Minding your moral conscience: Lessons from Huss and Jerome

Doug Marlette draws the cartoon of Doris the Parakeet. Doris is about to eat a chocolate. Then she hears: “Doris, this is your conscience speaking! Put down the chocolate.” Doris looks to her right. She says, “How do I know you’re my conscience? Show me your badge.” “I don’t have a badge,” comes back the response. “Well, no dice, Mister! Do you know what you can get for impersonating a conscience?” “Well, no …uh, I never …” In the last frame, Doris smiles, “With a conscience, your best defense is a good offense!”

This cartoon speaks deeply to my own struggle to understand moral conscience. For most of my life, I didn’t have the guts and bravado of Doris to stand up to my conscience. I shared more with Martin Weber’s struggle in his My Tortured Conscience.1 I experienced a demanding sense of right and wrong. And this wasn’t because my parents were strict. They were quite open and reasonable. It was because I became fanatical in my late teens and early twenties, partly due to my own mental imbalances and partly a response to a schism raging through our Northern California Adventist community in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I wanted to get my spiritual duties right and got fanatical in the process. I became miserable to live with. I didn’t even like living with myself.

What made this battle difficult was that I knew I couldn’t just run away from my conscience. I knew it wasn’t safe to do so. I grew up in California, where I saw many Doris the Parakeets talk down their consciences. They had all kinds of “good offenses” to quail their conscience. Sensuality and selfishness dulled their senses. But I also knew this picky conscience was not always good.

In this article, I review the experience of John Huss as recorded in The Great Controversy2 to help show the limits of conscience and how to balance it with God’s Word.

John Huss

John Huss had grown up a faithful and ardent student of the Roman Catholic Church. Most of his thinking was influenced by his religious community’s traditions and the common writings used in his priesthood. He grew in character and rose in influence in both the church and the Bohemian nation. His pious living also made him disgusted with the evil practices of some of the contemporary church leaders.

In the process of wanting to better understand how to improve his influence, he began to learn more directly from Scripture and found new understanding of the principles of God’s kingdom. His reading of Scripture challenged his own fundamental thinking and convictions about his church. As he wrestled with the authority of the church and his growing understanding of Scripture, a deep conflict developed. This angst brought a deep torment. Ellen White, quoting Wylie, noted:

“‘The mind of Huss, at this stage of his career, would seem to have been the scene of painful conflict. … The Roman church was still to him the spouse of Christ, and the pope was the representative and vicar of God. What Huss was warring against was the abuse of authority, not the principle itself. This brought on a terrible conflict between the convictions of his understanding and the claim of his conscience …. This was the doubt that tortured him hour by hour.’”3

The conflict seemed to rage between “‘convictions of … understanding’” and the “claims of … conscience.” And what a war that must have been for a pious priest. When I first read this, I wanted to shout “Huss, go with your claims of conscience. You have to live with your conscience. Let that trump your understanding and end your painful conflict.” But as I read more, and came to understand the liberty that The Great Controversy was trying to promote, I saw something different. (Yes, the very book most often used to scare some Adventists with end-time fanaticism had become for me a profound reminder of the liberating effects of the gospel through true reformations.) Plus, my own experience in life was teaching me the limits of conscience.

Huss’ conscience had been partly trained by God and partly by the authority of the papal system. He struggled to distinguish between what his reading of the Bible was telling him and the feelings of conscience that were developed from childhood. Years of conformity to the Roman Catholic Church had formed convictions that were being challenged by what he was reading and understanding from Scripture. This torment was like his brain was pitted against itself. He felt compelled to obey the church – it had been an authority in his life, but at the same time he began seeing a new authority, that of the Bible.

Wylie tells us that Huss resolved this painful conflict with “‘nearest the approximation to a solution.’” He saw “‘that it had happened again.’” What had happened again? Huss was reflecting on the past to understand his present. What had happened again was the same persecution against Jesus. Wylie continued: “‘As once before in the days of the Saviour, that the priests of the church had become wicked persons and were using their lawful authority for unlawful ends.’”4 Huss was not ready to propose transferring authority away from the church, but he had enough sense to conclude that authority and power were being misused. This led Huss to a general principle or guide that he used and encouraged others to use. That rule was that “the precepts of Scripture, conveyed through the understanding, are to rule the conscience.’”5 This was the solution that alleviated his conflict. It was also the solution that set in motion the engine of the Reformation. I saw it as my solution also.

White’s use of Wylie’s emphasis on an approximation of a solution is fitting. We always think the Reformers’ minds had 100 per cent clarity about what they were doing. No. They were coming out of false ideas, but never completely, or fully, and only with approximations. This takes painful learning, and learning is about approximations.

Understanding is not something God destroys in order to get our moral compliance. It is something He increases to win our moral obedience and faithfulness. Wylie does not say a solution was found but an “approximation.” Meaning gets constructed, abolished, and temporarily rebuilt. Approximations suggest that later, “better” solutions might be found. We can trust that each day dawns clearer and brighter, and God will continue to reveal more and more to us (Proverbs 4:18; 2 Peter 1:19-21). Thus, the Reformation never ended, and it should never end for us.

The pains of Huss’ conflict “‘led him to adopt for his own guidance, and to preach to others for theirs, the maxim that the precepts of Scripture, conveyed through the understanding, are to rule the conscience; in other words, that God speaking in the Bible, and not the church speaking through the priesthood, is the one infallible guide’”6 His safeguard can become ours.

God turned the penetrating light of liberty on Huss. Light broke through the darkness. God loved Huss and wanted His servant to experience deep liberation. Huss responded to this liberation. But the results were costly. The response from the papal authorities was horrible. Soon they got the political authorities also to work against Huss. Both groups used “evil imagination” and control of conscience to scorn Huss’ newfound ideas. If one reads the abusive statements made against Huss (available on the Internet), one can see how they used religious reasons against him. Satan gave them religious words and moral phrases designed to torment Huss.

Ellen White describes the final stages of Huss’ life. As religious and political leaders saw Huss resist their false claims, they were “witnesses of this first great sacrifice in the long struggle by which liberty of conscience was to be secured.”7 White put her finger on this as the first great sacrifice. Why? Because it was the first real recognition in modern times that even within us, in our minds, we are captive to deep forces that resist God’s rule, even to the point of using conscience against understanding.

Jerome’s lesson

The story of Huss has helped me fortify myself against the false claims of an overanxious conscience. However, having cautioned against the abuse of claims of conscience, I need to remind the reader of the other extreme.

This caution comes from the life of Jerome just after Huss died. While Jerome was imprisoned awaiting his own death, his “fortitude gave way, and he consented to submit to the council” even to the point of “condemning the doctrines of Wycliffe and Huss.” “By this expedient, Jerome endeavored to silence the voice of conscience and escape his doom.”8

There it is again, the conscience. This time it should have been heeded. Now the role of understanding again comes to the aid. “But in the solitude of his dungeon he saw more clearly what he had done. He thought of the courage and fidelity of Huss, and in contrast pondered upon his own denial of the truth. He thought of the divine Master whom he had pledged himself to serve, and who for his sake endued the death of the cross.”9

God individually and corporately works to bring understanding that alone can sustain moral conscience. The mercy of the Teacher allowed another test for His student Jerome, and this time Jerome went all the way to the stake because of the right blending of understanding and conscience. Yes, Jerome was later haunted by his missteps, but grace and truth shone brighter and in union of understanding and conscience, Jerome became a martyr for the grace we have in Christ.

Liberty, conscience, and morality

An examination of the conflicts experienced by Huss and Jerome informs our own. They invite us to better understand our own conflict, our world, and the purpose of God in bringing us better understanding. Ellen White observes that the purpose of her pointing out these struggles in the lives of God’s people is “not so much … to present new truths concerning the struggles of former times, as to bring out facts and principles which have a bearing on coming events.”10 Understanding the basis of moral conscience can prepare us for the challenges to religious liberty that we face today and will face in a world trying to make us conform (Romans 12:2).

Ultimately, religious liberty can only be formed in homes, churches, and nations after it has first been forged in our minds. And that process is rarely easy. Morality and the conscience that speaks its message is often formed with both good and bad material. One can’t just throw it all out. Nor can one automatically follow all its dictates. Morality is not God. Conscience is not always the voice of God. Morality and conscience both need to be trained. God is the trainer. Morality, and the conscience that carries it, may be likened to salt. Salt is essential in our food, but salt doesn’t make for food by itself. It has to be mixed with other ingredients, or it will become toxic and destructive. Liberty is one of those other ingredients that morality needs. Morality in the absence of liberty degenerates into uncreative decision-making, forced obedience, and unthinking conformity. Liberty gives conscience and morality space for choices. That space creates deep psychological as well as social opportunity for ethical growth. Without that, a person or group or whole nation can pursue morality in a way that can feed a deeper rebellion, or a mindless conscience that acts out a moral script that is blind to human need.

Herein lies the deep tension: morality and conscience purify and motivate humans to do right, but morality and conscience in and of themselves can only stay helpful when informed by understanding and by the Bible.

So, this is my simple advice. First, you need your conscience. Don’t throw it away. Second, your conscience needs to be trained.

Duane Covrig (Ph.D., University of California, Riverside) is a professor in the School of Education at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A. E-mail: covrig@andrews.edu.

REFERENCES

  1. Martin Weber, My Tortured Conscience (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1991).
  2. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911).
  3. Ibid., p. 101, 102. Italics supplied.
  4. Ibid., p. 102.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid. Italics supplied.
  7. Ibid., p. 108.
  8. Ibid., p. 111.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., p. xii.
  11. Ibid., p. 103.