I have searched high and low for the source of this quote, attributed to John Calvin, but to no avail. This link provides approximately 425 quotes, but I could not find "The worst of plagues is human reason". https://www.azquotes.com/author/2355-John_Calvin

My difficulty is that it seems to me the quote is more likely to have come from Martin Luther. For example, Luther said the following on this subject:

Reason is the Devil's greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil's appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom ... Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism... She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets. Source: Martin Luther, Erlangen Edition v. 16, pp. 142-148

There is on earth among all dangers no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason... Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Source: Martin Luther, quoted by Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic, (Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1963), p. 75

If John Calvin did say "The worst of plagues is human reason" then I need to know where those seven words came from in order to put them into their proper context and respond to the person who has asked me to explain what Calvin meant.

I fear I may be on a wild goose chase here, and time is running out before my response is due. Any help from the community would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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    Depending on the identity of its mistress, reason can indeed be either a whore (of [fallen] human passions, when [mis]used to excuse, defend, or promote immoral behavior), or a slave (of conscience, when employed to aid or encourage perseverance in one's ethic struggles).
    – user46876
    Commented Nov 8, 2020 at 11:03

1 Answer 1


Did John Calvin say “the worst of plagues is human reason”?

Although I drew a blank on John Calvin, I pursued the matter by searching through quotes attributed to Martin Luther. There were 950 of them, but many were repeated or were variations with only slight differences. https://www.azquotes.com/author/9142-Martin_Luther

Allow me to share with you two relevant quotes that I found. Taken from ‘The Table Talk of Martin Luther’, he had this to say about human reason:

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.

The partial quote I presented by Walter Kaufmann in ‘The Faith of a Heretic’ said this in full:

There is on earth among all dangers, no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason, especially if she enters into spiritual matters which concern the soul and God. For it is more possible to teach an ass to read than to blind such a reason and lead it right; for reason must be deluded, blinded and destroyed.

By way of explaining what Martin Luther meant, here is a short extract from the book ‘Here I Stand – Martin Luther’ by Roland Bainton (Lion, 1978):

Martin Luther said some things about human reason that have been wrested out of context to make it seem as if he was an enemy of reason because of his stress on faith. That is a misrepresentation, because he only railed against a particular kind of human reasoning.

Luther said that, “Common sense and natural reason are highly offended that God by his mere will deserts, hardens, and condemns… Natural reason, however much it is offended, must admit the consequences of the omniscience and omnipotence of God... Since God is true and one, he is utterly incomprehensible and inaccessible to human reason. Therefore his justice must also be incomprehensible.”

Many people misunderstand Luther at this point – he knew that the reason why faith is so hard, and reason is so inadequate, is a problem far deeper than logic... At Worms and often elsewhere he asked to be instructed from Scripture and reason. In this sense reason meant logical deduction from known premises; and when Luther railed against ‘the harlot reason’... he had in mind the way in which man ordinarily behaves, feels, and thinks. It is not what God says that is a foreign tongue, but what God does that is utterly incomprehensible.

“Luther knew that philosophy was unequal to the task of comprehending the mysteries of God. Only faith can grasp the foolishness of the cross, which is hid from the wise and prudent. Reason must retire. She cannot understand that “God hides his power in weakness, his wisdom in folly, his goodness in severity, his justice in sins, his mercy in anger.

I think it is safe to say that Calvin believed that man is corrupted by sin and that sin has affected body and soul, mind and will. Martin Luther (whose theology Calvin admired and respected) also held to a similar view. Human reasoning is therefore fatally flawed. The mind of the created can in no way comprehend or understand the mind of the Creator.

Did John Calvin say “the worst of plagues is human reason”? He may have said that, or something similar. If so, then it was in harmony with the views of Martin Luther. I don’t suppose it really matters whether that quote can be attributed to Calvin, but I shall leave this question open just in case someone can shed further light on the matter.

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    I found a VERY good paper Calvin on Human Reason describing Calvin's position on reason, part of the author's answer to the question "Does Calvin’s view of the perversion of human reason allows space for a substantive social ethics that integrates value and rule, or is Gregory’s claim that the Reformers had to revert to a formal kind of ethics because of their rejection of a teleological ethics, applicable to Calvin?" Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 15:26
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    I also tried in vain to find the phrase in Google but all I could find was a Pinterest graphic attributing it to Calvin but without reference to any of his writings. After reading the paper above, I doubt that Calvin would say that. At first I planned to write an answer by quoting key findings from that paper plus some context from Martin Luther (which you provide in your answer) but I don't have time. Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 15:28
  • Appreciate your efforts to source the Calvin quote. I'm happy to keep this question open to allow time for you to quote some of the key findings from that paper 'Calvin on Human Reason' because it would be really useful to understand why he said what he is supposed to have said. After all, it's not as if I'm about to give myself best answer (even if I could)! There is no rush.
    – Lesley
    Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 16:07

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