Quote-mining Luther, Einstein and Feyerabend
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.