Educating Conscience

We do not need to go very far in the news these days to bump directly into issues of truth and lying and honesty and misrepresentation.

Perchance conscience can help us here. The Bible tells us a number of things about conscience.

Romans 2:15 –conscience can accuse and defend
1 Corinthians 4:4 –conscience can be clear
2 Corinthians 1:12 –conscience can testify
1 Timothy 4:2 –conscience can be seared as with a hot iron.
Titus 1:15 –conscience can be corrupted.
Hebrews 9:9 –conscience may not be cleared
Hebrews 9:14 –conscience can be cleansed
Hebrews 10:22 –conscience can be guilty

The word “conscience” appears in the English Bible about 30 or so times depending upon how you do the translation.

There is no Hebrew word as such for “conscience”. In Hebrew the concept is handled by the word for “heart”. For the Hebrew person, the qualms of conscience are felt through his or heart. This is not unusual since in Hebrew emotions are often expressed in terms of various bodily organs.

There is a Greek word for “conscience”, viz., suneidesis which is derived from its root word, sunoida. The Greek sunoida, means “I know together with”.

The parallel Latin “conscio” (used in the Vulgate) can be translated as “to be conscious of” or “to know well”.

It is from “conscio” that we get our word “conscience”. We are all familiar with the word “science” meaning “knowledge of”. Add the prefix “con” which means “with” and we have “knowledge with”.

Now if you listen carefully you will note that some people use “conscience” and “conscious” interchangeably. Actually such usage is not all that far off because in some languages there is only one word for “conscience” and “conscious” and even “consciousness”. In fact “conscience”, “conscious”, “consciousness”, and even “knowledge” can all get mixed up in some contexts.

Let us go with conscience meaning “knowing together with — in a moral sense” or “knowing together in a moral way”; maybe even defining it as “moral consciousness or awareness.”

Then we have the problem of what do we mean by “moral”?

“Moral” means to concern oneself with “choice” with “decision”, with “right and wrong”, and with “being truly human.”

Let’s think of some common phrases which might parallel “knowing with.”

Playing with
Singing with
Talking with
Being with
Going with
Studying with
Eating with
Traveling with
Doing with
Shoveling with
Moving with
Exercising with

All of these phrases can be increased in intensity by wording them as “knowing together with” . . .

Who is she “knowing together with”?
Who is he “knowing together with”?
Who are you “knowing together with”?
Who am I “knowing together with”?

If conscience has to do with “knowing together with” then it matters “what” and “who” we are “knowing together with.”

Let’s look at a few examples . . . these may be a bit grammatically clunky but they make the point.

“I am knowing together with my teacher.”
“I am knowing together with my friend.”
“I am knowing together with my mother.”
“I am knowing together with the Bible.”
“I am knowing together with the radio talk show.”
“I am knowing together with my pastor.”
“I am knowing with Wikipedia.”
“I am knowing together with myself.”
“I am knowing together with the television.”
“I am knowing with my degrees.”
“I am knowing together with God.”
“I am knowing together with my Facebook.”
“I am knowing together with the hymnal.”
“I am knowing together with my professor.”
“I am knowing together with the Gallup poll.”
“I am knowing together with Jesus.”

It is not hard to see where conscience or “knowing together with” becomes connected with authority. In the same sense that I might say that my brother is bigger than your brother or my dad is stronger than your dad, we might say that my source of “knowing together with” is better or stronger than your source of “knowing together with”, it would seem.

Hebrews 6:16 (NIV) speaks of this authoritative dimension: “People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument.”

All of this has to do with how we educate conscience. What and who do we allow to teach our consciences? Where do we allow conscience to find authority?

In scripture we have:

God speaking
Angels announcing
God and a couple of angels stopping by to talk to Abraham (Gneiss 18)
Prophets (both faithful and false) predicting
A donkey protesting to Balaam (Numbers 22)
The pillar of cloud directing
The witch of Endor speaking to Saul for Samuel (1 Samuel 28)
The heavens telling the glory of God
The law proclaiming

Oh, so many sources of truth!

In the Old Testament, the true and faithful prophets gradually become the conscience of Israel and stress interior dispositions and begin to mention individual responsibility. They look forward to the day when God will plant his law in the innermost part of man (Curran).

Jeremiah proclaims:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people (Jeremiah 31:33, NIV).

This passage shows the developmental nature of the conceptualization of conscience. Conscience comes to be thought of as the voice of God. It might be more adequately characterized as man’s inner awareness than God has spoken.

Conscience calls us to the awareness that God has spoken. It behooves then to pay attention to what he has said and what he is saying.

Conscience in the Bible is never static as God’s word is never static. Conscience is always set in the process and context of relationship.

“ . . . conscience is fundamentally not a faculty of judgment but a living personal bond between God and man and neighbor” (Paul Lehmann 1964, 278).

Final authority does not lie in human conscience but with God and his Word.

In the Bible, conscience is not a thing or a faculty or a person but an understanding of men and women as moral beings. It has to do with “knowing together with.”

So the ultimate question then is, “who and what are you knowing together with”?

This past Sunday we sang the beautiful and insightful hymn on this very point. John Bode writes in “Oh Jesus I have promised.” Is it not wonderful how truth shows up in so many places?

Oh, let me feel Thee near me;
The world is ever near;
I see the sights that dazzle,
The tempting sounds I hear;
My foes are ever near me,
Around me and within;
But, Jesus, draw Thou nearer,
And shield my soul from sin.

There is another verse which is not in our hymnal . . .

Oh, let me hear Thee speaking,
In accents clear and still,
Above the storms of passion,
The murmurs of self-will;
Oh, speak to reassure me,
To hasten, or control;
Oh, speak, and make me listen,
Thou Guardian of my soul.


This entry was posted in Ideas to think about and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Educating Conscience

  1. David Heughins says:

    Good stuff!

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