When you think of the major doctrines of the Reformation many things may come to mind. Justification by faith alone, Regulative Principle of worship, the authority of the Scriptures, these are probably the ones that pop to mind. I want to suggest that there is another doctrine that was very important to the Reformation was the conscience of man. It is related to the authority of Scripture, but protecting the right of conscience for the believer was fundamental for the Reformation. Sadly today the Reformed/Presbyterian church has lost sight of this and often speaks of submission or misapplies “mutual submission” in such a way that destroys the conscience. I would like to take a few posts to discuss this idea of conscience. Let me start showing that it is a major point of the Protestant Reformation.
Think back to the first major act in the Swiss Reformation: the Affair of Sausages. The Affair of Sausages began because many of those who heard and followed Zwingli and his teaching broke the Lenten fast and they sold and ate sausages. The ultimate justification for breaking this rule of the church was that the church had no right to bind the conscience of any man where Scripture is silent. Think also about how the monastic vows were tossed out everywhere the Reformation went because it was a binding of the conscience in a place where Scripture did not speak nor bind. Many of the Earlier Confessions stated it plainly.
The Tetrapolitan Confession of 1530, signed by the reformed churches of four different cities and written by Wolfgang Capito and Martin Bucer, devotes chapter 8 to rejecting the idea that the church had the right to bind men’s consciences: “When, therefore, we saw very evidently that the chief men in the Church beyond the authority of Scripture assumed this authority so to enjoin fasts as to bind men’s consciences, we allowed consciences to be freed from these snares, but by the Scriptures, and especially Paul’s writings, which with singular earnestness remove these rudiments of the world from the necks of Christians.”
The First Basel Confession written in 1531 by John Oecolampadius and perfected after his death by his successors and was adopted in 1534 includes an article on conscience. Article 11 simply states, “We confess that no one ought to command in any manner that which Christ has not commanded; also, therefore, no one ought to prohibit that which he has not forbidden.”
The Belgic Confession of Guy DeBres too can be seen to include a mention of the evils of binding a man’s conscience without the word of God. In Article 29 in the marks of the false church it states, “As for the false church, it ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit itself to the yoke of Christ.” The Belgic is condemning churches that require submission to manmade rules and such a usurpation of authority from Christ is a sign of a false church. -- They were shortly afterward removed of their jobs and sent packing from the city. It is clear from the historical evidence that the reformers stressed the idea that only the Word of God could bind a man’s conscience. They would not bend their consciences simply for the sake of a job or safety. Instead they held fast to the idea that God alone could command the conscience.
These early confessions held the power of the church was restricted by the Scriptures. And the church could not bind a man’s conscience, instead only the Word of God could do such things. If the church went beyond the Bible, then a man’s conscience did not need to submit. And more than that if the church attempted to bind a man’s conscience, the church was in the wrong. A church that put more power in its own ordinances that are from outside of the word of God is a church that has missed an important point of the Reformation. It has missed the authority and headship of Jesus Christ, and it is dangerously usurping a power that does not belong to it.
Hopefully this is enough of a historical proof for now. Next I would like to go to the Bible and see if these confession agree with the Word.