Martin Luther’s flawed understanding of natural law: A response to Dr. Korey D. Maas

Voluntarism denies the Catholic teaching that logos constitutes—rather than delimits—God’s nature, and Luther was a voluntarist.

(Image: Renáta Sedmáková |

Editor’s note: In October 2017 CWR published an essay, “Martin Luther: Father of modern liberty or political absolutism?”, by Robert R. Reilly, which was then followed in December 2017 by a response, titled “Natural law outside Catholicism? Regime-agnosticism and agnostic regimes”, by Timothy J. Gordon. Both Reilly and Gordon argued that Martin Luther, as Gordon stated it, “rejected natural law on the basis of his Protestant view of sin, will, and intellect…” In a February 21, 2018 Public Discourse essay titled “Law, Liberalism, and Luther: Beyond the Myths”, the Lutheran scholar Korey D. Maas, who is an associate professor of history at Hillsdale College, argues that both Reilly and Gordon are perpetuating “outdated and untenable myths” about Luther and his actual beliefs about natural law. The following is a response to Dr. Maas’ essay.


I found Dr. Korey D. Maas’s reply to Robert Reilly and me a serial exercise in Pyrrhic victories. The more compelling his premises, the less compelling his conclusion. (This turns out to be relatively commonplace in contemporary advocacy of Martin Luther.) To be sure, Dr. Maas convinced me of one intended item: that Luther published a fair amount more sentences affirming something he called the natural law than I had formerly imagined. More’s the pity that Mr. Maas failed to convince of a badly needed corollary: that Luther never actually published all the ample passages (which Mr. Reilly originally produced) showing Luther’s own carte blanche denial of the classical conception of the natural law. Luther, it seems, wrote all manner of things.

As the Lutheran theologian Carl E. Braaten observed back in 1992 in the pages of First Things:

The modern representatives of the two branches of the Reformation, Lutherans and Calvinists, have not so clearly retained a firm foothold in natural law theory. In fact, they swing erratically between a position of utter rejection of natural law and one of conditional acceptance. Almost never do they concede as much to natural law as we find in modern Catholic social teaching.

I would modify Braaten’s claim as follows: Reformation thinkers like Luther have swung between absolute denial of natural law and acceptance of it so sweepingly conditional as to constitute material changes in the very definition of the term.

To the point: why are Luther’s defenders such as Dr. Maas perennially supposing that an in toto denier of free will, like Luther, is rendered the more appetizing to posterity by posing him as a natural-law-schizophrenic or a natural-law-sophist—wildly throwing around conflicting, confusing statements about the natural law at different times? Why not instead pitch Luther more candidly as a simple runaway reformer forced to back-calculate the 19-centuries’ worth of pre-Christian and Christian ontology which he hastily re-fabricated from whole cloth, and only then himself found wanting?

The latter constitutes a characterization of an errant man who can be understood and even forgiven (if not condoned). But with respect to the former, even the most charitable listener cannot do both of the following at once: a schizophrenic’s motives may immediately be forgiven but never understood, while a sophist’s may be understood but not forgiven.

By leveling the charge of “tidiness” against Mr. Reilly’s argument and my own, Dr. Maas alleged against us—in a winsome, scholarly manner—cherry-picking. When properly applied, this slur can be devastating. When improperly applied, as here, it is merely quite irritating: Luther himself was the cherry-picker, claiming all manner of non-collateral competing theological propositions. In short, he made arguments about voluntarism and free will, intelligibility and sola scriptura, in a non-committal way. Merely pointing this out does not make me a cherry-picker myself. Don’t blame the messenger.

Anyway, if Dr. Maas can prevail under that approach, he will have invented an entirely new argumentative form in the Western tradition. Strike that: this form seems already extant and robust in Luther scholarship.

The natural law tradition upon which the pedigree of Western political liberty is based involves three basic properties of nature, all of which Martin Luther opposed most of the time: nature as morally free; nature as intelligible; nature as teleological. One needs to affirm all three elements of the definition of the natural law to warrant the label of the natural law. Let us examine each of these three prongs, and why Luther cannot sanely be declared to have affirmed any of them. In conclusion, we will examine how these properties connect a thinker to modern political thought.

Nature as morally free

Whether or not Luther occasionally expressed non-voluntarist views about God, as Dr. Maas points out in his article, nevertheless the Reformer wrote this:

He is God, and for his will there is no cause or reason that can be laid down as a rule or measure of it, since there is nothing superior to it, but it is itself the rule of all things. For if there were any rule or standard for it, either as cause or reason, it could no longer be the will of God. For it is not because he is or was obliged so to will that what he wills is right, but on the contrary, because himself so wills, therefore, what happens must be right. Cause and reason can be assigned for a creature’s will, but not for the will of the Creator, unless you set up over him another creator. (Luther, The Bondage of the Will)

Or simply, voluntarism—a term whose very definition is essentially that “no cause or reason can be laid down as a measure of God’s will”. Voluntarism denies the Catholic teaching that logos constitutes—rather than delimits—God’s nature. Consider Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address reflections upon the same, which robustly explicate just why nature is free:

Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the λόγος”. This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.

God cannot and would not change his own good nature. Since Luther inverts the justification for God’s good will—“because himself so wills…what happens must be right”—one deems him a voluntarist. Whatever else Luther would say about the nature of God’s will (short of a statement clearly abrogating statements such as the above) must simply constitute an instance of Luther’s schizophrenia or sophistry, regarding his position on God’s freedom.

As to his position regarding the human dimension of the moral freedom within Creation, Luther wrote and proudly defended On the Bondage of the Will, from which the above passage hails, until the end of his life. The title alone gives the reader enough information: one finds no nuances or argumentative tricks which mitigate the extent of Luther’s new determinism.

Luther was willing to stick to his guns on this rare bit of writing. In another passage from the same work, Luther expounded: “I frankly confess that even if it were possible I should not wish to have free choice given to me, or to have anything left in my own hands by which I might strive for salvation.”

So, Luther rejects the first prong of the natural law, from both the perspective of the Creator and of the creature. And a “voluntarist natural law” makes as much sense as a “determinist natural law”—none at all.

Nature as intelligible

Secondly, if Luther is to be placed among the natural law theorists, he must see nature (reality) as intelligible, as “being is intelligible” according to Aristotle. For true natural law advocates, prongs one and two must sync up; nature’s actionable moral freedom and its intelligible moral purpose are mutually constitutive. Notwithstanding the ontological and epistemological difficulties presented by the sweeping Reformation category of sola scriptura, which I won’t here mention, Luther repudiates nature’s intelligibility not by casting human reason or meaning as impossible per se, but rather as unilaterally condemnatory of man: for Luther, nature one-sidedly accuses man of evils he could not have avoided. In this fatalistic capacity, Luther discusses “this natural law, which cannot be unknown to anyone, and therefore no one has any excuse.” (Commentary Romans 215).

Again, whatever else you call it, this is not the natural law, wherein the axioms of our human freedom and nature’s intelligibility render us morally accountable. It is rather some perverse Lutheran shade of natural law, wherein we lack adequate measures of both of these (prongs #1, freedom, and #2, intelligence) yet somehow the inadequate, attenuated semblances of each still serve to condemn us, for Luther. But he struggles to articulate how this culpability would operate.

And for all the trouble, it never gets any clearer whether Luther actually believed we possessed freedom or intelligence in the first place.

Luther poises man’s vantage of his surroundings as impotently scrutable: we can read in reality morality only as, at best, an ontologically blocked wish.  Under this abject misdefinition of natural law, Luther divorces right action from right knowledge.  At the disposal of man in the state of nature, theology (presumably moral theology) itself causes, according to Luther, “all idolatry, which without the knowledge of divinity, could never have come into the world” (Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians).

If, as Dr. Maas contends against me, Luther was something of a moral realist (viz. if he saw man’s moral surroundings as mostly intelligible to him but in the idiosyncratic way described above) then it seems he is saying man’s will becomes the sole culprit for man’s concupiscence after the Fall. You can only blame a darkened will if it had rested upon a somewhat functional intellect, Luther seems to acknowledge. Yet this is also at odds with what Luther himself writes in his Lectures on Genesis, where he troubles to make the following distinction:

When the sophists speak of original sin, they are speaking only of wretched and hideous lust or concupiscence. But original sin really means that human nature has completely fallen; that the intellect has become darkened, so that we no longer know God and His will and no longer perceive the works of God. (Luther’s Works, vol. 1: 114).

Luther’s advocates put him forward as a champion of natural law on the ground that, at some selected parts in Luther’s theology, man’s intellect can discern in Creation certain truths—although it is left unclear whether these truths approach natural moral certitude.  At many other times, Luther’s writing is animated by skepticism, emphasizing the darkness of the intellect. But given Luther’s schizophrenia regarding the degree to which man’s intellect has been darkened, it seems anyone who thinks he can effectuate fruitful moral action is at the very best an idolater, for Luther.  In other words, Luther has stood natural intelligibility on its head even while claiming its mantle.

Nature as purpose-oriented

In the Summa, Thomas Aquinas writes of the teleology in human and physical nature:

All things partake somewhat of the eternal law, insofar as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine Providence in a more excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of Providence, by being provident for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the eternal reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end, and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.

We have already seen in what manner Luther rejected the freedom and intelligibility of the natural world. In the modern era, the third counterpart of the natural law—nature’s teleology, or discernable purpose—described by Thomas Aquinas above, has been all but overthrown. Luther cannot be directly blamed for this (as he can be for prongs #1 and #2), but neither can he be separated from the fundamental changes which followed upon the Reformation. The Catholic Encyclopedia puts it this way: “the upheaval of the sixteenth century was productive of new systems of thought in the development of which the idea of causality was profoundly modified, and ultimately was, in any intelligible sense, to a great extent abandoned.”

Reality unravels before the eye in chronological causal sequences. There are no uncaused effects. Yet as Luther and the modern era re-characterized reason itself—newly squinting at it suspiciously—the causal Aristotelian methodology of the Catholic West was stripped bare. In the main, this consisted of the extirpation of two out of Aristotle’s four causes: the more important two types, formal and final causation (intelligibility and purpose, respectively). Without reference to formal and final causation, all semblance of natural law in the West would dry up, except in Catholicism, of course, where it remained. Everything became unbelievable.

Early modern philosophers of science including Francis Bacon and Renee Descartes were most directly responsible for undoing formal and final causation. Yet as insinuated by Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg Address, Luther’s Reformation would make the first decisive step in “dehellenizing” Christianity and the West, pitching faith and reason as enemies and making something of a dead letter out of causation a full century before Bacon or Descartes. The Protestant worldview instituted by Luther reconfigured the new way that reality was seen to operate, especially when turning to questions about the purpose of the universe.

So, it is no coincidence that the West ceased to believe in the intelligibility of nature right around the time Luther began toying with the idea of a completely darkened human intellect and a bonded will. Formal causation is always intimately connected to final causation, telos, a thing’s knowable purpose or goal. Since modernity jettisoned these two at the same time, causation exists today only in its two crudest forms: efficient and material causation. The modern insistence on only these two crude causal forms is called materialistic positivism.

The great irony of the modern world is that both its constituents, Luther’s Reformation and the early Enlightenment—presumptive enemies—seem to agree that nature’s intelligibility and purpose should only be spoken of as relics of a bygone (Catholic) era.

Dr. Maas can easily make the defensive argument on Luther’s behalf that modern positivism wouldn’t gain momentum until the Enlightenment kicked off in earnest in the next century. To be sure, Pope Benedict XVI admitted that “when Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen…denying [faith] access to reality as a whole.” Yet I have raised the issue here because Kantianism and Lutheranism went together preternaturally, building the modern world on a virulently anti-natural law skepticism for the next three centuries. Together they created a view of the world not only deterministic and mostly meaningless, but pointless as well.


By anyone’s measure, it now seems inarguable that the Reformation actually got the Enlightenment rolling. While the two movements remain conceptually distinct—with rivalrous end members, the denizens of the religious right and the secular left—the distinction now strikes me entirely as one of degree, not kind. The Enlightenment carried further than the Reformation the desacralization and dehellenization of the West, true, but to assert that the latter did nothing of the kind seems a bridge too far. And I’m regularly surprised how many folks like Dr. Maas are out there asserting it.

Anyway, fellow Protestants have concluded far less charitably than I about Martin Luther’s inavailability as a defender of reason and natural law. John Wesley once wrote: “How does Luther decry reason, right or wrong, as an irreconcilable enemy of the Gospel of Christ!” (saying later in the passage that Luther condemns reason “in the gross.”)

By pointing to Luther’s overarching inhospitality toward a “Protestant natural law,” neither Robert Reilly nor I figured we were venturing out onto any wayward or dangerous limbs. On the contrary, Reilly seemed to react in authentic surprise to the outlandish quincentennial Wall Street Journal op-ed piece which hailed Luther as a “champion” of human liberty. As the three components of the natural law govern, I’m frankly not sure how else to react. (I did look back into the matter earnestly in order to compose this reply to Dr. Maas.) Typically, honest arguments do not yield such peremptory conclusions as this, where a party puts forward a voluntarist-determinist as a champion of freedom-oriented representative government. The very notion strains credibility, after all.

Context matters. Recall that, even at its most “liberal,” Martin Luther’s theology reserves what may be called half-decent practical judgments only for the regenerate Christian—never for the multifarious, mixed populace of a large, pluralistic republic. Quite the contrary, the Protestant-Enlightenment ideas of modernity couldn’t match any less with what is required by authentic republicanism and the natural law, as I argue in my new book Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish Without Rome.

As a matter of fact, Reilly and I disagree between ourselves on the extent to which modernist ideas chill what is required by republicanism. For instance, I suggest that what Reilly writes of Luther with regard to natural law applies doubly to Whig thinkers like John Locke. Why?

Luther was stupefied by only one-half of anti-natural law modernism; Locke suffered from both halves, from Enlightenment secularism and from Protestant ideas about sin and sola scriptura. Where Luther seems to have self-corrected and slightly mitigated the degree to which he dehellenized his own theology, to a limited extent (as Dr. Maas points out), Locke could not really begin a similar undertaking since anytime he took a break as an apologist for Protestantism, his apologetics on behalf of Enlightenment empiricism kicked in.

In Catholic Republic, I identify modernism as nothing besides this composite 16th/17th-century philosophy, “Prot-Enlight,” a complete repudiation of the natural law. In closing, I will leave the reader with the following chastening words by Fr. Vincent Micelli, who described the phenomenon at the beginning of the 20th century: “its religious ancestor is the Protestant Reformation; its philosophical parent is the Enlightenment; its political pedigree comes from the French Revolution.” (Micelli, The Antichrist).

We must return to the natural law view of the world hailing from the Catholic intellectual tradition!

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About Timothy J. Gordon 4 Articles
Timothy J. Gordon studied philosophy in Pontifical graduate universities in Europe, taught it at Southern Californian community colleges, and then went on to law school. He holds degrees in literature, history, philosophy, and law. Currently, he resides in central California with his wife and five children, where he writes and teaches philosophy and theology. He is the author of Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish without Rome (Sophia Institute Press, 2019).


  1. Voluntarism is found in Augustine Philosophy is defined by Augustine, as “Amor sapientiæ” in De ordine, I, 11, n. 32; PL 32:993; City of God VIII.2. “It is wisdom with the whole soul, not with the intellect only”. What saved Augustine from error was faith in Christ’s grace as the saving reality. That was evidenced in the Confessions in repudiating the Manichean contradictions of good and evil. Luther’s significant ‘contribution’ to modern thought is Voluntarism similar to Augustine sans Natural Law’s premise of the ability to choose between good and evil that is not centered on sentiment but intellect. Free will is verified in that choice of intellect between good and evil whereas the Lutheran sentiment of Modernity has led us astray.

  2. After the Holy Trinity, and certainly contributive in substance and understanding to it, is the Logos of the greatest importance. It is the greatest revelation to angelic and human wisdom, the key to advanced contemplation – the Divine Wisdom eternally in God, made Incarnate so “that through which all was created” might perfect creation and draw all creation back to itself in God. Any person who believes in the Holy Trinity and rejects the Logos (Reason and Word) as essential to it will not advance in knowledge; and if such a one claims to teach, he will lead others astray.

  3. The use of the word schizophrenia is not only inaccurate but also offensive to those who endure the condition. Writers should take greater care when expressing themselves.

  4. Webster-Merriam
    2. contradictory or antagonistic qualities or attitudes

    both parties … have exhibited schizophrenia over the desired outcome —Elizabeth Drew

  5. “… where a party puts forward a voluntarist-determinist as a champion of freedom-oriented representative government. The very notion strains credibility, after all.”
    It my seem incredible to the Hellenist but not to the Modernist. Once you suppress the formal and final causes you replace intrinsic with extrinsic “freedom”. Once liberty no longer arises in the will but only from the body (and what the government will permit or encourage the body to do) then even the abortionist and a LGBT crusader will appear the “natural” liberators.

  6. An interesting article. As a side note, I would point out that knowing what Luther actually meant with some of his utterances can sometimes be open to question. He was not always consistent in his positions and often hard to follow. It was his associate, Phillip Malancthon that attempted to organize and systematize Luther’s theology. That there are a number of separate Lutheran synods today would seem to indicate that he was not totally successful

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