Why Luther still matters: religious conscience and individual liberty

Sunday 29 October, 12:0013:15, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

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On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, unwittingly starting a process that would change Europe and the world. It is an oft-noted irony that the Reformation paved the way for secular modernity, despite the intentions of its leaders.

What we now call the Protestant Reformation began as a series of disputes within the Roman Catholic church, initially about corruption but increasingly about the true source of religious authority. Consequently, it led to schism and to the founding of Protestant denominations – Lutheranism itself, Anglicanism, the so-called Reformed tradition – that survive to this day. But that was not all: having presented Europe with the fact of religious differences that could not be resolved, the Reformation led many thinkers to conclude that toleration was the only hope for peace. Martin Luther would not compromise on matters of conscience, but since neither he nor his opponents could persuade everyone, in time it became clear that everyone would have to be allowed a conscience of his or her own. Implacable religious conviction gave birth to individual conscience.

So does the Reformation still matter? Roman Catholicism remains by far the biggest Christian denomination in the world, and while church attendance across the board is falling in the UK and Europe, less-traditional Protestant denominations like Pentecostalism are growing globally. But there is little debate among Christians about the questions that were at the heart of the Reformation. If anything, Christians are more likely to find common cause with one another on social issues than argue over their differences. Conservative Christians, in particular, arguably have more in common with orthodox Muslims than with mainstream secular culture, at least when it comes to moral guidelines.

Another twist is the question of freedom of conscience. Where once it was the church that clamped down on heretics, today it is arguably Christians who find themselves out of step and under pressure from a secular clerisy. Examples include the furore over the ‘gay cake’ court case in Northern Ireland and the sacking of registrar Lillian Ladele for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies. Is the progressive belief in freedom of conscience, an unintended by-product of the Reformation, losing its force?

So is the Reformation better understood as a stepping stone to modernity, a precursor to the Enlightenment even, than a religious movement in its own right? Or should we instead remember it as a moment of intense religious revival, a rebellion precisely against the worldliness of the medieval church? Indeed, does today’s Roman Catholic church have more in common with the radically countercultural Reformers than with the prevailing ideology of the modern West, or even its earlier self? Would Martin Luther himself recognise those Protestants who claim his legacy today? Or is modern Christianity as much a product of the modern world bequeathed by the Reformation as the secular culture it rubs up against?