A faith of my own
Let’s pull back from the immediate this month and consider the long press of history. We are daily inundated with news that floods our consciousness (puns intended). But something happened half a millennium ago this month that shaped the religious and political course of Western Civilization.
An Augustinian monk with a sensitive conscience stood up. Martin Luther found no peace with God following the protocols of sin avoidance, repentance and penance. He felt trapped in a cycle of self-loathing, never able to achieve a good standing with God through his own righteous adherence to the laws of the church. What’s more, he accused the church of managing the (un)spiritual system of salvation to its own ungodly advantage.
On Halloween 1517, Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the chapel church in Wittenberg, Germany. These grievances with the church were meant to stimulate debate and produce reform. Reform would come in the form of the Protestant Reformation. But first a firestorm.
The church brought charges against Luther and demanded he recant. In words that echo to this day, he declared at the Diet of Worms: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”
Luther’s confession of inviolable conscience before God established a trajectory in religion and politics that elevated the authority of the individual above the church or state. Whether he intended that is beside the point; the shift was underway. From that point forward, institutions human and divine had to defend their legitimacy to the individual, not the other way round.
On the religious side, two different directions came of his Reformation. First, some churches were born that grounded authority in the Bible. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Conservative Protestants of all kinds continue to operate upon this foundation, demanding that individual conscience be captive to the Bible. Another direction emphasized conscience itself. “Acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound.” Liberal Protestants laud this more subjective approach, shaping theology upon the internal faith of the individual more than an external creed to be believed.
The French and American Revolutions took different paths with respect to religion, but neither would be conceivable without the bold monk’s shirking of the church’s absolute authority over human souls. The Bill of Rights limits the scope of state intrusion in the life and liberty of the individual, and the First Amendment guarantees freedom to practice or not practice whatever faith one chooses.
The legacy of Luther today is complex, but it depends as much upon us as him. For good or ill, we live in his shadow still.