What follows is from a course on John Calvin’s famous ‘Institutes’ taught by David Calhoun at Covenant Theological Seminary. Amazingly you can download the whole course for free here. You’ll find this quote on page four of the the transcript of Lesson 3. David Calhoun writes:
Every person has a conscience. In a later part of the Institutes in Book III, Chapter 19, part 15, Calvin says, “We have a witness joined to us which does not allow us to hide our sins, a sort of guardian appointed for man to note and spy out all of his secrets, his conscience.” In Book IV, Chapter 10, part 3, he says there is a “…keeper assigned to man that watches and observes all of his secrets.” So, born within us is an awareness of God’s majesty, and some sense of His law impresses itself in our conscience.
You see this, of course, everywhere. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, King Richard has hired a hit man to do away with Richard’s brother, Clarence. The man who is going to commit this crime is musing over what he is about to do, and he says, “Some certain drags of conscience are yet within me. It makes the man a coward. A man cannot steal, but it accuses him. A man cannot swear, but it checks him. A man cannot lay with a neighbor’s wife, but it detects him. It fills a man full of obstacles. It made me once restore a purse full of Gold that, by chance, I found.” I do not believe that he found it by chance. But anyway, his conscience was at work and he had to return it. So, there is conscience. There is awareness of God’s divinity, and there is something deep within us that causes us to know that this divine Lawgiver has given a law and that some things are right and some things are wrong.
I was reading a book not long ago called Three Seductive Ideas by Jerome Kagan. One of the points that he makes is that not even the cleverest ape could be conditioned to become angry upon seeing one animal steal food from another. Kagan writes, “The primatologist, Frans de Waal, has said that chimpanzees have rules that punish those who break them. Mr. de Waal concedes, however, that he has never seen a guilty chimpanzee.” There are plenty of guilty people, and that is because God has placed within them sensus divinitatis and siemen religiones.
Let me illustrate this just one other way. This is from Lewis Thomas, the American physician. He does not write as a Christian, but his writings are intriguing. One of his books is Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It is a long title, but it is an interesting book. He has a chapter on the lie detector. He says, “As I understand it, a human being cannot tell a lie, even a small one, without setting off a kind of smoke alarm somewhere deep in a dark lobe of the brain resulting in the sudden discharge of nerve impulses or the sudden outpouring of neuro-hormones of some sort or both. Lying, then, is stressful, even when we do it for protection or relief, escape or profit, or just for the pure pleasure of lying and getting away with it. It is a strain, distressing enough to cause the emission of signals to and from the nervous system that something has gone wrong. In a pure physiological sense, it is an unnatural act.” Once again we have an illustration of the fact that people are born with a sense of God and with some sense of right and wrong. This is instinctive. It is ineradicable. That seed remains and can in no way be uprooted. For Calvin, this meant that there cannot be any atheists. To Calvin, coherent atheism is impossible.