The Reformation and religious liberty: A conscience bound to government or God?

2017 marks the 500-year anniversary of the event that sparked the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk with a carpenter’s mallet nailed 95 theses to the door of the church of Wittenberg to call for a public debate over the sale of indulgences. This monk, whom we know as Martin Luther, dared to assume that the doctrines and practices of the medieval church were not above biblical scrutiny. Luther’s conscience, as he would later declare, was held captive to the Word of God, not the institutions and traditions of men. Luther’s conviction regarding the primacy of Scripture led him to recognize two different realms (or kingdoms) of authority. There was the kingdom of Christ, which was a spiritual realm, and there was the kingdom of world, which was a natural realm. Luther believed that Christians lived in both realms and had to learn to navigate life in both without conflating the two realms. Luther, however, was not the only reformer who recognized and affirmed distinct realms of authority. John Calvin, a second-generation French reformer, carried the torch that Luther’s lit, arguing not only for two kingdoms of authority but also for the freedom of the believer’s conscience to willingly embrace the commands of the Lord in joyous obedience without compulsion by the law. When Luther’s understanding of two overlapping, yet distinct realms of authority was combined with Calvin’s understanding of the freedom of conscience by later generations of Christians, the foundational principles of religious liberty emerged.

During their lifetimes, however, neither Luther nor Calvin can be considered consistent champions of religious liberty. While both developed theologies of the two-kingdoms and argued for certain principles of freedom, they, like all people, were prone to inconsistency and were men of their era. Neither men could be considered children of the Enlightenment, whose emphasis on individual rights helped pave the way for modern paradigms of religious liberty. For example, on one hand, Luther can be found arguing for the separation of the church from the empire, while on the other, he can be found attempting to use officials in the government to further aspects of his reformation. Such was true of Calvin as well, even though he ministered during a different generation of the Reformation.

Luther and Calvin’s views of the relationship of the government to the church seemed to develop over time. As the reformers transitioned from being a persecuted minority to a popular majority in their regions, their views on the distinctions between church and state began to blur. Luther did not want the empire, who was inextricably tied to the Roman Catholic Church at the time, to have any influence in the life of the Lutheran churches. He also seemed, however, to have no real opposition to the persecution and execution of the Anabaptists, who were simply attempting to follow Zwingli’s reforms to their logical conclusion. Calvin was also complicit in blurring the lines of church and state. This was especially evident in his later writings. In Calvin’s final edition of the Institutes, the divine appointment of the state’s role in the life of the church is clear. Heresy and blasphemy were not simply destructive to the life of the church; they were also a threat to the stability of the state. Hence, when the anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus stood trial in Geneva, in spite of his personal pleading for him to repent of his heresy, Calvin still endorsed his execution.

In sum, Luther and Calvin’s understanding of religious liberty tended to vacillate depending on their situations. Their example is an important reminder to those of us who admire their contribution to theology and modern society. While there is much to be thankful for in their lives and ministries, especially as it relates to the principles of religious liberty, Luther and Calvin were both flawed and inconsistent men.

As modern observers of the Reformation—and even more so, as Reformation Christians in the Baptist tradition—we must be mindful of the inherent dangers of wedding the church to the government or a political power. Government has the responsibility to reward workers of righteousness and deter workers of unrighteousness. However, when Paul spoke in Romans 13 regarding righteousness and justice, he was not thinking that Rome was to apply the Mosaic law to its citizens. Those laws were for a specific people during a specific time of redemptive history for a specific purpose. Instead, Paul had in mind a more natural understanding of good and evil as understood by all post Flood societies and preserved in the Noahic covenant. A government that rewards good and punishes evil in its natural realm of authority is a good government that should be obeyed by God’s people (1 Pet. 2:14).  On the other hand, the church operates in a spiritual realm with the delegated authority of the risen Christ himself. To be sure, these realms of authority will overlap and interact with one another. One cannot affirm the sovereign lordship of Christ, whose lordship shapes consciences, and that lordship not impact people’s relationship to the state as citizens. The gospel is fundamentally a public truth with real implications for our relationship to the natural or political order. Even still, the lines of delineation between the two kingdoms must not be blurred. To be a citizen of the United States is not the same as being a citizen of the Kingdom of Christ. The latter is fundamentally more important than the former.

As Luther and Calvin demonstrated, no degree of theological precision or biblical conservatism is immune to the temptation afforded by political power.

Luther and Calvin’s greatest contributions to religious liberty were in principle, not practice. For while both extolled the sovereignty of God, the ultimate accountability of man to the Scriptures alone, and the freedom of man’s conscience, they also used the government to further aspects of their reformation and condoned the executions of those “guilty” of heresy and blasphemy. Using the power of the state to uphold distinctly ecclesial concerns is not a Reformation practice that contemporary Christians should mimic. As demonstrated by their early lives and writings, it is often those of the persecuted minority who make the greatest ideological contribution to religious liberty. Sadly, as the persecuted minority gained more political influence, they had an awful tendency to become the persecuting majority. For Luther and Calvin, the sobering irony of their journey is that, in a very real sense, at least politically, they became what they protested. Their movement of protest, which sought independence from Rome’s control over earthly empires, became a movement all too willing to use the coercive power of the state.

In the end, the lesson for present-day readers is that we need to think deeply about how the principle of religious liberty should shape and inform our practice of religious liberty advocacy. As Luther and Calvin demonstrated, no degree of theological precision or biblical conservatism is immune to the temptation afforded by political power. Even when one claims that “Scripture alone” is their final authority, it is still easy to forget what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar (Matt. 22:15-22). Failure to think clearly and consistently in this regard will compromise one’s principled stance on religious liberty. We do not advocate for religious liberty so that we can become the dominant religious influence in a culture or advance our religious ideals alone. We advocate for religious liberty because the conscience of humanity belongs to God, not the government.

This article is from the latest edition of Light Magazine. You can check it out here.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read More

Casey B. Hough

Casey B. Hough (Ph.D., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as lead pastor at Copperfield Church in Houston, Texas, and assistant professor of biblical interpretation at a Luther Rice College and Seminary. Casey and his wife, Hannah, have three sons and two daughters. For more ministry resources from Casey, visit his … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24