The non-evolution of conscience

I’ve been thinking about Romans again, in the context of Christian attempts to map questions about Adam and original sin to evolutionary theory. I made some preliminary points here, but I want to consider one particular aspect today – the nature of sin in the Bible generally, and in Romans particularly.
I’m assuming from the start that I’m addressing those who take the inspiration of Scripture seriously and want to interpret it correctly: if Paul and the other Bible writers are simply wrong then it’s the end of the discussion. Indeed, there’s no need to discuss a fall at all, nor to hope for a remedy to it. Assuming this attitude, then those who wish to treat the fall in an allegorical sense (but see here) or as in some way an emergent feature of natural processes nearly always see the issue in the context of moral consciousness: the awareness of the good of loving ones neighbour, and the failure to do this consistently.

But the treatment in Romans 5 (which is, obviously, a commentary on Genesis 3) has quite a different emphasis. Paul states that sin came into the world through one man, and explains that this was a transgression (parabasis or going beyond) against a command. He goes on to discuss this trespass (paroptoma, or deviation). In other words, the whole context is that of obedience to a law, rather than consideration of another’s good.

Indeed, the Genesis account reinforces this: the actual command of God was morally neutral, except in its somewhat mysterious consequence of “knowing good and evil”. It was purely a question of obedience to God’s command, or not. And the immediate consequence for Adam and Eve was shame – feeling bad for offence caused – rather than simply a realisation of error, sadness at the result and so on.

In the essay cited in my first sentence I argue the case that “knowledge of good and evil” is no different from Paul’s conception of “conscience” as introduced in Romans 2, about Gentiles without the law (of Moses) who will be judged by their sin against their conscience. It is presumably this conscience that resulted in the death of those “who did not sin by breaking a command” between Adam’s transgression and the giving of the law. There was a law, written in their conscience, and so their sin was taken into account.

What is significant to my purpose here is this conscience is both “law-like” and inborn. In Romans 2 Paul says that “the requirements of the law are written in their hearts.” When conscience is resisted, their thoughts “accuse” them: when accepted their thoughts “defend” them. This is legal talk – the talk of offending the God who implanted his law (in a relatively general form, of course) in their hearts. And this is consistent with the first-hand results of offending conscience: shame. We don’t do a calculation about altruism; we don’t regret an error – instead, we hide our act in shame from … well, that’s sometimes confused, for as Paul has already said in ch1.18ff  the whole race has perverted its conception of God. Nevertheless our shame can outlive the person against whom we’ve offended. The murderer who commits suicide is, as it were, carrying out the sentence imposed by the God who decrees that the murderer’s life is forfeit. In other words, the individual aspects of morality – altruism, selfishness, harm to others, and so on – acquire their significance to conscience primarily because they are related to obedience to God, and only secondarily because they are “good” or “evil”. The law, whether of conscience or that given through Moses, reflects the character of God – and it is disobedience to our calling to obedience to his will that makes for natural morality.

I use the word “natural” as Paul does, because he says that the Gentiles who obey conscience are “doing by nature (phusis – that which is brought forth, ie by birth) things required by the law.” In other words, contra much modern thought conscience arises neither by education nor by reason, but is inborn. That might give force to the claim that there are evolutionary advantages in altruistic behaviour, as also maybe evolutionary reasons for selfish behaviour. But as I have shown, the characteristic of conscience is that it is lawlike – and according to Genesis, it first arose in Adam by the damage to a personal covenant relationship with God through disobedience. Nature has no power to produce as sense of guilt – that takes a broken relationship with our Maker and Lord.

Indeed, as Paul says, “sin is not taken into account where there is no law”. So if Gentiles are judged by conscience, it is not merely a biological function, but an inbuilt law based on a relationship with the lawgiver, God, in the same way that Adam’s guilt was in disobedience to God’s command, or the Israelite’s guilt disobedience to Yahweh’s revealed law.

So we have to take from the Biblical account (a) that the first sin was a conscious act of disobedience to the God who had revealed himself, (b) that the result was a general awareness of God’s moral will and shame after disobeying it and (c) that this awareness, and that shame, became part of general inborn human nature thereafter, whereas it had been absent before.

So spiritual revelation came first, at some historical point, and echoes of that revelation – echoes having the character of law – became integral to our nature. One might argue as to how the tendency to sin carries on in the race, but it seems quite clear that the recognition of that sin as an offence against God is inherited, if not by specific genetic or epigenetic processes, along with whatever else belongs to our “phusis“. Moral sense, in other words, is an inherited sense of God and his pleasure, or displeasure, in certain behaviours, rather than something directly attributable to altruism, selfishness or even love of our neighbour.

What remains at issue, theologically, is how the change to the nature of Adam and Eve – whoever they were – also became the nature of every living human today. But allegory certainly won’t cut the mustard. Neither will change of allelic frequency.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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10 Responses to The non-evolution of conscience

  1. Cal says:

    Good points, I’d be interested in the significance of ‘knowledge of good & evil’ in your viewpoint and why the command was given in the first place.

    Anyhow, it’s also interesting to note that no one’s conscience is a fair judge in that it becomes hardened or seared based on choices. So one may not feel any shame for lying because it is beneficial to the actor or one may feel shame for being raped, where she is not a guilty party an bears no culpability for the crime.

    The law of Moses and our consciences make sin utterly sinful, but fail to take it away. Thanks be to our Lord Messiah Jesus for saving us from our sins and releasing us from our hearts of stone to new hearts of flesh with His command written on them.


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    I’d be interested to know what I think of the significance of “the knowledge of good and evil” too! My working hypothesis is that having just one command made obedience a simple choice. If Adam and Eve had passed the test, then I suspect God would have progressively revealed his will and also endowed them with moral choice (ie have granted the fruit of the tree to them). They would literally have learned obedience, being given more responsibility the more they learned.

    In an evolutionary context, even more speculatively, perhaps that process might have involved weaning them away from existing animal instincts, which would not be sinful until the command to avoid them, and sensitivity to their wrongness, came. Slight support for that is the Scriptural suggestion that reprobate people behave like brute beasts.

    In the end, it’s actuality that counts more than might-have-beens: we stole knowledge, and but for the grace of God have been running on shame and rebellion since.

  3. Avatar photo penman says:

    Turretin gives several rationales for the Edenic command. Two of them:

    (i) The command not to eat asserted graphically & vividly God’s “dominion” over humanity & creation;

    (ii) Because the thing itself (eating from a tree) was not intrinsically evil, the command focused everything on “obedience for obedience’s sake” – would Adam obey his Creator simply because his Creator had spoken? Turretin cites Augustine several times in his discussion.

    My only query, Jon, is that if “obedience for obedience’s sake” is to have any virtuous quality, it must involve at least some germinal recognition that it is right/good to obey God. Otherwise what distinguishes innocent humanity’s obedience to God (“Don’t eat!”) from its obedience to the devil (“Eat!”)?

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Good question, Penman … but at one level, one can simply say that, since they were happy to obey, although they hadn’t eaten of the tree of knowledge, you clearly don’t need such knowledge to live in innocent obedience!

    Might there be some mileage in the fact that all God’s creation obeys his will by default? Human liberty makes the alternative possible, but by a departure from the norm, rather than by a moral decision as such, in the first place. After that knowledge of God’s will and its negation become the drivers.

    Deceit seems to come into the picture as an initial factor, too: Eve was deceived by the serpent, and Paul in Romans 7, describing his spiritual death (metaphorically?), also speaks of sin deceiving him by seizing the opportunity given by the law.

  5. Avatar photo penman says:

    VERY important point about obedience being natural. Maximus the Confessor built a lot of his theology on this, as I recollect (shamelessly name-dropping); he argued that a deliberative attitude to moral issues, trying to decide what is right & wrong, an inner moral debate, etc, is the product of the Fall. Prior to that, humanity’s attitude was spontaneous glad unreflective obedience.

    So I’m ready to confess that conscience as we know it is the product of the Fall. Maybe all I’m contending for is that innocent humanity had some elemental awareness that it was in some sense “wrong” to listen to the serpent & follow him, when he contradicted God.

    Is there an analogy with a young child? He has been taught not to sneak into the larder & eat the cakes. Until now he has accepted this as the natural order of things. But now a naughty man tells him it’s quite all right to sneak in & eat the nice cakes. For all his unsophisticated happy innocence, would the child not feel it was somehow wrong, shameful, naughty, to do this thing? In his mind wouldn’t “naughty” & “unnatural” coalesce?

  6. Cal says:

    Perhaps it has to do with certain prerogatives of being made Imago Dei and implications. Only ‘Man’ is made so specially, other animals and plants lack such a ‘breathing on’.

    We are made totally free, like God, but (and this is a big but) we are still Creation not Creator. We are not our own arbiters, God is still King, even if we be but little lords serving Him. The choice is open, and available, by being made free (like God) to seize His Creator prerogative of Judge and judging. We may share in Him Life and it abundantly but we may not strike Him off by taking His role of Creator by eating of knowledge of good and evil, making ourselves our own compass.

    The snake implies that, no, God wants you to become co-Creator. Yet the Command is for our own good, we can not be Creator, we are Created (and see what has happened by us seizing this, we’ve become slaves to sin and death).

    That’s my understanding.

  7. Cal says:

    So in relation to Penman, we still had consciences, just not consciences blown by all sorts of winds other than the Wind (Spirit). Instead of Freemen obeying the Truth, we traded for a lie and became slaves to all sorts of powers and currents.

  8. Gregory says:

    “Only ‘Man’ is made so specially, other animals and plants lack such a ‘breathing on’.” – Cal

    Again we are in agreement here at The Hump of the Camel. The inspired person is unparalleled in creation history.

    What I’d like to ask is the sense of meaning behind the title of the thread. If ‘conscience’ does not evolve or has not evolved, then by what means has conscience arisen/emerged? Are you suggesting a ‘special creation’ of conscience in the forming of human consciousness? Would it make sense to say that ‘conscience’ was ‘designed’ by G-d, if we can speak of its ‘non-evolution’? Was the act of Fall consonant with a ‘design’ or ‘special creation’ moment in history, i.e. was sin ‘designed’ or ‘specially created’ rather than ‘evolving’?

    Since you speak of ‘the nature of’ sin, why should a person not simply conclude that ‘sin is natural,’ iow inevitable, normal? What’s to stop a determinist (cf. hyper-Calvinist Protestant or eVo psychologist?) from interfering and seeking to dominate the language (communication) of the discussion on this theme?

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory

    The title was simply a denial that conscience is a product of evolution: whether it counts as “design” or “revelation” or something else is another matter.

    I don’t think one needs to talk of sin, or the fall, as “designed” – both are intrinsically negations, the first of God’s law and the second of a specific command, both of which clearly <i>were</i> designed. One for the theologians and philosophers, that. Conscience was certainly designed by God, and part of his spiritual endowment since it involves his revealed law. So I’ll go with special creation, or even miracle – like B B Warfield I agree that the spiritual aspects of man necessarily stand outside “natural” process.

    As for “nature” in this context, “phusis” means “as born” really. So it’s the difference between the created “phusis” and the acquired “phusis” of fallen mankind. It’s easy to prevent those you mention dominating the discussion because I can ban them! But the arguments against them are related to those Paul uses in Romans to refute those who say that sin is good because it enables God to show more grace, and so on.

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