I don’t get worked up about much. I think the pandemic is serious—the latest numbers from Europe aren’t looking good—but I’m not too freaked out by it. I certainly don’t want to contract the virus—though I am resigned to the fact that most of us probably will—and I’m willing to take reasonable precautions to prevent that from happening. Accordingly, I’m not all that bothered by the masking thing. (Probably because my transition from graduate school life to real life, in the middle of lockdowns, hasn’t demanded much change of my lifestyle. Grad students are only social when there’s free food involved.) At the same time, what I am irked by are the self-appointed public safety czars that seem to pop out of every nook and cranny like obnoxious little gnomes—or is it trolls? —to shame those who aren’t properly conforming to every latest public health norm. I’m not obsessed with masks, nor all that bothered by them, but I am bothered by people who are obsessed with masks and bothered by anyone who isn’t obsessed too.
The Gospel Coalition is obsessed with masks. It’s treated the issue repeatedly since the summer. “4 Reasons to Wear a Mask, Even if You Hate It,” was Brett McCracken’s very, very TGC take. “How Should I Interact with Believers Who Don’t Share My Opinion About Wearing a Mask?” was another one from August. To be fair, its not just TGC. Sojourners predictably came through with a “Wearing a Mask is Biblical” take. Catholic communities are divided over the same issue, and even the Pope isn’t immune from chastisement for not too infrequently dawning a mask. The mask mandates are obviously a topic of public conversation at present. The real point is not that its being talked about, but that the theological merits and demerits of compliance are being handled so lazily. (It is, as a threshold issue, still strange to me that the mask matter even rises to that level of importance to demand this kind of sustained analysis, but here we are.)
Last week, TGC took up the mask issue again. This time, Erik Raymond, a pastor from the Boston area and TGC contributor, endeavored to decisively designate masking a non-conscience issue. That is, non-compliance cannot rightly be chalked up to a conscientious objection. The result, per Raymond, is that Christian consciences are bound; they must comply. Raymond does not distinguish between Christians living in states where said compliance is somehow mandated and those that do not. He means his analysis to apply across the board, making masking an ethical mandate regardless of local governmental policy. (I do not know Raymond; I’m sure he’s a great guy and faithful pastor. What follows is not an attack on his person only his ideas presented in the article in question.)
Again, because I’m not all that interested in the masking issue as such, what follows is a brief critique of Raymond’s theory of the conscience. Thereafter I reassert the understanding of the same faculty according to Seventeenth Century Reformed Orthodoxy—the same understanding that is implied in the great confessions of the same period. If we operate with a half-baked view of the conscience, our parsing of issues related thereto is bound to be skewed. One’s understanding of the function and role of the conscience has important implications for their understanding of reason, morality, and agency (as well as natural law). Before moral calculus can be performed the conscience must be unmasked.
Raymond draws on a book on the conscience by Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley. (To be clear, I have not read Naselli’s and Crowley’s book. This post is a critique thereof only insofar as Raymond accurately represents it.)
First, Raymond defines conscience as “moral awareness” which God has bestowed upon all people. True enough, but this underdeveloped point is leveraged to assert implications that do not necessarily follow even from this meager definition. Raymond says,
“But our conscience is precisely that, our conscience. It’s personal based upon individual moral standards. This is why no two people will have identical conscience convictions on every issue at every time.”
Raymond is right to note (in passing) that the moral awareness is strengthened and expanded through the power of the Spirit in sanctification such that convictions may change overtime (primarily via better understanding of revelation but also by the improvement the Christian’s use of his intellectual faculties). Raymond is further correct to hold that “The conscience must never trump Scripture,” though he doesn’t explain why. These are half truths masking the fullness of the conscience.
But after affirming these true if preliminary things about the conscience, he slips into a relativization—and some redundancy—of the same.
“Our conscience is for us. We must be careful not to impose our personal convictions of conscience upon others. By nature, conscience is something personal. It may be something not directly addressed in Scripture or even something contrary to Scripture.” (emphasis original)
“Our convictions should not lead to judging others. Christians must show love and not judge those who may have differing views of conscience (Rom. 14).”
What we are left with, on Raymond’s account, is a highly subjective, relative, personal, unaccountable conviction. We are not told what the true nature, purpose, or function of the conscience is apart from some amorphous, internalized but strong personal moral feeling. Raymond, intentionally or otherwise, presents a sort of Jeffersonian, live-and-let-live vision of this faculty.
Strangely, Raymond spends half the article convincing the reader that the conscience is purely personal and mostly subjective but also sacred and not to be violated (for whatever reason). The second half is dedicated to convincing the reader that masks during the pandemic are no wise a conscience issue. Again, the reason for the second claim is unclear, apart from the fact that Raymond thinks—as a matter of conscience? —that there is no way masks could be, in any context, a moral issue, mainly because the matter isn’t treated directly by Scripture.
Among other things, Raymond refuses to distinguish between scenarios in which masks are required, e.g., the church v. the local deli. But as others have pointed out, the argument could be made that mask requirements in worship transform masks themselves into a liturgical article. We are now in vestments territory. The point is that its not all so simple.
But in Raymond’s truncated version of the conscience, the only source of the conscience’s authority is inscripturated revelation itself. If the Bible commands it, then the conscience must do it; if it does not, then the conscience must not. In part, this is true. But Raymond’s theory of conscience is only partial because he presents no place for the authoritative dictates of the book of the creature, that is, the light of nature or natural law—which is, in fact, the primary content from which the conscience judges. (Not to mention, Raymond provides no discussion of the other concomitant intellectual faculties of the soul, viz., the intellect and the will.) Nor does he properly situate the conscience amongst the other intellectual powers of the soul.
The true contradiction in Raymond’s formulation is that consciences cannot be unwillingly bound apart from clear teaching of Scripture—no disagreement there—but, at the same time, the conscience is completely internalized and subject to none but the internal self; it can be bound by none and bind none. What then is its true utility? Why should it ever be trusted?
At the end of the article, the reader is left feeling like the conscience is akin to the human appendix: we assume that God did not insert a redundant organ into our bodies, but we can’t quite figure out what its for exactly.
Of course, more recent research (per everyone’s favorite in-home physician, WebMD) suggests that the appendix may act as a “storehouse” of beneficial bacteria for the purpose of “rebooting” the digestive system after various illnesses that force a discharge of all bacteria. As it so happens, the classical formulation of the conscience, contra Raymond’s, is not that far off from this more modern theory of the appendix’s function.
When compared to classical formulations of the conscience, the appendix as storehouse analogy, as with all analogies, is proximate but imperfect.
The first serious assessment of the conscience in late-Sixteenth and early-Seventeenth century Protestantism began with William Perkins (1558-1602) and William Ames (1576-1633), the latter being one of the former’s students, and both of whom greatly influenced Puritan theology.
First, Perkins and his famous Discourse of Conscience (1596). For him, the conscience is closely related to, but distinct from, the understanding, or the practical reason. The conscience “determines or gives sentence to things done, by saying to us, This was done, this was not done; this may be done, this may not be done.”
“The minde thinks a thought, now conscience goes beyond the minde, and knowes what the minde thinks; so as if a man would go about to hide his sinfull thoughts from God, his conscience as another person within him, shall discover all. By meanes of this second action conscience may beare witnes even of thoughts, and from hence it seems to borrow his name, because conscience is a science or knowledge joined with another knowledge: for but it I conceive and know what I know.”
Here Perkins is demonstrating why the conscience was often referred to as the “God’s viceregent” in man’s soul. Its chief function is to examine the self and the actions and thoughts of the self, judging each according to God’s law. This being imbedded in man, he cannot escape its witness, one that exists, in a sense, apart from him but also within him. It is a second order reflex of sorts. It bears witness to what we know and what we intend back to us. But not only does it assess our knowledge and intents but binds them.
As Paul Helm puts it, summarizing Perkins, “Conscience is the binder of the judgments made or reactions experienced. It has authority over a person, making the mind aware of the sinfulness or inadequacy of what it is thinking, doing, and feeling.” But it also tells the person when good is being done and thereby excuses it. And all of this according to God’s law. As WCF 20.2 states, “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” (This phrasing originated with Perkins and Ames, thereby showing their outsized influence over later doctrinal formulations.)
But the conscience is also somewhat malleable. It must be educated and formed by the commands of God to be able to discern its obligations but also what is adiaphora, a thing indifferent. This balance, says the Confession, is true liberty of conscience.
Whilst Perkins provides the general contours of the conscience, Ames (in his Conscience and the Power of Cases Thereof (1639)) developed it further and more directly linked it to natural law. Though he held his teacher in high esteem, Ames criticized Perkins’ formulation, viz., his near-melding of conscience and understanding into one faculty. Ames opted, following Aquinas, for casting the conscience as “an act of the practicall judgment, proceeding from the Understanding by the power or meanes of a habit.” (emphasis added). As a practical judgment, the conscience is distinct from a contemplative judgment whereby truth is discerned from falsehood. The conscience does not itself discern this, but derives it from elsewhere and judges accordingly
In short, the conscience acts like a practical syllogism. The major premise (or proposition) would be some aspect of the law; the minor would provide a resultant assumption or belief, and the conclusion would act as the judgment.
Following the Scholastic tradition, Ames introduces terms for the three parts of the syllogism that will be unfamiliar to most readers. The proposition is called the Synteresis (or Synderesis). The assumption is the Syneidasis, and the conclusion or judgment is the Krisis. (This was probably drawn from Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia 79, and by invoking this, Ames situates himself within a particular natural law tradition. See esp. Robert Greene, “Whichote, the Candle of the Lord, and Synderesis, J. History of Ideas, 52(4) (1991).)
For example (borrowed from Helm):
Proposition (law/Synteresis): He that lies in sin shall die.
Assumption (memory/the record of human action/Syneidasis): I lie in sin.
Conclusions (Krisis): I shall die.
So, conscience is the application of what he knows both about God’s law and about himself to a particular case. It is not any one part of the syllogism but rather, as Lee Gibbs put it (commenting on Ames), “the whole act of discursive practical judgment.”
The synteresis, which provides the initial proposition, is described by Ames as the “storehouse” of the natural law, to which, for Christians, is added the content of Scripture—which John Wise (1652-1725) called “nature’s law in a fairer and brighter edition. Ames says in the Marrow of Divinity that God writes his law “in the heart in the form of disposition [habitus] where the first foundation of conscience called συντηρησις, synteresis, is located.”
It is this storehouse to which Paul refers in Romans 2:13-15. It is the immutable, implanted law of God. It cannot be blotted out and is objectively possessed by all men. Therefore, they are without excuse. The conscience itself does not contain the storehouse but judges according to it. Consciences may be seared but the knowledge of the rudiments of the natural law, properly speaking, cannot.
But the objective possession of these stores does not mean that men always abide thereby, or even maintain full consciousness thereof. Their consciences can be seared such that they no longer pay heed to what they know by nature. This is not so much discursive knowledge as it is basic, general, moral principles; the bare minimum starting point. Further, even fallen man can never desire a thing as evil. He can do evil, but only because he has misapprehended the good.
In any case, divine law, whether inscripturated or natural is the sole basis for the judgments of the conscience. Ames follows the Thomist breakdown law’s forms. Divine law is subdivided into positive (Scripture) and natural. The natural law is “the same which usually is called the eternal law. But it is called eternal in relation to God as it is from eternity in him; it is called natural as it is ingrafted and imprinted in the nature of man by the God of nature.” The divine positive law, as positive law, is mutable according to the discretion of the lawgiver, but not mutable insofar as it is an inscription of the eternal law and a republication of the natural law (esp. in the Decalogue and Sermon on the Mount).
Only these two sources of divine law, sharing in authorship, can bind the conscience. God’s viceregent can only take orders from its superior. It is a habit of the soul but stands apart from the other intellectual faculties because it judges their operation.
But natural law also includes “that which is at least deduced… by evident consequence. So that this ius partly consists of practical principles known by nature and partly of conclusions deduced from those principles.” This is the same principle of deductive reasoning expressed in WCF 1.6 that makes right and necessary conclusions from Scripture morally binding. The same goes for pure conclusions from the light of nature. Those pure conclusions that have been asserted and codified by all societies throughout time with some consistency comprise the ius gentium, the law of nations, which provides a way to, in part, reverse engineer the natural law.
Hopefully the above offers a brief introduction to the classical Protestant articulation of the conscience, which is being invoked regularly by Christians as they face what are for them unprecedented questions. As I promised above, I will not dive into the masking question. But what is clear from the foregoing via Perkins and Ames—the thought of which can be seen perpetuated in the writings of countless other Protestant theologians since—is that only one thing informs and affects the judgments of the conscience vis a vis human action, and that is God’s law in positive and natural form. And all moral judgments, properly speaking, engage the conscience.
The question is not whether a particular issue is a matter of the conscience—the conscience is always engaged—but rather whether it is adiaphora, a thing not directly or clearly touched by natural law or Scripture, nor by the pure conclusions drawn therefrom. If, as Raymond and others believe, voluntarily masking is mandated by Scripture or good and necessary consequence of holy writ and natural law, then it certainly engages the conscience, and the conscience must find it binding. If the law of God does not directly, or by consequence, touch upon it, then it is adiaphora and the conscience is not necessarily bound one way or the other, so long as all is done to the glory of God, but nevertheless still casts a judgment (following the understanding).
But what is most clear is that the conscience is not some subjective, content-less, amorphous moral feeling. It is God’s viceregent, God’s voice within the soul of man that forms every practical judgment about man’s conduct, desires, thoughts, and intent. Informing this action is the synteresis, the storehouse of God’s law implanted in man. It is by these stores that the conscience judges, not subjective moral feeling. Accordingly, since the same content (in essence if not in extent) of the synteresis is shared by all men, the same standard informs the judgment of their conduct (controlling for lapsarian effects). The conscience does deliver “this is good for me but not for thee” judgments. It hands down universal truths, divine law, applied to individual acts. It is the voice of God in the heart of man; a voice that can never fully be smothered, try as man might. Therefore, the conscience answers to and applies the law of God alone. Do not let others mask your conscience with adiaphora. God alone is the Lord of the conscience. We should at least know this much before we go on binding the consciences of others by insisting that their conscience (erroneously conceived as a subjective feeling) has no bearing on the issue.
Image credit: @joncas89/Unspalsh