What is a Genuinely Christian Conception of the Conscience?

Have you ever thought deeply or self-reflectively about what the human conscience is; what your conscience is? The Apostle Paul did, he wrote:

12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. ~Romans 2:12-16


10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. ~I Corinthians 2:10-13

Usually when we think of conscience we think of it as some sort of autonomous inner light, a free floating island that serves as a self-governing, self-determined, deliberative ‘thing’ (Libertarian Free Agency) that we can appeal to as our objective (subjectively possessed) rudder that guides us through the complexities of our day to day lives. For Christians what I just described is usually qualified in a way that we have a Spirit guided or enabled conscience (which would be Semi-Pelagianism, theologically); nevertheless, it is still functionally understood as an autonomous thing with or without the Holy Spirit’s enablement.

Karl Barth, as narrated by John Webster, offers an alternative account of what the conscience is; his account, true to form, starts, principally, in Christ. Barth saw Christ as the external ground of conscience; this is in contrast to the usual and classical (and even ‘secular’) conception of conscience as something that is an internal and introspective possession of the human agent. For Barth, according to Webster, the moral self does not primarily have ‘self reference’, but a Christic reference that is given to us in his Self giveness for us.  John Webster tells us of Barth (at length),

[T]his refusal of moral and temporal self-referentiality provides the backcloth for one of the most significant and successful discussions in the Ethics, the treatment of conscience in paragraph 16. From the beginning of the discussion, Barth very deliberately sets himself against the assumption that conscience is a natural, self-evident reality requiring no more than immediate self-reflection in order to establish its operations. Quite the opposite: it is ‘this very astonishing knowledge’, something known not as a depth dimension of our moral lives but as ‘our human knowing of what … God alone can know as he who is good, as the giver of the command and the judge of its fulfilment’. For most of the moral traditions of modernity, philosophical and theological, conscience has been an authoritarian and autonomous faculty of self-governance, increasingly detached from rational consideration of moral order. Conscience functions as a kind of nucleus of personal agency around which orbit external realities, such as public conventions or social norms and roles. Those external realities constrain conscience only in so far as they provide material for the deliberations of conscience: like the moral freedom of which it is a core aspect, conscience is authentic in the measure in which it is undetermined by nation or society. For Barth, on the other hand, conscience is quite other than introspective personal moral existence. It takes its place alongside a cluster of other eschatological notions – child of God; fellowship with God the Redeemer; the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit – all of which locate the centre of moral agency outside of the self. To have a conscience is ‘to look and reach beyond the limits of our creatureliness’, ‘to have the Holy Spirit’, to participate ‘in the truth itself’. This means that, over against ‘the ethics of naturalistic or idealistic subjectivism’, Barth does not consider conscience ‘a subjective principle by means of which we can measure the possibilities of life in general and once and for all’. Nor is conscience to be thought of as a faculty, in the sense of a capacity for making judgements, which is ready for our consultation – ‘a principle that we can control, a general principle that we can seize and use at any time’. All such views are anthropologically deficient, in that they envisage the agent’s interior moral life as existing in at least relative isolation from the determining presence of God. For Barth, however, to hear conscience is not to listen to some deeper, non-reflective voice of our own, less caught up in the immediacy of desire and action. It is to listen to ‘our own voice’ as ‘God’s voice’.

Some care needs exercising in grasping Barth’s point here. In speaking of conscience as ‘our own voice’, he is not falling back into the position from which he wishes to escape…. For Barth … the call of conscience summons us to participate in God’s knowledge, literally con-scientia, co-knowledge with God, ‘strictly moment-by-moment co-knowledge. It is not ‘human self-consciousness’, but a co-knowledge in God which is always to be characterized by ‘non-giveness’ or ‘pure futurity’. In the event in which our knowledge becomes this co-knowledge, the distance between God and our awareness is not abolished but bridged. Conscience then, cannot be understood apart from the act of prayer, appeal to the coming of God the Redeemer. Shorn of this eschatological dimension, the notion of conscience could promote ideas of the availability of God’s will as an object for moral reflection…. Without this caveat, conscience threatens to become simply ‘mad autonomism’ or ‘deeschatologised consciousnesses. [John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 59-60]

Pastoral Implication

This promotes all kinds of avenues of response. Of primary import, though, as we close, is to highlight the impact that this kind of ‘Christ-conditioned’ understanding of the conscience should have on the Christian’s spirituality. Barth wrote against and from a context that was shaped by the great modern theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and others. It was this milieu which gave us theological liberalism, one of its primary hallmarks was that theology became an introspective exercise of the self turning in and finding the reality of God in a ‘feeling’. The effect was to produce a theology that was really anthropology, or a study of the self; a projection outward, only to immediately boomerang inward. Or, Barth’s thought could also be place in contrast to the kind of pietism constructed by Puritan theology (or even Augustine’s theology). Puritan theology, in almost all of its sectors, gave us a spirituality that required the self to look inward to see if they were one of the elect for whom Christ had died; they had to look at ‘their’ good works. All of this heritage has been bequeathed to us, the American Evangelical, and Christian, in general; we end up with a performative Christianity, and a self-centered ethics. And like Schleiermacher, we baptize our moral self determination in the name of Christ; but really this is only a projection of ourselves out onto a concept we know as God (Israel did this with the golden calf … remember?). So I think this hits home, doesn’t it?!

I think Barth is developing a Pauline understanding of conscience, one that is grounded in Christ, and one that we can participate in as we are united to Christ’s humanity (i.e. salvation) by the Holy Spirit. Conscience, a genuinely Christian conception of it, must be one that looks away from ourselves and to Christ.

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9 Responses to What is a Genuinely Christian Conception of the Conscience?

  1. Andrew Stravitz says:

    So “our conscience” is really the knowledge God shares with us by the Spirit?


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Andrew, our conscience would be what we participate in by the Spirit through Christ’s conscience for us. So just as humanity, our humanity is grounded in Christ’s archetypal and resurrected/recreated/reconciled humanity; it is through this grounding with his redeemed humanity that our conscience is given its proper orientation for God.

    Does that make sense?


  3. Andrew Stravitz says:

    Perhaps it does. I don’t mean to be obtuse, but what does it mean to participate in a resu./recre./recon. conscience…actually? Is the thinking of every human taken up in this conscience, as applying the homoousion to this concept would seem to imply? Or, as Webster’s comment on prayer might imply, is human conscience the action of those, who filled with Spirit, encounter God “moment-by-moment”?
    Please feel free to correct any misconceptions or false assumptions I have…which I suppose is the point of conversing via comment sections 🙂


  4. Bobby Grow says:


    “Or, as Webster’s comment on prayer might imply, is human conscience the action of those, who filled with Spirit, encounter God “moment-by-moment”?

    Yes, this is the way I read it; through the emphasizing the Spirit’s uniting work that occurs moment-by-moment ever anew.


  5. Bobby Grow says:

    The encountering though is grounded enhypostatically as we participate in Christ’s vicarious humanity by the Holy Spirit; just to try and be more clear from how I am reading this–or attempting to.


  6. Bobby Grow says:

    Andrew, if you can get your hands on Webster’s book, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, you should read it some time; I won’t be able to do justice to what he develops in length in his book.

    What is your background theologically? Are you in the ministry somewhere (pastor, etc.)? A theological student? Both and more? 🙂 Just curious …


  7. Bobby Grow says:

    Are you in Chicago by chance?


  8. Andrew Stravitz says:

    Yes, yes, and yes. Just finished my MA in Christian Studies at TEDs, while serving as a pastoral resident at my church, and my fam lives in Edgewater, but only til Dec (which I assume you already knew based on your other augur-ish questions). How’d you assume I’m in Chi?


  9. Bobby Grow says:

    Google is a wonderous thing 😉 . Where you headin’ after December?


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