Martin Luther’s Understanding of the Conscience, “Coram Deo” (…and the ELCA’s Sexuality Study)


"…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."  Martin Luther1   

"…the God-given mission and communion we share is at least as important as the issues about which faithful conscience-bound Lutherans find themselves so decisively at odds…" (The Task Force of the ELCA Studies on Sexuality)2  

I. Luther and Conscience
[1] For nearly 500 years, Martin Luther's view of "conscience" has been the subject of a consistent, occasionally cantankerous, controversy-and this controversy has grown into an impressive tradition of scholarly research.  Luther has been called, with respect to conscience, a "…Christopher Columbus in the world of faith, who finds new and good land on the other side of what was thought to be the abyss."3   Similarly, others have labeled Luther "the discoverer of conscience."4   As initiator of the "Luther-Renaissance," Karl Holl, lecturing at the University of Berlin in 1917 to mark the 400th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses,5  spoke these famous words, "Luther's religion is a religion of conscience, in its most graphic sense."6   Some researchers (e.g., Ernst Troeltsch) have seen Luther's comments and actions related to conscience as vestiges of the late medieval period; while others, such as Wilhelm Dilthey, have seen them as the beginning of the modern age.7

II. The Diet of Worms
[2] In this tradition of research, the reformer's famous "Here I Stand Speech" at the Diet of Worms in 1521 has consistently taken center stage.8   His strong words, with their clear reference to conscience, spoken at such an auspicious occasion; make them a locus classicus for interpretations of Luther's view of conscience.   On that dramatic April day, a source sympathetic to Luther's cause reports the reformer's speech this way:

Because 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, because we well know that they have often erred and contradicted themselves).  I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted.  My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, because it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.9  

[3] As important and famous as these words are, however, they are not the only reference to conscience at Worms.  The papal nuncio, Jerome Aleander (1480-1542), recorded some additional, telling references in the follow-up exchange between Luther and his chief interrogator, the secretary to the Archbishop of Trier, John Eck (not the same Eck, with whom Luther debated at Leipzig in 1519).  Aleander reports the action this way:

When Luther had given his answer, and since all were worn out by the crowd and the heat and were preparing to depart, the distinguished secretary shouted a few last words because of the shortness of time:

"Lay aside your conscience, Martin; you must lay it aside because it is in error; and it will be safe and proper for you to recant. Although you say the councils have erred you will never be able to prove it, in matters of faith at least, and even in matters of morals I fancy it will be with much difficulty."

Here Martin shouted back that he was able to prove these things.

Then there was a recess10 

A. Scholastic Theology at Worms: Syntheresis and Conscientia
[4] Aleander's account reveals how Scholastic theology, as complex and varied as it might have been, gave fundamental shape to Eck's words.  The Secretary here represents a tradition that tended to interpret conscience ("conscientia") in connection with "syntheresis."11   According to the schoolmen, syntheresis was a "…divine spark in the human being after the fall"12;  an innate power within each person, "…that inclined toward the Good.13

[5] Various thinkers described this "…ability of the soul that was not completely obliterated by the fall…," in various ways-Scotus emphasized "reason"; Bonaventure, "will"; Thomas, "habit"; Biel, "power."14   Regardless of where syntheresis was located, the fundamental dynamic remained the same.  Original sin had only partially destroyed the human inclination to do the good.  Syntheresis, however, though oriented toward the good, still needed practical direction.  The conscience provides it, because the conscience is subject to the law (divine, natural, and human).  As Gabriel Biel put it, "a true conscience is like a herald of the law."15   The conscience, under the law, directs the natural inclinations of people to do the good. 

[6] The conviction that the conscience "…applies the principles of syntheresis on a practical level,"16  stands behind the ecclesiastical, institutional response to Luther at Worms.  The church, through councils, popes, and bishops, can inform the believer's conscience.  The institutional church has been given the power to interpret God's law for believers.  As a representative of the church, therefore, Eck could simply demand that Luther recant.17   George Forell puts it this way, "by Luther's time, a conscience which opposes the law of God out of ignorance or error must simply be put aside."18

B. Luther's Conscience at Worms: The Self Coram Deo
[7] Luther, of course, did not "put aside" his conscience.  He acted in accordance with it.  By doing so, he displays the basic contours of how he understood conscience in 1521.  In addition, the reformer also indicates features of his understanding that were to gain prominence later in his career. 

[8] First, Luther bases his understanding of conscience on the conviction that human beings exist, "coram deo," in Latin ("in the sight of God").  Coram is a preposition that also means "before," "in front of," "in the presence of."  The reformer was convinced that all of life is lived (and judged) by the conscience, "before God," "in front of God," "in the presence of God."  As Gerhard Ebeling explicates Luther's usage here, he characterizes Luther's notion of coram deo, as "…the very basis of Luther's mode of thought."19   

[9] At Worms, the reformer's conscience was "captive to the Word of God."  In other words, Luther recognized that he lived in God's presence.  To deny what he was convinced was God's clear Word, would be to deny God.  Luther summarizes this fundamental insight just a few months after the Diet of Worms:

…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).20  

[10] Second, because for Luther the conscience is the self, coram deo,21  it does not exist as an autonomous substance.  Rather, Luther defined the conscience "always in relation to that which stands over against it" (i.e., God).22   The conscience, according to the reformer, contains no syntheresis or "essence," that could serve as a "divine spark" in human beings.  There is no essential or uncorrupted core within a person that can be "formed," as the scholastics would have it.  The reformer's doctrine of sin prevents such a notion.23   The old person must die and the new must be raised to new life.  Therefore, writes Luther,

…This word "formed" (formatum) is under a curse.  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.24 

[11] Third, according to Luther, the conscience receives the Word of God as both law and gospel.25   This reception means that the law functions to "attack" and "accuse" the conscience.26   Unlike the tradition he had inherited, Luther concluded that the conscience served fundamentally to condemn the whole person before God.27   A decade after Worms, Luther developed this theme as he lectured on Galatians:

…The Law does nothing but accuses consciences and manifest sin, which is dead without the Law. The knowledge of sin-I am not speaking about the speculative knowledge that hypocrites have; but I am speaking about true 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 (Rom. 7:11).28 

[12] This "theological function" of the law is, according to Luther, how the law works in and through the conscience coram deo.  However, this is not the only context in which the law functions in human life.  The law also operates "coram hominibus" ("before humans").29   In his lectures on Galatians, Luther puts it this way:

Therefore it is a matter of no small moment to believe correctly about what the Law is and what its use and function are. Thus, it is evident that we do not reject the Law and works, as our opponents falsely accuse us. But we do everything to establish the Law, and we require works. We say that the Law is good and useful, but in its proper use, namely, first…to restrain civic transgressions; and secondly, to reveal spiritual transgressions.30 

[13] According to Luther, the "first use" of the law applies to civil life and human interactions.  This function of the law pertains to conscience because the believers' ability to keep it does not enhance or diminish their standing in the eyes of God.  Indeed, in this context, they might even achieve a higher level of "civil righteousness."  Such righteousness, however, does not merit forgiveness or justify believers before God (coram deo).31   However, it does serve the neighbor and the common good.

[14] For Luther, the law, in either of its functions, is not the totality of God's Word.  The Word of God is ultimately about the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, justification and the forgiveness of Sin, says Luther, comes to the conscience as a gracious gift from God in Christ.  In other words, the conscience also receives the gospel.  The good news of God's saving deed in Jesus Christ brings hope to the despairing conscience.  The gospel can bring the dead to life.  Therefore, Luther writes in his commentary on Romans, "…he who believes in Christ is secure in his conscience and righteous and, as the Scripture says, 'bold as a lion' (Prov. 28:1)."32  

[15] Luther himself puts this very well, in a 1519 sermon,

For 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 and good conscience is the real, basically good faith, which the grace of God works in us.33 

 [16] Luther understood conscience comprehensively, as the location where God meets persons with the Divine Word of law and gospel.  The conscience is the self before God, condemned by the law and set free by the gospel; put to death by judgment and raised to new life by grace.  Ultimately, this is good news.  This is the heart of Christianity, for the reformer.  This is why, for Luther, it is such a

…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, and spiritual comfort; to have a 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.34 

Postscript: Comments on Luther, Conscience, and Sexuality
[17] Journal of Lutheran Ethics asked me to write on Luther's view of conscience, partly because "conscience" has been so prevalent in the discussions and documents associated with the ELCA's Sexuality study and report.  Therefore, I am constrained to comment…

Comment One: Conscience and the Study of Sex…
[18] As the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has studied sexuality in recent years, "conscience" has been a central concept.  Indeed, when the "Report and Recommendations from the Task Force" appeared in January 2005, there was an even more pronounced emphasis on conscience.  Not only do two of the three recommendations make explicit reference to conscience, the task force devotes a special section in the report to its "Concern for Conscience"35   In the context of this concern, it makes specific reference to Martin Luther and "the careful way [he] approached moral dilemmas."  The report then highlights Luther's "genuine concern for the integrity of conscience."

[19] The ELCA Report then refers to Luther's actions at the Diet of Worms.  The report notes that Luther, "in his own defense at the Diet of Worms, he declared himself bound in conscience by the Word of God and further stated, 'it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience' (Luther's Works 32:112)."  The report summarizes this section by asserting that, "In this concern for conscience Luther reflected the same respect for conscience reflected in the Bible." 

Comment Two: Sexuality and Conscience
[20] The Sexuality Study has tended to use "conscience" in a way to underscore the fact that people feel strongly about the issues before them, either pro or con.  The Report uses phrases such as "conscience-bound," echoing Luther at Worms, to indicate that faithful folks of good will can sharply disagree over issues such as the ordination of practicing homosexuals-and, perhaps because they are "bound" by their consciences, there is no reason even to try to convince them to change their minds.

[21] For Luther, an appeal to "conscience" was not simply a way to say, "I feel strongly about this issue."  When Luther spoke of conscience, particularly at Worms, he spoke about the gospel, what he would later call "the first and chief article."  This is conscience in a comprehensive, even ultimate, sense.  Issues of conscience for him were issues at the heart of the Christian faith-salvation, law and gospel, theology of the cross, Word and Sacraments, etc. 

Comment Three: Luther and "the Biblical view"
[22] In passing, it should be noted that, forty years ago, Krister Stendahl (whom I quoted at the beginning of the article) warned against too quickly or simplistically identifying Luther's view of conscience with "the Biblical view" (cf., "Introspective Conscience," 199-215).

End Notes

1  On Monastic Vows, WA 8:60632; LW 44:298. Cf., also, Randall Zachman, The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 2

2  "Reports and Recommendations from the Task Force for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Studies on Sexuality," January 2005

3  Krister Stendahl, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West," Harvard Theological Review 56, July 1963, 203

4  Bernhard Lohse,"Gewissen und Autorität bei Luther," Kerygma und Dogma 20, 2 and Rudolf Hermann (Luthers Theologie. Gesammelte und nachgelassene Werke I (Göttingen, 1967), 219, n. 2.

5  Arthur B. Holmes, "Nos extra Nos: Luther's Understanding of the Self as Conscience," Drew Gateway 53, no. 1, Fall 1982, 18

6  Karl Holl, "Was Verstand Luther unter Religion?" Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte I: Luther (J.C.B. Mohr: Tübingen, 1932), 35. James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense have edited a translation of this piece as What Did Luther Understand by Religion? (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1977). Unfortunately, I only have the German before me.

7  Todd W. Nichol, "The Lutheran Venture and the American Experiment," Word and World, 12:2, spring 1992, 155.

8  In spite of their fame, there is evidence that Luther in fact did not speak the words, "Here I stand," in the context of his remarks about conscience at Worms. Cf., Deutsche Reichstagsakten, Vol. II: Deutsche Reichstagsakten unter Kaiser Karl V (Gotha, 1896), p. 587; cf., also LW 32:112, note 8 and 130, note 34

9  Luther at the Diet of Worms (1521), WA7:838; LW 32:112 (translation altered). The last line, most germane to conscience, reads in Latin, "Cum contra conscientiam agere neque tutum neque integrum sit."

10  WA 7:83933-34; LW 32:130.

11  Emanuel Hirsch, Lutherstudien I (Gütersloh, 1954), 13ff.

12  George W. Forell, "Luther and Conscience," in Encounters with Luther, vol. I, ed. by Eric W. Gritsch (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Institute for Luther Studies, 1980), 218.

13  Lohse,"Gewissen," 3

14  Ibid.

15  "Conscientia vero est quasi praeco legis," as quoted by Hirsch (Lutherstudien, 17) and Forell, "Conscience," 219

16  Lohse, "Gewissen," 3

17  Interestingly, it would appear that, this view of the relationship between conscience and church remains operative in Roman Catholicism. While in his previous post, Benedict XVI wrote, "…According to Luther, faith is no longer, as to the Catholic, essentially the communal belief of the entire church…[In Luther's theology] the church can neither assume the certain guarantee for personal salvation nor decide definitely and compellingly on matters (that is, the content) of faith…" Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Luther and the Unity of the Churches," Communio, 11 (fall 1984), 219.

Although the future pope was not specifically addressing the question of conscience, here, a similar view of the church seems implicit also in Secretary Eck's admonition at Worms, "Lay aside your conscience, Martin…because it is in error."

18  Forell, "Conscience," 219.

19  Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to his Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972, 193. This brief analysis of coram deo is based on Ebeling's work.

20  On Monastic Vows (1521), WA 8:60632; LW 44:298. Cf., also, Randall Zachman, The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 2

21  Holmes, "Nos Extra Nos," 18; Holmes claims that, for Luther, "conscience is …the very heart of the self 'before God'…"

22  Lohse, "Gewissen," 2

23  Ernst Wolf, Peregrinatio. Studien zur reformatorischen Theologie und zum Kirchenproblem, 2nd edition (München, 1962), 88.

24  Lectures on Romans (1515), WA56:33718; LW 25:325. Translation altered.

25  Ebeling, Introduction, 192ff.

26  Forell, "Conscience," 220; Holmes, "Nos Extra Nos," 19

27  Michael G. Baylor, Action and Person: Conscience in Late Scholasticism and the Young Luther (Leiden: Brill, 1977), 210.

28  Lectures on Galatians (1535), WA 40I:257; LW 26:148f.

29  Holmes, "Nos Extra Nos," 21.

30  Lectures on Galatians (1535), WA 40I: 485; LW 26:312f.

31  Holmes, "Nos Extra Nos," 21.

32  Lectures on Romans (1515), WA 56:41021f; LW 25:400.

33  Sermon at Leipzig (1519), WA 2:2493; LW 51:59

34  Lectures on Galatians (1535), WA 40:662; LW 26:439.

35  "Part II-Rationale for Task Force Recommendations"


© July 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 7