Bavick on Modern Rationalism and the Conscience.

 I chose the following picture because being separated from God is like having a tree without a water source.  In the same way for me rationalism has the same type of effect.  Anyhow putting these ideas to one side what can Herman Bavinck the Master theologian teach us today?

Photo by from Pexels

So then we come to the modern era with the so-called scientific way of looking at the human person.  Darwinism being on the ascendancy and evolutionary progressive ideas coming to the forefront leaving behind and detaching reality from law and scripture.  An oversimplification by me but something serious happened to throw us into the modern world.  This is why it is so important to read Hermann Bavinck’s reformed ethics.   In the world of ideas, the human being takes the place of God, and he is in the driving seat.  Are we any better for it?

From this rationalism and the separation of religion and the state our world has indeed changed.  Sometimes I think that people live two existences.  Enforced secularism on people and their personal faith in a divine creator.   As an RE teacher, I know where the law lies.  Confessional ism has been pushed out of the door and religion has been put on a leveling ground.  Atheistic secular humanism is being pushed forward all the time.  Is this so healthy?

The state is forcing people to live this dual public life or to choose secularism as though ‘religion is a bad thing’. 

You need to ask the question; How does this affect me or you?

My friend in big and subtle ways and it is time to stop being an emu and pull one’s head out of the ground at the dangers.   I can give you a list of ethical dilemmas.

Abortion; DNA sequencing and the creation of the superhuman; the nature of what it is to be human; silencing of free speech; Enforcing unethical practices on the Church through the law; Destroying the individual, who’s conscience differs; Positive discrimination towards men through feminist laws in the workplace and articulated in the law; legal discrimination against religious faiths in general: Nuclear energies that can be used for good and bad; global warming; the destruction of various species of animals and plants.

Whatever your background or religious beliefs, Bavinck is for you:

“In parallel with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment’s emancipation of the natural person, rationalists detach conscience from God, his law, his Word, and place it on its own.” (Reformed ethics by Herman Bavinck, edited by John Bolt)

Conscience is separated from God, God’s law and Scripture.  Conscience stands on its own and it is ripped out of its traditional context. 

It follows then that the conscience now becomes just a ‘moral sentiment or sense’ (pg189).  From my perspective I agree with Bavinck’s findings that all that was left is ‘purely moral and subjective’. 

Rousseau show the consequences of this that ‘A superficial moralism was the result.’ (pg189)

Where is this leading? 

Its leading to Kant who saw the conscience being in the court room with an acquittal or guilty verdict.   Conscience is detached from God, and it is only a ‘moral instrument’.  The conscience for Kant cannot make mistakes… Hmm I have problems with this because having looked at the discussion on the syllogisms we know that the conscience can make mistakes.  If we take into our senses false data (fake news?) we are certainly going to make mistakes with our conscience.  For Kant this was not a problem. Fichte follows the same lines as Kant that the conscience cannot err, make mistakes. (pgs 189-190).

Fichte then went beyond this as Bavinck says, “In the newer philosophy, conscience became an enlightening, infallible, and undeceived star. All the emphasis is placed on the formal function of judging by the conscience, which function is glorified; no attention is paid to its content.”(pg200)

Alarm bells started to ring in my head when I saw ‘no attention is paid to its content’   Which leads to Herbart who brings generalizations to conscience, so it affects art, science and ethics.  This leads us to Hegel: “where the good is identified with the nature of the will, of the completely realized will and not of the empirical will.” (pg 190).

Bavinck continues and I think that this is hard hitting: “conscience is valid for individual morality, but its standard, its ideal, is found in social ethics. The community exists far above the individual conscience and therefore need not always honour it.”   We then come to the point to see conscience only as a ‘product of nurture or a result of social instincts.’  Bavinck goes on to say that Schleiermacher did not make much of the conscience. (pg191)

After Schleiermacher

Before looking at the various types of conscience then after Schleiermacher Bavinck gives us list of questions that were asked after Schleiermacher:

(a) Is the conscience an original faculty, or is it produced by the environment, as Darwin suggested?

Accompanying this question is another: does conscience have a general content or not?

(b) Is conscience a religious faculty, or only a moral one?

(c) Is conscience a negative faculty, or also a positive one; does it presuppose the fall into sin or not? Does conscience play an anticipatory role, or does it deal only with consequences?

 (d) Is it infallible, or can we also speak of an erring conscience? In general, what kinds of consciences are there?

(e) What sort of freedom of conscience do humans enjoy?



So, rationalism on whatever riverbank we stand on has changed the horizon forever.  These names we mentioned in the push of rationalism are here to stay and they cannot be ignored.   Some theologians such as Pannenberg have built their edifices on Hegelianism principles and have taken the evolutionary route no matter what the cost.  Other theologians such as Karl Barth and Herman Bavinck, although of different traditions are willing to question the foundations of the secular edifice, we live in. 

This is indeed the modern world that has been built.  These ideas and ideals have helped to shape the world we live in today.  For myself I turn to the Lord Jesus Christ to help me and my family to steer these difficult times.  Scripture gives me an anchor for the soul by and through the Holy Spirit.  In many ways the conscience for the majority of people is free to think what they like.  I am blessed because scripture gives us constraints that in fact in the long term protects us from a lot of the evil that exists in this world.

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