Binding in Conscience: Early Modern English Protestants and Spanish Thomists on Law and the Fate of the Soul
Law and History Review 33(4) (November 2015): 803-37
53 Pages Posted: 6 Nov 2015
Date Written: November 1, 2015
Romans 13:5 said that Christians should obey law not only for fear of punishment but “also for conscience sake.” What could this mean in practice? Early modern Protestants and Catholics agreed that violations of laws that bound conscience, if unrepented, threatened damnation. But which types of law bound? Natural and divine moral law did. Human laws presented a complicated case. Disobedience to only certain classes of human laws — but not all — imperiled the soul. Catholics and Protestants debated how to distinguish ordinances that obligated conscience from those that did not.
The stakes were considerable. Romans 13:5 multiplied the potency of rulers, who treasured the suggestion that God’s ultimate penalty of damnation reinforced their authority. But a world in which violation of any ordinance brought damnation would be unlivable for subjects. And it would preclude the bargaining about law at the heart of early modern politics. The application of Romans 13:5 necessarily became a dialectical endeavor. Theorists generated arguments to bind conscience and release it.
This essay explores the ways in which early modern Spanish Thomists and English Protestants linked human law to the fate of the soul and challenged that connection. They relied heavily on juridical concepts for assessing the validity and meaning of law in order to know which human ordinances obligated conscience under what circumstances. Manipulating borrowed jurists’ categories, they turned Romans 13:5 into a vital system for regulating conduct, with crucial effects in politics and daily life. Seeing Romans 13:5 from this perspective directs attention to the deep and changing intersections of legal and religious thought over a century and a half.
Keywords: law and religion; conscience; casuistry; english legal history; Spanish legal history
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation