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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
is a term frequently used to designate the conscience. It is believed to have originated with lord Shaftesbury, who contended for the existence of disinterested affections in man, as against Hobbes (q.v.), and in anticipation of what Hutcheson (q.v.) afterwards advocated. Whatever we may think of the principles involved, the term Moral Sense itself is incorrect, however, in at least two essential particulars in which that faculty differs from the characteristics of the senses. In the first place, these latter are exercised upon external objects, whereas the conscience συνείδησις , consciousness, or self-knowledge) is exclusively introversive or subjective, and passes in review only the acts or states of the individual himself. Secondly, the senses give us absolute and invariable information of the real properties or relations of things, and when acting normally they never mislead or deceive any one as to the facts in the case; while conscience is so subjective that it conveys to us intimation only of a relative character, and hence affects different persons quite variously in respect to the same act or condition of things, according to the habit of mind, or education, or preconceived notions. In short, conscience is a sense only in the general signification of an impression or influence of an emotive nature. It has usually been defined as that faculty of the mind by which we become aware of the moral quality of an act (purpose, sentiment, etc.), and are suitably (i.e., agreeably or painfully) affected by it.
Only the latter part of this definition is accurate; for the apprehension of the agreement or contrariety between the given subjects of thought (the act, purpose, etc.) is a purely intellectual exercise of the judgment, comparing the thing contemplated or reviewed with some previously acquired or adopted standard or principle of right. Hence the importance of a correct and true rule by which to try all moral questions; and hence, too, the exceeding diversity and even opposition of views on moral points between persons of different religions and associations. The tendency of the passions, moreover, to warp the judgment is proverbial; and as human nature is constitutionally corrupt, the unaided and untrained conscience cannot be relied upon to give a just verdict. It is chiefly at this point that a divine revelation becomes necessary in order to furnish a perfect norm to the erring judgment, as well as to reinforce the sanction of the conscience in its conflict with the depraved inclinations.
On the other hand, the emotional function of conscience, which is benumbed by nature as well as by habitual sin, needs quickening, so that it may become a clearer and more emphatic monitor in advance, as well as a more effectual penalty or reward after the performance of a praiseworthy or the commission of a guilty act, and thus stimulate by its twofold action to virtue in the future. It is revelation, again, that furnishes this aid, not only by the motives which the light that it sheds upon the rewards and punishments of a future state supplies, but likewise by the supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit promised to all who humbly seek and encourage them. As this double culture of the natural conscience — its habitual exercise in accordance with a heavenly standard of duty, and its alliance with Almighty power — ensures its sound development and steady action, so, on the contrary, the repeated violation of its behests, and the incorrigible rejection of the proffered assistance from above, must eventually lead — as we find to be actually the case with many hardened wretches — to an apparent obliteration of the faculty itself, or at least a total suppression of its admonitions and awards. The latter state is one of hopeless impenitence, (See JUDICIAL BLINDNESS), and the former that of assured salvation.
Yet even in an unfallen condition man's conscience was not of itself adequate for his moral guidance, and hence an objective law the prohibition of the single tree as a prescriptive sample only was given to supplement and direct its energy; and still Eve's judgment seems to have been incompetent, under that non-redemptive economy, despite her moral perfection, to detect the mortal error that lurked in the tempter's suggestions: the actual "knowledge of good and evil" by bitter experience alone was effectual to awaken the full power of this faculty. So, on the other hand, in the world of perdition we are wont to imagine that the seared and blunted conscience will rouse itself to chastise the soul with retributive agony. But the pangs of guilt, at least in this probationary existence, are not strictly the measure or criterion of wrong-doing; for then the self-complacent Pharisee would be acquitted, and the tender penitent would be condemned. The most atrocious crimes have been committed under the plea of conscience, and that not hypocritically, but in self- delusion (Acts 26:9); while the first steps in transgression are visited by a-degree of remorse which gradually lessens as the offender progresses in his downward career. This leads us back once more to the main proposition of this discussion, namely, the insufficiency of conscience as a moral light. Nothing is right simply because our conscience approves it. The appeal must be to a higher authority than man's nature affords. He is not an absolute "law unto himself." It is his Creator who retains supreme jurisdiction over him, and who has reserved the prerogative of prescribing what he may innocently do, and what he is morally bound to do. (See MORAL LAW).
Yet when an individual has availed himself of the best means within his reach for ascertaining his Maker's will, and has scrupulously followed that light, he is not culpable for any error of faith or practice into which he may fall by reason of his fallible judgment, or for any other consequence of his naturally defective or even depraved condition. He must and he ought to obey his reason and conscience, however imperfect; but if sincere and docile, he will not long remain in serious misapprehension of moral truth; and in any case his responsibility is exactly proportioned to the measure of light he enjoys or might have attained (Luke 12:47-48). While therefore a mistake, be it ever so grievous or closely related to moral subjects, is not in itself a sin, yet every man's conduct should be tried — both by himself and others, as it certainly is and finally will be by the unerring Judge — according to that standard of rectitude which the divine law as vouchsafed to him enjoins. To the heathen, walking by the dim light that tradition reflects upon his path from the primeval revelations, supplemented only by the uncertain flickerings of the lamp of experience, or perchance by a few rays that occasionally break through the embrasure of his shrouded pilgrimage from the radiance of more favored dispensations, the office of conscience is all-important in aiding him to grope his way out of the thraldom of nature to a sense of the divine acceptance; and we may charitably hold that in rare examples he has thus been enabled to reach the day of moral purity, and emerge at last into the serene glory of the heavenly abode; but the melancholy facts of past history and present observation seem only to justify the fear that the mass of paganism, even in the cultured instances of Greece and Rome, of India or China, have but grovelled in the mire of sensuality, and quenched their higher aspirations and better convictions in the absurdities of a beastly idolatry. Even Islamism, setting out with much of borrowed truth to reform a polytheistic faith, rapidly degenerated into puerile fanaticism, and aims no higher than a licentious Paradise; while Judaism, disciplined by a direct contact with the supernatural to the sternest regimen that the race has ever known, has generally resulted in heartless Pharisaism and puerile formalism.
Under the Redemptive scheme a simpler and profounder maxim — that of universal benevolence — has supervened for the resuscitation and tuition of the believer's conscience, stunned and bewildered by the burdensome technicalities of previous systems; yet we find, alas! a large share of Christendom either reverting to the obsolete methods of salvation by asceticism and ritualism and ecclesiasticism, or abusing the liberty of the Gospel by fanaticism and humanitarianism and rationalism. Yet, amid these vagaries and inconsistencies, the one cardinal principle of "faith that works by love and purifies the heart" must be recognised by the candid and thoughtful of all times and all climes as the sole test of genuine piety and philanthropy. Selfishness is the bane of all morality, and in proportion as the carnal self is crucified the spiritual self is resurrected out of the ruins of the fall, until at length the ideal man — God's own image — becomes transfigured in its permanent beauty; for " God is love" (comp. 1 John 4). Literature. — Abercrombie, Philos. of the Moral Feelings; Brown, Lect. on the Mind; Butler, Analogy of Religion and Nature; Hutcheson, Inquiry into Beauty and Virtue; and his Essay on the Passions; Necker, On Religious Opinions; Witherspoon, Lectures, Lect. 4; Bentham, Morals and Legislation; Smith (Southwood), O Divine Government; Mackintosh, Preliminary Dissertation (1832); Dymond, Essay on Morality (1832); Hall (Robert), Sermon on Mod. Infidelity; Sedgwick (Adam), Discourse on the Studies of the University of Cambridge (1834); Dwight (T.), Sermon 99, and many others; Wainwright, Vindication of Paley's Theory of Morals, etc. (1830); Edwards, Works (see Index); Bautain, Moral Qualifications of Man; Furst, Moral des Evangeliums mit den verschiedenen philos. Moral- systemen; Knapp, Christian Theol. page 31; Pye-Smith, Outlinee of Christian Theol. (see Index); Hopkins, Outline Study of Uman (N.Y. 1874, 12mo), Lect. 9 and sq.; Ueberweg, His. Philos. 2:319 sq., 446, 494; Leckey, Hist. Europ. Morals (N.Y. 1870, 2 volumes, roy. 8vo), 1:93, 123; Contemporary Rev. Jan. 1872, art. 5 (Savages); Appleton, Works, Lects. 15 and 17; Jenkins, Reasonableness of Christianity; Law, Theory of Religion, part 2; Pearson. Rem. on Morals; Liddon, Bampton Lecture on the Divinity of Christ; Blackie, Four Phases of Christian Morals; Spalding, Philos. of Morals, with a Review of Ancient and Modern Theories; Lewes, Hist. Philos. volume ii (see Index); Old and New, April, 1870; Brownson's Rev. January 1853; Presb. Rev. April 1870; Bib. Sacra, April 1870; Studien und Kritiken, Jan. 1866; Lond. Qu. Rev. January 1871, page 26; Westminster Rev. 42:286 sq.; Brit. and For. Ev. Rev. 1843, page 293; 1844, page 412; October 1872, art. 3; Journal of Speculat. Philos. January 1870, art. 4; April 1870, art. 7; January 1871, art. v; New- Englander, January 1871, page 160; Princeton Rev. October 1871, page 634; Theol. Presb. (Cumberland Presb. Qu.) July 1871, art. 9; Univ. Qu. October 1873, art. 5 (German and Anglo-American Morals); Revue Chretienne, January 1867; Contemporary Rev. August 1868, art. 7. (See MORAL PHILOSOPHY).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Moral Sense'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/m/moral-sense.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.