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Review of "The Devil's Whore"

by Deanna A. Thompson — May 31, 2012

The provocative title of Dragseth’s edited volume embraces Martin Luther’s irreverent assessment of reason’s role in the life of faith. Throughout this text, words like “misreading,” “mischaracterization,” and “misunderstanding” appear repeatedly as theologians, historians, and philosophers reappraise Luther’s relationship to and influence on philosophy. Originating with a panel on the quandary of Lutheran philosophy at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2008 (with some of the papers from that panel subsequently published in Lutheran Forum), this diverse and rich collection of articles is a must-read for anyone invested in Martin Luther’s life, thought, and legacy...

The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition, ed. Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011). 247 pp. $49.00.

The provocative title of Dragseth’s edited volume embraces Martin Luther’s irreverent assessment of reason’s role in the life of faith. Throughout this text, words like “misreading,” “mischaracterization,” and “misunderstanding” appear repeatedly as theologians, historians, and philosophers reappraise Luther’s relationship to and influence on philosophy. Originating with a panel on the quandary of Lutheran philosophy at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2008 (with some of the papers from that panel subsequently published in Lutheran Forum), this diverse and rich collection of articles is a must-read for anyone invested in Martin Luther’s life, thought, and legacy.

The Devil’s Whore offers a new view on the well-established narrative of Luther the Reformer. While the authors cover well-known territory—Augustinian influences, deep familiarity with the philosophical schools of the time, criticisms of Aristotle—many do so in a way that elicits new insights. Taking seriously Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms, this volume focuses on the positive role reason plays for Luther in the temporal world. The text’s sustained attention to Luther’s view of reason as an “inestimable gift,” particularly when it is employed on behalf of the neighbor or the common good, offers a gift to the field of Luther studies and beyond.

The text is well organized, with helpful framing of the issues dealt with in the volume through an introduction by David Hockenbery and a crisply argued epilogue by the editor. In between lie almost two dozen essays, each of which is short and substantive, with clearly stated theses and descriptions of what will be covered in the article. The text is divided into three sections: the first deals with Luther’s own relationship to philosophy; the second addresses Luther’s impact on continental philosophy from Leibnitz to Heidegger; the third turns to questions of Luther’s relevance for philosophy modes of inquiry today.

Several articles in the volume’s first section creatively reposition Luther’s relationship to the discipline of philosophy. In her article, Christine Helmer notes the contextualization of Luther that’s occurred in the last two decades of Luther scholarship. The result of this work, Helmer suggests, “is a historical Luther who looks more medieval, more Catholic, more mystical, and more philosophically astute than ever before” (24). Paying careful attention to the historical Luther, for example, leads us to consider his use of the philosophical disputation and his broad use of and appeal to philosophy within those disputations. Approaching the relationship between Luther and philosophy from a different angle, Paul Hinlicky’s article on “Luther’s Atheism” suggests that it’s “worth pondering why atheistic humanism grew out of the soil of Luther’s reformation” (54). Hinlicky traces Luther’s rejection of an “abstract, otherworldly God,” proposing that, long before Hegel, Luther was criticizing the “false infinite.” Using the lens of philosophy to tell a familiar story in a new way, Hinlicky states that Luther’s critical innovation is that he “locates the trial of atheism within the life of faith” (58). Teaching on a college campus enamored with atheistic critiques of religion, I anticipate this article in particular will garner thoughtful student engagement.

In the section on Luther’s impact on continental philosophy, articles tease out under-appreciated connections between Luther and the philosophies of Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Feuerbach, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. I learned much from this section, particularly regarding how Luther influenced these philosophers in both documented (such as Feuerbach’s abundant citing of Luther in his Essence of Christianity) and undocumented ways (such as the claim by David Vessey that Heidegger’s understanding of fallenness deeply resonates with Luther’s theological anthropology). Most impactful for me was Gregory Johnson’s exploration of Luther’s and Nietzsche’s diagnoses of the human condition. Johnson argues that both men focus on a paradigmatic experience of loss in human existence, an experience we create for ourselves. In order to live amidst the loss, Johnson suggests that both men employ “radical hope” (a term Johnson borrows from Jonathan Lear) that refuses to let despair or nihilism have the last word. Johnson’s essay not only reframes Luther’s theology in a fresh way, but it also ignited an interest in going back to Nietzsche, someone I put down long ago.

In the final section on the significance of Luther for philosophy today, articles deal with numerous issues of contemporary significance, such as environmental philosophy, sexuality, and feminist philosophy. Several also address the issue of vocation, including Pauline Kaurin’s insightful reflections on the vocation of an academic philosopher. Kaurin’s proposals—that philosophers recognize they live in community and that their work should be for the common good, as well as the insistence that alongside philosophical interrogations in the classroom there also be space for the what Luther might call the “pastoral” role of the academic—are good counsel for any doctors of philosophy who find themselves in a classroom.

In her epilogue, Dragseth is clear that while this text may have broken new ground in research on Luther and philosophy, there is more work to be done. I agree. I’d love to see more work on the philosophical significance of Luther’s treatment of other religions, for instance. But one book can’t do everything, and The Devil’s Whore is an excellent volume on a long-neglected topic. May this text be the first of many new works dedicated to the rethinking Luther’s view of reason as “the devil’s whore.”

Deanna A. Thompson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

comment

Posted by The Rev. George T. Rahn at May 31, 2012 19:20
I think one of the more interesting ideas that comes forward out of Luther is his radical break with the penitential system of the medieval church. A human being no longer can rely or hide behind the forces and authority of a church's authority to make a claim on one's total life. For Luther counter to the church's authority, each individual must be accountabile before God's critical eye. There is no escape from it even though various reasonable solutions seem to give an escape route. Luther presupposes that 1) God is not simply the Creator and Sustainer, but that since the fall of humanity, God emphasizes the human being's incapacity to succeed in justifying himself before God's judgment. God is not simply the Creator who nonetheless decrees that what is created is good but that since the fall God is also judge within the realm of humans as sinners. The presuppositions of human anthropology that Luther has are critical to understanding that human beings no longer can hide behind their own reasonable attempts at justifying themselves before God (they do not succeed) but that even collective and cultural public means of justification (think Kantian ethics, etc) do not justify oneself (make oneself right) before God's face. Here Luther's justification by faith is a non-negotiable in the discussion about reason and faith.
Reason does indeed have value, for Luther. It is valuable in the public and political realms (ie. God's left hand) where sin and evil as well as God's law of retributive justice are at work.
Reason cannot be used in the critical nature of what justification by faith does for a person's relationship in Christ, however. Faith in Christ's merits of redemption from his cross are ascendant here.

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Winter 2014


Winter 2014 Cover

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St. Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg,
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The Book That Cost a Cow

A Sermon Commemorating
the Outbreak of World War I

Learning to Love Leviticus

The Ecclesiological
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