Appeals to conscience are common in our time. Some persons resist induction into the army because they claim that such service violates their conscience. Many others engage in protest movements in the name of conscience. Students demand changes in the structure of universities; they, too, claim to act in the name of conscience. Nearly every day, it seems, newspapers record the advent of some new movement conceived in the name of conscience. Appeals to conscience on such diverse matters can be perplexing, particularly since both sides of many issues today are defended in this way.
One reason for the confusion evident in the understanding of conscience is the Christian community’s failure to set forth any firm idea of what conscience is and how it functions. This failure is most regrettable, since conscience has been an important part of the Christian concept of man from the time of St. Paul. The word conscience appears more than thirty times in the New Testament. In the seventeenth century, a great age of Christians, theology focused on the place and use of conscience in the life of the Christian.
For the Christian, a definition of conscience must begin with the Bible. Most authorities agree that the Old Testament contains neither the word nor a concept of individual conscience though one may speak of the idea of a corporate conscience. This seems to fit with the fact that religion in the Old Testament emphasizes corporate and external responsibilities, while in the New the emphasis is on individual responsibility.
When the New Testament writers spoke of conscience they seemed to assume that their audience had some understanding of the idea. Modern scholars have shown that the concept of conscience was part of Hellenistic anthropology ...1
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