THE CHRISTIAN FAITH: AN INTRODUCTION TO DOGMATIC THEOLOGY - By CLAUDE BEAUFORT MOSS, D.D.LONDON - S.P.C.K 1965 Holy Trinity Church  Marylbone Road London NW 1 - Printed in Great Britain by Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) Ltd  Bungay Suffolk - First published in 1943 - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2004.




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The two chief marks that distinguish man from the other animals are Conscience and Reason.

I. Conscience

Conscience is the power to distinguish between right and wrong;
in practice, the power to say,
"This is what I ought to do,
and that is what I ought not to do
It is not an emotion. 
It is not a determination of the will,
for we often know that we ought to do something and yet determine not to do it.

It is chiefly through the conscience that God the Holy Ghost addresses each of us. 
It is He that tells us what is right and what is wrong. 
But conscience is not itself the voice of God. 
It is one of the means by which we hear His voice.

Since we have no better means of knowing what is right and what is wrong than conscience, we ought always to obey it. 
But it is not always right. 
It is, so to speak, a delicate instrument and may easily be perverted. 
Our own wishes or inclinations may affect our conscience without our knowing it. 
If this happens, we cannot hear the voice of God rightly. 
We may come to take the voice of the flesh, or of the world, or even of the devil, for the voice of God.

Therefore our duty to obey our conscience requires us also to test our conscience. 
If what we sincerely believe to be right is found to be contrary to what the Bible teaches or contrary to what the Church teaches, it is at least extremely probable that our conscience has become perverted.

In such a case it is our duty to examine as closely as we can whether our conscience is rightly informed;
with prayer, study of the Bible,
and the teaching of the Church which is founded upon it,
and the advice of the wisest and holiest teachers we can find.

But when we have done this to the best of our power,
we ought to obey our conscience. 
We are responsible to God for our own actions. 
We cannot hand over that responsibility to anyone,
not even to the Church Universal.
In the last resort conscience ought to be obeyed. 
If it is wrong, we may be sure that God will forgive us because we have done everything we could to find out His will.

II. Reason

Reason is the power of judgment. 
It is not the same as conscience. 
A man may have a very sensitive conscience
combined with very feeble powers of reasoning,
or very good judgment combined with a perverted conscience.

It is only by means of reason that we can decide whether anything is true. 
As Christians we expect God the Holy Ghost to guide our reason
if we pray constantly for "a right judgment". 
Authority, so far from hindering the use of reason,
is one of the chief materials that reason uses. 
If we want to find out whether a particular doctrine is true,
we must find out what the Bible teaches;
how the Church in all ages,
and especially the part of it to which we belong,
has interpreted the teaching of the Bible;
what the best modern scholars have said about it
(making due allowance for their special bias).

If we have not time or ability to do all this,
it is quite reasonable to follow the advice of the wisest teacher we can find,
always bearing in mind that he may be wrong;
and that if what he says is contrary to the Bible (or appears to be so),
or to the teaching of the Church
(which for us Anglican Churchmen is summed up in the Prayer Book),
it is at least probable that he is mistaken.

The authority of the Church is chiefly used to condemn certain lines of thought,
and so to prevent us from wasting our time on theories that have been shown to be false. 
There is nothing to prevent us from working out for ourselves the theories of the heretics of Sabellius, for instance, or Arius. 
But if we do, it is so unlikely that we shall come to any conclusion other than that of the Church, or that, if we do come to another conclusion, that we shall be right and the whole Church wrong, that for most of us such research is a waste of time. 
Some scholars are called to examine the theories of the heretics, and to see whether there is anything of importance in them which the Church has neglected (for instance, the chapter on "Apollinarius" in Dr. G. L. Prestige's Fathers and Heretics). 
But such work requires great learning and judgment. 
It is not for the untrained to undertake.

III. Private Judgment cannot be avoided

We cannot escape from the use of our judgment,
and we are responsible for whatever use we make of it. 
The agnostic who gives up the search for truth as vain is doing so with his private judgment. 
The extreme Romanist who places his mind entirely under the authority of the Pope and refuses even to think a thought which the Pope does not sanction is using his private judgment by remaining in the Roman Communion,
as the Anglican who rejects its teaching is using his. 
We cannot refuse to use our private judgment,
for the very act of refusing and continuing to refuse is an act of private judgment.

What people mean when they attack private judgment is unlimited private judgment.
In forming a judgment about anything,
we seek, if we are wise, the help of those who know more about it than we do. 
As Christians we believe that God has given us the Church and the Bible for this purpose, and we allow them to control our judgment because it is in the highest degree unlikely that we know better than the Church and the Bible.

Many people have held that no man should be guided in matters of religion by any judgment but his own;
that he should take his Bible and decide by what he finds there without any human guide;
or that he should, without any Bible, trust any thought that rises to his mind in the certainty that it comes from God. 
These ideas have led to all sorts of fantastic and even disastrous results,
especially when those who held them
were as ignorant as they were sure they were right. 
It is such theories as these that are condemned
when people condemn "private judgment". 
On the other hand, there are those who hold
that the Bible, or the Church, or the Pope, is infallible,
and that there is in them no human possibility of error. 
They believe, therefore, that by handing over to one of these authorities all responsibility for accepting the truth, they are freed from any danger of being mistaken. 
Now, it is right that the unlearned should trust those who know more than they do, and we are all unlearned about some things and to some extent about all things. 
But it is an error to suppose that any human being can be infallible. 
Neither the writers of the Bible,
nor the Councils of the Church,
nor the Bishops of Rome are secured against error.
They may know more than we do,
we may be right to trust them,
[For reasons that will be given in Chapter 50,
the Bishops of Rome do not deserve our trust. (See pp. 306-317.)]

but no one should be beyond the reach of criticism. 
As members of the Church we are bound to accept the decrees of the Church,
but we shall accept them with much greater confidence if we know why we accept them, and if we do not accept them merely because "the Church says so", but because we have proved them for ourselves.

Now we believe,

said the Samaritans to the woman who brought them to our Lord,

not because of thy speaking:
for we have heard for ourselves,
and know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world

(John 4.42).


IV. Relations of Conscience to the Bible and the Church

So we have Conscience, the Bible, and the Church to tell us what to do;
Scripture, Tradition, and Reason to teach us what to believe. 
In all of them the Holy Ghost speaks to us, and He is infallible.
It is our duty and our responsibility to listen to His voice and to prepare ourselves in every possible way to understand it rightly. 
To do this we must be quite sincere and pure in heart,
which is extremely difficult because we often do not know by what motives we are acting and sincerely think that we are pure in heart when we are far from being so.
But sincerity is not enough.
History shows that sincere, honest people
whose conscience is not enlightened
and whose reason is not good
do immense harm. 
Queen Mary Tudor was the most devout and sincere member of her family,
and she made conscience, not expediency, the basis of her policy;
but she ruined her own cause by the foolish measures which she took and by doing what her conscience told her was right, but what we can now see, and even many of her subjects in her own day could see, was utterly wrong.

Since God is truth, He cannot contradict Himself. 
What He tells us
through the Bible, through the Church,
through our reason, and through our conscience,
must be consistent with itself. 
If our means of knowing His will do not agree, we must have misunderstood Him;
and it is our duty to find out how.

There is one way in which the Church has authority in a different sense from the Bible, reason, and conscience. 
She has the power of the Keys, the right to decide controversies of faith
(Matt.16.19; Acts 15.28; cf. Article 20). 
If as members of the Church we deny her dogmas or break her rules,
we may be punished.
[But only with spiritual penalties:
the Church can deprive us of the sacraments,
but cannot fine us, imprison us, or put us to death.]
If we find the doctrinal or moral rules of the Church
contrary to reason or to conscience,
a difficult problem may arise. 
This was what happened to many of the Reformers. 
If we find that our conscience will not allow us to do what the Church directs,
or to avoid doing what the Church forbids,
it is clearly our duty to examine, first, whether our conscience is rightly informed,
and whether the grounds on which its judgment is based are sufficient;
and second, whether we have rightly understood what the Church requires;
for the Church is more likely to know what is right than we are. 
But if, after we have made every possible effort
to reconcile our duty to the Church and our duty to our conscience,
they are still not reconciled,
we must obey our conscience and take the consequences;
but we must not, even in that case, oppose or hinder the Church.

The course to be followed, if our reason appears to forbid us to believe what the Church teaches, is not quite the same. 
It is most unlikely that we are right and the Church wrong;
even more unlikely than when it is our conscience that is not reconciled. 
We must therefore do everything in our power
to reconcile our conclusions with the teaching of the Church;
and if, after doing all that we can to reconcile them,
we fail to do so, our best course will probably be
to conclude that we have made some mistake which we are incapable of seeing,
and therefore to keep silence as to this particular point;
unless it is our duty to teach it,
in which case we must consider whether we can honestly retain the position which requires us to teach it. 
In any case as long as anyone remains an official teacher he must not use that position to teach doctrines that he has not been given authority to teach.

On the other hand, the Church also has her duty in such a case. 
She has the authority to "bind and loose",
to declare what is true and what is false;
but she must also respect reason and conscience because the Holy Ghost often speaks through the reason and the conscience of particular persons. 
Since it is only in the Church that we can lead the life of the children
the Church must take the greatest care not to put any unnecessary stumbling block in the way of any of her members by insisting on his observance of what may be contrary to his conscience;
on the other hand, she has to preserve the great mass of her members from false teaching, and therefore must strictly control everyone who is authorized to teach in her name. 
Those who are sincerely in doubt about her teaching or practice ought to be treated with sympathy. 
If Luther had been treated with more sympathy at the beginning,
the Reformation might have taken a less revolutionary form. 
But sympathy with the doubters must not put stumbling blocks in the way of the great mass of the faithful. 
It has never been easy for the Church to deal with prophets, whether true or false. 
They must neither be stifled nor allowed to have everything their own way.

The English Church allows her members the free use of their reason. 
They are encouraged to think for themselves,
and are at liberty to criticize all that the Church is and does. 
They have therefore much greater responsibility than those of whom uncritical obedience is required or who are obliged to observe the rules strictly. 
No one has any moral right to criticize unless he has given time and thought to what he is criticizing and has some knowledge of the subject, and unless he is humble enough to be aware of his own limitations;
for criticism that is not based on knowledge and not accompanied by humility is not only worthless but also sinful.

Those who are authorized by the Church to preach and teach in her name have a much greater responsibility than that of ordinary members. 
The preacher and teacher must remember that he is not entitled to preach or to teach his own opinions, but only the doctrine of the Church. 
If he wishes to mention his own opinions,
he must say that they are his own opinions. 
Even St. Paul could write, "To the rest say I, not the Lord" (I Cor.7.12).

The preacher and teacher must be able to prove what he says from the Bible. 
In the Anglican Communion he is pledged to teach nothing as necessary to salvation that he cannot prove from the Bible. 
He must also be able to show that the Church confirms his interpretation of the Bible. 
In the Anglican Communion he must show this from the Prayer Book, for it is the only handbook of the teaching of the Church to which most of his hearers have access.
And he must be able to commend what the Church teaches and what the Bible teaches to the reason and the conscience of his hearers. 
Our Lord Himself did not disdain to do this. 
When He was asked, "Who is my neighbor?",
He did not say, "Your neighbor is everyone you meet, even the Samaritan;
the Bible says so, the Church says so, and I say so." 
But He told the story of the Good Samaritan, and His hearer was forced by his own conscience to admit, even against his will, that the Samaritan was his neighbour (Luke 10.36).

V. Necessary Preparation of the Spirit

We cannot expect the Holy Ghost to guide our reason and our conscience
unless we train ourselves with His help to obey Him. 
He does not guide those who are deliberately disobeying Him. 
It is the pure in heart who will see God (Matt.5.9). 
The sinful and unrepentant cannot expect to know either what is right or what is true.
Pride is the gravest and most subtle of sins,
and heresy is a form of pride. 
It is not heresy to think for ourselves. 
On the contrary, it is our duty, but it is a duty,
which we cannot fulfil without humility and some knowledge of our own limitations. 
It is sometimes necessary for some people to oppose the current teaching of the Church, or no reforms would ever be carried out; but no one should take upon him to act as a reformer unless he is absolutely convinced that it is God's will that he should, and unless he has, as far as he can, laid aside every form of pride and personal ambition, and has given long and careful study to the subject. 
For the sin of heresy is not the holding or teaching of false doctrine,
but the belief that one's own opinion, because it is one's own opinion,
is more likely to be right than the teaching of the Church or of the best and wisest Christians in all ages and countries.

We have discovered so much that our fathers did not know,
that we are tempted to say, "We know better than our fathers". 
Sometimes we do, but we ought not to assume that we always do. 
They had not got all our advantages,
but they had some advantages that we have not got. 
Our age, like every other age, has its limitations and its blind spots. 
This is one reason why history is important.

In order to know what we ought to believe, and what we ought to do, we must be quite sure that both right belief and right conduct are of supreme importance. 
We must seek the truth without any thought of self. 
We must aim at doing God's will before everything else. 
If we do this, we may make mistakes, but they will be forgiven. 

If any man willeth to do the will of God,
he shall know the doctrine

(John 7.17).