Conscience, Choice, and Character
By J.I. Packer
There are two crucial areas where anyone venturing today to write on Christian ethics takes his life in his hands: namely, the understanding of man’s nature and the analysing of moral thought. In both areas, Christian views face strong secular attack, and in neither are Christian minds always clear. But clarity here is necessary if ever we are to see how God’s law should order our lives, and how law-keeping perfects our nature. The territory may not be by-passed just because it is disputed. This essay, which is a theoretical (though not on that account unpractical) study of how individuals come to discern and do God’s will, takes us straight to both battlefields, and our first step must be to set up our flag on the ground we intend to occupy.
‘What a piece of work is man!’ said Hamlet. ‘How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty [capacity] l in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!’ Bang on, as a modern groundling might say. The words which Shakespeare puts into Hamlet’s mouth reflect with darling vividness the classic Christian vision of man: namely, as a cosmic amphibian, having a body which links him with animals below him but being in himself a thinking, loving, choosing, creative, active person like God and the angels above him. It is the horse that is usually called the noble animal, but on the Christian view the description is better suited to the rider. There is no such created grandeur as that of man.
I am a man; what, then, am I? Not, as philosophers and gnostics ancient and modern would tell me, a soul that would get on better without a body, but a complex psycho-physical organism, a personal unit describable as an ensouled body no less than an embodied soul. Bodilessness is not a welcome prospect; after physical death I shall be incapable of that full self-expression which belongs to full personal life till a new body is given me (as, praise God, one duly will be). I am at once the highest of animals, since no other animal shares my kind of mental life, and the lowest of rational creatures, for no angel is bounded by physical limitations as I am. Yet I, as a man, can enjoy the richest life of all God’s creatures. Mental and physical awareness meet and blend in me, fearfully, wonderfully and fascinatingly. There is far more to me than I can know or get in touch with, at least in this preliminary, probationary life, and I never reach the limits of wisdom, goodness and depth of relationship with others that open out before me. But I must keep my head. My task is not to dizzy myself by introspecting or speculating to find, if I can, what lies at the outer reaches of consciousness, nor to pursue endless, exquisite stimulation in hope of new, exotic ecstasies. It is, rather, to know and keep my place in God’s cosmic hierarchy, and in that place to spend my strength in serving God and men.
A cool head, however, is hard to find. Having within me something both of ape and of angel, I can all too easily lose my cosmic balance, so to speak, and lapse into incoherent oscillation between seeing myself as no less than God, a spirit having absolute value in myself and settling the value of everything else by its relation to me, and seeing myself as no more than an animal, whose true life consists wholly in eating, drinking, rutting and seeking pleasures for mind and body till tomorrow I die. I often catch myself slipping one way or the other; I look around, and see my fellow men in the toils of this crazy oscillation all the time; I read my Bible, and find that it has been so everywhere since the Garden of Eden. Such is life in a fallen world.
The image of God. The human animal, we said, is noble. What makes him so? Not his ambitions or achievements, which, as we have hinted, are rarely admirable and often downright discreditable, but his personal constitution. The most mysterious yet glorious truth about human nature is this: that each individual, male or female, old or young, sophisticated or rough, handsome or ugly, brilliant or slow of mind, outstanding or ordinary, bears God’s image. We learn this in the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, which is a majestic introduction of the Creator by means of a review of his work. The thrust is this: ‘Think of all that makes up the world you know — day, night, sky, sea, sun, moon, stars, trees, plants, birds, fish, animals, insects, big things, little things, and most of all yourself and other human beings of both sexes; now meet their Maker! and gauge the excellence of his wisdom and power from the marvellous complexity, order and goodness which you see (and he also saw) in his work.’ (There is a parallel argument in Job 38-41, where God leads job to acknowledge the fathomlessness of divine wisdom by reminding him of the wonders of the animal kingdom, especially Behemoth the hippopotamus and Leviathan the crocodile.) ‘And realize too,’ Genesis 1 in effect continues, ‘that you, the admiring observer, were made like your Maker in a way that none of these other things are, so that you might manage the lower creation for God, as his steward, and enjoy its riches as his gift to you. That is your calling, so go to it!’
The key statements here are in verses 16 and 27: ‘God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .” So God created man in his own image.’ The image of God in which man was and is made (cf. Gn. 5:1; 9:6; Jas. 3:9) has been variously explained in detail. It has been identified, for instance, with rationality (e.g., by S. R. Driver), with moral capacity (e.g., by J. Laidlaw), with knowledge of God in righteousness and holiness (e.g., by Calvin), with dominion over the lower creation (e.g., by H. Thieliecke), and with the man woman relationship in marriage, corresponding to the inner relationships of the Three-in-One (by Karl Barth). Von Rad urges that the phrase must refer to each human individual as a whole, in the psycho-physical unity of his being, not just to ‘higher’ mental and moral qualities in abstraction from his body; and F. D. Kidner, standing it seems on von Rad’s shoulders, writes thus: ‘When we try to define the image of God it is not enough to react against a crude literalism by isolating man’s mind and spirit from his body. The Bible makes man a unity: acting, thinking and feeling with his whole being. This living creature, then, and not some distillation from him, is an expression or transcription of the eternal, incorporeal creator in terms of temporal, bodily, creaturely existence — as one might attempt a transcription of, say, an epic into a sculpture, or a symphony into a sonnet. Likeness in this sense survived the Fall, since it is structural. As long as we are human we are, by definition, in the image of God.’2 This line of thought seems to win increasing scholarly assent. But however expositors differ on the nuances of the phrase, the broad theological implications of asserting that each man is made in God’s image are matters of general agreement, thus:
Dignity. The assertion shows each man’s true dignity and worth. As God’s image-bearer, he merits infinite respect, and his claims on us (which are really the claims of God’s image in him) must be taken with total seriousness. No man should ever be thought of as a mere cog in a machine, or a mere means to an end.
Destiny. The assertion points also to each man’s true destiny. Our Maker so designed us that our nature (the mass of potencies, urges and needs of which each man is made up) finds final satisfaction and fulfilment only in a relationship of responsive Godlikeness — which means, precisely, in that state of correspondence between our acts and God’s will which we call obedience. Living that is obedient will thus also be teleological, in the sense of progressively realizing our telos (Greek for ‘end’, ‘goal’) as the Shorter Catechism classically defined it — ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and [in so doing] to enjoy him for ever.’ By contrast, to live disobediently is to forfeit fulfilment and to sentence oneself to a life which, however pleasure-filled, is Godless and ultimately joyless.
Freedom. Finally, the assertion confirms the genuineness of each man’s freedom. Experience tells us we are free, in the sense that we make real choices between alternatives and could have chosen differently, and theology agrees. As the Creator is free within the limits of his own nature to choose what he will do, and as his praise springs from recognition that what he chose was good, so also with us. Self-determining freedom of choice is what sets God and his rational creatures apart from, say, birds and bees, as moral beings. Any suggestion that this freedom is illusory and unreal, so that my choices, being somehow programmed in advance, do not matter, and I do not need to work at them, must be squashed as satanic. Granted, predisposing factors influence our choices (much more, in fact, than they should!); granted, God is sovereign in and over our choices (this is part of the mystery of the creature’s dependence on the Creator); none the less, it is one aspect of God’s image in us that the choices we make are genuinely ours, and are no less decisive for our future than God’s choice to create and redeem was decisive for his.
Behaviourism. The modern attack on the biblical view of man comes from a standpoint mainly determined by expertise in the sciences, biological and human. Sometimes this standpoint claims the name of scientific humanism, though its appeal to speculative extrapolations beyond the evidence, and its denial of man’s glory as bearer of God’s image, would suggest ‘unscientific brutism’ as a more appropriate name. Purposing to affirm and exalt man, this view actually negates and demeans him by assimilating him entirely to the lower animals. It sees him as a ‘naked ape’ and an animated computer, wholly programmable by external conditioning once it is known how he works. Concentrated, not to say mesmerized, study of physical, psychological and social factors that condition human action has bred doubt as to whether free (that is, self-determined) moral choices occur at all, and whether, if they do, it is not best to try and stop them, and train people instead into automatic behaviour patterns, by methods comparable to Pavlov’s with his dogs or the brainwasher’s with his victims. The pipe-dreams of popular Marxism, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (a flawed fairy-tale, but a brilliant analysis), and B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, show from different angles what the manipulations of a behaviourist utopia might amount to. Space forbids proper discussion of this viewpoint, but two quick comments can be made.
First, the basic mistake which this view makes is to overlook something quite essential to our humanness, namely our sense of being accountable (worthy of praise or blame) for what we do, and therefore answerable to anyone who has the right to take account of us. A mature person wants to be recognized as morally responsible for his actions, and as he resents refusal to give him credit for what he says and does right, so he does not refuse blame for saying and doing what he knows was wrong. He is clear that though external factors may have conditioned his action, his own decision was its direct cause — and so, we think, he should be, for that is how it really was. We are repelled by one who says he should not be blamed because he is mentally sick, or society’s helpless victim, for however much we incline to say these things about him in extenuation, we know that when he says them about himself he is making excuses and being morally dishonest, just as you and I would be if ever we acted this way. To accept accountability for one’s choices is part of what it means to be truly human, and any proposal to ignore or change this, or to destroy people’s awareness of it (as if we could!), is not humanizing; just the opposite! It is the most radical and grotesque dehumanization that can be imagined, as the novels of Huxley, Orwell and Lewis mentioned above make very plain.3
Second, the mistake comes of not distinguishing between two levels of language (two ‘logical grammars’, or simply two languages, as philosophers would say) which we regularly use side by side when talking of human behaviour. They correspond to the difference within our own self-consciousness between ‘me’ and ‘I’, the object-self I observe, and I the subject-self who do the observing. They are, first, impersonal objective language, to which belong all scientific accounts of historical, social, physical, chemical and psychological factors which condition people’s acts; and, second, personal subjective language, in which all statements have to do with the individual subject-self thinking, feeling, acting, reacting and making choices. To this latter language belongs all talk about morality (moral goodness and badness, moral judgments and moral responsibilities). The two languages cannot be reduced to one, nor can statements made in either be translated into, or explained without remainder in terms of, the other. They are distinct and complementary, and for full understanding we need both, the first supplementing the second; for the correlations between our external conditioning and our personal choices and decisions are many, and we should abuse our minds if we ignored them.
Scientific humanism, however, tends habitually to go beyond noting the correlations, and to offer explanations of what is said in the second language in terms of the first, thus in effect explaining away moral realities as being something else. For example, it might well explain a man’s choice of burglary as a way of life in terms of a sociological description of his early life in the slums, and go on to suggest that by changing his environment and reconditioning him we can make an honest citizen out of him. This is to treat a criminal as an invalid needing cure, rather than as a responsible wrongdoer — a patronizing and dehumanizing fancy, guyed as it deserves in that blackest of black comedies, A Clockwork Orange. The mistake occurs, as we said, because we so love using impersonal, objective, ‘scientific’ language that we treat as unreal, or less than ultimate, any realities whose nature it cannot express. A moment’s thought, however, will convince us that the realities of personal motivation and purpose in our choices are quite distinct from any external factors which condition them. Should the scientific humanist invoke at this point that full-blown theoretical behaviourism which views all our conscious. mental life as the accidental by-product of physical changes in our bodies and brains, the reply would be that in that case his very invoking of the theory is the accidental by-product of physical changes within him, and thus has no rational validity for him or anyone else. This is the coup de grâce for all reasoned denials of the validity of reasoning: he who takes them seriously thereby forbids others to take him seriously.
The best response to naive utopian behaviourism, with its simple animalist view of man and its simple optimism about the possibility of retraining him by skilled manipulation, will be to urge that each individual is infinitely mysterious, both to others and to himself, so that no man-made formula can in principle be adequate to produce the desired effect. Anyone who thinks and feels at all deeply finds himself a mystery to himself, fascinating and frustrating by turns, and comes to see that only omniscience would in principle suffice to sort him out.
One specific aspect of God’s image in us is our conscience, classically defined by Thomas Aquinas as man’s mind making moral judgments. As God’s mind passes judgment on moral issues, so does man’s, and as God’s moral judgments should control our acts and will actually settle our destiny, so our conscience functions in the style of a voice within actually addressing us to command or forbid, approve or disapprove, justify or condemn. Conscience does not feel like the spontaneous working of my mind which it actually is; it feels, and is divinely intended to feel, like a monitor from above. The description of conscience as a voice from God highlights the unique character of this particular mental operation. (It should not, however, be taken to imply that divine finality attaches to all the deliverances of conscience; conscience needs educating by Scripture and experience, and to the extent that it has not been thus educated its deliverances will be deficient. From the standpoint of standards, it is truer to say that conscience is a capacity for hearing God’s voice, rather than an actual hearing of it in each verdict that conscience passes.)
The experience of conscience is universal, and the operation of it, particularly when condemnatory, has an emotional dimension (‘pangs’). It is not perhaps surprising that attempts should have been made to analyse conscience in emotional terms simply, as nothing but feelings of liking and disliking, on the model of my reactions to curry, which I like, and coconut, which I loathe. Critics labelled this analysis the ‘Boo—hurrah’ theory (‘coconut? murder? boo! curry? promise-keeping? hurrah!’).4 Were the analysis true, moral reasoning designed to persuade to, or dissuade from, particular courses of action would be comparable to ‘try this, you’ll like it’ and ‘don’t eat that, it’s horrid’, and no universal moral standards could ever be agreed, any more than it could ever be agreed that henceforth everyone shall like curry and dislike coconut.
But conscience itself tells us that morality is essentially a matter, not of taste, but of truth; not of feeling, in the first instance, but of judgment, based on principles which are in themselves universally valid, and claim everyone’s assent.
Traditionally, and surely correctly, conscience has been held to involve two faculties, ability first to ‘see’ general moral truths and second to apply them to particular cases. Aquinas called the first capacity synderesis and kept conscientia for the second; Peter Martyr the reformer, followed by many seventeenth-century writers, spoke of theoretical and practical understanding, different words for the same distinction. It was unquestioned among both Protestants and Roman Catholics till this century that the workings of conscience take the form of practical syllogisms, e.g. ‘Stealing is wrong; taking the umbrella would be stealing; therefore taking the umbrella would be wrong’, or ‘Bank robbers deserve punishment; I robbed a bank; therefore I deserve punishment’; and, despite some latter-day hesitations based on doubt as to whether God really reveals universally binding moral truths, the historic doctrine seems true, as anyone who checks his own moral reasoning will soon see. Though conscience pronounces on particular actions and cases, it does so on the basis of general principles, which, though not always explicit in the initial pronouncement, will be explicitly cited in justification if the pronouncement is at any stage questioned. And if no such universal principle could be produced to justify a particular pronouncement, the right conclusion would be that here is no genuine deliverance of conscience at all, but a neurotic symptom (guilt, or an obsession, in the psychiatrist’s sense of those words) masquerading as the voice of conscience, and needing to be relieved and dispelled, if possible, by professional therapy.
In Conscience in the New Testament (SCM Press, 1955), C. A. Pierce argued that the New Testament writers who refer to conscience (Paul, Peter, Luke in Acts, and the writer of Hebrews) used the word in the limited sense that it bore in everyday secular Greek, namely a capacity for feeling pangs of remorse about past actions now seen as wrong, as distinct from a power of direction and vindication of oneself in moral matters. But even were this true, which seems doubtful (note Rom. 2:15, where conscience excuses; 9:1, where it attests a right desire, expressing good will; 2 Cor. 1:12, where it approves; and Acts 23:1; 1 Tim. 1:5, 19, where conscientious obedience produces a ‘good’ conscience; cf. Acts 24:16; Heb. 13:18), the point would be verbal only. For Scripture is clear on what we have already affirmed from experience, namely that man’s ‘heart’ (in biblical usage the dynamic centre of his personal existence, including his self-conscious intellect, emotion and will) will not only ‘smite’ and ‘reproach’ in conviction (the bad conscience: cf. 1 Sa. 24:5; 2 Sa. 24:10; Jb. 27:6), but also both prompt and attest integrity (the good conscience: cf. Gn. 20:5f.; Dt. 9:5 ; 1 Ki. 3:6; 9:4; Ps. 119:7). The mental operation called conscientia in Latin and syneidesis in Greek (both words meaning ‘co-knowledge’ and signifying a second level of awareness accompanying one’s primary awareness of an impulse, thought, act or possibility of action) directs (Rom. 13:5) as well as recording (2 Cor. 1:12) and judging (Rom. 2:15 ; cf. 1 Jn. 3:19ff.), and does all three as, structurally speaking, God’s monitor in the soul.5 Yet its judgments may fall short of God’s (1 Cor. 4:4; cf. 1 Jn. 3:19ff.); when possessed by false principles of judgment it will be ‘weak’ and misdirect (Rom. 14:2 and passim; 1 Cor. 8:7-12, cf 10:25-29); and when moral and spiritual light has been resisted it may become ‘seared’ (i.e. cauterized, rendered insensitive) (1 Tim. 4:2; cf. Eph. 4:18).
Being God’s voice in and to us structurally, our conscience binds us and must always be conscientiously followed; but when through ignorance or confusion its dictates are not God’s voice substantially, our conscientiousness will not lead to our pleasing God. (Did Jephthah please God by sticking conscientiously to the vow of Judges 11:30f. when this meant killing his daughter?) So a Christian with an uninstructed conscience is in fact, whether he knows it or not, in a deft stick; he cannot please God by either disobeying his conscience or obeying it. This fact shows how vital it is that Christians should study biblical morals as well as biblical doctrine, and also what a nightmare our lot would be did we not know God’s daily forgiveness on the basis of his once-for-all justification of us, through the blood of Jesus Christ who is the propitiation for all our sins, known and unknown.
Freud’s view of conscience has had great influence in this century, and some reference to it is desirable before we move on. Freud gives the name of conscience to the various neurotic and psychotic phenomena of obsessive restriction, compulsion and guilt to which we referred at the end of the last paragraph but two. His model of man, hypothesized on the basis of clinical work with the mentally ill in fin-de-siecle Vienna, pictures the psyche as like a troubled home, where the ego on the ground floor (that is, the self-conscious self, with doors and windows open to the world) comes under pressure both from the id (aggressive energy rushing up from the cellars of the unconscious) and from the super-ego (an unnerving voice of command from upstairs, whereby repressed prohibitions and menaces from parents and society are ‘introjected’ into conscious life in portentous disguise, and with disruptive effect). The super-ego, each man’s tyrannical psychic policeman, is the culprit to which neuroses and psychoses are due, and the goal of psycho-analysis is to strengthen one’s ego to unmask the super-ego and see it for the hotch-potch of forgotten traumas which it really is, thus winning freedom to discount it. Since Freud’s view equates the super-ego with conscience, it might seem to us, as it certainly did to him, directly to undermine any concept of conscience as God’s voice; but in fact what Freud talks about is what Christian pastors have learned to recognize as the ‘false conscience’ — a more or less irrational scrupulosity which shows the mind to be not so much godly as sick. The right comment here is Ronald Preston’s: ‘Whether, therefore, Freud’s theories are sound or not they do not contradict Christian teaching. Indeed they throw light on the well-known phenomenon of the “scrupulous conscience”. He has confused the terminology by being unaware of the usual Christian understanding of the term.’6 In other words: what Freud calls conscience is precisely not conscience on the Christian view, and what Christians mean by conscience (practical moral reason, consciously exercised, growing in insight and sureness of guidance through instruction and use, and bringing inner integration, health and peace to those who obey it) is not dealt with by Freud at all.
Whether Christians always draw from Scripture the standards whereby they judge of moral good and evil is open to question, but it will not be disputed that this is what they should do. What criteria, then, does Scripture give for judging the morality of deeds done, and for making choices which are not merely legitimate but the best possible in each situation? By what rules should conscience go in these matters?
The first criterion that Scripture yields concerns the nature of the action. God loves some types of action and hates others. ‘I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrong’ (Is. 61:8). ‘Speak the truth to one another . . . do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, says the Lord’ (Zc. 8:16f.; cf. Je. 44:6; Am. 5:21; Rev. 2:6). In the Decalogue God forbids various types of action which he hates: disrespect and distrust towards himself, in a number of forms; disrespect for parents (and by parity of reasoning other bearers of God-given authority); disrespect for human life, for the marriage bond, and for property; and disrespect for truth, especially truth about other people. Most of the Bible’s ethical teaching in both Testaments is elaboration and enforcement of these principles, buttressed with theological reasons why some types of action are unfitting and only their opposites can be right.
We should note that the nature of actions, as Scripture and common sense view them, can only be made clear by speaking of them directionally, that is, in terms of their object — that at which the physical movement is aimed, and in which it naturally results. Thus, any physical movement, of whatever sort, which puts me in possession of what belongs to someone else, without his permission and against his presumed will, but of set purpose on my part, would be theft. Actions have to be defined not abstractly, in terms that are physical alone, but concretely, in terms of the agent’s aim and object, to which his physical movement is the means. (This assumes, of course, that the agent is rational, and knows what he is doing.)
We should note too that when Jesus linked Deuteronomy 6:4f. with Leviticus 19:18b as the two great commandments, on which all the specific ethical teachings of the law and the prophets depend (Mt. 22:36-40), he was focusing positively the two proper overall purposes of actions, which the Decalogue illustrates negatively. The Decalogue said, in effect: do nothing which in any way dishonours your God, or your human neighbour who bears his image. Jesus’ formula, in effect, says: do everything that expresses the purpose of pleasing and exalting your God, and benefiting your neighbour (which is what ‘love’ for God and neighbour means). That this is no cancellation of the Decalogue appears both from the rubric Jesus gave for interpreting all his teaching (Mt. 5:17: ‘Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come . . . to fulfil them’), and also from Paul’s exposition of loving one’s neighbour in terms of keeping the second table (Rom. 13:8-10: ‘He who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law. The commandments . . . are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”‘.) So when good Samaritans bind up the wounded, it is proper to speak of acts of healing (healing being their object) which express a purpose of love (others’ welfare being their designed goal). Healing is the object of the action, love the purpose of the agent. Clarity requires the distinction.
Third, we should note that God’s law in both Testaments, full as it looks, is actually quite open-textured. It is not a minutely-detailed code of practice for all our actions every moment (the sort of code which Jewish expository tradition produced); it is, rather, a set of broad guiding principles with sample applications to set us going (case law for the courts in the Pentateuch, actual or imaginary examples for individual guidance elsewhere). Some of the applications are couched in typical Eastern hyperbole for instance, Jesus’ “lf any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles’ (Mt. 5:40f) — and this shows their purpose: they are not so much models for mechanical imitation as cartoons of required attitudes, which we must learn by experience spontaneously to express. Cartoonists’ drawings make their point by simplifying and exaggerating, and such parabolic sayings of Jesus as I have just cited work the same way. The cartoon is there to give us the idea, but most of the detailed applying of the principles is left to us, to manage as creatively as we can. Four aids are given us in Scripture for this task.
First, there is the calculus embodied in Jesus’ so-called ‘golden rule’: ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets’ (Mt. 7:12). The last clause, compared with Matthew 22:40, shows that what the ‘rule’ is telling us is how to work out the way to love our neighbour as ourselves. The method is, first to recognize that naturally, necessarily and by God’s will as Creator, you do love and care for yourself, seeking your own well-being, and to think of all the treatment from others that you feel would conduce to this end; and then to make that the standard for your treatment of them. Christ’s matter-of-fact appeal to self-love as setting a standard (an appeal which Paul also makes in Ephesians 5:28f., when teaching husbands how to love their wives) should not shock us; self-love is not sin till it becomes inordinate, and in fact a proper self-love is a further facet of God’s image in us, for he too seeks his own felicity. The assertion, common nowadays, that one cannot robustly love either God or one’s neighbour unless one robustly loves oneself is, both psychologically and theologically, a deep truth. Meantime, by starting from our self-love as it is, with all its inordinate elements, the ‘golden rule’ vastly expands our sense of what love we owe to our neighbour. If, for instance, I find myself longing to be listened to more and understood better, there may well be sinful self-pity in my attitude, but that is not relevant here; what matters is that the ‘rule’ makes me realize, from my own feelings, how much more in the way of attentive patience and imaginative identification love to my neighbour requires of me than I had first thought — and so across the board.
Second, there is the scriptural teaching on man’s nature and destiny. This is clear and emphatic. We are told that, being the creatures we are, we can only find full happiness in making appropriate response to the love of God; that each man’s highest good lies in conscious fellowship with God beyond this world, for which our present life is a kind of preparatory school and training ground; and that the path to this prize is discipleship to Christ, whereby through faith we die and rise with him, and live as those for whom the world is not home, but a vale of soul-making where our own decisions sow all the seeds of future joy or sorrow. This teaching instructs us not only to see and live our personal lives as a homeward journey, and to look straight ahead as we travel, but also to relate to others in a way that will help them to know their dignity and potential as God’s creatures, and encourage them to embrace eternal life as their destiny too, and puts no stumbling-block in their way at either point: which gives us a strong lead on very many issues, from human rights and business management to family ideals and the priority of evangelism.
Third, there is the summons to imitate God, who says, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ (1 Pet. 1:16, referring to Lv. 11:44f.; cf. 19:2; 20:7, 26), and Jesus Christ, who washed his disciples’ feet as ‘an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (Jn. 13:15), and spelt out the message of his action by saying, ‘Love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (15:12f.). The feet-washing symbolized the shedding of Christ’s atoning and cleansing blood, and so John elsewhere writes: ‘He laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’ (1 Jn. 3:16). God’s call to be holy, as he is holy, is a general summons to live by his revealed precepts and prohibitions, as embodying the loves and hates which make up his character and which his ways with us will always express; Christ’s call to follow his example is a specific summons to unlimited self-humbling, and giving of ourselves without restraint, in order to relieve others’ needs and make them great, which is what true love is all about. Paul, too, charges Christians to imitate Christ’s costly and self-forgetful love (Phil. 2:1-8; 2 Cor. 8:9; Eph. 5:25-33, a word to husbands); and Christ’s submissive but resilient patience in enduring human hostility is elsewhere held up for imitation as well (1 Pet. 2:21; Heb. 12:1-4). It is striking that all these references focus on Christ’s cross, where the glories of his moral perfections are seen most clearly. It is striking too that the concern of each passage centres not on particular routines to be gone through, but of the spirit and attitude which our whole lives must express. Once again, the divine method of instruction is to ‘tune us in’ on the right wavelength and then leave the details of the application largely to us.
Fourth, there is the principle expressed in Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, ‘that your love will keep on growing more and more, together with true knowledge and perfect judgement, so that you will be able to choose what is best’ (Phil. 1:9f., GNB). The principle is, of two goods choose the greater; don’t let the good be the enemy of the best. It is the positive counterpart of the principle that, where one faces a choice of evils, the least evil should always be preferred. Here calculations of consequences must be attempted: for the best course, other things being equal, will always be that which promises most good and least harm. But since our capacity to foresee results is limited, differences of opinion here are inescapable, and so on policy decisions the most devoted Christians will not always be able to see eye to eye. We find this in the New Testament itself. Acts 15:37ff. tells how Paul and Barnabas differed as to whether to take with them John Mark, Barnabas’ nephew, on missionary service. Barnabas knew his record but clearly expected him to make good; Paul ‘thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work’. Each of them insisted on making the best decision, and was not prepared to settle for anything less, but they differed as to what the best decision was. Being disagreed as to whether Mark was likely to prove an adequate colleague, they concluded that the best decision open to them was to split up, and each take the associate he judged best for the task; so Barnabas took Mark to Cyprus, and Paul went with Silas on a trip that ended in Europe. Some are embarrassed that Paul and Barnabas should ever have been involved in passionate disagreement, but there is no reason to regard this as a moral failure, any more than there is to see their parting as a strategic disaster. We can be sure that, God being who he is, no Christian forfeits blessing for parting company with his brother when both want the best, and only calculation of consequences divides them.
Should it be asked where the Holy Spirit’s ministry in the conscience comes in, particularly in cases like this where Christian friends conscientiously differ as to what is wise and right, the answer is that as we pray and lay ourselves open to God, the Spirit quickens our minds and imaginations so that we are able to make the fullest use of the four aids listed, without either confusion of thought or perversion of purpose. But no man, no matter how saintly and devoted, is blessed with infallible perfection of judgment in this world, and (pace some charismatics) the idea that God will ordinarily give us experiences of being told, as by a human voice, exactly what to do is an unbiblical will-o’-the-wisp.
It is apparent that all these four aids to right conduct have the effect of maximizing the imaginative and. creative element in morality, and of encouraging a spirit of enterprise and even opportunism in serving God — the spirit which so marked Paul (cf. Acts 16:35-39; 17:22ff.; 23:6-10). Within the boundaries set by God’s specific commands, applications can vary and be better or worse, just as chess openings vary within the limits set by the pieces’ permitted moves. And the best course will always be that which promises most in the total situation, just as the best first moves in a chess game will be those which promise most in the total situation, bearing in mind the game’s importance, whether one is playing black or white, whether one should go for a win or a draw, the known strengths and weaknesses of one’s opponent, one’s own skill with this or that opening or line of defence, and so on. Proper Christian obedience is thus as far away as possible from the treadmill negativism of the conscientious conformist, whose main concern is never to put a foot wrong and who conceives the whole Christian life in terms of shunning doubtful things. To be sure, a tender conscience which trembles at God’s word (cf. Is. 66:2; Ezr. 10:3) and fears to offend him, ‘hating even the garment spotted by the flesh’ (Jude 23), is a Christian grace, and should never be frowned on as an introspective morbidity; but, just as one cannot maintain health on a diet of disinfectants only, so one cannot fully or healthily obey God just by trying to avoid defilements, evading risks, and omitting to ask what is the most one can do to glorify God. For that is the question which the Bible forces us to face all the time.
The second criterion that Scripture yields for assessing choices is the motive of the agent. In Christian obedience the motive must be right as well as the action itself. The object of the action and the motive of the agent are distinct; the former we defined as the effect of successfully completing the action (healing, for instance, being the object of binding up a man’s wounds), the latter is that in a man which moves him to attempt the action in the first place. Most motives are either reactions to situations or people, determined from without (e.g. fear, or gratitude), or they are personal goals determined from within (e.g. achieving wealth, or reputation). Love, however, is a complex motive involving both these elements; it can be both a reaction of good will, occasioned and energized by appreciation of the beloved, and also a purpose of conferring benefit and happiness, irrespective of whether the recipients deserve it and of what it costs one to carry the purpose out.
That the Christian’s supreme motive must always be the glory of God (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31), and that seeking his glory is the truest expression of love to him, will not be disputed. But love to men for the Lord’s sake should motivate us also, and this has been an area of keen debate in recent years. How should love determine my behaviour towards my neighbour? It is necessary to reject the situationist idea that biblical rules of conduct are only rules of thumb, and that sound calculation of consequences can in principle make transgression of any of them right and good;7 but at the same time it is important to realize that the more strongly neighbour-love operates as a motive, other things being equal, the more enterprising and skilful we are likely to be in devising, within the limits that the law sets, the most fruitful ways and means of doing others good. And when one finds oneself shut up to ‘lesser-evil’ choices, love to God and neighbour will enable us to see the best that can be made of the bad job, and to choose in the least destructive way.
The role of love in our ethical decision-making is comparable to that of the referee in football. The referee’s purpose is to apply the rules in a way which secures the best possible game, which is of course what the rules themselves are for. So he does four things. First, he takes pains to familiarize himself with the rules and the proper way of interpreting them. Second; throughout the game he takes care always to be in the best position to make a decision. This requires close observation of all that is happening on the field, and anticipation, born of experience, as to how each situation may develop. Third, in order to get his facts straight, he will where necessary consult his linesmen, who are better placed to observe some things than he is himself; though he will pay no attention to the crowd, which is partisan and not well placed. Fourth, he will when appropriate invoke the difficult ‘advantage rule’, which allows him to keep the game going though an infringement has occurred, if continuance is to the advantage of the wronged side.
Now, love to God and neighbour requires us to behave like the referee. Our purpose is to live in a manner that is as pleasing to God and as beneficial to our neighbour as possible, within the limits that God has laid down; and to this end love prompts a parallel fourfold procedure. First, it directs us to gain thorough knowledge of the whole range of obligations that Scripture requires us to meet. Without this basic knowledge, good decisions will be impossible. Second, love directs us in each situation to get into the best position for decision-making, by securing as much relevant information about actual causes and possible consequences as we can. The legalistic mentality, from which so many of us suffer, is always in danger of pronouncing (negatively!) too soon, before the necessary minimum of information is to hand; we have to guard against that. Third, love directs us when we are not well placed for decision, either from lack of specialist knowledge or through a personal involvement biasing our judgment, to turn to others who are better qualified to suggest what should be done, while at the same time declining to be swayed by loud noises from persons who are passionate but not well informed.
Fourth, love directs us on occasion to apply the Christian equivalent of the advantage rule, by not jeopardizing a greater good through needless enquiry into doubtful details. Thus, on the question of meat offered to idols, Paul writes: ‘Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. . . . If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. (But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice”, then out of consideration for the man who informed you, and for conscience’ sake — I mean his conscience, not yours — do not eat it)’ (1 Cor. 10:25-29). Paul’s point is that though Christians should eschew any social activity of which sacrifices to pagan gods form part (verses 14-22), they need not ask, or bother their heads, whether food offered them in pagan homes was offered to idols first. If a ‘weak’ brother raises the issue, responsible Christians will then practise abstinence for his sake, but otherwise the question should be allowed to lie dormant, while Christians eat freely. As it is neither God-honouring, nor edifying, nor safe (says Paul) to join in sacrifices to pagan deities (for, after all, they really are demons), so it is not necessary in principle nor best in practice to spurn a pagan’s hospitality in the interests of a thoroughgoing dietary witness against pagan beliefs (for, after all, “‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it”‘ (verse 26), and what is on the table, whatever has been done with it, remains God’s gift). Knowing the overall value and potential importance of friendly social links with unbelievers, Paul counsels Christians to use their God-given liberty by waiving the idolatry issue, and thus in effect to play their own advantage rule in the situation.
But as referees, however experienced and well-intentioned, can still on occasion make bad decisions, so Christians from time to time have to acknowledge, looking back, that they missed the best course of action, either because an unnoticed cooling of their love left them in a particular situation or relationship thoughtless and apathetic, or else because love made them too eager and sympathetic to be truly prudent, so that they invoked the advantage rule inappropriately. Such acknowledgment is deeply humbling. But Christians live by the forgiveness of their sins; so they can afford to fail, and in humility they will learn from their mistakes.
So what is involved in making a moral choice? and how should it be done? The matter may be summed up thus. A moral choice is one involving standards (right and wrong) and values (good and bad). It presupposes a rational agent, that is, one who is free in the relevant respects to act rationally (not a demoniac, then, or a mad-man, or a baby, or a sufferer from an irrational behaviour pattern like kleptomania or agoraphobia). It presupposes too a field of freedom within which the agent sees that more than one course is open to him. The making of the choice involves, first, thinking out possible lines of action; second, envisaging their consequences; and third, measuring both action and consequences thus envisaged, by the moral standards and scale of values that one recognizes as binding.
The Christian accepts the moral standards which are set forth in the Bible, acknowledging them as standing in a ‘maker’s handbook’ relation to his own nature and as circumscribing the only way of life that can lead him to ultimate fulfilment and felicity. His moral values, too, are determined by theology. They are, on the one hand, the characteristic qualities of those types of actions which God loves and delights in, and, on the other hand, that longed-for state of affairs in which God is being praised for his great glory and men whom he made and loves are being benefited according to their need. He knows that the best choice will always be choice of the best option, and that the way to choose between options is not by reference to rules apart from consequences, as if consequences were morally irrelevant, nor by reference to consequences apart from rules, as if rules had no intrinsic moral value, but by reference to both together. In his choosing he is constantly exercised with the question: ‘Is this the best I can do?’
It is a law of life that our values become our motives, so that motive, where known (for we do not always admit our motives, even to ourselves), is the clearest indication of character that exists. It is possible, as we all know, to make a right choice from a wrong motive, and equally a bad choice from a good motive. The Christian’s aim, however, in his game-plan for living, will always be to do the right thing for the right reason — that is, always to be found applying biblical standards for his guidance from the two-fold motive of the glory of God and the good of men, understanding ‘good’ in terms not simply of currently felt need, but of godliness and glory (cf. the meaning of ‘good’ in Rom. 8:28). The Christian knows that only when his motives are right will his choices, however good in themselves, be the choices of a morally good man, who truly pleases God.
Is God’s promise of a reward a motive, in the sense of a spur to right choice? Strictly speaking, no. The Christian’s reward is not directly earned; it is not a payment proportionate to services rendered; it is a Father’s gift of generous grace to his children, far exceeding anything they deserved (see Mt. 20:1-16). Also, we must understand that the promised reward is not something of a different nature tacked on to the activity being rewarded; it is, rather, that activity itself — that is to say, communion with God in worship and service in consummation.8 God’s promise of reward, thus understood, may well be an encouragement to action and a source of strength and joy in it, but the motive must be love to God and neighbour, as we said. We serve our God, not for reward, but because he is our God, and we love him. Francis Xavier’s well-known hymn focuses this.
My God, I love thee—not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
Nor yet because who love thee not
Are lost eternally.
Thou, O my Jesus, thou didst me
Upon the cross embrace;
For me didst bear the nails and spear,
And manifold disgrace.
And griefs and torments numberless,
And sweat and agony,
And death itself—and all for me,
Who was thine enemy.
Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
Should I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven
Or of escaping hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught;
Not seeking a reward;
But as thyself hast loved me,
O ever-loving Lord.
E’en so I love thee, and will love,
And in thy praise will sing;
Because thou art my loving God
And my eternal King.
C. S. Lewis compares our position, as we move on in the Christian life, to that of a schoolboy learning Greek.9 The enjoyment of Aeschylus and Sophocles to which he will one day come is the proper consummation of all his slogging at the grammar, just as the enjoyment of God in that glory compared to which, as Lewis elsewhere says, the raptures of earthly lovers are mere milk and water is the proper consummation of discipleship here. But at first the boy cannot imagine this enjoyment at all. As his Greek improves, however, enjoyment of Greek literature begins to come, and he begins to be able to desire the reward that awaits him (more of the same, at an intenser level), which capacity for desire, says Lewis, is itself a preliminary reward. Meantime, however (here I make a point complementary to Lewis’s), it is the increased enjoyment in the present which sends him back to work at his Greek with increased energy and excitement; and so it goes on. I like this illustration, both because it is true to life (for when I learned Greek it happened to me) and because is shows the truth about Christian motivation so clearly.
The last and most important thing to be said about moral choice is that our choosing is a function of our character, just as our present character is largely the product of our past choices. Sin, that irrational, self-centred, anti-God surd in the soul, distorts character most fundamentally at motivational level; grace restores character there, but in a way that brings tension and struggle. ‘I do not understand my own actions,’ writes Paul. ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.... I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me’ (Rom. 7:15 ff.). What is going on here? New motivation, supernaturally restored by the coming of the Holy Spirit into a man’s heart, is manifesting itself. This is Paul the Christian (the present tense, and the flow of the argument, prove this) testifying to the fact that now by grace he loves God’s law and wants to keep it perfectly to God’s glory. His reach, however, exceeds his grasp, and his qualified success feels like failure. Sin within him, dethroned but not yet destroyed, is fighting back. The intensity of Paul’s distress at being less than perfect by the law’s standard is, however, the index of the strength of his new motivation, and it is from this source that character grows and moral energy derives through the inward working of the Holy Spirit. When elsewhere Paul says to Christians, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [awe and reverence]; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:12f.), what he means them to do is precisely to keep their motivational channels clear and work against whatever opposition indwelling sin may raise to make and follow out right choices, trusting in the Spirit’s power. And as we do so, our capacity for so doing will increase; and thus God’s work of grace within us will go on.
1. This chapter is indebted to material by Gordon Stobart and Dennis Winter.
2. Genesis (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 31. On the relation between ‘image’ (selem) and ‘likeness’ (de mûth), Kidner rightly comments: ‘The words image and likeness reinforce one another: there is no “and” between the phrases, and Scripture does not use them as technically distinct expressions, as some theologians have done, whereby the “image” is man’s indelible constitution as a rational and morally responsible being, and the “likeness” is that spiritual accord with the will of God which was lost at the Fall’ (pp. 50f.).
3. For further development of this point, see C. S. Lewis, ‘The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment’, in Undeceptions: Essays on Tbeology and Ethics (Collins, 1971).
4. The best-known expositions of the ‘Boo—hurrah’ approach are by A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (Gollancz, 1936), chapter 6, and by C. L. Stevenson in Ethics and Language (Yale, New Haven, 1944). For a candid philosophical criticism of it, see A. C. Ewing, Ethics(English Universities Press, 1953), chapter 7, especially pp.115-126.
5. The Puritan, Richard Sibbes, expounding 2 Cor. 1:12, gave striking substance to this thought by picturing conscience as God’s court within us, thus:
‘To clear this further concerning the nature of conscience, know that God has set up in a man a court, and there is in man all that are in a court. 1. There is a register [registrar] to take notice of what we have done.... The conscience keeps diaries. It sets down everything. It is not forgotten, though we think it is.... Conscience is the register. 2. And then there are witnesses. “The testimony of conscience.” Conscience doth witness, this have I done, this I have not done. 3. There is an accuser with the witnesses. The conscience, it accuseth, or excuseth. 4. And then there is the judge. Conscience is the judge. There it doth judge, this is well done, this is ill done. 5. Then there is an executioner, and conscience is that too. . . . The punishment of conscience, it is a prejudice [pre-judging] of future judgment. There is a flash of hell presently [in the present] after an ill act.... If the understanding apprehend dolorous things, then the heart smites, as David’s “heart smote him”, Sam. 24.5.... The heart smites with grief for the present, and fear for the time to come.
‘God hath set and planted in man this court of conscience, and it is God’s hall, as it were, where he keeps his first judgment ... his assizes. And conscience doth all the parts. It registereth, it witnesseth, it accuseth, it judgeth, it executes, it doth all’ (A. B. Grosart (ed.) Sibbes, [Forks, James Nichol, 1862, III, pp. 210f.).
6. Ronald Preston, ‘Conscience’, in John Macquarrie (ed.), A Dictionary of Christian Ethics (SCM Press, 1967), p. 68.
7. See Part 2, chapter 2.
8. ‘There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany these things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not, victory being the proper reward of battle as marriage is the proper reward of love. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but axe the activity itself in consummation’ (C. S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory’, in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, Fontana, 1965, p. 95).
Conscience, Choice, and Character, By J.I. Packer
Made for His Pleasure
The Quest for Character
Return From Conscience, Choice, and Character To Christian Character Articles
Return To New Testament Christian Home