Luther’s Evangelical Irrationalism

Evangelicals are often caricatured as anti-intellectual prudes motivated more often by class interests to protect their privileges and prerogatives than compassion for the hurting or fidelity to the One they claim has their allegiance. Unfortunately, the caricature too often resembles a selfie rather than a straw man. We offer more platitudes than genuine prayer, regularly dish out law as though it were gospel, and are too self-deceived to recognize anything is the matter. There’s a right place for shame here, and a zeal to repent can often testify more powerfully to the reality of new creation than a parade of virtuous accomplishments. We are too comfortable with the dissonance between our confession and our narcoleptic limping through life and the world. The evangel that gives us our name has to be dusted off and heard afresh to discipline our ambitions, affections, and sense of justice itself. There is only one legitimate form of evangelical irrationalism, and our older brother Luther, for all his (occasional) bluster, can help us to hone in on and inhabit it. In fact, this fiery and not infrequently obnoxious doctor of the church may just be the ideal spokesperson for this good news, for it’s nothing other than this treasure in the field that anchored his confidence to sport his warts and unashamedly call them what they were, even as (especially as!) he slung his scathing, scatological humor as the situation called for it. Take heart, then, by this portion from McGrath’s Luther’s Theology of the Cross which slices through the logic of fallen intelligence to marvel at the counterintuitive glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is what the world can only see as folly, but for us who are being saved is breathtakingly beautiful:

Luther’s attacks on the “enemies of the gospel” frequently involve the linking together of ratio, lex, Aristotle and the Jurists in what seems, at first sight, to be an improbable alliance of forces against the gospel. Nevertheless, upon closer examination, all these have one factor in common which is immediately significant in the light of our earlier discussion of the nature of Luther’s theological breakthrough: all define iustitia [“justice, righteousness”] as reddens unicuique quod suum est [“rendering to each according to his due”]. It was precisely this definition of iustita which so appalled the young Luther as he struggled to make sense of how the idea of a “righteous God” could be conceivably be gospel. Furthermore, Aristotle’s equation of ho dikaios and ho nominos inevitably means that the righteous man is understood to be the man who keeps the law- an opinion which Luther later attributes to reason: ratio… docet; si vis vivere Deo, oportet te legem servare [“reason teaches: if you want to live for God, you must observe the law.”]. Similarly, the Aristotelian dictum that a man becomes righteous only by performing righteous deeds is rejected by Luther: it is only when a man is justified (iustus coram Deo) that he is capable of performing good deeds. Underlying this criticism of Aristotle is Luther’s basic conviction that man is naturally incapable of performing anything which is good coram Deo, and which could be regarded as effecting his justification.

For Luther, ratio and its associated concept of iustitia (as used by Aristotle and the jurists) had its proper place in the ordering of civil affairs. Luther’s rejection of ratio relates to his soteriology, particularly to the definition of iustitia Dei, which is of central importance to his theology as a whole. The concept of iustitia which Luther rejected in this context is none other than that of Aristotle’s Ethics, which has been taken up by the medieval canonists and jurists, which had found its way into the soteriology of the via moderna, and which corresponded to a secular, common-sense understanding of justice in terms of a quid pro quo morality, whose validity was immediately apparent to reason. Julian of Eclanum had insisted that God judged man rationabiliter [“in accordance with “reason”], which he took to be equivalent to iuste [“just” or “fair”], and had therefore applied a common-sense concept of iustitia by a process of analogical predication to God. God rewards each man according to his merit, which may be defined in terms of whether he has lived well by the standards set him in the law: non ego, sed ratio concludit [“I do not, but reason concludes”]. A similar interpretation of iustitia Dei can be derived by direct analogical predication of the Aristotelian understanding of iustitia, linked with the associated interpretation of the relationship between iustitia and lex, to God…

It was against this understanding of iustitia, as applied to God (but not as applied to civil affairs), that Luther rebelled when he discovered the mira et nova diffinitio iustitiae [“wonderful new definition of righteousness”], with such momentous results for his theology. Luther’s revolt against reason is indeed occasioned by his soteriology- but in a far more specific manner than appears to have been generally realized. Whilst it cannot be proved that Luther appreciated the theological ramifications of everything he read in Book V of the Nichomachean Ethics, it is beyond dispute that he had recognized that the concept of iustitia developed therein, applied to God, had appalling theological consequences for sinners: Tota fere Aristotelis Ethica pessima est gratiae inimica [“Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace”]. Luther’s joy at his discovery of the new definition of iustitia reflects his realization that God loves and forgives sinners, and that the iustitia of iustitia Dei is not to be understood qua philosophi et iuriste accipiunt [“as the philosophers and lawyers receive it”], but qua in scriptura accipitur [“as Scripture receives it”]. Luther’s vitriolic attacks against Aristotle, reason, the jurists, the law, and the Sautheologen [“swinish theologians”] of the via moderna reflects his basic conviction that all these employed a concept of iustitia which, when applied to God, destroyed the gospel message of the free forgiveness of sinners. Luther’s “evangelical irrationalism” is closely correlated with his discovery of the righteousness of God: if reason and its allies were unable to comprehend the mystery of the justification of the ungodly, then so much the worse for them. Reason has its role to play in the civil affairs of men, as in so many other spheres- but when faced with the justification of sinners, the central feature of the gospel proclamation, it collapses, unable to comprehend the mystery with which it is confronted. For Luther, the word of the gospel, upon which all theological speculation was ultimately based, was that of a righteous God who justified those worthy of death: if reason was unable to comprehend this fundamental aspect of the gospel, it had forfeited its right to have any say in theology as a whole. In Luther’s opinion, reason was not neutral in this matter: according to reason, God should only justify those whose deeds made them worthy of such a reward: itaque caro est ipsa iustitia, sapientia carnis ac cogitatio rationis, quae per legem vult iustificari [“the very righteousness and wisdom of the flesh and the judgment of reason, which wants to be justified through the Law”]. Human wisdom and human concepts of righteousness are inextricably linked- and, as Luther emphasized, both were called into question by the fact that a righteous God could justify sinners.

Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), pp. 138-141


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