The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Martin Luther’s Appeal to ‘Scripture and Plain Reason’


A revolution

Just over 500 years ago, Martin Luther helped begin a revolution when his Ninety-Five Theses were nailed to the wall of Wittenberg chapel. I proudly stand in that theological tradition along with many other protestant reformers and revolutionaries. It is a tradition that values the Bible as a unique authority for our Christian beliefs. Luther threw off, among other things, the pronouncements of the papacy as equally or (perhaps functionally) more authoritative than Scripture.

I’m no Luther scholar. Let’s just get that out of the way. But I know enough to know he faced down fierce opposition at a time when one’s theological views could cost one one’s life and livelihood all because he became convinced Scripture was the authoritative Word of God.

When called upon to recant his revolutionary idea about the Bible, Luther gives one of his most famous lines:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

Philosophy as the devil’s whore

I’m certainly not on board with all of Luther’s beliefs, especially towards the end of his life when he expressed strong anti-Semitic sentiments.

When it comes to philosophy, let’s just say Luther also did not have the highest regard. In fact, he once called philosophy the “devil’s whore”! I’m not exactly sure what it means to be the devil’s whore, but he’s clearly not a fan. In light of this, many have argued that Luther believed philosophy was contrary to Christian faith. However, others have argued that Luther had not a low view of philosophy and reason, in general, so much as a low view of “secular” philosophy (i.e., philosophy that is not informed by Scripture and theology) standing as arbiter over revelation. On this view, philosophy played an important role, even though it would be, in a way, secondary to revelation as a handmaid in doing Christian theology.

Now we won’t settle Luther’s view on this issue here, but what’s worth noticing is Luther’s reference to reason in this famous passage. Luther couples Scripture and plain reason as his (epistemological) basis for his being captive to the Word of God. He seems to be saying that plain reason is as at least a possible source for what would cause him to change his views about Scripture’s unique authority. Notice too he points out that the deficient position of “the popes and councils” is that they have contradicted each other. He seems to be emphasizes the fact that he could not accept the authority of the popes and councils because when taken in whole, it was an irrational (i.e., contradictory) position. Here again his appeal is to reason.

Knowing that Scripture is authoritative

Sometimes Christians act as if they have simply received their view straight from Scripture and that reason plays no role. However, this is quite impossible. There is no way to read and interpret Scripture itself without the exercise of our reason in deciding on what the passage says and what it means. It takes reason to construct a coherent doctrine and systematize the various things we believe on the basis of Scripture. And it takes reason to apply these doctrines to our lives. Reason plays a role for all of our intellectual pursuits. Reason, for Luther, was able to lead us to what is and what isn’t a divine authority.

Does conceding the role of reason here take away from the authority of Scripture, etc. and put the authority instead on reason? No, I want to suggest it puts the authority of Scripture on a solid rational basis! Through reason we are arguing for the authority of Scripture. Let’s assume that Scripture is the divine authority. The problem is that a person doesn’t automatically know that it is the divine authority even when it is. It seems we’re going to need reasons to know it is the Word of God. Some of these reasons can come within the text, but this has a circularity worry if this is all we have. In other words, it can’t be authoritative only because it says so. The pope was also claiming to be authoritative in Luther’s day. All religious texts claim to be authoritative, in some sense or other. It seems we need to turn to matters outside of scripture that may provide support and a case for this belief.

Now once we come to the belief that scripture is authoritative, we have presumably figured out what this thing is. It is the divine revelation of God! It is the Word of God. It is a source of knowledge sufficient for all matters of life and godliness. Once we know what it is, we then make appeal to scripture as our ultimate authority…full stop. And we can say along with Luther, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason…my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”



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