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7 - Reforming the Conscience

Magisterial Reformers on the Theory and Practice of Conscience

from Part II - Conscience According to Major Figures and Traditions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 June 2021

Jeffrey B. Hammond
Faulkner University
Helen M. Alvare
George Mason University, Virginia
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John Thompson describes how Martin Luther and John Calvin treated conscience. For Luther, natural conscience is beset by knowing that a person can never meet the rigorous requirements of the law. Faith can relieve a person’s downtrodden conscience, which would otherwise condemn him. Once a person accepts the favor of God that flows solely from trusting him, his conscience is liberated. He knows he can do nothing himself to merit that favor. His conscience is freed “to trust God’s promise of mercy and forgiveness.” The highest functioning conscience for Luther, then, is the one that does not depend on its own goodness or perfection. Calvin teaches that, though a person’s conscience is a natural faculty, it is marred and affected by the fall. Once a person is saved, however, his conscience is transformed so that he desires to obey the will of God found in the law. This is true even though adherence to the law will not add in the least to his salvation. For this reason, Calvin created a catechism to train and chasten Genevan Christians’ consciences. Calvin also helped to establish the Geneva consistory, which was less a disciplinary body, and rather “a school for consciences.”

Christianity and the Laws of Conscience
An Introduction
, pp. 132 - 151
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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Recommended Reading

Althaus, Paul. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Translated by Schultz, Robert C.. Philadelphia, pa: Fortress, 1972.Google Scholar
Andrew, Edward G.Christian Conscience and the Protestant Reformation.” In Conscience and Its Critics: Protestant Conscience, Enlightenment Reason, and Modern Subjectivity, 1233. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.Google Scholar
Baylor, Michael G. Action and Person: Conscience in Late Scholasticism and the Young Luther. Leiden: Brill, 1977.Google Scholar
Foxgrover, David L. “John Calvin’s Understanding of Conscience.” PhD diss., Claremont Graduate School, 1978.Google Scholar
Grabill, Stephen J. Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics. Grand Rapids, mi: Eerdmans, 2006.Google Scholar
Haas, Guenther H. The Concept of Equity in Calvin’s Ethics. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997.Google Scholar
Hains, Todd R. “Luther and Bound Conscience in His German Church Postils.” MA thesis, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2007. Scholar
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Primus, J. H. The Vestments Controversy: An Historical Study of the Earliest Tensions within the Church of England in the Reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth. Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1960.Google Scholar
Thompson, John L.The Immoralities of the Patriarchs in the History of Exegesis: A Reassessment of Calvin’s Position.” Calvin Theological Journal 26 (1991): 946.Google Scholar
Thompson, John L.Patriarchs, Polygamy, and Private Resistance: John Calvin and Others on Breaking God’s Rules.” Sixteenth Century Journal 25 (1994): 327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Thompson, John L.Second Thoughts about Conscience: Nature, the Law, and the Law of Nature in Calvin’s Pentateuchal Exegesis.” In Calvinus Pastor Ecclesiae, edited by Selderhuis, Herman J. and Huijgen, Arnold, 123–47. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016.Google Scholar
Verkamp, Bernard J. The Indifferent Mean: Adiaphorism in the English Reformation to 1554. Athens, oh; Detroit, mi: Ohio University Press; Wayne State University Press, 1977.Google Scholar
Wengert, Timothy J. Reading the Bible with Martin Luther: An Introductory Guide. Grand Rapids, mi: Baker Academic, 2013.Google Scholar
Zachman, Randall C. The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Minneapolis, mn: Fortress, 1993.Google Scholar

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