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).
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[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 InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Conscience'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".