Intro to Ethics: Luther

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 24, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics


Welcome to my course on ethics. Last time, we looked at the ethics of early Christianity. Today, we jump forward to the ethics of a much later Christian thinker: Martin Luther (1483-1546). His moral philosophy is perhaps an even more radical surprise than the original ethics of Christianity.

Ethics throughout the Middle Ages was dominated by the social and political ethics of Plato and Aristotle. With Luther and Calvin (1509-1564), ethics shifted to the individual. The community was but the stage on which transpires the drama of personal salvation.

lutherFor Luther, human reason and desire is corrupted by sin, and therefore we must resist them through the grace of God. He wrote: “Reason should be destroyed in all Christians.” This is antithetical to Aristotle, who saw reason as the central pursuit of the virtuous life. Luther saw Aristotle as “that buffoon who has misled the church.”

What is more, for Luther salvation comes by faith alone. So it is not our actions that matter, but the faith that motivates them. So there is no such thing as “merit,” for salvation comes only as the gift of God.

Another shocker is that Luther thinks God just is good. There is no standard according to which God is good, but rather his arbitrary commands are the definition of good. As MacIntyre puts it:

Aquinas had almost civilized Jahweh into an Aristotelian; Luther turns him into a [brutal dictator] for good.1

But perhaps the most important contribution of Luther to ethics is his ethical separation of church and state. On the one hand there are the unquestionable rules of God regarding piety and sex and such, and on the other hand there are the self-justifying rules of the state. So the state can make its own rules to achieve social order, so long as the most important commandments of God are kept.

And though John Calvin advocated a theocracy in which secular authorities were subject to the clergy, he also thought that secular authorities should have autonomy so long as the most important commandments of God were not violated.

Luther and Calvin are often left out of histories of ethics because they were not “proper philosophers,” but they could hardly have been more influential.

Next, we consider another radical ethical thinker, Machiavelli.

  1. A Short History of Ethics, page 123. []

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Haukur June 24, 2009 at 5:49 pm

“Reason should be destroyed in all Christians.”
Where did he say that? What’s the context?


Alden June 24, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Luther really should be looked at in a larger context, and in much more detail.  Obviously, he was not opposed to the use of reason, as his arguments rely heavily on it.  He also felt that reason was essential for government and society.  He was, however, opposed to reason as a way to truth, as reason is a human faculty and therefore imperfect.


lukeprog June 24, 2009 at 8:15 pm


That is a very common quote attributed to Luther, though I haven’t been able to find a citation.


lukeprog June 24, 2009 at 8:17 pm


“He was, however, opposed to reason as a way to truth.”

Yup, that was my whole point!

But here is a longer discussion of Luther and reason.


Haukur June 25, 2009 at 4:40 am


lukeprog: But here is a longer discussion of Luther and reason.

That one has this to say on that quote, “it should be noted that the last two quotes are completely uncited, does anyone have an original source for them?” None of the commentators over there came through with one.
After a long search I find this attributed to L. Ungeds. Pred., p. 106 but I don’t really know what that is :)


Dace June 25, 2009 at 8:15 pm

I was curious about the Luther quote too.  It is attributed to ‘First Psalm Lectures, Luther’s Works, Vol. 11, p.285′, at
Alas, I can’t find online sources to check that.


lukeprog June 26, 2009 at 11:12 am

Nice work, Dace! I’ll see if I can find that. It’s linked here, but not printed online.


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