Law and Gospel: A Problem with Bound Conscience

A Problem with “Bound Conscience”
[1] In August of 2009 the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, its highest legislative body, approved the social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust by exactly the required two-thirds majority. The task force producing the policy document identified the “bound conscience” as a key concept in justifying the acceptance of contradictory understandings within our church body. Timothy Wengert, a task force member and Luther scholar, addressed the 2009 Churchwide Assembly regarding its importance. He described respect for the bound conscience of the neighbor as the theological centerpiece of the social statement.1

[2] But the “bound conscience” concept is problematic for Lutherans who claim the Confessions are a true witness to the fundamental message of Scripture as law and gospel. The ELCA constitution states our allegiance to God’s word as law and gospel:

The proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.2

The “bound conscience” concept supposedly justifies our members respectfully holding and acting on views of human sexuality which are blatantly contradictory to each other and our confessional understanding of the word of God.

[3] This new liberality toward human sexuality, no doubt compassionately conceived and passionately defended, still remains a highly provocative proposal. It rejects the authority of the biblical anthropology which has been accepted by the church since the apostolic witnesses.3 The “bound conscience” concept employed to justify this proposal is problematic specifically because it is constructed upon a rejection of the law and gospel understanding of the word of God.

[4] The “bound conscience” concept is a rejection of the law and gospel hermeneutical principle in at least two critical ways. First, its appeal is based in the taming of the word of God to gospel alone, removing the power of the law to judge. Since the law is silenced ongoing sin or sins no longer have the power to threaten one’s existence before God or in relationships with others. This is gospel reductionism.

[5] Gospel reductionism means the message of Scripture has been reduced to hearing the sweetness of gospel justification while silencing the condemning power of God’s continuing, holy wrath against sin. The incarnation of Christ and our justification through his sacrificial death have been severed from the beginning of the story told in the Old Testament. In that narrative we are fallen creatures who have separated from God’s initial and ongoing creative, sustaining grace through our sin.

[6] Gospel reductionism reduces the depth and breadth of what “gospel” means. For Old Testament anthropology witnesses that humankind is the loving object of God’s mighty deeds.4 Reductionism leaves unanchored the wonderful truth that God’s creation is pro me and pro nobis.5 “This means that any description of a biblical time line which does not reckon with the object of God’s acts thereby lacks half its theological content.”6 We lose our belief that the mighty deeds of God are intended for us. This is a tragic loss in our contemporary consciousness of an expanding universe. It makes us vulnerable to cosmic loneliness. Through the rejection of the biblical, Old and New Testament storyline, we are forced to find another anthropology.7

[7] Finally, it leaves a void in our self-understanding that must be filled. When our self-understanding is no longer biblical in foundation it will be shaped by reason, scientific study, philosophy, cultural values or experience. New anthropological models — biological, sociological, psychological or philosophical — are free from the constraining limits of the “authoritative” content of the biblical storyline.

[8] Second, the argument interferes with or replaces with other authorities the reception of the word of God as law and gospel through the individual conscience, thereby keeping the conscience in bondage. No longer is freedom through the authority of God’s word of gospel convincing, since new laws or authorities now rule the conscience.8

[9] It is through conscience that we come to stand before God.9 The dynamic of law and gospel, which is the call to repentance and faith, is experienced by the individual believer through the conscience. To overlay this fundamental purpose of standing coram deo with human rules, laws or authorities (even church authorities) limits receptivity to God’s word. It is a burdening of conscience. It may lead to a searing or rejection of conscience whereby some have lost their faith (1 Timothy 1:19).

[10] It leads away from the bondage to and the freedom in God’s word into forms of bondage that burden the conscience endlessly. We may bind the conscience to the other, whether an individual or a cultural anthropology of self-understanding. This would be the dethronement of Christ as the lord of our relationship with the other10 and the lord of culture. Bondage to subjectivity, either of the self or of the other is the loss of faith in Christ’s word of forgiveness through a confusion of conscience over lordship.

[11] The “bound conscience” concept offers a false promise, to have the glory of Christ without the crown of his thorns worn by him or by us in the mortification of our own flesh. It limits the power of God’s word as law and gospel to judge, accuse, convict, challenge and to save, to bring peace and rest to the burdened human conscience. It alienates the creature from the creation and the creator. It tempts us to have false gods.

The Confessional View of Conscience
[12] Luther scholar William R. Russell describes a long and impressive tradition of scholarly research regarding Luther’s understanding of conscience.11 This research demonstrates that Luther’s “Here I Stand Speech” at the Diet of Worms in 1521 has consistently taken center stage. The ideas laid down in this crisis event, Luther’s refusal to go against his conscience, became enduring aspects of his theology. His reliance on the voice of conscience informing him of God’s law and gospel was a rejection of late medieval scholastic theology’s over-reliance on the church’s magisterium and not the individual, to provide a certain conscience.12 Luther understood the individual’s own conscience as always coram deo, life in the sight of God.

Conscience is not the power to do works, but to judge them. The proper work of conscience (as Paul says in Romans 2:15), is to accuse or excuse, to make guilty or guiltless, uncertain or certain. Its purpose is not to do, but to pass judgment on what has been done and what should be done, and this judgment makes us stand accused or saved in God’s sight (coram deo).13

[13] Russell observes that Gerhard Ebeling sees Luther’s concept of coram deo as the very basis of Luther’s theological mode of thought. “Unlike the tradition he inherited, Luther concluded that the conscience served fundamentally to condemn the whole person before God.”14 This understanding of conscience coram deo indicates that the primary use of conscience is to drive one to God’s mercy in Christ; in other words, the second use of the law is accomplished through the conscience.

[14] Its ethical use, sorting out good and evil, does not overshadow its primary function in the scheme of salvation, that is, its place in dogmatics.15 If “bound conscience” is employed to defend an individual’s morally sincere and responsible or irresponsible position, the individual through conscience still stands as guilty before God (Romans 2:15-16).

[15] Ebeling’s understanding of conscience is a radical understanding of human identity as “man as conscience.”16 It is a phenomenology of being with little interest in the historical development and grounding of conscience in natural reason, or the scriptural anthropology of humankind in relation to God. The non-historical implication of “man is conscience” ontology is developed to replace natural law in the conscience. In terms of Pauline Law (Romans 2:14ff.) Ebeling saw justification for the Reformers claim that it was written into the heart of every person. But it was in reality a misguided attempt at understanding conscience.

Luther elucidated this understanding of the Law in the heart in the traditional view of the lex naturalis…which is…supposed to belong to man inalienably from birth….We have become aware today of the flaws in this method of arguing from natural law. But that does not by any means do away with the Reformers’ doctrine of the law written in the heart. It merely requires a different grounding and elucidation. And a basis for that is provided precisely by Luther’s doctrine of conscience…. 17

[16] This new philosophical grounding of conscience excludes any codex of general truths or commands, especially the notion of syntheresis, which Luther never rejected. One only knows he or she is accountable. The human being is the one who is answerable. Ebeling attempts to get behind Luther by interpreting Luther’s thought through Heidegger’s philosophy of conscience and its non-biblical anthropology.

[17] But Luther never magnified the conscience to pure consciousness of self — the self confronting the self as to the meaning of reality, asking whether one is free or in prison. He believed it had connection to the way things really are as an organ of the mind or consciousness. Conscience was led by the mind even though the conscience pronounced the verdict.18 “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted” (NRSV, Titus 1:15). God’s truth in the dogma of law and gospel is rejected by some in a posture of unbelief. Only the Spirit can lead them out of this “sickness unto death” to accept this truth through the work of law and gospel.

[18] The loss of the biblical anthropology is the major problem in Gift and Trust. We have forgotten to return to the dogmatic citadel as if experience and reason will or can create new dogma. Carl Braaten sees Ebeling’s influence at work here.

Ebeling was not a confessional Lutheran. His role in the controversy surrounding Bultmann’s demythologizing proposal made clear his opposition to the confessional Lutherans, such as, Edmund Schlink, Peter Brunner, Ernst Kinder, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and many others. None of them could agree with Ebeling that “the Word of God is solely that which proclaims and communicates the will of God as revealed in the crucified Christ.” Like so many German theologians from Schleiermacher to von Harnack to Bultmann, Ebeling devaluated the Old Testament as co-equal with the New Testament in revealing the Word of God through the Bible as a whole. Luther would not do that. He was a Professor of the Old Testament and believed that it communicates the Word of God. For Luther the Ten Commandments were the Word of God. The Law was the Word of God, not only the Gospel. To reduce everything in the Bible to the “crucified Christ” is an example of that “gospel reductionism” that is plaguing the ELCA and many of its theologians. The word for such an error is “antinomianism,” condemned as such in the Formula of Concord. 19

[19] The life of faith cannot come into being without the mortifying of the flesh which the conscience performs. This function of the conscience, to condemn and judge, must run its own course20 to fulfill its role in God’s call to faith and certainty of salvation through Christ alone. The law drives to Christ literally to release us from the demands of conscience through trust in his holiness, not our own. In Christ the whole creation is our home once again, given to us in the boundless love of the triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[20] In Luther’s view of conscience coram deo, one is not granted protection from God’s judgment through a hermeneutical reserve about this or that possible interpretation of Scripture or tradition through reason and/or experience. Only under the power of the Spirit can the conscience encounter this authoritative and living word of God. This word remains as law and gospel — accusing, slaying and then justifying freely in Christ — as the Spirit chooses.

[21] Only from the perspective of conscience coram deo does either Paul or Luther develop the ethics of relating positively to the conscience of the other. It is an ethics of restraint only, not permission for the development of new policies which fly in the face of Scripture and the dogma of the church. For Paul, respect for the conscience is shouldering responsibility for the inner well-being of the other.21 For Luther, to formulate new rules or laws would be an abuse of the office of the keys.22

[22] Our spirits, which order the conscience, are capable of understanding the way things are and how they should be. Our conscience is the faculty which, as a witness (Romans 2:14-16), has the capacity to observe our acts and intentions, in judgment or approval based on the law written on the human heart. Even when the spirit informing conscience errs, the integrity of the moral personality is still basically intact.

[23] The concept of conscience in our tradition does not justify how it is being presently used in our church. In Lutheran confessional theology the coram deo use of conscience cannot be displaced by dictates or rules from even one hundred assemblies of believers. That living dialogue with God’s word comes as both law and gospel. We remain the holy people of God by living within the full biblical anthropology based in Old and New Testament witnesses. The lack of a faithful application of this dynamic is the fateful flaw in Gift and Trust.

[24] It is a far cry from Luther’s conviction in rejecting false teaching by the highest leaders in the medieval church. His conscience was bound to the word of God which gave to him the freedom and courage to reject erroneous teachings. Nor did he reject pure reasoning for he had already applied it diligently to the task of biblical interpretation in his community of discourse with scriptural writers, interpreters of that tradition, his seminary at Wittenberg and the cloud of witnesses surrounding him, all leading, challenging and inspiring him through the Holy Spirit. It was the conscience coram deo that saved and continually restored him to true faith in the Triune God.

[25] Our church must find other justifications for its present changes in teaching on human sexuality than the “bound conscience” concept. It must restore the law and gospel dynamic of hermeneutics in its life together. In so doing, it must be open to recanting its present direction, bound again to the word of God alone for freedom of conscience.

Rev. Lauren Ley is an ELCA pastor currently on leave from call with a Doctor of Ministry degree from Luther Seminary in congregational revitalization.

1. Timothy J. Wengert, “Remarks Concerning “Bound Conscience”, (accessed July 30, 2010). “One of the greatest legacies that the early Lutheran reformers bestowed upon the entire Christian church is what we are calling ‘respect of the bound conscience of the neighbor’…It is precisely this concern that lies at the heart of our proposal.”

2. ELCA, Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions, (accessed November 21, 2010) 19.

3] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Revelation and Homosexual Experience,” (accessed September 28, 2010), 2. The article, translated by Markus Bockmuehl, appeared in the November 11, 1996, publication of Christianity Today.

This is the real problem; and it is here that we must deal with the conclusion that homosexual activity is a departure from the norm for sexual behavior that has been given to men and women as creatures of God. For the church this is the case not only for homosexual, but for any sexual activity that does not intend the goal of marriage between man and wife — in particular, adultery. The church has to live with the fact that, in this area of life as in others, departures from the norm are not exceptional but rather common and widespread. The church must encounter all those concerned with tolerance and understanding but also call them to repentance. It cannot surrender the distinction between the norm and behavior that departs from that norm. Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture.

4. Gustaf Wingren, Creation and Law, tr. Ross Mackenzie (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1961) 9-17. He argues convincingly for a biblical theology of salvation voiced by early church leaders such as Irenaeus, which gives equal voice to both Testaments. The Creed enumerates this biblical story in its timeline. It is dangerous to exclude the wholeness of the story by focusing only on the New Testament because it leads to a loss of the Old Testament anthropology. All of its gifts and promises are given to created human beings who rely continually upon God for life (whether they know it or not) and who have been defeated by sin. In the new covenant the works of God right up to the Last Judgment are always works of “restoration and recapitulation.” Separating the gospel from this biblical anthropology is in danger of evolving a philosophical anthropology. This appears to be the case in Gift and Trust.

5. Ibid., 15. Wingren specifically uses Luther’s language to emphasize that when Old Testament anthropology is lost a gospel reductionism occurs. We no longer hear the full impact of the majesty of God’s love pro me and pro nobis.

6. Ibid., 15.

7. Ibid., 15. Wingren specifically references Oscar Cullman’s attempt to create a Christ-only storyline by starting with the second article rather than letting the first article of God the creator stand on its own. This forces him to seek out an anthropology with little of the “for me” aspect. Also, he specifically references Rudolf Bultmann as vulnerable to the same criticism. Bultmann connected his dogmatic system to an already existing philosophical anthropology, provided by Martin Heidegger.

8. This insight was brought to my attention by Matthew Ley (see footnote #13).

9. George W. Forell, “Luther and Conscience,” in Encounters with Luther, Vol. 1, ed. by Eric W. Gritsch (Gettysburg, PA: Institute for Luther Studies, 1980). Forell argues the theological context for understanding conscience is the law/gospel dynamic of Luther’s theology.

10. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Act and Being, tr. H. Martin Rumscheidt (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996) 82, 87-88. It is an insight in existential theology that spiritual development only occurs in relationships where the other person is respected. There the sacredness and the brokenness of the other are met as a defining limit to human influence. In border interactions freedom, responsibility, hope and love are the operative dynamics directed toward the other. This is the deeply personal and pastoral aspect of Lutheran ethics. Yet Bonhoeffer reminds us that only Christ has fulfilled the law of love to the neighbor, for us. Otherwise the law of love could introduce us to the terror of the other through whom we seek to be obedient. Thereby we seek to evade Christ’s call to die to self-glorification, accept our sinfulness and turn to him alone for a joyful conscience. Only Christ is Lord of this interaction, not the needs of the giver or the receiver.

11. William R. Russell, “Martin Luther’s Understanding of the Conscience, “Coram deo” …and the ELCA’s Sexuality Study,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 5:7 (July 2005).

12. The early Luther and the late medieval scholastic theologians believed the conscience could err even with its divine spark toward the good. This divine spark, this capacity to know the will of God in the fundamental form of the inclination and demand to do the good, resist evil and to accept the limits of nature was named syntheresis. Yet the individual conscience could misinterpret what this means in a given context. Therefore in the late medieval period the Roman church under the influence of nominalism gave solely to the priest the source of knowledge of what specifically is required. Luther employed the syntheresis concept early in his career in the form of the appeal to natural reason. He was a realist in the medieval sense, not a nominalist. Also, Luther never openly rejected the concept of syntheresis. For a negative appraisal of syntheresis see Lutheran ethicist and theologian Helmut Thielicke (Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics Volume 1: Foundations (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979) 324-325). He observes that Luther used and critiqued it in the same sermon (See the sermon De propria sapientia et voluntate which Luther preached on Dec. 26, 1514; WA 1, 32).

13. Russell, “Coram deo,” 2 (See LW, On Monastic Vows (1521) 44:298).

14. Russell, “Coram deo.” He references Michael G. Baylor on this point in footnote #27 (See Michael G. Baylor, Action and Person: Conscience in Late Scholasticism and the Young Luther (Leiden: Brill, 1977) 210).

15. My son, Matthew D. Ley, the individual assigned by the ELCA Office of the Bishop to research the concept of the “bound conscience” as outlined by the ELCA Church Council in April, 2010, pointed out to me that there appears to be confusion in the official documents as to two uses of conscience. One use is ethical and the other use is regarding salvation or coram deo. It might also be described as a confusion between the role of ethics and the role of dogmatics (See Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics — Foundations, 36-38). Christian theology in an age of secularism must deal with the autonomous self and its analysis of reality. It must go outside the citadel of its own anthropology (in terms of our discussion) while remembering to return “for ethics does not exercise exclusive rights over its entire domain” (36).

16. John C. Staten, Conscience and the Reality of God: An Essay on the Experiential Foundations of Religious Knowledge (New York: Mouton De Gruyter, 1988) 23-25. Staten’s thesis is that “conscience” is an experiential locus for the understanding “God.” He uses Ebeling’s work on conscience and the philosophical resource upon which it is drawn, Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of it in Being and Time. He finds in Ebeling’s work a clear dependence on this work of Heidegger for understanding the identity of man/woman as “conscience,” For Ebeling, conscience is interpreted existentially by taking the Greek form literally (syneidesis — self knowing self). It is the basic ontological determination of man as the being whose relation to himself is that of joint cognizance (45). “Man does not ‘have’ a conscience, but he is conscience.” In his philosophically grounded interpretation of being, he rejects the conscience as an organ; he rejects it as the exclusive rendering as a voice against man; he rejects it as the voice of God although it is the condition in which one encounters God; and, he rejects conscience as a codex of general truths and commands.

17. Ibid., 42 (See Gerhard Ebeling, Word and Faith, tr. James W. Leitch. (Philadelphia: PA, Fotress Press, 1963) 276-277 (italics by Staten)). As to the nature of conscience, Ebeling refers to it as the question mark that is branded upon each person: where are thou…in prison or free? His anthology perceives a radical questionableness striking at the roots of personal being. The self-consciousness of the individual is confrontation, i.e., when one holds fast in “radical questionableness” concerning one’s “real nature,” or “reality” (Staten, Conscience and the Reality of God, 84). He further points out that a detailed doctrine of the Law would show how this question mark sets in motion “the whole reality that concerns man and brings it to expression, thereby summons to the interpretation of reality …” (Word and Faith, 277-279).

That is, the questionableness of existence urges one to even explain the ‘ought’ in terms of human creation of a worldview. Yet one wonders how the revealed word of God (God as “Creator”, man as “creature”) can enter into this doctrine of the Law since Ebeling excludes these supposedly metaphysical claims from his anthropology, following Heidegger and Bultmann and others (See Staten, 98-99). In support of this concern I raise, Staten states specifically that Ebeling operates from a specific philosophical perspective on conscience providing hermeneutic assistance, the early work of Martin Heidegger (47).

18. LW, 29:47. In a commentary on Titus 1:15 Luther offers comments on the relationship between the mind and the conscience.

Thus their mind, he says, is impure, and therefore their conscience is also. The mind is the

judgment about things, as 1 Cor. 14:19 says, “with my mind rather than in a tongue.” It refers to

the mind or the spirit, the cognitive power in a man (sic), which accepts instruction. Their thinking mind and opinion are corrupt; therefore an impure conscience also follows, because as the mind judges, so the conscience dictates… The conscience always draws the conclusion, but the mind sets for the major premise.

19. Carl Braaten, “An Open Letter to Bishop Herbert Chilstrom,”, (accessed August 2, 2010).

20. Ibid.,, 298-320. He perceives that trying to pacify the conscience-stricken person by talking away his sins is theologically wrong. There can be no healing in this “outer tent” (310). One is moved toward the cross of Christ for peace from a restless, anxious conscience, based on what we are through the encounter with law and gospel — on whether or not we believe in the boundless, unconditional love of God.

21. Philip Bosman, Conscience in Philo and Paul: A Conceptual History of the Synoida Word Group tr. by J. C. B. Mohr (Hemsbach, Germany: Druckparnter Rübelmann GmbH, 2003). His doctoral work is perhaps the most recent and in-depth scholarly exploration of the concept of conscience available. Paul remains neutral as to the validity of the weak conscience. But Paul calls for the strong conscience to be patient and forbearing toward the weak conscience, not to approve their lack of knowledge.

The fact that Paul recognizes levels of knowledge does not mean that he gives the weak the right to establish their own set of norms or that he declares each individual to be morally autonomous. Rather, he is concerned about their welfare…He does not approve of their weakness, but wants to afford them room to grow in knowledge and in faith (273).

22. The Keys (1530), LW, 40:323-377. “The horrible abuse and misunderstanding of the precious keys is one of the greatest plagues which God’s wrath has spread over the ungrateful world” (325). The first abuse of them is to make rules or laws with this office. Their function is to bind or loose sin only that is based in God’s word already known. The keys were used to justify the power of the priest to demand satisfaction and to offer indulgences, thus replacing human righteousness for God’s grace intended by the keys. To bind or to loose must both be nothing but God’s words. To deny God’s word or contradict that word in a pronouncement is to abuse the keys in another way. This treatise also supports pastors in using the keys in their congregations, discouraging pronouncements of excommunication from bishops who do not know the issue surrounding an unrepentant sinner. The exercise of the keys is explicated by the guidance of Matthew 18 for Luther. The reason “bound conscience” arguments don’t appeal to the office of the keys may be these abuses Luther lists. The human sexuality social statement “Gift and Trust” removes homosexual relationships from the category of sin, which Luther’s treatise would describe as a false use of the keys, based in a denial or rewriting of plain scriptural law.

Lauren Ley

Rev. Lauren Ley is an ELCA pastor currently on leave from call with a Doctor of Ministry degree from Luther Seminary in congregational revitalization.