While the New Testament writers adopted and refined the notion of conscience in Greek popular usage, it did not feature prominently in their ethical teaching.
Later Christian thinkers, however, had much to say about conscience and developed the biblical concept in fruitful ways.
In “The Confessions” (A.D. 397-398), Augustine traces aspects of his early life.
We hear his conscience “muttering” and chiding him, so that he is “inwardly gnawed and violently confused with horrible shame.”
Augustine’s conscience appears to possess external authority and full knowledge of his person, prompting a severe judgment of his moral choices and a new awareness of the self.
At its best, the medieval conscience was bolstered by a rich repository of theology, Scripture and institutional practice.
Benedictine monk Peter Cellensis (A.D. 1115-1183) understood the conscience to be “dispatched by God to the receptive Christian soul, conscience does not come empty-handed.”
“She bears cases of scrolls which not only contain her identity papers and charge, but also the contents of her well-stocked chamber … [the] collective witness of saints and confessors, councils and synods, authorized commentary upon Latin scripture,” he asserted.
For Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225-1274), conscience was the God-given seat of judgment, applying universal natural laws to particular cases and actions.
Aquinas viewed persons as profoundly moral beings created in the image of God with an innate capacity for ethical judgment.
But, as John Gladwin noted, this view of human nature underestimates “the waywardness of the conscience responding in irrational ways to the emotions, to hidden powers and forces in the personality, and to the accepted norms of family and community.”
Further, the emphasis of Aquinas ignores the psychological tension identified in Romans 7:19, 25, whereby the conscience commends ethical norms and imperatives, but the will does not act in accordance with this knowledge.
In other words, moral behavior is not always governed by conscience.
In “Piers Plowman” (A.D. 1370-1390) – written by William Langland, an obscure writer from the Middle Ages – a personified conscience serves as a divine clerk and notary.
The allegorical poem illustrates how the title character, Will, should base his ethics and life on sound Christian doctrine and practice.
The poem illustrates that a theoretical distinction between personal conscience and binding institutional authority was beginning to emerge during this period, a move that would reach full flower in the West with the Protestant Reformation.
The 16th century Reformers looked back to Augustine rather than Aquinas. While holding the view that the unjustified person suffered from either a bad conscience on account of guilt, or the delusion of self-justification, Martin Luther (A.D. 1483-1546) championed the regenerate conscience.
He declared in 1521 that God’s word alone ruled his conscience, adding, “I cannot, nor will I retract anything, since it is never safe nor virtuous to go against conscience.”
Church officials urged Luther to “lay aside” his conscience in favor of church dogma and custom, but he insisted on the personal right to define the meaning of Scripture, birthing the “Reformation conscience.”
Erasmus (A.D. 1466-1536) had earlier defended the freedom to interpret Scripture on the basis of conscience and rational judgment, but Luther went further.
He declared conscience sovereign and, according to Paul Strohm, claimed, against Erasmus, that the Holy Spirit imparted to the Christian conscience “assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.”
John Calvin (A.D. 1509-1564) viewed conscience as acting in relation to natural law, sharpened in response to revealed law.
As he asserted in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” conscience was a severe critic of the human capacity for salvation yet “a chastened and timorous faculty, insufficient to its task and quailing before God.”
Its positive function was powerless as it awaited redemption by Christ. For Calvin, a good conscience was “inward integrity of heart” with respect to God alone; it lacked a social dimension.
Richard Hooker (A.D. 1554-1600) sought to ameliorate the extreme effects of the Reformation conscience as expressed by Puritans and Anabaptists, who appealed to “special illumination” to counter institutional restraints on conscience.
He allowed for the exercise of private conscience except when confronted by compelling rational argument.
For Hooker, collective authority trumped personal conviction – ironically, a reversal of the Lutheran distinctive.
As dissent from church and state authority became more acceptable, or less fatal, and as the strengths and weaknesses of nascent individualism left their mark on psyche and society, so too views about the nature and powers of conscience evolved.
The Enlightenment and modernity would accelerate and consolidate this process.
Rod Benson is an ethicist and social justice advocate based in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Australia. A version of this article also appeared in Together Magazine, a publication of the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ozbap, @reaustralia and @rodsyd.
Editor’s note: An earlier article by Benson outlined key features of the concept of conscience in biblical and classical sources. It is available here.