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Our Martin Luther Conscience, Out of Control

This month marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, sparked by Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed, so his successors claimed, to the door of the church in Wittenberg, on October 31, 1517. His original protest reached a tipping point four years later at the Diet of  Worms, where the Augustinian monk famously declared, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

The legacy of Luther’s conscience cannot be understated—it is the impetus for all manner of religious and philosophical developments that have defined the modern world. It also had political and cultural effects, ones relevant to our current American distemper, much of it driven by one particular element of that Saxon monk’s conscience: its scrupulosity. From the tearing down of monuments, to dietary fads, to foreign interventions, America owes much to Luther’s scrupulous conscience.

After entering the Augustinian order, Luther devoted himself to fasting, arduous hours of prayer, pilgrimage, and constant confession to another priest. By his own admission, his was a tortured soul, wracked by feelings of guilt and unworthiness before a righteous God. One imagines a Luther who confesses his sins, receives absolution, and within minutes of leaving the confessional is overwrought with self-hatred over some perceived personal failure. Luther himself characterized these years as ones of profound spiritual despair, later observing, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”

Luther’s confessor and superior, Johann von Staupitz, urged Luther to direct his gaze not to his own sin, but to the merits of Christ. He exhorted the monk to remember that true repentance comes not from outward signs of piety, but primarily and fundamentally from the heart:


For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;

were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)

This ultimately was insufficient for Luther. His conscience continued to ravage him. Confessors refer to this as scrupulosity, or the tendency to disproportionately over-value the weight of one’s sins. Luther for example was reported to believe that omitting a single word from his Eucharistic prayer as a priest was comparable in severity to divorce or murdering one’s parent. Hence his ultimate theological escape: man is saved for eternity by “faith alone,” faith in the work of Christ, rather than any action on his part. No matter the offense, a Christian by virtue solely of his faith is forgiven and reconciled to God—past, present, and future.

Five hundred years later in America, ours is a culture increasingly secular, and progressively less knowledgeable of our indebtedness to Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Even so, contemporary American political culture owes much to Luther and his scrupulous conscience.

Take for example our recent cultural infatuation with collective guilt and/or outrage over any statues or memorials honoring Confederates, racists, or anyone who does not subscribe to the liberal progressivist agenda. We are shocked, shocked, and ashamed that such people are given any recognition in our public consciousness. Even Americans who hadn’t a clue where the Confederate memorials in their hometowns were located are now stricken with unbearable guilt that such monuments exist. Tear them down, lest our consciences ravage us with the guilt of racism!

Or consider the obsession of one strata of American society with the ethics of food. Is it organic? Grass-fed? Free-trade? Single-origin? Artisanal? We can always find something to feel guilty about, regardless of what food or drink we’re consuming. The protagonist of Lucinda Rosenfeld’s new novel [1]Class [1] recognizes the inherent snobbery of this culinary scrupulosity when her daughter derides her classmate’s very normal lunch choices as “disgusting.” This reaches the absurd and hilarious when the mother’s favorite urban-farming-friendly restaurant features “pan-seared locally sourced pigeon” on its menu.

Yet another example is our ever-present collective guilt over the latest international squabble that we just must do something about. Every single crisis on the world stage, from the Rohingya of Burma [2], to the food crisis in East Africa [3], to the Boko Haram kidnapping of schoolgirls [4], elicits op-eds demanding our nation’s government take action. An admirable quality, no doubt, but the unrelenting barrage of crises to resolve goes far beyond America’s capacity or strategic interests. It is that same conscience that seeks through capitalism, marketing, and various health initiatives, to make the world in our image.

Luther’s conscience has had a long shelf life. It crossed the English Channel and seeped its way deep into the English Protestant Reformation. It traversed the Atlantic Ocean, buried deep in the hearts of those first Pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts in 1620 to found the Plymouth Colony. And it has remained an ever-present, if very fungible, attribute of America’s civic consciousness. Sometimes it has been a force for great good: is not Luther’s conscience in some respects responsible for America’s desire to overcome its racist past? Indeed, our nation’s greatest civil rights leader was named Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet in a culture devoid of faith in God or unified around any semblance of a classical, tradition-based morality, that conscience now swerves out of control, lacking any kind of objective moral compass to guide it. We obsesses over monuments and the names of public buildings because of their association with racism or sexism, while neglecting the kinds of efforts required to address those injustices. We engross ourselves in culinary justice, while ignoring the fact that one in seven Americans do not get enough to eat [5]. And we weep, wail, and mourn over the plights of millions of people the world over, while disregarding the needs of our neighbor next door, if we even know his or her name.

Luther, of course, could not have predicted this legacy of his scrupulous conscience. It would be unfair to place the blame solely on him, especially given that he would likely be distraught over the gross secularity of the modern world he unknowingly helped create. Indeed, he would likely agree with another great reformer, Pope John Paul II, who argued in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor—whose 25th anniversary we also honor this year—that “conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil,” but must exist in reference to objective truth and the universal law. As we commemorate the Protestant Reformation and its many effects, we would do well to consider what forces form our own consciences.

Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand.

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Our Martin Luther Conscience, Out of Control"

#1 Comment By dave On October 11, 2017 @ 10:27 pm

I see your Luther and raise you a Foucault.

#2 Comment By E.J. Worthing On October 11, 2017 @ 11:04 pm

Tradition does not provide an objective moral compass. Tradition is culturally relative and vulnerable to error.

There is one and only one possible basis for an objective moral compass: reason!

#3 Comment By A Lutheran On October 11, 2017 @ 11:15 pm

“Indeed, he would likely agree with another great reformer, Pope John Paul II, who argued in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor—whose 25th anniversary we also honor this year—that “conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil,” but must exist in reference to objective truth and the universal law.”

That goes without saying; at Worms Luther’s conscience was bound by holy scripture and plain reason and was thus captive to the Word of God. Luther is not the father of modern solipsism and the centrality of conscience in Western liberalism can ultimately be traced back through Luther to Paul and Jesus.

#4 Comment By jime On October 12, 2017 @ 11:41 am

Does “‘faith alone,’ faith in the work of Christ, rather than any action on his part” also equal “as long as I have good intentions/’correct’ opinions, I don’t need to actually do anything”?

#5 Comment By Donald (the left leaning one) On October 12, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

This article doesn’t really work. Luther doesn’t have much to do with American interventionism or the Confederate statue debate. The writer is talking about too many different issues. Military intervention is one thing–supplying food to starving people is another. It boils down to a list of his own personal pet peeves when each issue would deserve a long post in itself.

#6 Comment By TheIdiot On October 12, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

EJ Worthing
You are right that reason rules. It is through reason that we decide between two options. But many times, reason is inadequate because we disagree on first principles, leaving us with an intractable dispute. It is unfair to say that all of our disputes today come because one side uses reason and the other does not. It is difference in first principles that are primarily to blame for our differences. And where do first principles come from? Tradition.

#7 Comment By Matt in AK On October 12, 2017 @ 1:57 pm

Next time do some research first. Dr. Martin Luther specifically wrote and preached against all of the things you lay at his feet here (Iconoclasm, mob action, forbidding of foods, wars of conquest, usury). Post-modern America needs more, not less Luther.

-Matt in AK

#8 Comment By polistra On October 12, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

Force for great good?

The original anti-Confederates were scrupulists who would be easily recognizable today. The settlers of Kansas were led by Grahamites. Vegans, no spices, no salt, no sex. They were weaponized and funded by Northern industrialists to colonize the West for Northern sweatshop slavery, and to start a war against Southern agrarian slavery.

The result was a half-destroyed country and a totally destroyed republic. Total victory for Northern sweatshop slavery. The Southern agrarian slaves were now free to starve just like everyone else.

The story of the weaponized Grahamites is told clearly in this old Kan State Hist Soc journal. See p 174 of the PDF.


#9 Comment By Aaron D. Wolf On October 12, 2017 @ 3:43 pm

“Hence his ultimate theological escape”—the Gospel. Yes, it’s a scandalon to many.

#10 Comment By Whine Merchant On October 12, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

Where was the editor when this was submitted??

#11 Comment By Jack On October 12, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

Scrupulosity is a natural and unsurprising outcome of Augustinian theology.

I suspect that scrupulosity has never been as significant a problem in Eastern Christianity for the simple reason that Augustine had little influence in the East.

#12 Comment By catbird On October 12, 2017 @ 7:45 pm

OK, OK, we get it. For the 100th time, your going to paint for us a world where Catholics are inherently conservatives and Protestants are inherently liberal. But sorry to break it to you — it’s a fantasy, right alongside with Harry Potter and sand worms. Play this fantasy game among yourselves, and since it’s not a particularly interesting make-believe, please stop boring the rest of us with it.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 12, 2017 @ 7:52 pm

The problem I have is that the main calls for center stage. Martin Luther’s great contribution was his press on scripture.

That press that said opened scripture to more believers that shook the world. Even now as main stream monoliths tilt in the winds of liberal dogma and demand, former attendees fill the pews of smaller congregations who lean on scripture in the hands of their members.

#14 Comment By William Dalton On October 13, 2017 @ 1:49 am

Martin Luther made it clear that his scrupulosity did not give him license to ignore every church, or civic, teaching which he found reprehensible. On the contrary, he knew that his feelings were as susceptible to being led astray by sin as were those of the Pope, the Emperor, or any of his other dedicated enemies. He declared that his conscience was captive to THE WORD OF GOD alone. If he believed one thing and the Scriptures taught another thing, he would abandon his views and follow the Scriptures. If he believed something was evil, and the Bible taught that is was good, or vice versa, his conscience told him that he was wrong and that the words of Christ, the patriarchs and the apostles were right – because they are the Word of God. It was not the Protestant Reformation which led the Church to its perilous position in the West today. It was the failure of the Church, on both its Protestant and Catholic sides, to follow the teachings of the Reformation.

#15 Comment By icarusr On October 13, 2017 @ 5:18 am

Thanks Jack – as I read the article, something in it rankled. Your note reminded me immediately of this article in the New Yorker:


“But when it must come to man’s great function of the procreation of children,” he writes, “the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members in motion, as if it had legal right over them.”

And this book review in the FT:


“For Augustine, ‘confession’ (confessio in Latin) meant accusation of oneself and praise of God. … ‘I was boiling over,’ wrote Augustine, ‘because of my fornications’.”

#16 Comment By Conewago On October 13, 2017 @ 9:28 am

EJ Worthing says: “Tradition does not provide an objective moral compass. Tradition is culturally relative and vulnerable to error.”

I answer with the words of scripture:

17 “And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.
18 And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Our Lord guaranteed that the tradition enshrined in His church would never fail.

Luther rejected that tradition in favor of your supreme reason (are you a French Jacobin or something?). And we see the results today.

#17 Comment By Matt in AK On October 13, 2017 @ 11:22 am


“‘Faith alone,’ faith in the work of Christ, rather than any action on his part” does not mean “as long as I have good intentions/’correct’ opinions, I don’t need to actually do anything” for two reasons.

First, “faith” for Luther was a gift, of God: another aspect of Christ’s work for the sinner, and not something for which the individual was responsible. Biblically, faith isn’t “making a decision,” or “having good intentions/’correct’ opinions.” Faith is a supernatural gift delivered to us through God’s Word and Sacraments.

Second, to say that good works, or actually doing something, is not required for salvation is not the same as saying that they are not required. God clearly not only requires, but facilitates good works, but He does not endeavor to produce them with the threat of hell. My kids needed to help around the house not in order to be my children, but because that’s what my children did.

From Romans 6, it’s tempting to assume that whenever a theologian gets faith and grace correctly, they are always accused of antinomianism.

-Matt in AK

P.S. My hearty Amen to Whine Merchant.

#18 Comment By Allen On October 13, 2017 @ 11:32 am


You’ll raise a man who changed the world with uh….some French Marxist philosopher guy that nobody reads except for extra credit?

Uh, yeah-good luck with that.

#19 Comment By morganB On October 13, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

Does the Catholic Church still charge to offer indulgences for forgiveness of sins?

#20 Comment By Matt in AK On October 13, 2017 @ 7:40 pm

New Caption for your photo:
“No, the door was fine, I was just fixing your theology…”

#21 Comment By dave On October 13, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

Allen, I blame everything on obscure French Marxists.

#22 Comment By TR On October 14, 2017 @ 8:58 pm

Allen: Foucault is not a Marxist and not a philosopher. (But his significance pales next to Luther, admittedly.)

#23 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 15, 2017 @ 8:44 am

““Tradition does not provide an objective moral compass. Tradition is culturally relative and vulnerable to error.”

That depends on the tradition.

#24 Comment By Stephen On October 15, 2017 @ 11:03 am

Indulgences are still part of the Catholic Church. They are not, nor were they ever, presented as a way to provide “forgiveness of sins”. Forgiveness of sins, then and now, comes from God through his priest in the confessional. Indulgences provide relief from the temporal punnishment due to sin, in other words time spent in purgatory before entered into the permanent presence of God (heaven). Luther had a poor understanding of true church teachings. He could not overcome his own appetite for fornication, and so invented a new form of Christian salvation, where man does not overcome sin but instead gets a pardon. He described saved humans as a pile of dung covered by white snow. The Protestant Reformation was not a Reformation of the Catholic Church with it’s 15 centuries of continuous history and traditions. Luther and all the self-appointed authorities who followed, invented new religions, throwing away the traditions which came down from the Apostles and replacing them with ones which suited their own purposes and ambitions. Calvin in particular influenced the formation of US culture, in all the worst ways, particularly with the idea that material success was evidence of God’s favor. The foundation was laid for the decimation of the Indians in the name of Manifest Destiny, and the abuse of laborers in the industrial revolution. the abuse of humanity through usery, a practice banned during the Catholic period of Western history. We now live in a country in which a wealthy few have an almost unlimited ability to suck up all of the productive fruits produced by the masses, and there is no authority to stand in their way. The middle class is drying up. Greed is King. The Protestant Faith’s are rapidly going extinct, leaving behind societies ruled by unchecked materialism and greed. The legacy of Luther, Calvin and the rest.

#25 Comment By Matt in AK On October 16, 2017 @ 11:32 am

Have you read the 95 thesis? If not, please give them a quick read. [10]

Luther was a Doctor of Sacred Theology, and a professor of the old testament at the University of Wittenberg, not some ignorant monk. You might want to consider the possibility that it’s you who does not understand Luther’s teachings, rather than Luther who did not understand the teachings of the Roman Church from the first through the 16th centuries.

Get over your bad self.
-Matt in AK

#26 Comment By Matt in AK On October 16, 2017 @ 11:41 am

There really hasn’t ever been such a thing as the “Protestant Faith.” The only doctrine historically shared by Protestants is: the Bishop of Rome is not the head of the one holy catholic and apostolic church by divine right, and by that criterion the Orthodox are “Protestant” as well.

Nor has there ever been any such thing as “The legacy of Luther, Calvin and the rest.” As inconvenient as this is, the only intellectually honest thing is to deal with them one by one.
-Matt in AK