Some preliminary thoughts on conscience
The conscience is something that is little talked about these days. While it is a relatively frequent term in the New Testament, in particular in the Pauline literature, it is nevertheless hard to find books written about it or any significant discussion of it.
One significant exception occurred in the early 1960’s. In 1961 Harvard professor Krister Stendahl started off a firestorm by denying that there was “any evidence that Paul the Christian had suffered under the burden of conscience regarding personal shortcomings which he would label ‘sins’”. In his influential essay The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West, Stendahl argued that the apostle did not regard Christ’s redemption in any sense as the solution to the problem of a guilt-plagued conscience, saying that this was rather an theological importation that had been in the church since the time of Augustine’s Confessions.
Since that time, the literature on Paul has been voluminous (and much of it polemical and in response to thesis’ like Stendahls), but as far as I know there has been very little positive work done on the concept of the conscience in the Bible. However, the concept of the human conscience is clearly in the Scriptures. Historically it has also played a large place in the Reformed tradition (as Stendahl rightly asserts). While I have no developed thoughts about it at the moment, here is a brief (and incomplete) overview of the conscience in the New Testament, focusing only on where the word itself appears, although the thought itself is also present in many passages that lack the direct wording.
-Paul lived his life in good conscience and took pains to keep his conscience clear (Acts 23:1, 24:16, 2 Tim 1:3)
-We are to obey the governing authorities because of conscience (Rom 13:5)
-The Gentiles are condemned by their conscience (Rom 2:15)
-Wounding the conscience of a weaker brother by exercising our freedom in Christ is a sin (1 Cor 8:12)
-Paul’s clear conscience was his boast (2 Cor 1:12)
-Paul commended himself to the consciences of others (2 Cor 4:2)
-Paul aimed for his teaching to produce love flowing from a good conscience (1 Tim 1:5)
-Timothy was told to hold a good conscience (1 Tim 1:19)
-The conscience can be seared (1 Tim 4:2, Tit 1:15)
-Christ purifies and perfects our consciences (Heb 9:9, 14, 10:22)
-Believers are to have a good conscience (1 Pet 3:16)
And to testify to the Reformed tradition, here are two ways in which the conscience is viewed in the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
“God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable.” (PCA BCO I.II.I)
“All church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or by representation, is only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may make laws to bind the conscience.” (PCA BCO, Preface II.7)
I find this idea of the conscience particularly interesting firstly because it seems under-explored, and secondly because it is incredibly relevant. While the West may have misunderstood the conscience (which I think remains to be seen), nevertheless, as we understand ourselves, what Western person does not deal with their conscience on a daily basis? This daily pervasiveness of the conscience surely renders it as something which deserves more thought than it gets. Maybe psychologists think about this a lot more?
In any event, there is a somewhat wandering salvo of opening thoughts. As it seems to me, our understanding of the conscience has incredible relevance for our understanding and handling of:
-Evangelism and conviction of sin
-Assurance of salvation
-It’s relationship to general revelation
-Many other things which I can’t think of right now.
More on the conscience to come in the future.