A little note on the freedom of the conscience

The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.jpgWhen, in 1644, the great Baptist pastor Roger Williams defended the claim that Christ is King alone over conscience ‘was and is the summe of all true preaching of the Gospell or glad newes’ (The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution), he was articulating a basic tenet of what it means to do faith in the Free Church tradition. He was also signalling that as noble as the human conscience is, its freedom is not achieved by its being made into an idol. Rather, the conscience is free – and faith is truly voluntaristic – only insofar as it recognises the final authority of Another.

A few centuries later, another Free Churchman, one P. T. Forsyth, made the same point in his own way:

It is one of the fundamental mistakes we make about our own Protestantism to say that the authority is the conscience, and the Christian conscience in particular. Not so. The authority is nothing in us, but something in history. It is something given us. What is in us only recognises it. And the conscience which now recognises it has long been created by it. The conscience recognises the tone of injunction, but what is enjoined is given by history, and has passed into the historic consciousness. We have the inner intuition of what is really a great historic teleology. But it is not gathered up from all history by an induction, which, as history is far from finished, could never give us anything final or authoritative. It is defined in it at a fixed point by faith in the experienced revelation of final purpose within God’s act of Gospel there. The authority is not the conscience [or the Bible, or the Pope, or Magistrate, or State, or human experience, or culture, or vote, no matter how democratic] but it is offered to it. The conscience of God is not latent in our conscience, but revealed to it in history. It is history centred in Christ, it is not conscience, that is the real court of morals. And it is there accordingly that we find the authority for Christian faith and Christian theology, for faith and theology both. (The Principle of Authority)

A note on the Formula, Liberty of Conscience and the Declaratory Act

A guest post by Andrew Smith.

In 1930, the minister J.A. Asher and the elder J.S. Butler of the Presbytery of Hawke’s Bay supported an overture from the Presbytery to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. It read:

Whereas this Presbytery of Hawke’s Bay, being of the opinion that Question 2, appointed to be asked of elders on the occasion of their ordination to the office, having reference to the Westminster Confession of Faith, has given rise to considerable difficulty; has resulted in men declining to accept the office of eldership, who have been in every way qualified for such office, to the detriment of the interests of our Church; hereby overtures the General Assembly that Question 2 be omitted from the questions in connection with the ordination of elders.

An examination of the Year Book of the period shows that Question 2, asked of all office-bearers of the Presbyterian Church of the time reads: ‘Do you sincerely own and believe the system contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith; and do you acknowledge the said doctrine as expressing the sense in which you understand the Holy Scriptures; and will you constantly maintain and defend the same, and the purity of worship in accordance therewith?’

Perhaps some laymen being ordained to office found this question too much to ask. Even in the early parts of the twentieth century, the Westminster Confession, a document written in dense legal language several centuries old, was too impenetrable for them to answer Question 2 in good conscience. Unlike the Bible it had no ‘revised standard version’. Rather than omitting Question 2, the General Assembly moved to revise the questions for the ordination of elders. At the same time the Church of Scotland was proceeding in the same direction and the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand chose to wait on the parent church to create a new formula and adopted a similar one with questions replacing the Formula of Subscription in 1936. The new form of the formula read:

I believe the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and other subordinate standards of the Church. I acknowledge the Presbyterian government of this Church to be agreeable to the Word of God, and promise that I will submit thereto and concur therewith. I promise to observe the order of worship and the administration of all public ordinances as the same are or may be allowed in this Church.

The formula was not amended again until the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand in 2010 to read:

I believe in the Word of God in Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained in the Kupu Whakapono and Commentary, the Westminster Confession of Faith and other subordinate standards of this Church. I accept that liberty of conviction is recognised in this Church but only on such points as do not enter into the fundamental doctrines of Christian Faith contained in the Scriptures and subordinate standards. I acknowledge the Presbyterian government of this Church to be agreeable to the Word of God and promise to submit to it. I promise to observe the order and administration of public worship as allowed in this Church.

The General Assembly carried the motion that the Formula be reworded as above. While it was sent to the presbyteries and church councils, consideration to report back at the 2012 General Assembly it was adopted ad interim. There was some debate in the Assembly. My feeling is that the General Assembly did not compare the old and new versions of the Formula and that the new version has some innovations on which there could be improvements.

Firstly if the phrase in the Word of God in Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments needs to be added to the Formula then I think it should come after the subordinate standards. As it reads it conflates the authority of the Scriptures with that of the subordinate standards. While placing the Scriptures as pre-eminent is appealing, placing it as our ultimate authority is much clearer. Without further research, which probably goes back to the Church of Scotland’s version of the Formula, I suspect that the earlier generation decided that not placing the Scriptures here avoided controversy. Their intention is not without merit.

Secondly I suggest that the word conviction should be amended to read conscience. Liberty of Conscience has a long history in the Presbyterian Church going back to the Declaratory Act. It was first passed by the Church of Scotland in 1892, then by the then independent Synod of Otago and Southland in 1893, and by the united Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1901. Reading the Declaratory Act it seems evident that the church of this period had problems accepting that God elected some for salvation and some for damnation, especially those who died before the age of decision-making. This is an age when literature suggested that children came from heaven and if they died before a certain age that they could join the angels. Conscience has precedence in the Church’s terminology, conviction does not. To me conviction suggests belief or opinion while conscience is the prompting of the Holy Spirit. That is a significant difference.

Finally, I would strike out the words but only. To paraphrase the Gospels, what comes out of a butt goes into the sewer! But is a conjunction, a balancing word that contrasts a negative clause with a positive one, the negative clause coming first and the positive clause after the conjunction. Liberty of conviction is in the negative clause of the sentence, and the fundamental doctrines of Christian faith in the positive. The sentence reads like a big stick to police ordained ministers and elders. Agreement with this sentence suggests that too much liberty of conviction or conscience cannot be trusted. Conform or else we will have you thrown out of office! Removing it would encourage more faith in our leadership.

I believe that Asher and Butler’s overture in 1930 remains a challenge for the modern church and we still don’t know the answer. We have the Subordinate Standards of the Church. Our shared knowledge of them remains shallow. They are beyond our grasp of understanding: the words are too clever, too pretty. We might give more consideration to the Terms and Conditions taking out membership on Facebook than we do to the Formula of Ordination and to our Confessions. It lies in the too hard basket.

The Service of Intercession

Moses MosaicKarl Barth once noted that ‘Even within the world to which it belongs, it [the Church] does not exist ecstatically or eccentrically with reference to itself, but wholly with reference to them, to the world around. It saves and maintains its own life as it interposes and gives itself for all other human creatures’ (CD IV.3.2, 762). There can be no doubt that this ministry of intercession certainly involves prayer, but prayer without diakonia is not true prayer, even as diakonia without prayer is not true diakonia. Authentic intercession also involves a struggle against evil, identification with those who are estranged and alienated, and an ‘argument’ with God on behalf of those who have become disenfranchised from God, from human community and from creation. We might recall here Moses’ intercession for those who have worshipped the golden calf:

On the following day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I shall go up to Yahweh: perhaps I can secure expiation for your sin.’ Moses then went back to Yahweh and said, ‘Oh, this people has committed a great sin by making themselves a god of gold. And yet, if it pleased you to forgive their sin …! If not, please blot me out of the book you have written!’ (Exodus 32:30–32)

Inherent in this intercession of responsible action is a sharing of guilt. This recalled something that I read recently in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, (the implications of which we might also profitably tease out with a copy of TF Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ in hand). I cite Bonhoeffer:

[The] structure of responsible action includes both readiness to accept guilt and freedom.

When we once more turn our attention to the origin of all responsibility it becomes clear to us what we are to understand by acceptance of guilt. Jesus is not concerned with the proclamation and realization of new ethical ideals; He is not concerned with Himself being good (Matt. 19.17); He is concerned solely with love for the real man, and for that reason He is able to enter into the fellowship of the guilt of men and to take the burden of their guilt upon Himself. Jesus does not desire to be regarded as the only perfect one at the expense of men; He does not desire to look down on mankind as the only guiltless one while mankind goes to its ruin under the weight of its guilt; He does not wish that some idea of a new man should triumph amid the wreckage of a humanity whose guilt has destroyed it. He does not wish to acquit Himself of the guilt under which men die. A love which left man alone in his guilt would not be love for the real man. As one who acts responsibly in the historical existence of men Jesus becomes guilty. It must be emphasized that it is solely His love which makes Him incur guilt. From His selfless love, from His freedom from sin, Jesus enters into the guilt of men and takes this guilt upon Himself. Freedom from sin and the question of guilt are inseparable in Him. It is as the one who is without sin that Jesus takes upon Himself the guilt of His brothers, and it is under the burden of this guilt that He shows Himself to be without sin. In this Jesus Christ, who is guilty without sin, lies the origin of every action of responsible deputyship. If it is responsible action, if it is action which is concerned solely and entirely with the other man, if it arises from selfless love for the real man who is our brother, then, precisely because this is so, it cannot wish to shun the fellowship of human guilt. Jesus took upon Himself the guilt of all men, and for that reason every man who acts responsibly becomes guilty. If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility he detaches himself from the ultimate reality of human existence, and what is more he cuts himself off from the redeeming mystery of Christ’s bearing guilt without sin and he has no share in the divine justification which lies upon this event. He sets his own personal innocence above his responsibility for men, and he is blind to the more irredeemable guilt which he incurs precisely in this; he is blind also to the fact that real innocence shows itself precisely in a man’s entering into the fellowship of guilt for the sake of other men. Through Jesus Christ it becomes an essential part of responsible action that the man who is without sin loves selflessly and for that reason incurs guilt. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. N.H. Smith; London: SCM, 1955), 209–10.

BonhoefferBonhoeffer (who my wife often confuses with Jason Alexander, a.k.a. George Costanza) then turns to consider the implications of this theology of Christ’s vicarious humanity for the human conscience and its relationship with law:

When Christ, true God and true man, has become the point of unity of my existence, conscience will indeed still formally be the call of my actual being to unity with myself, but this unity cannot now be realized by means of a return to the autonomy which I derive from the law; it must be realized in fellowship with Jesus Christ. Natural conscience, no matter how strict and rigorous it may be, is now seen to be the most ungodly self-justification, and it is overcome by the conscience which is set free in Jesus Christ and which summons me to unity with myself in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has become my conscience. This means that I can now find unity with myself only in the surrender of my ego to God and to men. The origin and the goal of my conscience is not a law but it is the living God and the living man as he confronts me in Jesus Christ. For the sake of God and of men Jesus became a breaker of the law. He broke the law of the Sabbath in order to keep it holy in love for God and for men. He forsook His parents in order to dwell in the house of His Father and thereby to purify His obedience towards His parents. He sat at table with sinners and outcasts; and for the love of men He came to be forsaken by God in His last hour. As the one who loved without sin, He became guilty; He wished to share in the fellowship of human guilt; He rejected the devil’s accusation which was intended to divert Him from this course. Thus it is Jesus Christ who sets conscience free for the service of God and of our neighbour; He sets conscience free even and especially when man enters into the fellowship of human guilt. The conscience which has been set free from the law will not be afraid to enter into the guilt of another man for the other man’s sake, and indeed precisely in doing this it will show itself in its purity. The conscience which has been set free is not timid like the conscience which is bound by the law, but it stands wide open for our neighbour and for his concrete distress. And so conscience joins with the responsibility which has its foundation in Christ in bearing guilt for the sake of our neighbour. (pp. 212–3)

This got me thinking: What might be some implications of Moses’ prayer, and Bonhoeffer’s words, for pastoral ministry? And for that of the people of God as a whole?

I’m still thinking …

Helmut Thielicke on the conscience

thielicke-3‘The conscience is not serene or troubled according to what we have done or not done. Peace of conscience depends solely upon what we are, i.e., on whether we believe – and the extent to which we believe – in the boundless unconditioned mercy of God … It is theologically wrong to try to pacify a conscience-stricken person by talking away his sins. To do so is to try to cure him by means of the “outer tent.” But there is no healing here, and cannot be. In fact the heart of his problem is that he is still loitering in this forecourt. The only way we can help is to point him to the εφαπαξ that which took place once-and-for-all for him in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ’. – Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics Volume 1: Foundations (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), 310.

Forsyth on Luther’s merit

luther-1‘Luther’s merit was not the heroism of his conscience, but the rediscovery of a new conscience beyond the natural, and beyond the institutional – whether canonical in the Church, or civil in the State. He found a conscience higher and deeper than the natural, the ecclesiastical, or the Political – the individual, the canonical, or the civil; more royal than culture, clergy, or crown. He found a conscience within the conscience. He found anew the evangelical conscience, whose ideal is not heroism at all, but the humility and obedience of the conscience itself, its lostness and its nothingness except as rescued and set on its feet by Christ, in whom no man is a hero, but every man a beggar for his life’. – Peter T. Forsyth, Rome, Reform and Reaction: Four Lectures on the Religious Situation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1899), 121. 

Forsyth is aware that Christianity’s concern is not with the self-assertion or self-glorification of human nature, but with the redemption and reconstituting of wills. The conquered conscience recognises this ‘Another, greater and better … Who comes to us, gives Himself to us’ in such a way that we are enabled, in faith, to give ourselves to, and find ourselves in, him. There is, Forsyth avers, no higher relation possible to human persons. However, although faith consoles the conscience, it does not necessarily follow that the testimony of the gospel and the feeling of the conscience enter into some sort of harmony in faith. In fact, as Zachman notes in his brilliant study (The Assurance Of Faith: Conscience In The Theology Of Martin Luther And John Calvin), ‘in the experience of tribulation (Anfechtung), the opposition between the Word of God and the feeling of the conscience is intensified’ (p. 63; see also pp. 63-8, 80-7, 151, 182, 192, 198-203, 210-23, 226, 246). This is because, as Forsyth notes, the unconquerable relationship between conscience and Conscience entails the acquisition of a new and final authority:

The prime question of religion is not, “How do I stand to the spiritual universe?” but “How shall I stand before my Judge?” The last authority must be the authority owned by the conscience, and required by the sinful, guilty conscience of a race. It is the authority of a Saviour … One whose absolute property we are … It is the authority of the moral absolute, of the holy, which stands over us and changes us from self-satisfaction to self-scrutiny, self-knowledge, and self-humiliation in the presence of the righteousness loving and eternal. (Peter T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority in Relation to Certainty, Sanctity and Society: An Essay in the Philosophy of Experimental Religion (London: Independent Press, 1952) 303-4; cf. pp. 400; Peter T. Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1987) 55-6.)

The purification of the conscience

In his wonderful study, The Conscience – Conquering or Conquered? (Blackwood: New Creation, 1987), Geoffrey Bingham contends that a person ‘cannot displace the creational faculty of the conscience, so he must war with it. He must seek to control its elements which, not being allowed to help man, must now be enlisted – against God – to give him the peace which may only come from true obedience, i.e. true creational functioning. Man then, seeks to control his conscience and re-educate it, even to the point of being enlisted in idolatry’. (pp. 15-6).

Idolatry not only perverts God’s creation, but also demeans God and the idolater. For God to do nothing in the face of such perversion and demeaning is unthinkable. Just as Forsyth argued, for God to do nothing in the face of evil manifested in Germany in the early Twentieth Century would be unimaginable. Judgement is the only possible outcome. So it is on the personal level. Psalms 32:3-4 and 38:1-8 bear witness to the truth that the human conscience refuses to let us off the hook, despite our best efforts to pervert and appease it. Deeply down the nemesis is working. Only perfect obedience from the side of sin will satisfy God and purge the evil rampant in God’s creation. The conscience ever testifies to this, even if the human mind insists otherwise. Satisfaction is a must, and the conscience knows this. The cross alone satisfies the human conscience – and God’s.

So Bingham, this time from Everything in Beautiful Array:

‘The things of which I was deeply ashamed, the things that harrowed my spirit, and that burned their shamefulness into me, are now expending themselves upon this great High Priest who is the true Guilt-Offering, the true Holy Oblation. Into his pure self flow the sin and evil of me, only to be met by such utter purity that the evil dissolves in the pure, the darkness in the light. Pain it all is to him, but effective pain, for it destroys all my evil, all my guilt, and it destroys it wholly until not one fragment remains. There is nothing in me or about me which is evil: no sin remains, no guilt is in my conscience. That conscience has been wholly purified and so has given me the first true sight of the loving God whom now I desire to worship in my purified spirit.’ – Geoffrey C. Bingham, Everything in Beautiful Array (Blackwood: New Creation, 1999), 75.

Kierkegaard on the conscience

‘By the aid of conscience things are so arranged that the judicial report follows at once upon every fault, and that the guilty one himself must write it. But it is written with sympathetic ink and only becomes thoroughly clear when in eternity it is held up to the light, while eternity holds audit over the consciences. Substantially everyone arrives in eternity bringing with him and delivering the most accurate account of every least insignificance which he has committed or has left undone. Therefore to hold judgment in eternity is a thing a child could manage; there is really nothing for a third person to do, everything, even to the most insignificant word is counted and in order’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death (trans. Walter Lowrie; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 255.


‘[The] cross will appear and remain the central issue of Christian doctrine only if it can be shown to be central to the ethic of the soul and of the race. It is only central to faith because’ it is central to conscience, and to the dramatic conscience of the race, nay, of God. What’ is the Atonement but the satisfaction of the conscience—God’s and man’s—the adjustment, ‘the pacification, of conscience, find especially God’s? It is the core of our religion, because it is the crisis of man’s moral drama and the solution of that moral tragedy which ‘is his collision with the holy.’ – PT Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 116.

Revelation, Old and New – Part 2

But you misdoubt me, you pursue me, you press me. And you accuse me of theology. Revelation is a great word, you say. It suggests great things and powers–sea, hill, and sky, a world of living passionate men and women. And Redemption suggests old folios, dead and done with. You ask to know if we must confine revelation to Christ and the Cross with their systems and sermons, if it means but redemption, if it come home but by justification. Must we use these dry old schemes and names? Is there no language, no action of a more human and hearty kind for God and His ways, none of a kind more literary, and poetic, and sympathetic? Is revelation not a word too large for these shrunk theological terms? Is not all illumination revelation–the light of nature, of reason, of the heart? Is there no revelation in earth’s daily splendour around us, in heaven’s mighty glory above us, in the heart’s tender or tragic voice within US? The lover, the mother, the child, ‘the poet, the thinker, the hero—is there no revelation there? Oh, surely! It would be heartless and soulless to deny it. It would disqualify any man for discussing die subject. The inhuman heart is no expositor of the love of God. To sear our affections is no way to commend God’s. But after all, these things are but as moonlight unto sunlight.

“The sun at noon
To God is moon.”

They reveal a borrowed fight. The light they have comes from their reflection of the Sun of the soul–the Saviour. For, in the first place, they but suggest God rather than they assure Him to us. And what we want for our faith, to stake our eternal soul on, is absolute certainty. The matter of religion is God Himself in the soul; the result of it is certainty. And again, they suggest Him to individuals rather than make Him sure to a world. They appeal also to the pure ‘in heart rather than to the sinful soul, soiled and dark and outside God. You will come to a pass one day when the glorious world falls from you, the dearest must leave you, your nerve perhaps is broken, you have no witness of a good conscience, and your self–respect no more sustains you. Poetry and happiness, knowledge and sensibility, end perhaps in moral wreck. That is the time for real revelation. Man’s extremity is God’s great opportunity. Then, as never before, you need a light that does not fail. You need the revelation indeed, the one certainty for which you would exchange all the mere impressions you ever felt. And then, as when the first light arose, it rises with a new creation. God made us in order to understand His creative love; and so He must make us over again if we are to understand anything so tremendous, so incredible as His redeeming love, the gift of Himself and His mercy. It is beyond human power to believe in the mercy of a holy God when we need it most. just when you most need it, you cannot rise to it. If you could, you would not need it. It is a miracle. But when you do arrive there, then everything is a revelation. It is a new heaven–and a new earth. You go down to your new house justified.

True enough, we are led on from revelation to revelation as life presses and opens on us. But it is the final revelation that carries the secret and fixes the colours of them all. And is it not your justification?

What is the word to your conscience and its collapse?
What moral reserves are you laying up?

Do we not know the passion of knowledge, its joy, its glow; and the knowledge of passion, its fire and sting? Are the young among you not in the midst of it all? Have we not heard the message of the dim woods? And silent upon a peak have we never felt the appeal of the whole world lying in light at our feet? From a sunset the new Jerusalem has descended on us, adorned with all manner of precious stones. The breath of the breeze and the bloom of the flowers, dews in the valley and mist on the hill, cloud shadows lying lightly on long braes and murmuring stripies hidden among the heather–were such things no revelations to us of a kind in their time? Again, do we not know the joy of new truth, poetic beauty, the spell of grand ideals? Was the world not once crystalline for us in Shelley, opal in Tennyson, ruby in Rossetti? Was life not newly intimate for us in Shakespeare, and greatness majestic in Milton? Are we not touched any more by the divine thing in love’s young dream? Are we ignorant how it transfigures all the world and uplifts all the soul–all the colour of life in the heart of one pearl, all the wonder of it in the heart of one girl? Do we want to forget the wholeheartedness of our young hero– worship, when we found one man who seemed either to eclipse or glorify all the rest of Humanity? Or again, in the clash of living wins, the successful sense of power, the ruling word of conscience, had we no revelation of the crushing sense of loss and failure, does there come no suggestion of the Cross by which that mastery was won for ever? In the long tale of human history–its romance, its tragedy, its achievement, its fascination–is there no light that leaps out on us from there, nothing that makes us other men, nothing that opens up divine reaches of being? Is there no call of fife, clarion and trumpet, that takes us from the sensual world and an age without a name, and makes us thrill to the crowded hours of glorious life?

To come quite near home. How many a youth in the years of romance feeds his imagination in this, the loveliest and most romantic dry in the world? But the romance of Edinburgh is not in its beauty only, it is in its history, and all its history stands for. The glamour and tragedy of our Scottish past is there–a romantic Queen–Mariolatry it be comes to some who do not feel the mystic Mariolatry of the Queen of Rome at all. Such things enlarge and humanize the spell laid on us by the witchery of this city. All Scotland’s past is in it. And chiefly there is in it the Church of our people, which has made Scotland the best that she is, and sent out from Scotland the best she has done. Our sense of Scotland’s beauty rises to the sense of its old romance; and its historic romance passes upwards into its historic faith. The charm of earth turns the power of God. Nature rises to history and history to religion.

That is a parable of the way of the soul and its history– the revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Thus. We begin with a romantic revelation. We go on to a historic. We end in a moral and spiritual. We begin with a romantic religion. We cherish an idealism for which nothing is too good to be true. All geese are swans, and every maid a queen. Every father must surely be to his children what ours is to us. And above all the Father of all.

We readily see a generous All–fatherhood brooding over the whole world. Nothing we think could be true which gave that the lie. And then. as our mind grows, our range grows. Knowledge comes of a vaster world. Idealism and poetry and all their glamour are enlarged by real contact with history. with life. Our idolatry of one or two people becomes the idealizing of the race. The charm of nature yields to the spell of all Humanity. Some people could take you to the very spot where at a certain hour the love of nature and home became love of humanity. The revelation is no more in the family but in history. And in the heart of history stands Christ, now more than the Jesus of heart and home. We believed in a universal Father; we now believe also in the Son. We believe in the Christ of the race. the Son of Man, the Man Divine. But we do not stop there. He becomes more than historic, he becomes a Son Eternal, the Son of God, a Son who never dies, never leaves us, a Son brought home in a Church. The Lord is the Spirit. The Holy God of Israel becomes the Holy Spirit of Christ, which makes me a sinner. We believe in a Father and Son who come down in the Spirit to our little door, in our Baptism, and home to our very soul by the saving Word. I perceive a message, a power, a salvation for me, individualized to me. We believe in the Holy Ghost. We believe in the will of the Eternal Father, the work of the historic Son, the Word, the Church of the Holy Ghost. The heart is no revelation for itself It is too fickle, treacherous.

“The best of what we are and feel, just God forgive.”

History is no revelation, with its awful anomalies, its cruel passions, its egoisms, its barren conflicts and their uncertain ends. Man realizes God more than Nature does, only to defy Him more.

‘I saw Him in the flowering of the field,
I marked Him in the shining of the stars,
But in his ways with men I found Him not.”

And Newman found history a scroll written over with mourning and lamentation and woe. The Revelation is not history, though it is in history. It is historic in the Son and in the Church, it is near and searching in the Holy Ghost.

We began seeking God, because we felt so able and so, sure to find Him. We end by serving Him, because He has sought and found us, disabled and unsure. We began with a love of justice, we end with a prayer for justification. We begin by willing and knowing, we end by being willed and known. “His will is our peace.”

On the conscience…

Lately, I’ve been digging into Forsyth’s thoughts on the human conscience, the centre not only of our racial unity but the sphere of God’s redemptive activity. There is a sense that understanding Forsyth here is to understand his entire theology. I thought I’d share a quote and invite responses: ‘What crushes my conscience is not a taunt from another individual, however great, but an indictment from the moral universe. I did not break a by–law, nor transgress a regulation; I collided with the moral unity of things, with the absolute holiness of God. I have to do with Him, and He with me. All the holiness of God bears down on my soul. Not His power, His influence, but His holiness. I am not a sensitive atom affected by Him, but a moral monad judged by Him. The question of personal religion therefore (the prime question, if not the first), the matter of most urgent certainty, is, How do I stand before my Judge?’ (Authority, 40-1).

Conscience – a poem by Grant Thorpe

Ah conscience tutored in the ways of
Practised in the ways of
Raging still until each aberration
Is made good
And raging too until
Each thought is
Pure and steady

Ah conscience never satisfied
Working on until
The flesh is limp and
Mind exhausted
Urging on to kingdoms that will
Compensate and camouflage
The lack that still remains

Ah conscience
Meet your Master
Even God
Not with face all stern
And whip in hand
But in the face of Christ
Sin bearer

See there the
Thefts, adulteries and murders
And many lesser crimes
All lovingly embraced and borne
Before the Father’s holy love
Not one wild deed
All atoned, all washed
Not one thing left to lurk or spoil
The reconciliation

Meet your Maker
Who decreed that love
His love
Be motive all alone
To move the race to duty
And to zeal.

Make me acknowledge only
My great need of
Exposure to the very heart of God
Pulsating with affections
Great and tender
Tell me when I err
In this respect alone

Do not
Stir up to
Greater deeds to
Compensate, annul or
Catch up with the past
It is against my God
I sin
‘Gainst him alone
And sin against
His loving me
And ‘tis to move against his love
To look for other
Things to change

Ah crime of deepest import
Ah deed of greatest shame
To have thought his love austere
His pleasure hard to gain
And to have turned
To idols
Enamoured so with idols
That his love laid

Tell me of this
Alert me at first sign
And turn your vigilance to
Any wandering from grace

Ah conscience
Be you tutored by the cross
Of Christ
Do not presume to have
A charter outside this
Call sin what God calls sin
That sin to death
Which spurns his grace

Alert me then alone
To seek outpourings of
That love—none else
What business do I have
With deeds which merely satisfy
Or my longing for
Relationships—patched up and thin
With no true love?
Require of me alone that
I ask, receive, be thankful for, and give
His love.

© Grant Thorpe, July 1991, August 2002

Luther on the conscience

I spent some time over the weekend re-reading one of my all-time favourite books: The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin by Randall Zachman (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993). In the section on Luther (97 pages), he outlines that for Luther, a bad conscience is that which lacks faith and peace because it fails to hear and receive God’s word of grace, and to go on believing that Word while experiencing and seeing the opposite. God’s blessing remains hidden under a curse. At the heart of what Luther is concerned with here is the fundamental distinction between the only two available theological alternatives: (i) a theologia gloriae, a religion of the conscience, and so of the flesh which calls evil good, judges according to what it feels, is ever motivated by self-invented good works in an effort to be at peace with God, and thus never attains confidence in God’s mercy, but rather is driven to indifference, presumption and despair, and (ii) a theologia crucis, a religion of revelation, which says and believes what a thing is in contradiction to feelings and appearances, which never trusts the conscience but rather submits its accusations and acquittals to the truth of the gospel (through which is the proper interpretation of the Law) as attested to in the Scriptures and comes under the form of the cross. In other words, in the context of theologia crucis, we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, even though all we see is a shamed and abandoned man hanging on a cross. And even though the believers’ conscience may testify to the contrary, we must believe that that word concerning our forgiveness and sanctification is true and resist every lie associated with a theologia gloriae. Just as ‘nature wants to feel and be certain before she believes, grace believes before she perceives’. I’m now looking forward to seeing how Forsyth draws on Luther (as well as Kant and Maurice) in how he understands the role of the human conscience.


For other excellent discussions on Luther see Gerhard O. Forde, On Being A Theologian of the Cross: Reflections of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997). A must read! and Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990).