Luther’s christian faith: as experience, intellect and reason

The Christian faith for some believers today might seem to primarily be one of intellect and reason. For many Catholic and mainline theologians, theology mainly functions in the cerebral. For pietists, evangelicals, and charismatics, one’s faith is generally not as cerebral, at least not to the extent as that of mainline theologians. Faith may be much more of an “experience” for evangelicals, and especially for pentecostals/charismatics. If I may continue to generalize, some mainliners have highbrowed Christians who treat their faith as primarily an experience. On the same token, evangelicals and charismatics have also high looked down upon mainliners whose faith is primarily intellectual. Should both camps continue to pride themselves on how they experience their faith?

To purely intellectualize or to purely spiritualize one’s faith to the exclusion of the other is not helpful to one’s spiritual growth as a Christian. To do so, one isolates oneself from being able to experience what a Christian should experience; that is, both an intellectually- and spiritually-driven experience. It is part of deepening and expanding one’s Christian faith. Spirituality and the intellect should go hand-in-hand.

Martin Luther, was initially trained in the scholasticism of the Augustinian order. He served as a Roman Catholic priest and also earned a doctorate in theology. His students addressed him in seminary as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther when he was alive in the early 16th century. His intellect was extremely sharp (as was Calvin’s). Many may not know that Luther had an enlightening spiritual experience as he was struck with lightening while traveling on a road. He received this experience as a sign that God was calling him into the ministry…and thus, he did enter the ministry. He once said that felt he was born again. He walked close to the heart of God and understood the spiritual experience as the school of Holy Spirit. Luther said:

No one can correctly understand God or His Word unless he has received such understanding immediately from the Holy Spirit. But no one can receive it from the Holy Spirit without experiencing, proving, and feeling it. In such experience the Holy Spirit instructs us as in His own school, outside of which nothing is learned but empty words and prattle.(1)

If Luther could say this as a trained scholastic, then who are we, or anyone else, to put down the spiritual experience of other Christians. One’s spiritual experience of Holy Spirit ought to be valued, cherished, and appreciated; not snubbed as a type of kindergarten faith. If we look at the history of spiritual and theological giants, I am sure that we can trace back their paths and find that they received a deep spiritual experience of the Holy Spirit. I’m sure John Calvin and John Wesley did too.

Holy Spirit, experience and love all work together. Where a real and personal faith exists, experience must follow. “Experience should also be seen as a criterion for faith,” says theologian Walther von Loewenich.(2) We learn to know God through Holy Spirit and he uses one’s experience as his school. Experience must be seen as a legitimate way to know God. If we can begin to appreciate the spiritual experience of pietists, and the intellectual experience of scholastic theologians, perhaps we may be able to come together and finally learn to appreciate a fuller and deeper experience of our Christian faith.

(1) W. VII, 546, 24ff; LW 21, 299.
(2) Walther von Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1976), 94.

* above photo: Keble College (Oxford, UK), est. 1870 ou of the Oxford movement, which stressed the Anglo-Catholic history of the Anglican Church.

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