Luther and Conscience

Copyright © 1994, Word & World, Luther Seminary.Word & World, Supplement Series 2, pp. 57-65.
First published in The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg Bulletin 55/1 (1975) pp. 3-11, and delivered first at the 1974 Martin Luther Colloquium. Used with permission.

[1] It is part of the conventional wisdom that the reformation was based upon the assertion of freedom of conscience, the autonomous human conscience against the heteronomy of church and state. The illustration generally used in order to support this claim is Luther’s celebrated appearance at the Diet of Worms. Standing before emperor and pope’s representative he said:

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 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 will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience (Cum contra conscientiam agere neque tutum neque integrum sit).[1]
[2] Even if Luther never said, “Ich kan nicht anders, hie stehe Ich, Got helff mir, amen,”[2] the emphasis upon conscience in his defense has never been questioned. But while there is considerable agreement on the significance of conscience for Luther’s theology and ethics, the character of this significance is the focus of a major debate. One of the most important Luther scholars of the twentieth century, Karl Holl, claimed in his seminal essay, “What Did Luther Understand by ‘Religion’?”:

Luther’s religion is a “religion of conscience” in the most pronounced sense of the word, with all the urgency and the personal character belonging to it. It issues from a particular kind of conscientious experience-namely, his unique experience of the conflict between a keen sense of responsibility and the unconditional, absolute validity of the divine will-and rests on the conviction that in the sense of obligation (sollen), which impresses its demands so irresistibly upon the human will, divinity reveals itself most clearly.[3]

[3] This meant that the “voice of conscience” was seen as the point of contact between God’s revelation and the human being. This gave conscience an essentially positive meaning in line with the scholastic tradition of synteresis, the divine spark in the human being after the fall. Emmanuel Hirsch has pointed out that it was Peter Abelard who had first called attention to the importance of conscience for ethics and who saw Paul’s struggle for justification by grace through faith essentially as a struggle for the lex naturalis against the lex scripta, for rationalism against legalism. Abelard’s natural law rationalism was summarized in the sentence, “The words of the natural law are those who command love of God and love of the neighbor.”[4] For the development of Christian ethics it is significant that Abelard discovered the natural law written into the human heart in the conscience. To sin is to act against conscience. And this became the accepted opinion in the schools. But this insight, which might have led to the advocacy of freedom of conscience, resulted in the opposite by its subordination to the law. Biel said: “Conscience is the herald of the law.”[5] Hirsch summarizes the medieval development which Luther eventually confronted under two headings: (1) Conscience is always subject to law. It binds conscience and is never independent of it. (2) Conscience is not an originally religious experience. Rather it is the experience of oneself. “The ultimate height and depth of the encounter with God are independent of the conscience.”[6]

[4] It is against this background that we must understand Luther’s appeal to conscience in Worms and also the disregard of this appeal by the secretary to the archbishop of Trier who shouted: “Lay aside your conscience, Martin; you must lay it aside because it is in error.”[7] By Luther’s time a conscience which opposes the law of God out of ignorance or error must simply be put aside. Unlike Abelard, who had daringly asserted that if the Jews followed their conscience in crucifying Jesus they did not sin, properly speaking,[8] later scholastics deny the possibility of a conscience which through error involves of necessity in sin. The priest who speaks within the limits of the pastoral office overrules the erring conscience.[9]

[5] For Thomas, synteresis is the guarding or keeping of the natural principles of the moral law, the habit of understanding these primary principles or precepts.[10] Conscience is then the ability (habitus) to act according to law. It can be used almost in the same sense as reason (ratio vel conscientia). A command of conscience and a command of reason can be the same thing. Thomas Aquinas proposes that in matters of faith the synteresis is inapplicable since the light of reason does not suffice for the comprehension of matters of faith.[11]

[6] It was this tradition which Luther reflected in his earliest comments on conscience. In 1509 he wrote in the margin of St. Augustine’s De Trinitate, where Augustine reflects on John 1:4, on the light which shines in human beings and enables them to live and move and have their being in God, “It appears that this light is our synteresis.”[12] Here Luther clearly affirms synteresis as a valuable gift of God to human beings. And similarly in a 1516 comment on Tauler’s fifty‑second sermon he sees a reference to synteresis in Tauler’s description of the word of God speaking to the soul. Synteresis reveals that God is closer to the soul than it is to itself.[13]

[7] In a sermon of 1514 Luther distinguished two kinds of synteresis, the synteresis voluntatis and the synteresis rationis,[14] but as Hirsch has observed, he uses synteresis in order to understand the contradiction in human beings between the will and reason designed to enable them to serve God, and the factual opposition between human will and reason and God. This aptitude is not able to determine the human will and understanding. As early as his Romans commentary he questions the general aptitude as well and writes:

The common saying that human nature in a general and universal way knows and wills the good but errs and does not will it in particular cases would be better stated if we were to say that in particular cases human nature knows and wills what is good but in general neither knows nor wills it. The reason is that it knows nothing but its own good, or what is good and honorable and useful for itself, but not what is good for God and other people. Therefore it knows and wills more what is particular, yes, only what is an individual good. And this is in agreement with Scripture, which describes man as so turned in on himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself.[15]
[8] The significant difference between Luther’s view of synteresis and conscience from the tradition which he had inherited is the essentially accusing function of both. While conscientia was traditionally understood in relation to specific actions and could be either accusing or excusing, synteresis, as we have observed above, was the natural inclination of the soul towards the good, an inextinguishable spark (scintilla) of reason. For Luther even the effect of synteresis could best be described as “the worm” (vermis), and “murmuring” of a guilty conscience.[16] It is therefore dubious whether for Luther synteresis or conscience are ever the thoroughly positive force, that, for example Erich Seeberg describes in Luther, “the unformed instinct of the soul for God, to be formed by the will and intellect.”[17]

[9] Against this conscience interpretation of Karl Holl and his disciples, Ernst Wolf[18] is correct in his insistence that (1) Luther denies any formation of a constant, essential core of the human being through God’s word. On the contrary he says,

this word “formed” (formatum) is under a curse, for it forces us to think of the soul as being the same after as before the outpouring of love and as if the form were merely added to it at the time of the action, although it is necessary that it be wholly put to death and be changed before putting on love and working in love.[19]
[10] Continuity would deny that the Christian is a new creature. (2) Luther rejects the notion that there is a constant core of the human being which constitutes the connection between the unformed and the newly formed conscience. (3)Finally, he refused to consider this alleged core as the instrument by which the human being encounters the divine demand. The encounter with Christ, not the experience of an irresistible divine demand, results in the presence of God, existence coram deo. Friedrich Gogarten states this point forcefully when he writes:

Conscience, as Luther understands it and as it occupies a central place in his theology, is precisely where faith must take up the struggle against ethics as the attempt to bring the relationship to God under the control of the human being. In dealing with conscience we deal with the human being as he really is. But not as he is lord over himself through his ethical self‑understanding and thus autonomously confronts the world, but as he is delivered into the power of the authorities which rule the world.[20]
[11] Who are these authorities? For Luther they are law, death, and devil, and his understanding of conscience must be seen in relationship to these authorities which it serves.[21] As he wrote in De Votis Monasticis in 1521:

For 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.[22]
I. Conscience and Law

[12] For Luther the proper use of the law is “to make guilty those who are smug and at peace, so that they may see that they are in danger of sin, wrath, and death, so that they may be terrified and despairing, blanching, and quaking at the rustling of a leaf (Lev 26:6).”[23] The place where the law encounters the human being is in the conscience:

For the law does nothing but accuse consciences and manifest sin, which is dead without the law. The knowledge of sin-I am not speaking about the speculative knowledge which hypocrites have, but I am speaking about the knowledge in which the wrath of God against sin is perceived and a true taste of death is sensed-this knowledge terrifies hearts, drives them to despair and kills them.[24]
[13] The result of the encounter of conscience and law is Angst, what Tillich has called the moral and ethical anxiety of guilt and condemnation.24b For Luther the law is not something artificial, something contrived by church or state, family or peer group, in order to socialize a human being. Rather it is a reality which confronts people in their utter loneliness even after church and state, family and peer group have given him a clean bill of health. It is the devastating abyss that opens up between our actuality and our potentiality which condemns us even if others might acquit us. This was Luther’s experience, and neither the good will of his father nor the approval of his superior in the monastic order, nor the respect of his peer group which elected him to high office in the monastery was able to bridge the abyss which terrified his heart.

II. Conscience and Death

[14] The horizon against which this terror is experienced is death. In a sermon on Matt 26:36‑46 Luther said: “At times sin rages and raves in the heart to such a degree that poor miserable people put themselves to death because of it, in an effort to get rid of this torture of conscience….These poor people consider death a means to free themselves from such anxiety (Angst).”[25]

[15] And again preaching on 1 Cor 15:56 in 1533 he said: “For it is impossible for man to endure a bad conscience when it really lays hold of him and he begins to feel God’s wrath. Thus we see some people dying suddenly or committing suicide because of such terror and despair.”[26]

[16] As it is Luther’s custom, he personalizes the powers which meet human beings. While we-until recently, at least-tended to depersonalize the devil, Luther personalizes not only the devil but also the law and death. They are not abstract impersonal forces but concrete, personal, even tangible enemies which meet us face to face in our life. In this approach Luther does not stand alone. His contemporary Albrecht Dürer, in his famous woodcut of the knight, death, and the devil, does the same thing. And two hundred years later Bach can sing “Komm süsser Tod” [“Come sweet death”], personalizing the power in a similar way.

[17] And death meets the individual in her or his conscience. The emphasis is here quite properly on the “individual.” For Luther, death accentuates the loneliness of the person confronted by the ultimate threat to personal being. In On Temporal Authority he wrote, “every man runs his own risk in believing as he does, and he must see to it himself that he believes rightly. As nobody else can go to heaven or hell for me, so nobody else can believe or disbelieve for me.”[27] Even pastoral support and the comfort of fellow Christians is finally cut off. As he wrote in 1522: “Therefore, imagine that you are facing death or persecution. I cannot be with you then, nor you with me, but each one of us must then struggle for himself to overcome the devil and death and the world.”[28]

[18] As Luther reminded the people when he returned from the Wartburg in 1522 to restore a semblance of order in Wittenberg:

The summons of death comes to us all and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. We can shout into another’s ears, but everyone must himself be prepared for the time of death, for I will not be with you then, nor you with me.[29]
[19] Because I must die and must die alone, the accusing power of conscience is ultimately threatening, indeed because I must die, I fear the accusing conscience, and because I fear the accusing conscience, I want to die. Death and the wrath of God confront us together. Death is an enemy who threatens to devour us, not an objective phenomenon which can be observed and studied. It may be that also-but then it is the death of others. I meet it, Luther says, like the disciples in the storm‑tossed boat.[30] Or as the lonely Peter, when, confronted by the high priest’s servant, he denies Christ three times out of fear of death. But his conscience makes him aware of his hopeless situation and drives his sin into his heart. Luther observes: “If Peter was not grey and bald before, in these three days he became grey and bald.”[31]

III. Conscience and the Devil

[20] “Such an evil beast and wicked devil is conscience. For all authors, sacred and profane, have depicted this monster in horrible fashion.”[32] This illustrates the close connection Luther sees between conscience and devil. In the discussion of Luther’s demonology his personification of the devil is generally taken out of the context of his personification of all the powers surrounding the human being and attacking him in his conscience and driving him to despair. The devil is part of this conspiracy.

[21] For Luther the conscience can be an instrument of the devil, the device to make his assaults, his Anfechtungen, real. Here law and death become allies of the devil trying to make the sinner rely on his or her own good works and accomplishments. But relying on their own righteousness human beings are lost and driven into sadness. He writes:

Therefore we should be on our guard, lest the amazing skill and infinite wiles of Satan deceive us into mistaking the accuser and condemner for the Comforter and Savior, and thus losing the true Christ behind the mask of the false Christ, that is, of the devil, and making Him of no advantage to us.[33]
[22] Or later, “You soon lose your red lips and red cheeks, forget to dance and leap, because the devil is a spirit of sadness (spiritus tristitiae).”[34] Indeed, death and devil sometimes tend to merge, and Luther can say that we must “battle with death and death’s prince or chief, the devil.”[35] And the devil promotes the justitia personalis, and then calls into question our alleged purity and holiness. Luther wrote: “That is the devil’s art which he frequently tries on me. He asks me how godly or how evil are you, and uses masterfully Scripture and law in this interrogation…and he brings people to such anxiety that one wants to despair.”[36] And elsewhere:

Therefore you must make thorough preparations not only for the time of temptation but also for the time and struggle of death. Then your conscience will be terrified by the recollection of your past sins. The devil will attack you vigorously and will try to swamp you with piles, floods, and whole oceans of sins, in order to frighten you, draw you away from Christ, and plunge you into despair.[37]
[23] The devil uses the conscience to drive human beings into despair, thus making the guilty conscience a “fierce and savage beast.”[38]

[24] For Luther, conscience is the place where the law, death, and the devil encounter the human being and drive him into despair. The guilty conscience is one of the most terrifying human experiences. But this is not Luther’s final word on conscience. As early as his Romans commentary, he could also say “He who believes in Christ is secure in his conscience and righteous and, as the Scripture says, ‘bold as a lion'(Prov. 28:1).”[39] In 1513 in an exposition of Psalm 118 he wrote: “Where could there be a higher or greater joy than in a happy, secure, and fearless conscience, a conscience that trusts in God and fears neither the world nor the devil?”[40] In a sermon preached at Leipzig in 1519 Luther had said:

One must know how one stands with God, if the conscience is to be joyful and be able to stand. For when a person doubts this and does not steadfastly believe that he has a gracious God, then he actually does not have a gracious God. As he believes so he has. Therefore no one can know that he is in grace and that God is gracious toward him except through faith. If he believes it, he is saved; if he does not believe it, he is damned. For this confidence (zuvorsicht) and good conscience is the real, basically good faith, which the grace of God works in us.[41]
[25] The secret for Luther is to look to Christ and not to Moses, the gospel not the law. In a sermon of 1532 he said:

Christ offers us such freedom that we must simply tolerate no master over our conscience but insist on our baptism and as people called to Christ and made righteous and holy through him say, “This is my right, my treasure, my work and my defense against all sin and unrighteousness (which the law can produce and lay upon me)”….Thus a person can defend himself against the suggestions and assaults of the devil, whether these concern present or former sins. The point is to keep Moses and Christ, works and faith, external life and conscience apart. When the law would get to me and terrify my heart it is time to give the dear law a vacation, and if it does not want a vacation confidently drive it away and say, “I shall gladly do and demand good works in due season wherever I can when I am among people. But here in my conscience I want to know nothing of such matters. Leave me here untroubled and tell me nothing of it. Here I listen neither to Moses nor the Pharisees. Here baptism and Christ must rule alone and be everything.”[42]
[26] The traditional teaching concerning conscience which Luther had inherited had insisted that conscience is always subject to law. Law binds conscience; also conscience is not an originally religious experience, rather it is the experience of oneself.[43] Luther claimed that the conscience is only secure if it is free from the law and totally subject to Christ, and that only an encounter with Christ can free our conscience from its fatal involvement with law, death, and devil. As long as we operate with an independent conscience it will only produce anxiety and despair. Paul Tillich in his description of the various anxieties which human beings experience-fate and death, guilt and condemnation, emptiness and meaningless-seems very close to Luther’s description of the effect of conscience on humanity.[44]

[27] Indeed, conscience produces Angst. But Angst does not provide a sound basis for responsible Christian ethics. Luther is aware of this and suggests ways in which human beings might find guidance for the individual and social ethical decisions that they must make. He says: “When I am among people I shall gladly do and demand good works” (see note 42). Here the law in its political use is an important positive instrument. And this law is essentially the law of love. For Luther, faith is active in love, and love is active in justice. The structures which must be developed and cultivated for this are the varieties of human vocations which enable all human beings to be at least moderately useful to each other, in spite of selfishness and sin. And ultimately it is human reason, much maligned by Luther, which, while impotent and even dangerous when attempting to attain God, serves human beings well in their necessary and inescapable attempts to construct a humane society. Indeed, as he wrote in his Galatians commentary of 1535:

“Our politeuma is in heaven,” not in a local sense, but to the extent that a Christian believes, to that extent he is in heaven; and to the extent that he does his duty in faith, to that extent he is doing it in heaven….Therefore the spiritual and heavenly blessings must be distinguished from the earthly blessings, which is to have a good government (politiam) and household (oeconomiam), to have children, peace, wealth, food and other physical advantages. But the heavenly blessing is to be set free from the law, sin, and death; to be justified and made alive; to have a gracious God; to have a confident heart, a joyful conscience (conscientiam hilarem) [italics mine], and spiritual comfort; to have knowledge of Christ, the gift of prophecy, and the revelation of the Scriptures; to have the gifts of the Holy Spirit; to rejoice in God, etc.-these are the heavenly blessings of the church of Christ.[45]
[28] A joyful conscience is a gift, not an achievement. It belongs with freedom from the law, sin, and death. A wonderful, unpredictable, and undeserved gift, it cannot be used as the basis of ethics. And Luther refused to do so. He built his ethics on law interpreted by love, as illustrated in his explanation to the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism, and on justice and equity as administered by human beings serving in the structures which God has allowed people to develop for their protection and peace. It is not because conscience is necessarily a reliable guide to the moral life that we must respect every person’s conscience, but because it is an essential aspect of humanity. We are not saved by obeying the dictates of our conscience, but we must obey them nevertheless. In obeying them we might eventually learn that we are saved by grace through faith-in spite of our conscience.

[1] Luther at the Diet of Worms (1521), LW 32:112

[2] Ibid., 32:113.

[3] K. Holl, What Did Luther Understand by Religion? (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) 48.

[4] “Verba autem legis naturalis ea sunt, quae dei et proximi charitatem commendant.” Abelard, in Migne, Patrologia Latina, 178, 814c, as quoted in E. Hirsch, Lutherstudien, vol. 1 (Gütersloh: C Bertelsmann, 1954) 13.

[5] “Conscientia vero est quasi praeco legis,” as quoted in Hirsch, 17.

[6] Hirsch, 107.

[7] LW 32:130.

[8] Hirsch, Lutherstudien, 16.

[9] Hirsch, Lutherstudien, 16.

[10] Roy J. Deferrari, A Latin-English Dictionary of St. Thomas Aquinas (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1960) 1025

[11] Hirsch, Lutherstudien, 33.

[12] Randbemerkungen Luthers zu Augustins Schrift de trinitate (1509), WA 9:18

[13] Zu Taulers Predigten (c. 1516), WA 9:103.

[14] Sermo, De Propria Sapientia et Voluntate (1514), WA 1:36.

[15] Lectures on Romans (1515), LW 25:345.

[16] First Psalm Lectures (1513-16), LW 11:389.

[17] Erich Seeberg, Luthers Theologie, vol. 2 (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1937) 85.

[18] To the following, see Ernst Wolf, Peregrinatio (Munich: C. Kaiser, 1962) 88ff.

[19] Lectures on Romans (1515), LW 25:325.

[20] To the following, see G. Jacob, Der Gewissensbegriff in der Theologie Luthers (Tübingen: Mohr, 1929).

[21] To the following, see G. Jacob, Der Gewissensbegriff in der Theologie Luthers (Tübingen: Mohr, 1929).

[22] The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows (1521), LW 44:298.

[23] Lectures on Galatians (1535), LW 26:148.

[24] Ibid., 148-149.

[25] Hauspostille (1545), WA 52:736, line 30.

[26] 1 Corinthians 15 (1534), LW 28:208.

[27] LW 45:108.

[28] Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament (1522), LW 36:248.

[29] Fastenpostille (1525), WA 17/2:104.

[30] Fastenpostille (1525), WA 17/2:104.

[31] Sermons (1528), WA 27:110, line 24.

[32] Lectures on Genesis (1535/45), LW 7:271.

[33] 20 Sermons (1533), WA 37:185.

[34] 20 Sermons (1533), WA 37:185.

[35] Psalm 118 (1530), LW 14:85.

[36] Sermons (1532), WA 36:20ff.

[37] Lectures on Galatians (1535), LW 26:35.

[38] Lectures on Genesis (1535-45), LW 1:287.

[39] Lectures on Romans (1515), LW 25:400.

[40] LW 14:100-101.

[41] WA 36:279.

[42] WA 36:279.

[43] Cf. Hirsch, Lutherstudien, 107.

[44] Tillich, The Courage to Be, 32 ff.

[45] LW 26:439-440.