Sunday, 20 June 2021

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.

 You can also follow my blog on Hebrews at:








Saturday, 12 June 2021

What Bavinck says about The place of conscience and how it works in our lives; Peter Martyr Vermigli

 So let us start to think about the mechanisms that make conscience work.  The early church fathers and the scholastics have helped us a long way through syllogisms.  Syllogisms were also used by theologians from the reformed traditions.  Bavinck here is telling us about Peter Martyr Vermigli, an Italian reformed theologian:

Peter Martyr Vermigli was an Italian-born Reformed theologian. His early work as a reformer in Catholic Italy and his decision to flee for Protestant northern Europe influenced many other Italians to convert and flee as well. Wikipedia

Born: September 8, 1499, Florence, Italy

Died: November 12, 1562, Zürich, Switzerland

Education: University of Padua “(Taken from Google search)

from Public domain:

So, Bavinck wrote:

Vermigli put it this way: first comes syntérésis, the natural knowledge of things concerning our conduct, which provides the major premise (such as, fornication is sin). Conscience supplies the minor premise (what you want to do is fornication) and draws the conclusion: you should not do that. (Reformed Ethics, Herman Bavinck, edited by John Bolt, page 183).

In the major premise then, it is a ‘the natural knowledge of things concerning our conduct (such as, fornication is sin) ’. Natural knowledge of something bad does not mean that you have sinned.   

We also need the minor ‘premise (what you want to do is fornication) and draws the conclusion: you should not do that’.

The conclusion can then be that the conscience shows you that you are guilty because you are.  Conscience in itself can never make something right.  It is a judgement, and it only shows what has already taken place.

Obviously according to Vermigli the conscience can also judge things done admirably.  The syllogism Bavinck used as an example focused on looking at sin.  The syllogism as a tool can also be used with ethics that move in the direction of the Good. (page 183).  I think we also need to remember that even the conscience can get wrong answers at times because of the Fall (Adam and Eve turning their back on God). 

However, all rational creatures including angels have a conscience.  Though conscience in itself is inadequate for a proper measure, we rely on the Holy Spirit and Scripture as guides for us by God’s grace.  Concerning conscience then, there are two who know our deeds and judgements, you and God; not a third party.   A third party may guess objectively but subjectively it is impossible for others to know.  Bavinck then gives us two collecting points.

a.       The conscience is a witness to good acts or bad acts.

b.       The conscience makes a judgement about our past deed.

The conscience is only answerable to God and it follows through God’s command.   Our master theologian then gives us two verses:

22 For the LORD is our judge,

The LORD is our lawgiver,

The LORD is our king;

He will save us— Isaiah 33:22 NASB

And then:

12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbour? James 4:12 NASB


Before Bavinck goes on to explain in more details, he gives us this great gem:

There are many judges in the world, but God is the ultimate Judge.  When judges judge they will never know all the facts.  In God’s case, He understands and knows everything:

 “The reasoning conscience functions in two ways: through the mind and through the memory.  The intellect makes use of ecclesiastical (canon) law and civil law. Memory arises from particular deeds, either accomplished or only imagined, which the conscience judges by the norms of the law.” (Reformed Ethics, Herman Bavinck, edited by John Bolt, page 183-184).



We have discovered that the conscience is very important to our health and wellbeing here on earth, but it also has a say on our future into eternity.  God is Judge of the whole earth.  If we have a Christian faith of whatever background, then Jesus sent the Holy Spirit into the world to be a guide and teacher to his children.  God has also given us his word the Bible.  Although our consciences are broken by the Fall, through God’s grace by the Holy Spirit and Scripture these corrections help us to reach new heights of God’s activity in the world reaching to the lost.

If you are not a Christian, you too have a conscience my friend.  What have you done with your conscience?  Have you listened to it recently or do you ignore it?  We have all been created by God, believers and non-believers.  There are issues at hand such as floods, hunger, global warming.  Love of our family and our neighbours.  On a lot of these issues, it does not matter whether or not one is a Christian in this present age but we as human beings have to get together and make decisions to make this world a better place for our children’s sakes. 

Having said that, I invite you if you are not a Christian to think about these things.  Jesus is at the door of your heart, and he is knocking.  Will you invite him into your life?  If you do not know anything about the Lord Jesus, I think a Gospel I seriously like is Johns Gospel.   It may be that you know some Christians already and it is worth talking to a church minister or a better still; someone you know who a believer is, they could help you. 

I want to finish off by saying that we are all sinners and without God’s help we are lost.  My faith in Christ gives me a focus and a goal in life and I bow my knee only to Him.  Herman Bavinck has thought through some serious issues of what it means to serve God in the real world.  I hope and pray that you have also benefited from his wisdom as we walk along a path that he laid before us.

News about my commentary on the Book of Hebrews


If you go to   You will find my other site.  At the moment I am going through the book of Hebrews.  At this site I also went through the whole of 1 Corinthians.  Last Week we looked at Psalm 96 as a background text to Apollos’ arguments in chapter 3 and 4.


Saturday, 5 June 2021

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.