One of the more interesting developments of Christian theology in the west was the development of the ‘conscience.’  Two years ago, I summarized Oliver O’Donovan on this theme:

Clearly, we do sin sometimes. In those moments, we develop a self-awareness of the dividedness between our reason and our will, a “guilty self-awareness” that is often called the ‘conscience.’ O’Donovan argues that while this meaning of conscience is present in the letters of Paul, the medieval and moderns understand conscience as “the whole faculty of moral understanding and self-direction.” In doing so, they make the separation of reason and will normative, not an effect of sin, which “generates a conception of freedom as autonomy, the agent’s independence of reality.” That is, while Paul understood “conscience” to be part of the human response to sin, subsequent Christian thinkers made it an intrinsic part of human nature.

It is fascinating to read John Calvin’s definition of conscience in light of O’donovan’s analysis.  Writes Calvin (III.19.15): 

For just as when throught he mind and understanding men grasp a knowledge of things, and from this are said “to know,” this is the source of the word “knowledge,” so also when they have a sense of divine judgment, as a witness joined to them, which does not allow them to hide their sins from being accused before the Judge’s tribunal, this sense is called “conscience.”  For it is a certain mean between God and man, because it does not allow man to suppress within himself what he knows, but  pursues him to the point of convicting him…Therefore this awareness which hales man before God’s judgment is a sort of guardian appointed for man to note and spy out all his secrets that nothing may be buried in darkness.”

Calvin is clearly comfortable describing ‘conscience’ both as a faculty and as a particular sort of awareness of God’s judgment.

But he also argues that even as a faculty of the soul, it has specific reference to God, not man.  Calvin writes, “As works have regard to men, so conscience refers to God.”  While Luke records Paul declaring that he took pains to walk “with a clear conscience toward God and men,” Calvin contends that “this was said because the fruit of a good conscience flows forth and comes even to men.  But properly speaking, as I have already said, it has respect to God alone.” 

This is all the more interesting in light of our current usage of “conscience.”  While we clearly treat it as a “faculty” of the soul (like the mind), we have neutered it in two important ways:

First, we divorce our consciences from any normative, external ethical system (like natural law), subjectivizing them in such a way that ethical direction depends upon its “proper functioning.”  If you have a “seared conscience” and want to know what’s right or wrong in any given situation, alas, you’re out of luck.

Second, “conscience’ lacks the specifically “God-oriented” aspect of judgment that it clearly has for Calvin.  There is no transcendent aspect, no awareness not just that I am wrong, but that I am wrong before the Maker and Ruler of the universe.  For Calvin, the conscience is a middle ground precisely because as a faculty of the soul, it reaches beyond itself and makes us aware of our standing before God.

Our contemporary understanding of ‘conscience’ has none of that.  So what are they left with?  Only themselves, and their history.  They are by themselves and for themselves, and so can be nothing other than curved in on themselves.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. On the meaning and function of “conscience”:

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  2. I find this a valuable discussion Matthew, yet I have to object to several points. Though I am not familiar with Oliver O’Donovan, who can say “clearly we do sin sometimes”? And I do not know who “we” refers to except in a rhetorical sense. If “we” understand Dr. Keller’s premise “we” are in sin most of our waking hours. To wit, anytime we rely on anything but Christ for justification we are in idolaltry. And also when our hearts honor any “thing” above Him. So I must object to “sometimes”.
    I would also add to Dr. Keller’s points with the remarks of J N Darby regarding Grace and License. According to the overall meaning of Romans, we are using Grace for license ANY TIME we are not walking in the Holy Spirit.
    The result is true to reformed doctrine, i.e., we need Grace much more than we suppose, and we find ourselves in constant need of His Grace.

    I will comment with some thoughts about conscience in a new window.


  3. Now on to a couple of points regarding O’Donovan’s definition of conscience as well as Calvin’s. First O’Donavan’s as quoted above: and hopefully O’Donovan has much more to say about the subject. But this quote seems pretty squarely to state that the conscience is ONLY knowing wrong, i.e., “our guilty self-awareness”. Where the apostle clearly writes in several place that the conscience is a guide to what is to be done, not just what was done wrong. See 2 Tim 1:3, which strengthens the quote from Acts. The point being to base a truth on scripture requires that it meet the case of every portion of scripture.
    And Calvin seems to be speaking of conscience only referenced to believers. And I believe the blog skews the faculties of soul and spirit. Again, to be precise, EVERY portion of scripture must be reconciled by out theories to have a valid interpretation.
    Quoting one of my favorites, Mr. Chesterton, when responding to the notions many have that they are good persons because they follow their own conscience. To which Mr. Chesterton replied, “You may as well rely on your old rotten tooth”. The meaning being both were corrupted by the fall.
    Last of all, and I work myself into trouble on a reformed blog here, but Calvin is not inspired writing. Even the apostles made grave errors we are to learn from and to avoid. The point being that believers are not under a natural law of any sort, the only laws that can be applied to the new man is the law of the Spirit of life and the Law of love.
    To close I have to say that the reformers, as the Brethren did also, built upon one another’s work till we can see the power of the renewed mind after generations of discipling. Today’s Christianity largely has ignored the tremendous need for one generation to train the next in walking in the Spirit and in faith. There are exceptions but generally it is there and it is largely responsible for the low spiritual and intellectual ebb of our day (among believers).


  4. James,

    Thanks for the comments. Regarding your first one, there’s a difficult problem of self-awareness that I think is worth reflecting on. You might be right (along with Keller) that we spend the bulk of our waking ours ‘in sin,’ but I suspect we are not conscious of that sin. But it seems like ‘conscience’ is often only used in reference to our awareness that we are in sin. So, we might reframe O’Donovan’s claim to say something like, “Clearly we consciously sin (i.e. deliberately and intentionally violate the commandments of God) sometimes.” Even if we are always “in sin,” we’re not always deliberately sinning, right? At least, it doesn’t seem like it to me. I’m open to being wrong on that, though.

    Regarding your second comment, I have a couple thoughts. First, it’s really helpful. Thanks for engaging me. Second, I should say that while I read Calvin and have sympathies with the Reformed camp on MANY issues, I like Wesley a whole lot too. And I don’t think I quite fit the “Reformed blog” genre. So be at peace. We really want to engage everyone worth engaging, and Calvin definitely is–even if, as you point out, he is not inspired.

    But to the substance, I’ll have to dig out what O’Donovan says elsewhere about Paul’s understanding of conscience, but your point is interesting because if I remember correctly, O’Donovan explicitly interprets Paul as the opposite of you. : )

    I don’t quite see how you’re interpreting the 1 Timothy passage as “a guide.” It seems like Paul’s point there is simply that they haven’t done anything wrong–not that their consciences have guided them in any meaningful sense. What do you make of that interpretation?

    And yes, the interesting angle of Calvin’s notion of conscience is that–even for non-believers–it is explicitly theological. It points people beyond this world to God and makes them aware of their judgment before Him. That makes sense to me as a theory of conscience, I think.

    But at the same time, your point from Chesterton–and what quicker way to win points around here than quoting him??–is well made. Whatever the “conscience” is, it clearly doesn’t function as it was intended.

    Thanks for the thoughts. I’d love to hear more about my response. And do have a restful Christmas.




  5. Hello again Matt. Interesting discussion- and possibly very useful. I would say you may have answered my last point in your first paragraph. What good is the conscience if it is corrupted. Ie, If I am unaware of the extent that “have no other Gods before me” reaches, then my conscience does me little good, at least on the main thing that is required of me. This begs the question, is conscience given by God as a one time effect, or is it fed or grown by what we learn spiritually. I think the latter. I assume that Calvin is saying this in “when they have a sense of God’s judgment” in that this sense can grow with us. But I don’t want to put words in his mouth.

    The other thing I have in mind is that conscience does me little good if it is only aware of things past. As in O’Donovan’s quote, and admittedly it is just a slice of his entire work. But it does seem to say conscience only works on the past. What if I face a decision now? Does conscience come into play for the present? And can it be engaged for the future, such as- should I do such and such. Vine’s dictionary says of conscience “that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God, as that which is designed to govern our lives”. It is in this sense that I interpret Acts 24.16 and 2 Tim 1:3. In keeping his conscience clear before men, as I read it, it is constantly engaged in decision making (doing God’s will) and not simply judging past actions. In this the apostle’s conscience was highly developed. This could perhaps be understood as the healed fracture between reason and will that O’Donovan suggests.

    I do accept yours and Calvin’s idea that the conscience in non-believers exists (though corrupted) and has a great purpose. That main purpose is to witness to the truth when it is presented. Meaning that the conscience will side with the law and convict of sin against oneself when the law is presented. Then Grace can be presented as the blessed antidote.

    Great discussion. Stay engaged with these things Matt. They are tremendously useful. And have a merry, peaceful Christ mas.



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