Archive Book Reviews Philosophy Steven Wedgeworth

The Humanism of Martin Luther

William J. Wright, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms: A Response to the Challenge of Skepticism, Baker Academic 2010.

William J. Wright seeks to explain Martin Luther’s theology of the “two kingdoms,” not as merely one locus among many in Luther’s thought, but rather as a controlling method by which Luther approaches all intellectual questions, whether theological or philosophical.  Wright gives a survey of Luther’s interpreters, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, arguing that Luther has been badly misunderstood by the majority of recent readers.  He then seeks to contextualize Luther within Renaissance thought, explaining the challenge of skepticism brought on by the Italian Renaissance and the subsequent Northern-Humanist answer to that skepticism: rhetoric.  Wright situates Luther within the Northern Humanist school, and looks especially at his relation to the great humanist scholar Lorenzo Valla. Wright then examines the ways in which Luther used the two kingdoms to answer the challenge of skepticism, roughly paralleling the relationship between faith and reason, locating “certainty” finally only in faith.  Wright concludes the book by examining the application of the two kingdoms by Luther to the Christian life.

While the entire book is worthy of consideration, and the history of Luther-interpretation and misinterpretation is very valuable indeed, Wright’s most central contribution is his portrait of Luther’s philosophy.  Of course, Luther is famous for his dislike of certain forms of philosophy.  His doggerel against Aristotle and impatience with certain medieval scholastics are chief examples of this disposition.  However, it would be a mistake to then conclude that Luther was opposed to philosophy in the sense of a modern fundamentalist or modern theologian, rejecting the study of nature and its reflection of the divine.  Indeed, Wright argues convincingly that Luther continues the Northern Humanist contribution to the history of philosophy, that of completing the limitations of metaphysics with rhetoric, and ultimately, in something perhaps reminiscent of Thomas, of completing the limitations of reason with faith.  Instead of a full review, we shall highlight Wright’s presentation of Luther the philosopher, and we will inquire what such a presentation can teach us about Luther’s relationship to the larger Reformation landscape, as well as philosophical and theological questions still lingering today.

Renaissance Skepticism

The second chapter of William Wright’s book explains the history of philosophical movements of the early Italian Renaissance, particularly focusing on the role of skepticism.  William of Ockham is briefly explained, quickly followed by the works of Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, and the Neoplatonists: Ficino, Pico, and Giles of Viterbo. Brief mention is also made of other critics. The most significant figure for Luther, according to Wright, is clearly that of Lorenzo Valla and his particular brand of humanism.

The intellectual skepticism which characterized the Renaissance humanists owed its inspiration to a global picture. According to Wright, the larger academic culture was quite capable of producing new doubt:

One may point to several other sources of the general threat to certainty at the onset of the sixteenth century. Increasing trade and continuing warfare with the Moslems introduced competitive religious and cultural ideas. The Portuguese beginnings of European exploration and expansion along the coast of Africa during the mid-to late fifteenth century raised doubts about the authority of Aristotle and other ancient authorities with regard to the nature of humankind and what constituted human society. Accounts of the Spanish explorations in the New World fed a growing curiosity in Europe. Astronomical observations and theorizing raised questions about the accuracy of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic understanding of the universe (Weltbild) and cosmology. The recovery and translation of early manuscripts brought forgotten ideas back to the forefront and sharpened the differences between ancient authorities. All of this information, both new and old, was widely disseminated by the newly developed printing press. (50)

Skepticism was thus perfectly understandable, as the vast amount of that which was not known became apparent. The humanists used this in their critiques against traditional human knowledge, but as Wright repeatedly points out, they did not use this skepticism against religion. To the contrary, religion was many times the great antidote to this situation.

Wright focuses on Petrarch as the father of humanism, but shows that the figure behind Petrarch is Cicero. Both men prioritized rhetoric over metaphysics, believing that speech was the truest gateway to the mind.  Petrarch also, significantly, rejected doubt in God’s mercies, for they were invisible and as such were improper objects of rational scrutiny. Whereas traditional philosophy was open for critique, religious truths were not.  This use of rhetoric lay at the foundation of humanism.

Lorenzo Valla and the Role of Rhetoric

Wright then particularly highlights Lorenzo Valla’s philosophical method, which was a continual contrasting of the abilities of strict intellect and the abilities of persuasion. Essential to this is Valla’s Epicureanism. Showing a strong distaste for the asceticism of earlier days, Valla’s first work was entitled On Pleasure. In it he argued that “happiness itself… is generated from our vision and knowledge of God,” and “Loving itself is delight, or pleasure, or beatitude, or happiness, or charity, which is the final end goal for which all other things are” (63).

Valla defends this view of pleasure based on the divine goodness of creation, but he also shows his commitment to the difference between intellectual “knowledge” and persuasion or “willful knowledge.” This division is important in that it opens up two different methods. Wright again quotes Valla saying, “From the beginning, the orator noted, ‘there was one set of criteria for observing divine requirements and another for earthly ones’” (64). These two ways anticipate the two kingdoms of Luther to come.

Valla’s view of persuasion led him to share the humanists’ preference for rhetoric but to also go further than his predecessors. Wright states:

Valla defined a different kind of rhetorical persuasion in matters of religion, where the probable truth of Ciceronian dialogue did not suffice for the task at hand. In these works, already, Valla had provided a solution to the problem of skepticism: it was an epistemological response to the threat of doubt regarding religious matters. (64)

Wright explains that Valla replaced the Scholastic method with rhetoric, particularly employing philological criticism. He famously re-evaluated ancient texts and demanded that Scripture take the foundational place in all Christian theology. This was basic to Luther’s own intellectual commitments, and indeed this emphasis on the word, both spoken and written, would dominate the entire Reformation.

Valla also separated the mind and the will. Because rhetoric was an art of persuasion, its aim was to move the will to certainty, and only afterward could the mind begin its own ever-incomplete quest. Valla insisted that people could not understand how providence and free will could exist harmoniously, yet they were called to believe it. The will assented to a position based on faith, and the mind followed.

Valla extended this notion of persuasion to the Scripture itself. This is essential, as Valla was himself pioneering textual criticism. Instead of applying his intellectual skepticism to the Scriptures, however, Valla insisted that there was an “interior sensus,” something that “touches the individual’s emotions and, so, represented a rhetorical approach to understanding” (70). Wright points out that Valla believed the Scripture to transport the soul to a “loftier place,” even affecting proper exegesis. This was not exactly Platonic though, for “like Luther, Valla did not confuse spiritual matters with eternal ideas in the mind, but rather understood scriptural truths as a reality, separate from the mind, which affected the will and the heard” (70).

Wright’s concluding paragraph on Valla displays how significant all of this is for understanding Martin Luther:

It is clear that Valla developed a new rhetorical philosophy, which was based on his humanistic epistemology. It is important to note that Valla’s beginning point was epistemological. Words were actions in God and in humankind. It was trhough the Word that people understood God’s revelation (God’s Word was His action), and people created their understanding thereof through words. But, in addition, with this epistemology, he prepared the way for Luther by promoting a Pauline understanding of Scripture, the mystery of predestination and free will, and the emphasis on appealing to the heart rather than the intellect. (71)


Northern Humanism and Neoplatonism

Wright’s third chapter moves to the Northern humanists.  They were inspired by both of the previous schools of humanism, the rhetorical and mystical.  Wright briefly summarizes Rudolph Agricola, noting that he was the first to introduce the “loci” method of theological writing.  Agricola continued Valla’s emphasis on rhetoric, rejecting assertions of truth in favor of persuasion of the heart.  Wright also mentions that the humanist-emphasis on history and philology lead to them rediscovering “the views of Christian antiquity in the works of the Greek Fathers and the Greek New Testament” (83).

Wright then moves to Erasmus of Rotterdam.  Erasmus saw himself as following ancients like Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, and Origen.  Wright highlights Erasmus’ distinctively humanist implementation of skepticism:

Erasmus doubted the ability of reason to know reality and religious truths with any certainty.  He demonstrated the skeptical penchant for severely questioning all dogma.  He tended to doubt that Christian spiritual realities could be certainly known.  Hence, the prince of the humanists sought some external source of verification or probability in attempting to understand even the Scriptures, which he thought often obscure or ambiguous.  This was the origin of his emphasis of developing a consensus of the church over time, from the days of the church fathers to the present. (84)

Erasmus was more of a follower of the Neoplatonic humanists than of Valla.  This is why, according to Wright, previous scholars have been reluctant to see Luther as a full-blown humanist.  They rightly noted his sharp disagreements with Erasmus and the Neoplatonists.  For Erasmus, the “two worlds” were the intelligible and angelic world on the one hand, and the visible world on the other.  They were the mind and the body.  Wright explains:

In this hierarchical Neoplatonic scheme, the invisible things were “higher” and man was held to partake of both the higher world of the spirit and the lower world of the flesh.  Humankind possessed three parts: spirit, soul, and flesh.  The spirit drove people toward heaven, while the flesh drove people again toward hell… Reason (held by philosophers, especially Plato), was synonymous with spirit, inner man, and law of the minds.  Opposite them were passions– flesh, body, outer man, and law of the members…  This we will see separated Erasmus, along with the Scholastics, from Luther, who placed the mind and reason safely within the realm of the body and flesh. (87)

Because of this form of dualism, Erasmus believed that the true meaning of the Bible was the allegorical one.  Erasmus also believed that “Christ had only improved on the knowledge of the philosophers and Old Testament prophets and was, in a word, simply another lawgiver” (88).

There were other Neoplatonic Northern humanists.  Wright lists Conrad Celtis, Conrad Muth, and Johannes Reuchlin.  None of these were directly influential upon Luther, and, in fact, Luther explicitly critiqued the last two men.  Due to the contrast between Luther and these sorts of humanists, many scholars have seen some considerable distance between Luther and humanism.  Wright argues, however, that “when one distinguishes between the two paths of humanism coming out of the Italian Renaissance, the humanists influence on Luther is clearly revealed” (95).  And again, the chief influence remains Lorenzo Valla.

Valla was important for Luther’s own studies in the Biblical texts, as well as Church history.  Luther’s reading of Valla’s On the Donation of Constantine moved him to finally view the pope as antichrist.  The two reasons for this were “a deliberate misappropriation of temporal authority” and that it was “contrary to his spiritual calling” (97).  Luther also appreciated Valla’s approach to religious rhetoric, as it was free of skepticism.  Luther shared skepticism about worldly things, but not with regard to religious matters.  Religion, rather than reason, was based on faith.

Wright also treats Luther’s relationship with Neoplatonism, which is mostly critical, as is commonly assumed, though there is some nuance along the way.  “Luther clearly praised Plato in his early works” (101).  “Following Augustine, he saw the similarity with the Gospel of John and, in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, he declared that Plato’s system was superior to that of Aristotle.”  Wright also mentions that Luther agreed with the concept of natural law “because it was based on Scripture.”  Luther named “Aesop, Aristotle, Plato, Zenophon, Cicero, and Cato as examples of such sensible heathen writers whose source was natural knowledge” (101-102).

Another important aspect to keep in mind with Luther is that he “used Neoplatonic terminology but changed the meaning greatly” (102).  Wright notes that when Luther used “the terminology of inner versus outer, he was not referring to seeing ‘the exemplar (Platonic form) under its opposite image’ (Platonic copy), but rather the fact that God mysteriously revealed Himself in opposites.”  It is critical to remember, however, that “Luther did not conceive of the intellect as a mediate place between the sensory and the supersensory” (104).  Luther retained what we might refer to as a creature-Creator distinction.

A New Picture of Luther?

Wright’s presentation of Martin Luther is that not of a mere Biblicist (admittedly a pejorative and vacuous term) or an anti-philosopher but rather a specific kind of philosopher, one who fits within the context of late-Renaissance Humanism.  Rather than a Barthian Luther, we have, perhaps, a Calvinist Luther.  And indeed, if the presentations of Thomas by Gilson, Chenu, and William Placher are correct, we may even have something of a Thomistic Luther.  This is a welcome picture for the presentation of the history of Reformation thought.  Still certain questions remain.

1) How persuasive is Luther’s Humanistic skepticism in the context of Modernist and Postmodernist skepticism?  Perhaps we could pose the question from a slightly different angle, asking to what extent Modernist skepticism is a continuation of the earlier humanism employed by Luther and to what extent it is a true departure.  In a setting where doubt has declined to remain only in the realm of reason, but rather infiltrated the kingdom of faith as well, how can we speak of a “certain faith”?

2) How much rational consistency can be required of theology?  Any sort of “science” of the faith raises this question.  The very notion of ordering, arranging, and arguing for religious propositions seems to require rationality and coherency, yet Luther was also famous for sometimes rejecting such demands when his dogged textualism appeared to require absolute commitment.  Was this an appropriate use of dualism, or should the questions of theology indeed be open to reason, and if so, how much?  The Reformed were always the most interested in “correcting” this aspect of Luther’s thought.  Were they true heirs in this respect, or were they departing from the appropriate tension?

3) Does Luther’s philosophical use of the two kingdoms automatically imply his political use, or does the latter depend upon specific exegesis?  Most readers, upon hearing the language of “two kingdoms,” automatically think of the political use of the doctrine.  Wright spends a good amount of time correcting this assumption, but it is still the case that Luther applied the two kingdoms to the arena of politics.  However, if the two kingdoms are not exclusively political, but rather interested in the larger questions of faith and reason, then it may certainly be possible for the political application to depend mostly the specifics of faith and reason.

After all, the rational notion of “freedom” is notoriously tricky, often clarified by things of the faith.  So too, the question of religious freedom, church and state relations, and even nature and grace are also answered, not merely by the admission of Luther’s two kingdoms: the relationship between faith and reason, but by the specific answers of the faith to the questions of reason; and these can only come by correct reading of revelation, both natural and spiritual.  Thus a two kingdoms-philosophy does not rule out faith-informed politics, but rather could possibly demand it.  Understanding that Wright attempts to answer this very question in the rest of his book, we still ask the question for our readers: What does a properly “Lutheran” political program look like in light of Wright’s presentation?  It is our belief here that it looks very much like a Calvinist political program.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.