Faith Kills Reason
Luther is infamous for allegedly rejecting reason. He calls it “Lady Hulda,” “Lady Jezebel,” “the devil’s bride,” “the devil’s whore”—even the devil’s “archwhore”! But he also calls it “a part of the true light,” “a beautiful, marvelous instrument and tool of God,” “a kind of divine sun,” “the greatest, inestimable gift of God.
He’s using reason in different ways in these lists of blame and praise. Luther distinguishes reason by its domain, temporal or spiritual, and by its state, unregenerate or regenerate. Luther praises unregenerate reason in temporal matters—ruling a state, building a house, cultivating crops. It’s a common gift to all people, regardless of confession. And so he can speak highly of Cicero and even Aristotle’s Ethics. (Luther doesn’t talk about regenerate reason in temporal matters, because it seems to be beside the point.)
But unregenerate reason in spiritual matters? That’s what sticks in Luther’s craw. It’s dumb and blind but imagines that its darkness will bring light.By the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s word our reason has become a mighty instrument of God. Click To Tweet
“When God speaks, reason, therefore, regards His Word as heresy and as the word of the devil; for it seems so absurd.” To read God’s word or hear God’s word preached by reason alone is no different from reading the Bible with your eyes shut or to listen with your fingers in your ears.
No amount of history and philosophy, linguistics and critical analysis can bootstrap human reason into discovering the gospel, Jesus Christ—true God and true man—given for you. “Faith comes from preaching, but preaching comes through the word of God” (Rom 10:17). We must start with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that always means to die. “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6:3).
“Thus all devout people . . . kill reason, and say: ‘Reason, you are foolish. You do not understand the things that belong to God (Mt 16:23). Therefore do not speak against me, but keep quiet. Do not judge; but listen to the Word of God, and believe it.’ Thus devout people, by their faith, kill a beast that is greater than the world; and so they offer a highly pleasing sacrifice and worship to God.”Luther praises regenerate reason in spiritual matters—hearing God’s word, be it in preaching, baptizing, absolving, or communing. Click To Tweet
To see the light in spiritual matters, reason must be put to death, and that’s just what the Holy Spirit does by God’s word. This death and resurrection is not a one-time event. Just as the Christian life is a daily baptism of death and resurrection, so it is with Christian reason. By the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s word our reason has become a mighty instrument of God. Once blind and dead in spiritual matters, now reason can see and breathe.
And so Luther praises regenerate reason in spiritual matters—hearing God’s word, be it in preaching, baptizing, absolving, or communing. As our bodies will be glorified on the Last Day, so our reason is glorified when it submits to death and resurrection by God’s word and Spirit. And just as our bodies will still be our bodies as God created them but with purity and power, so it is with regenerate reason. “It’s like when cold iron becomes red hot, it’s a different and hot iron. And that’s the rebirth that happens by the Holy Spirit through the word.” As the psalmist says, “For in you is the source of life, and in your light we see light” (Ps 36:9).If the sermon does not harmonize with the faith, it is not God’s word. Luther regularly holds up this rule as the rule of preaching. Click To Tweet
And so Christians—pastors and parishioners alike—need to test the spirits. Thankfully, Luther says, Scripture has given us the standard by which to do this. “Paul sets this limit: ‘If anyone is a preacher and holds the office of teaching others what the word is, let him above all see to it that he preaches nothing which is not in accord with the faith.’ ” Parishioners too should know the faith, comparing the preacher’s sermon against it, so that they can say, “That fits very nicely with my faith.” If the sermon does not harmonize with the faith, it is not God’s word. Luther regularly holds up this rule as the rule of preaching. “It is good that one preaches only according to the analogy of faith. All preachers should accustom themselves to this simple manner of preaching.” Indeed by this measure, according to the analogy of faith, Luther judged the teaching of his opponents—Catholics, Reformed, and Radicals— finding them wanting.