Understanding conscience in Bavinck, the Church Fathers, Jerome, and the Scholastics


Bavinck really understood the Church Fathers and the scholastics.  In that case, what did the Church Fathers and scholastics understand about the conscience?

(Bavincks summary on page 180. Reformed Ethics, edited by John Bolt)

“Those conclusions—that is, the functions of the conscience—are threefold: (1) to witness, whereby “we recognize that we have done or not done something,” thus, merely consciousness;(2) to bind, or to “judge that something should be done or not done”; (3) to incite, whereby “we judge that something done is well done or ill done, and in this sense conscience is said to excuse, accuse, or torment.”70 Conscience, therefore, is always a “concluding knowledge,” a derived, applied, subsequent knowing.”

So, for the church fathers and scholastics the conscience has three aspects.

1.       Recognizing we have done or not done something (consciousness)

2.       To judge or not to judge something done or not done.

3.       The part of us that judges what we have done (right or wrong) excusing us or accusing us.

So, how do we fit into this.  A couple of chapters ago I mentioned that the conscience is very important for Bruce Lee.  It is part of being human.  It is something that is universal to every human being.  The question is what type of person are you, my friend?  Are you the type that listens to that inner voice or mind accusing or defending you? Another universal fact is that as far as God is concerned, we have all sinned.  The conscience I believe shows us this to be the case to all human beings.  Some of us choose not to listen to the conscience at all but it is always there under normal conditions.  Whether one is a Christian or not, this topic is bigger than any one religion, this is a question that affects all of us. Let us now go back in time to page 176.


“testimony of the soul naturally Christian”  acknowledges an inclination to morality just as the soul, though enslaved to the body and to false gods, when it awakes and “comes to itself,” spontaneously speaks of God, using such expressions as “God is great and good,” “which God may give,” “God secs,” “I commend myself to God,” and “God will repay me.”36 At the same time, such ordinary human morality is not sufficient; it must be Christian.

(Bavincks summary on page 176. Reformed Ethics, edited by John Bolt)

Clement of Alexandria

“Thus, especially in Clement of Alexandria, a good conscience keeps the soul pure and preserves it from ignorance.”

Chrysostom on Genesis 27:41 and 42: NASB

“So, Esau bore a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him; and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” Now when the words of her elder son Esau were reported to Rebekah, she sent and called her younger son Jacob, and said to him, “Behold your brother Esau is consoling himself concerning you by planning to kill you. “

In summary form for Chrysostom the conscience is an adequate instructor for us.  He says that ‘nothing is more pleasurable than a good conscience’.  On the other hand, a bad conscience can cut deep and presses hard on us.  We cannot escape the conscience.

Irenaeus, Augustine, Jerome, Aquinas, and the later scholastics

Bavinck then gives a discussion about Ezekiel 1. 4-14.  The main interpretation of these Church fathers was that these four creatures represented various aspects of the 4 Gospels.  In fact, Jerome’s commentary also touched on anthropology and Bavinck here is more concerned about this.  Bavinck gives the background information to this, but he is more interested on how Jerome uses syntérésis as conscience.   Actually, some think syntérésis is a mistake and that Jerome meant synderesis.  To cut a long story short Aquinas used both words.  He then says accurately “In any case, Scholastic theologians used the term synderesis/syntérésis for either a capacity(power) of the soul or as a natural habit of concrete activity.”



For a couple of paragraphs, I am moving away from Bavinck to understand ‘syllogisms’.  Once we understand the basic concepts, we will return to Herman Bavinck.  Syllogisms are used a lot in philosophy, so we need to understand them here.  I think the first three and a half minutes of this video is a good explanation. (It goes on into Venn diagram theory, but you don’t need that.)


A syllogism has two premises and a conclusion, and the conclusion comes from the premises Or  A syllogism has two statements and a conclusion and the conclusion comes from the statements.  The examples from Academic Kids breaks it down nicely;


Syllogisms consist of three things: major, minor (the premises) and conclusion, which follows logically from the major and the minor. A major is a general principle. A minor is a specific statement. Logically, the conclusion follows from applying the major to the minor.

For example, this is the classic “Barbara” syllogism, given by Aristotle:

If all humans (B’s) are mortal (A), (major)

and all Greeks (C’s) are humans (B’s), (minor)

then all Greeks (C’s) are mortal (A). (conclusion)

That is,

Men die. (general principle)

Socrates is a man. (specific statement)

Socrates will die. (application of major to minor)

   ”.  From:  http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Syllogism


For Thomas Aquinas synderesis is not a power but a habit. Bavinck quotes him:

“Now it is clear that, as the speculative reason argues about speculative things, so that practical reason argues about practical things. Therefore, we must have, bestowed on us by nature, not only speculative principles, but also practical principles. ” Now the first speculative principles bestowed on us by nature do not belong to a special power, but to a special habit, which is called “the understanding of principles,” as the Philosopher explains (Ethic. vi, 6). Wherefore the first practical principles, ‘bestowed on us by nature, do not belong to a special power, but to a special natural habit, which we call “synderesis.’ ”

So then with this argument, in the same way that we are born with the idea of true and false we are also born with the idea of good and evil.  For Aristotle I think habit is within the noetic realm. See the abstract on Aristotle’s understanding https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4217385/

I think this is important that we see synderesis as being first principles that we are endowed with the idea of good and evil.

Reason is also seen as natural endowment for idea of right and wrong which originally came from Aristotle; “Aristotle focuses on reason and mind as part of human natural endowment. Individuals are born with the natural ability to think which enables them to make rational decisions. Individuals through their minds and reason develop abilities which could become habits if they continue to be rational.” From Google  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endowment_(philosophy)

So for Aquinas he follows Aristotle on reason and the synderesis as being given to humans by God.  It is in the very nature of humans.  This is important to accept these two premises if we are to follow Bavincks understanding for conscience to be the conclusion of the ‘practical syllogism.’


We already know what a syllogism is but now we need to understand what a ‘practical syllogism is’.

The definition

“The practical syllogism is an instance of practical reasoning which takes the form of a syllogism, where the conclusion of the syllogism is an action.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Practical_syllogism

An example of a practical syllogism

“Major premise: Good students take notes;

Minor premise: I want to be a good student;

Conclusion: I should take notes.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Practical_syllogism


Let us return to Herman Bavinck.  Herman Bavinck says that the Conscience is not a habit but an act. 

A habit is something that has been endowed on humans by God that is in their nature. 

In page 180 Bavinck writes “Synderesis is sharply distinguished from conscientia, which applies the synderesis to the particular and the concrete. Conscience is not-a habit but an act. In terms of a syllogism, synderesis is the major premise, and reason the minor premise, of an argument for determining whether a particular act is a duty or is to be repudiated. The conscience is therefore the “practical syllogism in the intellect.”  So then we deduce that from synderesis and reason we get conscience as the practical syllogism of the intellect.  We now come full circle and as a reminder.

So, for the church fathers and scholastics the conscience has three aspects.

1.            Recognizing we have done or not done something (consciousness)

2.            To judge or not to judge something done or not done.

3.            The part of us that judges what we have done (right or wrong) excusing us or accusing us.

Now we can understand what Bavinck means by conscience; “Conscience, therefore, is always a “concluding knowledge,” a derived, applied, subsequent knowing.”  This is now evident to us as we grasp how important synderesis and reason are. 

Synderesis being the facet of humanity that deals with good and evil and reason being the human facet of right and wrong; the conclusion of these is conscience as action in the intellect somehow.

This is still not Bavinck’s conclusion.  Bavinck saw the problem however that we are going to look at.  By separating synderesis and reason synderesis became ‘inactive’ and thus conscience in the syllogism is broken. Let us now read on into page 181.

Page 181 starts with “However, the conscience can frequently draw false conclusions (also because

reason provides a false minor premise). In other words, the conscience can err, judging something to be evil when it is good or making wrong applications.  from premises or general principles that are good in themselves.”  Reason, then can come to false conclusions!  Why is this important.  This is very important because it breaks the perfect practical syllogism of synderesis, reason and conscience.  If one part of the syllogism is found to be false, then it crumbles like a pack of playing cards.   For Bavinck this led the Jesuits into error with their invention of ‘probabilism’.   The Roman Catholic church in its cannon law, when looking at the cases of conscience would look at the church fathers for advice.  As Bavinck says,” The confessors thus gained power of judgment over the consciences of their laity. They used painstakingly developed canon law to determine this. If the good that was required could not be determined, a person’s doubting conscience could be pacified by giving a probable opinion.” page 181.

Bavinck is correct in his estimation but according to a wiki the Dominicans were also influenced by this.  The Wikipedia says,” In Catholic moral theology, probabilism provides a way of answering the question about what to do when one does not know what to do. Probabilism proposes that one can follow an authoritative opinion regarding whether an act may be performed morally, even though the opposite opinion is more probable. (An opinion is probable when, by reason of intrinsic or extrinsic arguments, it is able to gain the assent of many prudent men.) It was first formulated in 1577 by Bartholomew Medina, OP, who taught at Salamanca.


Probabilism is one way of approaching difficult matters of conscience. In such cases, according to probabilism, one may safely follow a doctrine approved by a recognized Doctor of the Church, even if the opposite opinion is more probable as judged by other considerations, such as scientific considerations or many other recognized authoritative opinions.


A more radical view, “minus probabilissimus”, holds that an action is permissible if a single opinion allowing that action is available, even if the overwhelming weight of opinion proscribes it. This view was advanced by the Spanish theologian Bartolomé de Medina (1527–1581) and defended by many Jesuits such as Luis Molina (1528–1581). It was heavily criticised by Blaise Pascal in his Provincial Letters as leading to moral laxity.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_probabilism

If you want to know more about this, I would seriously look at the Provincial Letters by Blaise Pascal the inventor of modern probability. I want to finish this section off by quoting Herman Bavinck; “This is the source of the terrible notion of probabilism that was developed later by the Jesuits. Here synderesis disappears completely, the conscience is regarded as a bias, and probabilism (with the authority of this bias) determines everything. It was Pascal’s personal mission to oppose this. The Scholastics, therefore, began by maintaining the moral human nature within the synderesis, but they separated and distinguished from it the conscience as something defective and erring. By means of that separation, the synderesis became inactive (a notion that contained a great truth). Meanwhile, the conscience, much too weak to stand on its own and be a guide, became subject to an alien authority.” From Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics, page 181


I have to say that I found this section rather heavy, but the spade work was worth it!  This section raised interesting points.  You may believe as I do that God created us in his likeness and his image.  However, you might not have thought about what your natural attributes are.  Now I think there is more room for thought but we must remember that the Fall happened, and sin came into the world.  It is only through Jesus Christ by the holy Spirit and by regeneration, that we can hope to enter heaven and be in perfect union with God.  Next time we will look at Protestants and the Reformed Tradition.







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