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Concerning Christian Liberty

by Martin Luther

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Martin Luther often is credited with beginning the Protestant Reformation—but oddly enough, he also often is credited with laying the foundation for the Enlightenment. When you consider the luminaries of the Enlightenment—men like Voltaire, David Hume, and Thomas Jefferson—it seems odd that they would be beholden to a committed Christian like Luther.

The ideas of the Enlightenment, too, are hostile to scripture. Enlightenment thinking deified reason and called into question the miracles described in the Bible. How could Luther, who viewed the Bible as sacred, be considered a forerunner of the Enlightenment?

The answer lies in Luther’s epistemology—that is, his theory of knowledge. In the Middle Ages, most men believed that the only things you could know for certain were handed down by the authorities who towered above the average man. Only the leaders of the Catholic Church could provide certain knowledge about theology, and only the greatest philosophers, like Plato and later Aristotle, could provide certain knowledge with regard to philosophy.

Luther shattered this paradigm. He believed that he, and every literate man, had access to knowledge that was certain—even though that knowledge contradicted many of the pronouncements of the Church hierarchy! As a result, Luther’s epistemology seemed to be subjective—grounded in the rationality of every individual.

Which brings us to Luther’s famous declaration at the Diet of Worms: he argued that he could not recant his doctrine because “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” If this is true, it does seem to pave the way for the Enlightenment—making the mind of every man the catalyst for determining truth.

What Luther actually intended, however, was much different. He never argued that each man must depend upon his own conscience to determine what he could know. Instead, he argued at the Diet of Worms and elsewhere that the only way to know for certain was to depend upon the Word of God. This becomes clear when we hear his argument at the Diet in context: “[My] conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Luther is not exalting his conscience here; he is clinging to the authority of scripture.

Such an epistemology is indeed a paradigm-shift for the medieval mind, but not toward an Enlightenment mindset (it will take men like Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon to lead that paradigm-shift). Rather, Luther simply articulates the modern evangelical position: man is fallen and cannot know anything for certain unless a holy, loving God chooses to reveal Himself and His truth to men. The only things we can know for certain are the things revealed to us in God’s Word.

It’s a mistake to view Luther as a forerunner to the Enlightenment, but it’s not a mistake to view him as a pioneer. As you read Concerning Christian Liberty, you’ll be amazed at how modern it sounds. After centuries of medieval writings that sound incredibly foreign to twenty-first century readers, Luther bursts on the stage and thinks just like your pastor. We are right to be awed by artists like William Shakespeare or Miguel Cervantes, but we should remember that Luther preceded them—that the road to real individual responsibility and autonomy runs through Wittenburg, paved by a brash and humble former monk.

-by Jeff Baldwin