Quote-mining Luther, Einstein and Feyerabend

Posted on 10/04/11 37 Comments

In my last post I expressed my dissatisfaction with the way that “anti-reason” quotes from Martin Luther get thrown around without context by atheists and skeptics as a way to marginalize Christianity and the concept of faith. Ray Ingles responded like this:

I dunno. You got any quotes where he says something different? Or expresses the regret he “may have later” felt?

Alternatively, you could pick one of the quotes and provide some context, showing how it doesn’t mean what it appears to mean.

This response misses the whole point of my article. The point is this: it is irresponsible to repeat strings of quotes extracted from the body of an individual’s work with no understanding of the literary, social and historical context of those quotes. Does Ray disagree with that? I sure hope not.

Perhaps I can warm Ray up to the critique if I point out that Christians do the same thing and it is just as unacceptable when they do it. For example, consider the following quote from Albert Einstein:

“I want to know how God created this world. I’m not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.”

Imagine a Christian apologist who drops this quote into a talk on intelligent design. How would you feel about that? Wouldn’t you want to ask things like “What does Einstein mean by ‘God’ in this passage?” and “What is the context of this statement?” It is irresponsible to go quote hunting for our own personal agenda whether the quote is pulled from Einstein or Luther or anybody else. Surely Ray would agree with this?

Next, we have to ask what people hope to accomplish by throwing around quotes from Luther. What significance is that supposed to have for the wider Christian community? Well, unless you’re head of the local chapter of the Luther fan club, the answer is: probably not much.

Perhaps another illustration will help to make that point. Imagine quote mining the radical philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. For example, here’s a juicy one:

“The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes.”

This statement appears in the very influential book Against Method. Now imagine a Luddite who constantly throws up this quote in science blogs. Even if the quote is, in context, as indefensible as it sounds, so what? That was Feyerabend, not science. And even if some of the things Luther said are indefensible, so what? That was Luther, not Christianity.

Now let’s turn to Ray’s request that I provide some context for one of these quotes. But as I do this please keep in mind that it isn’t my responsibility to do this at all. Rather, it is the responsibility of the person who wants to quote Luther to establish some broader thesis about the faith/reason relationship to do so responsibly by providing background context.

Nonetheless, I will provide a model here for how the task is done. Here’s perhaps the favorite quote:

“Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has”

Let’s note first that this statement appears in the aforementioned “Table Talk”, a vast collection of writings (55 volumes in English translation) where Luther offers his various reflections in an informal setting, often while drinking pints with his students taking notes on what he said. That is important to keep in mind as we read the “Table Talk”.  

Don’t believe me? Okay, think of Feyerabend again. Our chosen quote (“The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes”) appears in a formal treatise. But would it make a difference if he said it at 11 PM after a couple beers at a conference reception and one of those listening in happened to write it down? Of course it would. People invariably speak more loosely and incautiously in informal settings than formal ones. There is nothing wrong with that either. The problem, rather, is to treat what they say in an informal setting as if it were part of a formal treatise. And then to rip it out of the immediate context and use it as evidence for some kind of sweeping argument intended to marginalize an entire discipline or worldview or religion. When you think about it, that’s not only indefensible, it’s reprehensible.

Finally, let’s turn to the passage itself:

The anabaptists pretend that children, not as yet having reason, ought not yet to receive baptism. I answer: That reason in no way contributes to faith. Nay, in that children are destitute of reason, they are all the more fit and proper recipients of baptism. For reason is 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. If God can communicate the Holy Ghost to grown persons, he can, a fortiori, communicate it to young children. Faith comes of the Word of God, when this is heard; little children hear that Word when they receive baptism, and therewith they also receive faith.

I could go on about this passage at some length but I’ll keep my comments brief. First point, the context of the quote is Anabaptist views of baptism. The Anabaptists rejected pedobaptism, arguing that you need to be of a sufficiently developed mental or cognitive state to affirm certain propositions as true before you can be baptized. Luther rejected this vociferously. And the reason is clear: he saw it as a threat to his doctrine of justification by faith.

Perhaps an analogy will help. The Joneses have a ten year old boy and a day old baby. Is the day old baby a part of the family as surely as the ten year old? Of course! And it is ridiculous to suggest otherwise. At the moment of her birth (if not before) that baby entered into membership in a family. And her membership in that family is not dependent at all on her ability to grasp certain propositional truths about Mr. Jones (her father) or the Jones family. She will grown into that knowledge but all the while she is part of the family.

That parallels Luther’s view of membership in the church. In virtue of being born to Christian parents who are part of a Christian community that little girl is as surely a member of that Christian community as she is a member of the Jones family.

When Luther writes that “reason is the greatest enemy faith has” he is saying that making your relationship to God and membership in the Christian community dependent upon a certain level of cognitive ability is inimical to the very nature of that relationship which, by grace and through faith, is in nowise dependent upon our cognitive ability.

Needless to say, Luther’s target is not reason per se. Indeed the suggestion that Luther is repudiating reason simpliciter is absurd given that he is reasoning in this passage for pedobaptism over-against credobaptism based on the doctrine of justification by faith.

My initial plea still stands: please quote others the way you’d want to be quoted.

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  • clamat

    For the record, I do not dispute your main point.

    However, taken in full context the quote stands for exactly the proposition for which atheists advance it. If pressed further, Luther might have said “I was drunk! I didn’t mean that,” but the text says what it says:

    “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.” Consequently, because “children are destitute of reason,” children are better able to “hear [the] Word when they receive baptism, and therewith [] also receive faith.”

    When Luther writes that “reason is the greatest enemy faith has” he is saying that making your relationship to God and membership in the Christian community dependent upon a certain level of cognitive ability is inimical to the very nature of that relationship which, by grace and through faith, is in nowise dependent upon our cognitive ability.

    Yes, he disagrees with the Anabaptists. But he’s also plainly — and explicitly — saying reason is antagonistic to faith, that reason, quote, “Struggles against the Divine…treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

    • randal

      “taken in full context the quote stands for exactly the proposition for which atheists advance it.”

      No it doesn’t. Luther’s target is the view that you need to reach a cognitive threshold and grasp certain propositional information in order to be part of the church. His target is not reason simpliciter. You cannot isolate his statement apart from that context and by trying to suggest otherwise you end up painting yourself as an extraordinarily naive and uncharitable reader (which I know you aren’t).

      Luther is using hyperbolic language to drive home a point: we are in relationship by grace before we ever begin to reason. Think, by analogy, of Christopher Hitchens’ hyperbolic subtitle: “How religion poisons everything.” A Christian who critiques Hitchens for using hyperbole in a subtitle is not engaging seriously with the author. The same goes here. The position Luther is arguing here has absolutely nothing to do with the irrational fideism that atheists try to foist on Christians when they quote this passage.

      • clamat

        you end up painting yourself as an extraordinarily naive and uncharitable reader (which I know you aren’t)

        I appreciate that, and back at you. But to the extent I’m guilty of ignoring context, you are equally guilty of ignoring the text. I don’t see how one can declare what the text means without actually analyzing it.

        There are several concepts at work in the passage. The main point is as you note: The Anabaptist position on pedobaptism is incorrect. Why? Because “if God can communicate the Holy Ghost to grown persons, he can, a fortiori, communicate it to young children.” Further, Luther argues children “are all the more fit and proper recipients of baptism” because “reason is the greatest enemy that faith has,” and children are “destitute of reason.”

        No, “religion poisons everything” doesn’t mean Hitchens thinks religion literally administers strychnine to everything. It does mean, however, that Hitchens thinks that religion is really, really, really bad.

        “Reason is the greatest enemy faith has.” This may be hyperbolic, but hyperbole is simply an exaggeration of a position one actually holds. Luther may not mean reason is literally the single greatest enemy faith has. But Luther undoubtedly thinks reason is inimical to faith. Sometimes the words really do speak for themselves.

        (Though not entirely inimical: “more frequently than not.” Perhaps, per Ray, he’s arguing against reason “under the Devil’s control”? Or maybe it’s too much reason? Or the degree to which reason threatens faith? Meaning, it may be the “greatest enemy,” but even the greatest enemy is not much of a threat at all.)

        The position Luther is arguing here has absolutely nothing to do with the irrational fideism that atheists try to foist on Christians when they quote this passage.

        I use the passage to illustrate that no less a personage than Luther recognized that reason threatens faith, and this is how I’ve seen other atheists use it. If others use it to foist irrational fideism on Christians, I understand your objection.

        • randal

          I vouched for your hermeneutical abilities Clamat. Now you’re making that vote of confidence look misplaced.

          Here is a definition of reason (verb): “to think or argue in a logical manner.” You seem to be suggesting that Luther is stating this practice, that is, the practice of thinking in a logical manner, is the greatest enemy of faith. As I said, that is extraordinarily naive and uncharitable as an interpretation. It is also self-defeating since Luther is thinking in a logical manner in this very passage as he aims to defend his thesis over-against that of the Anabaptists.

          Within this context “reason” doesn’t mean “to think or argue in a logical manner” at all. Nor could it. Luther’s actual meaning is more like this: “Individualistic, autonomous human reason is the greatest enemy of saving faith.” In other words, Luther’s enemy here is not rationalism. Rather, it is incipient Pelagianism. That is, Luther is concerned here with soteriological justification, not epistemic justification. You are reading this passage with all the dullness of a twelve year old raised on DC Comics. When you quote-mine this and other passages as you do, you set up a strawman and discredit yourself.

          • clamat

            “Individualistic, autonomous human reason is the greatest enemy of saving faith.”

            Ohhh, so Luther wasn’t talking about collective, unfree, non-human reason or “non-saving faith”? Gee, thanks for clearing that up. Yep, this is basically the concept of “reason” I was working with, not the “thinking in a logical manner” you threw out there. None of your extraneous words change the analysis or thrust of the passage (the actual text of which you steadfastly refuse to engage).

            Luther’s enemy here is not rationalism.

            Even though he says “Reason is the enemy.” Okayyy.

            Rather, it is incipient Pelagianism.

            So now the passage isn’t about pedobaptism, or the relationship between cognitive ability and “membership in the Christian community,” it’s about “incipient Pelagianism.” Fine.

            But to advance his argument, he relies on the explicit claim that reason is the greatest enemy of faith. A piece of writing can indeed advance one concept by relying on another (as well as identify multiple enemies). (Put another way: What exactly is Luther’s argument that “individualistic, autonomous human reason” leads to Pelagianism? If this isn’t his argument, what purpose does saying “Reason is the greatest enemy of faith” serve? Please cite to the actual text, not unsupported speculation about “Luther’s actual meaning.”)

            Luther is concerned here with soteriological justification.

            Fine again, the specific discussion of pedobaptism falls under the general umbrella of soteriology. But that doesn’t mean you get to simply ignore the specifics of the discussion. Luther clearly advances his specific argument by asserting that pedobaptism is a means to salvation largely because children don’t have (individualistic, autonomous, human) reason, which is the greatest enemy of (saving) faith.

            You are reading this passage with all the dullness of a twelve year old raised on DC Comics.

            And I discredit myself.

            • randal

              clamat says “So now the passage isn’t about pedobaptism, or the relationship between cognitive ability and “membership in the Christian community,” it’s about “incipient Pelagianism.” Fine.”

              You write as if I am shifting goal posts. But the fact is that these issues are all intimately connected. Luther’s point in critiquing the Anabaptists is indeed to refute their credobaptist view of the sacrament of baptism which, he believed, would lead to pelagianism and thereby undermine the doctrine of sola fide.

              “But to advance his argument, he relies on the explicit claim that reason is the greatest enemy of faith.”

              What you need to do is distinguish between a sentence inscription and sentential meaning. Repeating the sentence inscription as recorded in “Table Talk” does not provide the sentential meaning.

              The sentence in question is a rhetorical use of hyperbole to emphasize that cognitive ability (i.e. reason) does not contribute anything to salvation (i.e. saving faith). To think otherwise, that is, to think that my ability to reason (e.g. to grasp and assent to the proposition “Jesus is Lord”) is a necessary condition in my own salvation, is to add something to faith. In other words, within this context you need to understand that for Luther’s argument here “reason” as a necessary part of credobaptism is tantamount to a pelagian “work”. His whole discussion here has no relation whatsoever to the concept of reason in contemporary epistemology.

              • clamat

                The sentence in question is a rhetorical use of hyperbole to emphasize that cognitive ability (i.e. reason) does not contribute anything to salvation (i.e. saving faith).

                No. Again, I urge you to actually read the text. This sentence…

                That reason in no way contributes to faith.

                …emphasizes that cognitive ability does not contribute anything to salvation (i.e. saving faith).

                The sentence in question

                For reason is the greatest enemy faith has[.]”

                …is a separate, affirmative statement that, far from contributing to faith, reason actually is inimical to faith. Exactly as it purports to be.

          • clamat

            Here is a definition of reason (verb): “to think or argue in a logical manner.” You seem to be suggesting that Luther is stating this practice, that is, the practice of thinking in a logical manner, is the greatest enemy of faith. As I said, that is extraordinarily naive and uncharitable as an interpretation.

            You select your own definition of “reason,” attribute it to me without any foundation whatsoever, and attack me based on this definition. And you accuse me of setting up a strawman? Ridiculous.

            • randal

              “Ridiculous”.

              The definition of reason I provided isn’t a tendentious one. It’s simply how the verb reason is defined in the dictionary. If you are working with an idiosyncratic view of reason that differs substantially from this dictionary definition then please provide that definition and explain why you think it accurately describes what Luther is talking about.

              • clamat

                You are far too fond of the word “tendentious.”

                provide that definition and explain why you think it accurately describes what Luther is talking about.

                I just agreed to use your proffered definition (but noted that it doesn’t really add much to the mix except extra words). See my previous post.

                • randal

                  That is a tendentious comment.

          • Jag Levak

            “Here is a definition of reason (verb): “to think or argue in a logical manner.” You seem to be suggesting that Luther is stating this practice, that is, the practice of thinking in a logical manner, is the greatest enemy of faith.”

            Well shoot. If “thinking in a logical manner” is the definition of reason you are using, then this is a fuss over nothing. Yes, that is *a* definition, but when atheists talk about the incompatibility of reason and faith, they are talking about reason as a sound basis for belief (in your definition, one could “reason” for a position one believed to be false, merely by proceeding logically from premises one did not accept). When faith and reason are contrasted, both of them are typically considered as being concerned with establishing what is true, and the contrast has to do with what is accepted as legitimate and reliable in the pursuit of truth. In faith, some of the sources of information deemed reliable include intuition, feelings, dreams, inspiration, revelation, mystical experience, testimony, and scripture. Belief which is based on reason, on the other hand, depends on evidence, interpretation, implication, testability, and probability. Can you start with one faith belief and then from there derive another faith belief by implication? Yes, of course. Witness, for example, Star2’s reasoning for a universe that is less than 7000 years old which proceeds from the premise that the Bible is completely true. If all you are saying is that that is the sort of reason which is compatible with faith, then yeah, I’d grant that outright.

            But as a basis for belief, it seems clear to me that reason and faith are purely competitors. Reason has the upper hand wherever it is sufficient. There is no need for faith when evidence, inference, and probability is already rationally compelling. If we lived in a universe where a God were manifestly obvious to everyone, we would never have come up with the idea of faith in the existence of God in the first place. For there to be a role for faith, there has to be a desire for a belief (all faith is rooted in a desire for something to be true), and there has to be an insufficiency of rational support for that belief, or downright antagonism with evidence and reason.

            Reason does not accept the bases of faith as legitimately reliable, leaving faith with nothing to contribute to reason. Faith rejects the primacy of reason, and claims the ability to go beyond, and even overrule, what can be established by reason. I think there would be no question that reason has nothing to contribute to faith were it not for the enviable record reason has has piled up, and the prestige that goes with that.

            That, at least, is how I currently see it. But I’ve had previous positions bested by superior arguments before, and I always stand ready to change my mind and swap for a stronger position whenever the opportunity presents itself–though I already concede, there is a lopsidedness in that on this issue, because I can only be persuaded by reason, not faith.

            • randal

              Jag, there is an underlying assumption in your writing that reason can proceed without faith. That just isn’t true. For example, read William Alston’s The Reliability of Sense Perception. More generally, read up on “fallibilism” in epistemology.

              • Jag Levak

                “Jag, there is an underlying assumption in your writing that reason can proceed without faith.”

                Let me guess, you are referring to some different sort of faith than what atheists have in mind when they talk about religious faith.

                • randal

                  This is what I mean (it is not a perfect definition, but suitable for present purposes): “faith: trust in the truth of a proposition”.

                  • Jag Levak

                    Ah, well, the word most people use for that is “belief” but, sure, by that definition of faith, I would quite agree some axioms of reason have to be accepted in order for the results of reason to be accepted.

                    And that is something quite different from what atheists and skeptics are talking about whey they contend against ‘faith’.

                    • randal

                      “And that is something quite different from what atheists and skeptics are talking about whey they contend against ‘faith’.”

                      Not in my experience. But maybe it is different from what you mean. So what are you referring to them?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Out of order, but…

    Next, we have to ask what people hope to accomplish by throwing around quotes from Luther. What significance is that supposed to have for the wider Christian community? And even if some of the things Luther said are indefensible, so what? That was Luther, not Christianity.

    Pointing out indefensible things some adherents have said can be an ‘existence proof’. For example, pointing out that Luther was (ahem) very anti-Semitic doesn’t mean Lutheranism per se is inherently anti-Semitic. Indeed, today, it generally isn’t. But pointing it out can go a long way toward explaining how the Holocaust happened. (More, BTW, than attempts to pin the blame on ‘homosexuality’ or ‘Darwinism’…)

    The point is this: it is irresponsible to repeat strings of quotes extracted from the body of an individual’s work with no understanding of the literary, social and historical context of those quotes. Does Ray disagree with that? I sure hope not.

    I agree, of course. On the other hand, while Luther’s time and circumstances may help explain Luther’s anti-Semitism, that’s a long way from excusing it. An odious, inflammatory statement can remain indefensible even with acres of context.

    Now, the fact that someone was wrong in one area doesn’t mean they are wrong everywhere. Nor does it mean that people who agree with them in one area must perforce agree with them in all other areas. But if someone was wrong, then they were wrong.

    Another issue is that if he’s habitually using hyperbolic language, then it makes it harder to take the the contrary statements seriously, too, no?

    Luther did, in fact, make a distinction between reason “under the Devil’s control” and reason guided by the Holy Spirit – and if reason disagreed with the Word of God, that was prima facie evidence of Satan’s work. Hence, this Copernicus fellow must be wrong, whatever his reasoning, since Joshua commanded the Sun to stop in the sky, not the Earth to stop turning.

    • randal

      “Pointing out indefensible things some adherents have said can be an ‘existence proof’.”

      As I observed, quote-mining Feyerabend is no more relevant to science than quote-mining Martin Luther is relevant to Christianity.

      “while Luther’s time and circumstances may help explain Luther’s anti-Semitism, that’s a long way from excusing it.”

      Yes, but we’re not talking here about anti-Semitism. We’re talking about quoting Luther on faith and reason.

      “Another issue is that if he’s habitually using hyperbolic language, then it makes it harder to take the the contrary statements seriously, too, no?”

      Luther doesn’t “habitually use” hyperbolic language. Are you intending to use hyperbole with that description?

      “Hence, this Copernicus fellow must be wrong…”

      Ray, in the 1540s virtually everyone thought Copernicus was crazy.

      • Ed Babinski

        Randal, I agree with you that Luther should be studied in his historical context, so should the Bible. But by what agreed upon means can scholars pluck out of that context what is “inspired” and what is “not?”

        Second, if Luther was a man of his time as we agree, then what advantage is there exactly in having an inspired book to lead one (the world’s only inspired book), and also a heart regenerated by God, and also the promise that the Holy Spirit would lead a believer into truth — three mighty big advantages if they indeed exist — but such divine advantages could not prevent Luther from writing horrendous tracts against the Jews and signing a statement calling for the secular powers to execute unrepentant Anabaptists in Lutheran territory?

        • randal

          It is sadly true that the Judeo-Christian Bible does not have among its properties the property of meticulously correct interpretation (for wont of a better term; perhaps “hyper-perspicuity” would be better).

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    As I observed, quote-mining Feyerabend is no more relevant to science than quote-mining Martin Luther is relevant to Christianity.

    Yes and no. There have certainly been a number of scientists who took “anything goes” rather horrifyingly too far.

    If the goal is to establish that a particular idea or principle exists and is in play in at least a subset of a group, then quotes from someone in the group espousing that principle acts as… well, what I said: an “existence proof”.

    Yes, but we’re not talking here about anti-Semitism. We’re talking about quoting Luther on faith and reason.

    You stated that the apparent goal of quoting Luther regarding reason was to tar all of Christianity.

    I’m pointing out an example of quoting Luther that, er, reflects rather poorly on him, and points to a problematic strain within Christianity… but doesn’t tar all of Christianity. Heck, as I noted, it doesn’t even tar all of Lutheranism. If the goal is to establish the existence of problematic anti-Semitism among some Christians, quoting Luther’s “On the Jews and their Lies” is entirely legitimate.

    What if one quotes Luther on reason to establish the existence of a problematic anti-reason strain of thinking existing within Christianity? You could argue – have argued – that such a project is mistaken, but that’s not the same as illegitimate in principle. That’s what I’m saying.

    Luther doesn’t “habitually use” hyperbolic language. Are you intending to use hyperbole with that description?

    I thought you said Luther wrote… in the sixteenth century where scholarly standards of decorum were, to put it mildly, more brutish than they are today. And he was famous for being a hot-head who could be counted on to write things he would later regret?

    Ray, in the 1540s virtually everyone thought Copernicus was crazy.

    Ah, but were they justified in doing so? Luther didn’t even need to check Copernicus’ reasoning, he had the Word of God.

    (“It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it.” – Edmund Way Teale)

    • randal

      “If the goal is to establish that a particular idea or principle exists and is in play ….”

      That isn’t the standard goal. Rather, the goal of quote-mining Luther is to launch a broadside attack against the rationality of Christian belief.

      “You could argue – have argued – that such a project is mistaken, but that’s not the same as illegitimate in principle.”

      Quote-mining is illegitimate in principle. That’s what I’ve been addressing here. If a person wants to carefully read texts in context and then present a nuanced case based upon that informed enquiry as to certain positions held by the person studied, then fine. But that’s not what the quote-miner does.

      Being brutish, a hot-head and saying things you regret does not mean one uses hyperbole excessively.

      Yes, based on the evidence the layperson is the 1540s was amply justified in dismissing Copernicus. Even so, you should read up on your history to learn the warm embrace that Lutherans actualy gave to Copernicus.

      • Ed Babinski

        Randal, I think we both would agree with the article on Martin Luther in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophey that states, “Luther’s relationship to philosophy is complex and should not be judged only by his famous statement that ‘reason is the devil’s whore.'” But the article also concludes by pointing out that according to Luther Reason must always take a back seat to Revelation. http://www.iep.utm.edu/luther/

        Which reminds me of John Locke’s famous line:

        “Every sect, as far as reason will help them, make use of it gladly; and where it fails them, they cry out, ‘It is a matter of faith, and above reason.’”

        SEE ALSO THIS EXCERPT FROM DISSERTATION ABSTRACTS

        “The Place of Reason in the Theology of Luther: A Study in the History of Ideas” by Brian Albert Gerrish (McCormick Theological Seminary). Columbia University, 1958. — The first section shows how Luther’s attitude towards reason is related to his fundamental dualism of an Earthly and a Heavenly Kingdom. If we are to do justice to the complexity of Luther’s thought on the subject of “faith and reason” we must distinguish between:

        (1) natural reason, ruling within its proper domain (the Earthly Kingdom);

        (2) arrogant reason, trespassing upon the domain of faith (the Heavenly Kingdom);

        and

        (3) regenerate reason, serving humbly in the domain of faith, but always subject to the Word of God.

        Within the first context, reason is an excellent gift of God; within the second, it is the Devil’s Whore ; within the third, it is the handmaiden of faith. Similar conclusions are established concerning Luther’s attitude towards Aristotelian philosophy: he does not object to philosophy in its own proper place, but only when it trespasses upon the domain of faith and the Word.

        A chapter is devoted to the question how far Luther’s attitude towards reason was inherited by him from the Nominalist tradition in which he was trained; some parallels are acknowledged, but in anticipation of the second section it is argued that Luther’s quarrel is precisely with the Nominalists at one crucial point.

        The second section shows how Luther’s attitude towards reason is related to his attack on legalism in religion. It is maintained that in the second of the three contexts—namely, where reason is attacked for trespassing upon the domain of faith—the term “reason” stands, not so much for man’s rational capacities in general, but for the specific attitude of the natural man, who cannot think of religion in any other than legalistic terms. The attack against reason is, in fact, an attack against two false inferences which reason, before the regeneration of faith, habitually makes:

        (a) from the fact that God is just, it infers that He can be approached only by those who make themselves just;

        (b) from the fact that the Gospel denies the power of the law to justify men, it infers that the law is worthless and that men may as well live riotously.

        It is then shown how reason’s legalism is detected by Luther in the theology of the Schoolmen and especially in the Nominalism of the fourteenth century.

        A third section attempts to set Luther’s intellectual activity within its historical context, and it is suggested that he shared in the general shift of interest away from Scholastic philosophy and towards Humanist scholarship; so that for him the proper place for the exercise of “reason” was in scholarship rather than philosophy. Some illustrations are given of Luther’s intellectual achievements in the area of his own choosing.

        • randal

          “according to Luther Reason must always take a back seat to Revelation.”

          What’s so striking about this? It merely appeals to a general principle: i.e., when a person of vastly superior intellect and character testitifes to the truth of p, I ought to believe p, even if I can’t see how p could be true.

        • clamat

          Now that’s some context!

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        That isn’t the standard goal.

        You’re alleging two different crimes here.

        1. Misrepresenting Luther by quote-mining.
        2. Misrepresenting Christianity by using Luther as a definitive, comprehensive example.

        I’m emphasizing that they are two separate issues, by pointing out an example where they are distinct. (Luther’s anti-Semitism is not misrepresented, but it’s wrong to take his anti-Semitism as representative of modern Christianity, or even modern Lutheranism.)

        Quote-mining is illegitimate in principle.

        But that wasn’t what I was talking about there. I was talking about the distinct problem of taking one example of a group (e.g.
        Feyerabend) and using them to tar the entire group. Again, Luther’s anti-Semitism wasn’t established by “quote-mining”.

        Yes, based on the evidence the layperson is the 1540s was amply justified in dismissing Copernicus.

        What evidence did a layperson have to evaluate it?

        Even so, you should read up on your history to learn the warm embrace that Lutherans actualy gave to Copernicus.

        Eventually, after his work was published pretty much posthumously, yes. Bear in mind that I am not claiming that Christianity is opposed to all reason. We’ve already gone over my position.

        However, there is a definite strain of anti-reason in Christianity, and Luther’s quotes do provide an example of that. They don’t establish that reason is utterly incompatible with faith – but they do establish a distrust of reason.

        • randal

          You write: “there is a definite strain of anti-reason in Christianity”

          Translation: some Christians (e.g. Luther) have had an anti-reason strain.

          Yes, and some Germans (e.g. Luther) have had an anti-Semitic strain.

          The latter reflects no more on all Germans than the former does on all Christians.

          I know you have no problem with that, but others clearly do given the way these Luther quotes get tossed about.

          • clamat

            [S]ome Christians (e.g. Luther) have had an anti-reason strain. Yes[.]

            Wait, surely you meant to say some Christians (e.g. Luther) have had an anti-Pelagianism strain?

            • randal

              One can be against multiple things at once.

              • clamat

                One can be against multiple things at once.

                Yes, and I’m pretty sure I heard something like this previously…

                A piece of writing can indeed advance one concept by relying on another (as well as identify multiple enemies).

                In any event, I’m glad you now agree: Luther was, to a degree, anti-reason. In addition to being against Peliagianism. In addition to being against the Anabaptist position on pedobaptism.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    (You know, the ability to move through the blog by date, or in order of posting, would be quite helpful.)

    • randal

      I agree. I’ll look at my options.

  • Jag Levak

    [re: what atheists and skeptics are talking about whey they contend against ‘faith’]
    “So what are you referring to then?”

    In my view, faith is the sense of assurance which supports the conviction of things which are hoped for, but not evident. It’s kind of like the Christian notion of faith, except changed somewhat by being viewed from an outsiders perspective. I say sense of assurance instead of assurance, because my focus is on the mental state, and not on any putative source of assurance. I say it supports the conviction instead of being the conviction, because the conviction is just belief, whereas I think faith is not belief itself, but a foundation or basis of belief. The conviction/belief aspect is required, however, because if the sense of assurance is too weak to support belief, then it isn’t strong enough to be considered faith. The ‘things’ (or propositions) can be individually hoped for, or can be an integral part of a larger schema which is hoped for, but either way, hope is both the steerer and the driving force of faith. And I say not evident instead of not seen to indicate a general lack of sensory detection.

    I think some of the Bible translations refer to the “evidence” of things not seen. As I mentioned earlier in this thread, faith can go beyond the usual restrictions of sense and reason by allowing sources of information which would normally be considered too vulnerable to error to qualify as solid or reliable evidence, but I think the Biblical verse is referring to a sort of soft evidence–basically, anything which a person decides is helpful or useful in the formation of a conclusion. I know some atheists have the notion that the voluntary aspect of faith, the “leap” of faith, if you will, can only be of the form of a direct choice to believe, or belief as an act of sheer will. I think it can be that, but I think it more typically is a cumulative effect of a great many smaller leaps. Such as saying, ‘okay, personal testimony which is not unbiased can be flimsy and unreliable, but it isn’t always.’ ‘Maybe copies and oral traditions could have gotten corrupted, but that doesn’t prove they had to have been.’ Maybe that feeling of being with an unseen someone is just imagination, but maybe it really is more than that.’ ‘It could be that spiritual leader is deceptive and self serving, but perhaps he actually did have a chat with God.’ ‘It might be that there are defects in the positions of every apologist, but when there are so many of them, surely that’s suggestive of some underlying truth.’ And so forth. By allowing sources of information which are not under the hard restrictions of reason, the gap between solid evidence and the tipping point of the particular belief hoped for can be bridged incrementally by many small steps. And if it still isn’t quite enough, bring in Pascal’s Wager to move the tipping point, and shrink the gap that way.

    • randal

      Jag, when I defined faith as “trust in the truth of a proposition” you replied that that was not what you (or other skeptics) thought of when they thought of faith. You then explaind that you view faith as “the sense of assurance which supports the conviction of things which are hoped for, but not evident.” This leads me to two questions.

      First, what’s the difference?! Trust = conviction of things hoped for but not evident and acceptance of a proposition = sense of assurance.

      Second, if you do discern some difference between these two definitions, what evidence do you have that your view is the commonly held definition rather than your own idiosyncrasy?

      • Jag Levak

        [re: “trust in the truth of a proposition” vs my definition]
        ” what’s the difference?! Trust = conviction of things hoped for but not evident and acceptance of a proposition = sense of assurance.”

        I realize that there is necessarily some fuzziness in word meanings, but again, it looks like I have a very different sense of some definitions than you do. I view trust as a deliberate state of reliance upon the robustness, integrity, validity, character, or ability of someone or something (and a process can be a thing). And a sense of assurance can *lead to* acceptance of a proposition as true, but the former is a feeling of confidence, and the second is a commitment to the truth of a proposition (and to any consequences or implication which proceed from that). And if A can cause B, that strongly suggests it is not the case that B is identical to A.

        If I try to rephrase my definition into a format similar to yours, you might describe my view of faith as “trust in a process which can lead to belief in the truth of a non-evident, hoped-for proposition”. That’s not as precise because I have to use an overly broad sense of “process” (eg. apparent direct revelation from God would be included) but from that it should at least be easier to see how my view has a different focus, and includes elements which are completely missing from yours.

        “what evidence do you have that your view is the commonly held definition rather than your own idiosyncrasy?”

        That is, of course a statistical question, so there is no simple answer, but where I’m referring to general usage, I think my definitions accord pretty well with dictionary definitions (which are generally compiled using statistical methods) and I even think my definition of faith comes closer to a common Biblical definition of faith than yours does. But in this particular case, we were talking about the meaning atheists and skeptics generally have in mind when they contend against faith, and I grant their view could be distinct from the majority (esp. religious majority) view in some details, which means I can’t use the dictionary (or Bible) to show that I’m characterizing that particular subgroup correctly. I can tell you my view is based on reading several books and anthologies by atheists and skeptics, assorted essays and web articles, and many thousands of posts from atheists during the years I was active in alt.atheism (where my posts met with general agreement), so I think I have a pretty fair bead on the prevailing view in this group, but I realize that is not statistical evidence. However, I think you can at least verify for yourself that your definition very poorly captures the sense used by this group, by asking any atheists you happen to know two simple questions. First, ask whether they have trust in the truth of the proposition “the Earth orbits the Sun”. My expectation is that very close to all of them will say they do. Then ask them whether it is through faith that they believe the Earth orbits the Sun. I predict you will find the results for the second question will be highly distinct from the results for the first.

        And as a final point, I actually don’t mind when someone proposes a refinement or modification of an existing popular definition. But I would only ask that where someone does that, they try to show how their view would be an improvement in use or meaning. And in my view, making the word “faith” completely synonymous with the word “belief” only confuses matters, renders the word “faith” utterly redundant, and does not do a good job of capturing the sense most people, even most of the faithful, have when they think of faith.

  • Derka

    First, this is the context: “I answer: That reason in no way contributes to faith. Nay, in that children are destitute of reason, they are all the more fit and proper recipients of baptism. ”

    ” …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 exactly what people mean when they refer to Luther’s quote.

    It’s hysterical to think that they quoted Luther out of context. This is very plain language – and it carries more than one meaning. Luther is explaining WHY he disagrees with the Anabaptist argument that implies reason is needed to have faith in / have communion with God – and Luther disagrees because of his belief that “reason is a whore” and a thing of the Devil because it can make someone question aspects of religious doctrine, because it can make someone too arrogant in their knowledge, in Luther’s opinion. It is the enemy of righteous faith.

    Secondly, this quote is often used with irony and amusement, that Luther perhaps was not aware that he was making a double entendre – and clearly as evidenced by this article, many Christians fail to see this dual meaning. The quote is also used to counter weak theistic arguments that someone’s religious beliefs are founded in reason/logic.

    Religious beliefs are founded in *faith* and reason is secondary to faith, reason has less value than faith, reason can cloud faith, reason can cause doubt in faith. Time and time again in religious scripture, the most idealistic examples of faith ALWAYS occur in absence of reason.