Counsel and Conscience — A Study of How Lutherans Handled Thorny Issues
My colleague, Dr. Benjamin Mayes, brought me his new book to look at: Counsel and Conscience: Lutheran Casuistry and Moral Reasoning after the Reformation (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011). It is available on Amazon.com now. Most people are not even aware that there was such a thing as “Lutheran casuistry.”
What is “casuistry”? Casuistry is the attempt to apply general moral principles in particular circumstances, particularly when two otherwise valid principles conflict or when we are unsure of what to do. It is truly where the rubber hits the road when it comes to real-life ministry.
Dr. Mayes has researched and shed light on a branch of Lutheran ethics that has been almost completely ignored for centuries. Besides the historical value of this book, I think it will be of great help in really establishing what the Lutheran doctrine of the conscience is and is not, and in helping us sort through the difficult issues surrounding the ethics of divorce and remarriage. Here is a summary of his book:
In Lutheran Germany of the post-Reformation era (ca. 1580–1750), there was a genre of pastoral/ethical writings consisting in casuistry (i.e., cases of conscience, the hard questions of faith and practice) and in topically or thematically related theological counsels, aimed at instructing and comforting the consciences of Christians. An extensive example from this genre is Georg Dedekenn/Johann Ernst Gerhard (son of Johann Gerhard) (ed.), Thesaurus Consiliorum Et Decisionum [Treasury of Counsels and Decisions], 4 vol. (Jena: Zacharias Hertel, 1671). Lutheran casuistry, related to but also distinct from Roman Catholic and Reformed counterparts, arose especially as pastors looked within Holy Scripture, the medieval tradition, and the writings of Martin Luther and other Lutheran authorities for answers to ethical problems and doctrinal disputes. Dedekenn’s Treasury was an anthology, addressing a wide range of dogmatic as well as practical matters. Dedekenn and the other editors of the Treasury did not view their counsels as necessarily obligating to a Christian’s conscience. Instead, they viewed the counsels as wise advice, and they encouraged readers to avoid individualistic ethical choices and instead to engage in an “aristocratic” process of moral decision making in which one would consult the wise men of the past and present. The counsels included in the Treasury address inter-confessional disputes, intra-Lutheran disputes, sacraments, church government, pastoral ministry, social ethics, marriage, sexual ethics, and many other topics. By examining the cases and counsels on divorce and remarriage, Mayes sees various arguments being made, and several sources of authority aside from Scripture being used, including medieval canon law and ancient Roman imperial law. Usually, a high degree of uniformity can be seen in the answers given in the Treasury. Yet an irreconcilable diversity in the cases on marriage presents a picture of the condition of marital practice in seventeenth-century Germany, a condition which was of concern to the editors of the Treasury and their friends.