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:; ; ; ; ; . 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,, 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:
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:
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: “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: “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:
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. 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: “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.
And the third passage is: “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)