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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament



1. The word and its history.-Both the Lat. conscientia, from which ‘conscience’ is derived, and the Gr. συνείδησις, of which it is the invariable rendering in the NT, have originally the more general meaning of ‘consciousness’-the knowledge of any mental state. Down to the 17th cent., as the Authorized Version itself bears witness, ‘conscience’ too was sometimes used in this wider sense. In 1 Corinthians 8:7 ‘conscience of the idol,’ and in Hebrews 10:2 ‘conscience of sins,’ would now be better rendered ‘consciousness.’ Some exegetes would prefer ‘consciousness’ to ‘conscience’ in 1 Peter 2:19 ‘conscience toward (or of) God.’ With these exceptions, ‘conscience’ in the NT denotes not consciousness generally, but the moral faculty in particular-that power by which we apprehend moral truth and recognize it as having the authority of moral law. The history of the words ‘conscience,’ conscientia, συνείδησις, shows that it is entirely fanciful to suppose on etymological grounds that the prefixes con and συν point to the subject’s joint knowledge along with God Himself. The joint knowledge denoted is knowledge with oneself, a self-knowledge or self-consciousness in which the inner ‘I’ comes forward as a witness. This does not, of course, exclude the further view that, as man is made in the image of God, and as his individual personality is rooted in that of the absolute moral Ruler, the testimony of conscience actually is the voice of God bearing witness in the soul to the reality and authority of moral truth.

It is a significant fact that the word ‘conscience’ is nowhere found in the OT text, though in Ecclesiastes 10:20 both Authorized Version and Revised Version give it in the margin as an alternative for ‘thought,’ to represent the Heb. מַרָּע, which Septuagint here renders by συνείδησις. In ancient Israel it was an external law, not an inward lawgiver, that held the seat of authority; and though the prophets addressed their appeals to the moral sense of their hearers (cf. Micah 6:8), they furnished no doctrine of conscience. Nor does the word occur either in the Synoptics or the Fourth Gospel; for the clause of John 8:9 where it is found does not belong to the correct text (see Revised Version ). Jesus in His teaching constantly addresses Himself to the conscience, and clearly refers to it when He speaks of ‘the light that is in thee’ (Matthew 6:23, Luke 11:35), but His mission was to illumine and quicken the moral faculty by the revelation He brought, not to analyze it, or define it, or lay down a doctrine on the subject. In the Acts and Epistles, however, the effects of the revelation in Christ become apparent. We have the word ‘conscience’ 31 times in Authorized Version and 30 times in Revised Version -the latter reading συνηθείᾳ for συνειδήσει in 1 Corinthians 8:7. Heb. has it 5 times and 1 Pet. thrice; with these exceptions it is a Pauline word. There are anticipations of the NT use of it in the Apocrypha (Wisdom of Solomon 17:11, Sirach 14:2, 2 Maccabees 6:11), and suggestions for St. Paul’s treatment of it in contemporary Greek teaching, and especially in the moral philosophy of the Stoics. But it was Christian faith that raised it out of the region of ethical abstraction and set it on a throne of living power.

2. The NT doctrine

(1) The nature of conscience.-According to its etymology, conscience is a strictly cognitive power-the power of apprehending moral truth; and writers of the intuitional school frequently restrict the use of the term to this one meaning (cf. Calderwood, Handbook of Moral Philosophy, p. 78). Popularly, however, conscience has a much wider connotation, including moral judgments and moral feelings as well as immediate intuitions of right and wrong; and it is evident that in the NT the word is employed in this larger sense so as to include the whole of the moral nature. When conscience is said to ‘bear witness’ (Romans 2:15; Romans 9:1) or to give ‘testimony’ (2 Corinthians 1:12), it is the clear and direct shining of the inner light that is referred to. When it is described as ‘weak’ or over-scrupulous (1 Corinthians 8:7; 1 Corinthians 8:10; 1 Corinthians 8:12), and is contrasted by implication with a conscience that is strong and walks at liberty, the reference is to those diversities of opinion on moral subjects which are due to variations of judgment in the application of mutually acknowledged first principles. When it is spoken of on the one hand as ‘good’ (1 Timothy 1:5; 1 Timothy 1:19, Hebrews 13:18, 1 Peter 3:16; 1 Peter 3:21) or ‘void of offence toward God and men’ (Acts 24:16), and on the other as ‘defiled’ (1 Corinthians 8:7), ‘wounded’ (1 Corinthians 8:12), ‘evil’ (Hebrews 10:22), ‘seared (or branded) with a hot iron’ (1 Timothy 4:2), the writers are thinking of those pleasant or painful moral feelings which follow upon obedience or disobedience to moral law, or of that deadness to all feeling which falls upon those who have persistently shut their ears to the inward voice and turned the light that is in them into darkness.

The fundamental passage for the Pauline doctrine is Romans 2:14-15. The Apostle here seems to lay down as unquestionable, (a) that there is a Divine law written by Nature on the heart of every man, whether Jew or Gentile; (b) that conscience is the moral faculty which bears witness to that law; (c) that in the light of that witness there is an exercise of the thoughts or reasonings (λογισμοί), in other words, of the moral judgment; (d) that, as the result of this judgment before the inward bar, men are subject to the feelings of moral self-approval or self-reproach. Covering in this passage the whole ground of the moral nature of man, St. Paul appears to distinguish conscience as the witness-bearing faculty from the moral judgments and moral feelings that accompany its testimony. But elsewhere, as has been already shown, he frequently speaks of conscience in that larger sense which makes it correspond not only with the immediate apprehension of moral truth, but with the judgments based upon the truth thus revealed, and the sentiments of satisfaction or dissatisfaction to which these judgments give rise.

(2) The authority of conscience.-However men differ in their theories as to the nature and origin of the moral faculty, there is general agreement as to the authority of the moral law which it enjoins. Few will be found to challenge Butler’s famous assertion of the supremacy of conscience: ‘Had it strength as it has right, had it power as it has manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world’ (Serm. ii.). And while adherents of the sensational school of ethics may dispute Kant’s right to describe the imperative of morality as ‘categorical’ in its nature (Metaphysic of Ethics, p. 31), even they will not seek to qualify his apostrophe to duty (p. 120) or the exalted language in which he describes the solemn majesty of the Moral Law (p. 108). For the NT authors conscience is supreme, and it is supreme because in its very nature it is an organ through which God speaks to reveal His will. In the case of the natural man it testifies to a Divine law which is written on the heart (Romans 2:15); in the case of the Christian man this law of Nature is reinforced by a vital union with Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:20) and by the assenting witness of the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1). The claim of right which Butler makes on behalf of conscience is transformed for St. Paul into a law of power. The pure and loyal Christian conscience has might as it has right; it not only legislates but governs. What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, is actually fulfilled in those who take Christ to be the companion of their conscience and who walk not after the flesh but after the spirit.

In Acts we have many examples of the way in which conscience, in Butler’s words, ‘magisterially exerts itself’ in the case alike of bad men and of good. The suicide of Judas (Acts 1:18; cf. Matthew 27:3 ff.), the heart-pricks of the men of Jerusalem under St. Peter’s preaching (Acts 2:37), the claim of St. Peter and St. John that they must obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29), Saul’s experience that it was hard to kick against the pricks (Acts 9:5), Felix trembling as St. Paul reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come (Acts 24:25)-all these are examples of the authority of conscience. And what in Acts we see practically exemplified is laid down in the Epistles as a matter of rule and doctrine. St. Paul enjoins submission to the civil authority (Romans 13:1 ff.), but vindicates its right to govern on the ground of the higher authority of conscience (Romans 13:5). The writer of Heb. represents the sin-convicting conscience as a sovereign power which impelled men to lay their gifts and sacrifices on the altar, but was never satisfied until Jesus Christ ‘through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God’ (Hebrews 9:9; Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 10:2; Hebrews 10:22). St. Peter teaches that, in a matter of conscience before God, men must be willing to ‘endure griefs, suffering wrongfully’ (1 Peter 2:19). Nor is it only the personal conscience whose dignity and supremacy must be acknowledged; a like reverence is to be shown for the conscience of others. St. Paul sought to commend himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 4:2; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:11). He taught that the exercise of Christian liberty must be Limited by regard for another’s conscience (1 Corinthians 10:29), and that even when that conscience is weak, it must not be wounded or bewildered or defiled (1 Corinthians 8:7; 1 Corinthians 8:10; 1 Corinthians 8:12) lest the other’s sense of moral responsibility should thereby be impaired.

The source of this, magisterial authority of conscience is represented by the NT writers as lying altogether in the Divine will, of which conscience is the instrument. For St. Paul conscience is not an individualized reflexion of social opinion, nor a subtle compound of feelings evolved in the course of the long struggle for existence, nor yet a mysterious faculty that claims to regulate the life of man by virtue of some right inherent in its own nature. Its authority is that of a judge, who sits on the bench as the representative of a law that is higher than himself. Its function is to bear witness to the law of God (Romans 2:15; Romans 9:1, 2 Corinthians 1:12); its commendation is a commendation in His sight (2 Corinthians 4:2); its accusation is an anticipation of the day when He shall judge the secrets of men (Romans 2:15-16). Similarly for St. Peter a matter of conscience is a question of ‘conscience toward God’ (1 Peter 2:19). Some commentators would render συνείδησις θεοῦ in this verse by ‘consciousness of God’; and the very ambiguity of the expression may suggest that in the Apostle’s view conscience is really a God-consciousness in the sphere of morality, as faith is a God-consciousness in the sphere of religion.

(3) Varieties of conscience.-What has just been said as to the absolute and universal authority of conscience may seem difficult to reconcile with the distinctions made by the NT writers between consciences of very varied types. There are consciences that are weak and timid, and others that are strong and free (1 Corinthians 8:7 ff.). A conscience may be ‘void of offence’ (Acts 24:16), or it may be defiled and wounded (1 Corinthians 8:7; 1 Corinthians 8:12, Titus 1:15). It may be good (1 Timothy 1:5; 1 Timothy 1:19, Hebrews 13:18, 1 Peter 3:16; 1 Peter 3:21), or it may be evil (Hebrews 10:22). It may be pure (1 Timothy 3:9, 2 Timothy 1:3), or in need of cleansing (Hebrews 9:14). It may possess that clear moral sense which discerns intuitively both good and evil (Hebrews 5:14), or it may be ‘seared with a hot iron’ (1 Timothy 4:2) and condemned to that judicial blindness to which nothing is pure (Titus 1:15). The explanation of the difficulties raised by such language lies in the fact already noted that ‘conscience’ in the NT is used to denote not the power of moral vision only, but the moral judgment and the moral feelings. As the organ which discerns the Moral Law, conscience has the authority of that law itself; its voice is the voice of God. It leaves us in no doubt as to the reality of moral distinctions; it assures as that right is right and wrong is wrong, and that ‘to him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin’ (James 4:17). But for the application to particular cases of the general law of duty thus revealed, men must depend upon their moral judgments; and moral judgments are liable to error just as other judgments are. It was a want of ‘knowledge’ that led some in the Corinthian Church to shrink from eating meat that had been offered to an idol (1 Corinthians 8:7), and a consequent mistake of judgment when they came to the conclusion that such eating was wrong. Their consciences were weak because their moral judgments were weak. And as the result of their weakness in the decision of moral questions, their moral feelings were misdirected, and so their consciences were stained and wounded by acts in which a man of more enlightened conscience saw no harm. Similarly, when a conscience is said to be ‘good’ or ‘pure’ or ‘void of offence,’ the reference is to the sense of peace and moral harmony with God and man which comes to one who has loyally obeyed the dictates of the Moral Law; while an uncleansed or evil conscience is one on which there rests the burden and pain of sin that is unatoned for and unforgiven. A ‘seared’ or ‘branded’ conscience, again, may point to the case of those in whom abuse of the moral nature has led to a perversion of the moral judgment and a deadening of the moral sentiments. Compare what St. Paul says of those whose understanding is darkened, whose hearts are hardened, and who are now ‘past feeling’ (Ephesians 4:18).

(4) The education of conscience.-Some intuitionalists have held that conscience, being an infallible oracle, is incapable of education; and Kant’s famous utterance, ‘An erring conscience is a chimera’ (op. cit. p. 206), has often been quoted in this connexion. But it is only in a theoretical and ideal sense that the truth of the saying can be admitted-only when the word of conscience is taken to be nothing less and nothing more than the voice of God, and its light to be in very reality His ‘revealing and appealing look’ (J. Martineau, Seat of Authority in Religion3, London, 1891, p. 71). In the NT, however, as in general usage, ‘conscience’ is not restricted to the intuitive discernment of the difference between right and wrong, but is applied to the whole moral nature of man; and when understood in this way there can be no question that it shares in the general weakness of human nature, and that it is both capable of education and constantly in need of an educative discipline. The distinction made by the NT writers between a good and an evil conscience implies the need of education; their moral precepts imply its possibility. St. Paul says that be ‘exercised himself’ to have a conscience void of offence toward God and men (Acts 24:16); the author of Heb. speaks of those who ‘by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil’ (Hebrews 5:14).

In various aspects the necessity for this exercise or training of the moral faculty comes before us. Even as a power of intuition or vision by which the Moral Law is discerned, conscience is capable of improvement. Ignorance darkens it (Ephesians 4:18), sin defiles it (Titus 1:15); and only an eye that is purged and enlightened can see clearly. ‘My conscience is nott so,’ said Queen Mary to Knox. ‘Conscience, Madam,’ he replied, ‘requyres knowledge; and I fear that rycht knowledge ye have none’ (Knox, Works, ed. Laing, Edinburgh, 1864, ii. 283). But conscience is also a faculty of moral judgment, and in moral matters, as in other matters, human judgments go astray. The ‘weak’ conscience is the natural accompaniment of the weak and narrow mind (1 Corinthians 8:7); a selfish and impure heart usually compounds with its conscience for the sins to which it is inclined, and a conscience that accepts hush-money is apt to grow dumb until contact with another conscience stronger and purer than itself makes it vocal once more (Acts 24:25). Moral sentiments, again, gather around a false judgment as readily as around a true. Christ’s apostles were killed by men who thought that they were thereby doing God service (John 16:2), and St. Paul himself once believed it to be his duty ‘to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth’ (Acts 26:9). In such cases persecution to the death carried no self-reproach with it, but a sense of moral complacency.

Granting, then, that conscience needs to be educated, how, according to the NT, is the work to be done? Three ways are especially suggested-the ways of knowledge, obedience, and love; in other words, the way of the mind, the way of the will, and the way of the heart. (a) Knox said to Queen Mary that conscience requires knowledge; and that is what St. Paul also taught (1 Corinthians 8:7). Before the man of God can be ‘furnished completely unto every good work’ he has need of ‘instruction in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Education of this kind can be obtained from many masters, but the best teachers of all are Scriptures Inspired of God (ib.). St. Paul’s own Epistles are full of instruction as regards both the broad principles of Christian ethics and their application under varying circumstances to all the details of personal, family, and social life. And in the teaching of Christ Himself, above all in that Sermon on the Mount whose echoes are heard so frequently in the Epistle of James, enlightenment comes to the human conscience through the revelation of the fundamental laws of the Divine Kingdom.

(b) Conscience is educated, in the next place, by obedience to the Divine law when that law is recognized. It is the use of knowledge already possessed that exercises the senses to keener moral discernment (Hebrews 5:14); it is the man who is willing to do God’s will who comes to know the Divine voice whenever he hears it (John 7:17). The ethics of the NT are not the ingenious elaboration of a beautiful but abstract moral scheme; they are practical through and through. Christians are called upon to acknowledge not the right of conscience only, but its might; they are commanded everywhere to bring their dispositions, desires, passions, and habits into captivity to its obedience. To follow Christ is to have the light of life (John 8:12); while to hate one’s brother is to walk in darkness with blinded eyes, and so to lose the knowledge of the way (1 John 2:11; cf. John 12:35). Obedience, in short, is the organ of spiritual knowledge (cf. F. W. Robertson, Sermons, 2nd ser., new ed., London, 1875, no. viii.). A good conscience goes with a pure heart (1 Timothy 1:5). But sin so perverts and blinds the inward eye that the very light that is in us is darkness (Matthew 6:23).

(c) But something more is required before the education of conscience is complete. Knowledge is much, and the will to obedience is more, but what if the power of love be wanting? In that case the conscience will not be void of offence toward God and men. According to the NT writers the conscience must be set free by being delivered from the sense of guilt through the atoning power of Christ’s sacrifice (Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 10:22); it must learn its close dependence upon the mystery of faith (1 Timothy 3:9; cf. 1 Timothy 1:19); it must be taught that love out of a pure heart and a good conscience and faith unfeigned are ‘the end of the charge’ and the fulfilling of the law (1 Timothy 1:5). To be perfectly educated, in short, a conscience must experience the constraining and transforming power of the love of Christ, in whom men are new creatures, so that old things are passed away and all things are become new (2 Corinthians 5:14; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Thus, in the view of the NT writers, ethics passes into religion, and the Christian conscience is the conscience of one who lives the life of faith and love, and who can say with St. Paul, ‘I live, and yet no longer I, but Christ liveth in me’ (Galatians 2:20).

Literature.-J. Butler, Analogy and Sermons, London, 1852, Sermons. ii. iii.; I. Kant, Metaphysic of Ethics, Eng. translation , 1869, p. 245ff.; T. H. Green, prolegomena to Ethics, Oxford, 1883, p. 342ff.; H. Calderwood, Handbook of Moral Philosophy, London, 1872, pt. i.; H, Martensen, Christian Ethics, Edinburgh, 1881-82, i. 356ff.; Newman Smyth, Christian Ethics, do. 1892, index s.v.; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , article ‘Conscience’; Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche 3, article ‘Gewissen’; B. Weiss, NT Theol., Eng. translation , Edinburgh. 1882-83, i. 476, ii. 40, 211.

J. C. Lambert.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Conscience'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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