Why New (And Old) Atheists Should Toast Luther And The Protestant Reformation

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new atheists should toast lutherUnusual Bedfellows

New Atheism harbors no love for the theological fruits of the Reformation.

The 21st century is simply not compatible with a reformational mindset. Daniel Dennett argues in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) that conservative Christians better serve their secular neighbors as specimens in a cultural zoo, relics of a bygone world.

A century before Dennett, the philosophical framework for his attack is credited to Charles Darwin (1809-1882)1 for upsetting the utilitarian biology of theologian William Paley (1743-1805). Darwin’s account of biological adaptation was unabashedly natural, not the necessary reflections of the wise, benevolent deity further described in scripture. Backpedaling another century finds Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749-1827) offering a naturalistic account of the cosmos. When questioned about where God fits into the whole affair, he, probably apocryphally, retorted, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

These three thinkers, among many others who hold science in high regard, share two things in common. First, they are all unabashedly naturalist. Second, they owe a debt of gratitude to Martin Luther for their naturalism.

And this is the point where you ask, "What!? Are you mad?"

First, my apologetically minded beavers (here and here), and now contemporary scientific naturalism is related to Luther’s reformation? What's wrong with me? You are probably thinking this flirtation will not end well...

Cue the puckered butts.

Naturalism(s) In Brief

The standard way to define naturalism is two-fold:

Philosophical Naturalism is a metaphysical position, a commitment to a certain view regarding the furniture of the universe. Namely, that supernatural objects and events do not exist. As Carl Sagan famously opined, “The cosmos are all that is, or was, or ever will be.” It is unclear that Dennett, Darwin, or Laplace are philosophical naturalists. Rather, the sense of naturalism they draw upon is scientific naturalism, more generally known as methodological naturalism.

Methodological Naturalism is a restriction on inquiry, an axiom of scientific practice, a ground rule of the scientific enterprise. It requires that a scientist proceed in his or her research as if God does not exist. The supernatural, scriptural, and doctrinal considerations are bracketed when it comes to the justification of scientific theories and hypotheses. Justification is through the process of hypothesis testing according to standards of good experimental design and evidence collection, not the perusing of religious authorities.

What's Luther Got To Do With It—Theological Edition

The answer is found in the hermeneutical aftershocks of Luther’s attack on scholasticism.

Scholasticism, famously associated with the work of St. Thomas Aquinas but understandably broader, is the baptizing of greek thought into Christian theology. Theologically, this created a powerful synthesis of faith and reason. The understanding of scripture is located within a rich intellectual framework. Sometimes, this was beneficial as in using Greek philosophical categories in understand concepts such as the trinity. In other instances, this created problems.

For instance, Aquinas’ speculation on the nature of atonement. While his understanding is substitutionary, his conception stressed reparation of a person’s damaged soul. Thus, Christ’s death and resurrection ‘fixed’ my soul, providing the necessary means for the maintenance of grace. Harmony of soul is a common philosophical theme working through the Greeks and often requires active attentiveness if one desires happiness. Likewise, Aquinas’ understanding of atonement became the formal grounds for indulgences as one attempts to maintain grace in the face of sin. Nothing ignited Luther’s ire more than abuses surrounding indulgences.

A fear of whether Luther’s own soul was adequately harmonious led him to investigate the beliefs and practices of the Catholic church.

His investigations led him to abhor the scholasticism surrounding him. The intellectual frameworks of Aristotle and Plato wreaked havoc with a plain reading of scripture. They subversively promoted a theological mysticism by shrouding theology, and ultimately salvation, in an arcane system of thought.

Thus we have context for the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation — Sola Scriptura!

Scholasticism located Christ as a cog within the intellectual machine, instead of “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). Luther sought to remedy this problem by returning to a more natural biblical hermeneutic.

Luther stripped the scriptures of their pedantic scholastic influence through a methodologically natural historical criticism, gaining a robust theology of the cross in the process. Christ’s substitutionary death was not an equalizer of my sin, it was a propitiation for my sin.

What's Luther Got To Do With It—Natural Philosophical Edition

Natural philosophy and natural theology were also in the grips of scholastic methodology.

Natural philosophy in the scholastic age was an unusual mix of a Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy with biblical overlays. For instance, the earth was the center of the universe, not because scripture secured that state of affairs from an obscure verse in Joshua, but because Aristotelian metaphysics demanded it. Likewise, investigations of the biological realm began with searching out the appropriate ancient texts and providing allegorical understandings within a biblical context. Thus, the pelican becomes more than an unusual ocean faring bird, but the very symbolization of Christ.2

Natural philosophy, the precursor to natural science, is a game of incorporating ancient texts into a biblical-philosophical framework. Nature wasn’t simply described, it was interpreted. Moreover, just as Christ and the scriptures were distorted through interpretation, so too was nature.

However, when Luther shucked scripture from its scholastic shell, he fomented more than a theological revolution. In light of the theological revolution, natural philosophers began looking at nature without the scholastic baggage.

Nature became a book to be read not allegorically, but naturally.

One might even say that the book of nature was read literally. Pelicans were no longer types of Christ, but plain birds. Nowhere was this more beneficial than in medicine, where disease was given a booster of naturalism leading to better understanding and treatment of human and non-human maladies alike.

Luther’s methodological naturalism in scripture scholarship paid dividends in naturalizing nature. This provides context as to why Copernicus, a card carrying catholic, publishes his famous book on heliocentrism with support from Lutheran theologians (including Melancthon). It also helps in understanding why Galileo was treated poorly in his home catholic church but encouraged by Lutheran astronomers (Kepler). And, perhaps, why Darwin’s ideas germinated in a protestant university.

Concluding Thoughts

Thus, Sola Scriptura was more than a theological charge. It inherently ushered in a certain restriction on inquiry, an axiom of theological and scientific practice, a ground rule of the epistemological enterprise itself.

Whispered beneath the cacophony of new (and old) atheistic battle cries and religious pleas for serious scripture scholarship is a steady, common melody of methodological naturalism.

Thus, protestants and atheists alike, raise your pints to a certain monk who exhibited predilections toward strong ale, profanity and insubordination; who had the courage to raise a hammer against a church door in an obscure German town with a university on Oct. 31st, 1517.

Here’s to you Dr. Luther for rescuing how to go to heaven while making available how the heavens go.


1 Technically, Darwin must remain within the ranks of agnosticism. He never fully embraces the atheistic view of science that some of his staunchest supporters such as T.H. Huxley openly endorsed.

2 If you are interested in a deeper look at this kind of narrative, take a look at historian Peter Harrison’s, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998).