Response to John Stumme on Conscience

See “Conscience-bound Beliefs” Rule and the “Conscience-bound-belief” Rule by John R. Stumme

[1] John R. Stumme is right1: with “bound conscience” the ELCA has bought an unfocused concept with an undefined purpose and an unspecified scope of application, whose usefulness is uncertain and whose consequences are unknown, perhaps because its biblical origins are unstated. Stumme has focused on the lack of a biblical foundation for “bound conscience” as proposed in our recent statements on sexuality; just as important, I feel, is the absence of an adequate ground in the theological tradition of western Christianity and its Lutheran expression for the manner in which the ELCA has manufactured this concept. What needs to happen next in the ELCA with “bound conscience,” therefore, is not to jettison the notion, but to clarify what role the idea might play in current and future ELCA conversations on deeply congested issues if the historical roots and contemporary manipulation of “bound conscience” were to be fully examined. If that examination demonstrates that “bound conscience” is indeed an incoherent expression, or that it is irrelevant to our present ecclesial discussions, then it should be retired. But the critical work on “bound conscience” remains to be done. John Stumme’s fine article provides an excellent impetus to engage such work.

[2] That critical work is worth doing because “conscience” has a hallowed history within western Christianity. That history is a thoroughly convoluted one, as Stumme points out in his essay (footnote 10). But beneath the historical tangle of theological claims and philosophical assertions on “conscience” there lays a single puzzlement: how is it possible that human persons, Christian or pagan, can know the principles of right and wrong conduct apart from divine revelation? As Stumme’s cited references indicate, a developed notion of “conscience” began life in the Hellenistic period as a faculty of judgment within individuals that condemns our behavior when that behavior is wrong or improper. At this point, “conscience” is tied to an awareness of guilt, but there is no suggestion that “conscience” provides any contact with the fundamental principles of right and wrong action. Even Paul, in the celebrated passages in Romans (2:14–16), I Corinthians (8:7–12) and II Corinthians (1:12), follows this usage. “Conscience” informs us that we have incurred guilt by violating something in the order of nature; it functions as a “witness” (Romans 2:15) supplying “testimony” (II Corinthians 1:12) of our transgression. But it is nowhere indicated in Scripture that “conscience” describes a fully informed faculty of moral discernment. That comes later.

[3] “Conscience” as a fully informed faculty of moral discernment begins to appear in the medieval period in response to questions about whether human persons can directly know what is right or wrong independent of divine revelation. This was a serious question, since it was apparent that a great many morally congested situations are not obviously addressed in Scripture, the Church Fathers, or sacred tradition. It was thought that human persons must possess some means of intuiting and activating ethical principles derived from ordinary experience. Thus was “conscience” expanded into a mechanism of the soul for receiving objective knowledge of the precepts of good and bad, right and wrong.

[4] This simplified narrative disguises that actual complexity that attended the development of “conscience” over some 1500 years2; nonetheless, this was approximately the situation that obtained at the time of the Reformation. But it is important to note that throughout its history “conscience” was always a feature of human consciousness that was attached to, and informed by, some objective set of norms existing outside itself. When Luther said at Worms, “My conscience is bound to the Word of God,” he was identifying the specific, external and objective normative source of that to which his “conscience” was bound. In the western tradition — and most emphatically, in the western Christian tradition — a “bound conscience” is tethered to a humanly mind-independent set of standards, either divinely imparted through revelation, or naturally intuited through experience. For the sixteenth-century Lutheran reformers, as for the theologians and philosophers who went before them, a “conscience” had to be “conformed” (to objective moral precepts) before it could be “bound.”

[5] This further suggests the intimate relationship between “conscience” and the western tradition of natural law. The precepts of the natural law are those external and objective norms that govern our understanding of what counts as good and bad, right and wrong; and “conscience” is the medium through which we discover those precepts. Aquinas ratifies this portrayal of “conscience” when he describes it as “a law of our minds, in as far as it contains the first principles of the law of nature”3; and again, as an “innate habitual possession of the first principles of action, which are the natural principles of the law of nature.”4 Whatever Luther may have rejected or transformed among the scholastic formulations he inherited, he clearly understands “conscience” in this traditional sense, as a voice of condemnation speaking against a background of objectively known standards of moral rectitude.

[6] Jump ahead now to the account of “conscience” presented in the ELCA social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, adopted at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, and in the implementing resolutions and other related documents offered at that time. In those texts, “conscience” has apparently been treated to a substantial make-over. I say “apparently” because it is never made explicit what motivates or what informs the new rendition of “conscience” retailed in the social statement. But, as Stumme emphasizes in his essay, the depiction of “conscience” in the social statement represents a significant departure from any traditional biblical or theological affirmation.

[7] What seems most obvious about “conscience” in Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust is the novel psychologization of the concept. Instead of regarding “conscience” as a vehicle for grasping external and objective independent moral norms and for convicting us of violations of those norms, “conscience” is evidently now a mode of expression for an individual’s private and subjective opinions and values. The distinction that Stumme perceptively notes between “conscience” and the social statement’s construction of “conscience-bound beliefs” is a case in point. “Beliefs,” as the statement presents them, are murky and idiosyncratic deeply-felt convictions worthy of respect by others. But what makes them worthy of respect? Is it simply the fact that they are deeply-felt convictions? And what has any of this to do with “conscience” as traditionally articulated within the western Christian tradition?

[8] What all of this suggests is that the ELCA may be proposing a larger innovation: a new theological anthropology, one that takes as its point of departure the primacy of an individual’s internal subjective states as the source and origin of moral normativity. There have been an assortment of nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophical adventures into this territory, but a consistent theological anthropology based on this eccentric vision of the sufficiency of human psychological categories is something unique. Is this revised theological anthropology what the ELCA is struggling to elaborate in our formula of the “bound conscience”? Is “conscience” typically bound solely to other internal psychological states? If so, in what way is a “bound conscience” to be distinguished from a stubborn adherence to a personal preference, or from a mere resistance to change?

[9] In this regard, Stumme offers the reminder that for Luther and the rest of the western Christian theological tradition “conscience,” like popes and councils, can err. It can err because it is tied, not to additional psychological expressions of the human person, but to objective precepts that are external to, and stand over against, the subjective individual. Insofar as “conscience” willfully or innocently misreads the content of those precepts, it is in error. But how can a “conscience” bound only to its own sincere inner persuasions ever be guilty of error?

[10] If the ELCA is, however tentatively, embarking on the construction of a novel theological anthropology, of which the notion of “bound conscience” is perhaps a preliminary and partial announcement, we should say so openly. If respecting “bound conscience” is an initial step in understanding the human person as a network of psychological states — of beliefs, values, opinions and preferences — then it would be helpful to relocate “conscience” within the panoply of those states as the adhesive that produces a firm allegiance to them. But it would also be helpful to acknowledge that this has nothing to do with the historic language and usages of “conscience.”

[11] But so what? Should any of this matter? Is the muddled pedigree of the ELCA’s “bound conscience” as applied to issues of sexuality a concern that should be church-dividing? To say that such subjects (i.e., sexuality) are not church-dividing is in fact to say that moral issues are not church-dividing. The ELCA wants to affirm that we can live with differences, and respect those differences, when those differences express moral convictions (that is, express a “bound conscience”). For instance, within the church there are those who are opposed, say, to various strategies for caring for the environment, or to immigration reform, or to legalizing medical marijuana; and we do not divide over those issues. The ELCA’s suggestion is that we treat sexuality in the same fashion. But that is only to suggest that ethical issues in general are not church-dividing, which is another way of saying that ethical issues are not theological issues. If this is now the methodological approach embraced by the ELCA when it comes to ethical issues — that ethical issues are not church-dividing because they do not occupy theological space within the church, but only reside within the subjective domain an individual’s psychology (her “bound conscience”) — then, again, we should say so openly.

[12] It is possible, I suppose, that the actual goals of those in the ELCA who are advocates for “bound conscience” are more modest than those I have suggested here. It may be that all “bound conscience” is intended to do is create room for civil discourse within the church on congealed subjects like sexuality. If we practice a mutual respect for “consciences” bound to our various and incommensurate personal beliefs, we may lower the humidity that so often surrounds those conversations. But if the purpose for invoking “bound conscience” is to foster dialogue and the possibility of an enlarged appreciation for the multiple viewpoints that exist among us, how do we justify officially changing the polity and practice of the church in the midst of that dialogue? Discourse is one thing; ecclesiastical polity is another thing altogether. Revising organizational polity while the discourse is still ongoing frequently results in the disruption of the discourse, and it is arguable that this is what has happened to our “journeying together” in the wake of the 2009 CWA decisions.

[13] Furthermore, if our hope was to promote respectful dialogue within the ELCA on the theme of human sexuality, we might have done better to represent discourse within a community of moral deliberation (as some in the ELCA leadership have been fond of describing us) as a distinctive sort of social practice defined by a set of acquired virtues that make such discourse possible, rather than by recourse to an ill-defined rhetorical construction like “bound conscience.” Advocacy within the ELCA for cultivating the virtues inherent in the practice of public discourse might have accomplished the goals of honoring one another in our shared engagement of difficult matters. Resources for implementing this sort of endeavor lay close at hand; writers as diverse as Alasdair MacIntyre and Jürgen Habermas have provided models for achieving a reasonably transparent and meaningful discourse, something that “bound conscience” appears unable to do.

[14] I am suggesting, then, that if the ELCA wishes to utilize “bound conscience” as a thematic element in its self-understanding as an incarnation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, we need to devote considerable time to defining what we mean by “conscience,” and how that definition may be situated generally in relation to the theological traditions of western Christianity, and specifically in relation to the question of natural law. In addition, the ELCA would be wise to reflect more intentionally on the unstated assumptions we may be harboring regarding our theological anthropology; to what extent that anthropology is determined among us by Lutheran biblical and confessional affirmations, and to what extent we may be adopting unawares our conjectures from other sources. Finally, it would be good for us in the ELCA to consider how Lutherans should best conceive of the relation between theology and ethics, and the way in which theology and ethics might be captured in our ecclesial polities.

[15] In saying all this, I am endorsing (and repeating) what John Stumme has already carefully articulated in his essay. My hope is to hold up a handful of concerns from his inventory that I believe deserve special attention as we move forward. There is far too much unfinished business for the ELCA when it comes to the issue of “bound conscience.” If this concept is to do the work hoped for it, it needs a great deal more clarity, specificity, and theological support.


1. John R. Stumme, “‘Conscience-bound Beliefs’ Rule and the ‘Conscience-bound-belief’ Rule,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics (November 2010) 10:11.

2. In addition to the citations noted by Stumme, other brief introductory surveys of “conscience” and its history in the western theological tradition include Douglas Kries, The Problem of Natural Law (Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2007), chapters 1–3; Eric D’Arcy, Conscience and Its Right to Freedom (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961), pp. 1–48; Jeremiah Newman, Conscience Vs. Law (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971), pp. 1–89; Robert A. Greene, “Natural Law, Synderesis, and the Moral Sense,” in Journal of the History of Ideas (April 1997) 58:2, pp. 173–198. For a fuller rendition of the history of “conscience” in the west, see Douglas Langston, Conscience and Other Virtues (State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, i.2, q. 94, a. I, ad 2.

4. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, xvi. I.

Thomas D. Pearson

Thomas D. Pearson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas.