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Church and Conscience

American Christianity, in certain intellectual quadrants at least, is undergoing a reassessment of established conceptions of church and state. The Gelasian analogy (from Duo Sunt) of church and state, now carried on by contemporary integralists but also by many more before them, is that of soul and body. The former represents the spiritual power and the latter the temporal.

This is a proper analogy that, in various forms, was invoked by the magisterial reformers (like Zwingli) and post-Reformation Protestants as well, not just Catholics. It accomplishes its intended end, viz., an expression of the independent integrity (and distinct immediate ends) of each power but also their harmony.

But I would like to proffer an additional, complimentary analogy that draws on the moral faculties of the human soul and further illuminates the proper, and to some extent inevitable, dynamic between church and state: that of conscience, the power of practical judgment in the soul, and synteresis, the part of the soul that preserves moral principles (As I have said, Catholics need not have all the fun.) Among other things, this analogy gets at the shared final end of each power—though this shared final end is mediated through different competencies and jurisdiction: the glory of God. This analogy also emphasizes the decidedly moral character of each power, their coordinate operations, and interrelation of the same.

Most importantly, however, whilst a body might be dead without a soul—and the two being separated, man would cease to be man—the conscience continues to operate even absent right adherence to the synteresis. A seared conscience, in zombie-like form, will execute practical judgments unreasonably and aimlessly but, often, with no less certainty because that is what the conscience does. The disconnect between conscience and synteresis is unnatural but does not enact mutual annihilation. Indeed, the two endure as an estranged couple within the soul of man, wreaking all kind of havoc. All this to say, the conscience-synteresis analogy is descriptive of our present moment.  

Now to explain this rather archaic language of synteresis—the uninitiated reader will likely have some common notion of conscience—and its potential contribution to the discussion.  


In a recent piece at Modern Reformation, I mentioned that John Calvin and many others before and after him referred to magistrates as God’s “vicegerents.” This designation is noteworthy because the same title was just as frequently applied to the conscience. John Flavel, for example, said in his Pneumatologia (1698), “The voice of conscience is the voice of God; for it is his vicegerent and representative.”

In this way, then, the title of vicegerent given to magistrates situates them as the conscience of the commonwealth. They assess actions and execute moral judgments for the common good, albeit they do not, in the first instance, do so on the basis of a self-derived moral framework. Good government cannot be arbitrary.

If this is the case, what then is the church? I suggest that she is to be known as the synteresis (or synderesis). And what is the synteresis anyway? Christopher St. Germain, in Doctor and Student (1523), defined the synteresis as “a natural Power or motive force of the rational Soul set in the highest Part thereof, moving it to Good, and abhorring Evil.” And again, “synderesis is sometimes called a spark of reason, and aptly so; for just as a spark is a mere fragment flying out of the fire, so this virtue is but a fragmentary participation in intelligence.” Feeble as this spark may be it “may not wholly be extinguished neither in men nor yet in damned souls.”

By contrast, the conscience is an act of practical judgment, “applying any Science of Knowledge to some particular Act of Man.” The conscience is not the power by which man knows, but by which he applies what he knows to a particular case and subsequently judges said application as good or bad. It is through the synteresis that all men have knowledge of the natural law and through the conscience that they are compelled to apply it—a process that, obviously, then requires the operation of the will and intellect too. Some seventeenth-century commentators like Ephraim Huit (i.e., Anatomy of Conscience (1626)), introduced also the “syneidesis” as this practical judging power to compliment the synteresis. The tradition of the synteresis was never completely stable, it must be admitted, but the basic sense of it endured beyond Doctor and Student. St. Germain himself was, of course, borrowing heavily from Aquinas. (See Brian McCall’s Architecture of Law, pp. 86-101). For example, as Thomas says in the Summa (I-II, 79, 12), “the principles our nature imparts to us in practical matters do not belong to a special power but to a special habit there by nature, synderesis.” This synderesis, for Aquinas, was something like an instinctual habit in the practical reason separate from the judging power of the conscience proper. St. Bonaventure too distinguished between the conscientia and the synderesis. The former, he said in his Breviloquium,  “only names judgment” whereas the latter urges the soul to turn to “good things which are honorable.” It was a sort of natural weight (pondus) toward the good. 

The term, if not the idea itself, originates with Jerome’s commentary on Ezekiel and his use of Plato’s tripartite soul (a use begun by Origen). For Jerome, the synteresis was “that spark of conscience which was not even extinguished in the breast of Cain after he was turned out of Paradise.” In this sense, it is bound up in what it means to be human. In the Orations, Gregory Nazianzus defined synteresis etymologically (i.e., preservation) and as the link between body and soul. (This is significant for the case being asserted here.)

Eventually, the theory of synteresis became more solidified than these early comments. Per Robert Greene, it was known as “an innate inclination or habit of the first principles of the practical reason about good and evil. It was the source of infallible natural intuitions of the basic moral principles of the natural law.” Syllogistically, the major premises—the things that render men without excuse—housed in the synteresis were recognized in a “non-deliberative intuition,” and were immutable, though discursive reason and conscience in the minor premise were contingent and mutable. It was the latter that were prone to error whilst the major premises remained static.

Hence, apparently fumbling for appropriate labels, Jean Gerson said synteresis was “a practical habit of principles, or the spark of intelligence… or a virginal part of the soul, or a natural stimulus to good, or the apex of the mind, or an imperishable instinct, or such other names as the first heaven among the affective powers.” Whether synteresis rightly belonged to the intellectual or appetitive faculties was up for debate–St. Bonaventure located the synteresis in the affective rather than intellectual powers–but its basic function and purpose was not. It represented an immutable moral sense and the preservation of the first principles implanted by God in man.

Along with this conceptual development, a complementary exegetical tradition emerged. Passages like Proverbs 20:27 (see Nathaniel Culverwell’s Elegant an Learned Discourse on the Light of Nature (1652)) became tied to the theory, the invocation of which signaled adherence thereto. Invocation of the “candle of the Lord” (see also Psalm 18:28 and Job 29:3) inferred comment on natural law and the “preserving” power of the rational soul. The spirit of man was, in turn, connected back to Genesis 2:7. (See e.g., Edward Leigh, Body of Divinity (1641)).

As Greene has shown, however, in the late sixteenth century, talk of the synteresis experienced a short dormancy, for various reasons. (St. Germain, Greene claims, was its last great expositor in English.) Yet, it remained present in references to man’s natural and innate “spark” or scintilla rationis or “natural instinct”—a term that itself has an ancient pedigree stretching back to Ulpian—as a kind of shorthand for synteresis; so too did the key scriptural references to the same.    

Later, William Ames was instrumental in reviving the more precise medieval language of synteresis. For Ames, as he put it in his discourse on the conscience, the law is the object itself and the synteresis is the “object apprehended or the apprehension of the object.”

The synteresis is the “storehouse” of the natural law, said Ames, never to be extinguished, though lapsarian man’s other faculties may be corrupted by sinful thoughts and desires such that they cannot rightly access, so to speak, this storehouse. The practical judging power of the conscience can falsely apply these principles, or barely apply them at all.

Traditionally, Romans 1 was considered a picture of any society wherein the natural law is forsaken, and consciences are corrupted by substituting the law of sin for the law of reason. Hence why theologians like Johannes Althusius and John Owen argued that the natural law had to, in a sense, be taught, chiefly through the pedagogical effect of just laws that reflected the first principles of, and good conclusions from, the natural law. Likewise, Aquinas held that as sin corrupts virtue, a sort of competing “law” to the natural law emerges and obscures the natural law from man.

Just as this happens in man, as virtue is exchanged for vice, the natural for the unnatural, the power of practical judgment is dulled and the treasures of the storehouse are hidden, so too can this happen in any society as an organic whole (not just a conglomerate of atomized individuals). When the conscience, through obstinate sin and disorder, cuts itself off from the eternal principles written by God on the heart of man in the synteresis, it loses its ability to judge effectively; it can no longer justly apply the law in context to particular circumstances. In other words, when the civil power is cut off from the spiritual power, it loses its moral storehouse and thereby its precondition to act justly and prudently.


The Gelasian soul-body analogy has been favored for centuries because of its correspondence to spiritual and temporal substances, which maps nicely onto that of church and state. For that reason, the alternative will and intellect analogy preferred by Richard Baxter, for example, is more awkward.

But to recall what was alluded to above, the synteresis-conscience (or syneidesis) analogy avoids this awkwardness by invoking the connector of body and soul and reflecting the distinct but coordinate and harmonious relationship between church and state in the pre-modern conception. Variance in jurisdiction, but more importantly, competency, are obviously in view; but most of all, discrepancy in power—as to type—and an unavoidable (indeed, intentional) mutual dependence is drawn out.

All of this can occur without sacrificing the ultimately higher end and nature of the spiritual power and without either melding the temporal into the spiritual or debasing the temporal. And as already said, the right operation of the conscience is dependent on its connection and adherence to the synteresis, not the other way around. The soul, true enough, is eternal and lives on after detachment from the body in death, but the body no longer operates absent its form. Not so with conscience and synteresis. Both can operate without right relationship with the other, but only one is corrupted by this. Therein lies the true utility of this analogy, viz., its descriptive power— I have argued, following Thomas Pink, for a similar utility in integralism and do not forsake that position here.

The church and her deposit of truth once for all delivered to the saints cannot (ultimately) be corrupted or annihilated. She will endure whether or not her storehouse of moral law and eternal first principles are heeded. She is a perfect society, without external dependence for the fulfillment of her final end.

The state, on the other hand, will be nigh-irreparably debased by this disconnect and cannot rightly fulfill its end absent proper, yet distinct, connection to the church and, more urgently, what is housed within her vast storehouse. A source of morality external to the state itself must be supplied as the basis for law and policy within the state. The alternative is statism, the tyranny of the unfettered conscience executing no less practical but far less reasonable judgments.

Doubtless we see this today. Conscience and synteresis coexist, but the former has little use for the latter. Indeed, the latter is mainly occupied with carving out increasingly shrinking zones of bare non-molestation where the alleged bigotry of her laws can be housed with limited nuisance to the conscience. The vestiges of the golden content of the storehouse (remarkably) still discernible in the judgments of the conscience are desperately denied and gleefully reviled.

Every effort has been made to sever any former—within polite society an air of deep regret must be injected here—connection between the two counterparts. The storehouse doors have been all but welded shut so that the conscience can roam free, undeterred by the constant nagging of the synteresis. It is no wonder then that seemingly everywhere we look—I will spare you a litany of headlines; feel free to insert your own—the natural is being traded for the unnatural, repressing the good that is inescapably known and, in every age, not without testimony. To fill the vacuum, the conscience proposes rules of action to itself. It tells itself that within its power is “the right to define [its] own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” These are the blessings of its liberation. All of its judgments follow therefrom.

That is the analogy anyway… We will see if it catches on.  


Image credit: Unsplash/@pedroedsousa 


Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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