Archive Eric Parker Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

The Platonism of Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s ubiquitous criticisms of Aristotle were once considered to be, by such interpreters as Harnack and Barth for example, a wholesale attack on the natural capacity of the intellect to discern the truth from created realities, i.e., philosophically. More recent readers of Luther, such as Lohse, Gerrish, Zachman, et alia, have recognized this criticism as part and parcel of Luther’s critique of the Scholastics, but not as a wholesale rejection of ‘reason.’ What modern interpreters of Luther’s thought have been less inclined to notice, however, is that along with his retention of ‘reason’ (pace Gerrish) comes a positive appraisal of Platonic philosophy in his mature theology.

In 1518, Luther attended the general chapter meeting of the Augustinian Order held in Heidelberg. What took place there is now referred to in its written form as Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. In the selection that I provide from this disputation below Luther demonstrates, in terms unparalleled in his other writings, a positive reception of Plato’s philosophy as the traditional philosophy of “blessed Augustine” himself. What is also unique about this passage is that it has never been translated into English, at least as far as I am aware. There is a German translation of this passage along with detailed discussion in Theodor Dieter’s Die Junge Luther und Aristoteles. Many English translations of the Heidelberg Disputation only include the theological theses. Luther divided the disputation between 27 theological theses and 12 philosophical theses. The “official” critical version of Luther’s works, known as the Weimarer Ausgabe, includes the theological and philosophical theses but the latter appears without Luther’s defense or probationes.1 The probationes, of which the section below is a part, were not published until 1979.2 The latin text has now been included in the Weimarer Ausgabe vol. 59 and is the source of the following text and translation:

Octava conclusio:

Aristoteles male reprehendit ac ridet Platonicarum idearum meliorem sua philosophiam.

Pro declaratione:

Quod philosophia Platonis melior sit philosophia Aristotelis, ex eo patet, quod Plato semper nititur ad divina et immortalia, separata et eterna, insensibilia et intelligibilia, unde et singularia, individua, sensibilia relinquenda censuit, quia non possent esse scibilia propter instabilitatem eorum. Cui per omnia contrarius Aristoteles ridet illa separata et intelligibilia et trahit ad sensilia et singularia penitusque humana et naturalia. Verum id facit astutissime: Primo, quia non potest negare illa individua esse fluxa, finxit aliud formam, aliud materiam, et ita res ut materia non est scibilis, sed ut forma. Ideo dicit formam esse causam sciendi, et hanc vocat “divinum, bonum, appetibile” et huic intellectum tribuit. Et sic eludit omnium mentes, dum eandem rem dupliciter considerat.

Secundo, ista forma est quidditas et tota eius Metaphysica ac sic iam ideas destruxit omnes, ponens loco earum suas formas et quidditates coniunctas materiae, et ridens ac negans ideas separatas a materia, ut patet in multis locis, praesertim 1 Metaphysicae, 1 Ethicorum etc.Quod autem ideae Platonis sint separatae, patet per beatum Augustinum, Iamblichum et omnes Platonicos certatores. Et sic patet, quod philosophia Aristotelis reptat in faecibus rerum corporalium et sensilium, ubi Plato versatur in rebus separatis et spiritualibus.3


Eighth Conclusion:

Aristotle badly rebukes and ridicules the Platonic ideas [which is] better than his own philosophy.

In favor of the declaration:

That the philosophy of Plato is better than the philosophy of Aristotle appears from this, namely, that Plato always depends upon the divine and immortal, separate and eternal, insensible and intelligible, from whence he also recommends that singulars, individuals, and sensible things be abandoned because they cannot be known on account of their instability. Aristotle, being opposed to this in every way, ridicules the separable and intelligible things and brings in sensible things and singulars and thoroughly human and natural things. But, he does this most cunningly:

Firstly, because he cannot deny that the individual is transient [fluxa], he invents a form and different matter, and so the thing is not knowable as matter, but as form. Therefore, he says that the form is the cause of knowing [causam sciendi], and he calls this “divine, good, desirable” and he assigns the intellect to this. And so he frustrates every mind, while he examines the same thing in two ways.

Secondly, this “form” is a quiddity and the sum of his Metaphysics. So, he destroys all the ideas, putting in their place his own forms and quiddities conjoined to matter, ridiculing and denying [the existence of] the ideas separable from matter, as appears in many places, especially Metaphysics 1 and [Nicomachean] Ethics 1. But, it is well known by way of blessed Augustine, Iamblichus and all the Platonic disputants that the ideas of Plato are separate [from matter]. And so it is well known that the philosophy of Aristotle crawls in the dregs [reptat in faecibus] of corporeal and sensible things, whereas Plato moves among things separable and spiritual.

Luther’s first seven conclusions in this disputation offer scathing criticisms of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mortality of the soul, the eternity of the world and others. Here, Luther sees Plato’s philosophy as much closer to Christian truth than that of Aristotle. However, it seems that Luther’s appraisal of Plato goes beyond a mere acceptance of the lesser of two evils. Rather, Luther sees in Plato’s philosophy something similar to the praeperatio evangelica of Augustine. In another section Luther refers to Plato’s argument in the Parmenides as a “most beautiful disputation” because in it Plato shows how all things must return to nothing in their return to the One.4 Though this is only a short section of Luther’s philosophical probationes one can see in the Eighth Conclusion an appreciation for the philosophical system that was partly responsible for the conversion of his order’s founding father. Since the probationes were published there has been little mention or discussion of them in the academic literature. Surely, this positive appraisal of Plato should not represent an uncritical adoption of Plato. But, as Knut Alfsvåg argues, “Aristotle cannot for Luther function as a philosophical broadening of the perspective established by his insistence on the Christocentricity of human existence; Plato’s emphasis on the unknowability and omnipresence of the infinite, however, works quite well.”5

  1. D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Weimar: H. Bühlau, 1883-1990, (Weimarer Ausgabe/WA), 1 band
  2. Helmar Junghans, “Die probationes zu den philosophischen Thesen den Heidelberger Disputation Luthers im Jahre 1518”, Lutherjahrbuch 46 (1979): 10-59
  3. WA, 59. Band, Nachträge zu Bd. 1 –57 und zu den Abteilungen ‘Deutsche Bibel’ und ‘Tischreden’ Johannes Schilling, pp. 424-425
  4. ‘‘Secunda pars patet ex Platone in Parmenide, ubi pulcherrima disputatione primum exuit illud unum et ideam, donec omnia ei auferat et ipsum nihil esse relinquat. Rursum illud idem induit omnibus, donec nihil relinquitur, in quo non sit illud unum, et nihil sit, quod non inposito uno sit. Et sic est extra omnia et tamen intra omnia . . . Ista autem participatio et separatio unius seu ideae magis potest intelligi quam dici . . .’’ WA 59,426,3-9
  5. Knut Alfsvåg, “Luther as a Reader of Dionysius the Areopagite,” Studia Theologica – Nordic Journal of Theology, 65:2 (2011): 105-106

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.