Luther’s Challenge to the Conscience of the West

by vaughn_admin  //  

July 19, 2016

October 31 is also know as Reformation Day. Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther issued the 95 Theses, and act that sparked the Reformation. This week, Cornerstone asks what the 95 Theses did for religious freedom. How have they contributed to the formation of the ideal of religious liberty in the West?

By: Joseph Loconte

The papal bull of 1520 excommunicating Martin Luther from the Catholic Church accused him of promoting forty-one heresies and “pestiferous errors.” One of the alleged errors was his view that “the burning of heretics is against the will of the Holy Spirit.” The point must not be missed: Luther’s challenge to the Church involved not only a disagreement about the gospel and the authority of the Bible. It instigated a profound debate in the West about the rights of conscience in matters of faith. 

Luther did not address the issue of freedom of conscience in his Ninety-Five Theses, nor did he ever construct a political theory supporting religious pluralism. But his letters and major works leave no doubt that the man who launched the Reformation hoped to revolutionize the entire medieval approach to religious belief—and the responsibilities of individual believers in society.            

Luther offered his fullest treatment of these issues in Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523), where he sharply distinguished the aims of church and state, limiting the reach of government to preserving life and property:  

“For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but Himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys the souls…Furthermore, every man is responsible for his own faith, and he must see to it for himself that he believes rightly. As little as another can go to hell or heaven for me, so little can he believe or disbelieve for me.” 

Here is the logic of Luther’s defense at the Diet of Worms—“to go against conscience is neither right nor safe”—which laid a foundation for all subsequent demands for religious freedom in the West. Luther insisted that the state possessed neither the competence nor a mandate from heaven to intrude into spiritual matters. “The soul is not under Caesar’s power,” he wrote, “he can neither teach nor guide it, neither kill it nor make it alive.” Other reformers argued for a radical separation of church and state, a concept that Luther ultimately rejected. Others went further in defending the rights of all religious believers, even heretics and non-believers, in civic and political life. 

Nevertheless, nearly every important defense of religious freedom in the seventeenth century—the radical thinking of William Penn, Roger Williams, and John Locke—nodded in Luther’s direction. “The one only narrow way which leads to heaven is not better known to the magistrate than to private persons,” wrote Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), “and therefore I cannot safely take him for my guide, who may probably be as ignorant of the way as myself, and who certainly is less concerned for my salvation than I myself am.” 

In the eighteenth century it was James Madison, the most important mind behind the First Amendment, who understood full well the legacy of Luther’s achievement. In a letter to F.L. Schaeffer, dated 1821, Madison explained that the American model of religious liberty “illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations.” 

When the modern human rights movement took shape after the Second World War, a committee of public intellectuals acknowledged Luther as they searched for a philosophical basis for an international bill of rights. Their 1947 UNESCO document cited the Reformation—“with its appeal to the absolute authority of the individual conscience”—as one of two historical events most responsible for the development of human rights, including the rights of conscience.          

Thus Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—proclaiming that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion”—owes a special debt to Luther. No one fought harder for the inclusion of Article 18 than Lebanese Ambassador Charles Malik, an Arab Christian, a strong intellectual force on the Commission on Human Rights, and a student of the Reformation. “People’s minds and consciences are the most sacred and inviolable things about them,” Malik said, “not their belonging to this or that class, this or that nation, or this or that religion.”

It could be argued that the Catholic Church, today one of the most vigorous defenders of religious liberty on the world stage, has built upon Luther’s foundation. John Courtney Murray, a powerful thinker behind Vatican II’s full-throated defense of religious freedom, wrote that “no man is to be forcibly constrained to act against his conscience.” Here, it seems, is an echo of Luther’s conceptual approach to the nature of religious belief: “I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion.”             

The social realities of Christendom—the corrosive entanglement of church and state—prevented Luther from fully working out the implications of his political theology. Once Protestantism became an established faith, he approved the use of force against heretics, and his rough treatment of Jews followed the woeful pattern of European Christianity. Yet the moral courage and intellectual coherence of Luther’s dissent must not be undervalued. “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand.” 

In Luther we find a witness for truth who defied the forces of religious oppression and reimagined the political ideals of European Christianity. In his defiance he delivered a challenge to the conscience of the West like no other since the Sermon on the Mount. If Luther was a flawed prophet of human freedom, his voice was utterly indispensable—and remains so in our own day. 

Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of History at The King’s College in New York City and a senior editor at Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy.

This piece was originally authored on November 3, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.