On the Conscience

“For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.  For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.  But why dost thou judge thy brother?…  for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ…  So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.”

Rom. 15:8-12

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Order of Contents

That Human Authorities Cannot Bind the Conscience
On Following Church Authority
On Requiring Blind & Implicit Obedience

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That Human Authorities Cannot Bind the Conscience

The Significance of the Quote Below by Calvin:

It is a popular tenet of evangelicalism that if the civil government makes a law that does not entail a person to sin personally, that it binds the conscience to be obeyed.

It is a popular tenet of Fundamentalism and High Churchism that if a church leader gives a direction remotely within its jurisdiction (for instance: a church meeting is held, therefore one must be at that place, at that time) that one is bound in conscience to observe this, or one is in sin.

Patriarchalism teaches that if a father gives a command to his wife or child, and it does not entail personal sin, that person is in sin if he or she does not obey it.

All of this is not Reformed according to the Word of God, which teaches that “God alone is the Lord of the conscience (James 4:12; Rom. 14:4)” (WCF 20.2), and no human authority.

As Calvin elucidates below, human authorities that wield the authority of God, do so only so far as God has given them express authority in their general ends and designs.  That is, the civil magistrate is to uphold good and punish evil, the Church has spiritual power unto the edification of its members, and fathers likewise have authority for the well-being of their family.

Any specific command of human authorities, however, insofar as it entails a given context, history, specifics and detailed circumstances, goes beyond general ends and cannot innately bind persons’ consciences, especially if there are legitimate, justifying moral reasons otherwise, as the Lord has not specifically revealed or imposed his own power with regard to such specifics.

While persons ought to give due weight to human authorities and their commands, giving them the benefit of the doubt generally speaking, and as subjects are bound by the Lord in conscience to fulfilling the ordained general ends of such authorities, yet it is God’s moral and natural law alone, rightly applied to specific circumstances (which ought to be recognized by the conscience), that can bind a person’s conscience so that not to do it is sinful.

While human authorities may enforce their decisions with the power they wield in order to uphold the moral and natural law of God insofar as it appears to them in the sight of men (the external court), especially where sin appears to be inevitably involved, yet no human authority is omniscient and knows all the factors in a situation, nor can they know the thoughts of the heart.  Likewise, human authorities are liable to err.

Hence, God (with whom we have to do) must remain the sole Lord of the conscience.  On the other hand, “the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. (Rom. 10:17Rom. 14:23Isa. 8:20Acts 17:11John 4:22Hos. 5:11Rev. 13:12,16,17Jer. 8:9)”  (WCF 20.2)

The quote below by Calvin is significant because it implicitly applies to all human authorities (including the family even though he does not specifically mention the family).  It also shows that this teaching regarding human authority in making laws, which would go on to become the standard Reformed doctrine on the subject, was present and being taught from at least shortly after the Reformation.

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John Calvin

Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Beveridge  (Edinburgh, 1846), vol. 3, book 4, ch. 10, section 5, pp. 196-197

“5. 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.¹

¹ French: …”And in fact, such is the import of the common distinction which has been held by all the schools, that human and civil jurisdictions are quite different from those which touch the conscience.”

When the whole world was enveloped in the thickest darkness of ignorance, it was still held (like 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 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 honored because they are ordained of God. (Rom. 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.”

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Hall, Thomas – pp. 41-42  in The Beauty of Magistracy in an Exposition of the 82nd Psalm, where is set forth the necessity, utility, dignity, duty, and mortality of magistrates…  (London, 1660)

This is the bibliography on the topic that Hall provides:

“See this Question (An leges humanae & obligent conscientiam) more fully debated in D. [John] Davenant, de Judice ac norma fidei, ch. 26; D. Andrews on the fifth Commandment, ch. 4, p. 336; Ames, CC. bk. 1, ch. 11-12; Rutherford, Divine Right Of Church Government, p. 201; Sharpius, Common Places, Pt. 2, p. 240; Alsted, CC., p. 340, 342 & Gerhard, de Magistrat. Polit., p. 355; Musculus, Common Places, p. 645, folio; Ames, CC., bk. 5, ch. 25, q. 4.”

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On Following Church Authority

Samuel Rutherford

A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church Discipline Penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker…  (London, 1658), bk. 4, ch. 12, ‘Of the Magistrate’s Power in Convocating Synods’, p. 497

“…for neither magistrate nor people can be bound to follow the judgement of the Churches or ministry farther than they follow the rule of the Word; they follow their judgement conditionally, not absolutely and simply;

and it is a great calumny of Mr. [Henry] Burton and our [Independent] Brethren, that we lay bands on the consciences of prince and people to follow the acts and determinations of the Church, be they true or false: and that there is no place left to appeal to the next, or a better informed synod, and to the consciences of the collective Church of the godly judicious professors, and to protest and deny obedience to erring assemblies.”

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The Divine Right of Church Government  (London, 1646), Appendix, ‘An Introduction to the Doctrine of Scandal’, Question 5, p. 59

“…the Church ministerially does judge, so as the obligatory power is from the things themselves, not from the will of human superiors.  No necessity of peace which is posterior to truth, no necessity of obedience to authority, no necessity of uniformity in these externals, simply, and as they are such, are necessities obliging us to obedience: For things must first in themselves be necessary, before they can oblige to obedience.

I must obey superiors in these things of convenient necessity, because they are convenient, and most convenient in themselves, and so intrinsically most necessary, but they are not necessarily to be done in themselves, because I must obey superiors, and because I must keep uniformity with the Church.  The will of superiors do find in things necessity, and good of uniformity, but they do not make necessity, nor the good of uniformity:

We should be servants of men if our obedience were ultimately resolved in the mere will of superiors in any the least circumstance of worship: and what I say of actions, holds in matters of mere custom also.”

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On Requiring Blind & Implicit Obedience

Samuel Rutherford

Divine Right of Church Government (1646), p. 550

“Yet my sense is not that the magistrate can lawfully command obedience in matters of religion not understood or known by the subjects; that were to exact blind obedience; but my meaning is that the magistrate, as the magistrate, holds not forth his commandments to teach and inform the conscience, as pastors do, but he presupposes that his mandates are known to be agreeable to the Word of God, and proposes them to the subjects to be obeyed.”

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