What type of conscience do I have and how can I improve on my choices?

 

Butterfly from my garden.

Having gone this far on the topic of conscience we can see that it is a very important subject and topic.  This is something that should certainly be in any Religious Studies course. Possibly educationalists would prefer to have it under psychology.  One of the problems with comparative religion at schools and colleges is that each religion is looked at for its main features, practices, geographical location et.al.  Then one might have compare contrast, explain questions and finish off with an essay type question.

This does not answer the question of how religious or non- religious people look at how to get on with their neighbour or what to do when one sees a crisis brewing. For people in general doing the ‘right thing’ is important and for others ‘what they can get away with.’ As a society of fellow human beings, when we do something wrong, how is the after feeling?  Or when we do something right, how is the after feeling? 

Having a look at the conscience objectively in a safe classroom environment with an empathetic teacher I feel, is important.  Obviously, ethics is taught in Religious Studies such as abortion, euthanasia, war and so on and with various religious points of view but perhaps a student needs to look at the very ‘root’ of why they come to certain conclusions.  I think that Herman Bavinck certainly gives us the tools to be able to do some of this soul search findings.

What I wrote above is my reflections for a secular and religious audience.  So then; this is going to be the last look at the conscience and Bavinck is now ready to take us through the types of consciences that there are:

·         Natural (Pagan) and Christian (Enlightened) Consciences

·         Good and Bad Consciences

·         Upright and Erring Consciences

·         Assured and Doubting Consciences

·         Strong and Weak Consciences

·         Broad and Narrow (Scrupulous) Consciences”

·         Sleeping and Alert Consciences

These subheadings were taken from Reformed Ethics; Herman Bavinck; edited by John Bolt; pages 207-212

So then on the first one the Christian conscience is ‘enlightened by the word of God’.  The ‘pagan’ has the law of nature. 207

Secondly ‘A good conscience exonerates while a bad conscience accuses.’.  Bavinck notes though that the standard can have false premises.   He gives more information here about the natural and regenerated human being et al.  pg 207

Thirdly Bavinck says “But, in the first place, Holy Scripture clearly teaches the reality of an erring conscience:

The heart is deceitful above all things, / and desperately sick; / who can understand it? (Jer. 17:9)

However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association

with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. (1 Cor. 8:7)

. . . if his conscience is weak. (1 Cor. 8:10; cf. v. 12; 10:28—29)

. . . through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared. (1 Tim. 4:2)

To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. (Titus 1:15)”

So yes, for Bavinck the conscience can make mistakes ‘Err’.   I felt it was important to quote the scripture references so one can see why he came to certain conclusions.  However, he also looked at some great theologians of the time on this topic such as Ames, Braun, de Moor, Witsius, Buddeus, Rothe, Schenkel.  These theologians either fell on the side that the conscience cannot err, or it can err. Pages 207 – 208

Fourthly Bavinck begins by saying “A conscience is identified as doubting when, in answering the question of whether a particular act is permitted or not, it does not know how to answer.” Bavinck then shows various on this topic of assured and doubting consciences.  He looks at a range of points of view starting from Jesuit casuistry (probability) to confidence. Pages 209 – 211

Fifthly I will quote this section because Bavinck goes into scriptural references.  Bavinck says; According to Ames, “A good conscience admits of degrees, for which cause it is by the apostle distinguished into a weak and a strong conscience” (Rom. 15:1). A strong conscience is one that “is established in the truth” (Rom. 14:5; cf. 2 Pet. 1:12), which “knows that an idol is nothing” (1 Cor. 8:4, 7 NIV), bears the weak (Rom. 15:1), and is not offended (Rom. 14:3). A weak conscience has been improved by faith, but, nonetheless, still depends on someone other than God and something other than his Word (Rom. 14:15). Consequently, it still considers some things unclean (1 Cor. 8:7; Rom. 14:14), is quickly saddened (Rom. 14:15), is easily offended (Rom. 14:15, 21; 1 Cor. 8:9, 12), and condemns others (1 Cor. 10:29; Rom. 14:3, 15). The distinction between a free and an unfree conscience is closely connected with this distinction between strong and weak.” Pg 211

Sixthly the conscience can be broad or narrow.  In that a broad conscience basically allows more things than a narrow conscience that judges everything.

Seventhly a conscience can be sleeping or seared.  Bavinck gives the example for the former:

 21 Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore, this distress has come upon us.” Genesis 42:21 NASB

The brothers were guilty of selling Joseph into captivity, but the day came when a situation was set up and they saw their guilt. 

A seared conscience is dead to every kind of sin:

2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 1 Timothy 4:2 NASB

An alert conscience on the other hand is fully functional.

We now move on to the last two sections of this chapter on conscience.  Firstly, we need by faith to have our consciences cleansed:

14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? Hebrews 9:14 NASB

As Bavinck continues; “Once we have obtained an objectively good conscience, it must also be made subjectively good. We accomplish this, first of all, by bringing the Word of God more and more into the syntérésis and freeing it from all laws that conflict with it. Christ must be the content of our conscience. The subjective standard in our conscience must be brought increasingly into correspondence with the objective standard. Christ must liberate our conscience from every external authority and make it acknowledge God’s will as the only valid authority.” Page 212

Anyhow this obligation for the Christian is only possible through God’s grace and faith. 

Bavinck finishes off by reminding us that the conscience is universal.  There is the moral natural law that we are all under then he goes on to say:

“The moral law is one, immutable, and valid for all people. At the same time, different people interpret the moral law, each in their own way; they assimilate it in accord with their own nature, with the groups to which they belong, and with the societies in which they live.” Page 213

Bavinck finishes this chapter by saying on the individual level that the conscience only binds the person it belongs to.

On a state and Church level he says that neither institution can compel someone to go against their conscience. However, there are still requirements for its members.   Bavinck finishes off with ‘conscientious objection’. Page 214

Reflection

At this point we need to stop and think, what type of conscience do you have? 

I find it a deeply important and humbling subject.  We go through life thinking that we are doing the right thing and then realize that perhaps some of our decisions have been wrong and perhaps we should have gone another route. 

For Christians we have the Holy Spirit and Scripture to help us in making our decisions but even then, the culture we live in influences us in our decisions.  If the Bible is the word of God:  

Have we interpreted the Bible correctly?  You see the problem is that when making decisions, if we have been praying about a particular situation and we have misinterpreted some part of Scripture then we have missed an alignment for our conscience and we make a drastic mistake. If it wasn’t for God’s grace we would fail every time.  In our own nature we do not have all the answers and we can become ‘good people’ but this is not enough.  We need to remember the Fall and how sin came into the world.  We are all sinful and even Christian’s sin.  This is my understanding of it so I am not forcing my will onto you the reader.  On the other hand, one might be a child of the enlightenment and that there was no ‘fall’ and one sees the evolutionary process moving the human to perfection… One makes their own decisions. My friends I also think this is a failure.  Even with utilitarianisms there are many people on the streets without food: What sort of perfection is that?

At the moment in society there doesn’t seem to be any civic conscience either.  Before Rabbi Sacks died, he reminded us that this society is full of individualists with not a lot of care for our interactions with our neighbour whoever our neighbour might be.  I see selfishness and greed around a lot of corners.  These last years have been horrendous from a political point of view.  It isn’t just Trump, but it is also Johnson.  I long for the day that when someone makes a statement, they are willing to live by their statement instead of hiding the realities and promising people unrealities.  We can learn a lot from the Apostles here whether one is a Christian or not.   They had a message to take to the whole world: What happened?

St Paul had his head chopped off.

St Peter was crucified upside down because he did not see himself worthy to die in the same way Jesus died.

The list continues:

https://www.sunstar.com.ph/article/64320/Local-News/How-did-the-apostles-die

They were men who were willing to die for what they believed in.  How low do things need to get?

Yes, the conscience is an important topic and I hope and pray that we learn to listen to our consciences again.  Regeneratively by the Holy Spirit and Scripture and for all people to be aware of the natural law and although not religious, at least listen and make good decisions that help the whole of Humanity.

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