“Whatever is not from faith is sin,” Paul wrote (Rom. 14:23). While speaking about secondary truths in context, implicit in the Protestant project is the conviction that Paul’s statement applies to primary truths as well. The conscience, due to the necessity of making individual judgments, straddles all classes of truth. And the wisdom of Paul applies equally to each. “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.” “Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” Part of what Luther took his stand on at Worms is the truth that persons outside the church must be persuaded through Scripture and plain reason that the church’s confession is true. And those inside the church must “work out” their salvation along the very same tracks through which God “began a good work in us.” Scripture and reason, moving through the very same channels of knowledge and persuasion, terminate in the receiving person.
It is to be granted, of course, that the internalization of one’s Christian faith is (ordinarily) mediated passively and externally through one’s family and ecclesiastical community. The point is rather that this is only half of the story. The faith is actively and internally mediated through one’s personal, and crucially, free growing into that received confession. It is no accident that Luther, the theologian of the conscience, was also the theologian of freedom. “The Christian is the most perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian is the most perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Modernity could intelligibly be read as the conversion of this paradox into a project.
Andrew Pettegree, among other recent historians, has spoken about an emerging “culture of persuasion” in the early modern period. As the Protestant movement spread like wildfire through Europe, and as the coercive instruments of uniformity were progressively rendered ineffective, authority and uniformity were to be achieved through the word (both printed and spoken). Subject to both variance and increase, such an objective method of uniformity had its corollary (which admitted various theoretical groundings) in the expectation of subjects to freely consent to such corporate judgments. Hooker’s Laws, whatever we think of his liturgical proposals, were nevertheless an “appeal to conscience,” an attempt to persuade the Puritans to freely and in good conscience worship in uniformity with the Queen’s authority. From our own vantage point, it seems relieving that we no longer exist with strong pressure to have a single liturgy. From a historical vantage point, however, what stands out is the extent to which the English church went to encourage free consent to its laws.
The historical link between Protestantism and religious freedom is well-established, but difficult to interpret. Was it the success of a theory? Perhaps. But one might also see it as the success of a certain kind of habituation in which are latent both modern man’s pathologies and possibilities. In any case, these twin structures (of persuasion and consent) are deep in our civilizational patrimony. Even a contemporary dictatorship requires propaganda. Ancient regimes did not require or expect their citizens to be happy with their overlords. Modern dictatorship feels the need to pretend that this is the case. The revolutionary, similarly, fancies his terrorist suspension of the ethical an instrument to achieve a world of free persons. Whatever we would anticipate either to look like in theory, it is nevertheless the case that at the level of received habit (which can include mental habits and practical instincts), modern man cannot imagine a civilization that isn’t at least sustained (more optimistically, achieved) by the self-direction of a self-possessed person. All truly modern utopian visions (which is not to say their actual outcomes) imagine a world of persons who consent to be what and as they are. We are all lived disciples of Luther.
Of course, the Reformation did not invent the conscience. The church had already stated the truth that belief could not ultimately be coerced (a claim which progressively disintegrated any justification for persecuting heretics). The individual conscience, as Larry Siedentop and others argue, can already be discovered in Paul. Moreover, it is implicit in the chief methods of the Gospel’s advance. God chose to accomplish the renewal of man chiefly by means of words–an announcement that demands the simple response of faith in God as He comes clothed in His promises. God “persuades man” to trust Him with the argument of Christ. Crucially, the healing of man’s relation to his chief Authority is achieved through the mechanisms of man’s free rest in and allegiance toward God. While Christ is more than this, He is not less than God’s chief rhetoric to us, God’s chief argument to come back to Him. Protestants might also insist that Christ is man’s chief rhetoric to God, the completer of man’s task, whose vocation and triumph is the originary light reflected in the mirror of our own vocations and tasks. Whatever the pedigree (and we could extend it back further and more primally into creation and covenant), the specific character that man’s political relation to man takes in a commonwealth is a ripple effect of man’s relation to God in the conscience. And indeed, for this reason, we can speak of the resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Spirit, through their healing of the conscience, as quite literally introducing a new Power of habituation into the human race, the civilizational effect of which evidences the reign of the King of all kings. The Reformation did not discover this lived (individual and corporate) reality, but brought it to a greater degree of self-conscious and discursive reflection. Arguably, the possibilities latent within Reformation anthropology constitute the positive side of the modern turn to the subject.
In any case, just as humans are liable to use liberty to serve the flesh, a culture of persuasion is liable to be libertine and selfish. Moreover, as in the church, the ends and tools of persuasion are easily exchanged for the ends and tools of market-style manipulation: the fine-grained targeting of man’s will divorced from his mind. There are costs. In all of these circumstances, the cost of a free relation to the common good is the possibility of its neglect. The cost of a free relation to the truth (i.e. freedom of thought and expression) is the possibility of heresy. But as Bavinck argues,
“Even a freedom that cannot be obtained and enjoyed aside from the danger of licentiousness and caprice is still always to be preferred over a tyranny that suppresses liberty. In the creation of humanity, God himself chose this way of freedom, which carried with it the danger and actually the fact of sin as well, in preference to forced subjection. Even now, in ruling the world and governing the church, God still follows this royal road of liberty. It is precisely his honor that through freedom he nevertheless reaches his goal, creating order out of disorder, light from darkness, a cosmos out of chaos.” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:479)
The misuse of a good is still the misuse of a good. And we see this both in history and in our current circumstances. The manipulations of the market have always depended upon a knowledge of man (even if mediated through positivist and technocratic exploitations) that is original to the novelist and the man of letters. Like the accidental blessing to the gospel that was the imperial system of Roman roads, so the republic of letters expanded in precise proportion to the channels of the market. This informal body of interlocutors comes to formal expression in modern universities, journals, or what James Davison Hunter calls “centers of cultural capital.” These particular embassies of the public sphere are, ideally, sites of negotiation, and tend to lose their soul precisely to the extent that they refuse this task and are instrumentalized for some other end.
The reaches of the public sphere pose a difficult challenge for confessional churches. Churches in late modernity are churches whose members and leaders are potentially exposed to an enormous variety of claims about all aspects of the faith and the interpretation of Scripture. The influence of the “incarnate” pastor is inevitably relativized next to the myriad of spectral and virtual ones. Whatever we think ought to be the case, this is a lived fact of modern ministry. And churches take varying strategies to deal with this.
One response is to police one’s members for unsavory views. This occurs in both confessional and progressivist churches, depending on which cultural forces and characteristic risk-assessments act as the center of gravity around which a body forms. Authority in such environments usually looks like psychological manipulation rather than persuasion, and often takes the form of subtly demanding the outsourcing of one’s more adult deliberations to their superiors.
An alternative, favored by persons of a moderate temperament, is to figure (in a realistic assessment of the circumstances) there are different boundaries at different “sites” of discourse. The church’s confession ought to play a large role in governing the theological “Overton Window” of a particular denomination, but it would play a much lesser role (for instance) at governing the theological “Overton Window” at the Evangelical Theological Society, and an even lesser role as the discursive community broadens. This seems to be the “status quo” option in contemporary evangelicalism.
A further option is more activist. It recognizes that the boundaries between these sites of discourse is unlikely to remain uncrossed and neat. And so it recognizes the need for a refinement of the theological “public sphere” (so to speak) so that it is precisely adequated to theological pressures that are deeply felt–whether openly expressed or not–among confessional Christians. This option recognizes that confessional fidelity often requires fresh acts of good-faith persuasion in a rhetorical environment where the boundaries of inquiry and possibility are wider than the confession. The confessions themselves, after all, grew precisely out of such discursive environments. Moreover, this is needful not just for the layman, but for the pastor, whose intellectual pressures are precisely those of the congregants. This option starts with the reality that the inquiring mind just does wonder about what it wonders about and it wonders about it where (in whatever church or vocation) it wonders about it. And wherever this wondering beyond an object of suspicion, where querying “outside the lines” is (in principle) stifled, the most important mode of exercising authority and leadership (i.e. persuasion) will be lost. Persons must be persuaded. And this means that sites of theological negotiation need to be precisely proportionate to our actual wonderings. These sites should not be abstractions, but grow out of our lived world. They are to be for us – where we are and when we are.
Of course there is the risk of error in this approach. And one would be forgiven for being a bit suspicious. Isn’t the path to Hell paved by good intentions (in this case, good questions)? This is not a stupid question. But I will have to address it more fully in part II, wherein I will claim that a thick public sphere is the only viable path for cultivating a living orthodox Christian faith in the late modern world. That is to say, I will claim that we cannot avoid our need for, even if we can only poorly execute, the task of cultivating a robust theological public square. This is because, as Jose Ortega y Gasset famously said, “I am I and my circumstances” (which, for him, included one’s historical circumstances). No less a thing is true of civilization writ large – the questions, factions, and habits of which inevitably map onto the dynamics of the church that subsists in it.
We are the questions we have (even when received from others). And for this reason, we cannot circumvent the path of persuasion, but must ever move through it.
This article was originally published at MR on June 10, 2020.
 Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Chapter 4.