Terminology Tuesday: Conscience
CONSCIENCE. The idea of a human conscience “has existed over since the final verdict of guilt was spoken within man himself, when the true Furies were recognized as the consciousness of guilt” (Dibelius and Conzelmann Pastoral Epistles Hermeneia, 19). According to Gooch (1987), the Church has developed three distinct concepts of conscience (Gk suneidēsis) as morality’s “inner voice”: there is (1) a minimal sense by which the term refers to one’s self-consciousness (derived from its earlier cognate for “consciousness,” suneidos) or private knowledge (from the reflexive for knowing one’s own knowledge, sunoida emautō); (2) a more robust notion where suneidēsis refers to “the pain of recognizing that one has done something wrong or bad” (Gooch 1987: 245; also Pierce 1955); and (3) the more recent and common use of suneidēsis as an autonomous agent; the repository of moral convictions, which legislates actions in accord with God’s will.
The first meaning of suneidēsis is also earliest and has its origins in popular Hellenistic usage (Maurer TDNT 7:898–907; Davies IDB 1: 671–74). Although not prominently used prior to the 1st century B.C.E. (e.g., suneidēsis does not appear in Aristotle’s Ethics), the term was used to describe in a general way a person’s moral self-awareness. The conscience was that part of the inner person which continued to judge human actions—usually wrong (a “bad” conscience; Xen. Ap. 24). Such a judgment derives from a rational nature and does not have its direct source in a deity (although one’s “nature” may be traced to God). Further, conscience bears witness in an immediate sense to a particular act rather than preparing for it to do right or wrong.
From the 1st century on, suneidēsis is used more frequently, especially by the Latin rhetoricians, and was taken up into the language of philosophical ethics, most notably by the Stoics (although see Davies IDB 1: 671–76). However, its meaning remained essentially the same: an inherent capacity which allows a person to act in accord to what he or she knows is right. Cicero and then Seneca did speak of a “good” conscience (conscientia) as directive toward the happy life—a point also made by Epicurus. While not a central notion in Stoicism, Epictetus speaks of conscience as that faculty which helps to override moral timidity and do what one knows is good (cf. suneidos, Diss. 3.22.94).
The term also appears in Hellenistic Judaism, especially with Philo, who uses suneidēsis/suneidos in common with the Greco-Roman world. However, Judaism’s usage carries a religious nuance and is informed by their Scriptures. Thus, the conscience bears witness to biblical truth and produces pain when Torah is not observed. Maurer further argues that Philo’s positive use of the notion is in line with the Wisdom tradition in that the truth to which the conscience bears witness directs, even converts, a person onto the path which leads to šalom (911–13).
Philo did, however, appropriate the language of conscience from its secular usage, since the OT (LXX) use of the sunoida family is quite sparse. That the OT does not have a word for conscience astonishes some but can readily be understood by the Bible’s general resistance to an introspective and autonomous anthropology (cf. Stendahl 1976): truth is revealed by God and the individual is encircled (and so limited) by a community covenanted with God and itself. The RSV does translate the Heb lēb, “heart,” as “conscience” in 1 Sam 25:31, even though the LXX translation is estai soi touto bdelugmos, “it (the abomination) will (not) be upon yourself.” (The most one can say is that estai soi here is perhaps idiomatic for moral self-consciousness.) Wolff (1974) contends that lēb “comes to take on the meaning of ‘conscience’ … [in that] what is being described is the reaction of the ethical judgment formed by the conscience” (51). According to OT anthropology, lēb is the center of human self-consciousness devoted to making decisions in accord with the word of God. In this sense, the essence of the OT idea of lēb is compatible with the general conception of suneidēsis in the Greco-Roman world; and it is this conception which provides the background for the NT idea of conscience to which we now turn.
The connection between the OT notion of lēb and the NT suneidēsis is nowhere clearer than in Rom 2:15. For Paul, conscience is a universal human capacity which condemns or recommends one’s fitness before God against an internalized Torah. As in Hellenistic Judaism, then, Paul ties conscience to the word of God (i.e., Torah) as self-conscious judge of and witness to the community’s observance of it.
As with most theological and ethical convictions he inherited from Judaism, Paul further qualifies conscience by linking it to his own apocalyptical gospel, which is focused here on God’s eschatological judgment at Christ’s Parousia. Thus, human conscience evokes a sense of imminent and inward (ta krypta tōn anthrōpōn, Rom 2:16) recognition, whether one stands under God’s wrath because of disobedience (which is presumed the case for those outside of Christ, Rom 1:18) or under God’s righteousness because of obedience which comes by faith (Rom 2:5–11; cf.1:5). With the exception of 1 Cor 8:1–11:1, other occurrences of suneidēsis in Pauline texts (Rom 13:5; 2 Cor 1:12; 4:2; 5:11) reflect this more typical and only modestly refined use of the idea which was current in the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds.
The most important and innovative text in its use of suneidēsis within the Pauline corpus is 1 Cor 8:1–11:1 (Jewett 1971: 421–32). In this passage, Paul seeks to settle a controversy surrounding the permissibility of eating food once offered to idols. His essential point is that under certain circumstances some believers should refrain from eating such food because of negative consequences to the spiritual nurture of other believers. The conscience’s pivotal function is twofold: on the one hand, it detects those who are “weak” because they lack and have need of Pauline gnōsis (8:7); while, on the other hand, it guides those who are “strong” because they have such gnōsis and who now must use it in ways which edify the whole community—to keep the “weak” from returning to idolatry.
The first two meanings of conscience given by Gooch (1987) are discernible in 1 Cor 8:7–13: the scrupulous conscience of the “weak” is pained by the apparently idolatrous acts of the “strong” (vv 7, 12) because it has been informed by previous experiences of idolatry and so bears witness to a non-Christian morality (v 10)). Conscience, then, marks the consistency of a particular act with a particular standard of morality; and when inconsistency to that standard is perceived, pain is produced. Yet the pain produced in the conscience of the “weak” is really the result of competing conceptions of gnōsis which have in turn produced competing consciences between those who live either in accord with Pauline gnōsis or with pagan gnōsis. Thus, the conscience of the “weak” is not itself weak or faulty; rather, it distorts the truth, turning an innocent act (according to Pauline teaching) into an evil one, because of a misguided standard of truth (or gnōsis contrary to Pauline teaching).
Paul has, however, already established his working moral principle in 1 Cor 8:1: conscience must bear witness to love of others rather than to self-knowledge since the yield of the latter is arrogance (and naturally division) and of the former is edification (and so unity; 8:6). The truth by which any particular act is apprehended by the suneidēsis is relational and communal rather than individual and judicial, and is as much a problem for the theologically “strong” as for the “weak”—which seems to be the point of the ironical 8:10 (Jewett 1971: 422–23). Here, then, Paul redefines the current notion of suneidēsis by regarding its role as supervising one’s relationship with others rather than to a particular gnōsis.
Thus, in 1 Cor 9:1–10:22 Paul turns to a discussion of those limits to personal freedom which make this new standard of truth clearer to his readers. Paul contends that even as he and other Christian missionaries adjust their behavior and assessment of personal rights to meet the redemptive needs of others, so also certain Corinthian believers must adjust their behavior, even giving up their rights to certain foods, to keep other believers from going back into idolatry. The new role of conscience is to regulate this sort of moral accommodation which purposes to edify other people—to know when and how long to abstain from those “lawful” acts which might, however, “cause a co-believer to stumble.”
Paul resumes his discussion of suneidēsis at 1 Cor 10:23 and adds yet another meaning to the notion. Especially the use of krinō with the individual’s suneidēsis in 10:29, following the succession of the formulaic dia tēn suneidēsin (10:25, 27, 28), suggests an element of autonomy which can help determine obedient acts ahead of time (however, see Gooch 1987: 251–52). The believer’s conscience, now armed by the principle of love and delimited by the demand to preserve the commitment of those prone to idolatry, makes “judgments” whether certain behaviors will bring glory to God (10:31) by saving the many (10:33) in agreement with the apostle’s gentile mission (11:1). The idea of conscience as an internal and autonomous moral agent, fully developed during the Church’s medieval period, has its biblical mooring here.
The early catholicizing tendency of the post-Pauline situation is reflected by the use of suneidēsis in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2; 2 Tim 1:3; Titus 1:15; cf. Acts 23:1; 24:16). The author’s concerns are more institutional and less apocalyptical than found in earlier Pauline writings. Thus, the special attributes of the conscience are those found in the “man of God” who is a “good citizen” and best able to rule over the Church of this world (1 Tim 1:19; 3:9; cf. Acts 23:1; 24:16; Dibelius and Conzelmann Pastoral Epistles Hermeneia, 20). Further, the “good” conscience is shaped by the Church’s traditions of the historical Paul (2 Tim 1:3), who is chief exemplar of Christian conduct and teacher of truth; only that conscience which bears witness to apostolic piety and teaching is able to distinguish adequately between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, orthopraxis and heteropraxis (1 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:15). As such, the “good” conscience of the Church’s leadership is an element of ecclesiastical hugiēs (esp. Titus 1:13–16), “soundness,” and is therefore an essential ingredient in maintaining loyalty to “the faith” and its codes and creeds not only in a pluralistic world but also within a Church where the authority of Paul is being challenged. In this context, then, the institutional function of conscience provides for doctrinal as well as moral discernment and stability for the whole Church rather than only for its individual leader.
The concept of conscience in the Pauline corpus is essentially concerned with human relations. This also seems true of 1 Pet 2:19 and 3:16, where suneidēsis, bound to God’s will, evaluates behavior toward outsiders. More than Paul, however, the author is concerned with the particular difficulties of living as the Church within an antagonistic (and not simply pluralistic) society; suffering is a real possibility if not already a reality. Conscience, then, is the consciousness of a certain moral particularity which belongs to a divinely elect community of “aliens and strangers” (1 Pet 1:1–2; 2:9–11) and whose common life resists certain sociopolitical standards of behavior; it is an awareness of one’s own deviance with the likely result of suffering. Christian baptism inaugurates a manner of life during which the “cleansed conscience” (3:21) seeks to maintain an undivided and difficult loyalty toward God in a world where Christian conduct only marginalizes the people of God. The hope, of course, is that his path of suffering will save the baptized soul (1:3–9; 2:21–25).
The author of Hebrews assumes the essential meaning of suneidēsis in the Hellenistic world: the conscience “is the internal faculty within man that causes him to be painfully aware of his sinfulness and, as a result, to experience a sense of guilt” (Selby 1986: 148). However, unlike Paul, who is primarily interested in human relations, the author of Hebrews depicts a guilty conscience as the “one real barrier to an individual’s approaching and living in fellowship with God. The guilty conscience is thus the impediment to real confidence and stability for the Christian” (ibid).
References to the conscience in Hebrews are gathered together in 9:9, 14 and 10:2, 22, and so at the focal point of the author’s exposition on the new covenant. What is “new” in the relationship between God and eschatological Israel is that the work of the priestly Christ has purified Israel’s conscience and has made it possible to “draw near” to God (10:22) with inner confidence (10:2; cf.4:16) and to worship God forever (9:11–14). The author’s prophetic interest in internal and spiritual transformation (against Judaism’s perceived interest in cultic ritual and legal rights) only intensifies the importance of a purified conscience. Judaism’s priestly theocracy does not provide a lasting means of ridding Israel’s guilt and making easy access to God. Because the priestly Christ offered himself up to God as a “perfect” sacrifice (Heb 7:11–8:13; 10:5–18), the conscience has been cleansed of these legalistic “works which lead to death” (9:1–10; 10:2); indeed, it is the conscience which has now been redeemed in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise of a new covenant (cf. 8:10).
Bibliography Gooch, P. W. 1987. “Conscience” in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. NTS 33: 244–54. Jewett, R. 1971. Paul’s Anthropological Terms. AGJU 10. Leiden. Pierce, C. A. 1955. Conscience in the New Testament. SBT 15. London. Selby, G. S. 1986. The Meaning and Function of Suneidēsis in Hebrews 9 and 10. RQ 28: 145–54. Stendahl, K. 1976. Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. Philadelphia. Wolff, H. W. 1974. Anthropology of the Old Testament. Philadelphia.
Wall, R. W. (1992). Conscience. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1, pp. 1128–1130). New York: Doubleday.