Conscience [N] [T] [E]

Conscience is a term that describes an aspect of a human being's self-awareness. It is part of a person's internal rational capacity and is not, as popular lore sometimes suggests, an audience room for the voice of God or of the devil. Conscience is a critical inner awareness that bears witness to the norms and values we recognize and apply. The complex of values with which conscience deals includes not only those we own, but the entire range of values to which we are exposed during life's journey. Consequently, there is always a sense of struggle in our reflective process. The witness of conscience makes its presence known by inducing mental anguish and feelings of guilt when we violate the values we recognize and apply. Conscience also provides a sense of pleasure when we reflect on conformity to our value system.

There is no Hebrew term in the Old Testament that is a linguistic equivalent for the classical Greek term suneidesis [suneivdhsi"]. The Hebrew term for "heart, " however, is a prominent term of self-awareness in the Old Testament. The lack of a developed concept of conscience in the Old Testament, as we see later in Paul, may be due to the worldview of the Hebrew person. Consciousness of life was of a relationship between God and a covenant community rather than an autonomous self-awareness between a person and his or her world. The only usage of suneidesis [suneivdhsi"] in the canonical section of the Septuagint is in Ecclesiastes 10:20, "Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, " where it is clearly used as self-reflection in secret (cf. the only verbal variations in Job 27:6 ; and Lev 5:1 ). Rabbinic Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls are consistent with the Old Testament in their lack of a vocabulary of conscience.

There are thirty occurrences of suneidesis [suneivdhsi"] in the New Testament (one more possible usage in a variant on John 8:9 ). The verb form (suneidon [suneivdw], sunoida) occurs only four times. The thirty occurrences are almost exclusively Pauline (22, with an additional 5 in Hebrews and 3 in 1 Peter), and eleven of them are in the Corinthian correspondence. The classical use of this word-group for simple knowledge occurs in ac 5:2, 12:12, and 14:6. The Pauline development of conscience as a monitor of actions and attitudes is particularly noted in the Pastoral Epistles, where adjectives like "good" ( 1 Timothy 1:5 1 Timothy 1:19 ; cf. Acts 23:1 ) and "clear" ( 1 Tim 3:9 ; 2 Tim 1:3 ; cf. Acts 24:16 ) are used to depict the conscience as affirming right action. This action, however, is not determined by conscience but by other criteria to which conscience bears witness. Paul's reference to the conscience being "seared" and "corrupted" ( 1 Tim 4:2 ; Titus 1:15 ) indicates that the function of conscience as a capacity for sound inward critique has been thwarted by resistance to God's revealed values. The writer of Hebrews views conscience as bearing a witness of being "clear" or "guilty" ( 9:9 9:14 ; 10:2 10:22 ; 13:18 ). First Peter reflects both the classical use of "awareness" ( 2:19 ) and the Pauline "clear" ( 3:16 ) and "good" ( 3:21 ) pattern.

Why is there such a significant usage of this term by Paul when it seems almost nonexistent in the Old Testament? The idea has been proposed that Paul's usage of suneidemsis was prompted by his debate with the Corinthian church. The usages in the Corinthians correspondence are the first chronological occurrences of the term in the New Testament. They also present a unique critique of the role of conscience in relation to a knowledge base.

A thematic survey of the occurrences of suneidesis [suneivdhsi"] in the New Testament yield at least three major ideas. First, conscience is a God-given capacity for human beings to exercise self-critique. First Corinthians 4:4 and Romans 2:14-15 illustrate this capacity. In 1 Corinthians 4:4 Paul reflects upon his ministry and motives and "knows nothing against himself" (sunoida; translated "My conscience is clear" by the NIV), but affirms that he is still subject to critique by God. Here Paul illustrates that conscience is not an end in itself, but is subject to critique. Romans 2:14-15 is used in its context as an illustration that the Gentiles are in one sense superior to the Jews. The Gentiles' "self-critique mechanism" (i.e., conscience) is more consistent in reference to their own law (i.e., values) than the Jews' is to theirs (i.e., the real law). The Jews resisted the law's role as convictor while the Gentiles' convictor (conscience) worked. The illustration serves to shame the Jews in their position of greater privilege. The point of Romans 2:14-15 is merely illustrative of how the two parties function. The Gentiles are demonstrating a more consistent "moral" consciousness, "the work of the law" (its function, not its content is in view), in regard to their values than the privileged Jew is in regard to the value of God's law.

Second, conscience is consistently imaged as a "witness" to something (cf. Rom 2:15 ; 9:1 ; 2 Cor 1:12 ; 4:2 ; 5:11 ; along with the implications of adjectives such as a "good, " "clear" conscience ). Conscience is not an independent authority that originates judgments. The idea of conscience as a judge or legislator in the sense of originating an opinion is a modern innovation. A witness does not create evidence but is bound to respond to evidence that exists. The conscience does not dictate the content of right or wrong; it merely witnesses to what the value system in a person has determined is right or wrong. In this regard, conscience is not a guide but needs to be guided by a thoroughly and critically developed value system.

Third, conscience is a servant of the value system. An analysis of 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 exposes this principle. In the context of 1 Corinthians, a weak conscience is one without an adequate knowledge base in regard to idols and meat (i.e., a wrong value system), and therefore suffers feelings of guilt. The strong have a proper knowledge and are therefore free of guilt (cf. how "knowledge" is used almost as a substitute for conscience in the Rom. 14 discussion). The issue is not resolved on the basis of conscience but on the basis of worldview. Conscience merely monitors the worldview that exists in our internal conversation. Paul's comments about "ask no questions on account of conscience" in 1 Corinthians 10 has often been used to mean "what you don't know won't hurt you." Paul would hardly promote such an idea! Rather, Paul's use of the fixed phrase "on account of conscience" actually means "ask no questions because it really isn't a matter of conscience and therefore is not open for debate."

Paul does protect the function of conscience in weak believers of 1 Corinthians, but not because they are correct or because their views should be forever tolerated. If the strong were to force the weak to conform against their values (albeit wrong), they would thereby destroy a process of conviction God created so society could police itself. The solution is to address the foundational values. As the value set is informed and changed, conscience will follow. Herein is a needful principle for the Christian community. While a person's judgment may be wrong in light of a biblically enlightened worldview, he or she must be given correct information and the opportunity to pursue maturity without oppressive external manipulation. This is the way of love (cf. 1 Cor 8:1-3 ). On the other hand, the classic question, "How long do you put up with the weak?" is easily answered by contextual implication. You work with their weakness until they have had the opportunity to learn the correct way and it becomes a new conviction for them. If they refuse to learn and mature, then they have shifted from the category of weak to belligerent and thereby come under new rules of engagement.

Conclusion. Conscience is an aspect of self-awareness that produces the pain and/or pleasure we "feel" as we reflect on the norms and values we recognize and apply. Conscience is not an outside voice. It is a inward capacity humans possess to critique themselves because the Creator provided this process as a means of moral restraint for his creation. The critique conscience exercises related to the value system which a person develops. Romans 12:1-2 makes the point that God desires that his creation conform to divine values by a process of rational renewal. The Scriptures provide the content for this renewal.

Gary T. Meadors

Bibliography. P. W. Gooch, NTS33 (1987); R. Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms; C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words; C. A. Pierce, Conscience in the New Testament; M. E. Thrall, NTS14 (1964).

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Conscience'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.

Conscience [N] [T] [B]

that faculty of the mind, or inborn sense of right and wrong, by which we judge of the moral character of human conduct. It is common to all men. Like all our other faculties, it has been perverted by the Fall ( John 16:2 ; Acts 26:9 ; Romans 2:15 ). It is spoken of as "defiled" ( Titus 1:15 ), and "seared" ( 1 Timothy 4:2 ). A "conscience void of offence" is to be sought and cultivated ( Acts 24:16 ; Romans 9:1 ; 2 co 1:12 ; 1 Timothy 1:5 1 Timothy 1:19 ; 1 Peter 3:21 ).

These dictionary topics are from
M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition,
published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. Public Domain, copy freely.

[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[B] indicates this entry was also found in Baker's Evangelical Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Easton, Matthew George. "Entry for Conscience". "Easton's Bible Dictionary". .


kon'-shens (he suneidesis):


1. Judicial

2. Punitive

3. Predictive

4. Social





1. Earlier Views

2. Reformation and After

$ I. Sequent Conscience.$

The aspect of conscience earliest noticed in literature and most frequently referred to at all times is what is called the Sequent Conscience--that is to say, it follows action.

1. Judicial:

This is judicial. No sooner is a decision formed than there ensues a judgment favorable or adverse, a sentence of guilty or not guilty. Conscience has often been compared to a court of law, in which there are culprit, judge, witnesses and jury; but these are all in the subject's own breast, and are in fact himself.

2. Punitive:

It is punitive. In the individual's own breast are not only the figures of justice already mentioned, but the executioner as well; for, on the back of a sentence of condemnation or acquittal, there immediately follows the pain of a wounded or the satisfaction of an approving conscience; and of all human miseries or blisses this is the most poignant. Especially has the remorse of an evil conscience impressed the human imagination, in such instances as Cain and Judas, Saul and Herod; and the poets, those knowers of human nature, have found their most moving themes in the delineation of this aspect of human experience. The ancient poets represented the terrors of conscience under the guise of the Erinyes or Furies, who, with swift, silent, unswerving footstep, tracked the criminal and pulled him down, while Shakespeare, in such dramas as Macbeth and Richard the Third, has burned the same lessons into the imagination of all readers of his works. The satisfaction of a good conscience may stamp itself on the habitual serenity of one face, and the accusations of an evil conscience may impart a hunted and sinister expression to another (compare The Wisdom of Solomon 17:11).

3. Predictive:

It is predictive. There is no instinct in the soul of man more august than the anticipation of something after death--of a tribunal at which the whole of life will be revised and retribution awarded with perfect justice according to the deeds done in the body. It is this which imparts to death its solemnity; we instinctively know that we are going to our account. And such great natural instincts cannot be false.

4. Social:

It is social. Not only does a man's own conscience pass sentence on his conduct, but the consciences of others pass sentence on it too; and to this may be due a great intensification of the consequent sensations. Thus, a crime may lie hidden in the memory, and the pain of its guilt may be assuaged by the action of time, when suddenly and unexpectedly it is found out and exposed to the knowledge of all; and, only when the force of the public conscience breaks forth on the culprit, driving him from society, does he feel his guilt in all its magnitude. The "Day of Judgment" (which see), as it is represented in Scripture, is an application of this principle on a vast scale; for there the character and conduct of everyone will be submitted to the conscience of all. On the other hand, a friend may be to a man a second conscience, by which his own conscience is kept alive and alert; and this approval from without may, in some cases, be, even more than the judgment within, an encouragement to everything that is good or a protection against temptation.

$ II. Antecedent Conscience.$

From the Sequent is distinguished the Antecedent Conscience, which designates a function of this faculty preceding moral decision or action. When the will stands at the parting of the ways, seeing clearly before it the right course and the wrong, conscience commands to strike into the one and forbids to choose the other. This is its imperative; and--to employ the language of Kant--it is a categorical imperative. What conscience commands may be apparently against our interests, and it may be completely contrary to our inclinations; it may be opposed to the advice of friends or to the solicitations of companions; it may contradict the decrees of principalities and powers or the voices of the multitude; yet conscience in no way withdraws or modifies its claim. We may fail to obey, giving way to passion or being overborne by the allurements of temptation; but we know that we ought to obey; it is our duty; and this is a sublime and sacred word. The great crises of life arise when conscience is issuing one command and self-interest or passion or authority another, and the question has to be decided which of the two is to be obeyed. The interpreters of human life have known how to make use of such moments, and many of the most memorable scenes in literature are of this nature; but the actual history of mankind has also been dignified with numerous instances in which confessors and martyrs, standing on the same ground, have faced death rather than contravene the dictates of the authority within; and there never passes an hour in which the eye of the All-seeing does not behold someone on earth putting aside the bribes or self- interest or the menaces of authority and paying tribute to conscience by doing the right and taking the consequences.

$ III. Intuitional and Associational Theories.$

Up to this point there is little difficulty or difference of opinion; but now we come to a point at which very differing views emerge. It was remarked above, that when anyone stands at the parting of the ways, seeing clearly the right course and the wrong, conscience imperatively commands him which to choose and which to avoid; but how does anyone know which of the two alternatives is the right and which the wrong? Does conscience still suffice here, or is he dependent on another faculty? Here the Intuitional and the Associational, or--speaking broadly--the Scotch and the English, the German and the French schools of ethics diverge, those on the one side holding that conscience has still essential guidance to give, while those on the other maintain that the guidance must now be undertaken by other faculties. The Sensational or Experimental school holds that we are dependent on the authority of society or on our own estimate of the consequences of actions, while the opposite school teaches that in the conscience there is a clear revelation of certain moral laws, approving certain principles of action and disapproving others. The strong point of the former view is the diversity which has existed among human beings in different ages and in different latitudes as to what is right and what is wrong. What was virtuous in Athens might be sinful in Jerusalem; what is admired as heroism in Japan may be despised as fool-hardiness in Britain. To this it may be replied, first, that the diversity has been greatly exaggerated; the unanimity of the human conscience under all skies being greater than is allowed by philosophers of this school. "Let any plain, honest man," says Butler, "before he engages in any course of action, ask himself, Is this I am going about right, or is it wrong? Is it good, or is it evil? and I do not in the least doubt but that this question will be answered agreeably to truth and virtue by almost any fair man in almost any circumstances." Then, there are many moral judgments supposed to be immediate verdicts of conscience which are really logical inferences from the utterances of this faculty and are liable to all the fallacies by which reasoning in any department of human affairs is beset. It is only for the major premise, not for the conclusion, that conscience is responsible. The strong point of the Intuitional school, on the other hand, is the power and right of the individual to break away from the habits of society, and, in defiance of the commands of authority or the voices of the multitude, to follow a course of his own. When he does so, is it a logical conclusion as to the consequences of action he is obeying, or a higher intuition? When, for example, Christianity announced the sinfulness of fornication in opposition to the laxity of Greece and Rome, was it an argument about consequences with which she operated successfully, or an instinct of purity which she divined at the back of the actions and opinions of heathendom? The lettering of the moral law may have to be picked out and cleansed from the accumulations of time, but the inscription is there all the same.

$ IV. The Education of Conscience.$

It may be, however, that a more exact analysis of the antecedent conscience is requisite. Between the categorical imperative, which commands to choose the right path and avoid the wrong, and the indicative, which declares that this is the right way and that the wrong, there ought perhaps to be assumed a certainty that one of the alternative ways is right and must be pursued at all hazards, while the other is wrong and must be abandoned at whatever cost. This perception, that moral distinctions exist, separate from each other as heaven and hell, is the peculiarity of conscience; but it does not exclude the necessity for taking time to ascertain, in every instance, which of the alternatives has the one character and which the other, or for employing a great variety of knowledge to make this sure. Those who would limit conscience to the faculty which utters the major premises of moral reasoning are wont to hold that it can never err and does not admit of being educated; but such a use of the term is too remote from common usage, and there must be room left for the conscience to enlighten itself by making acquaintance with such objective standards as the character of God, the example of Christ, and the teaching of Scripture, as well as with the maxims of the wise and the experience of the good.

Another question of great interest about the conscience is, whether it involves an intuition of God. When it is suffering the pain of remorse, who is it that inflicts the punishment? Is it only the conscience itself? Or is man, in such experiences aware of the existence of a Being outside of and above himself? When the will is about to act, it receives the command to choose the right and refuse the wrong; but who issues this command? Is it only itself, or does the imperative come with a sanction and solemnity betokening a higher origin? Conscience is an intuition of moral law--the reading, so to speak, of a luminous writing, which hangs out there, on the bosom of Nature--but who penned that writing? It used to be thought that the word Conscience implied, in its very structure, a reference to God, meaning literally, "knowledge along with another," the other being God. Though this derivation be uncertain, many think that it exactly expresses the truth. There are few people with an ethical experience of any depth who have not sometimes been overwhelmingly conscious of the approval or disapproval of an unseen Being; and, if there be any trustworthy argument for the existence of a Deity, prior to supernatural revelation, this is where it is to be found.

$ V. History and Literature.$

Only a few indications of history can be given here.

1. Earlier Views:

The conscience, at least the sequent conscience, was identified in the ancient world, and the rise of a doctrine on the subject belongs to the period when the human mind, being shut out from public activity through political changes, was thrown back upon itself and began to watch closely its own symptoms. The word has a specially prominent place in the philosophical writings of Cicero. Strange to say, it does not occur in the Old Testament; but, though not the name, the thing appears there frequently enough. On the very first page of revelation, the voice of God is heard calling among the trees of the garden (Genesis 3:8); and, in the very next incident, the blood of Abel cries out to heaven from the ground (Genesis 4:10). In the New Testament the word occurs with tolerable frequency, especially in the speeches (Acts 24:16, etc.) and writings of Paul (Romans 2:15; 9:1; 13:5; 1 Corinthians 6:7-12, etc.); and this might have been expected to secure for it a prominent place in the doctrine of the church. But this did not immediately take effect, although Chrysostom already speaks of Conscience and Nature as two books in which the human mind can read of God, previous to supernatural revelation. In the Middle Ages the conscience received from two sources so much stimulation that both thing and name were certain to come into greater prominence in the speculations of the schools. The one of these influences was the rise of Monasticism, which, driving human beings into solitude, made the movements of their own minds the objects of everlasting study to themselves; and the other was the practice of auricular confession, which became, especially to many of the inmates of the houses of religion, the most interesting business of life; because, in order to meet the confessor, they scanned every thought and weighed every scruple, becoming adepts at introspection and self-discipline. Thus it came to pass that ethics took the form of Cases of Conscience, the priest having to train himself, or to be trained by professors and through books, to be able to answer every query submitted to him in the confessional. The ripest fruit of this method appears in the Summa of Aquinas, who discusses elaborately the doctrine of conscience, dividing it into two parts--synderesis (from sunteresis) and conscientia--the one of which supplies the major premises and cannot err, while the other draws the inferences therefrom and is liable to make mistakes. The Mystics identified the synderesis as the point in the spirit of man at which it can be brought into contact and connection with the Spirit of God.

2. Reformation and After:

At the Reformation the conscience was much in the mouths of men, both because the terrors of conscience formed a preparation for comprehending justification by faith and because, in appearing before principalities and powers in vindication of their action, the Reformers took their stand on conscience, as Luther did so memorably at the Diet of Worms; and the assertion of the rights of conscience has ever since been a conspicuous testimony of Protestantism; whereas Romanists, especially as represented by the Jesuits, have treated the conscience as a feeble and ignorant thing, requiring to be led by authority--that is, by themselves. The forms of medievalism long clung even to Protestant literature on this subject. It may not be surprising to find a High Churchman like Jeremy Taylor, in his Ductor Dubitantium, discussing ethics as a system of cases of conscience, but it is curious to find a Puritan like Baxter (in his Christian Directory), and a Scottish Presbyterian like David Dickson (in his Therapeutica Sacra) doing the same. Deism in England and the Enlightenment in Germany magnified the conscience, to which they ascribed such a power of revealing God as made any further revelation unnecessary; but the practical effect was a secularization and vulgarization of the general mind; and it was against these rather than the system which had produced them that Butler in England and Kant in Germany had to raise the standard of a spiritual view of life. The former said of the conscience that, if it had power as it had right, it would absolutely govern the world; and Kant's sublime saying is well known, at the close of his great work on Ethics:

"Two things fill the soul with ever new and growing wonder and reverence, the oftener and the longer reflection continues to occupy itself with them--the starry heavens above and the moral law within." The rise of an Associational and Developmental Philosophy in England, represented by such powerful thinkers as the Mills, father and son, Professor Bain and Herbert Spencer, tended to dissipate the halo surrounding the conscience, by representing it as merely an emotional equivalent for the authority of law and the claims of custom, so stamped on the mind by the experience of generations that, its earthly source forgotten, it came to be attributed to supernatural powers. But this school was antagonized with success by such thinkers as Martineau and T. H. Green. R. Rothe regarded conscience as a term too popular and of too variable signification to be of much use in philosophical speculation; but most of the great succession of writers on Christian ethics who followed him have treated it seriously; Dorner especially recognizing its importance, and Newman Smyth bestowing on it a thoroughly modern treatment. Among German works on the subject that of Gass, which contains an appendix on the history of the term synderesis, is deserving of special attention; that by Kahler is unfinished, as is also the work in English by Robertson; The Christian Conscience by Davison is slight and popular. Weighty discussions will be found in two books on Moral Philosophy--the Handbook of Calderwood, and the Ethics of Mezes. But there is abundance of room for a great monograph on the subject, which would treat conscience in a comprehensive manner as the subjective standard of conduct, formed by progressive familiarity with the objective standards as well as by practice in accordance with its own authority and with the will of God.

James Stalker

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'CONSCIENCE '". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.