by Michaël St-Amour
We are halfway through the year 2022, at the end of a global pandemic for almost 2 years. The coronavirus, which keeps mutating and making this pandemic last, has created different situations, and the governments have had to intervene in different ways, notably by confinements (at least, where I am, in Canada).
One can easily imagine that this situation has created different discussions and some more or less heated debates within the communities. For this reason, I thought it appropriate to offer a synthesis of what the Neo-Calvinist Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck argues about collisions of duties (most often called moral dilemmas or conflicts of moral absolutes). The purpose here is not to offer a position, but to offer the approach of an influential theologian to help church leaders clarify their method of analysis of this situation.
The Christian classification of duty
It is important to note that all the quotations in this article are taken from the second volume of the Reformed Ethics series, and that the author is addressing Christians, and therefore regenerated people who are committed to doing the will of God in Jesus Christ.
The first thing we must realize is that if we study Christian ethics, we will be confronted with moral dilemmas. On this subject, Bavinck says this: “Christian ethics also wrestled with this; Jesus himself took up questions of conflict, such as paying taxes to Caesar and healing on the Sabbath.”
In Herman Bavinck’s time, there were already some ethicists who did not believe in moral dilemmas, notably under the banner that the law is one. If the law is one, then there can be no objective collisions between them, the collisions are only apparent and subjective, and if they are apparent, it is partly due to the fact that we are sinners.
The question is therefore, how to classify the duties of the Christian, and how this one binds our conscience. You will see in this article that the subject of conscience comes up regularly, especially because the notion is very important for Herman Bavinck. He says about his Puritan predecessors (William Ames & William Perkins) on the subject:
“When we are faced with what appears to be a conflict, we are called to discern a hierarchy of duties: duties toward God take precedence over all others; weightier duties take precedence over lesser ones in the same class (honor and chastity over life); duties toward the soul of one person take precedence over all material interests; including those of the community; broader duties take precedence narrower ones (family over myself, country over family). And, when in doubt, abstain.”
Obviously, since Bavinck was a Reformed theologian, he subscribed to the threefold division of the law, the decalogue being God’s moral law for men. The first question one must ask, then, is “How do we divide the decalogue? “
But rather than seeing only two families of duties, divided according to the reformers’ understanding of the two tables of the law, namely the first four commandments which form the duties towards God and the next six which form the duties towards our neighbor,4 Bavinck tries to go further in understanding our duties in relation to the law:
We therefore arrive at the following classification of duties:
1. Duties in body and the spirit toward God
2. Duties towards ourselves
3. Duties towards our neighbor
3.A. General duties
3.B. Particular duties (family, vocation, society, Church, State).
To justify the absence of duties to ourselves in God’s law, he simply explains that since we are inclined to self-centeredness by nature, we hardly need a commandment.
Collision of duties and moral dilemmas
In his approach to demystifying the collision of duties, Bavinck pays particular attention both to the objective dimension of the law and to its subjective dimension, on conscience. In this respect, he says, speaking of the Puritan William Ames:
Ames says that the conscience can err by judging unlawful what is lawful, and vice versa. Even an erring conscience is binding, since it commands in the form of God’s will (thus formally it cannot err) even though its content may err. Whoever dishonors whom he believes is the king does dishonor the king. Whoever despises her conscience despises God himself.
A person who goes against his conscience sins against God, since he does not act by faith: “A conscience that considers it a duty to do that which is permitted is a conscience that obligates. » But should an errant conscience be disobeyed? Bavinck writes: “There is no general rule for deciding which is better: to obey an erring conscience or not to obey it.” On the other hand, he adds on the same page in reference to William Ames: “If conscience err, it must be instructed; if it is unsure, we must abstain.” In addition to this dimension, Bavinck adheres to graduated absolutism. He adds:
Neglecting a lesser commandment for a greater one is really not a neglect: the greater commandment pushes the other aside. Choosing the lesser of two evils does not relate to the evil of sin, but to punishment. The conscience cannot answer the question of which of two sins must be done, because the question itself goes against the conscience.
Does the collision of duties exist?
In his second volume of Reformed Ethics, Bavinck is clear on the existence of moral dilemmas. He repeatedly gives biblical examples of them. He also indicates that they are not only subjective, but also objective:
Precisely because we live in various spheres, standing in various relationships to various objects, God’s commandments may therefore occasionally conflict, objectively and genuinely. This is not at all in contradiction with the inner unity and harmony of God’s law (which remains untouched), but instead is precisely the maintaining of God’s law in the various spheres of life, evidence that the law of God controls the whole of our life, always and everywhere.
Jesus and the collision of duties
Under the principle of graduated absolutism, that is, the thought that there are objective and universal laws, but also the thought that there is a hierarchy of duties towards these laws (which ultimately form one great law), Bavinck takes a few pages to study Jesus’ reactions to certain moral dilemmas. Here is what he summarizes:
It is not at all inconceivable that for Jesus, for example, the duty to honor his parents came into conflict with the duty of obeying his heavenly Father. We have almost such cases in the wedding at Cana (“Woman, what has this to do with me? [John 2:4]) and in the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, letting his parents look for him anxiously while staying behind in the house of hus Father (Luke 2:41-50). Did he not sacrifice the duty of preserving his life to that of surrendering it as a ransom for many? Yet for all that, these do not seem to be a conflict of moral duties, because Jesus knew at once what he had to do, which duty he had to follow as the highest one, and that is why he exhibits a perfectly harmonious life. He had no moments of not knowing, of doubting, of wavering, of being unsure or unwilling!
He adds finally, as to the collision of duties and the unity of the law:
This is precisely a proof for the unity and harmony of the law; the lower commandment itself yields to the higher one. Jesus himself says in Matthew 12:5 (NRSV): “Or have you not read in the Law that on Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are guiltless?“
Our duty, then, is this: “when two objective commandments and duties clash, what counts is which is my specific duty and which is the greater commandment.” And, “at the moment when duty calls, desire and inclination must be silenced.”
How to resolve conflits?
For the last part, I will only repeat sections from this second volume. This part represents Bavinck’s position on how to resolve moral conflicts, here are the five rules he proposes:
Duties of different categories
Duties toward God take precedence over those toward ourselves and the neighbor, family, country, government, etc.: “We must obey God rather than men. » (Acts 5:29) The commandments of the first table come before those of the second table: “He who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37). Faith may not be denied, idols may not be worshipped (Daniel and his friends), God’s name may not be dishonored, even if it costs us our honor, our lives, our parents, and so on.
Duties within the same class
When two duties of the same class conflict with each other (for example, duties towards myself or to my family), the weightiest duties take precedence. There are degrees among the virtues, among tmoral goods. These can be arranged in ascending order. One must rather surrender life rather than speak falsehood or break a promise.The soul takes precedence over the body; honor and chastity and all moral goods take precedence over life. […] In this connection, one can also mention vivisection. Which takes precedence, the duty of science or that of compassion? Is not the intentional causing of suffering, also of animals, impermissible? Surely compassion must triumph over curiosity and inquisitiveness. Nevertheless, this issue can be stated differently: does not the interest of humanity take precedence over that of animals, and are not the animals given to us for our use? Surely, every needless infliction of pain, fdesigned merely to satisfy inquisitiveness, is nonetheless to be rejected.
The duties of the soul above all
The interests of the soul of one person take precedence over the material interests not only of myself but also of family, the country and humanity.
Broader duties over narrower
If equal interests of myself, family, country and humanity are in conflict, then those belonging to the broadest sphere take precedence over those of the narrower sphere.
When in doubt, abstain
Finally, if we are uncertain and in doubt about which of two duties must be performed, then we should do nothing, for everything not arising from faith is sin. Or, if we must performeither of two duties, then we should perform the more probable, that is, the one that commends itself as most probable, not to the learned experts but to our own conscience.
A final word from the author
Now, I would like to make a very personal point about this issue. In a recent discussion with a brother in which I defended Bavinck’s position, the brother in question accused me of being a Platonist because, according to him, the fact that the law is objectively graduated inevitably causes the presence of abstract objects in eternity.
I wish to refute this argument.
To understand why Bavinck holds to graduated absolutism, it is important to understand his organic motives.
Bavinck believes that God is the Supreme Being, the perfect unity-in-diversity. Even though God is ontologically distinct from his creation, since it bears his organic imprint, it reflects his divine wisdom. Moreover, it goes without saying that unity precedes diversity, the whole precedes its parts. In other words, the parts are parts insofar as they are parts of the whole. If this were not the case, and the law did not reflect the divine wisdom of God, one could believe in the presence of an abstract object in eternity, since the law would be mechanical rather than organic, but this is not the case. God being One, even in His diversity of hypostases, He offers to the moral law the same organic character that He Himself bears, even if ontologically distinct.
The organic motif is an important term in the theology of Herman Bavinck (as well as other Neo-Calvinist theologians). It is therefore important to study this notion in order to effectively understand how Bavinck views divine revelation (by revelation I mean here both general and special revelations, with all that they imply as well as their organic connection).
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics vol. 2, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, 2021, p. 61.
 Idem, p.61-62.
 Idem, p.62.
 Idem, p.62.
 Idem, p.63.
 Idem, p. 67
 Idem, p.68
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 Idem, p.68
 Idem, p.75-76
 Idem, p.76.
 Idem, p.76-77
 Idem, p.79.
 Idem, p.79.
 Idem, p.84.
 Idem, p.87.
 Idem, p.88.
 Idem, p.88.
 Idem, p.88
 Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, God and Knowledge, T&T Clark, London, 2020, p.15.
 Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, God and Knowledge, T&T Clark, London, 2020, p.18.
Michaël St-Amour is married and has two children. He is a master’s student in theology and has a special appreciation for Herman Bavinck and the Dutch Reformed. He is also a candidate for pastoral ministry for the Reformed Church of Quebec.