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Bibliography: O. Hallesby, Conscience, 1960; Peter Toon, Your Conscience as Your Guide, 1984.——SB

It has come to be recognized that there is in man some faculty by which he can form a habit of asking what he ought to do, and of making judgments about the moral quality and value of his actions and thoughts. This faculty is regarded as seated in the depths of his personality. The habit of making such judgments is called “conscience.” It seems to be innate in man, but it appears to be more developed in certain historical circumstances than in others. The Greek word for it (syneidesis) appears prominently in use for the first time in late Hellenistic and Stoic philosophy. Especially with Seneca it was regarded as a holy spirit within us, an observer of the good and evil.

In the OT there is no special word for “conscience,” but the phenomena that gave rise to the word are described and attributed to the heart (1 Sam. 24:5; 2 Sam. 24:10; Job 27:6). In the NT, however, the word syneidesis is adopted from the Stoics and used in many different contexts, especially in Pauline theology. Christ describes what is meant by conscience by the phrase “the light within you” (Matt. 6:23). In Paul's thought, the voice of conscience can anticipate the last judgment, can become a true answer to the Gospel. Though conscience can become bad and weak, it can nevertheless become pure and strong if it is properly bound to God.

In the Middle Ages, conscience was regarded as a volitional ability of the soul (synteresis), unimpaired after the Fall and related to natural law, to which the immediate voice of God could speak. Luther and Calvin stressed that conscience was the sphere of battle between God and evil, that it had no autonomy or independent justification, and that it required to be liberated by faith before God. Kant exalted the role of conscience in life. More recently it has been increasingly pointed out that conscience has been a fallible guide in the development of morals, that it could be the product of instinctive habit, as in animals, of the gulf between the ego and the superego (Freud), or of society's attempt to kill vital instincts (Nietzsche). In spite of such analyses, it still remains an aspect of man which requires sanctification and education, and on which God's Word can take hold with compelling authority. The problems relating to conscience arise mainly within the problem of giving it a proper direction.

H. Rashdall, Conscience and Christ (1916); K.E. Kirk, Conscience and Its Problems (1927); O. Hallesby, Conscience (1950); C.A. Pierce, Conscience in the New Testament (1955); J.N. Sevenster, Paul and Seneca (1961); P. Delhaye, The Christian Conscience (1968); E. Mount, Conscience and Responsibility (1969).

CONSCIENCE (συνείδησις, G5287, to understand or become aware, to see completely, referring to moral consciousness). The Lat. form, conscientia, means “knowledge together with,” i.e., a second level of awareness accompanying awareness of an impulse, thought or act [RTWB]. The Scriptures view man in moral perspective. He is the creature who can and must answer to God for what he becomes. To assist him he has been given both capacity and inclination to judge his own behavior on the basis of a standard of right and wrong.

Conscience is the indicator of the measure of agreement between our conduct and the values to which we are committed (Allport, p. 90). It aids in discerning what is right and good from what is inferior, wrong, and bad; and encourages decisions that are right and good or, where there is a conflict, that follow the higher norm. It is characterized by a sense of obligation. When its promptings are ignored or set aside the person feels guilty, a complex experience including a sense of judgment, unworthiness, self-depreciation and estrangement from God, others and self (Ps 32:4); and which is relieved only by forgiveness extended and accepted.


The Christian’s conscience and the Christian community

Biblical Teaching

The development of conscience.

Conscience is not implanted full-blown in the human personality. Moral development is subject to the same laws of learning and to the same hazards in learning as are other aspects of personality. Sound conscience-development is pivotal to spiritual growth and requires moral instruction in which attention is given not only to what is imparted but to how it is imparted, for both the content and the mood of conscience is important. “The Bible is the touchstone of conscience” (HDB). Familiarity with it and regular study are important in maintaining an informed Christian conscience and encouraging moral and spiritual maturity. But how one approaches the Bible and what one perceives therein is deeply affected by the emotional climate in which moral instruction takes place.

The child’s conscience.

Conscience begins largely through parental prohibitions and expectations which the child takes over indiscriminately; he internalizes them and they then serve him as spontaneous checks on his behavior. Small children tend to react on an all-or-nothing basis, so that these rules and expectations take on absoluteness. They exist for themselves, calling for specific, regular response that has little to do with a person’s intention or the effect of an act on others. This is the rudiment of legalism. It is an unavoidable step in developing the conscience in view of the child’s inexperience and his lack of skill in abstract thinking. Whether or not a person progresses readily from this automatic, unreflective pattern of moral response depends greatly upon the emotional tone within which he is taught. Is obedience a good or bad bargain? How is one asked to make his renunciations? In a climate of encouragement, or in one heavily steeped in disapproval? Grace preceded law in God’s dealings with His people. Abraham “believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Later the law was given to Moses. First, the covenantal relationship: “I will be their God”; they shall be my people (17:1-8); then the explication of what it means to “walk before me, and be blameless.” Moral and spiritual nurture in the individual follows the same sequence. Healthy, ongoing development is facilitated when the experience of grace precedes the demands of law. Where this is reversed grace is always experienced as conditional, a factor lying at the root of many subsequent spiritual difficulties. The ability to trust freely underlies Christian experience. Trust is essential for productively entering into relationship with God and one’s fellow believers and for entering into the Gospel realities of justification by faith, adoption as sons of God and joint-heirs with Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the Christian hope for the future. Where parents are good models of the qualities they require of the child and where the climate of the home is predictable, warm, and supportive, putting greater emphasis on approval and encouraging success rather than upon disapproval and punishing failure, the child finds obedience a good bargain and develops a healthy sense of guilt. He experiences agapē, “love in spite of,” and the reality of forgiveness. But where the inevitable demands in child training are invoked without first establishing a relationship of trust, moral training becomes a punitive, fear-ridden process in which “goodness” is reduced to the avoidance of evil rather than the attainment of positive virtue. The child feels he must earn parental affection through external righteousness in this context of conditional love. His conscience then becomes negative, inflexible, and unreflective and his sense of guilt an unhealthy one. This is the conscience of the moralists who “tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23). Just as the acceptance of the positional doctrines frees the Christian to fellowship with Christ and these doctrines mature in him, so the experience of trust prior to the invoking of demand lays a foundation of grace under moral instruction which frees the child to grow morally and spiritually. What is taught is important. The emotional climate in which it is taught is equally important. Either it is infused with the spirit of Christ or the spirit of Pharisee. Neglect of either right content or right spirit in moral instruction is detrimental.

The mature conscience.

Infantile legalism and an automatic, “out there” experience of conscience is a necessary stage and one to be worked through. The maturing of conscience is a process of assimilating and making a part of oneself what has been the internalization of a pattern of external demands, goals, and practices. Mature behavior is rooted primarily in personal commitment to ideals and in moral conviction rather than in response to external demand. Mature conscience says, “I ought,” rather than, “I must...or else.” It is not a matter of ridding oneself of his childhood conscience, which usually contains much of real value. Parental instruction instills the practical morality of the family and society along with moral principles and ideals. Conscience maturity begins in earnest in adolescence and is furthered by a climate that encourages both personal commitment to Christ and to His moral priorities and reflection upon one’s experience and motives so as to build a personal hierarchy of Christian values and goals. Reflection is stimulated when one’s moral habits or values are challenged by competing values, provided the person is not fear-ridden and merely avoids the issue through automatic response. A spirit of self-recrimination retards maturing. Self-recrimination is rooted in chronic expectation of blame and is an effort to cope with this expectation by being the first and most severe to blame and to punish oneself. Maturing of the conscience also is related to the ability to see things from another’s point of view and to empathize with others. These qualities form the basis of accurate assessment of the effect of one’s behavior upon others. A mature Christian conscience is furthered by sound instruction in the Bible, an open and supportive climate of inquiry which encourages honest expression of opinion and thoughtful appraisal of experience, good adult models after whom to pattern oneself, and a grasp both of the reality of forgiveness and the proper fruit of repentance: getting up and going on without wallowing in self recrimination—“forgetting what lies behind...I press on toward the goal...” (Phil 3:13, 14). The child’s conscience and the mature conscience are not mutually exclusive. Everyone has both ingredients operating in his moral functioning. Norms and ideals may be identical but the motivation is different. The child’s conscience is driven largely by compulsion, “the magisterial authority of felt obligation” (Bertocci, p. 219); the mature conscience operates on an inner imperative to will the best one knows in every situation affording choice. Personality differences require varied experiences and pedagogical approaches to bring persons to moral maturity (Havighurst and Taba).

Problem consciences.

The most common problem conscience, and a significant source of mischief for personal growth and for maintaining harmony in the Christian fellowship, is the prohibitive conscience. The person with a prohibitive conscience has a rigidly-fixed, negatively-oriented child’s conscience. The person’s consciousness is dominated by an unbearable burden of guilt, and by fear of reproof or punishment. Since he accepts responsibility for achieving the impossible, or for being what God never intended him to be, he lives in a chronic state of guilt-riddenness. He feels obligated to get results for which he has neither the necessary knowledge nor the requisite talent. Fear of vice and wrong-doing is stronger than love of virtue and doing right. Goodness is reduced to not doing anything wrong. Life is dominated by a need to appease and to propitiate God and men. The person feels surrounded by demand, disapproval, and anger over his imperfections. He tends to experience “guilt feelings” rather than guilt. “Guilt feelings” result from repression of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that hold out the threat of disapproval and punishment. Repression enables the person to dissociate his experience of guilt from the thoughts or actions which induce the guilt. This leaves him with “free floating” guilt which he can now attach to more innocuous experiences. He finds these easier to deal with either because they are more readily avoided or because others keep reassuring him that he need not feel guilty about such matters. Guilt feelings dominate in a prohibitive conscience. Since they are free-floating they prevent real moral insight. And since they involve propitiatory self-punishment they prevent genuine contrition and repentance. Guilt feelings have little to do with sorrow for sin. They are signs of a preoccupation with a fear of consequences. If the person turns these feelings outward he is likely to adopt a critical disparaging life style, which dwells on the sins and shortcomings of others. If he turns them in on himself, he magnifies his sins, wallows self-punitively in them and dominates others through his self-reproach and threats of self-destruction. In either case the person lives in a vicious circle virtually anesthetized against the counsel and spiritual ministrations of family, friends, and pastor. Not until he can be helped to reconnect the guilt feelings to the thoughts or actions that give rise to them is he likely to develop the contrition and repentance that open the way to genuine moral and spiritual insight and growth. Acquiring courage to face oneself and to accept forgiveness involves for such a person turning his world topsy-turvy. His implicit major premise is that love is always conditional and is, at its root, a reward for perfection. From this he concludes that forgiveness is at best partial and temporary and is contingent on “not doing that again.” Courage to trust that God’s love is unconditional, rooted in His holy love and in the finished work of Jesus Christ freely extended to the penitent, and that forgiveness is real and abiding, i.e. courage to make a radical shift of one’s view of the universe at the very point where one is most skeptical, frightened, and vulnerable rises partly out of desperation, but in greater degree from experiencing a measure of agapē from persons and from the community of believers. Those who suffer from a prohibitive conscience require the major portion of a minister’s pastoral ministrations. They also tend to be deeply involved in congregational misunderstandings and disputes. Other disorders of conscience include such variations on the prohibitive conscience such as the literalistic conscience, seen in those who remain largely fixed in a child’s type of conscience which is rigid, unbending, and aggressively imposed on others as a way to dominate and to assert moral superiority (e.g. Simon the Pharisee, Luke 7:39); and the scrupulous conscience: self-doubting, fearful of making moral decisions, and spending much time in second-guessing themselves. But there is also the lax conscience, schooled to allow a person to side-step moral obligation with ease. And many psychiatrists and social commentators express concern today over what they call repression of conscience which is seen in the typical neurosis of our time, the character neurosis, as well as in the more radically pathological psychopathic reaction, which Lombroso called “moral imbecility.”

Recurring issues

The nature and basis of conscience.

The pivotal fact for the Christian as he considers conscience is the fact that behind conscience is God, who is holy, personal, and the Creator of a moral universe which is to be judged by His righteousness. Man is made in the image of God (Gen 1:26) and is answerable to Him for what he makes of himself, how he exercises his obligation to be a neighbor (Luke 10:37), and his dominion over the created order. Conscience is “an intuition of the moral law” (ISBE), that is, the Bible takes the stance of ethical realism. “Man is not adrift in a complex world without an inner monitor. In the midst of the conflicting demands and many impulses of his nature, surrounded by a world of imperfect sensible objects, he feels the lure of perfections that cannot have their source in the imperfections of human existence. No amount of imagining and reasoning can derive the imperfect from the perfect. Only the dim awareness of perfection guides his analysis of and movement from imperfection” (Bertocci, 237). Paul appealed directly to manifestations of this intuition as the basis for his statement that all men are without excuse before God (Rom 2:14, 15). Alternative views enjoying widespread popularity today ascribe ethical action and norms either to personal desire or social concensus. Both, however, make implicit appeals to certain universal moral principles intuitively apprehended. The privatistic relativist roots moral action in personal desire and rejects all standards that do not spring from a person’s own preferences. Both social custom and universal moral standards are rejected on the basis of an implicit universal which demands that all individuality ought to be respected whether one prefers to or not. For all the privatist’s emphasis on “bringing people together” there is no basis in his system for forming a genuine community. His fellow moral relativist, the social relativist, differs with him in maintaining that a society is obligated to insist upon and even force certain conformities and norms on individuals as a basis for meaningful community (Bertocci, 276). Social relativism, which reduces morality to local or cultural mores and values, argues that people differ so extensively in what they regard as good and evil that any notion of universal values is out of the question. Bertocci points out that cross-cultural values have been discovered, disapproval of rape, lying and stealing within the group and approval of mutuality, truth, and beauty, and he asks why, if people within a group can develop common values, this should be excluded in a priori fashion on a cross-cultural basis (306). But social relativism also bootlegs into its system certain absolutes: survival is used as a basic standard for judging goodness or badness; and critical inquiry as the way in which persons ought to arrive at their search for truth and goodness. Allport, to the contrary, comments, “In spite of differing tabus and imperatives it seems that all people prize kindness to children, loyalty to the in-group and...and have a not wholly capricious sense of justice” (87), a thesis more extensively documented in the appendix of C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.

Conscience and the koinonia (community).

The individual needs other persons and social institutions in order to discover himself and develop his moral potential (1 Cor 12). Here the Christian community is said to be for the individual an ongoing source of intimacy, of norms, of moral and emotional support, of correction and forgiveness, and opportunity for service. The koinonia supplies him with an undergirding structure, but it needs his imagination and his loyalty for significant viability. Therefore the koinonia must be careful to avoid the totalitarian trap of an organic view of unity, in which the individual derives his meaning from and exists for the benefit of the whole group and persons become means and not ends. In this view, persons are reduced to categories principally designed to subordinate them to the whole: “Aryans,” “proletariat,” etc. As indicated in the discussion on Galatianism, this has a fatal fascination for people since it promises security and relieves from responsibility. The Western world is sufficiently “Christianized” that it is all too easy for the koinonia to substitute conventional morality for personal Christian conviction which will on occasion require that one stand against conventional morality in the manner of Amos and Hosea. The koinonia must likewise be on guard against the counterculture’s uncritically applied “man against society” stance. This anti-institutional stance reduces community to an aggregate of persons whose relationships cannot but be transient and shallow. The community, as indicated above, has characteristics that the individual needs in order for his conscience to mature. For its effective functioning, however, it needs to see itself as the body, whose Head is Christ and whose individual members have been given their identity and their gifts by the Spirit—individual members who need each other to develop as persons through serving God and neighbor, and who need the individual’s conscience to guard it against entrapment in conventional morality.

Conscience in social philosophy and science

Popular usage.

In popular usage, when one does wrong he suffers the “pangs of conscience.” One may seek to “salve his conscience” with works of benevolence. In evangelical theology a “guilty conscience” often is considered the prerequisite to conversion. A “good or clear conscience” describes the feeling one has when he believes he has done what he should have done. A “seared conscience” is identified by some with the “unpardonable sin.” In rationalistic theology the conscience was identified as the internal repository of natural law. It sat in judgment on men’s actions, declaring them good or bad. The cry for “liberty of conscience” also arose among the rationalists. They believed the conscience to be an infallible guide to conduct. To force someone to act contrary to his conscience was to force him to sin. This is the origin of the rights of “conscientious objectors.” Contemporary relativism has raised disturbing questions about the role of the conscience as a trustworthy guide to conduct. Anthropologists have found significant diversity among cultures in those acts they define as good and as bad. Culture, not innate knowledge, appears to have provided the content of conscience. Since most systems of ethics have depended heavily on the conscience as a guide, the relativism of the content of conscience has dealt them a heavy blow. Finally, “social conscience” means that a person is actively concerned about social problems.

It is time to rethink the subject of conscience. What can contemporary social philosophy and science tell us about the conscience? What is the Biblical understanding of conscience? Can these be harmonized? What is the role of conscience in the Christian ethic?

Rationalist man.

Many of the understandings and misunderstandings of conscience appearing in popular thought are derived from the rationalistic model of man. This man is very reasonable, responsible, and detached from the world. His decision-making process is not unlike that of a computer. All the facts are fed into his mind. He logically considers the information, then he decides what would be the reasonable course of action. His conscience is a moral governor. It flashes a red warning light when his logic is faulty. It also flashes a green light when rational man may proceed. The content of the conscience is innate moral law, refined and expanded by the truths of moral philosophy and the precepts of culture.

Marxist man.

Marxism presents a different model of man. This man is a creature of his social environment, particularly the economy. He is corrupted by a corrupt society. The hope of mankind is the working class. This class has the right values because it lives the productive life. A man accepts the values of his class. His conscience is a creature of these values. The actions of Marxist man are a response to the stimulus of events in society. Man follows, he does not create. Consequently, conscience is but the internalized values of one’s social class. Such a theory cannot explain Marx’s own conscience which motivated him to cry out against the social injustice of his day.

Freudian man.

Freud’s model of man speaks of the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The super-ego is a kind of automatic conscience. It is a psychic policeman detailing what one should and should not do. Its content is drawn from the prohibitions of parents and society. The super-ego is the culprit in psychosis. The goal of psychoanalysis is to strengthen the ego so that it may override the conscience. Freud draws upon relativism to discount the authority of the conscience. He seeks to cure a guilty conscience by discrediting it.

Intentional man.

Recently Gibson Winter has developed the model of “intentional man.” This approach draws upon the social sciences to comprehend the forces involved in human existence. Social psychology teaches that men function in many roles and statuses. This is not to suggest that life is essentially compartmentalized, because the same self can function as a son, father, husband, relative, friend, employee, teacher, customer, and so forth. Each of these roles places somewhat different demands upon one and upon those with whom he is interacting. Consequently, he must play each role somewhat differently. Further, a particular role will need to be modified in various time-space situations. Often one will be confronted by conflicting demands being placed upon him because he functions in so many different roles contemporaneously. This means that there is a very complex interrelationship between the actor and those with whom he is interacting. Here the conscience comes in for some hard knocks. For example, one’s ideal of a good teacher may demand so much time that his ideal of a good father must be shortchanged. His conscience condemns him. Adjustments are attempted. More pangs of conscience may result.

Social theory adds the insight that man plays his roles within a number of different environments: family, community, groups, institutions and organizations, culture’s norms and patterns of behavior, the person’s own physical makeup, and the physical environment. Within this social framework man is busy acting. His acting takes different forms. Often he is simply reacting to opportunities and difficulties which present themselves to him; at other times he is busy developing projects. A project is an activity pursuant of a man’s goals. Intentional man is a planner. He seeks to achieve his goals by constructing a “game plan.” One’s goals, both immediate and long range, are grounded in one’s values. Intentional man is an evaluating man. He has a basic core-orientation for his life. In terms of this core-orientation he has worked out a value system—a ranking of importance of the things, activities, and relationships which make up his life. Conscience applies this value system to a man’s activities. It stirs guilt feelings when inconsistencies are found.

In our complex modern life, with so many demands upon us, conscience’s job is not easy. Often one finds himself pulled two or three ways simultaneously by conscience. Most people, like Paul (Rom 7), do not find the conscience an infallible guide. At best, conscience is a monitor of the will, holding it in check as it develops projects.

Existentialist man.

A final model is that of existentialist J. P. Sartre. Man is flung into existence. Since all things are relative, man is counseled to embrace freedom. Free man is authentic man. Inauthentic man cowardly chooses to subscribe to ready-made values of church or state, but he never finds a peaceful conscience. Authentic man rejects the hold upon him by traditional values; he chooses his own values; in this he finds meaning and a good conscience. The good is what is good for him. He rises above the “bad faith” or guilty conscience of the unfree man who seeks to escape freedom and salve his conscience in the crowd.

Perhaps this is the place for a small digression to consider the subject of cultural relativity as it relates to conscience. Clyde Kluckhohn, noted American anthropologist, has questioned the idea of total ethical relativity. At one time this idea, first advanced by Auguste Comte, seemed to gather support from the findings of anthropologists. But, as Kluckhohn declares, mature reflection indicates that this is not the case. Prescriptions against murder, incest, and untruth; proscription concerning sexual excess, obligations of parents to children and vice versa—essentially the same topics as those covered in the second tablet of the decalogue—are found in every culture. These he terms universals. Granted that laws and customs related to these topics will take different forms in the several cultures of the world, the fact remains that this basic core is present in them all. For example, cultures may have widely different patterns of family composition, but all cultures have found it necessary to establish normative regulations concerning which patterns are acceptable in their society. Once this fact has been established, although Kluckhohn is not willing to go this far, a case can be made for the Decalogue being God’s revelation of His will concerning the essential issues of human society. Of course, the principles of the Decalogue are broad enough in scope that they can be adapted to particular cultural needs, and they have been. The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy are examples of this process of adaptation. A comparative study of other cultures reveals the same process. A case might also be made for these principles being the essence of “natural revelation,” since they are present in all cultures. Further, they may be the categories of oughtness innate in all men awaiting specific content which is drawn from one’s culture and from one’s unique experiences and formulation of values. Further study in these areas may prove quite fruitful. In any case, Christians must forcefully announce that the crass relativism of contemporary morality is without authoritative foundation as well as without historic precedents.


What can be learned from social philosophy and science? First, there has been a tendency to place great confidence in conscience as a guide and/or judge in moral and ethical decisions. Popular ethics has advanced the dictum, “let your conscience be your guide.” However, anthropological studies have found great variety in the content of conscience, although some concerns are universal. This raises doubts about the reliability of conscience.

Secondly, it is evident that the values employed by conscience can be and are acquired. Further, there is much evidence that the conscience can be trained. How much is given and how much is acquired is subject to debate. Is it primarily intuited or associational, or mixed?

Thirdly, what is the function of conscience? Some stress its antecedent role, providing guidance concerning the rightness or wrongness of a project and its means of achievement. Others limit conscience to a sequential role, stirring up feelings of guilt whenever one’s actions fall short of or violate his internalized values. If one subscribed to the intentional view of man, would he likely contend that conscience functions in the latter of these roles primarily? As a man is confronted by demands to act, conscience functions as a monitor calling forth the values of one’s value system which are affected by this problem; as he proposes projects to deal with this problem, it continues this process of value analysis; as he reflects upon the successes and/or failure of projects once put into operation, conscience again evaluates, internalizes what was learned from the activity, and may effect changes in the value system.

Finally, the most basic question is whether the conscience is a starter, a brakeman, or a judge. Is conscience something down within a man, like a “still small voice” or guide, or is conscience a capacity given man, which monitors his past actions and his projected actions, stirring up guilt feelings when he acts contrary to values which are significant to him or an impartial jurist adjudging the rightness or wrongness of an act? Inspect examples of each: (1) One may believe that he is being guided by the Holy Spirit or some inner compulsion to perform a particular act and call this conscience, i.e., a starter. However, it may be that this feeling is not to be confused with the conscience; this feeling may be a direct command from God. Further, it may be that this feeling is simply the positive response to the negative, guilt-producing activity of the conscience. (2) If a person is placed in a situation where he must decide between exploiting a stranger or helping him, values of fair play, honesty, helpfulness, love, self-interest, and success among others may be involved. Either choice may issue in a mixture of feelings of guilt and satisfaction. If the actor is a Christian, likely the choice to help will maximize satisfaction and minimize guilt. The repetition of the process of making such decisions will reinforce the values of helpfulness so that in time the pangs of a guilty conscience when one cannot help will be heightened. This is to say that the Christian can never achieve a “good” conscience. Faith in God’s gracious forgiveness is what is required. If this example is true, then conscience is essentially capacity to feel guilt, a brake. (3) The judge model was presented in the discussion of nationalist man above.

The second, or brakeman model, is perhaps the nearest to the Biblical concept of human conscience.


T. B. Kilpatrick, “Conscience,” HDB, I (1898), 468-475; J. Stalker, “Conscience,” ISBE, II (1915), 701-703; R. Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), xi-xxv; E. Brunner, The Divine Imperative (1937), 156-158; E. Fromm, Man for Himself (1947), 141-171; E. Bergler, The Battle of the Conscience (1948), VII, VIII; R. J. Havighurst and H. Taba, Adolescent Character and Personality (1949), 95, 96, 115-175, 186-196; G. W. Allport, The Individual and His Religion (1950), 75-98; J. P. Thornton-Duesberg, “Conscience,” RTWB (1950), 52, 53; J. G. McKenzie, Nervous Disorders and Religion (1951), 82-101; “Conscience,” HBD (1952), III; W. Eichrodt, Man in the Old Testament (1951); P. Tillich, The Courage to Be (1952), 3-172; R. W. White, Lives in Progress (1952), 308-312, 352-356; R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (1955), 211-220, 260-269; R. Niebuhr, The Self and the Dramas of History (1956), 24-31, 246-256; A. M. Rehwinkel, “Conscience,” BDT (1960), 136, 137; W. Lillie, Studies in New Testament Ethics (1961), 45-56; W. D. Davies, “Conscience,” ICC (1962), 671-676; C. Kluckhohn, Culture and Behavior (1962), 264-300; J. G. McKenzie, Guilt: Its Meaning and Significance (1962), 21-54, 138-158; P. A. Bertocci and R. M. Millard, Personality and the Good (1963), 196-696; R. H. Niebuhr, The Responsible Self (1963), 71-79; J. Fletcher, Situation Ethics (1966), 52-56; H. Thielicke, Theological Ethics: Foundations (1966), 298-358; G. Winter, Elements for a Social Ethic (1966).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(he suneidesis):


1. Judicial

2. Punitive

3. Predictive

4. Social





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:

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 Kahler 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.