Natural No Maas: The disintegration of the concept of all law in Luther

Classical Protestantism is a voluntarist form of Christianity, such a radically different view of human and divine will that it must be differentiated from non-voluntarist Catholicism not only as a different sect, but as a fundamentally different worldview.

"Luther Before the Diet of Worms" by Anton von Werner (1843–1915). [Wikipedia]

He is a pagan in his denial of free will.” — Emperor Charles, writing of Luther in 1521

In this, the 501st year of the Protestant Reformation, we are still debating the undebatable. By nearly anyone’s account, classical Protestantism is a voluntarist form of Christianity, meaning that it is a rendition of Christianity posing such a radically different view of human and divine will that it must be differentiated from non-voluntarist Catholicism not only as a different sect, but as a fundamentally different worldview. How did Protestantism get there, and what does it imply for Protestantism’s relation to the natural law?

Many Protestants continue to deny the plain implications of their view of the world. For instance, back in October, on the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation, the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion-editorial piece celebrating Luther as one of the greatest champions of human liberty ever. Really? Notwithstanding his lifelong view “on the bondage of the human will”?

With that point of departure, I have become embroiled in a larger debate as to whether or not there is such a thing as a “Protestant natural law.” As I have published widely, including in my new book, I make the case that there is not. On the other side, Professor Korey D. Maas from the admirable Hillsdale College argues that Martin Luther affirmed the natural law. To be fair, Luther said as much (employing a wrongly defined version of it, of course). Most recently, Dr. Maas took up the counterattack in the name of Luther in a sassy, sometimes-befuddling article called Luther and Natural Law: Cutting Gordon’s Knots.

The soul of scholarly charity inheres in observing, memorializing, then addressing the basic distinctions drawn by one’s interlocutor.

This article (and the ones leading up to it) will aim to respond for the second time by showing that, in Aristo-Thomist terms, contradiction spells scholarly doom. Thus, definition-contradicting “instances” of Luther’s natural law are phony ones indeed. Whatever Luther called natural law misses the mark by definitive margins, a proposition which becomes most clear by examining what he thought about God’s will, human will, and daily, habituated virtue.

Luther, Nominalism, and Voluntarism

Contrary to what Dr. Maas says—that “Gordon now admits that he actually had no idea how frequently Luther affirmed the natural law”—what I actually wrote was “that Luther published a fair amount more sentences affirming something he called the natural law than I had formerly imagined.” (Anyway, occasional affirmation by Luther of a mis-defined natural law would actually be required rather than negated by my claim that he was schizophrenic.)

I am not alone, nor do I stand in this view alongside only fellow Catholics such as Robert R. Reilly. Lutheran scholar Dr. Thomas D. Pearson called attention to the selfsame phenomenon in a devastating December 2007 article in The Journal of Lutheran Ethics titled “Luther on Natural Law”, writing: “Although Luther does indeed directly mention natural law in a number of his writings, he does not employ any vestige of the traditional apparatus of classical natural law theory as it existed prior to the nominalist movement.”  He summarizes his own views on Luther’s nominalism by saying that “Luther and Melanchthon—and by extension, Lutheran theological practice in general—depart from the classical natural law tradition in significant ways.”

Nominalism denied the existence of objective, universal, and eternal principles within the order of reality, positing their fabricated categorization in the human mind. The movement grew out of late Scholasticism and into early Protestantism, where it would fit more aptly. Pearson deftly observes that

many of the traditional depictions of late medieval nominalism have been shown by recent scholarship to be distortions. But the critical emphasis of nominalism on the will of God, rather than on divine reason, as the essential theological datum about God’s nature, has remained secure. This stress on will rather than reason will have a decisive impact on the nominalist version of natural law.

Applied to the will of God and the creatures, nominalism led directly to voluntarism, the anti-Thomistic reversal of the traditional ordering of the primacy of God’s intellect over His will, which led to the overthrow of Christian ethics because without an intelligent Creator, creation could not be intelligible. As Pearson continues: “If the divine law issues from God’s will rather than from his reason, then there is no cause to affirm that human reason is the obvious instrument for intuiting the natural law that follows from the divine law.” This is the keystone to understanding Luther’s eventual rejection of ethics.

If the Catholic view is that God’s will follows His intellect—with the corollary that natural law descends from divine law via the bridge of Logos-centered eternal law—then the voluntarist view which emerged in the two centuries immediately preceding Luther’s Reformation flipped this model on its head, maintaining that God’s will precedes His intellect.

And if creation does not proceed from Logos but rather from blind will, then the two bridges between divine law and human law (firstly eternal law—which bridges divine and natural law—and secondly natural law—which bridges eternal law and human law) collapse into the moat.

Such a reversal disintegrates not only the Johanine understanding of a God who is the Logos, but also the doctrines of a rational, intelligible creation; intelligent creatures; and that of a conscientious human will capable of habituating whatever the human intellect designates as morally good. Subverting the intellect of the Creator perverts the entire creation.

Alternately stated, the natural law depends upon a Logos-centered, anti-voluntarist view of the Creator because, without it, the three prongs of the natural law (catalogued repeatedly in my first reply to Maas) would collapse:

created nature would not then provide a forum of moral freedom (for man);
created nature would then be unintelligible (to man);
created nature would not then disclose a clear, action-oriented purpose (for man).

So, why does schizophrenic Luther sustain his pseudo-advocacy of natural law at all?

More or less, Pearson answers by calling Luther a phony natural-law-advocate on account of Luther’s consequentialist cherry-picking of natural law’s opportune social effects rather than because natural law constitutes the one, true ontology. He writes:  “Natural law and equity have value for Luther primarily [even exclusively] in order to accomplish a number of specific social purposes, such as maintaining public peace and order, so that justice may be secure.”  He also writes: “We see that Luther’s worry is for the instrumental effects of the natural law, and not with enshrining natural law as a necessary point of departure for establishing moral and civil rectitude. If invoking natural law proves to have deleterious social consequences in a given situation, so much the worse for natural law.”

In other words, pace Luther’s nominalist metaphysics and voluntarist view of God, the term “natural law” from his pen means little more than a practical principle reducible to expeditious consensus rule vaguely informed by a Scriptural law of love. Pearson writes that “there is no indication in Luther that he shared the conviction of Aquinas that the natural law descends from divine law via eternal law. Divine law has an entirely different function in Luther.”  The latter sentence seems to contemplate Luther’s voluntarist view of what divine law must be: a sub-rational set of mandates promulgated exclusively in Scripture, requiring blind obedience but reversible at any time.

For Thomas Aquinas, of course, God is the single being whose essence and existence (Logos) are identical. Because God’s essence is Logos, it is technically true that he cannot (or would not) contradict himself. Yet without reference to that Scholastic concept, thinkers like Luther invariably scare themselves into a voluntarism of one degree or another, even if it is just Luther’s Reformation-lite iteration (cited by Maas): “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.”

Human Will and Human Intellect

Plainly, here’s why Luther might be called an “in toto denier of free will,” as I did in my first reply to Dr. Maas: Luther wrote that “it is false to state that the will can by nature conform to correct precept” (Disputation #6). He also wrote that “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).

To be fair, in light of the valid soteriological distinction in Dr. Maas’s last reply, I should have called Luther a schizophrenic (rather than an in toto) denier of free will. Here’s the plain source of the confusion: Luther distinguishes between soteriological determinism and the outright version of it in some places (as in the latter quotation), but in others, the distinction is utterly lacking (as in the former quotation). In those latter places, it sounds like overarching determinism in Luther. Moreover, when we look shrewdly enough—especially given the above clues about Luther’s aggressive nominalistic and voluntaristic tendencies—Luther’s broad, not his narrow, determinism seems to be the governing law.

In cases of vagueness, we must consult context. And when we look at Luther’s views in “applied” moral situations of the human will, we find his position rather consistent with the view that human nature has “completely” fallen. For instance, Luther maintained the impossibility of lifelong celibacy, saying it required “angelic power and heavenly virtue” (Werke: Weimerar Ausgabe 6, 441), a standard which has always been used in theology as a litmus test for a given religion’s affirmation/denial of the freedom of human will.

And recall, for Luther the sola fide advocate, sexual compulsions already have nothing to do with salvation. Though advocates like Dr. Maas won’t admit it, such compulsions have far more to do with Luther’s idea that the will lacks the capacity to conform itself to recto ratio.

It took only 100 years after Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology for the Canons of Dort to conclude that “so far is this [natural law] from being sufficient to bring man to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.” (Protestant Canons of Dort, 1619). In other words, even the Protestants seem to recognize that the difference between soteriology and use of the practical reason is, admittedly, somehow a distinction of degree and not kind. Again, they will seldom admit as much. The boldface should suffice, for Lutherans such as Dr. Maas who wring their hands about why their worldview is so consistently juxtaposed against the natural law: because Luther et al were not just denying moral intelligibility in the realm of soteriology, as the tired platitude goesthey were denying ethics writ large.

Anyway, even in the places where Luther relents a bit and insinuates that human intellect was less than totally darkened by the Fall, he describes nature as perceived by the human intellect as, at best, impotently scrutable. Luther might go so far as to say that one could reason to the natural virtue of celibacy, but that his will simply could not bring to fruition that proposition of truth.

Of course, this is not dispositive of Luther’s view as deterministic, but it is strongly evidentiary of it. Since Luther affirmed chastity as a virtue, why else would he possibly deny its practicability?

It seems “the bondage of the will” was something Luther meant more roundly than that restricted usage which he thrust against Erasmus.

Habit and the Role of Law

As both Maas and Pearson point out, Luther—like Melanchthon, Calvin, and Zwingli—insists up and down the page that he embraces the natural law.  But like these other Reformers, Luther rails against the very lifeblood of the natural law, virtue ethics and moral habituation: “virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace” (Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, #41).  As J. Daryl Charles explains, “from Luther’s standpoint, the accent on virtuous habits and patterns of behavior cannot be reconciled to grace and unmerited favor; there is simply no room in Luther’s thinking for any sort of anthropological optimism.” (Charles, “The Protestant Reformers and the Natural Law Tradition”, FN 7).

Other instances of Luther’s repudiation of the central role of habituated virtue include: “Thomas wrote a great deal of heresy, and is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine” (Luther’s Works, 32: 258); “it is false to state that man’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites; indeed the inclination is not free, but captive” (Disputation #6); “there is no moral virtue without either pride or sorrow, that is, without sin” (Disputation #38); and especially “we do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds” (Disputation #40).

Note crucially that Luther is not referring, in Disputation, to soteriology.  He’s referring to simple habit-formation and virtue, which for Aristotle (like Luther), was non-salvific.  It is thus utterly superfluous for Luther, as a proponent of sola fide, to bother disputing the virtue ethics of Aristotle in order to disregard the Catholic soteriology.  For Luther, a perfidious man might just as easily develop virtuous habits but remain unsaved, mightn’t he?  So why spill so much ink about the futility of Aristotle’s non-salvific, virtue-via-habituation Ethics?

Luther—again, like Melanchthon, Calvin, and Zwingli—prefers to affirm the positive value of human laws, which as Pearson points out, seems to be all Luther’s affirmations of something he calls “natural law” amounts to. Assuming as an article of common sense and Scripture that law is written on the heart of all men, Luther notes that without it “one would have to teach and practice the law for a long time before it became the concern of conscience.”  But by condemning habituation, schizophrenic Luther winds up contradicting the value of human law, alongside natural law—a double-contradiction one can only deem an eventuality.

Here’s why: for Aristotle and Thomas, law has merely the power to foster what Aristotle called “accidental virtue,” where the just act is performed, but for all the wrong reasons and in a manner not keeping with how the just man would do it. By encouraging accidental virtue, a rightly made law can start citizens down the path to true virtue, but falling short of true virtue insofar as the latter requires not only habituation, but also a deliberate intent by the moral agent to perfect the act’s motivations and conditions.  The test for true virtue, Aristotle tells us, is a pure, resultant pleasure from doing the right thing for its own sake (unexperienced by the accidental virtue possessor).  It is in this Aristotelian sense that, as the famous refrain goes, virtue is “not an act, but a habit.”

Aristotle writes that “the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well.  For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (Ethics, Book II, Chapter I).  He also writes “by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and by being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly” (Ethics 1103a27).

Luther refers specifically to these Aristotelian lines in Disputation #40 when he asserts his bald, unpremised conclusion above that we do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds.

Through repetition—habituation—the center of the Aristo-Thomist natural law discloses that what was once rotely and accidentally compelled by human legislation grows into true virtue. As a virtuous act moves from accidental to true, it becomes better motivated, contextualized, and understood by the agent with each performance.

But not for Luther.


By a combination of rightly made law and private, deliberate habit-cultivation, accidental virtue can realistically become true virtue. But Luther denied this sweeping Aristo-Thomist assertion of the interaction between intellect and will—bearing on and even justifying the law. On this account, Luther’s rendition of the natural law was no more than an “accidental” version thereof.

In the end, Luther’s rejection of virtue-generative habit nullifies not only his view of natural law, but his view of the positive law of man as well.  And that’s the ultimate natural-law-tell.  As the eminent Robert Reilly remarks, Luther’s nominalist-voluntarist “affirmation” of natural law is really just a passive non-denial of the usefulness of the practical reason, nothing more.  And this is basically just a more muscular affirmation of the five senses, with a placeholder Christian deferral to anthropo-exceptionalism which, divested of virtue, serves no discernable purpose. Richard Dawkins acknowledges almost as much in his sometimes florid appraisal of nature.

Without the role of habit—which is perhaps the very mechanism Thomas designates by which “grace perfects nature”—natural law cannot bridge human law and divine law, as it is intended to do.  And that’s just what natural law is, Dr. Maas: a bridge between the material and the spiritual, one whose cornerstone is virtue. If what you’re calling “natural law” fails to connect human law with divine law above—and with the generation of virtue below—then it is something else entirely.

I must close by revisiting Dr. Maas’s charge about scholarly charity. I daresay the most scholarly, most politic way that Protestants and Catholics can possibly interact is to debate such matters in person, where among parties of good will (at places of good will), all the condescension and ridicule—often read into epistolary debates unintentionally—may in confidence be left aside. Moreover, in-person debates are most in keeping with Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address: publicly debating our separated brethren in charity is truly what confers the universitas upon higher learning, and vice versa.

I propose such a thing—amiable, spirited, and collegial—in the fall of 2018 at Dr. Maas’s Hillsdale College, where contrary to most colleges across the landscape, professor, student, and listener alike bring good will with them.

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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. Wow! What a jam packed essay. With all the heartbreaking and infuriating news unfolding everywhere, this was a challenging but enjoyable read.
    Defining terms is all important no doubt. I liked the author’s explanation of nominalism and, how it leads to voluntarism. Also! The distinction between accidental and true virtue and, the way the two relate to each other. Certainly: one of the upsides of the internet, is that laypeople can have easy access, to material like this. It was good to read this essay, given all the attention given to Luther recently. It’s also great that CWR provides us with such a wide range of topics and, there is plenty to be learnt also, from the comments. I liked the way the author finished the essay. I wish Mr Gordon and all who participate, a fruitful and enjoyable debate.
    Stephen in Australia.

  2. A very good essay and learning tool for the reader. The thesis suggests Nominalism and the inevitable Voluntarism that follows affects all religious ideology that departs from permanent principles known by reason. It’s also important author Gordon notes that God’s essence is identical with his existence, an early and original thesis of St Thomas Aquinas still disputed by some of lesser acumen. God purely One in Being is unchangeable. As is his doctrine revealed by Christ.

    • YHVH(YHWH) is the name of God in His essence. It is an amalgam of the three Hebrew words for existence past, present, and future placed one on top of the other. God transcends time. This appears to back Aquinas.

  3. This essay tacitly, but erroneously assumes that Catholicism and Thomism are coextensive. But such is not the case, as can be seen from the wide variety of catholic philosophical schools, many of which such as personalism or scotism also have received papal approval.

    Furthermore, voluntarism and nominalism are not necessarily connected, save in the Thomist mind. Voluntarism can simply mean that the will has ontological or causal priority over the intellect, and such a view was held by blessed Duns Scotus, probably Bonaventure as well as many other franciscans, and even by st. Francis de sales.

    Late scholasticism (usually defined by Thomist polemicists as anything after Aquinas) is not automatically bad scholasticism. Indeed, disagreement in philosophy is inevitable and leads to more clearly defined and reasoned positions.

  4. Consider the author’s claim that the natural law is anti-voluntarist, or in other words, the consequences of positing a “voluntarist worldview”

    1. “created nature would not then provide a forum of moral freedom (for man);”

    This doesn’t follow, for it is hard to see how the intellectualist view accounts for freedom at all, since intellectualists like aquinas think the intellect determines the choice of the will. Thus the will can sin only when the intellect is ignorant.

    2. “created nature would then be unintelligible (to man);”

    it is hard to see how this would follow. For Scotus, at least, creatable and possible natures are grounded by or in the divine essence and produced by the divine intellect. The divine will only chooses to actualize particulars, and does not decide the content of the natures that it acteualizes, nor can it violate the principle of non contradiction. Thus when it comes to the human intellect, we are confronted with stable natures upon which to base our knowledge of the world.

    3. “created nature would not then disclose a clear, action-oriented purpose (for man).”

    This wouldn’t follow either, for created nature leads into cognition of God; Scotus, the king of voluntarists, proves that God is the final cause and end of the universe in his De primo principio. But perhaps the author would counter that this is not specific enough to rule human behavior. But one could say human acts could only be considered good if they were in harmony with the final end of human beings.

    In line my earlier comment:

    the author says “If the Catholic view is that God’s will follows His intellect”
    But of course this has never been defined, and the various claims that creation is either intelligent or from blind will set up a false dichotomy. One could (and many voluntarists do) posit and intelligent God who thinks of creation; the will merely actualizes what the intellect thinks. There is no blind voluntary production, for among catholic voluntarists, the will cannot will except what is shown to it by the intellect.

    In fact, the root of the debate goes back to the influx of Arabic philosophy into the west. The Arabic (and Persian) thinkers held to a strong intellectualist view according to which creation was a non voluntary necessary emanation from the divine intellects. There was no freedom for the divine to will or not to will a particular creature, indeed, God did not even know particulars at all. Against this the scholastic voluntarists posited a priority of will to ensure divine freedom , and the ability to will or actualize diverse natures.

    • Just a note of interest Lee of someone suffering from acute Voluntarism the result of will acting as intellect, “According to Salt and Light CEO Fr Thomas Rosica, ‘Pope Francis breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is free from disordered attachment'” (LifeSite). Apparently intellect or “intellectualism” as you call it is a “disordered attachment”.

  5. “This doesn’t follow, for it is hard to see how the intellectualist view accounts for freedom at all, since intellectualists like aquinas think the intellect determines the choice of the will. Thus the will can sin only when the intellect is ignorant” (Lee Faber). The will is a separate faculty from intellect precisely because of our inherent freedom to choose good rather than evil. You have it … backwards. The will doesn’t determine right or wrong good or evil the intellect has that capacity. The author Gordon is demonstrating that voluntarism refuses permanent principles of knowledge common to Natural Law and eternal law. What you Lee Faber are purporting is precisely the same if “stable natures” are comprehensive. The fallacy that leads to your self contradiction is that you hold it’s not the intellect that apprehends permanent natures and consequently principles but the will that chooses to apprehend them which is preposterous. Again it’s the intellect that apprehends not the will, which as you demonstrate ends in self contradiction confusion and unfortunately in many instances the choice of sin rather than good. That’s because you define in your suppositions the voluntarist error that it’s the will that determines good or evil not God who determines this objectively in his creation. Reread Aquinas which I doubt you actually ever read and perhaps acquire acumen.

    • I suppose emphasizing a point is boringly repetitious. The intellect by nature is able to identity what is true and good otherwise there is no basis for the integrity of conscience. That inherent intuitive capacity is recognized by Aquinas as the mean between Platonic Idealism and Realism. The order of knowledge begins with apprehension. Followed by an act of the will, Liberum Arbitrium or free choice. Many rationalize and ignore what the intellect finds for their own devious purposes. If on the other hand we argue as Lee Faber that it is the will that identifies what is true even with cooperation of the intellect then truth is primarily subject to sentiment and my subjective predilection. We become in that case the rule for what is true rather than the measure. If there is such a thing as truth it stands independent of sentiment and must be apprehended objectively as a principle or rule.

  6. God is Good and creates what is good
    Man’s intellect apprehends the good and the essence of created things and the existence of God
    Man’s will is determined to seek the Good
    Because of the flesh, inordinate desires of a fallen will and a darkened mind, man often desires apparent goods
    Reason (intellect) can discover the good through deliberation and activity
    through the natural law (the cardinal virtues especially wisdom)
    Reason is enlightened and man is saved through grace and theological virtues imparted by grace (in the sacraments)

  7. The responses to the criticism of Mr Gordon’s essay, demonstrate what I meant when I said above, that there is much to be learnt from the comments.
    Stephen in Australia.

    • This is obviously a too simplistic response to the essay, but I will put it this way. Long ago it came up in an econ class I was taking on how the president selected the Head of Federal Reserve. Too make it short it was the candidate who correctly answered the question from the president of what 2+2 is equal to. The person that whispered the answer as “what Mr President do you want it to be” got the job. With all the intellectual arguments aside about Luther, I think he just wanted to create a religion that he wanted it to be. Forget about natural law, God’s will, tradition etc, it was all about Luther and what he thought, what he wanted religion to be. His and others like him created it obvious legacy of what is now 30,000 or so protestant denominations, not say how many different types of brands with the Lutheran construct. Of course within the Catholic Church there is too many cafeteria Catholics. Basically accepting God’s will is not something people like to do, so the protestant legacy of Luther continues with the evolution of the churches they want it to be.

  8. Wow. Such a great essay. I am thankful to God and to Professor Gordon. It’s as if I got to be in his classroom without boarding a plane or paying tuition.

  9. Luther was also a politician. Politicians are often on both sides. Luther was only a man with all the handicaps of being human. He did contribute much to history.

  10. In Original Sin it was the desire(will) for wisdom that caused Adam and Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit and disobey God. This caused the loss of Original Innocence and stripped Adam and Eve of the robes of righteousness, causing them to see their nakedness. In the account of the fall it also talks about Adam and Eve’s eyes. The eye is talked about in Matthew 6:22-23:
    “The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be”. (NABRE)
    This speaks to the darkened will and intellect that came about from the fall where Adam and Eve’s nature became disordered, because they were no longer being illuminated by God’s graces.

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