This page provides a range of key resources on the place of conscience in Christian ethics. Many, but not all, of these are available online (some though requiring a subscription to be accessed).
The initial section points to some helpful introductory pieces in dictionaries, handbooks and readers and is followed by resources relating to the Scriptural background. There are then guides to classic discussions in the Christian tradition before highlighting some more recent resources.Last Updated on 4 October, 2021 by Andrew Goddard
Dictionary Articles and Readers
- “Conscience” in IVP Dictionary, pp. 251-2.
- “Conscience” in SCM Dictionary, pp. 116-18.
- “Conscience” by John Webster from the translation of Lacoste’s Encyclopedia of Christian Theology is the best short theological overview I know.
- “Consicence” in The Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics by James Keenan
- “Conscience: Rightly Formed and Otherwise” by Darlene Fozard Weaver offers a helpful short overview focussed on Catholic understanding
- “The Heart of the Matter: A Very Brief History of Conscience” by Daniel A. Dombrowski
- “Conscience” by Alberto Giubilini provides a more philosophical and historical account.
Other short basic introductions in textbooks and introductions to ethics include:
- Holmgren, Stephen, Ethics After Easter, pp. 118-24.
- Attwood, David, Changing Values, pp. 170-82.
- ‘Conscience’ by Gula in Hoose, Bernard, Christian Ethics, pp. 110-22.
There are a number of recent popular books on the subject:
- Naselli, Andrew David, & Crowley, James. (2016). Conscience : what it is, how to train it, and loving those who differ published by Crossway and Christopher Ash’s (2014). Discovering the joy of a clear conscience (P & R Publishing) are both written from an evangelical perspective for a general Christian audience.
- Strohm, P. (2011). Conscience: a very short introduction from Oxford University Press is a more scholarly historical overview of the concept.
Remember to look carefully at biblical passages cited and perhaps even commentaries on important ones.
- Article on “Conscience” in Brown, Colin, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol 1:348-53
- C.A. Pierce, Conscience in the New Testament
- Edwin Cook, “‘Conscience’ in the New Testament” is a more recent (2004) article surveying the language in the NT
- Marian Machinek, ““My Conscience is Clear” (1 Cor 4:4). The Potential Relevance of Paul’s Understanding of Conscience for Today’s Fundamental Moral Theology” in Religions 2017, 8(10), pp. 201ff.
Christian Tradition – Primary and Secondary Texts on Major Thinkers
- A guide to Augustine is Manfred Svensson, “Augustine on Moral Conscience”
- Not an easy read but given his importance you may want to look at Aquinas. See above at p6 under Aquinas and natural law for guidance on how to read Aquinas.
- The issue is discussed in Pope (ed), Ethics of Aquinas, pp. 96ff.
- Tobias Hoffmann, “Conscience and Synderesis” in the Brian Davies (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, pp. 255-63.
- Joseph Butler – Works, Vol 2. Sermons 1-3. This from an 18th century Anglican bishop points to how a more “autonomous” version of conscience as guide has developed.
- Mahoney, John. The Making of Moral Theology : A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition, pp. 184-93.
- Pinckaers, Servais. The Sources of Christian Ethics, pp. 271-9.
- Zachman, Randall C., “Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and Søren Kierkegaard” is a helpful guide to these two key Protestant thinkers by a leading expert on the subject.
- Bosco, David, “Conscience as Court and Worm: Calvin and the Three Elements of Conscience”
- Hutter, Reinhard, “Conscience “Truly So Called” and Its Counterfeit: John Henry Newman and Thomas Aquinas on What Conscience Is and Why It Matters”
Contemporary Christian Accounts
For modern Roman Catholic accounts drawing on Aquinas & the tradition some good, introductory accessible discussions online include:
- “The Revenge of Conscience” by J. Budziszewski
- “There are few, if any, simple “recipes” for what following a formed and informed conscience looks like” by James T. Bretzke, a leading RC ethicist, who offers a practical account of how Catholics form their conscience with reference to recent Vatican teaching about marriage and the family.
- Conscience At Work – a collection of short articles by leading Catholic writers and thinkers on the subject of conscience
- Grisez, Germain. The Way of the Lord Jesus Vol 1, Chapter 3, pp. 73-93. You can access the content of this online from here. A more popular version can be found in Fulfillment in Christ, Chpt 3.
- Official RC teaching is helpfully summarised in Catechism of the Catholic Church (Part 3, Section 1, Article 6, paras 1776-1802)
- Pope John Paul II’s clear statement on the mainstream Catholic view should be read – Veritatis Splendor sections 54-64. The whole encyclical is well worth working through at some point!
- A succinct summary of traditional Catholic teaching can be found in Ronald Lawler et. al., Catholic Sexual Ethics, Chpt 5 (pp. 96-111) and William E. May, An Introduction to Moral Theology (2nd edn), pp. 57-65
For the classic Anglican treatment of the subject see
Kirk, Kenneth – Conscience and its Problems, Part One is major section to look at (esp ch 1) although Part Two shows practical application.
An interesting and helpful recent Anglican discussion is the conversation between Joshua Hordern (a moral theologian) and Loveday Alexander (a NT scholar) entitled “Communion, Disagreement and Conscience” which appears as a Faith and Order Commission paper (pp. 6-18).
For modern Protestant critiques and redefinitions of “conscience” and the tradition see –
- O’Donovan, Oliver. Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 114-20,190-97 and a revised reading of the history in The Ways of Judgment, pp. 301-8.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Works Vol 6), pp. 276-83, 307-9. [I think this is pp. 9-11 & 211-16 in earlier versions but use Works if you can]. A taster of his radical critique of much traditional thinking can be found in this short extract from his commentary on Genesis 1-3 which is summarised in this short video.
- Webster, John. ‘God and Conscience’ in Word and Church, pp. 233-62. This detailed theological study also appears in “The Doctrine of God and Theological Ethics” (ed Banner & Torrance), pp. 147-66.
- Barth, Karl, Ethics, pp. 475-97.