I have always believed, with the vast majority of scholarly bible interpreters, that innate or instinctual knowledge is "written" into the moral conscience and Psyche of all men by virtue of their nature (being made in Adam, who was made in the image and likeness of God). The question is: was the law of God, respecting moral duty, written into the nature of Adam? Did he know instinctively or intuitively that it was right to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love his neighbor (in this case his wife) as himself (which are the two pillars of the law's substance)?
An Epistemology Debate?
The word "instinct" means "an inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action common to a given biological species." Of course, instinctive knowledge is neither rational nor actively acquired. Rather, it is passively received, unlearned, acquired in birth, coded somehow into the physical nature.
In the Scriptures this is called "brutish knowledge" ("become brutish in their knowledge" - Jer. 10: 14). There are things that animals instinctively know. Peter spoke of "brute beasts" and of "what they know naturally." (II Peter 2: 12) "Know naturally," that is, know inwardly and intuitively. Thus, the Scriptures do acknowledge some kind of innate knowledge. There is also, of course, other knowledge that animals acquire by mimicking behavior, a kind of learning. For example, in Scripture, an animal is said to "know" his owner and his stall. (Isa. 1: 3) This knowledge was not natural, instinctive, or unlearned. Man is animal and he also has inner instincts, the effect of innate knowledge.
Of course, animals do not have rational minds, nor consciences, nor understanding of moral laws, as does man. Animals do not have spirits, or ability to have intercourse with and enjoyment of God. Man as a physical being, or animal, has innate knowledge, as other animals, but he also has an inner knowledge of right and wrong that is part of his moral or spiritual nature.
Some philosophers, like Locke, believed that a person was born with a "blank slate", or tabula rasa (Latin), for a soul. These denied that man was born with any innate knowledge, arguing rather that all human knowledge is acquired from experience and sensory perception. This has not been the general belief of Christians, however. It is against what Paul wrote in Romans 2: 14-15)
"For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another."
Is conscience acquired at birth? This question is a related question to that which asks whether man has knowledge in his nature or subconscious mind at birth. Or, we may ask, is one born with a superego? Or, is the superego something that comes later into existence? If we define "conscience" as the capacity or faculty for making moral choices, then yes, all men are born with a conscience. However, if we define conscience as cognitive knowledge of right and wrong, as that which is written into the conscience by life learning, then the conscience is something that is in continuous construction during life.
The words of the apostle, in the above passage, seem to clearly teach that man has a natural knowledge of wrongdoing. Yet, we also read where Moses spoke of "your little ones" and said that as such they had "no knowledge between good and evil" (Deut. 1: 39) If they had "no knowledge" of good and evil, as newborns, then how can it be asserted that they had such knowledge innately?
On this passage Dr. Gill wrote:
"Though the Gentiles had not the law in form, written on tables, or in a book, yet they had "the work", the matter, the sum and substance of it in their minds; as appears by the practices of many of them, in their external conversation. The moral law, in its purity and perfection, was written on the heart of Adam in his first creation; was sadly obliterated by his sin and fall; upon several accounts, and to answer various purposes, a system of laws was written on tables of stone for the use of the Israelites; and in regeneration the law is re inscribed on the hearts of God's people." (Commentary)
Clearly, when Moses said that babies do not have any knowledge of right and wrong, he means they do not have any conscious or rational knowledge of such. This can only be acquired by learning.
It is true, as Gill says, that the original writing of God's law into the nature of man has been "sadly obliterated," or we may say "over written" by another writing. The law of sin was written over the first writing, greatly obscuring it. Both writings manifest themselves in moral choices.
This concluding essay is not intended to be chiefly on this epistemological debate, but was only introduced because of the Hardshell argument that God's word is written into the new nature of the regenerated in the same way in which the law is written into the nature of man, that is, in both cases, there is no conscious knowledge connected with this writing.
It is not important to debate the merits of the Socratic method, which affirms that all knowledge that a man may acquire in life was already present in the man, and "learning" a thing was not strictly "cognition" but "recognition." In such an epistemological scheme knowledge is simply "brought out" of a person rather than put within the person. All knowledge is anamnesis, or remembrance, a person merely rediscovers innately possessed knowledge.
This is exactly the kind of belief that the Hardshells have in regard to that spiritual knowledge that God promises to give to sinners in their regeneration. Thus, they will say that when a person is regenerated, he then knows instinctively the good news, yet not consciously. And, when that person hears the good news, he knows it instinctively, or remembers and recognizes it as truth. The word presented to the conscious mind agrees with the the word written in the subconscious mind. Of course, today's Hardshells will generally say that this is not so in every case.
This has been a paradigm of many Hardshells throughout the years, though it is not often explained so thoughtfully as I have in this posting. Many simply say things as did Elder Holder, saying that every born again person has had the word of God written into his heart and soul, even in those who have no conscious knowledge of it, such as pagans. The problem with this view is to explain why today's Hardshells are against affirming that all the elect who hear the Gospel will believe and obey it.
Further, I do not deny that there is some truth in all this, and there is such a thing as Christian intuition, an ability to sense when something is dangerous or a lie.
What I deny is the Hardshell attempt to deny God's use of means in fulfilling his promise to write his word into the heart and mind and their attempt to deny that the knowledge produced by this divine writing is cognitive.
Remember that it was Paul who said "how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" Paul did not believe that there were people who knew about Jesus apart from being informed about who Jesus is. Further, the prophecies themselves show that the word written is written into the conscious mind.
Further, Paul often pointed to people and said of them that they did not know God. But, if the Hardshell view of how saving knowledge is communicated to the soul is correct, Paul could not be sure that the heathen people he referred to did not know God.
Further, why would the Lord advise his people to write his word upon their hearts if it is already all written there? Hardshells sing the song "Tell Me The Story Of Jesus," and there is a prayer in that song that asks God to "write upon my heart every word." From this we may gather that the Hardshells agree that this work of God in writing upon the heart and mind is not a one time instantaneous work, but continuous throughout the life of the believer, and one often accomplished by the means of Gospel instruction.
The Hardshell view makes it possible to say of a Hindu worshipper who worships gods and lords many, that he both knows and does not know God, all at the same time, which just throws out the window the law of non-contradiction.