The Reformation and Conscience

As part of the ‘500 Project’ we have asked a range of contributors from across the spectrum to stimulate and challenge our thinking. We won't always agree with all they write, but that’s the point. This piece is by Norman Hamilton, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

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One of the great gifts of the Reformation to us today is its legacy of freedom of conscience. Luther did not directly address that issue in his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, but six years later he wrote,

“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 understanding of the importance of freedom of conscience developed, it was enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), which is a foundation statement of belief for many reformed churches around the world, including here in Ireland. In chapter 20 we read, “God alone is lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” Fast forward to 1948 and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it is clear that the legacy of Luther on conscience had become permanent; everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Yet it seems that this crucial freedom is under increasing pressure in our so-called liberal democracy. For example - social media has become an all-too-potent vehicle for attacking others whose conscience driven vocations require them to make decisions about life and death - and often does so in a most disagreeable way. Earlier this summer, as the tragedy of baby Charlie Gard unfolded, the chair of Great Ormond Street Hospital said: "Thousands of abusive messages have been sent to doctors and nurses whose life's work is to care for sick children.” Many of these messages are menacing, including death threats. The anonymity of the digital world is itself often a menace to freedom of conscience.

At a more local level, people of all persuasions have expressed great concern at the implications for freedom of conscience in the light of the Asher's bakery case. I do too. And in the world of local politics, I share the angst of many that freedom of conscience is not sufficiently valued nor upheld. Our liberal democracy is finding it increasingly difficult to handle views and values which are not in conformity with current political correctness.

Constant vigilance is needed to ensure that this freedom is not abused. It must not be used as a cloak to try to cover whim, prejudice, uninformed opinion, bigotry, or discrimination. Nor should it be a vehicle for self promotion, mischief making, or scheming. It is a precious gift brought to us through the Reformation (no matter how imperfectly worked out in the 16th century), and must both be protected and handled with care for the common good rather than for purely personal or group advancement.

The last line of the book of Judges in the Old Testament makes it clear that a well tuned conscience can easily become a rarity. We read that ...people did whatever they felt like doing.

This lack of conscience, or the abuse of it, harms everyone. As Luther said, “every man..... must see to it for himself that he believes rightly.” And in today's world it is increasingly necessary to emphasise and uphold the freedom to put that right belief into right practice, in public as well as in private.

The Very Reverend Dr Norman Hamilton OBE is a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Convenor of the Council for Public Affairs.