The Place of Conscience in the Life of a Christian: Samuel J. Cassels

It was Jiminy Cricket who said, "Always let your conscience be your guide." This is good advice if our conscience is informed and ruled by the Word of God. However, if our conscience is ignorant of Scripture or has been seared or hardened by repeated sin, then Jiminy Cricket theology is disastrous. — R.C. Sproul, Sr., Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, p. 151

Just two months before his death at the age of 47, Samuel Jones Cassels contributed an article to The Southern Presbyterian Review (Vol. 6, no. 4, April 1853) titled “Conscience - Its Nature, Office and Authority.” This is a valuable study of an important topic that Christians continue to struggle with today. By reviewing selections from Archibald Alexander’s Outlines of Moral Science, John Dick’s Lectures on Theology, James McCosh’s The Method of the Divine Government, and Thomas Brown’s Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind, Cassels lays out an argument concerning what the conscience is and its place of authority with respect to divine revelation.

Cassels affirms that the conscience is “that faculty or power of the human soul by which it perceives the difference between right and wrong, approving the one and condemning the other. In this definition, two things are to be observed: first, conscience is a mental power or faculty, the same as the reason, the will, or the memory.” However, the question arises, when the conscience is misinformed or seared, what is the case of a Christian in such a situation? Cassels responds thus (pp. 465-469):

We come now to what we consider the most difficult part of this discussion; and the more so, because we are compelled to differ from some of those excellent Divines with whom we have heretofore so heartily agreed. When we speak of the authority of conscience, we are apt to be misled by the language. Authority is exercised by kings, magistrates, officers and parents. It supposes an intelligent ruler, a system of laws, and rational subjects. But when we apply this term to a mental faculty, we must certainly exclude from it all these accessory ideas of regular human administration. And yet, even metaphysicians discoursing upon the mere powers or capacities of the human mind, employ a sort of court-language, as if they were describing the administration of some great monarch. This is a great fault, especially with Mr. McCosh, whose vivid imagination seems always ready to give a scenic representation to mental processes.

That the different mental faculties have distinct offices, and that each one either does or ought to predominate in its specific sphere, will be readily admitted. Reason is supreme in all abstract truth; the will on all matters of choice; the emotions in all objects of affection; the imagination in the province of fancy; and the conscience in the domain of morals. Now, each of these mental faculties does and must take the lead in its particular field of operation. Yet, as our consciousness will testify, most of our actions are the results of not one only, but of several of these mental powers. Indeed, the relation between these mental faculties is so intimate, that in most cases the action of the one must take place before the action of another can exist. All then, that we can mean by the authority of a mental power, is simply its precedence over the rest in any one action. And all that we can mean by the obedience, or subjection of one mental faculty to another, is simply the posteriority of its operation. Reason asserts that a certain abstract proposition is true; at once the will and the heart concur in the conclusion. The proposition was addressed to the reason, and its decision must be, of course, that of the entire mind or soul. At another time, an object may be presented to the emotion of love. The point now'to be decided is, shall such an object or person be loved? If the case be a doubtful one, the reason may again be called upon to do its office: that, is, to compare, judge, decide, etc. In other cases, however, the heart overleaps the tardy work of reason, and responds at once to the object, as soon as presented. Shall a mother love her babe? It is not her intellect, but her heart that solves that question. The same is true of the conscience. — Where a question of morality admits of doubt, the reason may be called in, and may be long employed in its investigations before the conscience is prepared to act. But in all obvious cases, this faculty acts instantly, and approves or disapproves of a certain act as soon as perceived. There are obviously then a precedence and a sequence in mental operations. But when we transcend this beautiful order in which the mental faculties operate, and establish, within the soul a sort of spiritual administration, with all the paraphernalia of courts and palaces, we evidently use language very loosely, and are in danger of being misled altogether in reference to the mind and its powers.

With these explanations, we proceed to consider the question at issue: Is a man bound to follow his conscience when its judgments are erroneous? That the real point of debate may be understood, we give the following quotations from Drs. Dick and Alexander: — “ An appeal” says the former, “may always be made from its (conscience) decisions to the word of God, and as soon as a difference is discovered between its dictates and those of Scripture, the sentence which it has pronounced is void. Hence it is plain, that the plea of conscience will not be admitted to exempt us from guilt and punishment. And this, we may observe, is the unhappy situation of those whose consciences are not sufficiently enlightened; that they sin, whatever they do; in disregarding the voice of conscience, and in obeying it.” Dr. Alexander maintains the same position: — “It is true, if a man’s conscience dictates a certain action, he is morally bound to obey; but if that action be wrong, he commits sin in performing it nevertheless. He, who is under fundamental error, is in a sad dilemma. Do what he will, he sins. If he disobey conscience, he knowingly sins ; doing what he believes to be wrong; and if he obey conscience, performing an act which is in itself wrong, he sins; because he complies not with the law under which he is placed.” Now, as much as we esteem the sentiments of the authors above quoted, we must think they have both fallen into error on this subject. This will appear from the fact, that they have here introduced two opposite rules of conduct, each of which the subject is bound at the same time to obey. The law of God dictates one course; and the law of conscience another, directly opposite. To each of these laws a man is morally bound to submit. Now, it is evident, that a man can no more obey two such opposite rules at the same time, than that he can occupy two places at the same time, or than he can both love and hate the same object at the same time. The thing is impossible, and therefore cannot be a matter of moral obligation. The same difficulty is also seen when we consider the moral qualities of the action: it is both right and wrong — worthy of reward and also worthy of punishment! Now, a human action cannot possess two qualities so diametrically opposite. As the same object cannot be white and black at the same time, so the same moral act cannot be both virtuous and vicious.

The errors in these statements, as we conceive, are two fold. The one consists in giving conscience a supremacy which does not belong to it; the other in blending two distinct moral acts, and ascribing a common moral character to them, as if they were one. Conscience is neither a moral governor, nor a moral law. It is a faculty of the soul, fitting man for a moral government existing, not within, but without him. God is our only true moral governor, and his will is our only supreme moral law. Our subjection then, is not to be a subjection to conscience, (which, being a part of ourselves, would imply subjection to ourselves,) but a subjection to God, as our moral governor. The very moment we set up conscience as a sort of rival to Jehovah, that moment we become idolaters, and sacrifice our real liberty. The care is very much that of the Papist, who is perfectly satisfied that when he has heard his priest he has heard his God; and that when he stands well with his priest, he also stands well in the court of Heaven. Now, to exalt the conscience into any such high position, and to obey its dictates with the full assurance that they must be right, is but to deify a faculty of the human soul, and to fall down in worship to ourselves. Man is a moral agent, possessed of certain mental faculties, all of which are designed to aid him in the prosecution of a virtuous course of conduct. But he is depraved; and there is not a mental faculty that is not erroneous in its operations. The reason is more or less blind, the will is perverse, the passions are deranged, and the conscience is dull, inefficient and easily perverted. This condition of the human soul is taught us by experience, observation and scripture. For a man, then, to trust himself to the dictates of any one of his faculties, or of all of them combined, is necessarily to hazard the peace and well-being of his soul. The decisions of conscience in many cases are just as much to be held in doubt, as those of the reason. And in attempting to ascertain our duty in such cases, we are not to consult, but to instruct our consciences. We must take the conscience itself to the revealed will of God, and there, and there only, obtain that light which is to guide us in the path of duty. Now, when this course is honestly and faithfully pursued, it is next to impossible that the conscience should be in “fundamental error.” To suppose so, is to suppose either that the Bible does not adequately reveal the will of God, or that man is incapable of understanding that will when so revealed.

But our theologians will tell us, that the case supposed is that of one who has done all this, and is still in error. He has examined the Scriptures prayerfully and honestly, and has conscienciously come to certain conclusions, both as to its doctrines and precepts. Still those conclusions are erroneous. Now, in such a case, we say without hesitation, that such a man is bound to receive, as God’s revealed truth, that which, after such examination, he conceives to be such. But this is not subjection to con science, but to God. Faith is here placed, not in the decisions merely of a mental faculty, but in the infallible teachings of the Holy Ghost. That such a man should err as to the essentials of the Gospel, is improbable in the last degree; that he should mistake on some of its minor points, is very likely. We cannot conceive, however, that such mistakes should vitiate his obedience. Errors in religion, when they arise from carelessness, prejudice, pride of intellect, or any other like cause, are certainly,criminal. But those errors, which even the best men are liable to make on this subject, and which arise from causes beyond their control, can certainly never inculpate them in the sight of God.