Martin Luther: An uncompromising conscience that changed history

It is 500 years since his famous speech appealing to reason and scriptural proof

A sculpted relief of theologian Martin Luther at the  Stadtkirche Sankt Marien church in Wittenberg, Germany. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A sculpted relief of theologian Martin Luther at the Stadtkirche Sankt Marien church in Wittenberg, Germany. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s refusal to recant his writings before Emperor Charles V at the Imperial Day at Worms (Diet of Worms).

The Augustinian monk and biblical scholar finished his speech on April 18th 1521 with the famous words: “If I am not defeated with testimonies from scripture or with obvious grounds of reason, I will remain guided by the scriptures that I cite and my conscience remains bound to God’s word. For I do not believe either the pope or the councils alone, because it is obvious that they have often erred and contradicted themselves. I cannot and do not want to withdraw anything, because it is neither safe nor advisable to do something against one’s conscience. [Here I stand; I can do no other.] God help me! Amen.”

Whether Luther said “Here I stand; I can do no other” is not certain. It is likely that the line was added later, heightening the inner drama in Luther as it captures so emphatically what impelled him taking his stance.

Portrait of Martin Luther: Reading St Paul and translating the New Testament into German brought about a tidal change in Luther’s personal quest for God
Martin Luther: "I cannot and do not want to withdraw anything, because it is neither safe nor advisable to do something against one’s conscience. [Here I stand; I can do no other.] God help me! Amen.” Illustration: Wikiart

Having learned on January 3rd, 1521 that he had been excommunicated, he knew that without a recant he mostly likely would be declared an outlaw and could hence be killed by anyone, without that person being held guilty.

Turning point

Luther’s refutation has often been interpreted as a turning point in history, from the Middle Ages to modernity, the human being now acting according to conscience, no longer under dominance and coercion from church or state.

Historical research, however, has shown this to be incorrect, a kind of myth – recourse to conscience in decision-making already happened in medieval times. Yet, it was a turning point as this crucial event in his life could not have been more prominent and public, his refutation taking place before the highest political leader and church officials in the empire.

To this day we associate with Luther uncompromising honesty and profound courage driven by profound faith, to the point of death

It is the role of conscience that stands out in Luther’s speech. However, if one looks at his words more closely, there are two elements that are centrally important and demand consideration: Luther’s appeal to conscience is not simply general; he refines it. It his conscience bound by scripture.

Further, he appeals to reason. His recall to conscience may, or may not, reflect something of the growing self-consciousness and the place of the individual in the universe vis-a-vis God as it developed in the Renaissance and later in the Enlightenment, ie ultimately the move from a theocentric to a more human-centric world.

What his stance impelled by conscience reflects first of all, however, is a man of deep faith who was not prepared to betray his faith and who was prepared to even die for his belief in the God of Jesus Christ. Thus to this day we associate with Luther uncompromising honesty and profound courage driven by profound faith, to the point of death.

Manifest

Luther was appointed in the newly founded university of Wittenberg, and his appeal to reason and proofs from scripture, possibly even more than his appeal to conscience, do manifest and point to what had already begun in the Middle Ages, and became ever more central in the Renaissance, in the Enlightenment and in modernity: the development of science, the expansion of universities all over Europe and, indeed, the development of theology, the “queen of the sciences”, no longer taught only in monasteries but in the academic, secular setting of the university.

Dr Gesa E Thiessen is a theologian and a non-stipendiary minister in the Lutheran Church in Ireland. Her latest publication, Karl Rahner’s Writings on Literature, Music and the Visual Arts, is published by Bloomsbury in August

Germany, perhaps more than any other country, would be the place where theology in the university would become a respected subject, and, indeed, its place in academia has been rarely questioned.

If, for example, one googles the University of Tübingen, the list of faculties starts, to this day, with the “evangelische” and the “katholische fakultät” – a remarkable “remnant” from the first universities in late medieval times.

To commemorate Worms 500, the Lutheran Church in Ireland will hold a webinar symposium, For to Go Against Conscience Is Neither Right Nor Safe – The Role of Conscience from Martin Luther to the Digital Age, on Wednesday April 28th at 8pm.

Speakers include Prof Mary McAleese (TCD), Prof Emer Randall Zachman (University of Notre Dame) and Derek Scally (The Irish Times). The event is free. Register at lutheran-ireland.org/webinar

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