Here is a lecture by Professor Jay Budziszewski which is based on his book called The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man. In this book he shows how man’s suppression of his knowledge of right and wrong corrupts his conscience and accelerates social collapse. The depraved conscience grasps at the illusion of “moral neutrality” the absurd notion that men live together without a shared understanding of how things are. After evaluating the political devices, including the American Constitution, by which men have tried in the past to work around the effects of Original Sin, Dr. Budziszewski elucidates the pitfalls of contemporary communitarianism, liberalism, and conservatism.
We should not confuse (knowledge) of morality with the basis for morality (ontology). The issue with objective morality is centered on the ontology issue. Theists are not saying that the non-theist doesn’t have moral knowledge.
Every ethical system must answer the “How” question. What justification do we have for knowing what is right? What is the justification for our moral knowledge?
From the Christian perspective, since all humans are God’s image-bearers, it isn’t surprising that they are capable of recognizing or KNOWING the same sorts of moral values—whether theists or not. Now I know you may be saying you are begging the question that God exists. But there are enough posts/articles on this website that deal with that issue.
Where does the knowing come from? How is that all humans have moral knowledge? One answer is called Natural Law Theory. Natural Law Theory doesn’t appeal to special revelation such as the Bible. This type of natural revelation is called intuitive knowledge. It is instantaneously apprehended. Natural law theorist Jay Budziszewski points out the following:
1. Basic moral principles are discovered, not invented, and persons with a decently functioning conscience can get a lot of moral things right. As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, law codes across civilizations and through¬out history (Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Native American, and so on) reveal a continual resurfacing of the same basic moral standards—do not murder, break promises, take another’s property, or defraud- see The Abolition of Man
2. When we are talking to people about natural law, we are not teaching people what they have no clue about, but bringing to the surface the latent moral knowledge or suppressed moral knowledge that they have already.
3. The non-theist says “We can be moral without God” Remember, the foundational principles of the natural law are not only right for all, but at some level known to all. This means that non-Christians know them too—even atheists. It does not follow from this that belief in God has nothing to do with the matter. The atheist has a conscience; atheists know as well as theists do that they ought not steal, ought not murder, and so on. The issue is what worldview makes the most sense of conscience. (1)
Paul also speaks about natural law when he states, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 2:12-15).
A quick glance at Amos 1& 2 reveals that God threatens judgment upon the neighbors of Judah and Israel. But notice that since none of these nations were the same as the nation of Israel, God still held them accountable by a different standard. They did not have the Torah. But God knew they violated a moral law that they knew and should have obeyed. And that standard is what Paul talks about it Rom. 2:12-15.
The Greek word for conscience is “suneidesis” which means “a co-knowledge, of oneself, the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God as that which is designed to govern our lives; that process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, condemning the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former, and avoid the latter.” In Romans 2:15, “suneidesis” stands alongside with the “heart” and “thoughts” as the faculty that allows the pagan world to live a life that corresponds to the Jewish people who have the written law. This type of natural revelation is called intuitive knowledge.
Before the time of Jesus, and even after Jesus, the Jewish people viewed the heart as the core of the entire personality. The Hebrew word for the conscience is “lebad,” which is usually translated as the “heart” in the Hebrew Bible. The conscience is so much of the core of the human soul that the Hebrew mind did not draw a distinction between conscience and the rest of the inner person. In the Hebrew Bible, not only is “heart” used to describe as a metaphor to describe the physical organ, but it is also the center or defining element of the entire person. It can be seen as the seat of the person’s intellectual, emotional, affective, and volitional life. In the New Testament, the heart is the psychic center of human affection or the source of spiritual life and the seat of intellect and will. (2)
So if the Bible says that Gentiles already know God already through the created order and the conscience, why is it so hard for people to find their way to God? Paul says in Romans 1:18 that natural revelation can be suppressed, which means “to consciously dismiss in the mind,” to “hold down”, or to “hold back by force or to dismiss.”
We also see the conscience can be ignored in Scripture: When Pharaoh hardened his heart (Exodus 8:15), Pharaoh steeled his conscience against God’s will. A tender heart (2 Chronicles 34:27), refers to a sensitive conscience. The upright in heart (Psalm 7:10), are those with pure consciences. When David prayed “Create in me a clean heart, O God, (Psalm 51:10), he was seeking to have his conscience cleansed. (3)
The conscience can become dull, or seared (1 Tim. 4:2). In other words, people can and do harden their heart towards God! Sadly, a hardened heart can make someone less sensitive to the things of God. Sometimes a hardened heart results from an unforgiving or bitter spirit. Or sometimes people don’t want the rule of Christ in their lives. Although Paul had once been a murderer, God had cleansed his conscience (1 Tim. 1:12-13). Paul also speaks of a clear conscience in 2 Tim. 1:1-3.
Of course, our conscience is informed or trained by proper instruction. This is one function of the Scriptures and parents, teachers, and so on. These are given us to train us, to inform our conscience, and to apply God’s law to our life. (4) We are living in a world where we are clearly seeing that the conscience is being ignored. The world around us can desensitize our conscience towards the things of God. What is the answer to having a cleansed conscience? Repentance!
Natural Law Theory is just one theory that accounts for the justification for how humans have moral knowledge.
1. See Budziszewski, J. What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2004.
2. Sire, J. Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove: IL: Intervarsity Press. 2004, 45.
3. MacArthur, J. The Vanishing Conscience. Dallas, TX. Word Publishing, 1994, 36-37.