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Part II. Reason and Faith: The Lutheran Succession

Chapter V: Reason and Faith in Luther

1 There is no such thing as the Protestant view of the relation between reason and faith. That there is a Catholic view we have had ample occasion to see. Catholic philosophers and theologians, to be sure, have presented briefs for many conflicting doctrines, but councils have winnowed these out, and popes have declared heretical those who refused assent to the doctrine finally decreed. Among Protestants there is no such authority, and the debate continues. There is a wide spectrum of theories, extending from high-church Anglicanism on the right, which would accept practically everything in the Roman account except Papal infallibility, to liberal Unitarianism on the left, which is essentially rationalism tinged with emotion, and would reject any belief that exceeds the rational evidence. In reviewing the Protestant position, we are thus in trouble at the outset. If we try to examine all the Protestant views, we are lost in a forest of subtly varying theologies. If we fix our eye on any one doctrine or set of doctrines, we shall be accused of being narrow and arbitrary.

This risk is one that we must take; nor is there any necessary injustice in selecting some positions for discussion and ignoring others. It is absurd to place all Protestant sects on a level, to put Anglicanism and Anabaptism on a par in historical importance, or Calvin and Fox on a par in intellectual grasp. Nor is it fair to say that the many branches of Protestantism make a mere litter. They are all growths from one trunk. What is commonly meant by Protestantism is a movement started at a definite time with the proclamation of definite convictions. These convictions have indeed proliferated in all directions. We shall not enter on the unprofitable question which is the main stream of Protestantism, but there is no doubt where its fountainhead lies, or that some of the streams have carried the water of the source with greater purity than others. The fountainhead was Martin Luther. And the Lutheran stream that runs down from the source through Kierkegaard and such eminent theologians of our time as Emil Brunner and Karl Barth surely has as much right as any other to be called the main stream. At any rate this is the one we are to examine. To do so in detail is of course out of the question. All these men were minds of inexhaustible energy, which overflowed into acres of pages. From those pages we must limit ourselves to a single issue, the relation of reason and faith.


2 The Reformation was so decisive a turning-point in history that we are likely to over-estimate the change it achieved in the way of belief; the fact is that Luther, at his most Protestant extreme, agreed with the Catholic outlook far more than he differed from it. The sceptical modern mind has moved so far from the world in which he lived that, before considering what he denied, it may be well to remind ourselves of what he continued to accept throughout his life.

In spirit he still lived in the Middle Ages. When he was born, Gutenberg had been dead only fifteen years, and books as we now know them were just beginning to circulate. Modern science was still in its dawn, or rather in the flush before its dawn, for at the time of Luther's death the birth of Galileo was eighteen years in the future. Word did indeed come to Luther in his old age that a Pole named Copernicus had published a book purporting to show that the earth moved round the sun. Luther was not impressed: ‘the fool wishes to revolutionise the whole science of astronomy,’ he exclaimed. ‘But as the Holy Scriptures show, Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.’ Luther's world was pre-Copernican in another and more important sense. Its intellectual centre was not experience, as on the whole it is for the modern world, but Scripture, round which everything else revolved, to which everything else came back for its test of truth and importance. Because of this, the mediaeval house of intellect differed as deeply from that of modern scientific intelligence as a mediaeval chapel, with its candles and chants and swinging censers and oriel windows, differs from a modern laboratory. For Luther, both as monk and as reformer, what was important to know was not the constitution of nature or the course of secular history—these things were vanity—but the prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel, the clues to the divine will that might be gleaned from the Psalms, Proverbs, and gospels, and Paul's instructions to the Galatians about the meaning of saving faith.

From first to last Luther looked at the world through these theological spectacles. As Lecky says, ‘a theological atmosphere was formed about his mind, and became the medium through which every event was contemplated’.1 Miracles were common. The devil was a familiar trouble-maker who could sometimes be heard at night clattering about in the courtyard. Half-wits, hunchbacks, the blind and the dumb were probably possessed by the devil or his minions, and Luther's own manifold infirmities were freely assigned to Satan. Good and evil spirits were battling for the control not only of men's minds and bodies but also of the winds and the tides, of hail, thunder, and rain.

If Luther's theological prepossessions could make him see demons peeping from behind cloister pillars and from the eyes of children, still more did they determine what he saw when he contemplated the world in the large. It was a place of probation. God had fashioned it as a home and garden for man. He had made man as an image of himself, clear of mind and pure of conscience, and had placed him in this garden with instructions how to live and with freedom to obey or not to obey. To his anger, man chose disobedience. The taint of this disobedience infected all man's faculties, corrupting his conscience, confusing his intelligence and distorting his will; and, what was worse, it communicated its contagion to his descendants. They became hateful in the sight of their Creator, who not only doomed them to labour and suffering in this life but, refusing them the charity of annihilation, reserved for them an eternity of unspeakable torment in a life to come. In the tables of the divine reckoning, this was no more than just, since an infinite wrong deserved an infinite expiation.

Was there any way in which man could be relieved of this unending punishment? One only; and that was the appearance of a substitute who could offer infinite goodness as a cancellation of infinite guilt. It was obvious that such an offer could come from only one source. The second person of the Trinity, in whom all the powers and perfections of Deity were lodged, elected to be embodied in human form, to be despised and rejected of men, and be put to an excruciating death in order to rescue man from his doom. But even after this sacrifice, man remained under sentence. Though a store of grace had been created by it, this grace was not placed automatically to the credit of the malefactors, but was portioned out by Deity according to an inscrutable preference. In those who received it, it took the form of a faith that could discern truths hidden from secular eyes and a love for their kind that radiated out in effortless good works. This saving grace was all that truly mattered. Nothing else—no loftiness of spirit or purity of aim or even devotion to goodness—could avert the impending doom, for these goods of the natural man were only specious counterfeits of the supernatural realities. Without faith there is no health in us, and no hope; it would have been better if we had not been born. Life for both saved and unsaved is a battle, since the powers of darkness—somehow allowed to operate by an omnipotent Deity—are around us on all sides, tempting us into avarice, ambition, and pride, and the even blacker sins of heresy and blasphemy. In our strength we cannot prevail against these seductions. But God is a mighty fortress in which, with his favour, we may find asylum. And the battle will not be forever. Luther saw many signs that the end was approaching, when the God who came as a bloody sacrifice would come again in clouds of glory as the judge of the quick and the dead. Those whom he had elected to salvation would then be gathered to an eternity of rejoicing in their father's house, and those against whom he had set his face would be cast into a pit of endless, unimaginable torture.

This was the world of thought into which Luther was born, and in which he lived and died. To the eye of a modern philosopher or scientist, the changes he introduced seem tiny when compared with the vast structure of belief he left standing. He denied the inerrancy of popes and councils; he denied the miraculous character of some of the sacraments; he made the Bible rather than the church or tradition the ultimate authority; he disbelieved in mendicant orders and in the requirement of clerical celibacy; above all, he insisted that what justified man in the sight of God was not works, or the performance of outward rites or exercises, but an inward faith. These, no doubt, were points of importance. But there were many devoted Catholics who agreed with Luther about all of them, who were reluctant, as he was himself for long, to desert the old church, and who thought, again as he did, that it would be strengthened, not wrecked, by their adoption. Why should such ideas have rocked Europe? What was there in Luther's thought that aroused in a succession of popes the passionate desire to see him on a pile of faggots?

The answer is not quite simple. It cannot be fully understood without taking into account, first, the extraordinary personality of the man, and then his conceptions of reason and faith.


3 Many have thought, and with good ground, that apart from the peculiar personality of Luther the Reformation would have taken a very different course. Suppose that the frail child, who was not expected to live, had never reached maturity, and that the leadership had remained in the hands of Erasmus; would the Reformation have taken place at all? Probably, but as a gradual house-cleaning in which the church's teaching was slowly enlightened, its tolerance broadened, and its morality mellowed, by the new humanism, a development that in Goethe's opinion would have been much better for the world than the cataclysm that in fact occurred. But Erasmus and Luther were made from different moulds. The great scholar was the fastidious thin-lipped intellectual we see in the portrait by Holbein; the reformer was the big-boned, bull-necked peasant we see in the portraits by his friend and neighbour Cranach. Erasmus was complaisant, diplomatic, and timid; Luther was impulsive, outspoken, pugnacious, a hater of compromise, and infinitely courageous. To be courageous is not necessarily to be fearless. Luther admitted that when summoned to Worms, where the prospect was that he would be seized and transported to Rome and the stake, he trembled; but he went—went on foot with his pack on his back, saying to his protesting friends, ‘I will go if there are as many devils in Worms as there are tiles upon the roofs of the houses’. And devils, for Luther, were real.

He enjoyed a battle, like the scriptural war-horse that ‘sayeth among the spears “Ha ha!”’. ‘I pray better and I preach better when I am angry’, he confessed. An eminent Lutheran scholar describes him as ‘a theologian who combined the finesse of Gene Tunney with the violence of Jack Dempsey.…’2 The Pope sent envoys; the Archduke Frederick pleaded with him for moderation, but when Luther conceived that a principle was involved, neither moderation nor compromise was possible. If the church was wrong, it should admit that it was wrong, and if it did not, its motives were of the worst. In this he was only taking a leaf out of the church's own book, for Catholicism has always tended to interpret religious error as sin; but Luther could give lessons to his practised mentors in the art of invective. Because Erasmus, who was in general on his side, would not commit himself unequivocally, he was ‘the worst enemy that the church has had for a thousand years’. Of Zwingli and his associates who also had much in common with him, he wrote, ‘they are not only liars, but falsehood, deceit, and hypocrisy itself, as Carlstadt and Zwingli show both in deeds and words’.3 (One of these ‘hypocritical’ deeds of Zwingli, done soon afterward, was to give his life for his cause.) Nor were these imprecations merely ‘the occasional explosions of a capricious volcano’, as R. H. Tawney suggested; they belonged to his habitual way of thinking about those who opposed him. Of his enemies ‘the papists’ he wrote in 1531:

‘because they are obdurate and have determined to do nothing good, but only evil, so that there is no longer any hope, I will hereafter heap curses and maledictions upon the villains until I go to my grave, and no good word shall they hear from me again. I will toll them to their tombs with my thunder and lightning. For I cannot pray without at the same time cursing. If I say, “Hallowed be Thy name,” I have to add, “Cursed, damned, reviled be the name of the papists and of all who blaspheme Thy name”.… If I say, “Thy will be done,” I have to add, “Cursed, damned, reviled and destroyed be all the thoughts and plans of the papists and of every one who strives against Thy will and counsel.…” Nevertheless I have a kind, friendly, peaceable, and Christian heart toward every one, as even my worst enemies know.’4

It is not surprising that many thoughtful persons have found Luther unendurable. The historian Heinrich Denifle sets him down as a ‘crass ignoramus’. For Jacques Maritain, he was a man ‘wholly and systematically ruled by his affective and appetitive faculties’. These are Catholics. Protestants have said the same or worse. To Goethe he was an unintelligent rabble-rouser. To Arnold he was a Philistine. Dean Inge of St Paul's described him as ‘the spiritual father of Nazism’ and wrote: ‘There is very little to be said for this coarse and foul-mouthed leader of a revolution. It is a real misfortune for humanity that he appeared just at this crisis in the Christian World.’ To Sir Richard Livingstone also he seemed ‘like a fouler-mouthed Hitler’. ‘Lutherism in its historical manifestations is for me, I can't deny it, the horror of horrors,’ said Max Weber. Whitehead, like many other reflective minds, wished that Erasmus rather than Luther had taken the leadership of the Reformation. ‘But he lacked the force; and the matter fell into the hands of Luther and Calvin, who made a fearful botch of it.’5

4 Nevertheless the very flaws in Luther's character made him formidable. Erasmus spoke to intellectuals only; Luther had the ear of the people. In a Germany seething with discontent at the foreign hierarchy, the sight of this miner's son shaking his fist and shouting defiance at the hated Italian potentate brought bursts of laughter and cheers from his delighted fellow-countrymen. Among them he had the advantage of the underdog; he knew it, and by instinct exploited it. He was intemperate, unreasonable, violent, and unfair. But it is one of the tragic facts of history that rational causes are sometimes most effectively served by unreasonable agents. A Solomon, nicely dividing truth from error, could not have done Luther's work. The Reformation was a movement of the common people, and if popular opinion was to be aroused, what was needed was a man of passion, without doubts or hesitations, who could wield the vernacular as a whiplash, and satisfy the popular adulation for the man who would stand up and fight. For such a demand Luther was made to order.

5 Even so, he would not have achieved what he did without another striking trait. This was a curious union of humility with towering pretensions, a combination we shall meet again in Kierkegaard. Luther professed to be a very humble man, and in this he may well have been sincere, for if he was ambitious, it was not for the things that commonly lure ambitious minds. He might have become a man of means; as a powerful preacher and natural leader, he might, if he had been willing to pay the price for it, have had a mitre or even a cardinal's hat. Instead he lived in frugal austerity, remaining to the end a simple pastor in a small German town. But along with this worldly humility went extraordinary other-worldly presumptions. ‘From the beginning profoundly convinced of his own divine call,’ as a discerning biographer says, ‘he identified his cause with God's and always attributed the hostility of his enemies to the promptings of Satan, who filled their hearts with hatred for God and all His works’.6 His insignificance hardly mattered if he could face his opponents in the serene conviction that he was a spokesman of the Almighty. ‘If I am not a prophet I am at any rate sure the word of God is with me and not with them, for I always have the Bible on my side, they only their own doctrine. It is on this account I have the courage to fear them so little, much as they despise and persecute me.’7 ‘Whoever obtrudes his doctrine on me and refuses to yield, must inevitably be lost; for I must be right, my cause being not mine, but God's, Whose Word it also is. Hence those who are against it must go under… whoever sets himself against me must be ruined if a God exists at all.’8 This sense that the divine hand was leading him, that what seemed to him true was God's truth and what seemed to him right was God's will, grew on him with the years. To be sure, he was not quick to concede such claims if made by others. When members of the Zwickau school claimed an immediate illumination that took them off on a course of their own, he curtly rejected their claim; ‘For I have as yet heard of nothing said or done by them which Satan cannot do or imitate’.9 But if anyone had suggested that his own passionate intuitions might have been insinuated by Satan or by the machinations of his own complicated mind, Luther would have buried him beneath an avalanche of eloquent invective.

6 The Luther so far sketched is obviously not the Luther of Froude or Carlyle or Protestant tradition. For Carlyle, the close of the speech at Worms, the famous ‘Here I stand; I can do no other; God help me,’ is

‘the greatest moment in the modern history of men. English Puritanism, England and its Parliaments, Americas, and the vast work of these two centuries; French Revolution, Europe and its work everywhere at present: the germ of it all lay there: had Luther in that moment done other, it had all been otherwise! The European world was asking him: Am I to sink ever lower into falsehood, stagnant putrescence, loathsome accursed death; or, with whatever paroxysm, to cast the falsehoods out of me, and be cured and live?’10

This is the Luther of Protestant story, and there is certainly much truth in it. For all his coarseness, arrogance and superstition, Luther had a conscience that was tormentingly alive, the sense of a deep abyss between right and wrong, and a feeling for duty as a divine mandate that gave no rest to himself or others.

7 The religion he saw around him, and above all at Rome, was corrupt almost past belief. The Pope who reigned through his earlier years was Alexander VI, who secured his post by bribery, turned the Vatican into an arena for indescribable orgies, and made a cardinal of one of his numerous illegitimate children, the multiple murderer, Caesar Borgia. The degradation at the top of the church was spreading through its lower orders.

‘The high prelates, the cardinals, the great abbots, were occupied chiefly in maintaining their splendour and luxury. The friars and the secular clergy, following their superiors with shorter steps, indulged themselves in grosser pleasures; while their spiritual powers, their supposed authority in this world and the next, were turned to account to obtain from the laity the means for their self-indulgence.… There were toll-gates for the priests at every halting-place on the road of life—fees at weddings, fees at funerals, fees whenever an excuse could be found to fasten them. Even when a man was dead he was not safe from plunder, for a mortuary or death present was exacted of his family.’11

This buying and selling within the temple was the match that set off the great explosion. When the Papal agent, Tetzel, neared Wittenberg with his load of indulgences for sale, Luther could stand it no longer and nailed his theses of condemnation to the door of the local church. An indulgence is a remission of the punishment due to sin; the theory behind it is that there is a great reservoir of grace accumulated by Christ, the saints, and the martyrs, that the head of the church has the key to this reserve, and that he can deal it out in measurable quantities by way of cancelling the suffering which God's justice would otherwise exact. Luther was not wholly opposed to this theory. He believed, like the Catholic priest he was, that the sacrifice of Christ and the grace accruing to it were the only hope of averting the divine wrath. Why then the torrent of anger with which he overwhelmed the unhappy Tetzel? Because he saw that sin and guilt and repentance and amendment and forgiveness belong to the inner man, and that the state of the inner man in the sight of God is not to be determined by payments, nor by the acts of human officials. The church could reply, indeed, that the effect of the indulgence was conditional upon inner repentance. But the people overlooked the condition, and the church, in sore need of funds, winked at the oversight. The indulgences were widely taken as a chance to compound for immorality by the payment of a fee.

Nor was Luther's anger lessened by the expertness of the Papal emissaries in milking money from devotion and anxiety. Tetzel's black-frocked salesmen stood in the pulpits and painted lurid pictures of a father and mother in purgatory, begging from the flames for the payment of some miserable sum that would release them from years of agony. Luther was revolted. This was making the divine forgiveness something to be bought and sold like merchandise; it debased morality; it prostituted religion. The needle of that restless conscience was here pointing straight at the pole. He had a keen eye for hypocrisy and he noisily branded the mark of Cain not on Tetzel's forehead only, but come what might, on that of Tetzel's commanding officer. He became ‘God's angry man,’ whom powers and principalities could not shut up.


8 The Reformation, then, depended in no small measure upon Luther's sensitive, emotional, bellicose, egotistic character. But our chief concern is of course with his thought, and particularly with his views on faith and reason. We have seen that in the Catholic tradition as represented by such minds as Aquinas, reason, if regarded broadly as the sum total of our powers of natural knowledge, was given a long tether in religion. It is true that there were some doctrines of the first importance that reason could never discover or prove, but these were the exception rather than the rule. The forty or fifty portentous volumes of the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles are a continuous revelry of the intellect, in which an extraordinary intelligence seeks to lay out in order the whole Christian view of the world. Theology was not a region off bounds to our natural faculties; reason pushed confidently on into the citadels of theology—the existence and attributes of Deity, the plan of salvation, the will of God for man and its justification. As Leo XIII remarked with legitimate pride, ‘Reason, borne on the wings of St Thomas, could hardly fly higher.’

Luther's attitude was deeply different. His writing is so punctuated with disparagements of reason as to suggest not merely a conviction of its religious unimportance, but also an emotional antipathy toward it. Reason was ‘that smart woman, Madame Jezebel’; it was ‘Frau Hulda’, a bumbling and officious nuisance, shallow, conceited and myopic; it was ‘the Devil's whore’. Whereas Aquinas had placed Aristotle on a pinnacle of respect, commonly calling him ‘the philosopher’ and deferring to him as ‘the master of those who know’, Luther went out of his way to pour contempt on him. Aristotle was ‘a blind heathen’ and, strangely enough, ‘a lazy ass’.

‘My advice would be that the books of Aristotle, the “Physics”, the “Metaphysics”, “Of the Soul”, “Ethics”, which have hitherto been considered the best, be altogether abolished, with all others that profess to treat of nature, though nothing can be learned from them, either of natural or of spiritual things. Besides, no one has been able to understand his meaning, and much time has been wasted, and many noble souls vexed, with much useless labour, study, and expense. I venture to say that any potter has more knowledge of natural things than is to be found in these books. My heart is grieved to see how many of the best Christians this accursed, proud, knavish heathen has fooled and led astray with his false words.… Does not the wretched man in his best book, “Of the Soul,” teach that the soul dies with the body.… Yet this dead heathen has conquered, and has hindered and almost suppressed the books of the living God; so that, when I see all this misery, I cannot but think that the evil spirit has introduced this study.… Oh, that such books could be kept out of the reach of all Christians! Let no one object that I say too much, or speak without knowledge. My friend, I know of what I speak. I know Aristotle as well as you or men like you. I have read him with more understanding than St Thomas or Scotus.…’12

Luther ranked Aristotle below Cicero not only in rhetoric but also in philosophy and in general learning. As for philosophy itself, it was ‘an old woman that stinks of Greece’, and he regretted the time he had wasted on it in his youth.

‘How sorry I am that I did not read more poetry and history and that they were not taught me! Instead of them, I had to spend my time on devil's filth, the philosophers and sophists, with great labor and damage, so that I had enough to get rid of.’13

All this sounds uncomfortably like raving. But Luther had his defence for it. He conceived that there were two realms in the universe, the realm of the flesh and the realm of the spirit, the secular and the religious, the regnum mundi and the regnum Christi, the things of the world and the things of God. The realm of the flesh included not only physical nature but also the fields of philosophy, mathematics, law, history, and what we should call the social sciences, indeed the whole man and the whole world ‘apart from Christ’. In this realm reason is our appointed guide; indeed Luther can even praise it as a ‘maximum et inaestimabile donum Dei’. We have been endowed with a set of knowing processes such as perception, memory, and inference to enable us to find our way about in this lower realm, to get a sufficient mastery of its facts and laws to stay alive in it and adjust ourselves to it. These processes, when so used, serve their modest purpose well. But ‘Speculation as such, science as an end in itself, truth for truth's sake,’ as Dr McGiffert says, ‘never appealed to him; only matters immediately bearing on life and character he felt to be worthy the attention of a serious man’.14 Luther's lack of interest in speculation had a further root: he was convinced that all man's faculties had been corrupted and distorted by his original fall. Just how great his corruption is, and at what points it enters in, we have no safe means of judging, but it is clearly prudent to keep our speculations within bounds if we know them to be vitiated without knowing how deeply or how generally.

Yet to keep reason within bounds is something no secular philosopher can be trusted to do. Philosophy runs into theology in all directions. If we let our thoughts move back along the line of cause and effect, they are bound, sooner or later, to confront the problem of creation; we find order and beauty in nature, and our thoughts leap inevitably to a Designer; we look within at our ideas and feelings, and seem constrained to accept a soul that owns them; we reflect on our conduct, and deplore our sin. But in all these cases we have already crossed the danger line. God, the soul, and sin are matters for theology, not for natural reason. We have been told by moralists and schoolmen that we should ‘do the best that is in us’, facere quod in se est. This Luther granted, but only in its own place, which is in the kingdom of the body. When reason takes it upon itself to move across the line into the kingdom of the spirit, it is exhibiting not a praiseworthy desire to understand, but presumption and impiety. ‘No one shall see God and live.’

9 Why did Luther impose this stern curb on reason? Partly, no doubt, because of the intensity of his religious experience. He was a man of the strongest feelings, who had had moments of extreme exaltation as well as others of the darkest depression, and when he was on the heights he felt that he had been raised into direct communion with the glory of God. But these soarings of the spirit were not rational insights. They were experiences that resisted analysis by reason, whose prosy, plodding detachment seemed utterly alien to them. They were neither conclusions from premises nor self-evident intuitions like 2 + 2 = 4, but experiences of a non-rational kind.

Secondly, Luther was sure that in curbing reason he was following Scripture. The good news brought by the gospel was not that of salvation by intellect. The apostles chosen to convey the Word to the world were not doctors of philosophy, but ignorant fishermen and the like; Nicodemus, the ‘master in Israel’, was told that what he needed was to humble himself and be born again of the spirit. St Paul, who was a favourite of Luther, had put the matter uncompromisingly. He was acquainted with the Greek manner of argumentation and was himself a man of some learning, but he had a very low opinion of the wisdom of this world, and thought we were safer on the whole if we remained babes and sucklings in it. Human learning and understanding belong, after all, to the realm of sarx, of the flesh, and therefore to that which can reap only corruption; its methods and standards are at best a glass through which we see darkly, and see divine truth not at all. To achieve such truth, it must make a clean sweep of its standards and its pride, and be brought into captivity to Christ.

Thirdly, and for us most significantly, Luther thought that between the structure of divine and human truth there was a fundamental difference, which made any bridging of the gap by human effort impossible. It will be well to illustrate this gap, first from theology and then from ethics.


10 In Luther's commentary on Galatians, which is at least fifty times the length of the epistle itself, he writes:

‘And what saith God? Impossible things, lies, foolish, weak, absurd, abominable, heretical, and devilish things, if ye believe reason.… So, if we follow the judgment of reason, God setteth forth absurd and impossible things, when he setteth out unto us the articles of the Christian faith. Indeed, it seemeth to reason an absurd and a foolish thing, that in the Lord's supper is offered unto us the body and blood of Christ; that baptism is the laver of the new birth, and of the renewing of the Holy Ghost; that the dead shall rise in the last day; that Christ the Son of God was conceived and carried in the womb of the Virgin Mary; that he was born; that he suffered the most reproachful death of the cross; that he was raised up again; that he now sitteth at the right hand of God the Father; and that he hath all power both in heaven and earth.… But faith killeth reason.… So all the godly entering with Abraham into the darkness of faith, do kill reason, saying: reason, thou art foolish; thou dost not savour those things which belong unto God: therefore speak not against me, but hold thy peace: judge not, but hear the word of God and believe it.’15

Here is a list of eight or nine of the leading doctrines of the Christian faith, all of them declared to be absurd and impossible to reason. The Sorbonne had maintained that if a proposition was true in philosophy, it was true in theology also. This Luther denied. The proposition ‘The word was made flesh’ is true in theology but false and foolish in philosophy. The doctrine of the Trinity seems preposterous to the mathematician; does this prove it to be untrue? Not in the least; it proves only the inapplicability of mathematics in theology.16 So different is truth in the two realms that one may start from theological premises that are true, reason with impeccable logic, and still end with a conclusion that in theology is false.17 Luther's was a highly argumentative mind, and if he had adhered to this view in practice, his works would have been greatly reduced in bulk. He did at times try to adhere to it. ‘When Luther, in 1529, met Zwingli at Marburg in order to discuss with him the question of the Eucharist, it is reported that with chalk he wrote upon a table these words, Hoc est corpus meum. He then added, “I have not come here to discuss with Zwingli the merits of the dogma of consubstantiation, I shall limit myself to contradicting him if he happens to differ from me”.’18 On his assumptions this was obviously the right course. If ‘all God's works and words are against reason’, why argue about them?


11 This clash between the religious and the rational comes out even more strikingly when he turns his attention to morals. He concedes that reason can tell us how to act in the ordinary business of life, in earning a living, in dealing tactfully with others, in running a household or even a state; it can lay down rules of conduct that we shall certainly profit by following. But he adds that to depend on reason as a guide to genuine goodness, in the world as it is, is like trying to remain chaste in a brothel. It is not merely that the eye of reason has been so dimmed by original sin that it can no longer see clearly; the defect is more radical; reason is simply blind to the only goodness that in God's sight is goodness at all. Such reliance on reason in morals as we find in the Greek philosophers is therefore more than dangerous; ‘almost the whole of Aristotle's Ethics is the worst enemy of grace’. The Christian must not blink the fact, indeed he must keep it in the forefront of his mind, that God's ways are not our ways.

But what exactly does this mean? If it means merely that any mind with a fuller understanding than ours of the motives and consequences of conduct will judge it more or less differently, that is intelligible enough. But it might mean something more. It might mean that the very standards by which God judges conduct are different from ours. For example, that conduct on our part which we should all regard as good is viewed by him as bad, that some even of his own conduct would be branded by our standard as evil. Now this is precisely what Luther says, and says so often and emphatically that there is no mistaking it. Holding as he did that Scripture is the inspired and ultimate authority, he thought we must accept at face value the statements that God commanded a man to kill his son, that he hardened Pharaoh's heart against the innocent, that he sent plagues and pestilences upon his people. In one of his sermons, Luther paints a vivid picture of Abraham binding and preparing to kill his son at God's command. His biographer Roland Bainton reports that ‘Luther once read this story for family devotions. When he had finished, Katie [his wife] said, “I do not believe it. God would not have treated his son like that.” “But, Katie,” answered Luther, “he did”.’19


12 Indeed Luther went much further. He held that God is ultimately responsible for all the evil that has ever occurred. Man's nature is now so corrupt that he does evil automatically; even when he is trying to do right, he is doing wrong in God's sight; he is completely determined by his inherited infection of sin to go on choosing evil. Where did this infection start? The standard answer is, ‘at the fall,’ and this is supposed to relieve the Creator of responsibility for moral evil; since man could have chosen obedience, the fault is his own. But Luther saw that this would not do. For one thing, God is omniscient, and must therefore have known every choice beforehand, evil as well as good, and what God foreknew, Luther argued, he must have foreordained. Furthermore, when man does go right, it is only through a grant of grace, which God can always offer and which happily he does frequently offer; and he could as clearly have granted this grace to Adam as to ourselves. If man at first went wrong, then, it was because he was temporarily deserted by God and left to himself (desertus a Deo ac sibi relictus); God permitted him to fall (permisit ruere). Now if the fall gave rise to a long train of evil consequences, and God permitted this fall, then in effect he gave rise to these consequences. Luther saw no escape from this conclusion. Commenting on the strange statement, ‘Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness’ (Rom. 1:24), he says expressly, ‘This giving up is not merely by God's permission, but by His will and command, as we see clearly from 1 Kings 22:22–23, where we are told that God commanded the lying spirit to persuade Ahab to act against His will… when God deals with transgressors according to His stern justice, He permits the perverse sinner to break His commandments all the more viciously in order that He might punish him the more severely.’20 In his debate with Erasmus on freedom of the will, Luther takes an event that it would seem crucially important to dissociate from God's will, and carries the argument through. Erasmus had pointed out that if God foreordains all, then he must have prompted Judas to betray his Lord, which is outrageous. The conclusion, Luther replies, is unavoidable nevertheless. Judas acted by his own determination, but ‘it was certain that this determination of his would be formed, since God foreknew it. His determination was his work, which God, however, by His omnipotence caused to be done, just as He brings all other things to pass.’21

Most readers will perhaps share Erasmus's view that this is outrageous. Has Luther anything to say that would ease the shock? Very little. He tells us repeatedly that in such matters we must bow to an ultimate mystery. To apply our own standards to the actions of Deity is impious pride; his maxim for such cases was Quod supra nos, nihil ad nos, what is above us does not concern us. We cannot even say of God that he does things because they are right, since that seems to mean that he is laid under obligation by some law other than his own will. What God does is right because he does it, and hence it is right whatever it is.22 It might be objected that, on Luther's account, we are not even free to accept this account as true, since our act of acceptance or rejection is itself determined; how, then, can God command us to do it? Luther answers that he may well be treating us in the manner of the parent who tells the child to come to him before it can walk, by way of bringing home to the child how helpless it is, though there are persons who would probably consider the cat and the mouse a better analogy for such treatment. Sometimes the line is taken that there are in a sense two Gods, the manifest one incarnated in Galilee, who weeps over sinners and pities them, and a dark and hidden one, whose inscrutable will is to create men doomed to eternal damnation. If Luther is asked why God should hide himself from his creatures, he replies that if all were made clear to us, there would be no room for faith.

‘In order that faith may have an existence, everything believed must be hidden. But it cannot be more deeply hidden than when the exact contrary is presented and experienced. Thus, God makes alive by killing. Thus, He conceals His eternal mercy under eternal wrath, His righteousness under injustice. This is the highest stage of faith, to believe Him to be merciful, who saves so few and condemns so many; to believe Him to be just, who by His own will makes us subject, of necessity, to damnation, so that He appears, as Erasmus reminds us, to delight in the miseries of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than of love.’23

Thus, so far as we can see, God's treatment of us has no relation to what we deserve. If he grants us grace, we never merit it, for however saintly by human standards, we are all festering with sin. If he refuses us grace, as he apparently does to most men, he is condemning us for what we cannot help and for what he himself has made us. If we rebel against him for treating us in this manner, he will damn us for calling unjust what our moral perception reveals to be so. It is evidently safer in these matters not to use one's reason at all. For whatever God does to us, whether he elects us, on no discoverable grounds, to an eternity of glory, or consigns us to an eternity of horror and pain, our attitude must be the same. We must bow our heads in acceptance, sing his praises, and adore.


13 The appeal to reason thus repudiated, what did Luther put in its place? The answer, of course, is faith. ‘Justification by faith’—it is the position with which his name is everywhere linked. What did he mean by ‘faith’? One often longs, in reading him, for precision and sharpness of thought, above all at points like this which are obviously crucial. His mind, however, was not primarily that of the thinker but that of the prophet, of the religious and moral reformer; and even on such cardinal topics as faith his ideas must be distilled from floods of passionate disquisition in the form of sermons, Biblical commentaries, and tracts for the times. What emerges from such distillation of his wide-ranging comments on faith is something like the following.

(1) Faith is belief. In spite of all Luther's disparagement of reason, he still insists that faith is cognitive; it is a kind of knowledge. To most religiously minded persons, this is not what the term first suggests; it connotes, rather, emotional attitudes of confidence and trust, perhaps also humility, repentance, and love. Luther did not admit these elements into his idea of faith, thereby breaking with an old tradition. St Paul had spoken of ‘faith working by love’; St Augustine and many other theologians, in accordance with this suggestion, had distinguished between the faith that was mere belief, an ‘unformed faith’ as they called it, and faith that was fully formed because its belief was bathed in love; only the latter was considered as saving faith. This teaching, said Luther, was a blasphemous abomination.24 There was no comparison between the importance of such things as love and justice on the one hand and correct belief on the other. ‘One little point of doctrine is of more value than heaven and earth; and therefore we cannot abide to have the least jot thereof to be corrupted; but we can very well wink at the offences and errors of life.…’25 Errors in the kind of belief of which faith consisted were winked at only at the risk of eternal condemnation; and since many in the Christian church, not excluding bishops, cardinals, and popes, were unsound on essential points, they were presumably destined for perdition, along with the whole non-Christian world.

14(2) Granting that faith is belief, what is it that must be believed? Luther is in difficulty here, because he holds, as we have seen, that the object or content of faith is both above reason and opposed to it; and if so, it will be inexpressible. At times he admits this; ‘God setteth forth himself otherwise than reason is able either to judge or conceive.’26 At other times, he insists that through faith we are assured of a rather wide variety of essential doctrines. But what he steadfastly holds to be the core of faith is the belief or awareness that we are forgiven. We do not know why forgiveness should be granted to us rather than to others, or at this time rather than that, but we do know that without it we are doomed, and that if the general doom is sometimes lifted, it is for one reason only: God has extended pardon to certain sinners in virtue of the sacrifice made by Christ. Faith is the assurance that because of this sacrifice our sin is not to be held against us, that the divine wrath has been appeased, and that with omnipotence on our side, we are now and forever safe. To achieve faith is not in essence a coming to admire or reverence Christ as a model of living; anyone may do that; nor is it merely an acceptance of him as divine; it is an awareness that we have been delivered by him from sin and its penalty. It is not a knowledge of what we must do to be saved, but a sure sense that we are saved already. Others who want this security also but have been denied it may raise questions about the justice of an apparently discriminatory salvation and even about its possibility; how can the sacrifice of one person affect the guilt of another or God's judgement of that guilt? With such questioning Luther has no patience: ‘Kill reason and believe in Christ’.27 ‘For unless He himself teach us inwardly this wisdom hidden in a mystery, nature cannot but condemn it and judge it to be heretical. She takes offence at it and it seems folly to her.’28 Indeed he goes so far at times as to say that if reason did understand a religious statement, that in itself would show it to be false.29 But the fact of which faith assures us remains certain, whether reason can make sense of it or not.

15(3) Is it only the fact grasped by faith that is above nature, or also the fact of our grasping it? By what organ do we apprehend it? Not by reason, clearly. Is it then by one of our other faculties? Luther thinks not. He is inclined rather to deny that we grasp it at all, and to insist that a supernatural fact must be apprehended by a supernatural agency working in and through us. ‘The real faith, of which we are speaking, cannot be brought into being by our own thoughts. On the contrary, it is entirely God's work in us, without any co-operation on our part.’30 Not that he holds to this view consistently. Sometimes he talks as if faith were an act of natural thought or belief; it is recte cogitare de Deo. Sometimes it is an exercise of reason assisted by grace to exceed its normal limits. But he prefers to make it the sort of miracle in which Christ himself descends into the soul and does what for man would have been impossible. As God embodied himself in his son in the incarnation, so Christ embodies himself in us in faith. He becomes ‘one flesh with us’ as his own body and blood in some mysterious manner become ours through the sacramental bread and wine. Faith, then, is not an achievement from which we can draw merit or satisfaction; we neither acquire it nor deserve it. The assurance, as truly as what it assures us of, is supernatural; it is an act of Deity working through us.


16(4) With this doctrine in mind, we can better understand Luther's famous insistence that we are never justified by works. To the unsophisticated mind, it is natural to suppose that we can acquire some merit in God's sight by goodness, by our own efforts to find and do what is right; and Luther's Catholic teachers had so taught him. He later poured upon such teachings a torrent of denunciation; they were ‘abominations and execrable lies’, ‘mere deceits of Satan’.31 What led him to such heated extremes? It was evidently his doctrine of original sin. Natural man with all his faculties belonged to the realm of the flesh, and the flesh was a mass of corruption. Flesh, ‘according to Paul, signifieth all the righteousness, wisdom, devotion, religion, understanding and will, that is possible to be in a natural man…’ and ‘the flesh cannot think, speak, or do any thing, but that which is devilish and altogether against God’.32 ‘Every good deed of the just man is a damnable and mortal sin when judged by the judgment of God.’33 If this is true, the very struggle to live a godly life would seem to lose its main point. Luther sees this, and says it. ‘A most lively sighing goes on throughout the whole length of life: “I would so like to be godly”. To overcome this natural desire is a theological virtue.’ Indeed, if Christ died for sinners and not the righteous, do we not need a supply of sin to qualify us for salvation? Luther thought we did. ‘Unless you are found in the number of those who say: “For our sins”… there is no salvation for you.’ This was apparently the ground of his advice to Melanchthon to ‘sin boldly’.34

In this insistent depreciation of outward works, is Luther seeking to exalt instead the value of inward good will? Kant called this the only thing in the world that is good without qualification. But Kant meant by it devotion to duty as revealed to us by our reason; and for Luther such devotion, like ordinary goodness of heart, belongs to the natural man, and hence is without religious value. He rejected ‘the vain imaginations of reason, which teacheth that a right judgment, and a good will or a good intent is true righteousness.’35 What justifies us is neither good action nor good will, but simply and solely the presence of faith, divinely implanted, unachieved, unpredictable, unmerited, perhaps even unsought for. It is what is done for us, not by us, that counts. ‘Hearing, not doing, makes a Christian,’ ‘Mary sits, and she does nothing,’ but her passive faith counts for more than Martha's service. Cornelius and his friends sit and do nothing, but the Holy Ghost is upon them nevertheless. Luther took much satisfaction in the efficacy of infant baptism; in this sacrament grace was at work, though we could suppose no contribution whatever from the human side; the faith required and present was a supernatural impartation. It is the main theme of the massive commentary on Galatians that what alone can save is the ‘passive righteousness’ of faith.

17(5) Though good works are not essential to faith, they are admitted as its natural consequences. Before the fruit can be good, the tree must be good, but if the tree is really good, the fruit will infallibly be good too. To be sure, we must have a care not to be taken in by appearances. The goodness that springs from faith is a different kind of goodness from any that issues from human reasonableness, kindliness, or love. To the outward eye they may be the same. To the eye of omniscience they differ as heaven from earth; one is the sure sign of the working in us of God himself, while the other is the product of corruption. People who try by themselves to live saintly lives are particularly dangerous: Satan loves them; the world at its best is really at its worst;36 they are whited sepulchres because they present the deceitful appearance of a goodness they do not have. Whether the cup of water given to the thirsty stands for genuine goodness or not depends on whether the love from which it issues has the divine or the human quality. To question that the former is superior is something like blasphemy, since when faith descends into the soul it is Christ himself who lives and acts in it.

18 This is not an easy view to maintain, or even to state clearly, and Luther found himself unable to keep to it consistently. It ought to mean that the new man, since Christ himself is now in possession, is morally perfect. Could anyone be pointed to as an example of such perfection? Around Luther, at any rate, there seemed to be a singular shortage of these saints, and he did not, at least explicitly, claim to be one himself. Again, one would expect the descent of faith on this theory to be not only complete but abrupt, so that the replacement of sin by grace would occur in a flash, as it apparently did for St Paul. But things did not commonly work that way, and Luther urged that men should strive to advance in holiness by degree (though he also denied, as we have seen, that such striving could be effective). The thought, however, that even with the help of grace man could become truly holy was an uncomfortable bedfellow of his pessimism about human nature, and at times he insisted that this holiness was not real, but only imputed to man in virtue of the sacrifice that had been made for him; though he was not really good, a merciful Deity would consider him so and treat him accordingly. But it was difficult to see how omniscience could consider and treat someone as what he was not, and Luther fell back on another theory. This was to the effect that even the Christ who lived and worked in us was himself evil. In becoming man, he took our flesh, and with it all the depravities of the flesh. He was, as the prophets foresaw, a murderer, an adulterer, and a blasphemer; indeed he was the greatest sinner the world has known.37

Luther's theory, put in simple terms, is thus as follows. The faith that saves us is not our own, but a divine gift. This gift is the presence in the soul of Christ himself. Since this presence is perfect, the works that proceed from it must be perfect. But if the Christ who dwelt in man were really perfect, he could not have been really man, nor could he have borne our iniquities or atoned for them. He must, therefore, be a sinner and, if a sinner at all, the chief of sinners, since he took upon himself all our sins. A mere moral monster, however, would have nothing to offer that would balance and atone for man's infinite guilt. The solution of the problem, then, must be to accept him as both the greatest of sinners and also morally perfect. This Luther triumphantly did. He admits that the conclusion is something short of clear; ‘Yes, even unto us which have received the first fruits of the Spirit, it is impossible to understand these things perfectly, for they fight mightily against reason.’38 But the man of faith can rest in the security that here reason is irrelevant.


19 We have now seen where Luther stood on the claims of reason and faith. There is another question that must be answered if we are to understand his central position. What was the ultimate authority to which he appealed in judging these claims? It was not, of course, reason, for reason, like all our faculties, was vitiated by the fall. And if it was the illumination of his own private faith, was it not presumptuous to impose his peculiar convictions as certainties upon a dubious and resistant world? Certainly the Catholics would contend that in putting his private judgement against the vast and ancient authority of the church he was playing the cat that looked at a king, and was only adding to his offensiveness by being self-righteous about it. Did he have anything but his personal judgement to offer against this massive authority?

Yes, he said, he had. Indeed he had an ally that could put to rout single-handed all the popes, cardinals, and councils that might be arrayed against him. This was Scripture. The authority of the Bible was final and infallible. This the church in fact admitted; it rested its own authority upon such passages as the statement to Peter, ‘Upon this rock will I build my church.’ Where then did Luther differ? He differed in holding that the Bible and the church might conflict, and did in fact conflict, while the church held that this was impossible. It was impossible because the church reserved to itself the right of interpreting the Bible; what the Bible meant could be only what the church said it meant. This Luther denied. He knew that there had been bitter battles within the church as to what the Bible taught, even on the cardinal points of the faith, that Arian doctrine had prevailed at one time and Athanasian at another, and that in attempting to construe the teaching of Scripture councils and popes had disagreed with each other and with themselves. But even with complete agreement, their claim to final authority in interpreting Scripture would still be false; for it rested upon the same foundation of dubious history and apologetics as the claim of the Roman bishop to be the infallible Vicar of Christ. We shall not follow the laborious operations of sapping and mining that Luther directed against that foundation. We have already examined it for ourselves, and have seen that his conclusion about its infirmity, whatever the value of his particular arguments, was in substance sound.

The Bible need no longer be read, then, through ecclesiastical spectacles. Each of us is at liberty to go to it himself and to make of it what he can. On the whole it has a plain story to tell; we could hardly suppose that Deity should will to communicate to us something of the first importance and yet deliberately confuse and mislead us. Does this mean that we are all equally qualified to act as interpreters? Clearly not. Luther, who had been at much pains to master Hebrew and Greek, and who translated the entire Bible, prized Biblical scholarship greatly. Nevertheless the prime qualification for understanding Scripture was not mastery of the original tongues, or historical knowledge, or philosophical acumen, but something wholly different—the same thing, indeed, that was needed for salvation, namely faith. The gospel was good news from a supernatural source. This news, as we have seen, was imperceptible by the human ear or eye; both the news and the means of receiving it had to be supplied from above. With this tremendous aid, a wayfaring man though a fool could read the text and see an unearthly light shining out between the lines; without it, the scholar or the philosopher could wrestle with the text for a lifetime and still only succeed in losing the spirit in the letter.

20 Furthermore, the Bible was a library of uneven books. For all his bibliolatry, Luther was less of a fundamentalist in his attitude toward Scripture than were his Catholic critics. Their attitude was formally expressed by the Council of Trent, in session when Luther died, which laid it down that the Bible with all its parts must be taken as inspired by the Holy Ghost. On the other hand, Luther held some of these parts in so low an esteem that he would have excluded them from the canon if he could. The central message of Scripture was that of man's redemption through the cross, and the importance of the various parts could be measured by their relevance to this nuclear revelation. The heart of the Bible, for Luther, was Romans, followed closely by Galatians, for in these two books, on which he wrote extensive commentaries, the great message came through with the brightest purity. Strangely enough, the synoptic gospels were less important, for the details of Christ's life are of less moment to us than his sacrificial death. Much further out toward the periphery are such books as Jude and Revelation, while the book of James was steadfastly put down as ‘an epistle of straw’. The reason for this animadversion is plain and revealing: James stresses works rather than faith; it even says: ‘pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world’ (1:27). Luther felt this to be clearly at odds with the all-important teaching of Romans, and could account for it only by supposing that inspiration was here muted and distorted by a very imperfect instrument.

One might expect that, by applying the same standard, he would find little of significance in the Old Testament. It is true that he made small use of its historical books and would have excluded Esther altogether. On the other hand he gave a central place to the Psalms. This was in part, no doubt, because he found in them, as have countless others, some rare devotional literature. But there was another reason. He thought he saw in them what few modern critics have been able to verify—continued references to, and foreshadowings of, Christ. ‘He finds the death and resurrection of Christ so clearly foretold in the Psalter, and the condition and essential nature of Christ's kingdom and of the whole Christian world so distinctly prefigured, that the Psalter might well be called a little Bible.’39 The Old Testament prophets, and particularly Moses, who was the greatest of them, were also important as forerunners. As regards Genesis, Luther had no doubt that its ultimate author was the Holy Spirit, though he thought that the actual placing in Moses’ hands of the tables of the law was done by angels rather than by the Deity himself. The Old Testament was not the work of men, except as they served as more or less faithful secretaries. It is valuable not only for the poems, prayers, reflections, and stories that have proved so great an aid in the expression of religious feeling, but above all for the thousand adumbrations, prophecies, and foretastes that make it a preface to the gospel.

Both Testaments could thus be read and understood by the religiously qualified layman. Luther often protested Augustine's remark that he would be unable to believe the Bible unless assured of its truth by church authority. The man of faith has an inner light that enables him to appropriate Biblical truth, and even to separate the grain from the admitted chaff in the sacred text. ‘You see how the words of the Gospel explain themselves, and have their own glosses, so that it is not at all necessary that other and human words be mixed with them.’40 This was part of the new priesthood of the believer.


21 There were two difficulties in this view which Luther never resolved. For one thing, the line of defence moves in a circle. What warrants our so reading Scripture that the death of Christ means more than his life, and the teaching of Romans more than the teaching of James? It is the possession of faith. What warrants us in making such faith the avenue to truth? It is the teaching of Romans rightly interpreted. Faith is our warrant for the meaning of Scripture; that meaning is our warrant for the primacy of faith. Thus Luther was defending the authority of faith by an argument that assumed that authority, and defending the authority of Scripture by an argument that rested on Scripture itself.

He might reply that in special circumstances an argument may be circular and still be valid. In this he would be right, and it is worth pausing to see why. Suppose you attempt to argue that some criterion of validity is the right one; how are you to appraise the arguments offered for it? If you appraise them by some other criterion than the one you are defending, you implicitly surrender your case; if you appraise them by the criterion for which you are arguing, you are going round in a circle. Still, if this criterion for which you are arguing happens to be the true one, the arguments it thus warrants will after all be valid, and your case, though circular, will not be vicious. Sooner or later, every criterion of validity must rest upon itself. Descartes saw that even the force of reason must come back in the end to its own clearness and distinctness of insight.

Luther might, so far, be right in contending that the meaning of Scripture is visible only to faith while faith must turn for its authority to the meaning of Scripture. How are we to tell whether he is or not? The normal way to proceed for a theologian or anyone else who has a case to make is to state it as clearly as possible and to ask whether the case, so stated, commends itself to his hearers when they look at it without bias. And the trouble is that when Luther does so state his case it does not commend itself to the majority of his hearers. To him, as he reads his Genesis, it seems self-evident that a human being could not have written it, and as he reads Romans, that the Pauline doctrine of the atonement is true without qualification. Most of us, when we consider these doctrines, have to confess that they are far from self-evident. Luther replies that this is because we are looking at them with eyes made myopic by sin, and that if these were replaced by the eyes of faith, we should see that what before was not even plausible is really irresistible truth. We ask him how we too can get this faith and its attendant vision. He answers that there is nothing we can do to get it, that it is a gift granted to some and denied to others on no assignable ground. We ask whether, even though there is no way to get it, there is not some way to identify people who have it. He answers that people who have it will display in their lives a unique superhuman love. We ask him for examples; does he himself have it in greater measure than, say, the Pope? He answers with confidence that he does. If we agree, we shall presumably end as Lutherans. And if we disagree? He would then tell us, with an embroidery of eloquent invective, that we do so through stubborn perversity. We explain that we did not mean to be perverse; we meant only to report faithfully how the matter appeared to us. To which Luther would answer that such fidelity to appearances is a peculiarly serious sin, the idolatry of our own reason. We ask him how we can avoid it. He answers: we cannot avoid it; we are predestined to it by the God who made us. But is not the God who made us a loving God? Yes, comes the menacing answer, but not so loving that if you continue in this line of questioning he will not commit you to an eternity of pain.

Most modern inquirers would perhaps turn away at this point in aversion, and suggest that what we have here is merely a saddling on Scripture of private prejudice, together with a projection on the universe of a sadism that is more effectively dealt with by Freud than by argument. This may be true. One can hardly read Luther's life in detail without recognising in his violent rages, his alternations of exalted ecstasy and black depression, his seizures and convulsions, his encounters with the devil, and his world-defying self-confidence, the marks of an abnormal mind; and the inference is at least plausible that this abnormality had its influence on his religion and his theology. But I do not propose to pursue this inquiry, because even if we could show, as we cannot with certainty, how far his convictions were linked to psychological causes, we should not thereby show them wrong; a belief may be held on irrelevant grounds and because of non-rational pressures, and still be true. Thus the possibility so far remains—a possibility grim and terrible—that Luther may be right. For all we have seen, the world may in fact be governed by implacable injustice that has doomed the majority of men to something worse than destruction. Whether Luther is right or not can be determined only by placing the circle of argument within which he moved in a wider context than his own. Is it true, as he maintains, that the world is divided into hostile realms of faith and reason, and that history is the drama of their rivalry? It is a question we cannot evade.


22 We said, however, that there were two difficulties with Luther's view of Scripture, and we must turn for a moment to the second. This is the familiar difficulty that the Bible, though the product of inspiration, seems to contain contradictions and errors of fact. The Bible, Luther says, is ‘alone the fount of all wisdom’; it is ‘the book given by God, the Holy Spirit, to His Church’. Yet we have found him admitting that if he had his way he would throw out of it both Esther and James; he had no hesitation in recognising errors of fact in both the Old Testament and the New, and he points out himself that at times they contradict each other. For example, Moses says in the Old Testament that Abraham received the call to go to Canaan while he still lived in Haran; Stephen, recounting the event in the New Testament, says he received the call before he arrived in Haran.41 Stephen seems to make a second mistake in the same chapter: he says that when Jacob's kindred were called about him they numbered three score and fifteen souls, whereas the number as reported in Genesis is three score and ten.42 Here either the New Testament or the Old, or both, must be in error. How was Luther to reconcile his view of the Bible as divinely inspired with his frank admission that it contained many palpable mistakes?

His answer was in substance as follows. We must recognise in the Scripture two orders or levels of truth. On the higher level are those teachings of transcendent importance that are necessary to salvation; on the lower level are teachings that are not thus necessary, such as biographical and historical details. There is no avoiding the admission that on the latter level many errors have crept in. But there is nothing disastrous about this. The Holy Spirit must, after all, breathe through human instruments that are sometimes tired, sometimes inattentive, sometimes, like the unfortunate James, a little stupid. They do not keep themselves always alert as the dictation flows in upon them, and the dictating Spirit has been tolerant of this remissness. So devoted heads have occasionally nodded, and quills with the best of intentions have set down very strange things. But one does not impeach an earthly author for the distractedness of his secretary, and still less should one lay impious charges against the Author of Scripture because of defects in human reception. When Luther turned to inspiration on the higher level, however, his attitude abruptly changed. That the Bible, whose prime purpose was to convey to man the means of salvation, should have distorted and perverted its chief message was a totally inadmissible suggestion. In its central teachings we have the pure and unadulterated milk of the divine word.

This expedient of distinguishing central from peripheral truths is often used in defending Biblical inspiration, and we have already considered the use made of it by Catholic theologians. It proved to be inadequate there. On grounds of merely human probability, it is unlikely that minds prone to frequent errors of fact should, when they come to matters of higher significance, become incapable of error, and one finds on closer inspection that what this probability suggests did happen in fact. For it is certainly not true that on all those points which either Luther or the church would regard as essential to salvation the report of the Bible as we have it presents a harmonious picture. Luther implicitly admitted this in his attitude toward James. For him the most essential doctrine of all was that of salvation by faith as opposed to works. On that point Paul and James disagree. Luther's method of dealing with this is to pronounce Paul (and himself) right, and, because James disagreed, to question the right of his epistle to a place in Scripture at all.

No doubt for some purposes this is an effective method; one could establish the consistency of Scripture on any doctrine at choice by excluding as uncanonical passages that opposed it. We saw that the Roman church has very effectively preserved its unity of belief by cutting off as heretical those who have disbelieved. But in the one case as in the other, a test conducted judicially will produce a result opposite of the one desired. Take any set of Biblical books accepted by reputable authorities, Catholic or Protestant, but not selected for their espousal of certain doctrines, and it is probably fair to say that they will contain divergencies of teaching even on such cardinal points as the idea of God, the relation of the divine and the human, the moral ideal, and the means of salvation. The Protestant appeal to the authority of Scripture ends in difficulties as insuperable as the Catholic appeal to the authority of the church.


23 We now have before us Luther's essential convictions on reason, faith, and Scripture. What are we to say of them? Considering that he remains a towering figure in the history of religious thought, it is curious how little the truth or falsity of his teaching is now discussed. To be sure, teachings similar to his have been put forward by neo-orthodox theologians and canvassed in the seminaries, but the discussion has been theological rather than philosophical; and even those who are styled Lutherans seem to accept him unreflectingly as part of their religious heritage. Contemporary philosophers, preoccupied with other problems, regard him with indifference as beyond the pale of their interest. He would be dismissed by most Catholics, not with indifference but with aversion, as the man who wilfully destroyed the unity of the church. Still another attitude appears in Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther, which takes him as a psychological case-study and undertakes to show, for example, how Luther's early hatred of his father projected itself in his conception of a fearful and vengeful God. My own interest differs from all of these. It is that of the speculative inquirer who, aware of the historic influence of Luther's teaching, wishes to raise the one question whether it is true. If it is, its acceptance, as he maintained, is important to the last degree. If it is not true, the business of the philosopher is to say so, and to say why.

This Luther would deny. It is not the business of philosophy, he insisted, to pry into these matters; and to assume its right to do so is to assume him wrong at the outset. But it is worth pointing out that he is here asking of us something with which it is hard to comply. Luther's is only one of many forms of faith that have proclaimed themselves to lie beyond rational criticism. Approaching them from the outside, the inquirer does not know beforehand which of them is sound, or whether any of them is. If he accepts Luther's warning that there is one of them upon which the use of reason will probably lead to damnation, his only safe course will be to refrain from using his reason on any of them at all. And this, while it may pave the way of some to an acceptance of Luther's message, will expose them and many more to exploitation by charlatanism; it will remove their one shield of defence. For the defence that lies in faith is not open to them; it is not to be won by effort or thought; it is something conferred from above according to no discernible pattern. We may wait, hope, and pray for it, but without any assurance of a result. To declare us thus impotent in securing the insight of faith and at the same time in peril of perdition if we try to secure it through the exercise of such faculties as we have is surely to beat intelligence down into cowering helplessness. The only road to safety lies in an obscurantism in regard to one's own faith that leaves one defenceless against other and false faiths.

But of course one does not prove a belief untrue by the undesirability of its results in practice. It may be, for all we have seen, that there is in fact such a Deity as Luther believed in, ready to inflict upon us unending and terrible suffering for the attempt to follow reason in these matters. On the other hand, it would be hard to forgive Luther and theologians like him if they were found to have leaped to this conclusion irresponsibly. For then they would have done far more than make an avoidable error on a particular point; they would have sinned against the very light of the mind. They would have sought to invest the free exercise of thought with a vague, vast, crippling, gratuitous fear. Nor is this the sort of fear that troubles superstitious minds alone; it is a sort that tells with especially numbing effect on those who are sensitive and imaginative. Pascal, for example, was an intelligence of remarkable power, and behind his famous ‘wager’ was the clear perception that while to believe against the evidence was an evil, it was a smaller evil than an eternity of torture, and that it was therefore better to drug and beat a recalcitrant intellect into submission than to give it a freedom that would bring destruction. This kind of theology, through appeal to an overmastering fear, puts a premium on deliberate ignorance and even on intellectual dishonesty. There is no doubt that it has acted in countless cases to repress and discourage inquiry. Luther's denunciation of reason in religion was so confident and forcible, and his audience so vast, that if he was wrong he was catastrophically wrong, retarding for centuries the advance of intelligence in the West.

24 His reply would presumably be that what he was really retarding was the indulgence of human pride. And we must agree once more that he is right if his account of the relation of faith and reason is the correct one. For then any attempt by reason to determine or criticise the content of faith will indeed be presumption. But it must be pointed out that to those who are not in the fold and who have comprised then as now the majority of mankind, charges of pride are stones thrown from a glass house. There is nothing on the face of it impertinent or presumptuous in using those powers which have proved our best and only reliance in understanding nature for the further attempt to understand our origin, duty, and destiny; such inquiry implies an awareness that light is lacking, and a desire for more. Further, as Goldwin Smith remarked, ‘Not every doctrine is humility in the preacher which is humiliating to man.’43 Luther, while insisting that inquiry into these matters was a work of sinful pride, held that true humility was displayed by the person who claimed personal and infallible assurance from on high that his own interpretation of Scripture was right, even when it differed from the whole Catholic tradition; who held that his own view of the limits of reason was right, even if it involved correcting Aristotle and Aquinas. That philosophers have been guilty at times of undue pride in scaling speculative heights is no doubt true, though they would perhaps also agree with Bradley's remark that ‘there is no sin, however prone to it the philosopher may be, which philosophy can justify so little as spiritual pride’. Indeed the founder of Western philosophy insisted that if he philosophised at all, it was because he was so acutely aware of his ignorance. When philosophers in this tradition are met with the accusation of pride by one who claims that his accusing accents are not those of pride but merely of omniscience, they are likely to have their own views as to where the charge is most appropriately laid.

The reflective inquirer need not be deterred, then, either by threats or by charges of arrogance from raising the question whether Luther's account of reason and faith is true. The essential points in that account are that man has been vitiated by original sin, that reason is incompetent in the sphere of religious truth, and that faith as distinct from works is the key to salvation. We must consider these points in order.


25 Original sin was an indispensable part of Luther's system. It explained man's disfavour in the sight of his maker, his helplessness to redeem himself, the feebleness of his intellect and the distortion of his conscience, the necessity of grace from the outside, the need for the sacrament of baptism, and the justification of eternal punishment. Its outlines were firm and definite. Adam and Eve were historical figures; Eve's temptation by the Devil and Adam's by Eve were historical events. The first pair had been placed in the garden morally pure; their yielding to temptation corrupted not only their own minds and wills but also the seed they carried within them; all the descendants that sprang from their loins were there potentially when their sin was committed, and hence effectively shared in it. Sinfulness is a hereditary taint and merits reprobation even before any action has been willed. It is for this reason that infant baptism, cancelling the inherited taint, is so essential. Those who are not baptised, whether children or adults, and whether they have heard of the Christian dispensation or not, are exposed to the divine wrath.

This was the doctrine believed and taught by Luther. It is not dead. In substance it is still the official teaching of the Catholic church, as laid down at Trent,44 and not since then abjured; it appears among the thirty-nine articles of the Church of England;45 and the revival of Lutheran theology has given it renewed currency in other churches. One occasionally hears it remarked with a knowing air that of course the doctrine of original sin is true. Many persons suppose that modern sophistication has here rallied to the ancient wisdom of the church, that the Freudian exposure of man's irrationality and the revelation in two world wars of his unlimited capacity for wickedness have somehow confirmed the dogma. One needs to walk warily here, for the dogma has been treated like a piece of putty and has been moulded by imaginative hands into very diverse shapes. Sometimes it is taken to say that when the fathers eat sour grapes the children's teeth are set on edge, which may mean only the truism that the sins of the fathers are likely to injure the children, that if the father is an alcoholic, for example, the children will suffer for it. Sometimes it means that the wicked traits developed by the father are transmitted to the son biologically, a proposition that biologists would emphatically deny. Sometimes society replaces the parents; we have inherited from our forbears a defective social order, which warps and deforms us morally; Schleiermacher tried to read the doctrine thus. Sometimes it is supposed to say only that all men are gross sinners and will continue to be, and then any evidence of widespread perversity will be taken to confirm it. Now there is no dogma of any religion that could not be validated with ease, or refuted with equal ease, if treated in this way. Assume that those who formulated it had no definite meaning in mind and were content to speak in riddles and metaphors, and one may safely report onself as either orthodox or heretical as the mood of the moment prompts.

But to Luther and traditional Christianity, the dogma of original sin had a definite meaning, and we have seen what that meaning was. Our present question is where we should stand about it. To that question only one answer seems to me possible. The dogma is false. It is worse than that; in the context of Christianity it is a moral outrage. Such charges may seem extreme. They will seem less so, I suspect, if we pause a moment and reflect on the doctrine.


26(1) Luther believed that there was an actual Adam and Eve who were tempted in an actual Eden by an actual devil by whom he had actually been tempted himself. It is idle to say that for him these historical figures and events were mere symbols of an abstract theological truth which would remain unaffected, whatever criticism might do to the historical details. The history was an indispensable part of the truth. If there was no garden of Eden, no first pair created in it, no divine command given or disobeyed, no devil to tempt into wrongdoing, no curse upon the sinners, and no taint transmitted to offspring, then what Luther meant by the doctrine of original sin can only be false. And of course it is false. These figures never existed. These events never occurred. Competent biologists are divided as to where and when the first figure appeared that could be rightly described as a man, but they would agree that, whoever he was, he was an emergent from millenniums of animality, perhaps like the Java man, perhaps more like Neanderthal or Peking man, but certainly not like Adam. Need one argue the point? It is probably enough to remark that there was a man named Darwin and that there are accredited sciences of biology and archaeology.

We can see now more clearly than we once could why such a doctrine should arise. The notion that man and society are naturally progressive is a comparatively recent one. Before it came into ascendancy, men were inclined to project their dreams of a perfect order backward rather than forward, to think of the Golden Age not as a promised land to which they were pressing on but as a primeval Eden from which they had fallen away. If their lot was unhappy, as it usually was, at least it had not always been so, for they were descended from a mighty race who had consorted with Thor and Odin, or fought with godlike prowess at Troy, or walked the palaces of the lost Atlantis. Eden was the earthly paradise of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, supposed to surpass anything the Greeks had known; as Bishop South put it, ‘an Aristotle was but the rubbish of an Adam, and Athens but the rudiments of Paradise’. The commonness of these visions, brought to light by the anthropologists, and their inevitableness, made clear by the psychologists, have put them in their proper mythical perspective. We know now that Edens, if there are any, lie in the future, and that even the life of ‘the noble savage’ was less likely to be noble than—as Hobbes allowed—‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Bacon, who tried in his New Atlantis to turn the current of interest from past to future, was right in insisting the ‘we are the true ancients’, with far more wisdom at our disposal, however foolishly we may misuse it, than those who lived in the idealised youth of the world. The paradise that was lost and the fall that took place in it are plainly vestigial ideas hanging over from a time when history was naturally and pathetically read backwards.

27(2) More surprising to many than the fact that the doctrine of original sin has no basis in history is the fact that it has no adequate basis in the Bible. Genesis says nothing of it. No withdrawal from man of his power of mind or conscience is reported, no hint of a hereditary corruption of his nature, no intimation that sin is inevitable. The sin of murder committed by Adam's son Cain is recounted without any suggestion that it is connected with the sin of his father. Indeed one will look for the doctrine in vain in any book of the Old Testament. Even in the New Testament there is only one passage in which the sinful state of mankind is explicitly connected with the sin of Adam:

‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. …Therefore, as by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto the justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.’46

Irenaeus, who lived in the second century, worked into a conception of original sin from reflecting on salvation; if men could be saved by participation in the goodness of Christ, perhaps they had been damned in a similar way by participation in the sin of Adam. The parallel is at least rhetorically effective, and it does not seem fanciful to find it already at work in the above passage from St Paul. Paul did not draw the doctrine from the Old Testament or from the teaching of his Master; he seems to have found it floating in the Jewish thought of his time; perhaps he adopted it because it balanced so naturally his theory of redemption. But even by St Paul the doctrine is stated so vaguely that to find in it a transmission of hereditary guilt is somewhat arbitrary. As Dr Tennant says, ‘It is easy to read into St Paul's statement each of the later ecclesiatical theories as to the nature of this connexion, just because that statement is so indefinite and colourless as to be capable of accommodating them all.…’47

28(3) However vague Paul may have been on the transmissibility of sin, Luther committed himself to it in definite terms. Adam's wrongdoing introduced into the race a corruption that, because inherited, became universal, what Luther called a universa corruptio naturae. ‘Already in the Sermon on St Stephen's Day we read of an incapacity of the entire will for love of the good as well as of an incapacity of the reason for knowledge of the right and true.’48 The incapacity to obey God's commandments was itself morally culpable and incurred the divine anger. It is hardly necessary to remark that this sort of inheritance is unknown to critical or scientific thought. Sin is a kind of activity, and activities are not inherited; it would be meaningless to say that one inherited from forbears the actual process of breaking promises or telling lies. What must be meant is that the power or propensity is inherited; the parents’ acting in a certain way specifically affected their genes, and through them produced in the offspring the power or propensity to act likewise. Now it is possible that parental behaviour, if sufficiently dissolute, can depress the general vitality of the reproductive cells, but this suggestion that moral practices can so mould them that similar moral practices will crop up in the offspring is one to which no responsible biologist would subscribe; the evidence against it is overwhelming. We have here a clear case of the conflict of science with theology, and one in which theology is beating a somewhat disorderly retreat.


29(4) It is time the doctrine did retreat and take itself off permanently, if only for the sake of the theology that it has smirched and compromised. The doctrine is, if possible, even more untenable morally than factually. We may begin with the obvious: to make one person responsible and condemnable for the sin of another, and especially of another who died before he was born, can be justified by nothing but sophistry. If someone advanced the thesis that when a man kills another in Iraq a man in Detroit should be jailed for it, he would be regarded as scarcely sane. Still the man in Detroit is at least a contemporary of the murderer and might conceivably have contributed by some unconscious negligence to what happened in Iraq. But to say that he is justly punishable for what someone did in Iraq millenniums ago is to empty the idea of justice of all meaning. Yet that is what the Lutheran doctrine says.

30(5) It would be unfortunate enough if the sin of our first parent reproduced itself only in a propensity to go and do likewise, but according to the doctrine of original sin, the situation is far worse. Adam's disobedience opened a cosmic Pandora's box, releasing all manner of imps and bats. The Stoics had an all-or-nothing doctrine about keeping the moral law; to keep it was perfection, but any breach of it was as bad as any other, since all alike would cause one to lose one's footing in the heaven of righteousness. Most moralists have felt this doctrine to be intemperate and extreme. One may surely break an engagement for lunch without incurring the criminality of starting a world war, or totally undermining one's power to be truthful or decent. But the doctrine of original sin will have no middle ground. Adam disobeyed; and because he disobeyed, every faculty in his nature was vitiated, every desire was infected with evil, the struggle for goodness itself was perverted into something sinful. The Holy Ghost was withdrawn, and ‘man without the Holy Ghost and God's Grace’, said Luther in his Table Talk, ‘can do nothing but sin. This is my absolute opinion.…’ It is no doubt true that the repercussions of one sin, even a small one, may be far-reaching. But to make it the inevitable source of total moral corruption in the individual and the race is to throw it out of perspective. Why should anyone distort in this way the facts of the moral life? Luther testified that he was utterly terror-stricken at the thought of Christ the Judge, and it is as if his terror had led him not only to abase himself before the Judge, but to make all humanity beat its breast and lament its worthlessness in company with him. Whatever moved him to the belief, there is no proportion in it between the misdeed and its consequences.

31(6) Furthermore, so far as these consequences take the form of original sin, they are not really sins at all. Sin involves an act of will. It is the choice of what is known to be worse over what is known to be better. A mere susceptibility to temptation, a mere potency or capacity for wrongdoing, is not in itself sin. Animals do not sin, for they have not reached the level of moral choice. An infant—even an infant that is destined to become a gangster—has not launched himself on a career of sin while still in the womb or the cradle; like his unfortunate ancestor, he must taste the fruit of a famous tree, that of the knowledge of good and evil, before he can get that career under way. To condemn him morally before he has in the proper sense acted at all is inept; it is to represent him as sinning before the conditions that make sin possible are present; it is indeed to assert a self-contradiction. As Dr Tennant says, ‘what is original cannot be sin, and sin cannot be original’.

32(7) It is characteristic not only of Luther but also of Augustine and the grim church fathers who framed the doctrine, to make wickedness heritable, but not goodness. We have seen that, strictly speaking, man inherits neither, but if he inherits either, he must obviously inherit both. As Professor R. L. Patterson has said, ‘it is one thing to call him a sinner when he has actually sinned, and another thing to call him a sinner because he is capable of sinning. For man is capable also of noble deeds, of self-sacrifice and heroism; yet one would not call him a saint or a hero until his deeds have actually merited such an appellation. There is no reason why this moral plasticity of man… should be equated with sin rather than with virtue.’49 Luther indeed might reply that there was no goodness in man to be transmitted or inherited. But that would only repeat the denigration of human nature that we have been deprecating.

33(8) It must be remembered that as regards the acts as well as the state of the natural man, Luther was a determinist. He believed that even such actions as Judas's betrayal of his master, given the outer and inner circumstances, are unavoidable. What he is therefore saying in his doctrine of original sin is that man is sinful and guilty for actions he could not help. To be sure, this is not so absurd a view as might at first be supposed. Determinism does not render meaningless all judgements of good and evil; one may quite consistently judge that pleasure is better than pain, even while recognising that these experiences are caused; indeed one may consistently go further and say that actions are right as they tend to produce the former and wrong as they tend to produce the latter, even though the actions are necessitated. But one can hardly say that the notions of sin and guilt themselves are unaffected by determinism. These notions imply not only a choosing of what is believed to be worse, but the possibility of avoiding that choice. If we knew that Judas did only what he could not help doing, that there was no alternative open to him, we could hardly say that he was guilty of wilful sin. And yet Luther seems to be saying both things at once. Man is guilty in the profound and terrible sense in which his sin merits eternal retribution, even while he is doing what he is doomed to do and could not have avoided. This surely is incoherence.


34(9) The picture of Deity conveyed by the original-sin dogma is also incoherent. What is most distinctive of the Christian teaching regarding God is his love and forgiveness. The doctrine of original sin, seen in its implications, represents him as a being of implacable cruelty who could have stemmed the flood of evil but chose not to do so. He must have acquiesced in the temptation of Adam; he must have brought Satan himself into being. As omniscient, he knew beforehand what Adam would do when tempted; as all-powerful he fixed the law by which Adam's sin was multiplied through the length and breadth of humanity. Could not Omniscience and Omnipotence have arranged these matters otherwise? It might be replied that there are restrictions even here, that God himself could not have granted freedom to man without the liberty to misuse it, and that its value outweighs any ills that spring from that misuse.

The reply is not convincing. The larger part of human behaviour is governed by causal law, as things are, and to suppose that a limited freedom from such law is worth purchasing at the price of almost unlimited suffering is far from clear. The world, so far as a mere human eye can see, would be a better and happier place if man had been ordained from the beginning to act more prudently and wisely, or, again, if virtue had been made hereditary rather than vice. In any case, there is a vast amount of suffering in the world that has no connection with human mis-doing and appears to be quite pointless. The suffering of the child with cancer, or of the mouse trying to escape the cat, or of the millions swept off by earthquake, cyclone, and pestilence, has nothing to do with moral delinquency, and it produces no known goods that would compensate for it. The standard move of the apologist at this point is to admit a mystery, but to add that if we saw farther we should see that all these things are consistent with the boundless love of the Creator for his creatures; the right recourse is to faith. But the philosopher cannot cut short the inquiry in this fashion; his question is what, in the light of the available evidence, it is most reasonable to believe, and that question is not answered by a resolution to go beyond the evidence and even to flout it if it seems to point in an undesired direction. Perhaps men are happier when, as so many Catholics do, they turn these matters over to the church and stop worrying about them. Unfortunately a faith that may be justified practically and emotionally may be less than justified rationally. For the philosopher at least the inquiry must go on.

Professor A. E. Taylor, an able apologist for Christian theology, wrote in his Gifford Lectures: ‘The traditional Christian dogma of original sin, its consequences and the mode of its transmission, as shaped in the West by St Augustine, has always seemed to me, even in the moderated form in which it persists in the Thomist theology, manifestly the most vulnerable part of the whole Christian account of the relations of God and man, and to call more imperatively than any other part of the theological system for reconstruction in the light of philosophy and history.’50 And Bertrand Russell reminds us that ‘Professor Giles, the eminent Chinese scholar, at the end of his Gifford Lectures on “Confucianism and its Rivals”, maintains that the chief obstacle to the success of Christian missions in China has been the doctrine of original sin.… Confucius taught that men are born good, and that if they become wicked, that is through the force of evil example or corrupting manners.’51 And F. L. Lucas comments: ‘This idea that God should bid man forgive his brother unto seventy times seven, but should consider Himself at liberty to punish His children infinitely and unendingly for a single offence, or even for an offence committed by others, seems to me the strangest, perhaps, of all human manias.’52 The dogma of original sin strikes an alien and jarring note in Christian theology. A God who is loving and forgiving cannot at the same time be consummately cruel and unjust. It is strange to consider that some deeply religious men, such as Luther and Jonathan Edwards, have been able to unite a tender affection for their own children with an ascription to one whom they described as a heavenly father of shocking inhumanity to children generally. Edwards, whose work on Original Sin is described by Lecky as ‘one of the most revolting books that have ever proceeded from the pen of man’, illustrated the attitude of this father toward his children, says Lecky, from ‘those scenes of massacre when the streets of Canaan were choked with the multitude of the slain, and when the sword of the Israelite was for ever bathed in the infant's blood’.53 Luther seems to have been more reluctant to draw out the consequences of his doctrine. He was clear that the natural man must receive at God's hands what he variously called ‘damnation’ and ‘death and hell’; and clearly children, before they were baptised, must be classed as natural men. Furthermore, it was one of his main theses that the mere reception of sacraments was of no avail, since they must be accompanied by a state of faith in the receiver; ‘Faith must be present before, or at least in, baptism; otherwise, the child is not released from the devil and sin’.54 But how could infants have such faith? Their prospect looked dark indeed. Luther did his best for them by arguing that if the parents earnestly interceded for them the divine mercy would grant a miraculous and precocious faith sufficient for the purpose. As for the unbaptised child, ‘what prevents children unbaptised from being condemned to all eternity?’ he asked. He was compelled to answer: Nothing but an unstipulated mercy which, while assuring us through Scripture that they merited damnation, would somehow find a way to suspend the appalling sentence.

Still, the quality of that mercy is disquieting. The vast majority of mankind, past and presumably future, remain under condemnation. All those who lived before the Christian era must be condemned, for the grace later made available was not available then. ‘If the choice were given me, I would pick the work of a Christian farmer or maid, even if it were very coarse and boorish, in preference to all the victories and triumphs of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and other heathen. Why? Because here is God; there, the devil’.55 Luther is willing to admit that Socrates, Themistocles, and Regulus exhibited virtues of truthfulness and fidelity, and God does not entirely overlook such virtues; it was in consequence of them that he granted to the Romans their great empire. But these were outward forms of righteousness. In their hidden parts the heathen were corrupt, driven by pride and the desire for glory. Theologically speaking, their virtues counted for nothing, and Luther denounced as pernicious error Zwingli's teaching that some of them might be saved.56 Again, even in the period since the incarnation most men have remained in darkness about the opportunity open to them; they too are under sentence. Nor does it seem certain, in spite of all the efforts to carry enlightenment into lands of alien faiths, that heathen pride will capitulate; so the millions who continue to follow Buddha, Confucius, and Mohammed must join the vast procession of the doomed.

No doubt Luther, who nominated the Pope for a conspicuous position among the lost, and the Pope, who consigned Luther to perdition, would agree that such teaching promoted morality by frightening many into the straight and narrow way. As a matter of fact, it instituted a painful divorce between theology and morality. For a Creator to bring into being millions of people who could be saved only by a certain kind of light, then to withhold from them that light, and finally to condemn them eternally for not having it, was a policy that in a human being would have been regarded as extreme cruelty, and yet men were called on to pay it reverence in the person and conduct of Deity. Such a demand was calculated to develop religious schizophrenia in the minds of persons like Pascal and Kierkegaard, torn between logic and terror. In others, like Leslie Stephen and W. K. Clifford, it drove the thinker into permanent antagonism to the whole framework of Christian theology;57 Clifford's indictment of the dogma voiced the opinion of many thoughtful men:

‘to condemn all mankind for the sin of Adam and Eve; to let the innocent suffer for the guilty; to keep anyone alive in torture for ever and ever; these actions are simply magnified copies of what bad men do. No juggling with “divine justice and mercy” can make them anything else. This must be said to all kinds and conditions of men: that if God holds all mankind guilty for the sin of Adam, if he has visited upon the innocent the punishment of the guilty, if he is to torture any single soul for ever, then it is wrong to worship him.’58

It has been necessary to look carefully at the doctrine of original sin, since it is perhaps the chief ground for Luther's disparagement of reason. His argument was: man's intelligence belongs to the realm of the flesh; this realm is a mass of corruption owing to man's continual sinfulness; his intelligence somehow shared in this corruption; therefore it is a broken reed. This strange and repellent doctrine is untrue. Reason is not to be disqualified on mythological grounds. But of course it may fail on other grounds, and we must now turn to Luther's account of how it actually fares when it enters the lists of theology.


35 He assumes that its failure here is absolute. ‘And what saith God? Impossible things, lies, foolish, weak, absurd, abominable, heretical, and devilish things, if ye believe reason.’59 What is true in theology may, in the eyes of reason, be false. It is therefore necessary to lay down sharp boundaries between the kind of truth apprehended in natural knowledge on the one hand, such as the facts of history, the laws of nature, and the principles of logic, and, on the other the truths, unintelligible to such knowledge, that are supplied by revelation. We shall never understand by mere reflection why the Word was made flesh, or how the Deity can be three persons in one, or why those who are innocent by our standards should be eternally punished. But if the Bible reports these things to be true, they are true; that is the end of the matter; and if our reason says they are not, that only shows that reason breaks down when it tries to fly without wings.

We must look more closely into this teaching that a proposition false in philosophy may be true in theology. It may mean two quite different things. First, it may mean what it says, namely that the very same proposition which is false when asserted in philosophy is true when asserted in theology; or, secondly, it may mean that the verbal form which conveys one proposition to the philosopher conveys a different one to the theologian, and that of these one may be true and the other false. It will be worth while to look at each interpretation.

36 The first would be disastrous. It would make reason unreliable everywhere. Suppose a philosopher is told that a historical figure embodied an omniscient mind which, nevertheless, grew in knowledge from year to year; or suppose he is told that to condemn to eternal suffering a person who has committed no voluntary sin is perfect justice. The philosopher contemplates these propositions and reports that he can only find them self-evidently untrue. And suppose he is then told by the theologian that they are true none the less, and moreover that to refuse to admit this is a serious moral offence. What is he to do? He cannot merely admit to a casual error, thank the theologian for setting him right, and abjure what his reason tells him. It is not as if he had made a mistake about the number of peas in a pod, which could be rectified by counting again. It is rather as if he had been told that counting itself was irrelevant in ascertaining number, and that the clearness with which something approves itself to his natural faculties signifies nothing. But if self-evidence itself is to be rejected as a witness to truth, what ground is there for supposing that our reason is reliable anywhere? Nor is the trouble merely with our thought; reality itself is declared to be incoherent. For what is being alleged is that the same proposition is both true and false; the addendum that it is true for the theologian and false for the philosopher does not alter that fact; the real world is X but also not X. But then nothing is secure. If knowledge may be both complete and incomplete, why may not matter both gravitate and not gravitate? It is not only our thought that becomes on this theory a sort of nightmare, but the world itself which thought is trying to construe.


37 Let us then try the other interpretation, which Luther at times expressly favoured. This is that when the theologian uses forms of speech common to the philosopher and himself, he means by them different things. This interpretation does clearly remove the necessity of conflict. If, when the theologian says that eternal punishment for involuntary sin is justice, he means by ‘eternal punishment’ the loss of divine favour, and by ‘justice’ accordance with an inscrutable divine will, he is saying something so different from what the philosopher is saying that both assertions might be true.

Unfortunately this conciliatory proposal is not as helpful as it sounds. For one thing, to have two different sets of meanings for common terms produces needless misunderstanding. There are current and standard meanings for the words ‘just’ and ‘punishment’; these are surely the senses in which they should normally be used; and if one wishes to convey a quite different sense, it is reasonable to ask that it be differently expressed.

There is a more important difficulty. It is hard to resist the impression that this resort to double senses is an unconscious evasion. The reader comes upon the Scriptural statement, ‘by the offence of one, judgement came upon all men to condemnation’. This statement, since it is in Scripture, must be true, and the judgement referred to, since an act of Deity, must be just. But it is obviously not just in the ordinary sense; it must therefore be just in some exceptional sense; what can this be? The inquirer does not know. He hazards that it means ‘in accordance with an inscrutable divine will’, and his consistency seems to be saved. But has he done more than push the inconsistency one step further away? He surely assumed the divine will to be righteous, and how could such a will sanction what is self-evidently wrong? To apply the term in its standard meaning leads to incoherence, and the change of meaning is an attempt to avoid this incoherence. If the change is a relatively slight one, as in the case just cited, the contradiction is so thinly veiled as to remain disturbingly alive. On the other hand, if the change is large enough to give genuine relief, one is likely to find that one's idea of God is all but lost in the mist.

This is the experience of many today. They have been brought up to believe that God is good. Little by little they become aware, through grim experience or by report, of the horror in the world, not only that of the callousness and cruelty of men, which might be set down to a perverse use of their freedom, but also of ‘acts of God’, as the insurance companies call them—accidents that kill or maim, epidemics that sweep away a Hegel or a Schubert as readily as they do a drunken profligate, Indian famines and Vesuvian eruptions and Japanese earthquakes. Confronted by these things, the believer in the divine goodness is likely to have a divided mind. These are events in nature, which must therefore have been sanctioned by the Author of nature. They produce unspeakable misery, and so far as the eye can see, no equivalent good. A human being who perpetrated such things would be condemned unsparingly. But from such a judgement upon Deity, religious minds shrink back. Though they cannot honestly call these horrors good, neither can they, without emptying their idea of God of all ground for reverence, call God evil. They must manage to keep both the badness of the events, which is required for moral integrity, and also the goodness of God, which is required for emotional peace. They do it by involving the idea of God in veils of mist so thick that anything can be reconciled with it. How deep the obscurity is has been brought out by writers on theology who have invited these persons to say what evils in human experience would serve to shake their confidence in God's goodness. The reply has come: None whatever; the suffering of the world might be tenfold what it is and our faith would be unchanged; though he slay us, yet will we trust him. Unfortunately this leaves the intellectual problem where it was. What is at work here is not so much thought which has won its way out of incoherence as a commitment of will and feeling which has brushed the intellectual problem aside.

38 The suspicion is inevitable that Luther's architecture of two realms, in which the truths of the realm of grace are unintelligible to the lower realm of reason, is at bottom another case of this well-meaning evasion. What Luther wanted was reform, the reform of individual lives and of the church, and he was impatient of anything that stood in the way of his drive for reformation. He conceived that reason did stand in the way. It was cold, critical, and inhibiting. ‘If anyone summons reason to the council, assent to our articles of faith is impossible.’60 His theology was a means of by-passing reason and getting back to the matter of importance. ‘Theology ought to be, from the beginning to the end, practical. It is by living, yea, by dying, that one becomes a theologian, and not by knowing, reading and speculating.’61 Here theology is presented, not as a means of clearing up the bafflement of reason, but as a means of ignoring it and going about one's business in despite of it. In all this Luther sounds like an impatient and puzzled mind of our own day who, faced by a contradiction between his experience and his theology, elects to commit himself to both and let the pieces fall where they may.

But as a professor of theology he could not rest in such a position. Theology was in its own way a science. It had as its ample data the books of the Bible, and its business was to interpret, defend, harmonise, and explain the manifold truths delivered there. Often these truths made nonsense to reason; ‘when God speaks, reason judges his word to be heresy and the word of the devil, for it seems to it absurd and foolish’.62 But with a strict discipline we can keep reason under. ‘The evening sacrifice is to kill reason; the morning sacrifice is to glorify God.’63 Beliefs that reason tells us are false to the point of absurdity faith assures us to be true, and since the authority and certainty of faith outstrip those of reason, theology is still the queen of the sciences.


39 Luther's demand that faith should ‘kill reason’, however, made the sciences that followed reason not subjects merely, but enemies. And if there is to be peace between enemies, the line between their provinces must be clearly and firmly drawn. Such a line Luther never succeeded in laying down. Tireless and vehement as he was in denouncing reason, he allowed its advance guards to swarm across the theological frontier almost at will. Indeed he found himself forced to co-operate with them. In order to formulate the very interdicts by which he proscribed reason in the realm of faith, he had to borrow scribes from across the line.

We have just mentioned the problem of evil; consider Luther's language about it. We can see clearly enough with our natural faculties that human suffering is evil; we seem to see also, as a necessary inference from this, that whoever inflicts such evil needlessly is himself doing evil. Luther is bound to say, however, that the inference is invalid. Why? Because we know by revelation that God is good. Good in what sense? Is it in some sense that has no relation to common meaning? Then it has no interest for us, since our problem is precisely whether we can still apply the common meaning in the light of bitter experience. And Luther is alive to this, for he is not content to regard God as good merely in some transcendental and unintelligible sense. He is good as a father is good; he is tender and solicitous and forgiving, slow to anger but formidable in wrath and terrible in vengeance, as some human fathers are. In these respects Luther was intensely human himself, and in his passionate fears and prayers he was wrestling with another Person conceived very much in his own image. That was what made his struggles so poignant and his down-to-earth preaching so pungent.

But surely all this goes ill with his theory. According to that theory God was unknowable to human faculty. ‘No man shall see God and live’; a man can approach him only if he leaves his reason with his shoes at the temple door.

‘Even the very particulars which fall within the range of the natural knowledge of God are so far from being thus apprehended in their real character, that Luther says in regard to them, and thus in regard to the entire sphere of religious truth, that reason understands nothing at all about them: “It is not possible to understand even the smallest article of faith by human reason.…” In matters of faith, reason is stone blind, and cannot understand a single letter of divine wisdom.’64

This is the official doctrine. But when we turn to Luther's actual preaching and writing, we find him pursuing a contrary course with the same confidence and vehemence. The conception of God he there uses is so shot through with ideas drawn from secular experience, and so entangled with relations supplied by natural reason, that it would have collapsed into a sort of jelly without them. When he exhorts men to respond to the love of God or to flee from his wrath; when he refers to the suffering on the cross, or to the malice of the devil who pursued him so remorselessly, or to the Christian virtues of forgiveness, hope, and charity; when he reasons freely about these things, arguing from guilt to the justification of punishment, from the agonies of eternal fire to the prudence of avoiding it, from the need of a greater sacrifice to atone for a greater sin, he is plainly talking theology. Is he talking intelligibly or not? If not, why speak in riddles except to those who, as already in grace, hold the divinely vouchsafed key to them? But if in so speaking he could be understood by the many, as he clearly assumed that he could, what becomes of his exclusion of reason from the religious realm? With one hand he pushes it contemptuously away. At the same time he is deftly using it with the other as his main means of interpretation, his chief weapon of argument, and indeed as an indispensable armoury of concepts and relations for the conduct of religious thought.

Luther's insistence on talking intelligibly, even in theology, was thus at odds with his theory of what theology should be. Unfortunately his teaching in this field shows a further inconsistency: it was inconsistent with itself. Some minds, as we have seen, save their coherence by a timely retreat into obscurity; if the evil in the world prevents their saying that God is good in the ordinary sense, then he is good in some extraordinary sense. But one who refuses thus to take refuge in a fog and, like J. S. Mill, ‘writes clearly enough to be found out,’ may pay for his clarity with painfully definite contradictions. Luther's determinism led him to hold that God was the cause of all things, of Judas's act of betrayal as well as of droughts and epidemics; and for a being who was all-powerful and could have avoided such evils to create them deliberately was plainly not good in the ordinary sense. But unless Luther's language about God's fatherly tenderness and care was to lose its meaning, God was good in the straightforward sense. And to combine this with Luther's brand of determinism was clearly inconsistent.


40 Indeed if his language is read straightforwardly, as he meant it to be, his theology is riddled with contradictions. ‘God is not able to deny His nature, that is, He is not able not to hate sin and sinners’; yet ‘There is in God no wrath or disfavour; His heart and thoughts are nothing but pure love.’65 We must believe both that ‘the salvation of all men is the earnest will of God’66 and that he has predestined the majority of them to be damned. If a certain man is lost, it is because he has been thus predestined to be lost, though it is also true that his doom is entirely his own fault.67 Though God has vouchsafed his grace to only a limited number of men, it is impious to say this or believe it.68 Since God knows how every deed will work out, he can have nothing to repent; but we must accept the repeated Scriptural report that he ‘repented him’ of his actions. God commands men to believe, yet often withholds the grace they need to comply with this command. If a human court condemns a man for something done by his father, that is unjust; if God condemns a man for something done by his remotest ancestors, this is perfect justice. Christ was sinless, but as a man he was a sinner. ‘Let no one hope to be saved through another's faith or work’,69 though our only hope of salvation is through the faith and work of Christ. It is needless to lengthen the ungrateful list.

Luther could not fail to note the presence of such contradictions. What is remarkable is his boldness in dealing with them. Instead of saying, ‘So much the worse for my theology; I must see that it does not fall apart in this way,’ he said, ‘So much the worse for reason; its criticism is arrogance’. Such a line took courage, a quality in which Luther was never wanting. But it was a policy that neither he nor probably anyone else has ever been able to honour except in the perpetual breach. He made no question that our natural faculties, however corrupted, were competent to guide us in the affairs of business or politics, of science or secular history. That the faculties which had thus sustained the life and progress of the race would take us one inch across the line into theology he emphatically denied. But we have seen that he could not hold the line against them. If one removes from his theology all the propositions thus placed under the ban, what is left? A Deity to whom no attributes of the kind we know can be ascribed, a being without morality in our sense, a being not even consistent with itself. Such a being cannot be made the object of thought, for thought is bound by logic. A more serious consideration for Luther, and one that stirred in him uneasily at times, was that neither could such a being be made the object of Christian reverence, adoration, or worship. For if one could not call it ‘good’, ‘just’, ‘noble’, or ‘wise’ in the natural meaning of these terms, what was there to adore?

We are compelled to say, then, that Luther's attack on reason, for all its vehemence and scorn, was incoherent. He was not a stupid man, and in his own field of Biblical studies he was a considerable scholar. But he was too impatient and impulsive to be a good philosopher, and his conviction that in the theology of Romans and Galatians he had laid hold on ultimate truth was too much for a somewhat feeble power of self-criticism. This part of the Pauline teaching encouraged him to think that, once grace had descended upon him, he could speak with the accents of Deity, and that if spiritual pretenders like the Pope, or secular pretenders like the philosophers, stood in his way, he could blast them out of it with the lightnings of divine anathema. He did not feel this to be egotism, for on the essential points it was the Deity that was speaking rather than he. He had a new criterion of truth, namely conformity to Paul on salvation, and since this criterion was absolute and certain, he was in a position to brush aside any scientific fact or philosophic demonstration or scholarly conclusion that did not accord with it. Copernicus was a ‘fool’, Aristotle a ‘blind heathen’; Erasmus, ‘like Judas, betrayed the Son of Man with a kiss’. If one were to protest that these were not the proper descriptions of men who were trying to be reasonable, Luther would reply that to try to be reasonable is wickedness where faith is at stake. In appraising this position, it has always been difficult to take middle ground. If Luther was right, it is hardly enough to regard him as one of the highest mountain peaks in human history, for on that peak he was receiving from a still loftier region the tables of a new law. If he was wrong, it is hardly too much to call him a fanatic with a touch of paranoia. Men will line up on both sides for centuries to come.


41 One more of Luther's teachings, though a most important one, remains for estimation: we are justified by faith alone. Faith is a belief or conviction, the conviction that our sins are forgiven because of the sacrifice made on the cross; and this return to divine acceptance is what is meant by ‘justification’. Faith is not an achievement but a gift, to which no merit on our part attaches. Such faith is the absolute good for man. Without it, good will, good works, intelligence, genius count for nothing. If one has it, good will and good works will follow, but they will avail nothing in the final reckoning. Compared with anything else that may happen to us in our short time on earth, the salvation of the soul is uniquely important, for upon it depends our status through eternity. The one thing needful for that salvation is faith.

Luther held this doctrine because he believed that it was the teaching of the Bible, appearing most clearly in his favourite part of Scripture, the epistles of St Paul. Fortunately we are not concerned with the correctness of his Pauline exegesis. Our question is whether his teaching on faith, regardless of its source, and regardless too of its vast historical influence, is acceptable today. We have already stated its meaning. We must now look at some of the difficulties it holds for the modern mind.

42 One difficulty is that in the complex drama of his fate man himself is considered as having little or no part. He is the pawn of the supernatural. In some versions of the drama he did play a part; he used his free will long ago to disobey his Creator, and thus ‘brought sin into the world and all our woe’. But in Luther's version, even this part is virtually denied him, for his disobedience was not that of a free agent but that of a puppet. And no rung of the ladder by which he may rise to favour is formed by any act attributable to the natural man. He may repent, implore, refine his conscience, purify his thoughts, amend his ways; but since these actions spring from a corrupted heart and are therefore without merit, they have no influence in averting condemnation or securing grace. Faith, if it comes, is a gift from without, given independently of merit and on inscrutable grounds. The person who lays hold of it is not strictly the ‘I’ who has done evil, but another I, divinely implanted, ‘not I but Christ,’ for only faculties divinely supplied can apprehend divine truth. It is this new self, not the sinful old one, that is approved or justified—Deity within me being approved by Deity above. Again, if I succeed in doing right, it is not the I who did wrong that thus succeeds, for that self is incapable of anything good; the agent is the new supernatural self that has dethroned the natural one and taken over the government of my actions. Finally, it is not the old corrupt I who is saved, but the new and heaven-born self. Man's only part in ‘this strange eventful history’ is to supply the stage on which it happens. The gift of faith, the laying hold of it, the translation of it into act, the receipt of forgiveness, the assumption into heaven, the living out of an eternal life, are all supernatural proceedings, unconditioned at any point by the actions of the natural man. Putting it crudely but not perhaps unfairly, God implants himself in man, forgives himself, approves himself, elects himself, and saves himself.

In such an account the notion that man is on probation, that he is being given an opportunity to show by throwing off his shackles that he merits some divine approval, has been abandoned. He merits nothing but punishment. Nor will he gain anything by his efforts to merit something better, for the natural man is helpless to improve his status before the bar of judgement. Though his own soul—if one may call it his own—is at stake in the drama, he remains a spectator of the proceedings, not an actor. This is the consequence of Luther's sharp separation of the realms of nature and grace. He is so insistent that the natural man can do nothing good that he ends by removing the whole process of man's salvation out of the natural world. And then man as we commonly know him is never saved at all. What we ordinarily mean by moral and spiritual ascent is a process of growth in such faculties as we have—a clearer apprehension of the ends of life and a firmer devotion to them, a completer ordering of thought, feeling, and habit by a set of warranted ideals. In this process the self, while advancing, remains the same, and we can trace the working within that advance of reflection, regret, admiration, and criticism. Luther will not admit that this sort of advance is advance at all in God's sight. What is exclusively of importance is what God does himself. Hence the process of salvation, instead of being a development and refinement of those powers that constitute the self we know, is rather a replacement of them by agencies different in kind.


43 Such a view, if taken seriously, is a depressant to the moral life. In order to count, we are told, good works must proceed from grace, and grace is beyond the reach of effort. Sometimes it is granted, sometimes not, and the principles governing its bestowal, if principles there are, remain hidden from us. Of course we may rise in the scale of a merely natural morality. It is well to have Luther's words on the value of such morality.

‘In Scripture God concludes… that all persons who are still in their natural or first state are unjust and evil, as it is said Ps. 116:11: “All men are liars,” and Gen. 6:5: “… every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”. Therefore natural man cannot perform any good works, and whatever he attempts in this direction is nothing more than a work such as Cain produced. Here Dame Hulda with the scornful nose, that is, corrupt human nature, comes to the fore, has the audacity to bark at her God and charge Him with falsehood. She puts on her tinseled and tawdry finery, her straw armor, natural light, reason, free will, and natural powers.… Aristotle taught that whoever does much good will thereby become good. To this view Dame Hulda firmly clings. Thus she subverts Scripture.…’70

One may ask Luther whether he can really mean this. Are works that express kindness, affection, the sense of honour or truth or justice, really sins? Luther answers: ‘No one should doubt that all our good works are mortal sins if they are evaluated by God's strict judgment.…’71 But suppose a man, convinced that mere natural goodness is not enough, tries to take the supernatural into account and acts from the fear of divine punishment; what then? Luther answers,

‘he who does a good work because he fears death or hell does it not for the honor of God but on behalf of death and hell, and his act is a work of death and hell.… Therefore he remains a slave and servant of death and hell with all such works. But if he remains a servant of death and hell, he must also die and be damned, and the fate of the proverb must overtake him: He who fears hell goes to hell.…’72

Under such a system it is hard to see why anyone should try to be moral. His conviction that justice is really right and happiness really good is an illusion, for God who sees them as they are brands them as sinful. No matter how hard he tries to act justly and wisely, and no matter how largely he succeeds, he still stands under the curse; he still merits only damnation; and unless God intervenes with a pardon that he is helpless to secure, he is sliding down the incline toward an abyss of eternal torment. With his whole scale of natural values thus denied, why should he not say, ‘Let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die, whatever we do’? It is not a noble course, but then neither is any other that is open to him, and at least he likes it. If nothing he can do will avert the unspeakable evil in store for him, why should he devote himself to anything so hard, so valueless, and so futile as a moral struggle?

It has been replied that he still has a special reason for doing good works, even if their goodness is meretricious. The reason is that though such works are not the condition of salvation they are signs of it, and therefore if he succeeds in doing them, he will at least have comforting evidence that he is among the elect. Good works in Luther's teaching do not guarantee salvation; they are not necessary to it; but they do follow from it. Hence if we produce them, we may infer that however little we merit it, salvation has been mercifully granted us.

Unhappily the inference is invalid. We cannot argue from good works to faith as their source because there are other sources of good works besides faith. If faith produces them, so also do affection and dutifulness and reasonableness and honour. Hence the fact that a certain man has behaved well for a certain time enables us to infer nothing as to the presence in him of faith. Furthermore, just as good acts may be done without faith, so men of faith often do acts that are vicious. Not that faith directly issues in vicious acts, but that in actual operation it is so entangled with human motives that it may seldom express itself with purity. Judging merely by achieved good works, then, a man of faith may rank lower in the scale than a dutiful man who lacks it. To be sure, Luther sometimes teaches that the works of faith so differ from other good works that they wear their heavenly origin on their face. So far as this is true, the man we are considering has no problem; he can look at his life and read off from it whether he is saved or not. But this is surely not the position of the common man. He is genuinely uncertain where he stands. And for such a person to devote himself to good works in the hope that he may catch some dependable clue from them as to where he stands in the great accounting is a course of pathetic desperation.

There is another way in which Luther's doctrine of faith is a moral depressant. It shifts the centre of gravity from conduct to belief. If deeds count at all in one's salvation, it is not one's own deeds but the sacrificial deeds of another, and what makes these efficacious in the present is a state of faith passively received; ‘this alone He works within us and without our co-operation’.73 Luther never tires of deprecating good works in comparison with faith as what truly justifies. ‘Hearing, not doing, makes a Christian.’ The thought of the Christian will thus be fastened primarily not on what he is to do, not even on a state of mind to be acquired by doing, but on what has been done for him in the past; and his appropriation of the legacy is itself a matter of believing rather than doing. The effect of such teaching is inevitably to turn the direction of his interest away from activity among his fellows to his own inner stage as the thing of importance, to exalt the receptive Marys of the world as having chosen the better part and the one thing needful, in comparison with the shallow and busy Marthas. The ‘proper work and merit by which God wishes to be glorified’ is the ‘passive righteousness’ of faith. Whether this stress on passive acceptance as opposed to conduct was sound or not, it certainly marks a shift from both church tradition and common conviction. Luther knew this and intended it. He was demoting morality to second place and giving the primacy to belief.


44 What now of the belief itself? Is Luther's account of it acceptable?

We have seen that for Luther belief, and above all belief in the atonement, is the effective component of faith. Now belief is a form of thought, and thought is an activity of natural reason. To make belief the very core of a process that is also represented as supernatural and transcendent of human faculty is a paradox. Luther espoused both sides of the paradox with characteristic confidence. Faith is Christ in the soul and a ‘holiness from without’ (extrinseca sanctitate), and the victory it effects over the world and the devil—‘a single devil is stronger and wiser than all men’—is ‘completely beyond the grasp of human reason and is perceived only by faith, with closed eyes’.74

‘For human wisdom and reason can rise no higher and get no farther than to judge and conclude as they see before their eyes and as they feel or apprehend with their senses. But faith must conclude above and against such feeling and understanding and must cling to what is placed before it by the Word. Faith cannot do this in the power of reason and human ability. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart.’75


‘Faith can see in the dark, where nothing whatever is visible; it feels where nothing is to be felt.’76

If the belief that is active in faith is really of this kind, a seeing in the dark, an acceptance ‘with closed eyes’ of something ‘completely beyond the grasp of human reason’, it is clearly not belief as we know it. Such a description suggests rather a mystical absorption in that which is ineffable because above the realm of concepts and distinctions in which thought moves. We shall not go into the difficult question whether the notion of such a realm has any meaning. What does seem clear is that this is not a realm with which belief as we commonly know it has any concern. Such belief always has an object of the form ‘that x is y’; this object has distinguishable terms with some relation between them; and both the terms and their relation are laid hold of, though not always with full explicitness, by the believing mind. For a person to say that he believes, and in reply to the question what he believes to say that he is asserting nothing in particular about anything, is equivalent to saying that he is not believing at all. And Luther's prescription that we ought to believe, even when the object is ‘in the dark where nothing whatever is visible’, is itself a very dark saying.

But faith does not move exclusively at these giddy heights. Luther admits, at some cost of consistency, that it includes the belief of many propositions that are as definite and intelligible as those of science, for example, the statement that Christ ‘was born of the Virgin, suffered, was crucified, rose, ascended to heaven’.77 Indeed there are hundreds of equally definite propositions that may and should be believed as part of the content of faith. The Bible is full of statements not independently known to be true, but it is the duty of faith to accept them nevertheless. Why? Because they are inspired. How do we know this? What assures us, regarding a life lived long ago, that it began with a Virgin birth and that its tragic end expiated man's sin? It is hardly enough to answer that these beliefs have been pronounced true by divine authority, for the question then at once arises, how do we know that? Luther answers both questions in essentially the same way. We know by means of the ‘heart’. ‘Faith is the yes of the heart.…’ ‘Every man is only to believe the Gospel because it is God's Word and because he is convinced in his heart that it is the truth, although an angel from heaven and all the world were to preach against it.’78 Luther is firm that such faith is knowledge, and in evidence he quotes Peter to the effect that we can ‘grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18). But he adds that this is not the sort of knowledge that heretics have, and goes on to explain rather quaintly:

‘This word “knowing” means as much as; “Adam knew his wife” (Gen. 4:1), that is, he “knew” her by the sense of feeling, and he found her to be his wife, not in a speculative or historical way, but by experience.… A merely historical faith does not act in this way. It does not add the experience of feeling and the knowledge that it is a personal experience. To be sure, it says: I believe that Christ died and that He did so also for me; but it does not come to this personal feeling, this experimental knowledge.’79

With such knowledge reason has nothing to do. It should merely be hushed up. We should not, ‘on the basis of reason, argue about how these sublime matters can happen’; we ‘must close our eyes, take captive our reason, look at Christ on the cross, and believe the word: he who believes in Me shall not perish but have eternal life’.80


45 What are we to say of this claim that there is a knowledge of the heart, more certain than any gained by our faculties? There are many who would dismiss it contemptuously without examination. This surely is arbitrary. The claim to such knowledge has been made, it is true, by mountebanks without number, but it has also been made by some minds of a different order, such as Pascal: ‘the heart has its reasons that the reason does not know.’ How is the claim to be appraised? Perhaps the method most likely to be convincing is to ask whether beliefs to which ‘the heart’ has given an unequivocal warrant have, or have not, stood up in the light of man's experience as a whole. To such an inquiry it might be objected that it really begs the question in advance against any supernatural claim, since in ‘experience as a whole’ is included that of our natural faculties. But this line of defence is self-defeating. A type of knowledge so out of touch with the rest of our experience that such experience is not even relevant to it can hardly have any meaning for us either. At any rate for Luther, in spite of all his protests against reason, it clearly had both relevance and meaning.

We know by faith, he says, that Christ was crucified and suffered. There would no doubt be overwhelming agreement among historians that these beliefs are true. We also know by faith, he says in the same context, that Christ was born of a virgin and that he rose bodily from the dead. About these beliefs there would be the greatest difference of opinion, all Catholic and many Protestant theologians affirming both views, the majority of scientists probably rejecting both, and others in both camps accepting one and rejecting the other. Those who reject the beliefs presumably do so, not on the ground that the occurrence of these particular events can be disproved, but that both are miracles, and that miracles do not happen. But if called upon to prove this sweeping negation, they could not do so. They might reply that outside the formal sciences proof is difficult if not impossible, that in regard to historical events we must rely on probability, and that probability is against the miraculous in any form. There is force in this old argument of Hume's, but the supernaturalist can reply that however great the force may be, it never amounts to one against zero, and therefore he may still hold consistently that a particular miracle did occur. Besides, if you press the issue, what is the antecedent probability of a world that is lawful over one that is not? Could you prove to a supernaturalist who denied any such probability that he was wrong?

A man who alleges that he has seen by faith that a virgin birth or a bodily resurrection occurred may actually have done so; there seems to be no way of proving him in error, either as to the fact or as to his mode of apprehending it. But this is not the only way to test his claim. We may ask whether all the beliefs that have received the full authentication of faith have maintained their position over the years. Have some of them, in spite of this warrant, had to be abandoned by the fideist himself? If there are such cases, he must make the painful choice between renewing his subscription to a belief he holds untrue and admitting that his faith may mislead.


46 Now the fact is that many beliefs which according to Luther were authenticated by faith as certainly true have been abandoned as false by fideists themselves. Let us look at a few instances from a field that may be broadly called scientific. Luther felt that on the issue between Copernicus and Scripture, Copernicus was plainly wrong; ‘the fool wishes to revolutionise the whole science of astronomy. But, as the Holy Scriptures show, Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.’ On this ground it was needless to study the wilful astronomer further. Again, Luther had an absolute assurance of the existence and wiles of the devil, not only from Scripture but also from experience; ‘By good experience, I know the devil's craft and subtilty.…’81 Sixty-eight sections of his Table Talk are devoted to the forms, the depredations, and the most effective methods of foiling ‘the father of lies’. ‘St Peter speaks of Christ as healing all that are oppressed of the devil’; ‘I maintain that Satan produces all the maladies which afflict mankind, for he is the prince of death’.82 Luther seems to have had the same sort of assurance, both Biblical and personal, about witches. ‘We read in the old law, that the priests threw the first stone at such malefactors,’ which seemed to him a sound proceeding; indeed ‘I should have no compassion on these witches; I would burn all of them’.83 ‘As for Luther,’ wrote Charles Kingsley, ‘I am very sorry to seem disrespectful to him, but the outcome of his demonology was, that many a poor woman died in shame and torture in Protestant Germany, just because Luther had given his sanction to the old lie.…’84

Take again the sort of assurances Luther drew from his faith about right and wrong. Along with much that was admirable, he was constrained to believe that if God allowed Pharaoh's heart to grow harder, there was nothing wrong in it, though ‘Why God did not hinder or restrain him, we ought not to inquire.’85 Abraham was ready through faith to violate a mere ‘law of nature’ and kill his son, and Luther through faith to approve such readiness; ‘That example of Abraham exceeds all human natural reason, who, overcoming the paternal love he bore towards his only son, Isaac, was all obedient to God, and against the law of nature, would have sacrificed that son.’86 Toward the end of his life, Luther came out with what a kindly biographer can only call ‘a vulgar blast’ against the Jews, adding, ‘One could wish that Luther had died before ever this tract was written’. What makes his anti-Semitism of interest here is that ‘his position was entirely religious and in no respect racial’.87 According to Scripture, the Jews were guilty of the supreme sin of rejecting Christ, and in this sin they have persisted ever since. One ‘can have no patience or fellowship with the blasphemers and profaners of the dear Saviour’.88 Luther says to them: ‘You have been, above fifteen hundred years, a race rejected of God, without government, without laws, without prophets, without temple… ye can show no other reason for your condition than your sins’.89 He would burn their synagogues, confiscate their books, and send them back to their own land; if that were impracticable, he would force them to become tillers of the soil. If Luther were offering these views as mere personal opinions, it could be said in extenuation that he was only echoing prejudices current in his time. But the ill desert of the Jews was not for him a personal opinion; it was a truth doubly guaranteed by faith and Scripture.

What he says about the Jews, however, is clemency itself compared with what he says about papists and the Papacy. And he is careful to point out that he is not speaking as an individual merely; in attacking the Papacy he is trying ‘to put Christ's Word in execution’; ‘Our dealing and proceeding against the pope is altogether excommunication, which is simply the public declaration that a person is disobedient to Christ's Word. Now we affirm in public, that the pope and his retinue believe not; therefore we conclude that he shall not be saved, but be damned.’90

‘Seeing the pope is antichrist, I believe him to be a devil incarnate.’ ‘Truly, the pope's kingdom is a horrible outrage against the power of God and against mankind; an abomination of desolation, which stands in the holy place.’ ‘The pope is the last blaze in the lamp, which will go out, and ere long be extinguished, the last instrument of the devil… [and a] shameless strumpet.…’91

‘If this sin of antichrist be not a sin against the Holy Ghost, then I do not know how to define and distinguish sins. They sin herein wilfully against the revealed truth of God's Word.… I pray, who would not, in this case, resist these devilish and shameless lying lips?’92

‘In the day of the last judgment I will denounce the pope and his tyrants, who scorn and assail the Word of God.…’93

Now, that Luther did expose much ignorance and corruption in the church is well attested fact. But one will hardly be charged with undue tenderness toward the Papacy if one remarks that to ‘excommunicate’ the Pope as ‘antichrist’ and a ‘devil incarnate’, to accuse him of the sort of ‘sin against the Holy Ghost’ that must bring damnation with it, was to assert what neither he nor anyone else, as a merely human being, could presume to know. Luther seems to have asserted these things with full confidence that he was hurling divinely sanctioned anathemas.

There may be fideists who still believe that these anathemas expressed inspired and certain truth. If so, they might well consider some of the contradictions pointed out earlier in the content of Luther's faith, and ask themselves whether they would also accept both sides as equally inspired. Surely few if any would be prepared to do so. With the best of will toward Luther, they would find it impacticable to go down the line with him in his long list of vehement claims to certainty. Even fideists, if they are candid, can hardly avoid the conclusion that faith, as he conceived it, is no guarantee of truth.


47 Where did he go wrong regarding the relation of faith and belief? He was confused, we suggest, in his notion of ‘the heart’. In theological usage, the term is a dangerously ambiguous metaphor. Just as the heart is the most important organ in the body, so it is assumed that there is a ‘heart’ which is the most important organ of the soul, and a long tradition of Biblical and literary practice has confirmed the assumption. ‘Let thine heart keep my commandments’, ‘write them upon the table of thine heart’; ‘as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he’, ‘because of the blindness of their heart’ men do not ‘see or understand with their heart’; ‘their hearts are far from me’; ‘did not your heart burn within while he talked with us by the way?’; ‘blessed are the pure in heart’; ‘let not your hearts be troubled’. The ‘heart’ in these typical passages has no one meaning; the supposed organ has two entirely different functions. One of them is cognitive; the heart thinks, understands, and may become blind. The other is emotional and conative; the heart is devoted to a way of life or averse to it, is exalted or depressed, indifferent or involved. Of the two meanings the latter or emotional meaning is primary. One's heart is in a cause when one is surrendered to it, when one's will and feeling are absorbed by it, and it is thus important emotionally.

Now it has been notorious since Freud's day that if something is important emotionally reasons are sought and usually found to justify this importance. Luther's religious emotions were of an almost pathological intensity. He was terror-stricken about his soul's safety; he was fighting a precarious fight for it against a devil so real that he could throw curses and ink-bottles at him. His concern was intensified by his explorations of the Bible, which he read without those curbs on belief that are now imposed by science, critical history, the higher and lower criticism, comparative religion, and depth psychology. The notion that his religion, which was virtually his whole life, should hang on the verdict of a thin, detached, and arid intellect seemed to him intolerable. Faith must be self-evidencing. Surrender to it, kill the devil-prompted doubts of reason, and you will achieve a certainty beyond anything reason can supply, even in its own special province. ‘When this Word enters the heart by true faith, it makes the heart as firm, sure, and certain as it is itself, so that the heart is unmoved, stubborn, and hard in the face of every temptation, the devil, death, and anything whatever, boldly and proudly despising and mocking everything that spells doubt, fear, evil, and wrath.’94 Reflection can only bog down in its attempt to see how the world is governed, but ‘through faith the heart sees it as surely as if it were looking at it with bodily eyes.’95

A faith so imperious as this has often bowled criticism over and flattened it out. To argue with Luther was like reasoning with a hurricane. But if one can keep one's feet long enough to look the hurricane in the eye, one sees a confusion taking shape at its very centre. It is a confusion between two kinds of certainty. One is the certainty of feeling, what Joseph Jastrow called ‘the emotion of conviction’. It is the sort of assurance that patriots often have of their country's being right, or that lovers have of the goodness of those they love. There is no doubt of its reality, and its intensity may be overwhelming; but that intensity bears no relation to the truth of what is believed. This kind of connection may attach itself to the noblest causes and beliefs, but it may attach itself also, as history has tragically shown, to the teaching of some lunatic dervish or ‘bloodthirsty guttersnipe’. The other kind of certainty is that of knowledge proper, in which there may be no discernible emotion at all, and yet intellectual insight may be clear and firm—the certainty of the mathematician who has demonstrated a theorem or of the physiologist who has isolated by experiment the cause of disease.

Nothing is easier, even for a sincere mind, than to confuse these certainties. A person with a strong emotion of conviction tends to believe what this emotion requires for its justification, and if it is extremely strong, to suppose that he knows this. The patriot, for example, ‘knows’ his country to be right, and the lover ‘knows’ his beloved to be beautiful and good in rare degree. In the same way the man of strong religious feeling tends to believe that the framework of dogma which has served since childhood as the great firm trellis of his emotional life must be true. That life would hang in a void if the dogmas were untrue; therefore they are and must be true. If a weaseling intellect brings in a verdict of not proven, then it must be denied that in the realm of truth the intellect has exclusive rights. The heart too must be heard. The depth of the heart's longing is itself evidence in the case. Faith, says Luther, ‘always stays in the stage of a wishing and a sighing of the spirit, too deep for a man to express. Then the heart says: Oh, that it were true! Again: Ah, if only one could believe it!’96 and if one's desire is strong enough, faith and insight follow.

For all Luther's force and eloquence, one can only suspect that he is here sliding over from conviction as feeling to conviction as knowledge, and supposing that if the first is massive and powerful enough it can actually convert itself into the second. Two dubious assumptions seem to be at work, which deserve to be singled out.

48 One is that feeling can know. Of course it is common enough to say ‘I feel that a storm is brewing’, or ‘I feel that John is untrustworthy,’ but this may mean only ‘I have good grounds for believing thus, though I am not clear what these grounds are.’ But if by ‘feeling’ one means either an emotion, such as love or anger, or an ‘affection’, such as pleasantness or unpleasantness, it is clear that the phrase ‘I feel that—’ cannot be correct. One may assert a proposition, or deny it, or opine it, or suppose it, or doubt it, but how could one feel it? One may, to be sure, have a profound ‘knowledge of the heart’ in the sense of knowing the shades and causes and ways of working of human emotion, but this is knowledge of the heart and not by it.

49 The other dubious assumption is that if a belief satisfies a massive demand of feeling, that is evidence for its truth. There would be some force in this assumption if one could start with the assurance that the world is governed by a power committed to satisfying our desires, for such a being would presumably so order events as to fulfil our desires where possible rather than frustrate them. But when the existence of such a being is itself at issue, one plainly cannot use the assurance that he exists as part of one's argument for his existence. And without this assurance there is no reason to think that our desires, however powerful, carry with them any guarantee of fulfilment. Men have passionately desired innumerable things—that their children or their business should succeed, that their faith or party or country should prevail—and not only have many of these desires failed of fulfilment; one can see that they had to fail, since they were so often for incompatible ends. All men, or nearly all, want passionately to live rather than die, yet this most universal of desires is universally frustrated. One cannot, even in religion, argue that the depth and generality of men's desire that a belief should be true has any relation to its being in fact true.


50 There is another point of importance that we must note about Luther's teaching on faith. It makes belief a moral act, and indeed the most important of all such acts, for our fate depends upon it. The most essential items of belief are given in the Apostles’ Creed. ‘If one item of this creed is lacking, all items must fall. Faith must be complete.… To be weak in the faith does not do the damage, but to be wrong—that is eternal death.’97

It is hard to see how any reflective and humane person can acquiesce in such a theology. It represents the Christian Deity as a sort of Moloch. For the faith that makes belief possible is not something we can achieve, but something given or withheld at divine discretion, and therefore if we do not possess it, the Deity is represented as first withholding it from us and then punishing us remorselessly for a failure attributable to his own act. Of course if the Deity lies beyond all regard for right or reason, he may very well do what, by our standards, is cruel and vindictive. But to call such action good is to throw these standards to the winds. Luther evidently thought that a Deity capable of such action might also be capable of condemning him for not praising it, and so, terrified of what such a Deity might inflict upon him, could not get himself to call a spade a spade. And given his irrationalist theology, who can blame him? Nevertheless, that a courageous and intelligent man should be driven to such cowering incoherence is sorry testimony to the influence of irrationalism in religion.

But while affirming that belief was beyond attainment by effort, Luther also affirmed the opposite, and it remains to see whether he fared better when he was in this second mood. He obviously thought that if we held reason firmly in check and immersed ourselves in Scripture, if we refused to sully our minds with heretical thoughts and treated doubts as temptations of the devil, we could go far, after all, toward attaining that belief which was the one thing needful.

Now we admit that belief is in some measure under the control of the will. We may confine ourselves to one side of the evidence about a belief; we may associate only with persons who hold it; we may cultivate admiration for those who believe it and dislike for those who do not; we may dwell on the advantages of believing it and the unfortunate plight of unbelievers. It has been seen too, in considering Catholicism, that certainty in advance of critical inquiry tends to inhibit such inquiry. Independent reflection is needless as a means to the discovery or confirmation of the truth, since we have that truth already, and inquiry carries with it the risk, to be avoided at all costs, of undermining our belief and thereby endangering our salvation. The course of safety thus lies in a prudent limitation of our intellectual exposures and a circumspect watch over vagrant thoughts. It was Luther's conviction, shared with his Catholic opponents, that he had an extensive knowledge which was neither derived from rational inquiry nor responsible to it. If reason dealt with these problems at all, which it had better not, it must come out in a preappointed place, the place appointed by faith and Scripture.


51 From the supernaturalist point of view, one can hardly cavil at such restrictions on thought. But from the point of view of the ordinary man attempting to be reasonable, they are inconsistent with fact and strain intellectual integrity.

They are inconsistent with fact because belief is represented as far more dependent on the will than it actually is. Everyone recognises that if a New Englander believes summers to be warm and winters cold, that is not a matter of the will; his assent follows the evidence as helplessly as a needle follows the pole; it would be absurd to praise him for the admirable achievement of believing; and as for disbelieving, he could not do it if he tried. Speculative beliefs are less automatic, but even they will be found to follow local evidence and pressures rather closely. In Islamic countries, most devotees are Moslems; a youth brought up in a Unitarian family in Boston may be found, to no one's surprise, a Unitarian. For something he has thus breathed in with the local air, he would seem to deserve little in the way of either praise or blame. Not so on Luther's theory. In the sight of his maker, this youth in being a Unitarian has committed a serious sin, indeed a sin that merits eternal condemnation.98 It would be difficult to take this view seriously if so many people had not followed Luther in doing so. To a person of any humanity or common sense, it must surely seem a distortion of moral perspective as gross as it is grotesque. The youth's belief may at no point have involved a voluntary act, except an occasional direction of attention to one fact or book or speaker rather than another, and the belief of his maturity may well have come as the involuntary resultant of such exposures. To treat this belief as a sin comparable with murder is to turn our scale of values upside down.99

52 Luther's view also strains intellectual integrity. It does so because it involves appeal to two different standards with overlapping provinces. The traits of mind that in science and history are intellectual virtues are transformed into intellectual vices as one moves over into religion, and vices become virtues. It would be absurd for a scientist or historian to try to confirm a hypothesis by an appeal to the heart, but when his hypothesis conflicts with a statement in Scripture, the resort to feeling ceases to be an offence, and becomes a duty. It was thus admirable for Copernicus to follow his evidence rather than his heart till he collided with the book of Joshua, but thereafter he must follow his heart and reject the evidence. Luther would no doubt explain to the critic that the feeling which may be trusted to guide religious belief is something quite different from the feeling which is dangerous to secular belief, for the first is divinely prompted and the second a mere natural feeling. But how one is to distinguish the first from the second is not made clear. Nor is one helped in drawing the distinction by Luther's own intellectual practice. To the critical reader, the feeling that often dominates his thought, even on religious issues, seems to be of a kind that honourable secular minds have tried to repress. ‘As a rule,’ says Dr McGiffert, ‘he saw only one side of a question’;100 he was only too likely to take his own feelings and convictions as expressing the divine will, and qualitatively similar ones in his opponents as delusions of Satan; according to merely secular standards, his writing about such rivals as Zwingli and Erasmus, in which he mixed his ink with prussic acid, went beyond the pale of fair controversy, even for a violent time. If his practice reflected at all faithfully his views on the morality of the intellect, rationalists will prefer their own more exacting code.

53 Just as the appeal to feeling, discouraged in secular thinking, was admitted in religious thinking, so the love of truth, exalted to a high place in secular thought, was depreciated in Luther's theology. There is no adequate introspective measure of the love of truth. But most persons will probably agree that it is revealed in certain distinctive attitudes, of which the respect for fact, the respect for relevance, and the respect for consistency are perhaps the most notable. It prefers accuracy to looseness of statement everywhere, and particularly in the statement of an opponent's position, since justice—the most intellectual of virtues—is there involved as well as correctness. Again, the love of truth means care in interpreting facts, that is, in inferring what they imply, a care that resists irrelevant solicitations from one's own desires, from casual associations, and from social pressures. And if one's attempt to interpret facts runs out into inconsistency, the seeker of truth will draw back and admit having gone astray. There is nothing arbitrary in selecting these marks of the love of truth, for they are prescriptions laid down by the nature of thought itself as conditions for reaching its end. Fidelity to fact, care in inference, respect for consistency—these are indispensable if thought is to do its work. Of course one may refuse—for a time—to play the game of thought at all, but if one sits down to it, there is only one way to play it.


54 We have heard a biographer, Dr McGiffert, admitting of Luther that ‘truth for truth's sake never appealed to him,’ and certainly in his theological thought he declined to be bound by any of the prescriptions just named. Even the facts of his own experience were seen through such thick theological lenses that it is hard to gather from his report of them what actually happened. Encounters with the devil were common:

‘The devil has often raised a racket in the house and has tried to scare me.…’101

‘In the monastery of Wittenberg, he constantly heard the Devil making a noise in the cloisters; and became at last so accustomed to the fact, that he related that, on one occasion, having been awakened by the sound, he perceived that it was only the Devil, and accordingly went to sleep again.’102

He claimed to have seen the devil in the forms of a sow and a burning wisp of straw.103 ‘Prussia is full of them [devils]’ he said, ‘and Lapland of witches.’104

‘Every form of disease might be produced by Satan, or by his agents, the witches; and none of the infirmities to which Luther was liable were natural, but his ear-ache was peculiarly diabolical.… The Devil… could beget children, and Luther had himself come in contact with one of them. An intense love of children was one of the most amiable characteristics of the great Reformer; but, on this occasion, he most earnestly recommended the reputed relatives to throw the child into a river, in order to free their house from the presence of a devil.’105

Presumably he would have testified against a witch as confidently as he here did against a child. In such cases his theology made it impossible to look at the facts directly.

It had a like influence on his inferences from, and interpretation of, fact. Take, for example, his interpretation of Scripture. It is vivid, imaginative, colourful, and full of eloquent and moving suggestions for the pulpit. But it is an interpretation dominated by a special theology, and above all by his own theories of the atonement and justification. The gospel of John, which present-day theologians regard as the least reliable of the gospels historically, is put first among them by Luther because of its stress on the dogmas he thought central. For him the really authoritative books of the New Testament as we have noted, were first Romans, then Galatians, then Ephesians, because in these the central dogmas were given the place they deserved. How was the truth of the central dogmas themselves to be attested? The answer was that, aided by faith, we can see their truth directly. Having laid firm hold of these, we can then apply them as touchstones to find which portions of Scripture are essential, which peripheral, and which dispensable altogether. Since the touchstones glowed with a divine fire, the interpretation they imposed was regarded as virtually inspired itself.

Unfortunately this interpretation led to mistakes all along the line. Impartial critics cannot accept the prefigurings of Christ that Luther found in Genesis and the Psalms, or his comparative ratings of the Biblical books in authority and authenticity, or his doctrine that ‘God is truthful, however absurd the things which He declares in His Word may appear to reason,’ or even his special version of the atonement and justification. Not only his facts but also his inferences from fact were far too largely determined by theological preconceptions.

Such distortion would have been less dangerous if it had been checked in the end by an appeal to the canons of logic. But even the appeal to consistency Luther managed to denounce as a foreign imposition upon theology. He held that one could start from sound theological premises, reason from them logically, and yet arrive at false conclusions; and his way of dealing with such paradoxes was to say that the canons of reason were not applicable to theology.106 But this was rather a device to save himself in extremis than a rule of his theological thinking. He was a formidable controversialist who was ready enough to employ reason in defending his position until it landed him in difficulties, when he could protest that reason was not for him authoritative and insist that with the aid of faith one could go so far beyond it as to see that both sides of a contradiction were somehow true. Thus, we should strive for faith, though it is futile to do so; our endeavour must never slacken, though ‘to sleep and do nothing is the work of Christians’; the whole creed is essential, though the only essential dogma is the atonement; no one is sinless, but ‘he who believes has no sin and does nothing but good works’; the Deity owes man nothing, though man's desperate plight is traced back to the Deity's own making.

Is it possible to maintain intellectual integrity while thus playing fast and loose with the requirements of rational thought, using them when it advances one's case, brushing them aside when they stand in the way? Such an attitude creates a perpetual internal strain. Follow the argument, and faith protests that one is holding sacred things lightly. Follow faith, and reason protests that one is being intellectually dishonest. Are the two sides evenly matched? If so, the prospect for peace of mind is dim. But the fact is that they are not matched evenly, for to abandon reason is not even a possibility. One can affirm that one is doing so, as Luther incessantly did, but to see something to be really true which violates logical law is something else, which was beyond even his considerable powers. It is possible for faith to adjust itself to reason. It is not possible for reason to adjust itself to faith if this implies abandoning the canons implicit in any attempt to think, for then the power to assert or deny intelligibly, and therefore to say anything at all, is cut off at the root. Religious leaders less headstrong than Luther have seen that one cannot, on entering the religious sphere, put off the natural man like an old coat. John Wesley, after reading Luther on Galatians, remarked:

‘How does he… decry reason, right or wrong, as an irreconcilable enemy to the Gospel of Christ! Whereas, what is reason (the Faculty so called) but the power of apprehending, judging, and discoursing? Which power is no more to be condemned in the gross, than seeing, hearing, or feeling.’107

55 We have completed our examination of Luther. We have fixed our eyes on three of his cardinal teachings—the dogma of original sin, the inadequacy of reason in theology, and the doctrine of justification by faith. None of them has turned out plausible. The only way to make them plausible is to surrender to a kind of theology that respects neither logic nor ethics. And if rational standards are invalid in theology, it is hard to see how they can be valid anywhere else. Luther found the philosophers erecting a temple of reason on sacred ground. He would have none of it. He marched into their temple resolved to wreck it, and set himself with the resolution and strength of a Samson to pull its columns down. Practically, the adventure may have been a success. Theoretically he pulled the columns down on his own head. ‘Kill reason’ is a highly treacherous slogan.

To be sure, it has often led to short-run success. Most men would rather feel than think, and Luther gave them the welcome news that in matters of religion it was wiser, better, and safer to feel than to think. ‘The world may be divided by temperament, it might be said, into those who like it warm, and those who like it cool; into those who naturally sympathise with Luther and those who naturally sympathise with Erasmus.’108 The Lutherans are in the vast majority. And ‘Luther's heavy peasant fist destroyed at one blow all that Erasmus's delicate penmanship had so onerously and tenderly put together.’109 It would be churlish to deny that one who could speak with such power to so many was a great man. Luther was a great man. Religion in Europe was dying away into an affair of rites and exercises, of reciting creeds and hearing masses without understanding them, of buying insurance policies on the next life, of compounding for one's sins with a venal church, and generally of keeping on the right side of ecclesiastical officialdom. Luther prodded religion awake. His own faith, whatever else may be said of it, was alive, a matter of passionate over-riding concern, not something that could be delegated even to the most powerful of churches, but something that had to be lived anew in the mind of each individual man. When he had finished his lusty and brawling attacks on the establishment, for which a succession of popes would have sent him with relief to the stake, religion had been fanned into flame again throughout central Europe.

56 But though he was more effective immediately than Erasmus, it is the Erasmian coolness that will probably have the last word. The Lutheran temperament is its own worst enemy. Luther could free himself from Rome more easily than he could from his own tempestuous impulses. ‘Men of intemperate minds cannot be free,’ said Burke; ‘their passions forge their fetters.’ Luther ‘thought with his blood’; for good and evil he was a seething pot of passion—hatred for the papacy, courage and the love of a fight, tenderness for children, an almost sadistic fury toward his enemies and those of the state (‘the civil sword shall and must be red and bloody’), terror and abjectness before an angry God, a towering egotism ready to call the Pope himself contemptuously to order, a red-blooded sexuality, a deep and haunting sense of his own sinfulness, sympathy for plain men in their suffering, and finally a frank, withering, philistine scorn for ‘the harlot reason’.

Now one can hardly be possessed at once by this sort of scorn and also by the love of truth, or live in a dust-bowl of passion and also manage to see the shapes of things with clearness and perspective. And Luther was deficient in mere loyalty to truth. ‘Thought makes the whole dignity of man,’ Pascal once said; ‘therefore endeavour to think well; that is the only morality.’ Luther would have scoffed. The belief and the morality that stood to one's credit on the final ledger were not to be attained by ‘thinking well’, but by following ‘the heart’ in defiance of anything thought might say. There was something dramatic in thus thrusting out one's jaw at the ‘intellectuals’ of the world, and it has had its massive response from the romantic, the impulsive, the frightened, and vast numbers also of simple, earnest, unspeculative people, ready to be swept away by a confident leader. But there is one great weakness in such leadership; it has lost its compass for truth; it has therefore thrown itself open to delusion, and is too likely to end by raising the banner of fanaticism. The doctrine of original sin, which fixed the status of man in Luther's world, is not true; it is a libel based on a myth. Luther's estimate of reason is not true, nor is it even coherent, since it attacked reason with reason's own weapons. The doctrine of a faith that is at once achievable and unachievable, a feeling yet above reason in its cognitive authority, is not true, and it led a powerful and generous mind into absurdity and even cruelty.

The Catholic view on faith and reason we found unsatisfactory in many ways. Unhappily we have found the Protestant view, as represented in its first great reformer, not less unsatisfactory. It remains to be seen whether later figures in Luther's tradition have conceived the relation in a more acceptable way.

  • 1.

    W. E. H. Lecky, The Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe, I, 66.

  • 2.

    Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther the Expositor (St Louis, Mo., Concordia, 1959), 37.

  • 3.

    A. C. McGiffert, Martin Luther: the Man and His Work (N.Y., Century, 1911), 333.

  • 4.

    Quoted by McGiffert, op. cit., 152, from Luther's pamphlet Against the Traitor at Dresden.

  • 5.

    Lucien Price, Dialogues of Whitehead (Boston, Little, Brown, 1954), 236, for the Whitehead and Livingstone quotations.

  • 6.

    McGiffert, op. cit., 151.

  • 7.

    Ibid., 188.

  • 8.

    Schlaginhaufen, Auf zeichnung, 74, quoted by H. Grisar, Luther (St Louis, 1916), V, 391.

  • 9.

    McGiffert, op. cit., 233.

  • 10.

    Heroes and Hero-Worship (Everyman), 365–6.

  • 11.

    J. A. Froude, Short Studies on Great Subjects (1885), I, 62. Froude's vivid pictures of the sixteenth century in this work, in his Life and Letters of Erasmus, and in the second and third volumes of his history are too little read. Few historians have suffered so much from unjust criticism.

  • 12.

    ‘Address to the German Nobility,’ in First Principles, ed. by Wace and Buchheim (1885), sec. 25.

  • 13.

    From an open letter to the city councils of Germany, 1524, quoted in McGiffert, op. cit., 270.

  • 14.

    McGiffert, op. cit., 61. Cf. the same author's comment in another work: ‘Of intellectual curiosity he had scarcely any; of interest in truth for truth's sake none at all.’ Protestant Thought before Kant (N.Y., Scribner's, 1911), 20.

  • 15.

    On Galatians, 3:6.

  • 16.

    In this connection Professor B. A. Gerrish quotes the following pronouncement of Luther's: ‘Mathematica est inimicissima omnino theologiae, quia nulla est pars philosophiae, quae tarn pugnat contra theologiam.’ Grace and Reason (Oxford, Clarendon, 1962), 54 fn.

  • 17.

    For example: ‘Omnis caro est creatura. Verbum est caro. Ergo verbum est creatura.’ Gerrish, op. cit., 53.

  • 18.

    J. A. C. F. Auer, Humanism States Its Case (Boston, Beacon Press, 1933), 38–9.

  • 19.

    Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (N.Y., Abingdon-Cokesbury; copyright by Pierce and Smith, 1950), 370.

  • 20.

    Commentary on… Romans, trans. by J. T. Mueller (Grand Rapids, Mich., Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), 30.

  • 21.

    Julius Köstlin's paraphrase in The Theology of Luther (Philadelphia, Lutheran Publication Society, 1897), I, 481. This is a valuable work, both for the development of Luther's thought and for its systematic exposition.

  • 22.

    De Servo Arbitrio; Köstlin, I, 492–3.

  • 23.

    Quoted in Köstlin, I, 494–5.

  • 24.

    ‘Fides, inquiunt, infusa (quam proprie vocant fidem in Christum) non liberat a peccatis, sed fides formata charitate.… Profundae sunt abominationes blasphemae huius doctrinae.’ Commentarium in Epistolam S. Pauli ad Galatas (Erlangen 1843–44), I, 214–15 (2:17).

  • 25.

    On Galatians, 5:10.

  • 26.

    Ibid., 3:6.

  • 27.


  • 28.

    ‘On Christian Liberty,’ in First Principles, ed. by Wace and Buchheim, 137.

  • 29.

    ‘Das ist religio falsa,’ he says, mixing his German with his Latin, ‘quae concipi potest a ratione.’ Werke (Weimar), vol. 40, pt I, 603.

  • 30.

    Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says (St Louis, Mo., Concordia, 1959), I, sec. 1401.

  • 31.

    On Galatians, 2:16.

  • 32.


  • 33.

    Werke (Weimar), vol. 6, 138.

  • 34.

    For these and further relevant citations see Gerrish, op. cit., 115–16.

  • 35.

    On Galatians, 3:6.

  • 36.

    ‘Eiusmodi sanctos diligit Satan.…’ ‘Mundus tunc omnium pessimus quando optimus.’

  • 37.

    ‘Et quidem omnes prophetae viderunt hoc in Spiritu, quod Christus futurus esset omnium maximus latro, homicida, adulter, fur, sacrilegus, blasphemus etc., quo nullus major unquam in mundo fuerit…’ Commentarium… ad Galatas, II, 14 (3:13).

  • 38.


  • 39.

    Köstlin, op. cit., II, 236.

  • 40.

    Briefe, I, 228; quoted by Köstlin, op. cit., I, 322.

  • 41.

    Genesis 12:4–5; Acts 7:2.

  • 42.

    Genesis 46:27; Acts 7:14.

  • 43.

    Rational Religion and Rationalistic Objections (London, Whittaker, 1861), 25–6.

  • 44.

    The second paragraph of the long decree of the Council on original sin begins as follows: ‘Si quis Adae praevaricationem sibi soli, et non eius propagini, asseret nocuisse; et acceptam a Deo sanctitatem, et justitiam, quam perdidit, sibi soli, et non nobis etiam eum perdidisse; aut inquinatum ilium per inobedientiae peccatum, mortem et poenas corporis tantum in omne genus humanum transfudisse, non autem et peccatum, quod mors est animae; anathema sit.’

  • 45.

    Article IX reads in part: ‘Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit, and therefore, in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation.’

  • 46.

    Romans 5:12, 18–19.

  • 47.

    F. R. Tennant, article ‘Original Sin’ in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics; see also his The Origin and Propagation of Sin.

  • 48.

    Köstlin, op. cit., I, 147.

  • 49.

    Irrationalism and Rationalism in Religion (Duke Univ. Press, 1954), 55.

  • 50.

    The Faith of a Moralist, I, 165.

  • 51.

    Sceptical Essays (N.Y., Norton, 1928), 108–9.

  • 52.

    The Search for Good Sense (London, Cassell, 1958), 119.

  • 53.

    Rationalism in Europe, I, 404 and fn. ‘The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire.… You are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.’ From Edwards’ sermon, ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’

  • 54.

    Quoted in Köstlin, op. cit., II, 49.

  • 55.

    E. M. Plass, What Luther Says, III, sec. 4895.

  • 56.

    For reference to many passages see Köstlin, op. cit., II, 348 ff.

  • 57.

    Noel Annan, summarising Leslie Stephen on the point: ‘To accept the doctrine of Original Sin was to turn one's back on the scientific spirit… and ultimately to despair of making a better world; it was to despise reason, art and endeavour as vanities and delusion.’ Noel Annan, Leslie Stephen (London, MacGibbon & Kee, 1951; Harvard Univ. Press, 1952), 194.

  • 58.

    W. K. Clifford, Lectures and Essays (Macmillan, 1901), II, 221.

  • 59.

    On Galatians, 3:6.

  • 60.

    The Table-Talk of Martin Luther, trans. by William Hazlitt.

  • 61.

    Werke (Erlangen), vol. 22, 183; quoted by Köstlin, op. cit., II, 262.

  • 62.

    On Galatians, 3:6.

  • 63.


  • 64.

    Köstlin, II, 264. See the references in this work for many other ways in which Luther stated the point.

  • 65.

    Quoted in Köstlin, II, 290–1.

  • 66.

    Quoted in ibid., 307.

  • 67.

    Ibid., 464.

  • 68.

    Ibid., 304–5.

  • 69.

    Werke, Weimar ed., vol. 10, pt III, 306.

  • 70.

    Plass, What Luther Says, III, sec. 4862. This work is a useful selection and translation of the most important passages from Luther's work, topically arranged.

  • 71.

    Ibid., sec. 4864.

  • 72.

  • 73.

    Ibid., I, sec. 1413.

  • 74.

    Ibid., sec. 1425.

  • 75.

    Ibid., sec. 1436.

  • 76.

    Ibid., sec. 1378.

  • 77.

    Ibid., 1375.

  • 78.

    Ibid., 1376, 1393.

  • 79.

    Ibid., 1387.

  • 80.

    Ibid., sec. 1397.

  • 81.

    Table-Talk, sec. 618.

  • 82.

    Ibid., sec. 593.

  • 83.

    Ibid., sec. 577.

  • 84.

    Charles Kingsley, ed. by his wife (N.Y., Scribner, Armstrong, 1877), 360.

  • 85.

    Table-Talk, sec. 109.

  • 86.

    Ibid., sec. 303.

  • 87.

    Bainton, Here I Stand, 379.

  • 88.

    Werke (Weimar), vol. 51, 196.

  • 89.

    Table-Talk, sec. 817.

  • 90.

    Ibid., sec. 381.

  • 91.

    Ibid., sec. 427.

  • 92.

    Ibid., sec. 454.

  • 93.

    Ibid., sec. 466.

  • 94.

    Plass, op. cit., I, sec. 1400.

  • 95.

    Ibid., sec. 1378.

  • 96.

    Ibid., sec. 1445.

  • 97.

    Ibid., sec. 1448.

  • 98.

    Werke, Weimar, vol. 6, 529: ‘nulla peccata eum possunt damnare, nisi sola incredulitas.’

  • 99.

    For the public expression of unbelief, Luther thought that the state itself might well begin the punishment that Providence was to continue. ‘In 1530 Luther advanced the view that two offenses should be penalized even with death, namely sedition and blasphemy.’ Among the offences that were to count as blasphemy was the rejection of an article of the Apostles’ Creed. Bainton, op. cit., 376.

  • 100.

    McGiffert, Luther: the Man and His Work, 62.

  • 101.

    Plass, op. cit., I, sec. 1192.

  • 102.

    Lecky, Rationalism in Europe, I, 66.

  • 103.

    Köstlin, op. cit., II, 334.

  • 104.

    Bainton, op. cit., 27.

  • 105.

    Lecky, op. cit., I, 67.

  • 106.

    In the example ‘Omnis caro est creatura; verbum est caro; ergo verbum est creatura,’ it seems plain enough to a secular eye that one is reasoning validly if the terms are used in the same sense. Luther can deny the conclusion only by taking ‘the Word’ that is flesh in a different sense from ‘the Word’ that is a creature. But then the false conclusion is not reached validly, but through the fallacy of four terms.

  • 107.

    The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Journal for 15 June 1741 (N.Y., Harper, 1827), I, 350.

  • 108.

    Owen Chadwick, Inaugural Lecture, Creighton on Luther (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1959).

  • 109.

    Stephen Zweig, Erasmus of Rotteram (N.Y., Viking, 1934), 16.

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