Solus Christus or Sola Viscera? Scrutinizing Lutheran Appeals to Conscience

This article appeared in the summer issue of dialog. Published with permission.

[1] In the wake of recommendations from the ELCA Task Force on Human Sexuality, one commentator worried that Lutherans would fall prey to bitter “red synod/blue synod” squabbles reminiscent of the November, 2004 election. Let’s hope we have recovered from the fallout of an angry election.1 Still, there are some similarities between church and state: both decided not to decide one of the most divisive issues they faced. Each realm frames the issue differently. The civil realm debates “gay marriage,” and it became a wedge issue in the campaign. There was even promise of an amendment to the Constitution limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman. Post-November, however, the issue was quietly dropped by the White House, merely a blip on the screen of the State of the Union message.

[2] The churchly realm debates “gay unions,” which would welcome gay and lesbian couples into the state of holy matrimony. In its recommendations to the churchwide assembly this summer, the Task Force declined at present to alter either current matrimonial practice or standing policy binding its rostered leaders, the Vision and Expectations statement. Instead, the Task Force counseled a pastoral rather than a juridical or disciplinary approach to congregations that acted to bless unions or call pastors in violation of church policy. It urged Christians instead to “embrace such unions with prayer” rather than with matrimonial ceremony or with ecclesiastical trial.

[3] I would argue that this “embrace of prayer” ought to be extended to unions this church already blesses in the form of holy matrimony. Lutherans are unable to rise above the high divorce rates plaguing other American Christians – and non-Christians. It seems like our heterosexual unions are in a state of siege – but that would be the subject of another article.

[4] The recommendations took the wind out of everyone’s sails. Expectations of an all-out assault on Higgins Road were disappointed, despite the small army of staff trained to parry angry phone-calls and cyber-attacks. “We had two calls the day the recommendations were released – and one was asking for technical assistance in downloading the document,” confided one churchwide head. Some may be breathing a sigh of relief, but I suspect most Lutherans feel a sense of disappointment. Doubtless “red synod” Lutherans find that the recommendations did not go far enough in defending the sanctity of Christian marriage, and “blue synod” Lutherans fault the recommendations for not going far enough to welcome gay and lesbian Lutherans into their congregations by blessing their committed and faithful partnerships. The recommendations may have disappointed everyone equally. Given the partisan political climate we inhabit, we should not be surprised. But before we despair of yet another task force in the near or far-distant future, I want to highlight language that surfaced throughout the recommendations which is provocative, promising, and distinctive to our Christian tradition – whatever color your synod.

[5] The report appeals again and again to “conscience,” sometimes qualifying conscience as “good” and more often referring to it as “bound.” This appeal to conscience ought not surprise a tradition whose chief reformer resisted pope and emperor alike on grounds of conscience. More surprising is that Lutheran ethics since Luther himself has had relatively little to say about conscience, its possibilities and its limits. Conscience gets more attention from Roman Catholic moral theologians, who draw on a tradition of reflection that dates back to the apostle Paul, but flourished particularly in late medieval theology.2 Luther spoke from a rich tradition and a complex, nuanced view of conscience.

[6] In contrast, we inherit our understanding of conscience from the Enlightenment, too easily understanding it as the inner voice that prods us to challenge authority in the name of individual autonomy. Individual conscience reigns as a sovereign arbiter. We judge things by whether or not we feel “comfortable” with them. We rest easy in consciences that are confirmed in their goodness: “These are my principles and a plague be on yours, on any evidence to the contrary, and on what anyone else might think.” For us “authenticity” is not merely a desideratum; it is a kind of entitlement.

[7] The difference between these two understandings of conscience is profound. Luther struggled with consciences that were unduly beleaguered, not overweeningly confident. Luther’s understanding of conscience captive to the Word of God expresses his solus Christus (“Christ alone”) convictions; Enlightenment appeals to conscience express more a kind of sola viscera (“by guts alone”) mentality. The question remains: can Luther’s views of conscience enrich our own? I am convinced that rightly understood, Lutheran appeals to conscience invite us to transcend divisions that threaten to divide our church. I fear that Enlightenment appeals to conscience only invite us to dig in our heels more deeply. First, we need to understand what Luther meant by conscience: conscience captive, conscience instructed, and conscience informed. Only then can we revisit the role of conscience in the life of the church and its congregations – in this debate and in so many others.

Luther on Conscience
[8] Martin Luther famously appealed to conscience at the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521. Summoned before the emperor and urged to repudiate his writings, he refused: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” he reputedly said. “Thus I cannot or will not recant, for going against conscience is neither safe nor salutary. I can do no other, here I stand, God help me. Amen.”3 These words remain the locus classicus of Luther’s thinking on conscience. Few are able to resist the temptation to appropriate the quote, either abridging it or taking it out of context entirely.4 Succumbing to this temptation blinds us to the crucial modifiers of Luther’s understanding of conscience: captive, instructed, and informed.

Conscience captive:
[9] “Going against conscience is neither safe nor salutary….” Since the eighteenth century these words represent conscience’s declaration of independence from popes, councils, constraints of tradition, or anything else that rubs against the grain of integrity. Indeed, Enlightenment secularists valorized Luther, reading him as if he had internalized Kant’s command: “Sapere audere!” “Dare to know!” But of course, Luther could not know the great Konigsburg philosopher’s inaugural speech for the Age of Reason, “Was ist Aufklarung?” And Luther would have insisted on conscience’s captivity before its liberation. For him Christian conscience was captive to the Word of God, not to Enlightenment notions of the autonomous self. There is a huge difference.

[10] Understood aright, Luther bequeathed to the future the profound psychological and spiritual insight that conscience is never free. The independent conscience simply does not exist. Conscience is always bound – possibly even strait-jacketed in precisely those moments when the moral agent feels most free. Luther pointed us to the hard truth that conscience is always captive to something – the real question is what? Parents of teenagers know that captivity well, as they watch their children head off to school in a uniform that may not be school-issue and regulated by institutional code, but remains rigidly regulated by the pressure of peers. Instead of plaid skirts, white ties, and blue blazers, the look features low-rider jeans, cargo pants, and tight tops. Whatever the dictates of the reigning fashion police, the current look is still a uniform – and everyone looks the same as everyone else. Parents who try to intervene incur a passionate appeal to the autonomous conscience: “But Mom: I need to be me! This is my way of expressing myself!” Conscience is always captive: the question is to what?

[11] Before the emperor on that afternoon in 1521, Luther was quite clear: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Luther would not capitulate to popes, councils, nor even the emperor himself – and Charles V responded in a few weeks with a double imperial ban. What did Luther mean by the captive conscience?

[12] We get some important clues in a sermon Luther preached shortly before his audience with the emperor “on the three kinds of good life for the instruction of consciences.”5 This – and not Immanuel Kant – formed the necessary backdrop for Luther’s statement before the imperial diet. Here like a master architect Luther sketched three kinds of conscience along the lines of a Hebrew tabernacle with its forecourt, the sanctuary, and tabernacle or Holy of Holies. He notes the structural resemblance with the Christian church’s churchyard, nave, and chancel. The floor plan sketches out his thinking on the uses and limits of conscience.

[13] In his sermon, Luther laid out three kinds of conscience with their respective understandings of doctrine, sin, and works – or an understanding of what constitutes “the good life.” In the churchyard the good life consists of following rules concerning food and drink, dress and occasion, hours spent in prayer, work, and sabbath. Breach of any of these commandments rightly gives one a “bad” conscience, and adherence to the commandments convinces people that they have achieved a right relationship with God. For Luther nothing could be further from the truth. These “churchyard saints” with their churchyard consciences “strain gnats and swallow camels,” all the while standing far from the truth of God’s promises.

[14] But no one comes to church to stay in the churchyard. People come to church to worship, and Luther invited his listeners into the nave, “where teaching, works, and concepts of conscience … are really good.” Language from virtue ethics described this space: “humility, meekness, gentleness, peace, fidelity, love, propriety, and purity,” and these dispositions contrast sharply with the churchyard’s external acts of piety. Although he praised these dispositions as constituting “true conscience,” allowing believers to “strain camels and swallow gnats,” Luther shrewdly acknowledged how hard this righteousness was to come by. He was convinced that people didn’t really want to be righteous; instead, they generated these pious feelings because they were either fearful of disgrace or desirous of praise. Ultimately, they failed to deceive even themselves with this facade of goodness, and would-be saints wound up on their knees, begging for grace.

[15] At this point, Luther invited his listeners into the chancel, the Holy of Holies, where Christ and his promises reside. At Christ’s bidding the Holy Spirit enters the believer, creating virtues that seek no reward, fear no punishment, and become holy for the sake of holiness alone. Luther concluded: “Here is really sound doctrine! This shows what a conscience is and what good works are!”

[16] The kind of conscience described here stands equidistant from Enlightenment notions of the autonomous self and from Roman Catholic notions of natural law which presumes an internal faculty with at least some potential for pointing the moral agent in the right direction. Conscience seems not merely captive to the Word of God, but coopted by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Luther’s conscience fulfils itself only when it denies itself entirely and follows the lead of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Ironically, conscience is “free” only when it is captive to the Spirit.

[17] Yet Luther knew that Christians did not live out their lives in the tabernacles of temples nor in the chancels of churches. They returned to their worldly duties in a rhythm of worship and service that was as instinctual as breathing. Just as life-giving breath flowed in and out of the lungs, so Christians moved out of the chancel and into the world and back into the sanctuary again. Faith was no end in itself, but found its fulfilment in service of the neighbor. Filled with the Spirit, Christians turned around and stepped out of the chancel, through the nave, and out into the churchyard. Luther concluded that “good works without faith cannot happen, and that faith without works cannot endure.”

[18] It seems clear, though it is implicit in this sermon, that conscience brings the counsel of the Holy Spirit to bear on the concrete contexts of daily life. As Christians moved from the chancel back into the nave, that theater of virtues, they needed to discern which virtues the situation demanded. For example, courage might be admirable on the battlefield, but out-of-place in a nursery, where uncommon gentleness was called for. A Spirit-filled conscience assessed context and supplied the appropriate response. Beyond the nave and into the courtyard, conscience translated virtuous habit into action. External works would not secure righteousness, but conscience inspired by the Spirit became incarnate in works of love and service to the neighbor.

[19] I wish Luther had been more specific about the work of the Spirit-inspired conscience, but it is well within the parameters of his thinking to present conscience as the necessary mediator between the counsel of the Spirit and the concrete situation, between the Christian virtues or “gifts of the Spirit” and service to the neighbor in front of me. Clearly, he does not want to conflate these three distinct kinds of conscience any more than he wants to tear down the walls between chancel, nave, and churchyard. But conscience in each of these spaces has an important role in the Christian life.

Conscience instructed:
[20] When should the Christians use which kind of conscience? The question remained a problem, and Luther spent a good deal of time instructing the consciences of his flock. I’m not sure we post-Enlightenment Christians grasp his urgency on this point either. We tend to view instruction as the enemy – or at least one of them. We devalue instruction as the benign face of propaganda, and propaganda shackles conscience to heteronomous authorities. So far from working to educate consciences, we latter-day Lutherans prefer peeling away layers of “bad” teaching to get to “what feels right to me” or “what I am confortable with.” Feeling authentic or feeling “comfortable” with something substitutes for listening to others and learning from them. Sola viscera! “By guts alone!”

[21] Alas! For Luther human nature is less like a peach than an onion. Peel all you want, you will never come to a life-bearing seed, but rather a handful of nothingness. We live only when we are grafted onto the life-giving body of Christ; we live only as we are nurtured by the promises of baptism. Again and again, Luther wrote letters of pastoral counsel to instruct the consciences of his fellow Christians. In his writing he showed familiarity with the rich tradition of reflection on conscience from ancient and medieval theologians who preceded him. For example, in considering the question of whether Christians should go to war, he revealed knowledge of the whole medieval taxonomy of conscience.6 There are: “weak, timid, and doubting consciences;” there are “timid and insecure consciences;” there are “good and well-instructed consciences.” Luther stood in a tradition that gave conscience a two-fold referent. On one hand, it was subjective, referring to the person or moral agent deliberating; on the other, it was objective, referring to the judgment itself and how closely it conformed to objective reality. Subjective conscience referred to the character of the person deliberating, and conscience could be “good” or “bad,” “strong” or “weak,” “convicted” or “insecure.” Objective conscience referred to the quality of the deliberation itself, and here conscience was either “well-instructed” or “poorly instructed,” in other words, “right on” — or gravely in error.

[22] A compelling illustration is close at hand: we don’t have to leave the 21st century for the 16th. Luther’s poor soldier aside, the war in Iraq shows in sharp relief the difference between conscience’s subjective and objective referents. The U.S. took a principled stance in Iraq for democracy, freedom, and liberty and against tyranny, torture chambers, and WMDs. We acted in “good conscience,” according to the subjective axis of conscience. The problem lies on the objective axis of conscience. The U.S. judgment to go to war was out of synch with objective reality on two points: we believed that Iraq possessed WMDs – and they did not; and we believed that Iraqis would cheer us as liberators – and they despised us as an occupying army instead. In subjective terms, it could be argued that the U.S. acted in good conscience, but seen objectively, our judgment was gravely in error.

[23] His medieval heritage gave Luther distinctions that he clearly knew – but did not always adopt. We see his departure from established teaching most clearly in the 1521 sermon. He put no stock in the subjective referent of conscience; the character of the moral agent meant little to him. “We are all sinners,” he observes, and with this statement the careful calibrations of human goodness fell away. The “good” person simply did not exist, and that made any “principled” stance just so much false pride. In a word, the subjective referent of conscience had nothing to refer to.

[24] Perhaps this was why Luther spent so much time working the objective axis of conscience. He frequently wrote letters with the express purpose of instructing conscience, i.e., affecting its objective judgments. In writing to his poor beleaguered soldier, he responded not with a theology of war, not with a political theology, but with a pastoral word. In replying to the Twelve Articles of the Swabian peasants, he sought to sway both the peasants and their lords.7 In preaching to his peasant congregation in Wittenberg, he struggled to put in plain language the real work of conscience, which was to reach beyond itself, grasp the promises of Christ, and then incarnate those promises in service to the neighbor.8 Only then could the Christian truly become a “little Christ” to the neighbor. Inspired by the Spirit, conscience was shaped by the promises of Christ to serve others.

Conscience informed:
[25] What could conscience know? Conscience was not a matter of individual integrity, but a matter of corporate deliberation. Derived from the Latin conscientia, con- + -scientia, conscience signaled insight gained from communication and conversation. Luther understood the word literally as a kind of “knowing with” someone or something else. Formation of conscience demanded a consult. He could not imagine conscience working properly without conversation. He himself asked for counsel, and he responded freely when asked. Behind his statement “my conscience is captive to the Word of God” lay hours of worship and prayer, argument and disputation, letters written and received. These practices all demanded community. There is here no declaration of independence for individual conscience, but rather an observation of its dependence on the mutual conversation and consolation of the brothers and sisters. Luther’s captive conscience displays but the interdependence of Christians. We need each other for the task of judgment: to weigh possible options, to test potential courses of action, to discern, and to seek counsel from people who may be wiser than we..

[26] Of course, the quality of moral discernment depends on the range of people consulted. Consulting with the “in-house trinity” – me, myself, and I – takes little energy and produces the expected results: people whose conscience is bound to their own prejudices. Consulting with like-minded folks binds conscience to the narrow view of a life-style enclave. Consulting with the broad spectrum of folk may or may not confirm initial hunches, but it opens us to the working of the Spirit. Luther’s correspondence documents communication with a broad range of friends and enemies, neighbors and strangers.

[27] Finally, the Word of God which captures conscience works in a three-fold fashion. It is incarnate in a community, as it worships together, shares the sacraments, and prays for grace; it is inscribed in Scripture, which treats Christ (as Luther put it, was Christum treibet); and it is embedded in human nature, as people together exercise “plain reason” to approach a mystery that is wholly in and wholly other than their experience.

[28] The final scene of director Eric Till’s 2003 movie Luther features Luther and his wife silhouetted against a green hill as Phillip Melanchthon (Phillip the Meek) gallops down upon them shouting “They accepted our confession!” As the scene fades, words scroll across the screen praising Luther for giving future generations a sense of the “freedom of conscience.” Nice tribute – but not at all accurate. Luther did not claim his conscience was “free;” he claimed that it was “captive.”

[29] We mishear the Reformer, because his words get drowned out by an Enlightenment symphony praising a very different kind of conscience. Luther understood conscience as:

captive – not free;

a knowledge gained and held in common with other Christians – not annexed to the individual;

interdependent and born of a discerning community – not independent and lodged in the sovereign self;

confident in Christ and doubtful about its own conclusions – not confident in its own conclusions and wary of all else;

welcoming of instruction from the indwelling Spirit – not suspicious of instruction as propaganda.

[20] So understood conscience is not a work of the individual but a mystery of the Trinity: instructed by the indwelling Spirit, formed by the promises of Christ, and directed by the created image of God and “plain reason” to be of concrete service to the neighbor.

[21] I applaud the Task Force for returning to such classically Lutheran language – I only hope we latter-day Lutherans turn to Luther rather than the Enlightenment for unpacking conscience. The Task Force recommendations work in concert with its two impressive study guides to point the church in a course of on-going deliberation. May our work be bold, broadly consultative, and faithful!

End Notes

1 Kathryn A. Kleinhans, “No Red Synods/Blue Synods in the ELCA: Attempting to Hold the Middle Ground,” in the on-line Journal of Lutheran Ethics,

For other responses to the Task Force recommendations, including articles from Dennis Bielfeldt, Jonathan R. Sande, John Wickham, Bp. Steven Ullestad, Kaari Reierson, and others, see the archives of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.

2 Cf. Anne E. Patrick, Liberating Conscience: Feminist Explorations in Catholic Moral Theology, (New York: Continuum, 1996); Sidney Callahan, In Good Conscience: Reason and Emotion in Moral Decision-Making, No. 14: Conscience (New York: Paulist Press, 2004), especially articles by Charles E. Curran, “Conscience in the Light of the Catholic Moral Tradition,” Timothy E. O’Connell, “An Understanding of Conscience,” Richard M. Gula, “The Moral Conscience,” and William C. Spohn, “Conscience and Moral Development.”

3 Cited in Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven: Yale University, 1982), p. 203.

4 Another fine Luther remark receives the same kind of treatment: “Pecca fortiter – sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo!” “Sin boldly – but even more fiercely believe and rejoice in Christ.” If only the latter part of the statement received the attention the first part does!

5 Martin Luther, “A Sermon on the Three Kinds of Good Life for the Instruction of Consciences, 1521,” trans. James Atkinson, in Luther’s Works: Vol. 44 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), pp. 235-242.

6 Martin Luther, “Whether Soldiers , Too, Can Be Saved, 1526,” trans. Charles M. Jacobs, in Luther’s Works: Vol. 46 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), pp. 93-137.

7 Martin Luther, “Admonition to Peace, A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia, 1525,” trans. Charles M. Jacobs, in Luther’s Works: Vol. 46 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), pp. 17-43.

8 Martin Luther, “A Sermon on the Three Kinds of Good Life for the Instruction of Consciences, 1521,” op. cit.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).