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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


CONSCIENCE . The term occurs 30 times in the NT; it signifies joint knowledge . The two things known together may be two motives, two deeds, etc.; or the comparison instituted may be between a standard and a volition, etc. Self or others may be judged, and approval ( Acts 23:1; Acts 24:16 , Romans 9:1 , 2 Corinthians 1:12 , 1 Timothy 1:5; 1 Timothy 1:19; 1 Timothy 3:9 , 2 Timothy 1:3 , Heb 13:18 , 1 Peter 3:16; 1 Peter 3:21 ) or disapproval ( John 8:9 , Hebrews 9:9; Hebrews 10:2; Hebrews 10:22 ) may be the issue. The conviction that a certain course of conduct is right is accompanied by a sense of obligation, whether that course receives ( Romans 13:5 ) or fails to secure ( 1 Peter 2:19 , Acts 4:19-20 ) legal confirmation. The belief on which the consciousness of duty depends is not necessarily wise ( 1Co 8:7; 1 Corinthians 8:10; 1 Corinthians 8:12 , Acts 26:9 ), though the holders of the belief should receive careful consideration on the part of more enlightened men ( Romans 15:1 , 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; 1 Corinthians 10:25; 1 Corinthians 10:29 ). Unfaithfulness to moral claims leads to fearful deterioration, resulting in confusion ( Matthew 6:22-23 ) and insensitiveness ( 1 Timothy 4:2 , Titus 1:15 ).

1. Sphere . The sphere of conscience is volition in all its manifestations. That which merely happens and offers to us no alternative movement lies outside morality. Let there be a possibility of choice, and conscience appears. Appetites, so far as they can be controlled; incentives of action admitting preference; purposes and desires, all deeds and Institutions that embody and give effect to human choice; all relationships that allow variations in our attitude give scope for ethical investigation, and in them conscience is directly or indirectly implicated. Conscience makes a valuation. It is concerned with right, wrong; worthiness, unworthiness; good, bad; better, worse. This appraisement is ultimately occupied with the incentives that present themselves to the will, in regard to some of which (envy and malice, for instance) there is an Immediate verdict of badness, and in regard to others a verdict of better or worse. The dispositions that are commended by the Saviour’s conduct and teachings purity of heart, meekness, mercifulness, desire for righteousness, etc. are recognized as worthy of honour. The conscience censures the selfishness of the Unjust Judge ( Luke 18:6 ), and assents to the injunction of considerateness and justice ( Philippians 2:4 ). The rightness of many general statements is discerned intnitively, and is carried over to the deeds that agree therewith. Sidgwick considers that the statement ‘I ought not to prefer my own lesser good to the greater good of another’ is axiomatic, and that some such intnitively discerned principle is a necessary foundation of morals. We do not question the baseness of some pleasures; their curse is graven on their foreheads. Both mediately and immediately we arrive at ethical convictions. The appearance in one’s life of a person of distinguished excellence will cause many virtues to shine in our estimation. The mind surveying a course of conduct can judge it as bad or good on the whole. A precept to seek to raise the whole tone of one’s life ( Matthew 5:48 , Colossians 4:12 ) is felt to be reasonable, and as the capacity for improvement is greater in man than in any other creature, better motives, deeds, habits, aims, characters may righteously be demanded.

2. Obligation . ‘In the recognition of any conduct as right there is involved an authoritative prescription to do it.’ This feeling of oughtness which is the core of conscience can be exhibited but not analyzed. It is an ultimate. It is unique. It is an evidence within the soul that we are under government. There is a ‘categorical imperative’ to aim at that which we have admitted to be right. From the duty discerned there issues a command which cannot be silenced so long as the duty is present to the mind. Likings or dislikings, hopes or fears, popularity or unpopularity no matter what may be advanced, the dictatorial mandate is unaltered:

‘’Tis man’s perdition to be safe,

When for the truth he ought to die.’

When Jesus Christ asserts His supremacy and demands deference to Himself at all costs, He does so as the incarnation of the moral law. To be His friend is to be under His orders (John 15:14 ), and one is bound to follow Him without regard to any claims that can be urged by self or kindred ( Matthew 10:37-38 , Luke 14:33 ). Let it be ascertained that this is the way and the command is at once heard, ‘Walk ye in it.’ The peremptory claim made by conscience is eminently reasonable, because it rests upon what we have admitted to be right. It is a provision in our nature that links or that would link if we were loyal belief and practice, and would cause us to be builders as well as architects. ‘Had it strength as it has right; had it power as it has manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world’ (Butler, Serm . ii.).

3. The ethical feeling . The perception of oughtness has its own emotional tone. There is, of course, a sense of relief when the mind has arrived at a decision; but is there not an additional element? Is there not an inclination at least a faint one in favour of the behest? And in men habitually conscientious, is not the inclination immediate and strong? All men are clearly aware that they are wrong in case of refusal to obey. Man is a born judge of himself, and the verdict that results from self-examination brings peace or uneasiness. Herod is ill at ease by reason of self-judgment ( Mark 6:20 ), and so is Felix ( Acts 24:25 ). Peter sees himself as one who has broken the law, and the light hurts him ( Luke 5:8 ). All the best men have had some experience like that of Isaiah ( Isaiah 6:5 ) and that of Job ( Job 42:6 ), for with them the moral susceptibility has been great. All the emotional accompaniments of penitence and remorse, as well as the glow incident to the hearing of noble deeds all anticipations of the Lord’s ‘Well done!’ are instances of moral feeling. These pleasures and pains are a class by themselves. They are as distinct from those of sensation and intellect as colours are distinct from sound. That pleasures are qualitatively different was rightly maintained by J. S. Mill, though his general theory was not helped by the opinion. In consciousness we know that sorrow for sin is not of the same order as any physical distress, nor is it to be ranked with the feeling of disappointment when we are baffled in a scientific inquiry. The difference between the moral and the unmoral emotions is one of kind and not of quantity, of worth and not of amount: some pleasures low in the scale of value are very intense, while the moral satisfactions may have small intensity and yet are preferred by good men to any physical or intellectual delights. It should be noticed that the pleasure attendant upon a choice of conduct known to be right may be not unmixed; for the feelings, clinging for a while to that which has been discarded, interfere with the satisfaction due to the change that has been made. Converts are haunted by renounced beliefs, and their peace is disturbed; beside the main current of emotion there is a stream which comes from past associations and habits.

4. Education of conscience . (1) No training can impart the idea of right: it is constitutional. (2) Malevolent feelings (as vindictiveness, the desire to give pain gratuitously) are known by all to be wrong; immediately they are perceived at work, they are unconditionally condemned. (3) The inward look makes no mistake as to our meaning, gets no wavering reply to such questions as, ‘Do you desire to have full light? to know all the facts? to be impartial? to act as a good man should act in this particular?’ For this accurate self-knowledge provision is made in our nature. (4) Some general moral principles are accepted as soon as the terms are understood. (5) When two competing incentives are to be judged, we know, and cannot be taught, which is the higher. (6) The imperative lodged in a moral conviction is intuitively discerned. ‘I do not know how to impart the notion of moral obligation to any one who is entirely devoid of it’ (Sidgwick). (7) The feeling of dishonour comes to us without tuition when we have refused compliance with known duty. Belonging to a moral order, we are made to react in certain definite ways to truths, social relations, etc. The touch of experience is enough to quicken into action certain moral states, just as the feelings of cold and heat are ours because of the physical environment, and because we are what we are. We can evoke while we cannot create the elementary moral qualities. ‘An erring conscience is a chimera’ (Kant). ‘Conscience intuitively recognizes moral law; it is supreme in its authority; it cannot be educated’ (Calderwood). These sentences are not intended to deny that in the application of principles there is difficulty. One may readily admit the axioms of geometry, and yet find much perplexity when asked to establish a geometrical theorem the truth of which directly or indirectly flows from the axioms. The Apostle Paul prayed that his friends might improve in moral discrimination ( Philippians 1:10 , Colossians 1:9 ). We have to learn what to do, and often the problems set by our domestic, civic, and church relationships are hard even for the best and wisest to solve. The scheme of things to which we belong has not been constructed with a view to saving us the trouble of patient, strenuous, and sometimes very painful investigation and thought.

5. Implications . Of the many implications the following are specially noteworthy. The feeling of responsibility suggests the question, to Whom? Being under government, we feel after the Ruler if haply we may find Him. Jesus tells us of the ‘Righteous Father.’ The solemn voice of command is His. The preferences which we know to be right are His. The pain felt when righteous demands are resisted, and the joy accompanying obedience, are they not His frown and smile? Neither our higher self nor society can be the source of an authority so august as that of which we are conscious. To the best minds we look for guidance; but there are limits to their rights over us, and how ready they are to refer us to Him before whom they bow! We are made to be subjects of the Holy One. Admitting that we are in contact with Divine Authority, and that His behests are heard within, the encouraging persuasion is justified that He sympathizes with the soul in its battles and renders aid ( Philippians 2:12-13 ). The inference that it is God with whom we have to do makes it fitting for us to say that conscience is man’s capacity to receive progressively a revelation of the righteousness of God. But is law the last word? May there not be mercy and an atonement? Cannot the accusing voices be hushed? May the man who admits the sentence of conscience be pardoned? Conscience is a John the Baptist preparing the way for the Saviour, who has a reply to the question ‘What must I do to be saved?’

W. J. Henderson.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Conscience'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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