ΣΥΝΕΙΔΗΣΙΣ (Conscience) in the Pauline Writings -- By: Bruce F. Harris

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 24:2 (May 1962)
Article: ΣΥΝΕΙΔΗΣΙΣ (Conscience) in the Pauline Writings
Author: Bruce F. Harris


ΣΥΝΕΙΔΗΣΙΣ (Conscience) in the Pauline Writings

Bruce F. Harris

1. Introduction

The notion of conscience, although it is certainly implicit in both the Old Testament and the Gospels, does not become prominent until the epistles of Paul. It is deserving of close attention, because it is a subject of considerable importance in New Testament ethics, and also has relevance for the student of ancient thought. This is a point at which the moralists of the later Greek schools, and their Roman interpreters such as Cicero and Seneca, impinge closely on the New Testament.

During the last century, many writers have propounded a doctrine of conscience, both from a theological and a popular point of view, and great claims have been made for its place in the Christian life. For example, Hastings Rashdall, after stating the essentially rational nature of the moral faculties, wrote “conscience may be held to include not merely the capacity of pronouncing moral judgments, but the whole body of instincts, feelings, emotions and desires which are presupposed by and which influence those judgments, as well as those which prompt to the doing of the actions which they prescribe” (Conscience and Christ, p. 30). Not only was conscience very comprehensive in scope, according to his view; he also exalted it so far as to say “no one really makes his submission even to the teaching of our Lord absolute and unlimited, except in so far as the ethical injunctions of that authority commend themselves to his conscience” (ibid., p. 33). But more recently, following intensive study of the word συνείδησις in the New Testament, strong doubts have been cast upon the validity of any doctrine of conscience. H. Osborne concluded1 that Paul used the term with all the vagueness it possessed in popular Greek thought, and

C. A. Pierce2 condemns the expositions of Rashdall, K. E. Kirk and others out of hand, as foreign to the New Testament. Conscience, he claims, can be exalted until it becomes idolatry in the Biblical sense, i.e., setting up something in the place of God, and it allows men to be a law unto themselves, dispensing often with the aid of the church, and cloaking under the guise of conscience their own inclinations and desires, both good and bad. While sympathising with Pierce’s protests against Rashdall, we shall attempt to show that his own views are partly defective when measured against the New Testament.

2. The Meaning of συνείδησις

An examination of σ...

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