It's Not the Bible: Conscience as Authority in Protestantism

In talking to my students about Martin Luther while in Wittenberg this month, we also talked about the Bible, conscience, and authority in Protestantism.

It's hard to overstate the importance of what happened in 1521 during the Diet of Worms. In the face of the Catholic church's demand that he recant all his writings, Luther uttered these words:
I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen. 
The published account of Luther's remarks also added the famous line, "Here I stand, I can do no other."

Until that moment, the Catholic church had a monopoly on the truth. After Luther, the individual's conscience became its own magisterium: You, as an individual, can decide what is true.

The point I made for my students is that it's a Protestant conceit that the Bible is our authority. Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone, right? And to be sure, Luther felt his conscience was submitting to the Word of God as he read it.

But that's the key point: As he read it.

Because you might read it differently. The Catholic church certainly did. And plenty of others have had huge disagreements with Luther.

In short, in 1521 the monopoly on truth was busted up. The individual conscience--your conscience--was now able to decide and declare truth for itself. And while this has been a very good thing in many ways, it also comes with some consequences. Specifically, Protestants live with a perpetual crisis of authority. Yes, we have a Bible, but there is no way to adjudicate between two Protestants when they disagree about the Bible.

As Protestants, they both can pull a Martin Luther at any moment:

Here I stand, I can do no other.

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