, , , , ,



And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Gen. 2:16-17

Kuyper begins this chapter with a discussion of conscience. In this opening section he presents two very different concepts of conscience and attributes the modern conscience to be a function of the Enlightenment. 

This discussion of conscience begins with the observation that Adam had no conscience, as we know it. This leads to a discussion of two ways of understanding conscience. In one manner, the newer understanding, conscience is a self-executing faculty which can determine whether a course of conduct is morally appropriate. This faculty as an innate knowledge of what God requires and functions as an “oracle” to our mind.

Functioning in this manner, conscience has an authority independent and over God’s Word. Not raised by Kuyper, but proof of his thesis can be found in the many concessions and transformations of Christian moral behavior and opinion in the world after Kuyper. God’s Word is either rejected or nuanced in such a way as to be meaningless. Any number of examples could be given on the evolution of Christian morality in a number of instances. 

The previous Reformed understanding of conscience before “rationalism was busy trampling faith,”  did not understand conscience as an independent “capacity” but rather as a recurrent reflective mode of thinking. Kuyper identifies three elements of this reflective thought: 

First, it knows the external law of God; the knowledge of good and evil. Second, we have a knowledge of ourselves and our actions. Third, there is a reflexive comparison of our conduct with knowledge of God’s law. He refers to this as a “higher impulse” and pursuant to the impulse we continually reflect on our life in comparison to the law. 

In this respect it then differs from the latter concept of conscience as an independent source of knowledge. 

In this understanding, the conscience is dependent upon the content of the external law which informs and forms the conscience. In looking at some pre-Enlightenment sources, it is possible to see an understanding consistent with Kuyper’s model:

False Rule. 3. Conscience. It is, saith one, my conscience. This is no rule for an upright man; the conscience of a sinner is defiled, Tit. 1:15 conscience being defiled may err; an erring conscience cannot be a rule, Acts 26:9. ‘I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus;’ he who is an heretic may plead conscience; admit conscience to be a rule, and we open the door to all mutinies and massacres; if the devil get into a man’s conscience, whither will he not carry him?

Thomas Watson, “The Upright Man’s Character,” in Discourses on Important and Interesting Subjects, Being the Select Works of the Rev. Thomas Watson, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; Glasgow: Blackie, Fullarton, & Co.; A. Fullarton & Co., 1829), 328. Here, he explicitly denies the conscience has any independent moral standard, but it is imported – at the very least one without salvation cannot have a properly functioning conscience. 

There are other uses which are ambiguous on this point, such as Manton’s “That true morality and good conscience cannot be had without the faith of the gospel; so that we are not only better provided, but indeed cannot perform such obedience as is acceptable to God without faith in Christ.” Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 17 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1874), 429. The trouble for the unbeliever is the inability to pacify the conscience because he cannot live right. This raises the question, why does the unbeliever have any pangs of conscience if he is ignorant of the law?

Thomas Boston goes further and writes: “This moral law is found, 1. In the hearts of all men, as to some remains thereof, Rom. 2:15. There are common notions thereof, such as, That there is a God, and that he is to be worshipped; that we should give every one his due, &c. Conscience has that law with which it accuses for the commission of great crimes, Rom. 1 ult. This internal law appears from those laws which are common in all countries for the preserving of human societies, the encouraging of virtue, and the discouraging of vice. What standard else can they have for these laws but common reason? The design of them is to keep men within the bounds of goodness for mutual commerce.”Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 2, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 2 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 61.

And similarly by another, “but God hath given both light streaming forth from the word, and he hath given the eye of conscience, that by both these men might come assuredly to know that they are called out of darkness unto light.” James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 6 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 389.

In another place we see the conscience being deceived and thus judging wrongly: “Conscience is sometimes deceived through ignorance of what is right, by apprehending a false rule for a true, an error for the will of God: sometimes, through ignorance of the fact, by misapplying a right rule to a wrong action. Conscience, evil informed, takes human traditions and false doctrines, proposed under the show of Divine authority, to be the will of God.” James Nichols, Puritan Sermons, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, Publishers, 1981), 13.

Edwards occupies an interesting middle position, “Thus natural conscience, if the understanding be properly enlightened, and errors and blinding stupifying prejudices are removed, concurs with the law of God, and is of equal extent with it, and joins its voice with it in every article.” Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards (Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, Jun., 1808), 442–443. There is a natural conscience which would conform to the law of God, were it enlightened. 

And Luther held to a view that conscience can know of sin but not condemn the man as a sinner, “Zachman writes of Luther’s negative view of conscience: “The conscience can recognize sins (acts), but it cannot of itself, even under the external revelation of the law, acknowledge the person as sinner (nature). The subjective ability to feel oneself a sinner and to sense the wrath of God on sinners is thus a gift of God, and not an ability of conscience.” Justification is solely God’s work ex nihilo, not out of any preexistent salvific matters including human accretions, the murmuring of conscience, etc.” Dennis Ngien, Fruit for the Soul: Luther on the Lament Psalms (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 155–156.

And Calvin, “In like manner, when men have an awareness of divine judgment adjoined to them as a witness which does not let them hide their sins but arraigns them as guilty before the judgment seat—this awareness is called “conscience.” It is a certain mean between God and man, for it does not allow man to suppress within himself what he knows, but pursues him to the point of making him acknowledge his guilt. This is what Paul means when he teaches that conscience testifies to men, while their thoughts accuse or excuse them in God’s judgment [Rom. 2:15–16]. A simple awareness could repose in man, bottled up, as it were. Therefore, this feeling, which draws men to God’s judgment, is like a keeper assigned to man, that watches and observes all his secrets so that nothing may remain buried in darkness. Hence that ancient proverb: conscience is a thousand witnesses.11 By like reasoning, Peter also put “the response11a of a good conscience to God” [1 Peter 3:21] as equivalent to peace of mind, when, convinced of Christ’s grace, we fearlessly present ourselves before God. And when the author of The Letter to the Hebrews states that we “no longer have any consciousness of sin” [Heb. 10:2], he means that we are freed or absolved so that sin can no longer accuse us.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1181–1182.

This brings us on both sides of the Enlightenment. While none of these examples hold the conscience an infallible witness, there is at least a general sense of God’s law.

Oddly, Kuyper’s position in some way is closer to John Locke,  Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Book 1, Chapter 2:

“7. Men’s actions convince us that the rule of virtue is not their internal principle. For, if we will not in civility allow too much sincerity to the professions of most men, but think their actions to be the interpreters of their thoughts, we shall find that they have no such internal veneration for these rules, nor so full a persuasion of their certainty and obligation. The great principle of morality, “To do as one would be done to,” is more commended than practised. But the breach of this rule cannot be a greater vice, than to teach others, that it is no moral rule, nor obligatory, would be thought madness, and contrary to that interest men sacrifice to, when they break it themselves. Perhaps conscience will be urged as checking us for such breaches, and so the internal obligation and establishment of the rule be preserved.

“8. Conscience no proof of any innate moral rule. To which I answer, that I doubt not but, without being written on their hearts, many men may, by the same way that they come to the knowledge of other things, come to assent to several moral rules, and be convinced of their obligation. Others also may come to be of the same mind, from their education, company, and customs of their country; which persuasion, however got, will serve to set conscience on work; which is nothing else but our own opinion or judgment of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions; and if conscience be a proof of innate principles, contraries may be innate principles; since some men with the same bent of conscience prosecute what others avoid.

“9. Instances of enormities practised without remorse. But I cannot see how any men should ever transgress those moral rules, with confidence and serenity, were they innate, and stamped upon their minds. View but an army at the sacking of a town, and see what observation or sense of moral principles, or what touch of conscience for all the outrages they do. Robberies, murders, rapes, are the sports of men set at liberty from punishment and censure. Have there not been whole nations, and those of the most civilized people, amongst whom the exposing their children, and leaving them in the fields to perish by want or wild beasts has been the practice; as little condemned or scrupled as the begetting them? Do they not still, in some countries, put them into the same graves with their mothers, if they die in childbirth; or despatch them, if a pretended astrologer declares them to have unhappy stars? And are there not places where, at a certain age, they kill or expose their parents, without any remorse at all?”

This is a very preliminary exercise and I have never really thought the issue through before. I without question concur that the conscience can be informed and deformed, and it is certainly no infallible rule. But I don’t think the issue can settled as easily as before and after the Enlightenment.