Reason and The Two Kingdoms



Mr. Hein was a candidate for the master of theology degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois when this was written.


As is very well known, Luther called reason a nasty, nasty word. Forthwith the friends of reason have taken counsel together. Some have determined never to speak to the cad again. Some would wash out his mouth with soap and demand an apology. Some would institute a libel suit. Others sigh at Luther's one-sidedness, but urge that a reconciliation be worked out, feeling that the two would make such a handsome couple.'

THE ABOVE tongue-in-check quip from Luther scholar, Robert H. Fiscber, well describes the attitudes of many theology and church history students who have been stung by Luther's strong and often-times crass denunciations of natural man's ability to use his head. Pbilosopher-Historian D. C. Macintosh is convinced that Luther was an epistemological failure from the start. In Macintosh's work on the nature of religious knowledge, Luther gets put into the same camp as his "theological offspring"-Kierkegaard, Barth and Tillich-and then dismissed for perpetrating "reactionary irrationalism."' Ernst Troeltsch was convinced that modern day Protestantism stemmed primarily from the Enlightenment instead of from the Reformation, partly due to the intellectual vacuum left by Luther and his fellow reformers.' John Wesley, although greatly influenced by Luther, was horrified nevertheless at Luther's denunciation of reason. "How does he ... decry reason, right or wrong as an irreconcilable enemy of the Gospel?" said Wesley after reading Luther's Galatians commentary.' Jacques Maritain's Three Reformers employs strong denunciations of Luther's attitude toward reason. His study relies much on the polemical treatments of Luther by his Catholic predecessors Denifle and Grisar. For Maritain, Luther was a sort of "bull in the china closet," ruled not by intellect but "by his effective and appetitive faculties."' Luther indeed had many "nasty" things to say about reason. In his often-quoted last sermon at Wittenberg in 1 5 4 6, be had the following to say on the subject:

But the Devil's bride, reason, the lovely whore comes in and wants to be wise, and what she says, she thinks, is the Holy Spirit. Who can be of any help then? Neither jurist, physician nor king, nor emperor; for she is the foremost whore the devil has. The other gross sins can be seen but nobody can control reason . . . And what I say about the sin of lust which everybody understands, applys also to reason; for the reason mocks and affronts God in spiritual things and has in it more hideous harlotry than any harlot.'

On other occasions Luther refers to reason as a "beast," an enemy of God" and a "source of mischief." It is "carnal" and stupid."' For Luther, reason at its worst was to be found in philosophy, most particularly that of Aristotle. Luther minces no words. Aristotle is the "destroyer of pious doctrine," an "Inventor of fables" and "the ungodly public enemy of the truth."' No doubt it is comments such as these above that have prompted many to consider Luther a poor source for theological enlightenment, much less of rational thought. Such is the evaluation of historian Norman Sykes:

Defective education and limited learning made Luther ill-equipped to frame a new system of sound doctrine, nor did his polemics with the radicals "produce a state of intellectual calm suitable to the careful pondering of fundamental theological questions."'

Yet, Luther could praise reason, Aristotle and philosophy as well as condemn them. Concerning reason, Luther at times -could refer to it as ". . . the most important and the highest in rank among all things and, in comparison with other things of this life, the best and something divine."" Reason is the gift of God and stands above all of man's earthly blessings. It is the source and bearer of all culture. It has discovered all of the arts and sciences, law and medicine, and it rules over them. How do we account for these divergent evaluations from Luther concerning reason and philosophy? Can they be reconciled, or is Luther truly the irrational "bull in the china closet" that Maritain and others have charged? It is the purpose of this essay to show that Luther's attitude toward reason had its place, but that place was not to be lord over theology and God's word.


One of the chief organizing principles in Luther's thought which often helps to explain its apparent inconsistencies is his doctrine of the two kingdoms (or governments). Recent Luther research has stressed the great unity of the reformer's thought, especially with reference to reason, when understood in this framework." For Luther, God effects His will over the lives of men in two ways: through the earthly kingdom and through the spiritual kingdom. The earthly kingdom refers to that dimension of man's life whereby he lives in society, is ruled and governed by the state, and makes decisions and choices of everyday life. The spiritual kingdom (inhabited only by true believers) is that spiritual dimension of life whereby man lives in the Body of Christ, a forgiven sinner, showing forth Christ's lordship through good works motivated by love.It is within the context of the earthly kingdom that Luther views natural reason positively. He can even refer to the earthly kingdom as the "Kingdom of Human Reason."

Luther is even ready to grant that man's natural powers remain largely uncorrupted by the Fall. Again it is simply a matter of making careful distinctions: "I make a difference between naturalia and spiritualia." The spiritualia (or spiritual endowments) are certainly corrupt, so that no man loves God or keeps His Law; but the naturatia (natural endowments) are sound."

Man has the ability and even the responsibility to conduct his earthly affairs according to reason. Reason, free will, and power are present even after the fall for man to conduct his household affairs, to handle the proper administration of government, and to perform other earthly tasks over which God has given him dominion.

For Luther, reason has the rightful task of bringing order to society and developing this life. In "earthly government," the affairs of state, reason is to be exercised in its best possible fashion for providing a stable government and promoting civil righteousness. Reason shall be "the highest law and the master of all administration of Law.""' Luther was convinced that reason in natural man plus the natural law which is written in his heart are the means by which God in his creative will holds society together. Holy Scripture and the Gospel are not to meddle in the affairs of government. In the areas of law, government and the arts, theology must bend its knee to reason and testify that it is God's creation." These things are a part of God's divine image in man from creation, so that be may rule over the earth, Reason is the majesty of this earthly life. 1 5

Natural man is also able to know God to a certain extent through his own reasoning powers apart from revelation and faith. For Luther, Scripture establishes this beyond all doubt, and his observation of the world's religions confirmed the Scriptural truth. The various pagan religions presuppose that men have within themselves a conceptual notion of God. Luther often would quote the religious views of Plato and Cicero in support of his position. In this regard, however, Luther made careful distinctions. He distinguished sharply between a general and a proper knowledge of God.

By nature all men have the general knowledge that there is a God . . . Besides, the forms of worship and the religions that have been and remained among the nations are abundant evidence that at some time all men have bad a general knowledge of God."

General knowledge includes awareness that there is a God, that He created heaven and earth, and that He is just and punishes evil. Man knows there is a God, but is unable by reason to know bow God is minded toward him. This can be known only through proper knowledge of God. Reason left to itself is unable to discover that God wants to save us from sin and in fact, has sent His Son to accomplish this for Him."- Proper knowledge comes only through revelation, whereas general knowledge has been given to all men through creation. This general knowledge that there is a God cannot be eradicated from the heart. The Epicureans and other atheists have tried to suppress it, but atheism is opposed by the secret voice of the conscience."

Reason, for Luther, was also able to arrive at a "legal knowledge" of God. Reason can not only perceive that there is a God; it can know God's law and will for 'our general conduct. This is why Luther can boldly assert that reason alone is capable of governing the state, indeed the entire earthly kingdom. In this regard Luther says, "Reason can arrive at a 'legal knowledge' of God. It is conversant with God's commandments and can distinguish between right and wrong. The philosophers, too, had this knowledge of God."" Luther also makes the distinction between knowledge of the Law and knowledge of the Gospel. Reason can know the former but not the latter." Luther thought that the heathen bad a superior and deeper knowledge of God through the Law than had many monks and priests in the church" Legal knowledge and general knowledge of God are often spoken of by Luther as "left-banded knowledge" of God. The left-handed knowledge knows what God demands in terms of right and wrong behavior, but does not know that man is lost to sin, under the judgment of God; it doesn't know the depths of God's mercy and kindness in the Gospel. The Gospel is "right-handed knowledge" of God, and of this reason knows nothing. It is totally ignorant. For Luther, reason cannot know the depths of sin or the riches of the Gospel, but it can know and speak of Christ in an historical sense. This, however, is not saving faith.

All Turks, Jews, papists, Tartars, and heathen concede the existence of a God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who, as they say makes life contingent on our observation of His commandments and prohibitions. The pope goes one step beyond this and also speaks of Christ, but what he says is merely historical.'


Whereas the earthly kingdom is concerned with the affairs and problems of civil righteousness, that is, righteousness and approval before men the spiritual kingdom is concerned with heavenly affairs and the matter of righteousness before God. In the sphere of knowledge that deals with how God is minded toward us, reason has no business and when left to itself ends up in idolatry. It creates its own g(>d fashioned after the devil and worships that instead of the true God.

So reason plays blind man's bluff with God and always makes mistakes, and misses every time, calling that God which is not God and again not calling Him God who really is God. Reason would not do either if it did not know that God is, or if on the other hand it knew who or what He is . . . Therefore in trying so hard, reason gives God's name an honor to whatever it considers is God, but never finds him who is really God, but always the devil or its own vanity which is ruled by the devil."

Man's wisdom and reasoning, unenlightened by the Holy Spirit, is of the flesh, and because of this consigned to death with respect to justification." There is absolutely no doctrine or philosophy devised by man which is able to direct man toward the right path to God and make him righteous. Earthly wisdom can lead to good habits, but leaves him in bondage to the Old Adarn." Carnal reason is in bondage; it believes that man is capable of pleasing God given enough time. Luther calls this notion . . . the height of wisdom, righteousness, and religion about which reason is able to judge; it is common to all the heathen the papists, the Jews, the Mohammedans, and the sectarians. . . . They do not know the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness .21

It was because the Roman Church had replaced the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of works that Luther revolted against scholasticism and the philosophy of Aristotle. Reason was meddling and interfering in the spiritual kingdom which is to be ruled solely by the Scriptures and the Gospel. When dealing with theology, reason and philosophy must take the back seat. The heart of the Scriptures is the Gospel of Christ and the Gospel is justification by faith alone through Christ. About this spiritual concern Luther could say, "Here we are in an altogether different world-a world that is outside reason. . . . No, here we are in divine theology where we hear the Gospel that Christ died for us.

Reason cannot grasp, in the final analysis, the miracle of forgiveness. Rather, it would seem more logical if grace were on a pay-as-you-go basis. To receive eternal life for nothing is totally against natural man's logic." Aristotle and the Scholastic theologians held that reason was the supreme virtue in man and always "pleads for the best." Luther, again placing reason into its proper kingdom, qualified this statement, saying that "reason always pleads for the best in a mundane sense, that is, in things about which reason can judge. . . . in respect to the body of the flesh."" In theology, however, reason does not "plead for the best" because it is hostile to God and opposed to his will." Luther was unwilling to have reason act as judge over any article of faith or passage of Scripture. Where Scripture speaks, reason must keep silent. Where Scripture tells us that Christ is both human and divine, that there is a triune God, that Christ's body and blood are present in the Sacrament, that Baptism brings Christ's forgiveness, that we are saved by faith alone apart from works, reason must not be given even the smallest voice.

Although Luther spoke out much against a magisterial use of reason in theological matters of the spiritual kingdom, he believed that reason could serve a useful task once it was "bathed by the Holy Spirit" and placed in a ministerial position to Scripture.

Before we come to faith and the knowledge of God, our reason is darkness; in the believers, however, it is a most useful tool. . . . Faith then is aided by reason, rhetoric, and language which were such great obstacles before faith. Enlightened reason which is incorporated into faith receives gifts from faith. . . . Reason in godly men is something different since it does not fight with faith but rather aids it.

Reason, however, may never stand in judgment of God's Word, although it may be an aid to understanding what Scripture says. Clearly Luther is here using ratio to refer to the thought processes, the means by which man organizes and makes inferences from what is given. Logic may also be employed in a ministerial fashion, to demonstrate the validity of Scriptural truths. As Robert Preus observes in his Theology of Post Reformation Lutheranism:

Luther too drew hundreds of syllogisms and conclusions from Scripture in his career and felt no compunction to justify such a procedure. Luther is protesting against a Pro-crustean syllogizing that in the interests of logic does violence to the articles of faith, and especially against the Scholastic ideal that the mysteries of faith can be presented in syllogistic form."

Rome's appropriation of Aristotle amounted not only to works righteousness but also to a full-blown theologia gloriae' in which logic and reason were masters over the mysteries of God. Much of Scholastic thought endeavored to deal with God in his essence apart from revelation . For Luther, our scope of knowledge concerning God is limited only to the Deus revelatus, the revealed God who manifests himself in Christ and Scripture. In the place of a theologia gloriae where Natural Theology philosophizes about the bidden God, Luther put forth his theologia crucis which centered the revealed God in Christ. In Luther's "Disputation Against Scholastic Theology," be strongly condemns Rome's magisterial use of reason as it attempts to use Aristotle to reach the hidden God (God in his essence of being). He condemned Aristotle's Ethica as one of the biggest corrupters of Christian truth. "A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil ... That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded and hardened."'' Those who truly desire to know the true God must look to the apostolic testimony in Scripture. Those who are unwilling to begin with this testimony of the revealed God in Christ will only find the devil." Reason must bow to this testimony and may only be used in its service. Natural reason leads only to legalism and idolatry, but God's word leads to Christ, faith and eternal salvation.


>From our discussion thus far, it would appear that Luther's two kingdom motif consisted of two air-tight compartments with nothing but God's sovereign rule to bridge them. It seems evident that the natural knowledge of God plus logical reason would not qualify as a possible bridge as far as Luther is concerned. Natural reason when left to itself always went looking unsuccessfully for the deus abscoiiditus.

In his monograph, Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, Heinrich Bornkamm stresses that, sociologically, it is the Christian who dynamically unites the earthly and spiritual kingdom. Bornkamm rightly asserts that Luther always stressed two things:

(A.) that there are for the Christian two real and clearly separated sets of life-relationships; but (B.) that these "kingdoms" are not rigidly fixed provinces into which the Christian's existence is divided. He cannot only live in one or the other. He must live in both, and whether be will or not, he must continually act in both. As a Christian he is to use the means of the one or the other "government" in order to carry out the will of God, which holds the world together."

On one hand, there is the Christian's own personal existence; in this realm the spiritual government ruled by Scripture demands that be witness to the Gospel and endure suffering and abuse. On the other hand, there is the common life of mankind in general where civil law must set firm limits against evildoers. Here in the earthly kingdom, the Christian is to aid and support the civil government and see that no one suffers injustice or falls victim to another.

We have seen how Luther's two kingdoms are bridged metaphysically by God's sovereignty, and sociologically by the life of the Christian. But, is there an epistemological bridge as well in Luther's thought, or does he create a dichotomy of an earthly realm where reason and proof operate and a spiritual realm where evidence has no place? Most modern students of Luther have given this impression. Robert H. Fischer places Luther into Kant's phenomenalnoumenal dualistic framework. All insights of man's perceptive faculties "operate in what would later be called the phenomenal realm; they do not penetrate the noumenal." Rudolph Otto agrees with Fischer, equating Luther's spiritual kingdom to Kant's noumenal real."

Other scholars place Luther's revealed God in Christ into the upper story" virtually equating it with the hidden God. According to Erich Seeberg, ". . . he deus absconditzis becomes the deus revelatus. At the same time, the deus revelatus never loses its character as deus absconditus . . ."

With this view Luther is depicted as a thorough-going fideist. Seeberg further explains:

The concrete God in Christ is the hidden God, who however is no more directly bidden, but is hidden in the concrete and then revealed, insofar as we in bending under the cross believe in him.

Seeberg holds that Luther equates and interchanges spirituality and hiddenness."

We have seen from the previous discussion that, for Luther, the revealed God in Christ provides the proper starting point for a true knowledge of God; however, is Seeberg correct in his belief that for Luther, Christ is always hidden apart from the closed circle of belief? Luther must reply for himself:

"Therefore be on your guard against ideas that disregard the Word and separate and tear Christ from God. For He did not bid you soar heavenward on your own and gape to see what God is doing in heaven with the angels. No, this is His command (Matt. 17:5): "This is My beloved Son; listen to Him. There I descend to you on earth so that you can see, hear, and touch me. There and nowhere else is the place for those to encounter and find Me who desire Me and who would like to be delivered from their sin and be saved."

Luther viewed the humanity of Christ as the bottom of a ladder that we must climb for true knowledge of God. Whoever desires to rise to this knowledge must cast away metaphysical rules and first understand Christ as a man." Luther is very particular about where the revealed God can be found. Knowledge of the revealed God begins at the bottom of a ladder with the man Jesus. If one begins at the top with a theology of glory, God will be forever bidden.

For such a procedure amounts to beginning on top and building the roof before you have laid the foundation. Therefore, letting God do whatever He is doing, you must begin at the bottom and say: "I do not want to know God until I have first known this Man ... "43

Beginning at the bottom (having put away all speculative thought and philosophy), Luther bids us examine Christ first as an infant, then his teachings and works during his public ministry, and then his death, resurrection and ascension." Far from being a Kantian dualist, Luther maintained that Christ's divinity was fully evidenced in his miracles which were open to friend and enemy alike. Luther was very skeptical of human reason, but be was not so skeptical about Christ's ability to manifest fully the divine to all people through his works. Luther makes himself clear on this point.

Christ says, "If my preaching does not make you willing to believe that God dwells and is in Me and that f dwell and am in Him, then believe this because of the works you see before your eyes. These works, as no one can deny, are not human; they are divine. They prove and attest powerfully enough that He speaks and works in Me and through Me." These are the works and miracles which He performed publicly before all the world-giving sight to the blind and bearing to the deaf-solely by the Word. These are not only divine works, but they are also witnesses of God the Father. Therefore be who sees and hears these, sees God the Father in them."

Luther believed not only that Christ's miracles were powerful public evidences of his divinity but also that they confirmed his claim of the power to forgive sins. In this regard, Luther said that

even though they [the Jews] declared that no one but God could forgive sin, still His works stood before their eyes in testimony that He bad this divine power and that He was the Man who could help man from death to life, against sin to righteousness, from strife to peace and every good."

The fact that Christ died on the cross was proof of his humanity. In the very same fashion, without any secular/sacred, phenomenal/ nominal or hidden/revealed dualism's, Luther can assert that Christ's resurrection bore witness to his divinity.

Therefore when Christ says: "In three days I will raise it up," He proclaims that the death of His body lies within His power, that He can lay down His life and take it again at will (John 10: 18). Therefore He cannot be only man but must also be God. The fact that He is to be destroyed and die is proof of His humanity,. But that He will rise @gain, that He will raise Himself from death, bears witness to His divinity and to His divine power to quicken the dead, for this is not the work of a human being. In this way Christ reveals His true divinity and humanity to the Jews."

Luther does not contradict himself; human reason is totally incapable of knowing bow Christ can be both human and divine. Luther sees a distinction between Christ providing evidence of His deity in the Incarnation, and man being able to understand such a mysterious union with his reason. But just as reason will not bring a man into the kingdom of God, neither will a mere fides historica.41 Man must believe that Christ is his God and that He died for his sins. This is true faith which only the Holy Spirit can work in the hearts of men. All who enter into the spiritual kingdom must come one way: through Christ as Lord and Savior. We have seen bow, for Luther, reason is repulsed by a need for a savior. Natural man flees from the Gospel unless be first be humbled by the Law an only then be led to Christ, the revealed God who saves.


1. Robert H. Fiscber, "A Reasonable Luther," Reformation Studies (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1962), p. 30.
2. D. C. Macintosh, The Problem of Religious Knowledge (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940), p. 342.
3. See especially Benjamin A. Reist's comments in his survey of Troeltsch's thought in his Toward A Theology of Involvement (Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1966), pp. 20-25.
4. Philip S. Watson, Let God Be God-An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1947), p. 86.
5. Ja'ques Maritain, Tree Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932), p. 28.
6. D. Martin Luther Wcrke, Vol. 51. Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar, 1883- ), pp. 123-34, hereafter cited as WA; American Edition of Luther's Works, Vol. 51 (Philadelphia and St. Louis, 1955- P. 374, hereafter cited as LW.
7. WA 401. 362, 365, 275, 344.
8. WA 8. 127; 1. 611; 6. 186.
9. Norman Sikes, Crisis of the Reformation (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950), pp. 3 9-4 1, 4 8, as quoted in Robert Fiscber, "A Reasonable Luther," p. 3 1.
10. WA 391. 175; LW 34. 137.
11. See especially B. A. Gerrish's Grace and Reason (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), Heinrich Bornkamm's Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), and F. E. Cranz's An Essay on the Development of Luther's Thought on Justice, Law and Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969).
12. B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Reason, p. 13.
13. WA 11. 245-81; LW 45, 119.
14. "Here all law, sciences, economics and medicine are implanted and created Luther commenting on Gen. 1:27f . . . . These are the strength and the riches of the wisdom implanted in paradise. Holy Scripture therefore is not troubled by but rather approves the laws which have been established and the arts which have been discovered." WA 40III. 222.
15. "It is the sun and a kind of god appointed to administer these things in this life." WA 391. 175; LW 34. 137.
16. WA 401. 607; LW 26. 399.
17. "But what God thinks of us, what He wants to give and to do to deliver us from sin and death to save us-which is the particular and true knowledge of God-this men do not know." WA 401. 608; LW 26. 399.
18. "There are people like the Epicureans, Pliny, and others who deny it with their mouths that there is a God. But they must force themselves to do so; and by trying to extinguish the light in their hearts they act like men who plug their ears and close their eyes so that they may neither see nor hear. This does not solve their problem, however, for their conscience tells them something else." WA 19. 206. "This basic theological 'insight of the conscience' is in every mind and cannot be obscured." WA 56.177.
19. WA 46. 667f; W 22. 15 1.
20. "There are two kinds of knowledge of God: the one is the knowledge of the Law; the other is the knowledge of the Gospel. For God issued the Law and the Gospel that He might be known through them. Reason is familiar with the knowledge of God which is based on the Law .... for from the Law it saw the difference between right and wrong. The Law is also inscribed in our hearts . . ." WA 46. 672; LW 22. 150.
21. WA 46. 667f; LW 22. 152.
22. WA 46. 672; LW 22. 153.
23. WA 19. 206f as quoted in George Forell's Faith Active in Love (New York: The American Press, 1954), p. 118.
24. WA 391. 180; W 34. 144.
25. "For there is no doctrine whatever, be it secular or spiritual, philosophical or indeed of any kind at all devised by man, which is able to direct man in the right path and make him righteous. If indeed it brings him so far as to establish good habits, it yet leaves a man in bondage to the Old Adam." WA 57. Part 3; Luther: Early Theological Works, "Epistle to the Hebrews" (Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1962), translated by James Atkinson, p. 39.
26. WA 401. 603; LW 26. 396.
27. ]bid. 371; Ibid. 234.
28. "And so when reason bears: 'You can do nothing to obtain the remission of sins, but ought only to hear the Word of God,' it immediately cries out: 'No! You make the forgiveness of sins too mean and cont

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