There are two trains of thought about the conscience among Christians, which I may call Jiminy Cricket and Long Black Coat. Jiminy Cricket says “let your conscience be your guide.” Bob Dylan’s song “The Man with the Long Black Coat” says quite the opposite:
Preacher was talkin’, there’s a sermon he gave/said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved/you cannot depend on it to be your guide/when it’s you who must keep it satisfied.
The Talking Crickett says that, since we are made in God’s image [Genesis 1:26], our conscience can be a good guide to us. Of course, we have to be grounded in scripture, prayer, and a Christian community so that we don’t become victims of our own self-justification. But our consciences can form a significant part of what guides us.
This aligns, largely, with John Wesley’s four-legged stool approach to interpretation: Scripture, Reason, the Church Tradition and Community, and Personal Experience. There’s a good, brief, comparison between John Calvin and John Wesley’s views of sin, salvation, and human will available here.
People who hold to this train of thought tend to also believe that those who are outside the faith, who have no faith, or who have only vague religious beliefs with no commitment, or who are of a different faith, can follow their consciences to generally good effect.
With the caveat, of course, than nobody’s conscience is perfect and true, and even the most faithful believers need other sources to keep them on-track.
And deep inside, I know this is true. I know my conscience and reason guide me. I know that people of other faiths or no faith are not conscienceless sociopaths. I know they feel it, too, when they do wrong, just like I do. Deep inside, I know I have to follow my own integrity, if I am ever to follow God.
The Long Black Coat says that we are fallen, despicable creatures, that our righteousness is filthy rags [Isaiah 64:6]. Our consciences are, to quote Dylan, “vile and depraved.” Not just flawed or imperfect. Vile. Disgusting. Depraved. Totally evil. John Calvin called this “Total Depravity,” the inability to do anything except pure evil without God’s grace.
In this case, nobody’s conscience is worth listening to. As God said to Job, “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify myself? Do you have an arm like God’s, and can your voice thunder like his?” [Job 40:8-9, NIV]. Who are we to contend with God? What is our conscience, our limited, self-justifying sense of justice, compared to one who sees all, who knows all?
And deep inside, I know this is also true. I know how easily I justify things, how easily my conscience can be calloused to my own weakness, my own laziness, my own wasteful, hurtful wants. I know how easily my conscience can be seared to the suffering of others half a world away or just down the hall. Out of sight is out of mind, and busy-ness is the true opiate of the people. My conscience may be my best earthly guide, but that doesn’t make it ideal. Far from it.
So where does that leave us? The facile answer is “We listen to the Bible” (generally as interpreted by our denomination, and this is by no means exclusive to Calvinists). But the Bible was written over the course of a thousand years, finishing up almost two thousand years ago. It’s not an owner’s manual. It is not, contrary to bumper sticker churchianity, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”
The Bible is a narrative woven from a multitude of narratives, sermons, poems, genealogies, histories, prophesies, and laws (there’s even a census or two thrown in for good measure). Don’t get me wrong: I believe 100% that the Bible was divinely inspired, but that doesn’t mean it’s self-evident.
We could submit our will and conscience, instead, to other humans. This is as common among Protestants as among Catholics. Though we have no Magesterium, celebrity pastors like Mark Driscoll lead their congregations with theological iron fists. Even small-scale preachers find themselves leading congregations, sometimes blindly, because the people don’t want to struggle with the meaning of it all.
But I see no reason to prefer the conscience of a medieval power-structure or rock star megachurch preacher to my own. Mine, at least, is in the hands of someone uncorrupted by wealth and power (I’d have to have wealth or power to be corrupted by it).
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with no easy answers. Job, Gideon, and Abraham had direct contact with God. His face to face word overruled their objections. If God or one of His angels ever appears to me, then the answer will be obvious: I’ll put my objections aside and follow, regardless. But until then, I’m going with Jiminy Cricket … but I’ll be wearing my long black coat as I go.