Christian Conscience

John 14:18-25, 1 Peter 3:8-17 (quoting Ps. 34:13-17)

The English word "conscience" is used to translate a Greek word "suneidesis" that appears some thirty times in the New Testament. It is striking that none of the statements attributed to Jesus in the gospels include the Greek word for conscience, but perhaps less surprising when we realize there is no comparable word in the Hebrew or Aramaic versions of the Jewish scriptures, which are the scriptures Jesus knew.

It is Paul and his Greek-speaking colleagues who bring the idea of "conscience" into the Christian witness, because they were reading not only the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures (known as the Septuagint) but also Greek literature.

In classical Greek "suneidesis" refers to knowledge, especially knowledge based on an examination of past deeds. A person known for doing good deeds is said to have a good conscience. As the Hebrew scriptures concern the covenant between the people of Israel and God, there is no concept of conscience in the Jewish tradition — until Jews are strongly influenced by Hellenistic culture under Alexander the Great and his successors and then under the Romans.

The ancient Israelite prophets did call on individuals to act ethically, but this meant keeping the law given to Moses by God rather acting on their conscience. Jeremiah 31:31-34 says for the LORD that a new covenant will be written on the hearts of the people, but this passage does not imply self-reflection. The author of Psalm 51 prays to the LORD for "a clean heart" and "a new and right spirit within me," (v. 10) but without any sense of critical self-examination.

In the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, however, which includes books written in Greek that are not in the Hebrew Bible, we find in the Wisdom of Solomon (17:11) a text using the Greek word "suneidesis" to indicate that wickedness is condemned when we reflect on our past actions. Contemporary Protestants may read this passage in Catholic Bibles, as the Catholic Church includes in its Old Testament all the books that were read by the first Greek-speaking apostles of the church in the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures.

Our Western idea of conscience, in short, is originally a Greek idea. The spirit of Socrates is alive and well in the Christian tradition, because Greek-speaking Jews integrated the Greek concern for a good conscience into Jewish thought. Greek-speaking Jews, who became leaders of the church in the first century, promoted the idea of a clear or clean conscience in their writings, and some of these writings were later included in the New Testament.

We see an example of such a witness in 1 Peter 3:8-17. The letter urges members of the church to "turn away from evil and do good," but does not refer to the Law of Moses to distinguish what is evil from what is good. Instead, the letter encourages Christians to "be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame." (vs. 15-16)

Although none of the New Testament gospels explicitly refer to "suneidesis," the gospel of John includes statements about the Spirit of God that many contemporary Christians identify with conscience. In John 14 we find Jesus talking to his disciples about being "in" them after he is gone, and promising that they will receive "the Advocate, the Holy Spirit" who will teach them all they need to know and will remind them of what Jesus has said. (vs. 20 and 26)

The idea that the Holy Spirit is present in each faithful person is what many Christians believe when they say, "let your conscience be your guide." The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have taught instead that the Holy Spirit speaks through the teachings and rituals led by priests, who stand in the place of the apostles, and so have with the authority to decide what it means to follow the Holy Spirit. Since Martin Luther, however, there has been a powerful alternative understanding, which emphasizes the "priesthood of all believers." This Protestant tradition claims that the Spirit of God speaks to and through the conscience of individual Christians.

Luther was reading Paul’s letter to the Romans when he realized that this was the key to understanding why the law of the Jews, or any other law, was supplanted by the reign of Christ in our hearts and minds. His break with Catholic authority identified Christian conscience with individual resistance to institutional authority, and thereafter this tradition of faith asserting liberty of conscience has been the foundation for all claims for religious liberty, freedom of speech, and many of the other individual rights that we cherish. It was Paul, after all, who affirmed that "Christ is the end of the law." (Romans 10:4)

Yet, Paul also urged Christians to temper their acts of conscience with love. We see this clearly in 1 Corinthians 8-10, for in these chapters Paul is trying to help the church in Corinth find a solution to conflict among its Jewish and Gentile members. Gentile Christians in Corinth are eating food offered to idols, arguing that they are free to do so because they do not believe in the idols. Jewish dietary laws prohibited eating such food, and Jewish Christians were protesting and threatening to leave the church over the dispute.

Paul agrees with the Gentile side of the argument, and says that the Jewish Christians who oppose eating food offered to idols have a "weak conscience." (I Cor. 8:7) Nonetheless, he appeals to the Gentiles to refrain from eating food offered to idols in order to encourage the Jewish members of the church to remain in the new community of faith. "’All things are lawful,’" Paul says, "but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage," he tells the Gentile Christians, "but that of the other."

Paul’s advice is detailed and practical. "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience," he says, "for ‘the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.’ If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience – I mean the other’s conscience, not your own." (1 Cor. 10:23-29)

Three chapters later in this letter, Paul argues that love is the greatest spiritual gift. "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (I Cor. 13:4-7)

These words were not written for a wedding ceremony, although they are often read to remind those being married what sort of love they should aspire to share. These words were written to urge those acting on the basis of their conscience, with freedom in Christ, to think of others in the church, who on the basis of their conscience might be offended.

In short, Paul is saying that conscience may be impatient or arrogant, and so must be tempered by love, the greatest gift of the Holy Sprit, which rejoices only in the truth. Christian conscience should always to be an act of love. This is what a Protestant reading of the New Testament adds to the Greek idea of self-reflection and the individual freedom to decide what is right and wrong.

We are called to freedom in Christ, and that freedom involves being guided by our conscience. But we turn to Christian scripture and to life in the church to find the love that "informs" our conscience. As Paul so eloquently reminds us: "now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." (1 Cor. 13:13)

21 January 21, 2006 © Robert Traer 2016