Thursday, 28 February 2008

Fr. Guy Nicholls on conscience

This is the text of a lent talk given by Fr. Guy Nicholls recently on the subject of conscience. At the bottom is a Youtube clip of the talk. Acknowledgements to Mrs. Jackie Parkes.

Conscience in the New Testament

1. The Word and the Idea of Conscience

The word “Conscience” (conscientia) is a direct translation into Latin of the Greek word: “syneidesis”, meaning, roughly, “knowledge within”, or “co-knowledge”. The fundamental meaning implies a personal knowledge on two levels: a knowledge of something outside the mind that has a bearing on our own inner consciousness. Hence the knowing “co-”, or “syn-”. These Latin and Greek prepositions are indicative of something “together”, conjoined. Conscientia implies the presence and knowledge of oneself by God. The person who has “conscientia” knows that he has responsibility towards God based on his own moral freedom. This responsibility towards God is explicitly to be located in the idea of judgement. We are answerable to God for all our freely willed actions, and we will give an account of them all to Him.

Although “conscientia” is only to be found in the New Testament, this idea already existed to an extent in the Old Testament. It corresponds to what is called the “heart” or another Hebrew word usually rendered: the “loins”. In Old Testament language, bodily organs were associated with specific emotional responses and attitudes. Examples are too numerous to mention here, but the term “heart” is not far removed from our own usage, where “heart” stands for the innermost self, for the motives and character, as for instance in the book of Exodus, which we read in the Office at this time, in which it is often said that, in response to Moses, petitions that his people might be given leave to offer sacrifice to God, Pharaoh's heart was hardened. But the heart also stands for that which God sees, especially as we stand before Him as our Judge. Take these well known lines from the psalms, which can illustrate this range of meaning of “heart”; first, ps. 50:17: “a humbled, contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn”, which signifies the centre of one's moral self and seat of one's will; and ps. 138:29 “search me, O God, and know my heart”, signifying the self which is known and judged by God. But don't forget the words that begin both ps. 13 and ps. 52: “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God!” So a heart, or conscience, can be perverse. A point to which we will return.

The word Conscience, with which we are concerned, appears only in the New Testament, and moreover, almost entirely within the Letters of St. Paul, though there are three places where St. Peter uses the term in his first Epistle. It occurs twice in the Acts of the Apostles, though interestingly enough both times are in speeches attributed to St. Paul. It is important to say at this point that nowhere does Paul give us a definition of “conscience”. Yet it is possible to piece together the aspects of its meaning from the way in which he uses it, and that is what we are going to do. But first of all, where did St. Paul get it from? “syneidesis” is a term from Stoic philosophy, the most popular Greco-Roman philosophical system of the Apostolic era, meaning primarily “awareness of one's own thoughts”, a for of the idea of self-consciousness – the awareness within us that we know.: “I know that I know”. Yet even at this stage the word is also used to imply knowledge of the moral goodness or otherwise of one's deeds. So St. Paul was well-placed to adopt it, being a Roman citizen, a well-educated Jew of the diaspora (i.e. the Jews who lived outside the Holy Land), raised in the Greek-speaking city of Tarsus in Asia Minor. St. Paul takes the basic Old Testament meaning of heart and develops it further, giving it greater depth and sophistication. Conscience in St. Paul is always related to God as the hearing of His word, the acceptance of His will, conciousness of one's own position, and one's own responsibility before God, and therefore, ultimately, of the divine judgement.

2. What is the Role of Conscience?

The Christian knows himself to be confronted with the demands and judgement of God, which makes him conscious both of the commandments and at the same time of the grace of God. As he says in (2Cor 1:12): “for our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world, and still more toward you, with holiness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom, but by the grace of God.” so conscience bears witness, or testimony, to one's sincerity. Conscience knows what is the inner meaning and value of anything that we do, whatever it may appear to others. Moreover, as Paul says here, conscience is aware of the working of God's grace in what we do. Hence his saying that he has “behaved ... toward you, with holiness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom, but by the grace of God”.

Conscience is not merely passive, a simple awareness of God's knowledge of the motives of the heart. Conscience is also active, in that it plays the part of a guide for a life lived in God's sight. For instance, take this example from (Acts 24:16), where Paul defends himself against the Jews before Felix the Governor: “I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the law or written in the prophets, having a hope in God which these themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. So I always take pains to have a clear conscience towards God and towards men.” This clearly indicates that following the guiding light of conscience is not always straightforward, since it requires “taking pains” to achieve it.

Paul suggests that conscience is not simply the voice of God in our soul, but our own voice which directs our attention towards God's will. So we must act both to please God and to honour our conscience, as when he says, in enjoining obedience to the governing authorities: (Rom 13:5) “Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” There is a similar passage in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb13:18): “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give an account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honourably in all things”

St Paul understands that it is quite possible for two persons' consciences to work in different ways with regard to certain matters. One man's conscience may be troubled by something that does not trouble another's. Paul gives an illustration. To understand it we need to remember that in those pagan times, food offered in sacrifice to pagan gods and idols was often subsequently offered for sale in the markets, without necessarily being identified as such. Paul says that you can eat such meat with a good conscience if you don't actually know where it has come from. But of course, if you do know that it is from pagan sacrifices, then it is best to shun it for conscience's sake. So he writes to the Corinthians, telling them to shun both the worship of idols and the eating of food taken from their sacrifices, for, in the Eucharist, do not the faithful also eat of what is sacrificed to God and so share in it? In worshipping idols the pagans worship demons. The meat offered to them in sacrifice will do yo no harm if you do not know where it has come from. All things are lawful but not all things are helpful, he says, and continues:.(1Cor 10: 25ff) “let no one seek his own good but the good of his neighbour. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if some one says to you, ‘this has been offered in sacrifice’, then out of consideration for the man who informed you and for conscience’s sake – I mean his conscience, not yours – do not eat it. For why should my liberty be determined by another man’s scruples?…So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Paul also gives advice to Timothy as one who has the guidance of souls laid to his charge, telling him to act always by the guidance of conscience in accordance with the “prophetic utterances” which Paul says pointed to him: (1Tim 1:5) “inspired by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience.” encourage people to avoid false teaching or speculations: “whereas the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” And he warns Timothy of the fatal danger of rejecting conscience when he says that (1Tim 1:19): “By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith.” These Paul has “delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”, meaning a form of punitive excommunication intended to bring them to their senses and the proper use of conscience.

Revelation of truth is made through power of conscience. For Paul as an Apostle appeals directly to each man's conscience to recognise the truth in what he teaches, not because it is Paul who says it, but because it comes from Christ through him (2Cor 4:2): “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhand ways; we refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” Similarly, in training up Timothy in the governance of souls ruled by conscience he says that 1Tim3:9): “Deacons…must hold the mystery of faith with a good conscience” which preserves the mysteries of the faith in their purity.

3. How does Conscience function?

Conscience is a faculty innate in every person, even in the pagans. For they, too can come to know God's will. Otherwise there could be point in preaching the truth to them. How then does conscience manifest itself even before the revealed truth is preached? Paul explains in the Letter to the Romans that there is a “natural law “ written on men's hearts (Rom 2:15): “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, (note the reappearance of that key word heart!)while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my Gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” so conscience in the pagans is given to prepare the way for the coming of the truth. Note the important statement that the pagans will be judged by Christ, not only those who have had explicit faith in Him.

But once the conscience has been enlightened by the truth of Faith, then it functions in a new and clearer say through the Holy Spirit. Paul is able to say something extraordinary about his unbelieving Jewish brethren only because he recognises that the Holy spirit has inspired it in his conscience: (Rom 9:1): “I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.”

St. Peter, in one of his rare mentions of the word conscience, tells us that Baptism is the requirement of a good conscience towards God, which is effective not through the power of water, but through the power of Christ's resurrection: (1Pet3:21): “Baptism, which corresponds to this (viz. Noe’s salvation through water and the ark), now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

4. the Imperative of Conscience

Conscience binds, as we saw in St Paul's advice to the Corinthians concerning food offered to idols. being linked to human knowledge, it is subject to deception. All things are lawful, he says, but not all are helpful. Because idols are not real, they can do no harm, but a person's conscience may be troubled by the thought of eating food offered to them. Even though Paul says this can do no harm, still it is right to follow conscience, and also for one whose conscience is not troubled by such matters, not to upset another who is: (1Cor 8:7ff) concerning food offered to idols: “However, not all possess this knowledge, (viz. that idols are not real) but some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat it, and no better off if we do. Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.”

He deals even more extensively with this point in (Rom14): “as for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgement on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?…Why do you pass judgement on your brother? Or why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgement seat of God…so each of us shall give an account of himself to God. Then let us no more pass judgement on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat be the ruin of one for whom Christ died…For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men…The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God; happy is he who has no reason to judge himself for what he approves. But he who has doubts is condemned, if he acts, because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Conscience is therefore like faith in this respect. It binds under the pain of sin. One must follow one's conscience as guided by the light of faith, even if, as Paul allows, it may in certain details be misguided.

4. Good and Bad Conscience

But a misguided conscience is not the same as a bad conscience. We have already heard Paul say to Timothy that “by rejecting conscience certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith.” Then what influences can be brought to bear to shape the power of conscience for good or ill? Paul says most about this in the Pastoral Letters to Timothy and Titus, where he speaks about the deceptions practised on consciences by the evil one. But he clearly states that such deception can only take place if it is willed by the person whose conscience is warped from the truth: (1 Tim 4:2) “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” And to Titus he makes the important observation that conscience effectively colours all things: (Tit 1:15) “to the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted.”

The Letter to the Hebrews also addresses this point: (Heb 10: 2) “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of those realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshippers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin.” Conscience cannot be purified and perfected through temple sacrifices but only through Christ’s blood, in the power of the eternal Spirit. (Heb9: 9,14): on the temple sacrifices. “According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper.” Contd ad 9:14: “For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” But conscience is in fact purified by the grace of the sacraments, as the Letter makes clear: Contd ad 2:22: “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

5. Liberty and Limitations of Conscience

So, late in life, Paul can gratefully tell Timothy that : (2Tim 1:3): “I thank God whom I serve with a clear conscience”. What is the especial meaning of a clear conscience? It gives peace and confidence. So, for instance, Paul speaks before the Tribune when he is accused by Ananias and the council:(Acts 23:1) “And Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, ‘Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day.’Yet despite that, Paul makes no claim that his, or any other individual person's conscience is actually infallible. As a human power conscience can give no certainty about God’s judgement: (1Cor4:4): “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.”

So, to summarise, conscience is a guide when it is purified by God's grace: coming through the sacrifice of Christ and the light of the Holy Spirit. Yet it is not thereby infallible. Still, it is to be followed under pain of sin. But even is one's conscience does not accuse one, that does not necessarily mean that God has acquitted one of all fault. We must therefore rely at all times on the grace of God received in humility, being guided not only by the inner voice of conscience, but by God's word and God's apostolic truth administered by the Apostles themselves.

Fr Guy Nicholls Cong. Orat & Parish Priest of the Birmingham Oratory.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gonna You tube you next Oliver!