Bavincks understanding of conscience from the point of view of the Protestant and Reformed traditions part 1


taken from


Our question is: What do the Protestant and Reformed Traditions teach us about the conscience?

Herman Bavinck gives us an outline on pages 181 – 189 in his Reformed Ethics edited by Bolt.  So, what is the main idea?

As usual Bavinck gives us a summary on page 189:

““Van Mastricht provides us with a nice brief summary overview of the preceding: “Conscience is the judgment of humans about themselves, insofar as they are subject to God.” It belongs to practical reason and judges according to a syllogism: the major premise is the syntérésis; the minor premise, the syneidésis; the conclusion, the krisis. The first one is law, the second is witness, the third is judge.””

A Historical Digression

Before looking at Van Mastricht’s summary: Who was he and why does Bavinck quote from him?

Wikipedia says about him:

“Petrus (or Peter) van Mastricht (or Maastricht) (1630 – February 9, 1706) was a Reformed theologian.

He was born in Cologne to a refugee from Maastricht during the Dutch revolt. His father’s family name was originally “Schoning,” but he changed it to “van Mastricht” on moving to Cologne. Petrus occasionally used the Latinized pseudonym Scheuneneus.[1] Johannes Hoornbeeck was Masticht’s pastor from 1639 to 1643 and his teacher at the University of Utrecht starting in 1647, along with Gisbertus Voetius and others. From 1650 to 1652 he took a tour of study at Leiden University and possibly Oxford and the University of Heidelberg.” Taken from

Mastricht was a top theologian, and he was into practical theology.  He did not turn his back on tools of the past, a clean sweep.  For example, you will not find many references to Aristotle in the institutes of the Christian Religion in which Calvin returned to the Bible and did a clean sweep where he saw necessary. 

“Given his defence of the use of scholastic theology as a polemical tool for engaging Roman Catholic theologians, it might seem counterintuitive to assert that Voetius was a proponent of practical theology, especially in light of how heavily the older scholarship juxtaposes practical piety and scholastic theology.8 Yet, in response to the questions, “Is the study of and familiarity with scholastic theology in some way consistent with practical theology?” and, “Does

familiarity with and consideration of the former corrupt and overturn the latter?” Voetius responded: “‘Yes’ to the former, ‘No’ to the latter. No more than a meticulous exposition of practical theology overturns the other: ‘Test everything; hold fast to what is good’ (1 Thess. 5[:21]). William Perkins and William Ames are two outstanding examples of practical theologians.” Mastricht was also in agreement with Voetius that practical and scholastic theology are not inherently antithetical, the latter being a polemical tool and the former being the application of theological determinations.”” From (The Best Method of Preaching; The Use of Theoretical-Practical Theology; Petrus van Mastricht; Translated and Introduced by Todd M.Rester; Reformation Heritage Books; Grand Rapids, Michigan from a pdf found at the above wikipedia)

Anyhow the above outline, I think demonstrates Bavinck’s choice of intellectual material.   So, Herman Bavinck gives us the syllogism and the conscience works through law, witness and Judgement.  We now need to start to dig deeper to find these golden truths from the Protestant and Reformed branches of the Church.  Herman Bavinck does not mince his words when he says that the very historical Reformation itself was an act of conscience.   It is no surprise then that ‘Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin’ regularly discussed ‘conscience’.  Calvin’s definition then about conscience it,” a “sense of divine judgment,” as a witness joined to them [human beings], which does not allow them to hide their sins from being accused before the Judge’s tribunal.”” (From page 181 Reformed Ethics, Bavinck) He continues in explaining that there is no escape for man from God. That the conscience acts as a guardian and it spies out all the hidden secrets.  The conscience then ‘only has respect to God alone’ (page 182). Calvin’s conclusions on Bavinck are therefore, “Calvin teaches us the following: (a) conscience is a knowledge of our deeds in relation to God, his judgment; (b) only God can bind the conscience and not any human person; (c) conscience is a witness, a guardian of our deeds; and (d) conscience stands above all human judgments. Conscience provides us with some knowledge of the moral law, but it is an incomplete and imperfect knowledge.” (Page 182, Reformed Ethics.)

The conscience is very important for us and no government has a right to try to control this aspect of the human but alas, it goes on.  Nationalism in its extreme in whatever guise, Fascism, communism to eradicate certain people groups or mould them into the ‘master race’. As an example of this we hear of the Uighur people being ‘re-educated in special camps’, forced to ‘learn Chinese’, forcing them against their will to become more Chinese.

So yes ‘conscience’ is a very important topic for all of us!

It is well worth following Bavinck’s reference to Calvin and I am going to quote this whole section. This section is from the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

“ . Let us now return to human laws. If they are imposed for the purpose of forming a religious obligation, as if the observance of them was in itself necessary, we say that the restraint thus laid on the conscience is unlawful. Our consciences have not to do with men but with God only. Hence the

common distinction between the earthly forum and the forum of conscience.  When the whole world was enveloped in the thickest darkness of ignorance, it was still held dike a small ray of light which remained unextinguished) that conscience was superior to all human judgments. Although this, which was acknowledged in word, was afterwards violated in fact, yet God was pleased that there should even then exist an attestation to liberty, exempting the conscience from the

tyranny of man. But we have not yet explained the difficulty which arises from the words of Paul. For if we must obey princes not only from fear of punishment but for conscience’s sake, it seems to follow, that the laws of princes have dominion over the conscience. If this is true, the same thing must be affirmed of ecclesiastical laws. I answer that the first thing to be done here is to distinguish between the genus and the species. For though individual laws do not reach the conscience, yet we are bound by the general command of God, which enjoins us to submit to magistrates. And this is the point on which Paul’s discussion turns — viz. that magistrates are to be honoured, because they are ordained of God (Romans. 13:1). Meanwhile, he does not at all teach that the laws enacted by them reach to the internal government of the soul, since he everywhere proclaims that the worship of God, and the spiritual rule of living righteously, are superior to all the decrees of men. Another thing also worthy of observation and depending on what has been already said, is, that human laws, whether enacted by magistrates or by the Church, are necessary to be observed (I speak of such as are just and good), but do not therefore in themselves bind the conscience, because the whole necessity of observing them respects the general end and consists not in the things commanded. Very different, however, is the case of those which prescribe a new form of worshipping God, and introduce necessity into things that are free.” (From the Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4, 10, 5 Ages software)


What ever country or state we are from; How do we treat its citizens?

I am so glad that Herman Bavinck is looking at the use of conscience from the Reformed minds of this historical period.  The conscience is about making the right choices in life. 

Before God: How do I treat my neighbour?

As a Parliament of whatever Country: How do we treat our citizens?

As a Parliament of whatever Country: How do we treat our neighbouring countries?

As a Parliament of whatever Country: Is it USA first or China first, or the UK first at the expense of other people basic human rights? 

I think the Reformation as it was driven by conscience, Europe ended up with better laws. However, it seems to be the case that Europe is also on this bandwagon of Europe first, or Finland First with the Perus-Suomalaiset.  This is tantamount to racism!

There is too much racism in the world and Herman Bavinck is reminding us earlier in his book about the fact that every individual human being is precious in God’s sight.  We need our consciences renewed; for Christians through prayer and reading the Bible and living according to the golden rule ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.  In fact, this golden rule is found in all of the major religions of the world.  I thank God for Herman Bavincks writings.  We certainly need to get back to basics.  Too many bad things are happening in the world!

Bavinck says a lot more about Conscience from the Protestants and Reformers but unfortunately, I have run out of steam so we will continue next week with this topic.



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