Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Bavinck on Religion and Morality (Part 2)

Now, for the cautions and criticisms previously alluded to:

Still, this close relation between religion and morality may not lead to a denial of the distinction between the two. Although both are regulated in the same moral law, that law itself is divided into two tables. Religion is always a relation to God; morality a relation to human beings. The principle of religion is faith (pistis); that of morality is love (agape). Religion manifests itself in the religious actions that together form the internal and external cult; morality manifests itself in acts of righteousness, mercy, honesty, etc. toward one’s neighbor….On a theistic position…while human beings stand in relation to the world, they also stand in a unique and distinct relation to God as a personal being. Religion, accordingly, is something essentially different from morality and manifests itself in a series of deeds of its own. If this is true, then morality can be neither the foundation nor the principle, or the norm, or the content of religion, but, conversely, religion has to form the basis of morality. The relation to God is then the primary and central relation that governs all other human relations. Historically, as well as logically, morality is always grounded in religion. All religions insist on moral duties, and morality seeks religious sanction. In reality, an autonomous morality does not exist anywhere. Everywhere and among all peoples morality finds its final ground and final goal in religion. Morality loses the ground under its foot when it is robbed of divine authority in the human conscience….Materially, of course, hardly all the obligations and actions that people consider moral are in keeping with the will of God. But, formally, that which makes every duty an unconditional duty, that which obligates the human conscience, is rooted in divine authority.

People, customs, morals (etc.) cannot absolutely compel anyone’s conscience; only God can. That, too, is the reason why the conscience is sacrosanct and freedom of conscience is an inexorable demand and inalienable right. The laws and prohibitions that are not anchored in human conscience are not perceived as moral. A law that has no foundation in a people’s conscience is powerless. Thanks to this connection, religion and morality have a mutual impact on each other. For a time they may go their separate ways in an individual or a nation and even be in conflict, but they cannot be at rest until they are back in harmony and balanced. That which is approved in religion cannot be condemned in morality, and vice versa. Both the relation to God and the relation to human beings must have the same moral character and be regulated in one and the same moral law. Religion and morality, cult and culture, must spring from the same principle. That is the case in Christianity: love is the fulfilling of the law and the bond of perfection. (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, pp. 263-4)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.