Thursday, August 16, 2007

Luther: There He Stood

I came across this fascinating Luther quote in Roland H. Bainton's famous biography of the Reformer (p. 185):

"Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason-I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other-my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

This paramount elevation of the conscience stuck me as profound. I'm really not sure how I feel about it. It raises my individualism-anxiety nerve, for sure. But the alternative too seems unacceptable, that you would submit to authority in conflict with conscience. The trouble is that "conscience" seems too malleable a term. One can too easily replace "desire" for conscience, or can simply have an ill-informed one. Is the weight of my conscience more reliable than the weighted opinion of the body of believers? If I believe 1 Corinthians 7 (do not deprive one another, except... for a limited time) means NFP is unconscionable, then my conscience may drive me to use the Pill or the Condom! But another person's conscience may conclude that those alternatives are unconscionable.

And around and around we go: each person deciding right and wrong for himself. The conscience is, perhaps, a poor man's guide to morality.

9 comments:

Tiber Jumper said...

Regarding Luther's quote, he may have changed his mind after this comment he made.Check out the quote of Luther on this pic in my post.

Adam Roe said...

Thos,

I came across your blog through JP Manzi's site and I appreciate the sincerity you display in your search.

One thing to consider as it relates to Luther is that even as he was personally speaking at the Diet of Worms, he was in fact representative of an entire movement. As such, it wasn't so much that Luther was a revolutionary in himself. It was more that he, and many, many other people recognized that some of the teachings they had received through the papal communion were not the Scriptural or historical understanding of the faith.

In addition, Luther's understanding of interpretation was far different than that which we see in most of contemporary Protestantism. He didn't pull Scripture away from the history of the faith and go it alone, so to speak. He and the other Lutheran reformers based their opinions how revelation was received and practiced throughout the history of the church. This is why the Lutheran reformers still held to the Real Presence, confession and absolution, etc... In short, their intention wasn't to create a new movement within the church, thereby forcing the pope to excommunicate them. Their intent was to encourage the church back to the historic understandings of the faith, particularly as it related to justification.

Blessings to you,
Adam

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

You should read JPII encyclical Veritatis Splendor. (NOT light reading let me warn you).

In it, he makes the point that we must follow our consciences (its our God given moral compass). However, consciences must be trained and the only institution one could trust with such a critical task is the Church.

Thos said...

Good comments all.

Tiber Jumper, I've enjoyed your blog previously. Thanks for the link, and I love the sign! I only came across the quote from his noted biography, and did not research to see if Luther displayed any later (changed) opinions.

Adam Roe, I am a big fan of the Lutheranism that I've heard Fr. Richard Neuhaus describe (see First Things magazine). His criticism would be mine - that if the errors Luther saw were fixed, where is the modern Lutheran incliniation to reunite? My other big problem with Lutheranism (frankly) is that it's a movement named after a man. Silly of me, perhaps, but that makes me so hesitant.

GFF, thanks for the recommended reading... It sounds like you agree that a conscience needs formation and boundaries before it merits the status as ultimate moral/faith guide.

Anonymous said...

I think what Adam is trying to say is that Martin Luther led a really, really big revolution, and he is really, really proud of it.

Joseph said...

Thos,

I apologize. That anonymous remark was mine.

Adam Roe said...

Thos,

His criticism would be mine - that if the errors Luther saw were fixed, where is the modern Lutheran incliniation to reunite?

Good question! Fortunately, Lutherans are making attempts to reunite. The LCMS just declared pulpit and altar fellowship with the AALC, which indicates that we do desire a unified fellowship. The thing is, we're honest about fellowship and we understand that bad doctrine hurts the church. As such, if one Lutheran body says that it's fine for its clergy to remain in committed homosexual relationships...well, we can't claim to have the same understandings of the faith.

My other big problem with Lutheranism (frankly) is that it's a movement named after a man. Silly of me, perhaps, but that makes me so hesitant

I had the same issue when I came to the Lutheran Church. As a "nondenominational" Christian I couldn't understand why any movement would name itself after a man. Then I found out that it was a negative term applied by Roman Catholics to the first "evangelicals." In short, Lutherans never started out with the intention of being referred to as Lutheran. In fact, Luther himself disliked the term. That said, it became clear after some time that the label would stick whether we liked it or not. So, it was accepted and they moved on.

Blessings to you,
Adam

Adam Roe said...

Joseph,

What I'm saying is that there were many people who already new there were problems within Roman Catholicism. Luther was simply the most prominent voice of an already living movement.

Blessings to you,
Adam

Thos said...

Adam,

I meant Lutheran inclination to reunite with Rome, not with the later offshoots of Lutheranism. I highly recommend reading some of Fr. Richard Neuhaus, who converted from the Lutheran Clergy to Catholicism.