My Conscience is Captive to the Word of God (Luther)

(This is a repost from September, 2011.)

Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is one of those books that I’ll never forget reading.  I first read it around 10 years ago; I could not set this book down.  In fact, it led me to enjoy and appreciate church history in general, and Reformation history more specifically.  In my opinion, it is even better than Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (although that may be an apples/oranges comparison, and I do really like Here I Stand).

Here’s a little snippet from Oberman’s book.  It has to do with Luther’s famous answer while he was on trial for his writings: “…My conscience is captive to the Word of God.  Thus I cannot and will not recant, for going against my conscience is neither safe nor salutary….”

“Luther’s appeal to conscience as the highest authority made an extraordinary impression on later generations.  Out of the understandable desire to declare Luther as the forerunner of the Enlightenment, the statement ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’ was reinterpreted as the principle of freedom of conscience.”

“But that is missing the whole point.  Appealing to conscience was common medieval practice; appealing to a ‘free’ conscience that had liberated itself from all bonds would never have occurred to Luther.  Nor did he regard ‘conscience’ as identical with the inescapable voice of God in man.  Conscience is neither neutral nor autonomous: hotly contested by God and the Devil, it is not the autonomous center of man’s personality, it is always guided and is free only once God has freed and ‘captured’ it.  What is new in Luther is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils….”

“Luther liberated the Christian conscience, liberated it from papal decree and canon law.  But he also took it captive through the Word of God and imposed on it the responsibility to render service to the world.”

Well said.  In Reformation terms, we say that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (WCF 20.2).  The Lutheran Confessions (I’m thinking primarily of the Augsburg Confession and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession) also explain clearly and frequently that humans or human traditions cannot bind the conscience – only God can by his Word.  Commenting on Acts 15:10 and Galatians 5:1, the Apology says,

“Just as Alexander solved the Gordian knot once for all by cutting it with his sword when he could not disentangle it, so the apostles free consciences from traditions once for all, especially if they are taught to merit justification” (Apology XV).

The above Oberman quote is found on pages 203-204 of Luther: Man Between God and the Devil.

rev shane lems

sunnyside wa