Anthropology (theological) Ethics

What is a conscience, and what is the source of the moral standards to which it testifies?

Why does our concept of the conscience matter theologically?

The human conscience keenly interests me because of its role in various theological disciplines.

  • It comes into ethics and hamartiology (the doctrine of sin) because of the way our concept of the conscience informs our understanding of guilt.
  • It is significant soteriologically when we ponder what people must know in order to be saved, and what response to God’s revelation pleases God and results in his declaration that a person is righteous in Christ, which should gives us a clear conscience.
  • The conclusions we reach concerning which moral acts put us under God’s condemnation inform our concept of God’s final judgment and its grounds, so the subject arises once again in eschatology.
  • My own study of Scripture’s teaching regarding the conscience has led to my understanding of the important difference between objective and subjective guilt, and to my conclusions about culpable and inculpable ignorance with regard to saving faith.

 What is the conscience?

This post was triggered by the paper read by Andrew Naselli (of Bethlehem College and Seminary) at ETS in Baltimore, which he kindly shared with me digitally since I was not at those meetings. His paper was entitled: “Defining the Conscience (Suneid?sis): What It Means and Five Reasons It Matters.” Naselli posits that “the basic consensus in the literature is that the conscience is the inward faculty that distinguishes right and wrong” (13).  He concurs with that consensus, and he defines conscience as “your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong.”  This he qualifies in 6 ways. Conscience:

  • is inherent in the personhood of all humans, so that it was present in Adam and Eve before the fall
  • is internal
  • is independent, which is “why your conscience can plague you with guilt when you wish it would stop”
  • “produces different different results for people based on different moral standards”
  • “can change”
  • “functions as a monitor, witness, judge, and guide.”

What I appreciate about Naselli’s definition is that he understands conscience to be  the inner ability or “faculty” which continually causes all humans to make judgments about the moral quality of actions they have done or might do. It works both retrospectively and prospectively, positively and negatively. I note as particularly significant that he gives no indication that the conscience includes a moral standard, but it judges the moral quality of acts on the basis of the standard which an individual believes to be the true moral code.

J. M. Gundry-Volf posits  that conscience is an “inner tribunal which determines whether behavior (in the broad sense, including thinking, willing, speaking and acting) agrees with the norms and requirements affirmed by the mind and which testifies of this verdict of the subject” (“Conscience,” in Hawthorne, Martin, and Reid, eds.,   Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 153). I like that she speaks of the norms as affirmed by the mind, whereas the conscience makes a verdict based upon those norms, rather than collapsing a person’s conviction concerning the norms into the conscience.

In his footnotes regarding the differences between people’s moral judgments, Naselli quotes a couple of other people who clearly distinguish the ability by which we make moral judgments (i.e., conscience) from the knowledge of the moral standard by which the conscience makes those judgments.  Tom Schreiner writes: “The conscience is not the origin of moral norms but passes judgment on whether one has abided by those norms” (Romans, p. 123, emphasis supplied). And Walter Liefeld, similarly, says: “The conscience is an innate God-given ability to make moral judgments. It does not tell us what is right and wrong, but, on the basis of what we have been taught, it discerns whether or not a particular moral option accords with that knowledge” (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, p. 59, emphasis supplied).

How do we get the moral standard by which we make moral judgments?

As I read Naselli’s paper, I was looking for indications of what he understands to be the source of our knowledge of moral standards, according to which we make moral judgments. I did not hear him speak to this, so I do not know whether or not he and I would agree. My particular interest in this issue arises from the fact that my own conception of the conscience was dismissively criticized by an external reader of my manuscript for Who Can Be Saved?, who considered my position an unwarranted novelty. That criticism did not change my position but I naturally keep my eyes open for further correction or affirmation.

I wrote:

Romans 2:14-15 teaches us that although the Gentiles do not have the law of Moses (special revelation), they do “by nature” (NIV) or ‘instinctively” (NRSV) the things that are contained in the law because the work of the law is written on their hearts. Commonly, this text, along with Romans 1:32, is understood as indicating that humans have an innate knowledge of the law. I am inclined to concur with Mark Mathewson, however, that nothing in either of these texts “insists that the law is an innate part of the human makeup. Paul simply asserts that humans generally have some degree of knowledge that the actions and behaviors of which he speaks in 1:21-31 violate God’s moral standard and deserve punishment” [“Moral Intuitionism and the Law Inscribed on Our Hearts,” JETS 42 (December 1999): 631]. Mathewson proposes that “what is part of the human’s constitutional makeup is the cognitive ability to grasp or apprehend the law” (p. 630), that “humans are born with a natural ability of the mind to grasp immediately God’s moral demands in an a priori manner” (p. 633). (Who Can Be Saved?, 107-08).

With Mathewson, I think that, rather than positing innate moral knowledge, we should view the moral cognitive ability as parallel to the innate ability we have to gain knowledge of God from natural revelation, as described in Romans 1. Our knowledge of God as creator is not something innate in humans. Rather, we are “born with the capacities to apprehend immediately and directly and come to non-inferentially know it” (Matthewson, p. 633). Neither in the case of our moral knowledge, or of our knowledge of God resulting from his creative work, is our knowledge of that reality innate to us. But our ability to know things from God’s self-revelation in nature is part of our being created in the image of God, and it is negatively affected by the Fall, so our moral knowledge is not trustworthy and will vary from one person to another (1 Cor 8:7-12; 10:25-29). This is why there is no guarantee that we have intuited moral principles or judgments correctly (a point made by both Naselli [above] and by Mathewson [p. 641]).

It is important that we think of conscience in the way the Bible does, as our ability to make moral judgments, distinct from our knowledge of the moral standards according to  which the conscience makes those judgments, whether affirming or condemning what we have done, or attesting what we should do.  When we speak about the conscience, how human beings come to know what God requires of us is less important than our agreeing that we all have some knowledge of God’s moral demands and are obligated to live according to that knowledge, however wrong it may be, following the dictates of our consciences. This helps us to understand some of the similarity of moral teaching that we encounter between different cultures and the religions that predominate within them, but it also accounts for the differences that occur.

This will suffice for one post but, in a future post, I want to address the question of how authoritative our consciences should be and to talk about the role they play in God’s condemnation or approval of our actions. I will return to Naselli’s paper at that time.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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