Conscience in the New Testament

C. A. Pierce, SCM Press, 1955

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        This is an old book, but it remains a treatment of a New Testament concept that is not dated.  ‘Conscience’ (suneidysis) is a primary Pauline theme. (It appears 31 times in the New Testament writings, 21 times in Paul himself, 11 times in 1 Corinthians alone.)  It is not found in the LXX, which means that the NT writers who use the term adopted the word and its usage not from the Hebrew world of ideas but from the Hellenistic.

        Conscience is the reaction of the whole person to his own wrong acts (p 113).  Paul introduced the concept into the Christian vocabulary.  He does not claim it as a part of revelation, but accepts it as a universal experience among people with a limited validation (p 113).  Plutarch called ‘conscience’ an ‘ulcer’, a painful thing, an extremely resistant area that never ceases to wound and goad (p 47).  Its function is to protect the individual from harm, physical and moral; pain will rouse the individual to maintain good and safe behaviour (p 53).

        Conscience does not say what should be done, but that the individual sees a moral decision that should be followed based on other criteria.  Nature by Itself cannot say what should be done but that the moral action (the ‘right thing’) should be followed.  Such an approach to the moral life gives the church five duties (p 128): to be a healthy environment (the concept of formation), to influence the secular environment, to present reassured moral options to see Jesus’ life as an example, to follow right habits.

        The book is a good treatment of the process of moral choice, and a powerful example of how the early church interacted with the larger culture.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.