Saturday, November 1, 2014



From Reason and Belief chapter 5: Reason and Faith in Luther. Only the latter portion of the chapter has been extracted because it is the relevant section to Luther's theology of authority. Blanshard's criticism is scathing, producing wide ramifications for protestant theology. 


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.

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.[1]’ 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.[2]’ This was part of the new priesthood of the believer.


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.


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.[3] 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.[4] Here either the New Testamen\\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.


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 earlyhatred 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.

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.’[5] 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.


[1] Köstlin, op. cit., II, 236.

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

[3] Genesis 12:4–5; Acts 7:2.

[4] Genesis 46:27; Acts 7:14.

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