After having heard Luther's scornful and vehement denunciation of the use of reason in the defense of Scripture, it is a little surprising to hear him insist, as he did at Worms, that he would bow to the dictates of sound reason. It is still more surprising to find that he repeatedly castigates his opponents as irrational and senseless fools.
...While Luther believed that it was ridiculous and downright blasphemous to presume to defend Scripture with rational argumentation, yet he also believed that it was perfectly proper to point out the logical weakness in the attacks made on Scripture whenever the opportunity to do so presented itself. In his controversies with his adversaries he says a number of times, "This reason itself is forced to admit." It is evident that Luther did not place a great deal of confidence in such a procedure, but there is scarcely an opponent against whom he did not use this approach.
In the same way he often pointed out logical weaknesses in the arguments of the Anabaptists. Some of the Anabaptists had insisted that the children who were brought to the Lord Jesus for his blessing were not children age-wise, but "children in respect to their faith." In regard to this interpretation Luther says,
But whoever has a little reason will see that the devil has possessed the Anabaptist completely, for they, in the name of all hangmen, characterize the children as being without reason, but they themselves are not only without reason, but they are completely insane and foolish, since they do not want to let those who are "carried in the arms" be children, as the text clearly says.
...At the end of the treatise Against the Heavenly Prophets Luther has a chapter entitled, "Concerning Mistress Hulda, Dr. Carlstadt's clever Reason, in this sacrament." In this chapter he endeavors to show that the arguments of Carlstadt are not logically sound, and that they become ridiculous if applied in analogous situation... It must be noted throughout that Luther is not seeking to establish the truth by reason, but to show that the arguments of Carlstadt are weak. If they are consistently followed to their logical conclusion they will always end in nonsense.
The papists are to be attacked in the same way as the Mohammedans. Commenting on the pope's prohibition of marriage on the part of priests and his claim to be above Scripture, Luther once said,
That senseless, asinine pope has dealt so crudely that it would have been possible to lay hold of him with the judgment of reason even if we did not have Scripture.
Toward the end of 1519 the faculty of Louvain issued a condemnation of the Ninety-Five theses and of some other works by Luther. In reply, Luther says that the learned faculty at Louvain argues like a bunch of old women, who say, "It is so! It is not so! Yes! No! You are wrong! I am not wrong!" He complains that they use neither reason nor Scripture against him, but only the feelings of their own hearts and their own opinions. They answer him simply by reasserting the very things which he attacks is as untrue, and therefore they are guilty of begging the question. Here again Luther uses an argument which he does not allow anyone to use against the Scriptures. And then, having pointed out the logical fallacy in the university's chain of reasoning, Luther adds what was for them the crowning insult, that this is "forbidden even by Aristotle."
...It is clear that Luther did not believe that the Christian church had a monopoly on folly and irrationalism, and he knew that unbelievers could be just as foolish and irrational in their arguments as Christians. While he would never have written a book on the reasonableness of Christianity, he might conceivably have been the author of one with the title "The Irrationalism of Unbelief". Philosophy will fulfill its proper role in the church when it serves to destroy the "pretensions of speculative reason."
As we have said, Luther was certainly not averse to the use of reason in debate with unbelievers. He warns against the use of reason in the doctrine of justification, in matters of conscience, and in regard to satisfaction, remission of sins, reconciliation and eternal salvation. But
at other times, whenever you must, outside of this doctrine of justification, debate with Jews, Turks, and sectarians about the wisdom, or the power, or the attributes of God, then use all your skill, and be a subtle and sharp a debater as you can be, for then you are in a different kind of argument.
Such disputations with Jews, Mohammedans and sectarians are possible because many things are clear in the light of natural reason. Not every point of doctrine could be argued on this ground, for there are many things that are not clear in the light of nature. Many of these, however, are clarified in the light of grace. But even in the light of grace not every problem is answered. For a solution to the problems that remain unilluminated by the light of grace we must wait for the light of glory in heaven.
From The Foolishness of God by Siegbert Becker (c) 1982 Northwestern Publishing House (www.nph.net). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.