How does Martin Luther contribute to our understanding of Bound Conscience?

The Rev. Dr. Timothy Wengert, (professor at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and one of the editors of the most recent version of “The Book of Concord”) has written a helpful article about “bound conscience” titled “Reflections on the Bound Conscience in Lutheran Theology” which informed the Task Force on Human Sexuality in its writing of the Social Statement.  Dr. Wengert writes,

In 1518, when Martin Luther appeared in Augsburg before the papal legate, Cardinal Cajetan, he had posted and defended the 95 Theses. His theological position had become a case before Rome. In deference to Luther’s prince, the elector Frederick the Wise, Cajetan did not simply haul him [Luther] off to Rome for summary judgment but interviewed him in Augsburg. Of the two points on which Cajetan faulted Luther’s writings, one concerns us here. Cajetan insisted that one could not ever be certain that we are in a state of grace but must always doubt the words of absolution (lest we be overcome with the security of pride). Luther responded this way:

May it please your highness to intercede with our most holy lord, Leo X, in my behalf so that he will not proceed against me with such stern rigor that he cast my soul into darkness, for I seek nothing but the light of truth and I am prepared to give up, change, or revoke everything if I am informed that these passages are to be understood in another sense. For I am neither arrogant nor so eager for vainglory that for this reason I would be ashamed to revoke ill-founded doctrines. Indeed, it will please me most of all if the truth is victorious. However, I do not want to be compelled to affirm something contrary to my conscience, for I believe without the slightest doubt that this is the meaning of Scripture. (LW 35: 275)

I notice that while Luther debates doctrines, he recognizes that they arise from Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture.  He acknowledges that there is possibility for different interpretation.  Indeed, he holds a different interpretation of scripture than the predominant traditional understanding of his day.  That is why he is at odds with the church of his day.

Three years later, Luther appears before the Emperor, Charles V, and makes his most famous speech.

Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. ( LW 36: 112)

It is from this speech that the term “bound conscience” was constructed.  Luther declares he is “bound by scripture” and that his “conscience is captive [bound] to the Word of God.”  Since the term “bound conscience” was constructed from this reference, the term is tied specifically to Scripture and its interpretation and not to behavior, attitudes, opinions or the like.  Respecting the bound conscience of another is respecting the way scripture is engaged and interpreted by the other.

I note also that Luther uses “clear reason” in opposition to “tradition” in determining whether or not testimony is true.  He argues that because something is the predominant traditional Scriptural understanding does not make it convincing evidence of truth.  The predominant traditional Scriptural interpretation is exactly what Luther is contradicting, and it is particularly the heart of the Gospel, rather than some peripheral, esoteric part of Scripture which he challenges.  From the Roman Catholic perspective, what Luther was teaching and professing was contrary to scripture.  In fact, they ruled his teaching as dangerous and heretical.  The gulf was significant.  Rome could not see his argument nor accept his teaching as Biblically-based.  This is important for us to consider.

Dr. Wengert’s essay lists several other places where we see either Luther and/or Melanchthon advocating “respect for the bound conscience of another” or setting aside adherence to the clear teaching of scripture out of pastoral concern.  In many ways, Luther is reflecting Paul’s pastoral advice we discussed earlier.  These include:

  • Luther comforts the wife of a suicide victim with the hope of the man’s salvation [contrary to the clear teaching of the church and the church’s understanding of scripture that those who commit suicide are outside the possibility of salvation as this represents an unpardonable “sin against the Holy Spirit” (Mark 3:28-29)].
  • Luther taught [against scripture and the leaders of the Lutheran movement] that it was permissible to “respect the bound conscience” of those who objected to receiving communion in both kinds.
  • Luther suggested that the wife of a man unable to fulfill his conjugal duty should be able to contract a secret marriage to another and thus bear children.
  • Luther counseled soldiers about refusing to serve in an unjust war [contrary to Romans 13].
  • Luther and Melanchthon suggested that Philip of Hesse should commit bigamy rather than divorce his wife.

For those who see Luther and the other reformers as Biblical literalists, this has to come as a significant shock.  In every one of these cases, Luther was more concerned with the pastoral care and the needs of the individual than he was to strictly adhering to either the traditions of the church or to specific rules found in Scripture.  In the grey areas of my ministry, I’m actually encouraged by this.  It reminds me of the words of Jesus when confronted by the Pharisees about his eating with tax collectors and sinners:

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

Luther offered these “compromises” often in the face of very strong objection and appeal to either tradition or scripture.  In them, he chose which part of Scripture had authority over another part.  Luther was often famous for suggesting that certain parts of scripture to be more authoritative than other parts of scripture.  This gets at another part of “bound conscience”, that is that when determining what is of most importance in scripture, people often decide differently.  Or, as I stated earlier, “people of faith find different aspects of Scripture to be foundational”.

I find compelling Dr. Wengert’s distinction between tolerance and bound conscience as he explores Luther’s response to a controversy of his day.

Note here, as elsewhere, that concern for the bound conscience is not simply a matter of toleration for different points of view but more profoundly realizing that the neighbor’s conscience is bound to a totally different, perhaps even incorrect, understanding of the matter and that to uproot that understanding would shake the neighbor’s faith and trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness. (page 6)

Dr. Wengert admits that for Luther the conscience might be bound to an incorrect understanding of Scripture and yet holds firm with the need to not shake the neighbor’s faith.  Somehow, in most of our interpretation of “bound conscience”, we’ve assumed that if we accept the conclusions of our neighbor, that somehow we are also affirming those conclusions as being truth.  For me, this openness to caring for the neighbor, even when they are probably wrong, challenges some of my ethical mores and expands my ability to uplift my brother or sister in Christ at the very same time.

What is Bound Conscience?

Where does the term come from?

Why is reference to Bound Conscience considered by some to be a problem?

What is the Scriptural Basis for “Bound Conscience”?

Doesn’t Scripture argue against Bound Conscience?

How does Martin Luther contribute to our understanding of Bound Conscience?

Bound Conscience as we presently live it.

Challenges from those opposing Bound Conscience

Bound Conscience and the current controversy

On a Personal Note

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