“Facientibus quod in se est” as Political Virtue

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“Allegory of Good Government” (1338-1339) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Jordan Ballor, in a post at TCI, notes that Luther used the Medieval formula facientibus quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam in his mature theology, but in a manner different from the theology of the via moderna. There is a passage in Luther’s Lectures on Galatians which corroborates Ballor’s point:

“God does not require of any man That he do more than he really can.” This is actually a good statement, but in its proper place, that is, in political, domestic, and natural affairs. For example, if I, who exist in the realm of reason, rule a family, build a house, or carry on a governmental office, and I do as much as I can or what lies within me (quantum possum vel quod in me est), I am excused. For this realm has boundaries, and to this realm these statements like “to do what lies within one” (Facere quod in se est) or “to do as much as I can” (facere, quantum possum) properly apply. But the sophists drag these statements into the spiritual realm, where a man cannot do anything but sin, because he is “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). But in external matters, that is, in political and domestic affairs, man is not a slave but a lord of these physical matters (corporalium rerum). Therefore it was wicked of the sophists to drag these political and domestic statements into the church. For the realm of human reason (Regnum … rationis humanae) must be separated as far as possible from the spiritual realm (spirituali Regno). (WA, 40. I. Band, 2. Galatervorlesung [cap. 1 –4] 1531, p. 292-293; LW, 26:173-174).

This corresponds with Luther’s rejection of Aristotelian virtue as the paradigm for spiritual virtue or righteousness. An interesting thing to note here is Luther’s division between the two Regna or Kingdoms permits him to use a principle that he often appears to reject outrightly. Thus, the principle of facientibus quod in se est is only sinful if one attempts to use it in spiritual affairs or consider it a theological principle rather than one that solely denotes political action.

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Martin Luther: Various uses of ‘Ratio’

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).