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Martin Luther: Various uses of ‘Ratio’

May 16, 2013

Although the Gospel is a higher gift and wisdom than human reason, it does not alter or tear up man’s understanding: for it was God Himself who implanted reason in man (Martin Luther, WA 11, 105 ff).

Brian Gerrish’s Grace and Reason, published back in 1964, adequately and persuasively demonstrated that the predominant interpretation of Martin Luther’s thought as a fideistic theology which utterly rejects reason as “Frau Hulda” for all spheres of human life is not accurate. Karl Barth is perhaps the most famous proponent of the irrational Luther. Despite the work of Gerrish, Cranz, and others, this interpretations still persists, albeit in various forms. I was reminded of Gerrish’s work in particular after reading a recent piece that portrays Luther in this light, a piece that I may review some time in the future. For now, here are a few concluding remarks on Luther’s use of “ratio” from Gerrish:

It is not sufficient to say, ‘Luther was an irrationalist: he attacked reason,’ and leave it at that. One must stop to inquire why he attacked reason, in what respects he attacked reason, and what he meant by ‘reason.’ […] If … we are to do justice to the complexity of Luther’s thought, we must carefully distinguish: (1) natural reason, ruling within its proper domain (the Earthly Kingdom); (2) arrogant reason, trespassing upon the domain of faith (the Heavenly Kingdom); (3) regenerate reason, serving humbly in the household of faith, but always subject to the Word of God. Within the first context, reason is an excellent gift of God; within the second, it is Frau Hulda, the Devil’s Whore; within the third, it is the handmaiden of faith. And if ‘we find no more precise discussion of the activity thus attributed to reason in the lives of the regenerate (reason in the third sense), this is not, as Köstlin seems to suppose [The Theology of Luther, II. 266.], merely because its function has become purely formal, that is, to deal in thought and speech with the material presented to it by faith and the Word; it is also because reason, when regenerate, is virtually absorbed into faith, becoming faith’s cognitive and intellective aspects. Because reason belongs to the natural sphere, Luther will not allow that it is competent to judge in matters of faith; and yet, because faith comes through the hearing and understanding of the Word, Luther found himself bound to concede that reason – man’s rationality in the broadest sense – was, when regenerate, faith’s indispensable tool (Grace and Reason, 25-27).

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