The Idea of Conscience in the Epistles of Paul*

*Paper delivered at the Conference of Protestant Reformed ministers in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The subject assigned to me is of an exegetical nature. However, the purpose is not the exegesis of certain passages of Scripture, particularly of the Pauline epistles, but rather the arrival at certain synthetic conclusions with respect to the idea of the conscience as defined in these passages. We approach the passages that apply to our subject with certain definite questions in mind. What is the conscience? Is it a distinct faculty of the soul? Or is it rather a certain aspect of our consciousness? ‘The distinction is usually made between sequent and antecedent conscience, the former passing judgment upon the action performed, the latter functioning before any moral action, and enjoining upon the will the right course of action in any given alternative. And the question arises: Is this distinction correct? Is the conscience according to Scripture, equivalent, in part at least, to Kant’s categorical imperative? Do all men, heathen and Christians, have a conscience? Is the conscience infallible, and can one speak of an obligation always to follow the voice of conscience? What is a good or pure conscience, and what is its opposite? And to this might be added, perhaps, whether in the Christian there are two consciences, or, at least, whether his conscience at the same time accuses and condemns him, and justifies and approves him in the sight of God? Although, therefore, our task is largely exegetical, the purpose of our exegesis must needs be from the outset to find an answer to these and similar questions.

My subject limits the exegetical task to the Pauline epistles. Even though. I am, personally by no means sure that the epistle to the Hebrews was written by the great Apostle, I have included in the discussion that follows the passages in that epistle that are related to my subject. We must consider then, the following passages: Rom. 2:15; 9:1; 13:5; I Cor. 8:7, 10, 12; 10:25-29; II Cor. 1:12; 4:2; 5:11; I Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2; II Tim. 1:3; Heb. 9:9, 14; 10:2, 22; 13:18. It would, perhaps, be possible, to arrange these passages from the outset according to a definite classification, such as those that speak of the conscience in the heathen and in the Christian, those that speak of a good and of an evil conscience, and those that refer to the conscience of the weak and of the strong. However, without much fear of repetition we may follow the order in which they occur in the epistles. And it is in this order that we intend to discuss them.

The very first text to be considered, Rom. 2:15, is of great importance for our subject. I translate the passage as follows: “Such as show that they have the work of the law written in their hearts, for with this their conscience bears witness, and by this their judgments or considerations (toon logismoon) accuse or excuse them among one another.” I would call attention to the following points of interest for our subject:

  1. As the general relative Hoitines, that introduces this verse, shows, the text is an explanation and further proof of the fact, stated in the preceding verse, namely, that the heathen which have not the law fusei ta tou nomou poioosin, by nature do the things of the law. I understand the genitive tou nomou as a subjective genitive. Ta tou nomou, therefore, are the things which the law, wherever it exists and functions as a code of precepts, does. The law performs especially three things: it presents to the will of man that which is good and evil, it commands the will to choose the good and to reject the evil, and it judges the moral acts of man, either approving and promising life, or condemning and threatening death. These functions are performed by the heathen fusei, i.e. without any external code of precepts, without a verbally revealed law, by nature: their own natural mind and existence in conjunction with “nature” without them, creation, providence, history, and social interrelations.
  2. By doing this, they show, according to vs. 15, that they have to ergon tou nomou grapton en tais kardiais autoon, they have the work of the law written in their hearts. This expression is, to an extent, epexegetical of ta tou nomou poioosin fusei. Also here I understand the genitive tou nomou as subjective genitive: the ergon tou nomou is the work which the law does. Only, the fact that they, the heathen, do by nature the things of the law, so that formally they act according to the law, distinguishing correctly between good and evil, formally giving preference to the good as an obligation, and judging themselves and others, is proof of the fact that they have this threefold groundwork of the law written in their hearts. The latter is the basis of the former, and is manifest (endeiknuntai) in the former. This ground work of the law, this basis of the threefold function of the law, is grapton in their hearts. The writing presupposes a Writer. And from the fact that the writing concerns the law, the work of the law, it follows that the Writer is none other than the lawgiver, that is God. God, therefore, writes the work of the law in the hearts of the Gentiles. The question arises: how does God accomplish this writing? And the answer to this question cannot be dubious in the general light of Scripture. This writing is God’s own testimony, His witness, concerning Himself, His will and law, in the hearts of the Gentiles. And the witness of God always takes place by the Spirit and through the Logos. There is no witness of God without the Logos. And there is no inscription of this testimony of God without the Spirit. Since, therefore, the reference in the text is to the heathen, the inscription of the work of the law in their hearts must be attributed to the general testimony of the Spirit through the Logos in creation, “the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” John 1:9. “Because that which may be known of God (or is known) is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” Rom. 1:19, 20. It is evident, then, that this grapton in the hearts of the heathen is not to be conceived as a sort of mystical code that is once for all inscribed into their inner soul and consciousness, as the written law was engraved into tables of stone, but rather as the result of a continuous testimony of God in them, by His Spirit and through the Logos.
  3. Now, this testimony of God in the hearts of the Gentiles is not itself their conscience, but is the basis, the conditio sine qua non of it. Without it heir would be no conscience in the Gentiles. The conscience itself is the awareness, the consciousness on the part of the Gentiles of this handwriting of God in their hearts, and their inevitable agreement with it, and consent to it. This is evident from the phrase in the genitive absolute that follows: sunmar-turousees autoon tees suneideeseoos: with which their conscience bears witness. This phrase, and especially in this connection, is significant as far as our subject is concerned, because it throws light upon the meaning of the term suneideesis, and, it seems to me, gives a rather definite answer to the question concerning the subject referred to by the preposition sun in this nomen compositum. The noun suneideesis is derived from the verb sunoida, the perfect of eidon, with the infinitive suneidenai. The meaning, therefore, is “to know together with,” To be witness in conjunction with.” The question, however, arises: to know together with whom? Does suneideesis denote eidenai sun tini, to know together with someone else, or eidenai sun heautoo, to know together with oneself? It is rather striking that in classic Greek the word seems to denote the latter: to know with oneself. This might be expected because of the consideration that the Gentiles did not acknowledge the work of the law in their hearts as the writing of God. They simply knew the work of the law fusei by their own nature, that is, of themselves. (Hence, according to their conception, the conscience was a knowledge which they had with themselves a witness in conjunction with their own hearts. Rut, and again this might be expected, in Scripture this is different. There suneideesis denotes not a knowledge with oneself, but a knowledge together with the judgment and witness of God. This is evident from Rom. 2:15, particularly from the genitive absolute phrase we are now discussing. For the conscience is here said to sunmarturein, to witness together with. And there can be no doubt that the sun in this compound refers back to the immediately preceding, that is, to the work of the law written in the hearts. It is plain, then, that it is the function of the suneideesis to know together, to witness together with that testimony of God written in the hearts of the Gentiles. It is, therefore, an awareness, a knowing and agreeing with the judgment of God concerning our moral actions,
  4. This presence of the work of the law written in their hearts is further manifest in the fact that in their judgments of one another they accuse or excuse one another. Thus we would explain the last phrase, another genitive absolute: kai metaksu alleeloon toon logismoon kateegorountoon ee kai apologoumenoon. According to this interpretation alleeloon refers to the Gentiles, not to logismoon, and the meaning is, not that their thoughts or considerations accuse or excuse one another, in which case metaksu is rendered by the rather meaningless “meanwhile”; but that the Gentiles judge one another, the one accusing or excusing the other. This interpretation is based upon the consideration that alleeloon is here used in distinction from the preceding autoon, and that metaksu is evidently used, not as an adverb, but as a preposition with the genitive alleeloon.

Time, of course, forbids us to give an equally elaborate explanation of all the other passages in which the word conscience occurs. Nor is this necessary. For we may consider Rom. 2:15 the most important passage for a discussion of our entire subject. In the light of the preceding discussion we may even now establish the following conclusions:

  1. That conscience is grounded in a constant divine judgment written in the hearts of men by the Spirit and through the Word concerning their moral actions. This judgment is, of course, true and infallible. It is, therefore, more than a mere “du sollst.”
  2. That conscience is the knowledge man has of the ethical character and value of his acts together with the judgment of God, that he cannot but agree with this divine judgment, and that, accordingly, he approves or condemns, not merely the act, but himself, as the subject of the act. Conscience, therefore, is much more than Kant’s categorical imperative.
  3. That conscience is, strictly speaking, not antecedent, but always sequent, a judgment upon the act accomplished. It may, of course, precede the actual, outward deed. Rut an act of man is not limited to its outward expression: it rises from the heart. And to the ethical acta of man, as arising from the heart, conscience is never antecedent.

Let us now, briefly, consider the other passages of the Pauline epistles that have bearing upon our subject, to discover whether they corroborate the conclusions reached thus far, as well as, whether they, perhaps, throw additional light upon the meaning of the concept conscience.

In the epistle to the Romans the word occurs twice more. First of all in the well-known text of Rom. 9:1: “I speak the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost.” We find here the same general truths we already discovered in Rom. 2:15. First of all, it is very evident that also here the conscience is presented as having its ground in a testimony of God, this time not the general witness of the creation-Logos, but of the Christ, wrought in the heart of the apostle Paul by the Spirit of Christ. This must be the meaning of “speaking the truth en Christoo,” that is, in the sphere of Christ. His speech is determined by the revelation of Jesus Christ. And this is also the meaning of the emphatic addition: “I lie not, sunmarturousees moi tees suneideeseoos mou en Pneumati Hagioo.” The sun in sunmarturousees again is used with a view to the Holy Ghost in Christ, for moi is indirect object. The Spirit, therefore, in the sphere of Whom Paul speaks, passes judgment that he does not lie. Secondly, also here it is evident that the conscience is distinct from this judgment of the Spirit of Christ, is based upon it, and consists of awareness of it, and agreement with it. And lastly, also from this passage it is plain that the conscience is sequent, not antecedent: it is a judgment of the ethical character of his declaration that he lives in constant and profound sorrow because of the state of his brethren according to the flesh.

The other passage where the word conscience occurs in the epistle to the Romans is 13:5: “Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.” Only in a general way can we discover the same meaning of the word here, i.e. as a knowledge and moral judgment together with the judgment of God. The magistrate Is a minister of God. Hence, he represents the divine judgment. For their conscience’ sake, i.e. to keep their conscience free and pure, believers must, therefore, be subject to the higher powers, For If they are not, the judgment of God will condemn them, and they will be conscious of this judgment, i.e., their conscience will become evil, impure, guilty.


Turning now to the first epistle to the Corinthians, we find that the term, conscience is repeatedly used in chapter eight, and again in chapter ten. These passages are of interest to us, because they speak of a weak conscience and, by implication, of a strong conscience. In 8:7 the apostle, having spoken of meat sacrificed to idols as being no different from other meat for the simple reason that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is but one God, continues: “Howbeit, there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour (suneideesei tou eidoolou heoos arti) eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.” We may note here:

  1. That a weak conscience is, evidently, a conscience that is not sufficiently enlightened by the gospel and liberated by the Word of truth. They that are in that condition have the conscience of an idol. The genitive eidoolou is a genitive objective with suneideesei. In their conscience they are aware of the idol, i.e. as a reality, as a real god, perhaps of a lower order than the Most High, In other words, although the Spirit of Christ certainly inscribes the judgment in their hearts through the gospel, that an idol is nothing, and that, therefore, it is no sin to eat meat sacrificed to idols, they do not clearly discern this judgment of God in Christ, because of lack of knowledge and the influence of their former heathenish instruction and life. To eat meat sacrificed to idols was, to them, to have fellowship with real false gods.
  2. That, if in that state and for other reasons than the fear of God, those that have such a conscience of an idol eat meat sacrificed to idols, it is sin to them, and they defile their conscience by so doing, even though the thing itself is an adiaphoron. This is evident from vs. 10 in connection with the last part of vs. 7: “For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him that is weak be emboldened to eat those things which, are offered to idols?” And in vs. 7: “and their conscience being weak is defiled.”

We learn here, that, although the judgment of God upon which the conscience is based is always true and infallible, the conscience may err, at least in regard to adiaphoro, through lack of knowledge. Through thorough instruction in the truth of the gospel the conscience, the Christian conscience may be and must be strengthened. In the meantime the strong must not become a stumbling block to those that have a weak conscience, but must rather have respect thereunto. This is emphasized once more in I Cor. 10:25-29. The man with a strong conscience may eat whatsoever is sold in the shambles, asking no question for conscience’ sake, for the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Bidden to a feast, a believer with a strong conscience eats whatever is set before him, asking no questions for conscience’ sake. For the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. But if there should be present a man with a weak conscience, and that man should call his attention to the fact that the meat that is set before him was sacrificed to idols, he should refrain from eating for the sake of the other’s conscience.

In the second epistle to the Corinthians we find three passages that speak of the conscience. The first is in ch. 1:12. Here the apostle speaks of his boasting or rejoicing (kaucheesis), consisting in the testimony of his conscience (to marturion tees suneideeseoos heemoon) that in holiness and sincerity of God (en hagioteeti kai eilikrinia tou Theou) he walked in the world, and more abundantly so toward them, the Corinthians. There is no direct indication here as to the ground of this testimony of his conscience. Indirectly however, we may find it in the expression: in holiness and sincerity of God. The genitive tou Theou is a genitive of source. The holiness and sincerity of which he speaks, and in the sphere of which he walks, is from God. The testimony, therefore, that he walked in that sphere, is principally also from him. And his conscience witnesses together with the testimony of the Spirit of God. Thus his boasting and rejoicing in this testimony of his conscience is not in self, or in the flesh, but in God alone.

The second passage is II Cor. 4:2: “But we have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” The last phrase reads in the original: sunistanonentes pros pasan suneideesin anthroopoon enoopion tou Theou. We learn here: 1. That every man has a conscience, and that, moreover, every conscience is bound to respond to the manifestation of the truth. This is implied in the statement of the apostle that by the pure and unadulterated proclamation of the truth he commends himself to every conscience of men. 2. That every conscience of man must give positive testimony to the truth as truth. This is implied in the idea of commendation. Whether men receive the gospel or reject it, they are conscience bound to acknowledge the truth of it when it is proclaimed to them in its purity.

  1. The reason is that the Spirit always witnesses that the Spirit is truth. Here, too, therefore, the testimony of men’s consciences witnesses with the testimony of the Spirit through the gospel concerning the truth.

And the third passage is II Cor. 5:11: “Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord (ton phobov tou Kuriou), we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.” The apostle always seeks to be well-pleasing to the Lord, and labors in the consciousness of the impending judgment in which all must be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ. Hence, the fear of the Lord motivates him in all his labors. Of this fact he persuades men. That this is true is manifest to God, and he trusts that it may also be manifest in the consciences of the Corinthians, and that, too, in spite of and in opposition, to the slander of his enemies. This confidence on the part of the apostle can only be based on the knowledge that the Spirit of God in Christ dwells and witnesses in the Church of Corinth. And as his godly and upright walk is manifest to God, he knows that the same divine testimony will operate in the believers of Corinth, and find response in their consciences.

(to be continued)