From On the Absurdity of Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy or Idolatry by John Brown of Haddington
Objection #2: Men have natural light and conscience which must not be overruled by Civil Governors
Every man has a natural right to judge himself — what he ought to do or forbear, especially in religion. He is to be fully persuaded in his own mind, following the dictates of his own conscience. Even the law of God is a rule to him, as he understands it in his own conscience. To force any man to do anything contrary to his conscience is to force him to sin, for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. Therefore, to punish him for following the dictates of his conscience is to punish him for doing [what is actually] his duty.
- We cannot accept that a man’s conscience should be the supreme governor of his actions, as this would exalt his conscience above The Most High GOD.
- Every man indeed has a natural right derived from God, to judge all things by the law of God, and hold fast that which is good (1 Thess 5:21). He also has a right to judge, by the law of God, what is necessary to be professed and practised, and to have peace of conscience, based on his fellowship with, and receiving of favours from, God. However, that no more hinders magistrates (politically) to judge what profession and practice are proper for men, as members of their commonwealth, or what, relative to religion, is to be connected with civil encouragements or discouragements, than it hinders church rulers to judge ecclesiastically, and define what profession or practice is necessary, to ensure comfortable fellowship with such a church.
- A man’s conscience is not a “lawgiver” but is rather a “witness” of his conduct. Thus, a judge who enquires into the meaning of God’s law, and directs his actions accordingl Such a [righteous] judge compares the qualities, profession, and practice of his subjects with the law of God and approves or disapproves accordingly.
- The law of God, not a man’s conscience, is his supreme and only infallible rule, which binds even conscience itself (Mark 12:30 & 1 John 5:3), and whatever a man does contrary to it is sinful, no matter how much his conscience “approves” it (1 John 3:4; Lev 5:17-18; Acts 26:9-10; & 1 Tim 1:13-16). Whatever does not proceed from the persuasion of a good conscience, founded on the Word of God, is sin. It is however a sin for a man’s conscience to err in dictating anything not perfectly agreeable to the law of God.
- If a man’s conscience, in itself, or in its directing, persuading or instigating influence, be upheld as the supreme rule of his conduct, without respect to the Word of God, then either:
- his conscience must be infallible in its dictates (which it certainly is not) in both saints and sinners in this world (Rom 7:14, 23; Prov 28:26; Jer 17:9; Rom 8:7-8 & Tit 1:15) or,
- if it be fallible, then this would suggest that God has established, for men, a fallible and deceitful rule of truth and holiness. This would render God to be the author of confusion, since different consciences would dictate different things from His Word. Thus, making a man’s conscience his rule in religion would make God the author and commander of wickedness.
- The transgression of His own law (from opposing “conscious actions”) would:
- make Him not only relieve such men from criminal actions, and approve, as duty, the most damnable errors, horrid blasphemies, detestable abominations, and cruel barbarities, even as dictated by heathens, Mohammedans, Papists, etc., in their religion;
- make Him the author of men’s ruin, procured by a way which seemed right in their own eyes (Prov 16:25);
- render it absolutely impossible to convince men of the sinfulness of anything they had done according to the dictates of their conscience, be it ever so contrary to the law of God;
- render it improper for men to repent of or mourn over any blasphemy, murder of saints, or the like, which their deluded conscience had dictated to them; or to ask, receive, or praise God for the pardoning of it, contrary to Scripture (1 Tim 1:13-16; Acts 26:9-11; Gal 1:13-14 & Phil 3:6); and
- open a wide gap for men doing whatever they pleased, without being chargeable by any man for it.
Under such a rule of faith, men who were executed for the most horrid blasphemy, abominable idolatry, high treason, or any other deed dictated by their conscience, would die “martyrs” for righteousness sake. Also, men would have to believe whatever their conscience dictated to them concerning their state, experience or duty, even when that belief was contrary to the testimony of God, contained in His Word (contrary to Ps 16:11; Ps 17:5, 11 & Rev 3:17).
- To pretend that the law of God, not in itself, but as understood by men’s conscience, should be their rule, is absurd. It, in the Popish manner, represents the law of God as destitute of sense and authority in itself, as derived from a creature. It, in the Quaker manner, makes conscience “the light” to rule men’s It exalts every man to an equality with, or rather superiority above, God, having power to give regulating sense and authority to His Word, according as an erroneous and defiled conscience pleases. It would abolish every real standard of religion, every man’s particular apprehensions of the meaning of God’s Word being his binding rule. The same Word of God would then become the “standard” of Calvinism, Popery, Socinianism, etc., as different men understand it. It would sap the foundation of all mutual trust and confidence among men, and open a wide inlet for all manner of villainy and dissimulation. According to men’s consciences, men’s promises, oaths, vows, and covenants — their sworn and subscribed creeds, articles, confessions, formulas, etc. — would bind them, not according to the common meaning of the words, but according to the meaning which their consciences, however seared, biased, or deluded, puts upon them. In short, it would plunge men into the depths of atheism, according to which every man believes and acts what is right in his own eyes.
- If men’s private judgment of their own acts hindered the magistrate’s supreme political judgment, no laws could be made in matters of religion or in anything else, as [there would always be some who would be of a different mind, even in the fundamentals of religion and virtue. Some would believe that Christ was not true God or a true man, or that idols ought to be worshipped; others would believe that oaths could be lawfully violated, heretical princes assassinated, or women and goods could be owned in common.
- If men’s private judgements were allowed to be their supreme rule and reason of conduct, it would necessarily follow that a magistrate’s private judgment must be the rule of his own conduct, and that he ought to make and execute such laws as he believes, in his own heart, to be proper, even if they were arbitrary and tyrannical.
- It is not with men’s “inner” consciences, and its judgment in religion (or in matters of common honesty) that magisterial authority inter-meddles, but rather it is with their external words and deeds. Right rule only restrains and punishes such of those as are manifestly contrary to the laws of God and the land, being hurtful to the commonwealth and the public honour of God as King of nations.
- If all proper means of conviction are used with men who obstinately persist in gross heresy, blasphemy, and idolatry without effect, their “mistake” does not arise from a conscience-regulating duty, but from one stiffened against duty. It is perhaps sometimes as difficult to convince a hardened thief, robber, or adulterer of his mistake, as it is to convince a hardened heretic.
- If men slothfully and wilfully refuse to use the means of enlightening their consciences by the word of God, they but add to their crimes both before God and men, by pretending to be obedient to their conscience.
- Men’s consciences, being both a director in their conduct towards men as in their conduct towards God, must of necessity have as much influential force to keep them accountable to men for their theft, murder, and calumny [i.e., civil matters] , as for their gross heresy, blasphemy and idolatry [i.e., religious matters pertaining to the commonwealth].