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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]


1. The word and its history .-Both the Lat. conscientia , from which ‘conscience’ is derived, and the Gr. συνείδησις, of which it is the invariable rendering in the NT, have originally the more general meaning of ‘consciousness’-the knowledge of any mental state. Down to the 17th cent., as the Authorized Versionitself bears witness, ‘conscience’ too was sometimes used in this wider sense. In  1 Corinthians 8:7 ‘conscience of the idol,’ and in  Hebrews 10:2 ‘conscience of sins,’ would now be better rendered ‘consciousness.’ Some exegetes would prefer ‘consciousness’ to ‘conscience’ in  1 Peter 2:19 ‘conscience toward ( or of) God.’ With these exceptions, ‘conscience’ in the NT denotes not consciousness generally, but the moral faculty in particular-that power by which we apprehend moral truth and recognize it as having the authority of moral law. The history of the words ‘conscience,’ conscientia , συνείδησις, shows that it is entirely fanciful to suppose on etymological grounds that the prefixes con and συν point to the subject’s joint knowledge along with God Himself. The joint knowledge denoted is knowledge with oneself, a self-knowledge or self-consciousness in which the inner ‘I’ comes forward as a witness. This does not, of course, exclude the further view that, as man is made in the image of God, and as his individual personality is rooted in that of the absolute moral Ruler, the testimony of conscience actually is the voice of God bearing witness in the soul to the reality and authority of moral truth.

It is a significant fact that the word ‘conscience’ is nowhere found in the OT text, though in  Ecclesiastes 10:20 both Authorized Versionand Revised Versiongive it in the margin as an alternative for ‘thought,’ to represent the Heb. מַרָּע, which Septuaginthere renders by συνείδησις. In ancient Israel it was an external law, not an inward lawgiver, that held the seat of authority; and though the prophets addressed their appeals to the moral sense of their hearers (cf.  Micah 6:8), they furnished no doctrine of conscience. Nor does the word occur either in the Synoptics or the Fourth Gospel; for the clause of  John 8:9 where it is found does not belong to the correct text (see Revised Version). Jesus in His teaching constantly addresses Himself to the conscience, and clearly refers to it when He speaks of ‘the light that is in thee’ ( Matthew 6:23,  Luke 11:35), but His mission was to illumine and quicken the moral faculty by the revelation He brought, not to analyze it, or define it, or lay down a doctrine on the subject. In the Acts and Epistles, however, the effects of the revelation in Christ become apparent. We have the word ‘conscience’ 31 times in Authorized Versionand 30 times in Revised Version-the latter reading συνηθείᾳ for συνειδήσει in  1 Corinthians 8:7. Heb. has it 5 times and 1 Pet. thrice; with these exceptions it is a Pauline word. There are anticipations of the NT use of it in the Apocrypha ( Wisdom of Solomon 17:11,  Sirach 14:2,  2 Maccabees 6:11), and suggestions for St. Paul’s treatment of it in contemporary Greek teaching, and especially in the moral philosophy of the Stoics. But it was Christian faith that raised it out of the region of ethical abstraction and set it on a throne of living power.

2. The NT doctrine

(1) The nature of conscience .-According to its etymology, conscience is a strictly cognitive power-the power of apprehending moral truth; and writers of the intuitional school frequently restrict the use of the term to this one meaning (cf. Calderwood, Handbook of Moral Philosophy , p. 78). Popularly, however, conscience has a much wider connotation, including moral judgments and moral feelings as well as immediate intuitions of right and wrong; and it is evident that in the NT the word is employed in this larger sense so as to include the whole of the moral nature. When conscience is said to ‘bear witness’ ( Romans 2:15;  Romans 9:1) or to give ‘testimony’ ( 2 Corinthians 1:12), it is the clear and direct shining of the inner light that is referred to. When it is described as ‘weak’ or over-scrupulous ( 1 Corinthians 8:7;  1 Corinthians 8:10;  1 Corinthians 8:12), and is contrasted by implication with a conscience that is strong and walks at liberty, the reference is to those diversities of opinion on moral subjects which are due to variations of judgment in the application of mutually acknowledged first principles. When it is spoken of on the one hand as ‘good’ ( 1 Timothy 1:5;  1 Timothy 1:19,  Hebrews 13:18,  1 Peter 3:16;  1 Peter 3:21) or ‘void of offence toward God and men’ ( Acts 24:16), and on the other as ‘defiled’ ( 1 Corinthians 8:7), ‘wounded’ ( 1 Corinthians 8:12), ‘evil’ ( Hebrews 10:22), ‘seared ( or branded) with a hot iron’ ( 1 Timothy 4:2), the writers are thinking of those pleasant or painful moral feelings which follow upon obedience or disobedience to moral law, or of that deadness to all feeling which falls upon those who have persistently shut their ears to the inward voice and turned the light that is in them into darkness.

The fundamental passage for the Pauline doctrine is  Romans 2:14-15. The Apostle here seems to lay down as unquestionable, ( a ) that there is a Divine law written by Nature on the heart of every man, whether Jew or Gentile; ( b ) that conscience is the moral faculty which bears witness to that law; ( c ) that in the light of that witness there is an exercise of the thoughts or reasonings (λογισμοί), in other words, of the moral judgment; ( d ) that, as the result of this judgment before the inward bar, men are subject to the feelings of moral self-approval or self-reproach. Covering in this passage the whole ground of the moral nature of man, St. Paul appears to distinguish conscience as the witness-bearing faculty from the moral judgments and moral feelings that accompany its testimony. But elsewhere, as has been already shown, he frequently speaks of conscience in that larger sense which makes it correspond not only with the immediate apprehension of moral truth, but with the judgments based upon the truth thus revealed, and the sentiments of satisfaction or dissatisfaction to which these judgments give rise.

(2) The authority of conscience .-However men differ in their theories as to the nature and origin of the moral faculty, there is general agreement as to the authority of the moral law which it enjoins. Few will be found to challenge Butler’s famous assertion of the supremacy of conscience: ‘Had it strength as it has right, had it power as it has manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world’ ( Serm. ii.). And while adherents of the sensational school of ethics may dispute Kant’s right to describe the imperative of morality as ‘categorical’ in its nature ( Metaphysic of Ethics , p. 31), even they will not seek to qualify his apostrophe to duty (p. 120) or the exalted language in which he describes the solemn majesty of the Moral Law (p. 108). For the NT authors conscience is supreme, and it is supreme because in its very nature it is an organ through which God speaks to reveal His will. In the case of the natural man it testifies to a Divine law which is written on the heart ( Romans 2:15); in the case of the Christian man this law of Nature is reinforced by a vital union with Jesus Christ ( Galatians 2:20) and by the assenting witness of the Holy Spirit ( Romans 9:1). The claim of right which Butler makes on behalf of conscience is transformed for St. Paul into a law of power. The pure and loyal Christian conscience has might as it has right; it not only legislates but governs. What the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, is actually fulfilled in those who take Christ to be the companion of their conscience and who walk not after the flesh but after the spirit.

In Acts we have many examples of the way in which conscience, in Butler’s words, ‘magisterially exerts itself’ in the case alike of bad men and of good. The suicide of Judas ( Acts 1:18; cf.  Matthew 27:3 ff.), the heart-pricks of the men of Jerusalem under St. Peter’s preaching ( Acts 2:37), the claim of St. Peter and St. John that they must obey God rather than men ( Acts 4:19;  Acts 5:29), Saul’s experience that it was hard to kick against the pricks ( Acts 9:5), Felix trembling as St. Paul reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come ( Acts 24:25)-all these are examples of the authority of conscience. And what in Acts we see practically exemplified is laid down in the Epistles as a matter of rule and doctrine. St. Paul enjoins submission to the civil authority ( Romans 13:1 ff.), but vindicates its right to govern on the ground of the higher authority of conscience ( Romans 13:5). The writer of Heb. represents the sin-convicting conscience as a sovereign power which impelled men to lay their gifts and sacrifices on the altar, but was never satisfied until Jesus Christ ‘through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish unto God’ ( Hebrews 9:9;  Hebrews 9:14;  Hebrews 10:2;  Hebrews 10:22). St. Peter teaches that, in a matter of conscience before God, men must be willing to ‘endure griefs, suffering wrongfully’ ( 1 Peter 2:19). Nor is it only the personal conscience whose dignity and supremacy must be acknowledged; a like reverence is to be shown for the conscience of others. St. Paul sought to commend himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God ( 2 Corinthians 4:2; cf.  2 Corinthians 5:11). He taught that the exercise of Christian liberty must be Limited by regard for another’s conscience ( 1 Corinthians 10:29), and that even when that conscience is weak, it must not be wounded or bewildered or defiled ( 1 Corinthians 8:7;  1 Corinthians 8:10;  1 Corinthians 8:12) lest the other’s sense of moral responsibility should thereby be impaired.

The source of this, magisterial authority of conscience is represented by the NT writers as lying altogether in the Divine will, of which conscience is the instrument. For St. Paul conscience is not an individualized reflexion of social opinion, nor a subtle compound of feelings evolved in the course of the long struggle for existence, nor yet a mysterious faculty that claims to regulate the life of man by virtue of some right inherent in its own nature. Its authority is that of a judge, who sits on the bench as the representative of a law that is higher than himself. Its function is to bear witness to the law of God ( Romans 2:15;  Romans 9:1,  2 Corinthians 1:12); its commendation is a commendation in His sight ( 2 Corinthians 4:2); its accusation is an anticipation of the day when He shall judge the secrets of men ( Romans 2:15-16). Similarly for St. Peter a matter of conscience is a question of ‘conscience toward God’ ( 1 Peter 2:19). Some commentators would render συνείδησις θεοῦ in this verse by ‘consciousness of God’; and the very ambiguity of the expression may suggest that in the Apostle’s view conscience is really a God-consciousness in the sphere of morality, as faith is a God-consciousness in the sphere of religion.

(3) Varieties of conscience .-What has just been said as to the absolute and universal authority of conscience may seem difficult to reconcile with the distinctions made by the NT writers between consciences of very varied types. There are consciences that are weak and timid, and others that are strong and free ( 1 Corinthians 8:7 ff.). A conscience may be ‘void of offence’ ( Acts 24:16), or it may be defiled and wounded ( 1 Corinthians 8:7;  1 Corinthians 8:12,  Titus 1:15). It may be good ( 1 Timothy 1:5;  1 Timothy 1:19,  Hebrews 13:18,  1 Peter 3:16;  1 Peter 3:21), or it may be evil ( Hebrews 10:22). It may be pure ( 1 Timothy 3:9,  2 Timothy 1:3), or in need of cleansing ( Hebrews 9:14). It may possess that clear moral sense which discerns intuitively both good and evil ( Hebrews 5:14), or it may be ‘seared with a hot iron’ ( 1 Timothy 4:2) and condemned to that judicial blindness to which nothing is pure ( Titus 1:15). The explanation of the difficulties raised by such language lies in the fact already noted that ‘conscience’ in the NT is used to denote not the power of moral vision only, but the moral judgment and the moral feelings. As the organ which discerns the Moral Law, conscience has the authority of that law itself; its voice is the voice of God. It leaves us in no doubt as to the reality of moral distinctions; it assures as that right is right and wrong is wrong, and that ‘to him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin’ ( James 4:17). But for the application to particular cases of the general law of duty thus revealed, men must depend upon their moral judgments; and moral judgments are liable to error just as other judgments are. It was a want of ‘knowledge’ that led some in the Corinthian Church to shrink from eating meat that had been offered to an idol ( 1 Corinthians 8:7), and a consequent mistake of judgment when they came to the conclusion that such eating was wrong. Their consciences were weak because their moral judgments were weak. And as the result of their weakness in the decision of moral questions, their moral feelings were misdirected, and so their consciences were stained and wounded by acts in which a man of more enlightened conscience saw no harm. Similarly, when a conscience is said to be ‘good’ or ‘pure’ or ‘void of offence,’ the reference is to the sense of peace and moral harmony with God and man which comes to one who has loyally obeyed the dictates of the Moral Law; while an uncleansed or evil conscience is one on which there rests the burden and pain of sin that is unatoned for and unforgiven. A ‘seared’ or ‘branded’ conscience, again, may point to the case of those in whom abuse of the moral nature has led to a perversion of the moral judgment and a deadening of the moral sentiments. Compare what St. Paul says of those whose understanding is darkened, whose hearts are hardened, and who are now ‘past feeling’ ( Ephesians 4:18).

(4) The education of conscience .-Some intuitionalists have held that conscience, being an infallible oracle, is incapable of education; and Kant’s famous utterance, ‘An erring conscience is a chimera’ ( op. cit. p. 206), has often been quoted in this connexion. But it is only in a theoretical and ideal sense that the truth of the saying can be admitted-only when the word of conscience is taken to be nothing less and nothing more than the voice of God, and its light to be in very reality His ‘revealing and appealing look’ (J. Martineau, Seat of Authority in Religion 3, London, 1891, p. 71). In the NT, however, as in general usage, ‘conscience’ is not restricted to the intuitive discernment of the difference between right and wrong, but is applied to the whole moral nature of man; and when understood in this way there can be no question that it shares in the general weakness of human nature, and that it is both capable of education and constantly in need of an educative discipline. The distinction made by the NT writers between a good and an evil conscience implies the need of education; their moral precepts imply its possibility. St. Paul says that be ‘exercised himself’ to have a conscience void of offence toward God and men ( Acts 24:16); the author of Heb. speaks of those who ‘by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil’ ( Hebrews 5:14).

In various aspects the necessity for this exercise or training of the moral faculty comes before us. Even as a power of intuition or vision by which the Moral Law is discerned, conscience is capable of improvement. Ignorance darkens it ( Ephesians 4:18), sin defiles it ( Titus 1:15); and only an eye that is purged and enlightened can see clearly. ‘My conscience is nott so,’ said Queen Mary to Knox. ‘Conscience, Madam,’ he replied, ‘requyres knowledge; and I fear that rycht knowledge ye have none’ (Knox, Works , ed. Laing, Edinburgh, 1864, ii. 283). But conscience is also a faculty of moral judgment, and in moral matters, as in other matters, human judgments go astray. The ‘weak’ conscience is the natural accompaniment of the weak and narrow mind ( 1 Corinthians 8:7); a selfish and impure heart usually compounds with its conscience for the sins to which it is inclined, and a conscience that accepts hush-money is apt to grow dumb until contact with another conscience stronger and purer than itself makes it vocal once more ( Acts 24:25). Moral sentiments, again, gather around a false judgment as readily as around a true. Christ’s apostles were killed by men who thought that they were thereby doing God service ( John 16:2), and St. Paul himself once believed it to be his duty ‘to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth’ ( Acts 26:9). In such cases persecution to the death carried no self-reproach with it, but a sense of moral complacency.

Granting, then, that conscience needs to be educated, how, according to the NT, is the work to be done? Three ways are especially suggested-the ways of knowledge, obedience, and love; in other words, the way of the mind, the way of the will, and the way of the heart. ( a ) Knox said to Queen Mary that conscience requires knowledge  ; and that is what St. Paul also taught ( 1 Corinthians 8:7). Before the man of God can be ‘furnished completely unto every good work’ he has need of ‘instruction in righteousness’ ( 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Education of this kind can be obtained from many masters, but the best teachers of all are Scriptures Inspired of God ( ib. ). St. Paul’s own Epistles are full of instruction as regards both the broad principles of Christian ethics and their application under varying circumstances to all the details of personal, family, and social life. And in the teaching of Christ Himself, above all in that Sermon on the Mount whose echoes are heard so frequently in the Epistle of James, enlightenment comes to the human conscience through the revelation of the fundamental laws of the Divine Kingdom.

( b ) Conscience is educated, in the next place, by obedience to the Divine law when that law is recognized. It is the use of knowledge already possessed that exercises the senses to keener moral discernment ( Hebrews 5:14); it is the man who is willing to do God’s will who comes to know the Divine voice whenever he hears it ( John 7:17). The ethics of the NT are not the ingenious elaboration of a beautiful but abstract moral scheme; they are practical through and through. Christians are called upon to acknowledge not the right of conscience only, but its might; they are commanded everywhere to bring their dispositions, desires, passions, and habits into captivity to its obedience. To follow Christ is to have the light of life ( John 8:12); while to hate one’s brother is to walk in darkness with blinded eyes, and so to lose the knowledge of the way ( 1 John 2:11; cf.  John 12:35). Obedience, in short, is the organ of spiritual knowledge (cf. F. W. Robertson, Sermons , 2nd ser., new ed., London, 1875, no. viii.). A good conscience goes with a pure heart ( 1 Timothy 1:5). But sin so perverts and blinds the inward eye that the very light that is in us is darkness ( Matthew 6:23).

( c ) But something more is required before the education of conscience is complete. Knowledge is much, and the will to obedience is more, but what if the power of love be wanting? In that case the conscience will not be void of offence toward God and men. According to the NT writers the conscience must be set free by being delivered from the sense of guilt through the atoning power of Christ’s sacrifice ( Hebrews 9:14;  Hebrews 10:22); it must learn its close dependence upon the mystery of faith ( 1 Timothy 3:9; cf.  1 Timothy 1:19); it must be taught that love out of a pure heart and a good conscience and faith unfeigned are ‘the end of the charge’ and the fulfilling of the law ( 1 Timothy 1:5). To be perfectly educated, in short, a conscience must experience the constraining and transforming power of the love of Christ, in whom men are new creatures, so that old things are passed away and all things are become new ( 2 Corinthians 5:14;  2 Corinthians 5:17). Thus, in the view of the NT writers, ethics passes into religion, and the Christian conscience is the conscience of one who lives the life of faith and love, and who can say with St. Paul, ‘I live, and yet no longer I, but Christ liveth in me’ ( Galatians 2:20).

Literature.-J. Butler, Analogy and Sermons , London, 1852, Sermons. ii. iii.; I. Kant, Metaphysic of Ethics , Eng. translation, 1869, p. 245ff.; T. H. Green, prolegomena to Ethics , Oxford, 1883, p. 342ff.; H. Calderwood, Handbook of Moral Philosophy , London, 1872, pt. i.; H, Martensen, Christian Ethics , Edinburgh, 1881-82, i. 356ff.; Newman Smyth, Christian Ethics , do. 1892, index s.v.  ; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , article‘Conscience’; Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche 3, article‘Gewissen’; B. Weiss, NT Theol. , Eng. translation, Edinburgh. 1882-83, i. 476, ii. 40, 211.

J. C. Lambert.

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible [2]

CONSCIENCE . The term occurs 30 times in the NT; it signifies joint knowledge . The two things known together may be two motives, two deeds, etc.; or the comparison instituted may be between a standard and a volition, etc. Self or others may be judged, and approval (  Acts 23:1;   Acts 24:16 ,   Romans 9:1 ,   2 Corinthians 1:12 ,   1 Timothy 1:5;   1 Timothy 1:19;   1 Timothy 3:9 ,   2 Timothy 1:3 , Heb 13:18 ,   1 Peter 3:16;   1 Peter 3:21 ) or disapproval (  John 8:9 ,   Hebrews 9:9;   Hebrews 10:2;   Hebrews 10:22 ) may be the issue. The conviction that a certain course of conduct is right is accompanied by a sense of obligation, whether that course receives (  Romans 13:5 ) or fails to secure (  1 Peter 2:19 ,   Acts 4:19-20 ) legal confirmation. The belief on which the consciousness of duty depends is not necessarily wise ( 1Co 8:7;   1 Corinthians 8:10;   1 Corinthians 8:12 ,   Acts 26:9 ), though the holders of the belief should receive careful consideration on the part of more enlightened men (  Romans 15:1 ,   1 Corinthians 8:1-13;   1 Corinthians 10:25;   1 Corinthians 10:29 ). Unfaithfulness to moral claims leads to fearful deterioration, resulting in confusion (  Matthew 6:22-23 ) and insensitiveness (  1 Timothy 4:2 ,   Titus 1:15 ).

1. Sphere . The sphere of conscience is volition in all its manifestations. That which merely happens and offers to us no alternative movement lies outside morality. Let there be a possibility of choice, and conscience appears. Appetites, so far as they can be controlled; incentives of action admitting preference; purposes and desires, all deeds and Institutions that embody and give effect to human choice; all relationships that allow variations in our attitude give scope for ethical investigation, and in them conscience is directly or indirectly implicated. Conscience makes a valuation. It is concerned with right, wrong; worthiness, unworthiness; good, bad; better, worse. This appraisement is ultimately occupied with the incentives that present themselves to the will, in regard to some of which (envy and malice, for instance) there is an Immediate verdict of badness, and in regard to others a verdict of better or worse. The dispositions that are commended by the Saviour’s conduct and teachings purity of heart, meekness, mercifulness, desire for righteousness, etc. are recognized as worthy of honour. The conscience censures the selfishness of the Unjust Judge (  Luke 18:6 ), and assents to the injunction of considerateness and justice (  Philippians 2:4 ). The rightness of many general statements is discerned intnitively, and is carried over to the deeds that agree therewith. Sidgwick considers that the statement ‘I ought not to prefer my own lesser good to the greater good of another’ is axiomatic, and that some such intnitively discerned principle is a necessary foundation of morals. We do not question the baseness of some pleasures; their curse is graven on their foreheads. Both mediately and immediately we arrive at ethical convictions. The appearance in one’s life of a person of distinguished excellence will cause many virtues to shine in our estimation. The mind surveying a course of conduct can judge it as bad or good on the whole. A precept to seek to raise the whole tone of one’s life (  Matthew 5:48 ,   Colossians 4:12 ) is felt to be reasonable, and as the capacity for improvement is greater in man than in any other creature, better motives, deeds, habits, aims, characters may righteously be demanded.

2. Obligation . ‘In the recognition of any conduct as right there is involved an authoritative prescription to do it.’ This feeling of oughtness which is the core of conscience can be exhibited but not analyzed. It is an ultimate. It is unique. It is an evidence within the soul that we are under government. There is a ‘categorical imperative’ to aim at that which we have admitted to be right. From the duty discerned there issues a command which cannot be silenced so long as the duty is present to the mind. Likings or dislikings, hopes or fears, popularity or unpopularity no matter what may be advanced, the dictatorial mandate is unaltered:

‘’Tis man’s perdition to be safe,

When for the truth he ought to die.’

When Jesus Christ asserts His supremacy and demands deference to Himself at all costs, He does so as the incarnation of the moral law. To be His friend is to be under His orders ( John 15:14 ), and one is bound to follow Him without regard to any claims that can be urged by self or kindred (  Matthew 10:37-38 ,   Luke 14:33 ). Let it be ascertained that this is the way and the command is at once heard, ‘Walk ye in it.’ The peremptory claim made by conscience is eminently reasonable, because it rests upon what we have admitted to be right. It is a provision in our nature that links or that would link if we were loyal belief and practice, and would cause us to be builders as well as architects. ‘Had it strength as it has right; had it power as it has manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world’ (Butler, Serm . ii.).

3. The ethical feeling . The perception of oughtness has its own emotional tone. There is, of course, a sense of relief when the mind has arrived at a decision; but is there not an additional element? Is there not an inclination at least a faint one in favour of the behest? And in men habitually conscientious, is not the inclination immediate and strong? All men are clearly aware that they are wrong in case of refusal to obey. Man is a born judge of himself, and the verdict that results from self-examination brings peace or uneasiness. Herod is ill at ease by reason of self-judgment (  Mark 6:20 ), and so is Felix (  Acts 24:25 ). Peter sees himself as one who has broken the law, and the light hurts him (  Luke 5:8 ). All the best men have had some experience like that of Isaiah (  Isaiah 6:5 ) and that of Job (  Job 42:6 ), for with them the moral susceptibility has been great. All the emotional accompaniments of penitence and remorse, as well as the glow incident to the hearing of noble deeds all anticipations of the Lord’s ‘Well done!’ are instances of moral feeling. These pleasures and pains are a class by themselves. They are as distinct from those of sensation and intellect as colours are distinct from sound. That pleasures are qualitatively different was rightly maintained by J. S. Mill, though his general theory was not helped by the opinion. In consciousness we know that sorrow for sin is not of the same order as any physical distress, nor is it to be ranked with the feeling of disappointment when we are baffled in a scientific inquiry. The difference between the moral and the unmoral emotions is one of kind and not of quantity, of worth and not of amount: some pleasures low in the scale of value are very intense, while the moral satisfactions may have small intensity and yet are preferred by good men to any physical or intellectual delights. It should be noticed that the pleasure attendant upon a choice of conduct known to be right may be not unmixed; for the feelings, clinging for a while to that which has been discarded, interfere with the satisfaction due to the change that has been made. Converts are haunted by renounced beliefs, and their peace is disturbed; beside the main current of emotion there is a stream which comes from past associations and habits.

4. Education of conscience . (1) No training can impart the idea of right: it is constitutional. (2) Malevolent feelings (as vindictiveness, the desire to give pain gratuitously) are known by all to be wrong; immediately they are perceived at work, they are unconditionally condemned. (3) The inward look makes no mistake as to our meaning, gets no wavering reply to such questions as, ‘Do you desire to have full light? to know all the facts? to be impartial? to act as a good man should act in this particular?’ For this accurate self-knowledge provision is made in our nature. (4) Some general moral principles are accepted as soon as the terms are understood. (5) When two competing incentives are to be judged, we know, and cannot be taught, which is the higher. (6) The imperative lodged in a moral conviction is intuitively discerned. ‘I do not know how to impart the notion of moral obligation to any one who is entirely devoid of it’ (Sidgwick). (7) The feeling of dishonour comes to us without tuition when we have refused compliance with known duty. Belonging to a moral order, we are made to react in certain definite ways to truths, social relations, etc. The touch of experience is enough to quicken into action certain moral states, just as the feelings of cold and heat are ours because of the physical environment, and because we are what we are. We can evoke while we cannot create the elementary moral qualities. ‘An erring conscience is a chimera’ (Kant). ‘Conscience intuitively recognizes moral law; it is supreme in its authority; it cannot be educated’ (Calderwood). These sentences are not intended to deny that in the application of principles there is difficulty. One may readily admit the axioms of geometry, and yet find much perplexity when asked to establish a geometrical theorem the truth of which directly or indirectly flows from the axioms. The Apostle Paul prayed that his friends might improve in moral discrimination (  Philippians 1:10 ,   Colossians 1:9 ). We have to learn what to do, and often the problems set by our domestic, civic, and church relationships are hard even for the best and wisest to solve. The scheme of things to which we belong has not been constructed with a view to saving us the trouble of patient, strenuous, and sometimes very painful investigation and thought.

5. Implications . Of the many implications the following are specially noteworthy. The feeling of responsibility suggests the question, to Whom? Being under government, we feel after the Ruler if haply we may find Him. Jesus tells us of the ‘Righteous Father.’ The solemn voice of command is His. The preferences which we know to be right are His. The pain felt when righteous demands are resisted, and the joy accompanying obedience, are they not His frown and smile? Neither our higher self nor society can be the source of an authority so august as that of which we are conscious. To the best minds we look for guidance; but there are limits to their rights over us, and how ready they are to refer us to Him before whom they bow! We are made to be subjects of the Holy One. Admitting that we are in contact with Divine Authority, and that His behests are heard within, the encouraging persuasion is justified that He sympathizes with the soul in its battles and renders aid (  Philippians 2:12-13 ). The inference that it is God with whom we have to do makes it fitting for us to say that conscience is man’s capacity to receive progressively a revelation of the righteousness of God. But is law the last word? May there not be mercy and an atonement? Cannot the accusing voices be hushed? May the man who admits the sentence of conscience be pardoned? Conscience is a John the Baptist preparing the way for the Saviour, who has a reply to the question ‘What must I do to be saved?’

W. J. Henderson.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology [3]

Conscience is a term that describes an aspect of a human being's self-awareness. It is part of a person's internal rational capacity and is not, as popular lore sometimes suggests, an audience room for the voice of God or of the devil. Conscience is a critical inner awareness that bears witness to the norms and values we recognize and apply. The complex of values with which conscience deals includes not only those we own, but the entire range of values to which we are exposed during life's journey. Consequently, there is always a sense of struggle in our reflective process. The witness of conscience makes its presence known by inducing mental anguish and feelings of guilt when we violate the values we recognize and apply. Conscience also provides a sense of pleasure when we reflect on conformity to our value system.

There is no Hebrew term in the Old Testament that is a linguistic equivalent for the classical Greek term suneidesis [   Job 27:6; and  Leviticus 5:1 ). Rabbinic Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls are consistent with the Old Testament in their lack of a vocabulary of conscience.

There are thirty occurrences of suneidesis [   John 8:9 ). The verb form ( suneidon [   1 Timothy 1:5,19; cf.  Acts 23:1 ) and "clear" ( 1 Timothy 3:9;  2 Timothy 1:3; cf.  Acts 24:16 ) are used to depict the conscience as affirming right action. This action, however, is not determined by conscience but by other criteria to which conscience bears witness. Paul's reference to the conscience being "seared" and "corrupted" ( 1 Timothy 4:2;  Titus 1:15 ) indicates that the function of conscience as a capacity for sound inward critique has been thwarted by resistance to God's revealed values. The writer of Hebrews views conscience as bearing a witness of being "clear" or "guilty" (9:9,14; 10:2,22; 13:18). First Peter reflects both the classical use of "awareness" (2:19) and the Pauline "clear" (3:16) and "good" (3:21) pattern.

Why is there such a significant usage of this term by Paul when it seems almost nonexistent in the Old Testament? The idea has been proposed that Paul's usage of suneidemsis was prompted by his debate with the Corinthian church. The usages in the Corinthians correspondence are the first chronological occurrences of the term in the New Testament. They also present a unique critique of the role of conscience in relation to a knowledge base.

A thematic survey of the occurrences of suneidesis [Συνείδησις] in the New Testament yield at least three major ideas. First, conscience is a God-given capacity for human beings to exercise self-critique. First Corinthians 4:4 and  Romans 2:14-15 illustrate this capacity. In   1 Corinthians 4:4 Paul reflects upon his ministry and motives and "knows nothing against himself" ( sunoida  ; translated "My conscience is clear" by the NIV), but affirms that he is still subject to critique by God. Here Paul illustrates that conscience is not an end in itself, but is subject to critique.  Romans 2:14-15 is used in its context as an illustration that the Gentiles are in one sense superior to the Jews. The Gentiles' "self-critique mechanism" (i.e., conscience) is more consistent in reference to their own law (i.e., values) than the Jews' is to theirs (i.e., the real law). The Jews resisted the law's role as convictor while the Gentiles' convictor (conscience) worked. The illustration serves to shame the Jews in their position of greater privilege. The point of   Romans 2:14-15 is merely illustrative of how the two parties function. The Gentiles are demonstrating a more consistent "moral" consciousness, "the work of the law" (its function, not its content is in view), in regard to their values than the privileged Jew is in regard to the value of God's law.

Second, conscience is consistently imaged as a "witness" to something (cf.  Romans 2:15;  9:1;  2 Corinthians 1:12;  4:2;  5:11; along with the implications of adjectives such as a "good, " "clear" conscience ). Conscience is not an independent authority that originates judgments. The idea of conscience as a judge or legislator in the sense of originating an opinion is a modern innovation. A witness does not create evidence but is bound to respond to evidence that exists. The conscience does not dictate the content of right or wrong; it merely witnesses to what the value system in a person has determined is right or wrong. In this regard, conscience is not a guide but needs to be guided by a thoroughly and critically developed value system.

Third, conscience is a servant of the value system. An analysis of  1 Corinthians 8,10 exposes this principle. In the context of 1Corinthians, a weak conscience is one without an adequate knowledge base in regard to idols and meat (i.e., a wrong value system), and therefore suffers feelings of guilt. The strong have a proper knowledge and are therefore free of guilt (cf. how "knowledge" is used almost as a substitute for conscience in the   Romans 14 discussion). The issue is not resolved on the basis of conscience but on the basis of worldview. Conscience merely monitors the worldview that exists in our internal conversation. Paul's comments about "ask no questions on account of conscience" in   1 Corinthians 10 has often been used to mean "what you don't know won't hurt you." Paul would hardly promote such an idea! Rather, Paul's use of the fixed phrase "on account of conscience" actually means "ask no questions because it really isn't a matter of conscience and therefore is not open for debate."

Paul does protect the function of conscience in weak believers of 1Corinthians, but not because they are correct or because their views should be forever tolerated. If the strong were to force the weak to conform against their values (albeit wrong), they would thereby destroy a process of conviction God created so society could police itself. The solution is to address the foundational values. As the value set is informed and changed, conscience will follow. Herein is a needful principle for the Christian community. While a person's judgment may be wrong in light of a biblically enlightened worldview, he or she must be given correct information and the opportunity to pursue maturity without oppressive external manipulation. This is the way of love (cf.  1 Corinthians 8:1-3 ). On the other hand, the classic question, "How long do you put up with the weak?" is easily answered by contextual implication. You work with their weakness until they have had the opportunity to learn the correct way and it becomes a new conviction for them. If they refuse to learn and mature, then they have shifted from the category of weak to belligerent and thereby come under new rules of engagement.

Conclusion . Conscience is an aspect of self-awareness that produces the pain and/or pleasure we "feel" as we reflect on the norms and values we recognize and apply. Conscience is not an outside voice. It is a inward capacity humans possess to critique themselves because the Creator provided this process as a means of moral restraint for his creation. The critique conscience exercises related to the value system which a person develops.  Romans 12:1-2 makes the point that God desires that his creation conform to divine values by a process of rational renewal. The Scriptures provide the content for this renewal.

Gary T. Meadors

Bibliography . P. W. Gooch, NTS 33 (1987); R. Jewett, Paul's Anthropological Terms  ; C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words  ; C. A. Pierce, Conscience in the New Testament  ; M. E. Thrall, NTS 14 (1964).

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [4]

is that principle, power, or faculty within us, which decides on the merit or demerit of our own actions, feelings, or affections, with reference to the rule of God's law. It has been called the moral sense by Lord Shaftsbury and Dr. Hutcheson. This appellation has been objected to by some, but has been adopted and defended by Dr. Reid, who says, "The testimony of our moral faculty, like that of the external senses, is the testimony of nature, and we have the same reason to rely upon it." He therefore considers conscience as an original faculty of our nature, which decides clearly, authoritatively, and instantaneously, on every object that falls within its province. "As we rely," says he, "upon the clear and distinct testimony of our eyes, concerning the colours and figures of the bodies about us, we have the same reason to rely, with security, upon the clear and unbiassed testimony of our conscience, with regard to what we ought and ought not to do." But Dr. Reid is surely unfortunate in illustrating the power of conscience by the analogy of the external senses. With regard to the intimations received through the organs of sense, there can be no difference of opinion, and there can be no room for argument. They give us at once correct information, which reasoning can neither invalidate nor confirm. But it is surely impossible to say as much for the power of conscience, which sometimes gives the most opposite intimations with regard to the simplest moral facts, and which requires to be corrected by an accurate attention to the established order of nature, or to the known will of God, before we can rely with confidence on its decisions. It does not appear, that conscience can with propriety be considered as a principle distinct from that which enables us to pronounce on the general merit or demerit of moral actions. This principle, or faculty, is attended with peculiar feelings, when we ourselves are the agents; we are then too deeply interested to view the matter as a mere subject of reasoning; and pleasure or pain are excited, with a degree of intensity proportioned to the importance which we always assign to our own interests and feelings. In the case of others, our approbation or disapprobation is generally qualified, sometimes suspended, by our ignorance of the motives by which they have been influenced; but, in our own case, the motives and the actions are both before us, and when they do not correspond, we feel the same disgust with ourselves that we should feel toward another, whose motives we knew to be vicious, while his actions are specious and plausible. But in our own case, the uneasy feeling is heightened in a tenfold degree, because self- contempt and disgust are brought into competition with the warmest self- love, and the strongest desire of self-approbation. We have then something of the feelings of a parent, who knows the worthlessness of the child he loves, and contemplates with horror the shame and infamy which might arise from exposure to the world.

2. Conscience, then, cannot be considered as any thing else than the general principle of moral approbation or disapprobation applied to our own feelings or conduct, acting with increased energy from the knowledge which we have of our motives and actions, and from the deep interest which we take in whatever concerns ourselves; nor can we think that they have deserved well of morals or philosophy, who have attempted to deduce our notions of right and wrong from any one principle. Various powers both of the understanding and of the will are concerned in every moral conclusion; and conscience derives its chief and most salutary influence from the consideration of our being continually in the presence of God, and accountable to him for all our thoughts, words, and actions. A conscience well informed, and possessed of sensibility, is the best security for virtue, and the most awful avenger of wicked deeds; an ill-informed conscience is the most powerful instrument of mischief; a squeamish and ticklish conscience generally renders those who are under its influence ridiculous.

Hic murus aheneus esto,

Nil conscire sibi, nulla pallescere culpa.

(Let a consciousness of innocence, and a fearlessness of any accusation, be thy brazen bulwark.)

3. The rule of conscience is the will of God, so far as it is made known to us, either by the light of nature, or by that of revelation. With respect to the knowledge of this rule, conscience is said to be rightly informed, or mistaken; firm, or wavering, or scrupulous, &c. With respect to the conformity of our actions to this rule when known, conscience is said to be good or evil. In a moral view, it is of the greatest importance that the understanding be well informed, in order to render the judgment or verdict of conscience a safe directory of conduct, and a proper source of satisfaction. Otherwise, the judgment of conscience may be pleaded, and it has actually been pleaded, as an apology for very unwarrantable conduct. Many atrocious acts of persecution have been perpetrated, and afterward justified, under the sanction of an erroneous conscience. It is also of no small importance, that the sensibility of conscience be duly maintained and cherished; for want of which men have often been betrayed into criminal conduct without self-reproach, and have deluded themselves with false notions of their character and state.

See Moral Obligation .

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [5]

Signifies knowledge in conjunction; that is, in conjunction with the fact to which it is a witness, as the eye is to the action done before it; or, as South observes, it is a double or joint knowledge, namely, one of a divine law or rule, and the other of a man's own action. It may be defined to be the judgment which a man passes on the morality of his actions as to their purity or turpitude; or the secret testimony of the soul, whereby it approves things that are good, and condemns those that are evil. Some object to its being called an act, habit, or faculty. An act, say they, would be represented as an agent, whereas conscience is a testimony. To say it is a habit, is to speak of it as a disposition acting, which is scarce more accurate than ascribing one act to another; and, besides, it would be strange language to say that conscience itself is a habit. Against defining it by the name of a power or faculty, it is objected, that it occasions a false notion of it, as a distinct power from reason. The rules of conscience. We must distinguish between a rule that of itself and immediately binds the conscience, and a rule that is occasionally of use to direct and satisfy the conscience.

Now in the first sense the will of God is the only rule immediately binding the conscience. No one has authority over the conscience but God. All penal laws, therefore, in matters of mere conscience, or things that do not evidently affect the civil state, are certainly unlawful; yet, secondly, the commands of superiors, not only natural parents, but civil, as magistrates or masters, and every man's private engagements, are rules of conscience in things indifferent.

3. The examples of wise and good men may become rules of conscience: but here it must be observed, that no example or judgment is of any authority against law: where the law is doubtful, and even where there is no doubt, the side of example cannot be taken till enquiry has been first made concerning what the law directs.

Conscience has been considered, as,

1. Natural, or that common principle which instructs men of all countries and religions in the duties to which they are all alike obliged. There seems to be something of this in the minds of all men. Even in the darkest regions of the earth, and among the rudest tribes of men, a distinction has ever been made between just and unjust, a duty, and a crime.

2. A right conscience is that which decides aright, or, according to the only rule of rectitude, the law of God. This is also called a well-informed conscience, which in all its decisions proceeds upon the most evident principles of truth.

3. A probable conscience is that which, in cases which admit of the brightest and fullest light, contents itself with bare probabilities. The consciences of many are of no higher character; and though we must not say a man cannot be saved with such a conscience, yet such a conscience is not so perfect as it might be.

4. An ignorant conscience is that which may declare right, but, as it were, by chance, and without any just ground to build on.

5. An erroneous conscience is a conscience mistaken in its decisions about the nature of actions.

6. A doubting conscience is a conscience unresolved about the nature of actions; on account of the equal or nearly equal probabilities which appear for and against each side of the question.

7. Of an evil conscience there are several kinds. Conscience, in regard to actions in general, is evil when it has lost more or less the sense it ought to have of the natural distinctions of moral good and evil: this is a polluted or defiled conscience. Conscience is evil in itself when it gives either none or a false testimony as to past actions; when reflecting upon wickedness it feels no pains, it is evil, and said to be seared or hardened,  1 Timothy 4:2 . It is also evil when during the commission of sin it lies quiet.

In regard to future actions, conscience is evil if it does not startle at the proposal of sin, or connives at the commission of it. For the right management of conscience, we should,

1. Endeavour to obtain acquaintance with the law of God, and with our own tempers and lives, and frequently compare them together.

2. Furnish conscience with general principles of the most extensive nature and strongest influence; such as the supreme love of God; love to our neighbours as ourselves; and that the care of our souls is of the greatest importance.

3. Preserve the purity of conscience.

4. Maintain the freedom of conscience, particularly against interest, passion, temper, example, and the authority of great names.

5. We should accustom ourselves to cool reflections on our past actions.

See Grove's and Paley's Moral Philosophy; South's Sermons, vol. 2: sermon 12; and books under Casuistry

Holman Bible Dictionary [6]

Although the word “conscience” does appear in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word usually translated “heart” does refer to conscience in a number of passages, for example, “Afterward David's heart smote him” ( 1 Samuel 24:5 ). Compare  2 Samuel 24:10;  Job 27:6 . The New Testament also uses this Hebraic reference to conscience: “if our heart condemn us” ( 1 John 3:20-21 .) The word for “reins” or “kidneys” sometimes refers to conscience. In  Psalm 16:7 the psalmist thanked God for giving him counsel and because his reins or kidneys admonished him, meaning his conscience reproved him. (See   Psalm 73:21 for “heart” and “reins” in the same verse.)

“Conscience” in the New Testament is the translation of a Greek word derived from a verb that means “to know with.” This suggests a moral consciousness which compares an action with a standard. Paul, it seems, took a word from popular Greek usage in Corinth and used it to reply to some of the Corinthian Christians. For Paul, God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. God judges persons by His standards as revealed in Jesus Christ. These standards are reflected in His creation and especially in persons who are morally responsible because of their capacity of choice. To Paul the “conscience” is a person's painful reaction to a past act which does not meet the standard. A person can react wrongly because of wrong information, wrong environment, and wrong habit. Yet Paul would have said that, in spite of these liabilities, a person's conscience must be obeyed. Paul, however, would not have said that a person has no other guide. If past actions have not been such as to produce painful reactions, the person is said to have a “pure conscience” ( 1 Timothy 3:9;  2 Timothy 1:3 ). When sensitive and active in judging past acts, the conscience is said to be “good” ( Acts 23:1; 1Timothy 1:5, 1 Timothy 1:19; 1Peter 3:16, 1 Peter 3:21;  Hebrews 13:18 ) or “void of offence toward God” ( Acts 24:16 ). If the conscience is not active in judging past acts, it is said to be “weak” (1Corinthians 8:7,1Corinthians 8:10, 1 Corinthians 8:12 ) and may be wounded ( 1 Corinthians 8:12 ). When the conscience is insensitive, it is “seared” ( 1 Timothy 4:2 ). The sinful conscience is “defiled” ( Titus 1:15 ) or “evil” ( Hebrews 10:22 ).

In  1 Corinthians 4:4 , Paul used the verb from which the word for “conscience” is derived. He wrote: “For I know nothing by myself.” This phrase means “my conscience does not accuse me.” Paul completed the sentence by saying: “yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.” Paul, in short, taught that a pure conscience is valuable, but that Christ is the final standard by which a person is judged.

H. Page Lee

Morrish Bible Dictionary [7]

The conscious knowledge of good and evil. This resulted from the fall of Adam. He could have had no knowledge of good and evil before any evil was there. It is remarkable that the word conscience does not occur in the O.T. In the N.T. the word is συνείδησις, lit. 'joint-knowledge.' This agrees with what God said of Adam after the fall, "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil."  Genesis 3:22 . The above word occurs once in the LXX in  Ecclesiastes 10:20 : "Curse not the king, no not in thy conscience." This knowledge of good and evil is universal: some of the most benighted heathen, for instance, have owned that they knew such things as stealing were wrong. They are thus 'a law to themselves:' their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts accusing or excusing themselves between themselves.  Romans 2:14,15 . The law gave more light as to what was right and wrong: Paul said, "I had not had conscience also of lust unless the law had said, Thou shalt not lust."  Romans 7:7 . Christianity brings the conscience into the light of God, fully revealed by His word; the believer is thus exercised to have a conscience void of offence towards God and men. This may be called a 'tender conscience.'  Acts 24:16 .

Scripture speaks of

1. a 'good conscience,' enabling one when accused of evil, to know that the charge is untrue.   1 Peter 3:16 .

2. a 'pure conscience,' which is characterised by the separation from evil.   1 Timothy 3:9 .

3. a 'weak conscience,' as on the subject of meats, days, etc.   1 Corinthians 8:7 .

4. a 'purged conscience.' Through faith in the infinite efficacy of the blood of Christ the believer has no more conscience of sins. This does not mean no consciousness of ever sinning, but that as regards imputation of sins before God, the conscience is purged. Paul speaks of some who have a 'defiled mind and conscience,'   Titus 1:15; and of others who in departing from the faith have their 'conscience seared with a hot iron,'  1 Timothy 4:2 , that is, a hardened conscience, insensible to that which should touch them to the quick.

Conscience, with the Christian, should be exercised in the sight of God fully revealed in Christ, and be governed by the word, otherwise, on the plea of 'conscience,' many actions displeasing to God way be advocated. This is exemplified in the case of Paul before his conversion. He could say that he had lived in all good conscience before God, and yet he had been haling men and women to prison because they were Christians. Doubtless he did it with an unoffending conscience, according as the Lord stated: "The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service."  John 16:2 . Paul's zeal for Judaism so blinded his eyes that he was unable to recognise in his conscience the God who gave the law, and had sent His Son also; nor to see that God could act outside of it: it was an unenlightened conscience, a zeal without knowledge, by which even the Christian may be led astray.

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary [8]

There is within the human mind something that acts as a moral judge. It tells people what is right and wrong, urges them to do right, and gives them feelings of either innocence or guilt, depending on whether they obey or disobey it. This moral judge we call conscience ( Romans 2:15-16;  1 John 3:19-21).

Although the Old Testament does not mention the word ‘conscience’, it certainly refers to the activity of conscience ( Genesis 3:7-8;  2 Samuel 24:10;  Job 27:6;  Psalms 32:3;  Psalms 51:3-4). Conscience is not a perfect judge, because sin has affected the conscience as it has affected every other part of human nature ( Luke 11:35;  Ephesians 2:1-3). Therefore the conscience, like the rest of human nature, needs cleansing from the effects of sin, and this comes about only through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ ( Hebrews 9:14;  Hebrews 10:22).

The conscience also needs instruction, because it can only make judgments according to the knowledge it possesses ( Romans 2:14-15;  1 Corinthians 8:7;  1 Corinthians 8:10). Christians must therefore train and discipline the conscience so that it is well instructed, pure, active and sensitive ( Acts 24:16;  Ephesians 4:17;  Ephesians 4:23;  1 Timothy 1:5;  1 Timothy 1:19;  2 Timothy 1:3). When people ignore conscience, it can easily become defiled, hardened or dead ( 1 Timothy 4:2;  Titus 1:15).

A properly developed conscience will lead people to do what is right, whether a written law demands it or not ( Romans 13:5;  1 Peter 3:16). Christians must be careful to keep the conscience clear in all that they do ( 2 Corinthians 1:12;  Hebrews 13:18). At the same time they must realize that a clear conscience does not necessarily mean they are faultless ( 1 Corinthians 4:4-5). Sometimes the conscience may be clear in relation to something they want to do, but they decide not to do it because of the bad effect it could have on others ( Romans 14:22-23;  1 Corinthians 10:28-29). The conscience must be clear before God, not just clear according to standards people set for themselves ( Acts 23:1;  Romans 9:1).

Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words [9]

1: Συνείδησις (Strong'S #4893 — Noun Feminine — suneidesis — soon-i'-day-sis )

lit., "a knowing with" (sun, "with," oida, "to know"), i.e., "a co-knowledge (with oneself), the witness borne to one's conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God, as that which is designed to govern our lives;" hence (a) the sense of guiltness before God;  Hebrews 10:2; (b) that process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, commending the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former, and avoid the latter;  Romans 2:15 (bearing witness with God's law);   Hebrews 9:1;  2—Corinthians 1:12; acting in a certain way because "conscience" requires it,  Romans 13:5; so as not to cause scruples of "conscience" in another,  1—Corinthians 10:28,29; not calling a thing in question unnecessarily, as if conscience demanded it,  1—Corinthians 10:25,27; "commending oneself to every man's conscience,"  2—Corinthians 4:2; cp.  2—Corinthians 5:11 . There may be a "conscience" not strong enough to distinguish clearly between the lawful and the unlawful,  1—Corinthians 8:7,10,12 (some regard consciousness as the meaning here). The phrase "conscience toward God," in   1—Peter 2:19 , signifies a "conscience" (or perhaps here, a consciousness) so controlled by the apprehension of God's presence, that the person realizes that griefs are to be borne in accordance with His will.  Hebrews 9:9 teaches that sacrifices under the Law could not so perfect a person that he could regard himself as free from guilt. For various descriptions of "conscience" see   Acts 23:1;  24:16;  1—Corinthians 8:7;  1—Timothy 1:5,19;  3:9;  4:2;  2—Timothy 1:3;  Titus 1:15;  Hebrews 9:14;  10:22;  13:18;  1—Peter 3:16,21 .

American Tract Society Bible Dictionary [10]

Is that faculty common to all free moral agents,  Romans 2:13-15 , in virtue of which we discern between right and wrong, and are prompted to choose the former and refuse the latter. Its appointed sphere is in the regulation, according to the will of God revealed in nature and the Bible, of all our being and actions so far as these have a moral character. The existence of this faculty proves the soul accountable at the bar of its Creator, and its voice is in an important sense the voice of God. We feel that when pure and fully informed, it is an unerring guide to duty, and that no possible array of inducements can justify us in disregarding it. In man, however, though this conviction that we must do what is right never fails, yet the value of conscience is greatly impaired by its inhering in a depraved soul, whose evil tendencies warp and pervert our judgment on all subjects. Thus Paul verily thought that he ought to persecute the followers of Christ,  Acts 26:9 . His sin was in his culpable neglect to enlighten his conscience by all the means in his power, and to purify it by divine grace. A terrible array of conscientious errors and persecutions, which have infested and afflicted the church in all ages, warns us of our individual need of perfect light and sanctifying grace. A "good" and "pure" conscience,  1 Timothy 1:5   3:9 , is sprinkled with Christ's blood, clearly discerns the will of God, and urges us to obey it from the gospel motives; in proportion as we thus obey it, it is "void of offence,"  Acts 24:16 , and its approbation is one of the most essential elements of happiness. A "weak," or irresolute and blind conscience,  1 Corinthians 8:7; a "defiled" conscience, the slave of a corrupt heart,  Titus 1:15   Hebrews 10:22; and a "seared" conscience,  1 Timothy 4:2 , hardened against the law and the gospel alike, unless changed by grace, will at length become an avenging conscience, the instrument of a fearful and eternal remorse. No bodily tortures can equal the agony it inflicts; and though it may slumber here, it will hereafter be like the worm that never dies and the fire that never can be quenched.

King James Dictionary [11]

CONSCIENCE, n. L., to know, to be privy to.

1. Internal or self-knowledge, or judgment of right and wrong or the faculty, power or principle within us, which decides on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of our own actions and affections, and instantly approves or condemns them. Conscience is called by some writers the moral sense, and considered as an original faculty of our nature. Others question the propriety of considering conscience as a distinct faculty or principle. The consider it rather as the general principle of moral approbation or disapprobation, applied to ones own conduct and affections alledging that our notions of right and wrong are not to be deduced from a single principle or faculty, but from various powers of the understanding and will.

Being convicted by their own conscience, they went out one by one.  John 8 .

The conscience manifests itself in the feeling of obligation we experience, which precedes, attends and follows our actions.

Conscience is first occupied in ascertaining our duty, before we proceed to action then in judging of our actions when performed.

2. The estimate or determination of conscience justice honesty.

What you require cannot, in conscience, be deferred.

3. Real sentiment private thought truth as, do you in conscience believe the story? 4. Consciousness knowledge of our own actions or thought.

The sweetest cordial we receive at last, is conscience of our virtuous actions past.

This primary sense of the word is nearly, perhaps wholly obsolete.

5. Knowledge of the actions of others. 6. In ludicrous language, reason or reasonableness.

Half a dozen fools are, in all conscience, as many as you should require.

To make conscience or a matter of conscience, is to act according to the dictates of conscience, or to scruple to act contrary to its dictates.

Court of conscience, a court established for the recovery of small debts in London and other trading cities and districts.

Webster's Dictionary [12]

(1): (n.) The faculty, power, or inward principle which decides as to the character of one's own actions, purposes, and affections, warning against and condemning that which is wrong, and approving and prompting to that which is right; the moral faculty passing judgment on one's self; the moral sense.

(2): (n.) The estimate or determination of conscience; conviction or right or duty.

(3): (n.) Tenderness of feeling; pity.

(4): (n.) Knowledge of one's own thoughts or actions; consciousness.

Easton's Bible Dictionary [13]

 John 16:2 Acts 26:9 Romans 2:15 Titus 1:15 1 Timothy 4:2 Acts 24:16 Romans 9:1 2 1:12 1 Timothy 1:5,19 1 Peter 3:21

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [14]

kon´shens ( ἡ συνείδησις , hē suneı́dēsis ):

I. Sequent Conscience

1. Judicial

2. Punitive

3. Predictive

4. Social

II. Antecedent Conscience

III. Intuitional and Associational Theories

IV. The Education of Conscience

V. History and Literature

1. Earlier Views

2. Reformation and After

I. Sequent Conscience

The aspect of conscience earliest noticed in literature and most frequently referred to at all times is what is called the Sequent Conscience - that is to say, it follows action.

1. Judicial

This is judicial . No sooner is a decision formed than there ensues a judgment favorable or adverse, a sentence of guilty or not guilty. Conscience has often been compared to a court of law, in which there are culprit, judge, witnesses and jury; but these are all in the subject's own breast, and are in fact himself.

2. Punitive

It is punitive . In the individual's own breast are not only the figures of justice already mentioned, but the executioner as well; for, on the back of a sentence of condemnation or acquittal, there immediately follows the pain of a wounded or the satisfaction of an approving conscience; and of all human miseries or blisses this is the most poignant. Especially has the remorse of an evil conscience impressed the human imagination, in such instances as Cain and Judas, Saul and Herod; and the poets, those knowers of human nature, have found their most moving themes in the delineation of this aspect of human experience. The ancient poets represented the terrors of conscience under the guise of the Erinyes or Furies, who, with swift, silent, unswerving footstep, tracked the criminal and pulled him down, while Shakespeare, in such dramas as Macbeth and Richard the Third , has burned the same lessons into the imagination of all readers of his works. The satisfaction of a good conscience may stamp itself on the habitual serenity of one face, and the accusations of an evil conscience may impart a hunted and sinister expression to another (compare The Wisdom of Solomon 17:11).

3. Predictive

It is predictive . There is no instinct in the soul of man more august than the anticipation of something after death - of a tribunal at which the whole of life will be revised and retribution awarded with perfect justice according to the deeds done in the body. It is this which imparts to death its solemnity; we instinctively know that we are going to our account. And such great natural instincts cannot be false.

4. Social

It is social . Not only does a man's own conscience pass sentence on his conduct, but the consciences of others pass sentence on it too; and to this may be due a great intensification of the consequent sensations. Thus, a crime may lie hidden in the memory, and the pain of its guilt may be assuaged by the action of time, when suddenly and unexpectedly it is found out and exposed to the knowledge of all; and, only when the force of the public conscience breaks forth on the culprit, driving him from society, does he feel his guilt in all its magnitude. The "Day of Judgment" (which see), as it is represented in Scripture, is an application of this principle on a vast scale; for there the character and conduct of everyone will be submitted to the conscience of all. On the other hand, a friend may be to a man a second conscience, by which his own conscience is kept alive and alert; and this approval from without may, in some cases, be, even more than the judgment within, an encouragement to everything that is good or a protection against temptation.

II. Antecedent Conscience

From the Sequent is distinguished the Antecedent Conscience, which designates a function of this faculty preceding moral decision or action. When the will stands at the parting of the ways, seeing clearly before it the right course and the wrong, conscience commands to strike into the one and forbids to choose the other. This is its imperative; and - to employ the language of Kant - it is a categorical imperative. What conscience commands may be apparently against our interests, and it may be completely contrary to our inclinations; it may be opposed to the advice of friends or to the solicitations of companions; it may contradict the decrees of principalities and powers or the voices of the multitude; yet conscience in no way withdraws or modifies its claim. We may fail to obey, giving way to passion or being overborne by the allurements of temptation; but we know that we ought to obey; it is our duty; and this is a sublime and sacred word. The great crises of life arise when conscience is issuing one command and self-interest or passion or authority another, and the question has to be decided which of the two is to be obeyed. The interpreters of human life have known how to make use of such moments, and many of the most memorable scenes in literature are of this nature; but the actual history of mankind has also been dignified with numerous instances in which confessors and martyrs, standing on the same ground, have faced death rather than contravene the dictates of the authority within; and there never passes an hour in which the eye of the All-seeing does not behold someone on earth putting aside the bribes or self-interest or the menaces of authority and paying tribute to conscience by doing the right and taking the consequences.

III. Intuitional and Associational Theories

Up to this point there is little difficulty or difference of opinion; but now we come to a point at which very differing views emerge. It was remarked above, that when anyone stands at the parting of the ways, seeing clearly the right course and the wrong, conscience imperatively commands him which to choose and which to avoid; but how does anyone know which of the two alternatives is the right and which the wrong? Does conscience still suffice here, or is he dependent on another faculty? Here the Intuitional and the Associational, or - speaking broadly - the Scotch and the English, the German and the French schools of ethics diverge, those on the one side holding that conscience has still essential guidance to give, while those on the other maintain that the guidance must now be undertaken by other faculties. The Sensational or Experimental school holds that we are dependent on the authority of society or on our own estimate of the consequences of actions, while the opposite school teaches that in the conscience there is a clear revelation of certain moral laws, approving certain principles of action and disapproving others. The strong point of the former view is the diversity which has existed among human beings in different ages and in different latitudes as to what is right and what is wrong. What was virtuous in Athens might be sinful in Jerusalem; what is admired as heroism in Japan may be despised as fool-hardiness in Britain. To this it may be replied, first, that the diversity has been greatly exaggerated; the unanimity of the human conscience under all skies being greater than is allowed by philosophers of this school. "Let any plain, honest man," says Butler, "before he engages in any course of action, ask himself, Is this I am going about right, or is it wrong? Is it good, or is it evil? and I do not in the least doubt but that this question will be answered agreeably to truth and virtue by almost any fair man in almost any circumstances." Then, there are many moral judgments supposed to be immediate verdicts of conscience which are really logical inferences from the utterances of this faculty and are liable to all the fallacies by which reasoning in any department of human affairs is beset. It is only for the major premise, not for the conclusion, that conscience is responsible. The strong point of the Intuitional school, on the other hand, is the power and right of the individual to break away from the habits of society, and, in defiance of the commands of authority or the voices of the multitude, to follow a course of his own. When he does so, is it a logical conclusion as to the consequences of action he is obeying, or a higher intuition? When, for example, Christianity announced the sinfulness of fornication in opposition to the laxity of Greece and Rome, was it an argument about consequences with which she operated successfully, or an instinct of purity which she divined at the back of the actions and opinions of heathendom? The lettering of the moral law may have to be picked out and cleansed from the accumulations of time, but the inscription is there all the same.

IV. The Education of Conscience

It may be, however, that a more exact analysis of the antecedent conscience is requisite. Between the categorical imperative, which commands to choose the right path and avoid the wrong, and the indicative, which declares that this is the right way and that the wrong, there ought perhaps to be assumed a certainty that one of the alternative ways is right and must be pursued at all hazards, while the other is wrong and must be abandoned at whatever cost. This perception, that moral distinctions exist, separate from each other as heaven and hell, is the peculiarity of conscience; but it does not exclude the necessity for taking time to ascertain, in every instance, which of the alternatives has the one character and which the other, or for employing a great variety of knowledge to make this sure. Those who would limit conscience to the faculty which utters the major premises of moral reasoning are wont to hold that it can never err and does not admit of being educated; but such a use of the term is too remote from common usage, and there must be room left for the conscience to enlighten itself by making acquaintance with such objective standards as the character of God, the example of Christ, and the teaching of Scripture, as well as with the maxims of the wise and the experience of the good.

Another question of great interest about the conscience is, whether it involves an intuition of God. When it is suffering the pain of remorse, who is it that inflicts the punishment? Is it only the conscience itself? Or is man, in such experiences aware of the existence of a Being outside of and above himself? When the will is about to act, it receives the command to choose the right and refuse the wrong; but who issues this command? Is it only itself, or does the imperative come with a sanction and solemnity betokening a higher origin? Conscience is an intuition of moral law - the reading, so to speak, of a luminous writing, which hangs out there, on the bosom of Nature - but who penned that writing? It used to be thought that the word Conscience implied, in its very structure, a reference to God, meaning literally, "knowledge along with another," the other being God. Though this derivation be uncertain, many think that it exactly expresses the truth. There are few people with an ethical experience of any depth who have not sometimes been overwhelmingly conscious of the approval or disapproval of an unseen Being; and, if there be any trustworthy argument for the existence of a Deity, prior to supernatural revelation, this is where it is to be found.

V. History and Literature

Only a few indications of history can be given here.

1. Earlier Views

The conscience, at least the sequent conscience, was identified in the ancient world, and the rise of a doctrine on the subject belongs to the period when the human mind, being shut out from public activity through political changes, was thrown back upon itself and began to watch closely its own symptoms. The word has a specially prominent place in the philosophical writings of Cicero. Strange to say, it does not occur in the Old Testament; but, though not the name, the thing appears there frequently enough. On the very first page of revelation, the voice of God is heard calling among the trees of the garden ( Genesis 3:8 ); and, in the very next incident, the blood of Abel cries out to heaven from the ground ( Genesis 4:10 ). In the New Testament the word occurs with tolerable frequency, especially in the speeches ( Acts 24:16 , etc.) and writings of Paul ( Romans 2:15;  Romans 9:1;  Romans 13:5;  1 Corinthians 6:7-12 , etc.); and this might have been expected to secure for it a prominent place in the doctrine of the church. But this did not immediately take effect, although Chrysostom already speaks of Conscience and Nature as two books in which the human mind can read of God, previous to supernatural revelation. In the Middle Ages the conscience received from two sources so much stimulation that both thing and name were certain to come into greater prominence in the speculations of the schools. The one of these influences was the rise of Monasticism, which, driving human beings into solitude, made the movements of their own minds the objects of everlasting study to themselves; and the other was the practice of auricular confession, which became, especially to many of the inmates of the houses of religion, the most interesting business of life; because, in order to meet the confessor, they scanned every thought and weighed every scruple, becoming adepts at introspection and self-discipline. Thus it came to pass that ethics took the form of Cases of Conscience, the priest having to train himself, or to be trained by professors and through books, to be able to answer every query submitted to him in the confessional. The ripest fruit of this method appears in the Summa of Aquinas, who discusses elaborately the doctrine of conscience, dividing it into two parts - synderesis (from συντήρησις , suntḗrēsis ) and conscientia - the one of which supplies the major premises and cannot err, while the other draws the inferences therefrom and is liable to make mistakes. The Mystics identified the synderesis as the point in the spirit of man at which it can be brought into contact and connection with the Spirit of God.

2. Reformation and After

At the Reformation the conscience was much in the mouths of men, both because the terrors of conscience formed a preparation for comprehending justification by faith and because, in appearing before principalities and powers in vindication of their action, the Reformers took their stand on conscience, as Luther did so memorably at the Diet of Worms; and the assertion of the rights of conscience has ever since been a conspicuous testimony of Protestantism; whereas Romanists, especially as represented by the Jesuits, have treated the conscience as a feeble and ignorant thing, requiring to be led by authority - that is, by themselves. The forms of medievalism long clung even to Protestant literature on this subject. It may not be surprising to find a High Churchman like Jeremy Taylor, in his Ductor Dubitantium , discussing ethics as a system of cases of conscience, but it is curious to find a Puritan like Baxter (in his Christian Directory ), and a Scottish Presbyterian like David Dickson (in his Therapeutica Sacra ) doing the same. Deism in England and the Enlightenment in Germany magnified the conscience, to which they ascribed such a power of revealing God as made any further revelation unnecessary; but the practical effect was a secularization and vulgarization of the general mind; and it was against these rather than the system which had produced them that Butler in England and Kant in Germany had to raise the standard of a spiritual view of life. The former said of the conscience that, if it had power as it had right, it would absolutely govern the world; and Kant's sublime saying is well known, at the close of his great work on Ethics: "Two things fill the soul with ever new and growing wonder and reverence, the oftener and the longer reflection continues to occupy itself with them - the starry heavens above and the moral law within." The rise of an Associational and Developmental Philosophy in England, represented by such powerful thinkers as the Mills, father and son, Professor Bain and Herbert Spencer, tended to dissipate the halo surrounding the conscience, by representing it as merely an emotional equivalent for the authority of law and the claims of custom, so stamped on the mind by the experience of generations that, its earthly source forgotten, it came to be attributed to supernatural powers. But this school was antagonized with success by such thinkers as Martineau and T. H. Green. R. Rothe regarded conscience as a term too popular and of too variable signification to be of much use in philosophical speculation; but most of the great succession of writers on Christian ethics who followed him have treated it seriously; Dorner especially recognizing its importance, and Newman Smyth bestowing on it a thoroughly modern treatment. Among German works on the subject that of Gass, which contains an appendix on the history of the term synderesis , is deserving of special attention; that by Kähler is unfinished, as is also the work in English by Robertson; The Christian Conscience by Davison is slight and popular. Weighty discussions will be found in two books on Moral Philosophy - the Handbook of Calderwood, and the Ethics of Mezes. But there is abundance of room for a great monograph on the subject, which would treat conscience in a comprehensive manner as the subjective standard of conduct, formed by progressive familiarity with the objective standards as well as by practice in accordance with its own authority and with the will of God.