, the rational man is self-sufficient…here he needs no other light than reason’s. Therefore, God does not teach us in the Scriptures how to build houses, make clothing, marry, wage war, navigate, and the like. For here the light of nature is sufficient. But in godly affairs, that is, in those which have to do with God, where man must do what is acceptable with God and be saved thereby – here, however, nature is absolutely stone-blind, so that it cannot even catch a glimpse…of what those things are. It is presumptuous enough to bluster and plunge into them, like a blind horse; but all its conclusions are utterly false, as surely as God lives.
Note the two sides of reason for Luther in this quote. In temporal affairs, that is, affairs having to do only with man’s earthly life, human reason is sufficient and no other light is needed. However, on “those things which have to do with God” and man’s salvation, nature, and therefore, man’s natural reason is “stone-blind” and “cannot even catch a glimpse” of the truth.
It should be clear, then, that when Luther called reason “the Devil’s Whore,” he was not being an irrational fool or exempting himself from criticism by the basic standards of logic. The “reason” that Luther identifies as “the Devil’s Whore” is not basic human standards of logic, but the intrusion into the things of God by a certain mode of doing theology.
We should, therefore, understand Luther’s remark about reason as “the Devil’s Whore” as just one more typical Renaissance rhetorical attack on the excesses of late Medieval Scholastic theology. This is just one of many ways that the Protestant Reformers were deeply indebted to the Renaissance. By coming to ourselves more deeply appreciate such connections our appreciation for the achievements of the Reformation will only be strengthened.
[Note: I would like to improve this essay for possible future publication in another venue. Constructive comments from those who may know better on a particular issue I mentioned are welcome.]