Skip to main content

Christianity and the Laws of Conscience: An Introduction

Jeffrey B. Hammond and Helen M. Alvaré, eds
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2021

The middle of a pandemic is usually not a good time to publish a book, especially when social and travel restrictions interfere with the traditional methods of publicizing and marketing a new book. However, the claims of conscience by Christians in this pandemic make the publication of Christianity and the Laws of Conscience: An Introduction timely and even prescient. One claim of conscience relates to the decision to be vaccinated, with Christians among those seeking a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine. Although church leaders as diverse as Franklin Graham and Pope Francis support COVID-19 vaccinations and the National Association of Evangelicals urges Christians to get vaccinated as a means of loving one’s neighbor, some Christians perceive the vaccine as the mark of the beast from Revelation or object to the use of fetal cell lines to develop the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The Sheridan Church, an evangelical church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, even offers a religious exemption form from the COVID-19 vaccine on its website for those who join as online members and make a donation. Amid this controversy, Christianity and the Laws of Conscience: An Introduction offers Christians countervailing ideas about conscience, such as Paul’s reference to the conscience in the context of eating meat offered to idols as a matter of awareness or knowledge rather than conviction or the early church fathers’ concern about the reliability of conscience due to the Fall and human sinfulness. By exploring the development of ideas about conscience, such as whether conscience is objective or subjective, how the conscience functions, and the relationship between conscience, divine law, natural law, and human law, the book helps Christians understand why they hold such divergent views about a vaccine, the reasons for the increasing conflict between their faith and the law, and the role of law in protecting their faith.

Christianity and the Laws of Conscience: An Introduction is a recent addition to an extensive series of books that provide Christian scholars with an opportunity to address fundamental issues of law in the context of their faith. For this book, the editors, Jeffrey B. Hammond, Associate Professor of Law at the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law at Faulkner University, and Helen M. Alvaré, Professor of Law and the Robert A. Levy Endowed Chair in Law and Liberty at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, assembled Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon scholars to holistically explore the meaning of conscience, not just in the context of statutory and constitutional law, but also from the perspectives of other disciplines. Although the editors are both law professors, the individual authors represent scholars from disciplines such as biblical studies, theology, political science, philosophy, and law. One of the pleasures in this mix of authors is reading about a legal issue from the viewpoint of a discipline other than the law. For example, a typical legal analysis of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the 2014 United States Supreme Court decision holding that closely-held corporations are “persons” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 whose exercise of religion is protected by the statute, would focus on principles of statutory interpretation and legislative intent. However, in his chapter “Institutional Conscience, Corporate Persons, and Hobby Lobby,” philosophy professor Christopher Tollefsen instead undertakes an ontological and axiological exploration to confirm the status of corporate personhood and the value of protecting that status when closely-held corporations make free exercise of religion claims.

The book’s twenty-one chapters are organized into three parts. The first part examines broad themes that underlie a Christian understanding of conscience with a focus on the biblical and theological via chapters that examine how the conscience is portrayed in the New Testament and the relationship between the conscience and natural law in the Old and New Testaments. While the chapters in this section affirm the existence of the individual’s conscience, one surprising discovery in an era where claims of religious conscience are endemic is the minor role of the conscience in the Bible. The second part provides a historical overview of how Christian ideas about the conscience developed through the thoughts and theories of major figures, starting with the early church and Augustine and then proceeding through the early eighteenth century via chapters on Thomas Aquinas, the Reformers, Peter Bayle, Roger Williams, and Jonathan Edwards. During this span of time, as the importance of the Christian church was replaced by the centrality of the individual, the thinking about the conscience shifted from grappling with its subjective and unreliable nature because of sin to how to protect the individual voice of conscience from society. This section also explores how the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformed tradition and evangelical Protestantism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have each wrestled with the idea of an individual conscience in the context of their biblical understandings, theologies, and institutions. Given the varying strength of their institutions, what is not surprising is how the Roman Catholic and Mormon traditions emphasize the communal aspects of conscience and deference to the church hierarchy while the Protestant traditions place a greater emphasis on the relationship between the conscience and individual sanctification and the work of the Spirit.

Although laws related to the conscience are not absent from the first two parts of the book, they are in the background while the development of the conscience from a witness to an individual’s behavior to a motivator for that behavior are surveyed. However, in the third part of the book, the law comes to the foreground as the laws of conscience are applied to the ideas of conscience. This section explores legal conflicts that have their origins in the conscience, such as clashes between the values of religious liberty and non-discrimination based on sexual orientation and the claim for exemptions from laws due to both religious and secular philosophical beliefs. The laws of conscience examined in this section are the constitutional and statutory protections given to the free exercise of religion and free speech in the United States. Although the title of the book indicates that it is more generically about the laws of conscience, the editors clarify in their introduction that the third part of the book is solely about “the interplay between conscience and US law” (3). Lost with this limitation are Christian voices from other parts of the world where claims of conscience are riskier because the laws of conscience and the rule of law are less well developed. These voices would have provided an interesting contrast to what Christians in the United States experience with its incomplete but relatively robust statutory and constitutional protections of religious liberty. While absent from this book, perhaps these voices are heard on matters related to conscience in other books in the Law and Christianity series, such as Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction and Christianity and Global Law.

Since each chapter stands on its own, the entire book can be read chronologically to learn the scope and span of Christian thought about the conscience or individual chapters can be consulted to learn about a slice of Christian thought at a certain time or of a certain figure or within a certain tradition or to understand how the law has or has not protected claims of conscience in the United States from colonial times to the present. The independent nature of each chapter is both a strength and a weakness. One advantage is the opportunity to learn about a topic from different perspectives based on the different disciplines of the authors. For example, the first two chapters focus on how the idea of conscience is portrayed in the Bible. In “Conscience in the New Testament,” Wendell Willis, a New Testament scholar, links the Greek word suneidesis, often translated as conscience, to the idea of self-awareness and notes that the idea is not developed in the New Testament. By contrast, in “Conscience and Natural Law in Scripture,” David VanDrunen, a theologian, finds a stronger and more familiar understanding of conscience in the Old and New Testaments based on its relationship to natural law. While these contrasts are a delight, the disadvantage of the book’s structure is that some concepts are simply repeated without enough new insights, such as Augustine’s views of conscience and sin, Aquinas’ understanding of synderesis, and the issues related to a conscience objection to military service.

The greatest pleasure comes from reading the entire book and watching the story of conscience unfold as a moral and legal concept. Two of several key ideas that the book addresses are the location of the conscience and how the conscience operates, and the relationship between these two concepts over time provides for fascinating reading. The location of the conscience starts in the kidneys in the Old Testament, then moves to the heart in first century Jewish and Christian thought, and then appears as a function of the intellect and reason in medieval Catholic thought and during the Reformation. However, by the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the conscience becomes melded into and inseparable from the whole person with a working definition of the conscience encompassing “the heart, the mind, and the will” (154). As the location of the conscience moves through the body, the function of the conscience also changes. While the conscience starts out in the New Testament as a witness, it evolves into a combination of accuser and judge and becomes an inner guide for decision making. This identity of the conscience with the whole person and its role in convicting the person sets up the clash between the individual Christian and society over issues of conscience and the need for the law to protect the obligations of the individual’s conscience.

Overall, the strengths of the book far outweigh any weaknesses. Christianity and the Laws of Conscience: An Introduction is a welcome addition to the Law and Christianity series and a good starting place for anyone interesting in learning about the development of Christian thought about conscience and the statutory and constitutional protections that United States law offers Christian claims of conscience through concepts such as the free exercise of religion and free speech. While the book will not end the debate among Christians over the COVID-19 vaccine, it will help Christians understand why they are having the debate.

Stephen N. Bretsen

Wheaton College
Stephen N. Bretsen is William Volkman Professor of Business and Law, Associate Professor of Business and Law, Pre-Law Advisor

Leave a Reply