Bavincks understanding of the Conscience ‘the Protestant Reformation ‘Part 2

05 06 2021

John Calvin pages 181-182 from Bavincks Reformed Ethics edited by John Bolt


Conscience is a sense of divine judgement which is somehow joined to the human being. The human cannot escape this judgement.  The human being cannot escape this search light for good or ill.  A person cannot run and hide from the truth of their actions.  This conscience search light on his or her inner truth moves to the point of conviction. There is no escape.

Bavinck writes from Calvin’s words Conscience provides; “an awareness which hales man before God’s judgment” and “is a sort of guardian appointed for man to note and spy out all his secrets that nothing may remain buried in darkness.” (Pages 181 and 182 Reformed Ethics edited by John Bolt)

So, what is a guardian.  A guardian is there to protect you from harm.  Therefore, I think the conscience helps us to steer a correct course in our lives and it is a lot more powerful than courts.

Accordingly, this ‘spy’ doesn’t leave anything uncovered everything is brought to light.   In the same section which I haven’t quoted Bavinck brings up works and conscience.  I get the feeling that these are two areas of accountability.  ‘Works’ is objective and can be seen and in this world one can use forensic evidence for guilt and acquittal.  ‘Conscience’ however is subjective, and it cannot be seen by any human court.  This conscience then can only refer us to God’s judgement or acquittal.

Our Master Theologian gives us for collecting points from John Calvin:

They are:

“(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.

(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.”

Amandus Polanus

Amandus Polanus from wiki

 Polanus was an important figure in the reformation.  The following is what the Wikipedia says about his works:

“Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf (16 December 1561, Opava, Silesia – 17 July 1610, Basel, Switzerland)”


“He wrote the three volume dogmatic work Partitiones theologicae (Divisions of Theology) and Syntagma theologiae christianae (translated in English as A System of Christian Theology).  In 1603, based on Luther’s translation, Polanus composed the first Calvinistic German translation of the Bible. His major systematic works are marked by Aristotelian causal analysis and, most strikingly, by the methodology of Ramism. He showed concern for precision and clarity of presentation and polemical defence of Reformed doctrine. Yet he showed little interest in metaphysical speculation. His doctrine of God was central but it, and predestination, were balanced by other interests: Christology, covenant, ethics, and praxis. A consolidator not an innovator, his concern was to preserve Reformed teaching, so serving the contemporary needs of the church.” From

Let us remember that earlier Bavinck in his work on the Church Fathers and scholastics used syllogisms.   It should not surprise us that it was still being used at the time of the Reformation by protestant theologians.

According to Bavinck Polanus makes divisions to help understand the faculties of the soul.

             Vegetative which includes the nutritive



             Sensitive (with these criteria the sense perception and movement)

             And rational

The bit that Bavinck is interested here is the ‘rational’ as he says this is further divided into:

a.            Theoretical reason

b.            Practical reason

Which Bavinck says is the proper work of the rational.  Bavinck then goes into the theological understanding of these principles.  The Logos (word, reason of God -my interpretation in the brackets).

Bavinck mentions John 1:9

9 There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. John 1:9 NASB

I will quote the rest from Herman Bavincks reformed ethics:


“The author of this reason is the Logos of John 1:9, and its two norms are the inborn notion of fundamental principles—theoretical and practical—and conscience.  


Conscience is a “certain notion of the divine will and actions in agreement with it or contrary to it, indelibly implanted in the mind, approving good actions, disapproving evil ones.”   “(Page 182 Reformed Ethics Herman Bavinck edited by John Bolt)

My mini reflection

In Jesus Christ who is the Logos, in Him, the perfect reason is found.  The measure by which we can understand conscience is through Christ who is fully God and fully man! As humans only the Logos was able to measure and understand conscience because the Trinity created it.  Jesus Christ has this perfect conscience and perfect understanding, but we cannot: on the contrary because of the Fall and our upbringing it is impossible for our conscience to give us correct data all the time.  Some of this day is of our own making and is fake news to us.


Today we looked out what the conscience is through the eyes of John Calvin and Amandus Polanus.  The conclusion of this part is then that there are two aspects to reason.

a.            Theoretical reason

b.            Practical reason

The next stage of Bavincks argument is to look at the outworking of good and bad deeds and how the conscience works on a day-to-day basis.  The following are some areas that we need to follow through still:

·         How the natural understanding (syntérésis,) the major premise works with

·         The minor premise of conscience (you want to sin in some way or not)

·         Does this mean that we are trapped in a circle of sin?

Please comeback next time as we find out How Scripture and the Holy Spirit can help us because obviously, we cannot help ourselves.




My refection on the conscience for Religious Education.

As a Religious Educator and Theologian, I feel that ‘conscience’ is an aspect that is missing in many school curriculums today.   Herman Bavinck reminds us that this is an important aspect of what it is to be a truly good human being.   As an aside, conscience was something that Bruce Lee also took seriously and remember that he was not only a martial artist but a philosopher too! 

It saddens me to see so many young people on the streets without stability.   Young people putting their lives in danger for what purpose? Conscience is a driver within our human nature, and it is ignored in textbooks.  One has heard of conscientious objectors; that is one facet.  On the other hand, another man’s conscience would say ’it is ok to go to war’.  Both people have a conscience. 

Comparative religions consider the so called ‘facts’ on the ground and how religions work mainly externally.  I am arguing that it would be interesting to see what the various religions think about conscience.  I already know that Psychology looks at internals of the mind and ego, but this is done purely from a secular, non-religious, evolutionary cause, and effect point of view.   The religions also have a view, and this should be discussed in the classroom, and it would make for great debates.


News about my commentary on the Book of Hebrews

If you go to   You will find my other site.  At this site I now focus on teachings from the Holy Bible.   At the moment I am in chapter 3.  I decided to go to Psalm 95 first before returning to Hebrews.  The reason is that this Psalm is used in a major argument in his letter about faith and unbelief. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: