The role of conscience - Romans

13It is not familiarity with the Law that justifies a man in the sight of God, but obedience to it. 14-15 When the Gentiles, who have no knowledge of the Law, act in accordance with it by the light of nature, they show that they have a law in themselves, for they demonstrate the effect of a law operating in their own hearts. Their own consciences endorse the existence of such a law, for there is something which condemns or commends their actions. [Rom2:13-15 JB Phillips]

I indicated in the previous post that when it comes to verses relating to natural law (in terms of innate spiritual faculties), the relevant passages are prone to mistranslation. To be fair, the above (J.B. Phillips) translation is reasonably OK whereas some earlier versions such as the King James make out by their translation that Paul is being disparaging about the Gentiles’ response to the law written in their hearts. He is doing nothing of the sort, and in terms of positivity actually goes beyond J.B. Philips by linking his statement concerning those who obey the law with the actions of the Gentiles. This Paul does by adding the conjunction “γὰρ” meaning “for” in the since of introducing an explanation of what has just been stated. Given what I was expounding in the previous post concerning Paul’s assertion that the whole law is fulfilled in spirit by the act of treating another person as one does oneself (Gal5:14), there are broader providential implications that we shall continue to explore.

The KJV’s rendering of verse 14 concerning the Gentiles becoming “a law to themselves” tends to be understood in the negative sense of them doing as they please rather than responding in a right way to God’s requirements for humane living which is what Paul is actually indicating as most later bible versions recognize. Likewise in the verse that follows, the KJV expresses the idea of the Gentiles either excusing or accusing one another, again with thoroughly negative connotations whereas Paul is referring to the fact that their thoughts concerning their actions are either endorsed or condemned by the witness of their conscience, depending on whether or not they are in accordance with God’s law.

Truly this passage is at the heart of what I and many of the earliest Church Fathers mean by “natural law” or “natural precepts”. The Roman Catholic Church also recognizes these principles to a degree especially since the Second Vatican Council (1960s). The Roman Church had been greatly influenced by the former Evangelical-turned-Catholic John Henry Newman’s teaching in this area (as indeed was I). The problem is, Newman’s broader providential perspective cannot easily be reconciled with some earlier conciliar pronouncements concerning the fate of those outside the Catholic Church, contradicting as they do, aspects of the teaching of their esteemed Doctor, Augustine.

Newman and the role of conscience

For Newman spoke of the conscience as “the impression of a divine Light within us, a participation of the eternal law in the rational creature” [1]. As such, conscience as the universal revelation of God, anterior to the Gospel and supreme over all other human faculties provides everyone with “a clear and sufficient object of faith” [2]. For faith is simply man’s positive response to what has been revealed to him from God, be it innately through the conscience or religiously through a creed. Through it one discerns the nature of right and wrong and senses a benefit in practicing the former to be at peace with oneself. The cardinal and distinguishing truth that conscience teaches is that God rewards the good and punishes the wayward; again, a facet of faith as the Bible defines it.

The conscience is effectively a spiritual faculty. Its very existence is the consequence of the fact that the human spirit has been created in God’s image and enlightened by Christ whereas the vessel that houses it is drawn to worldly lust like a magnet, for unlike the spirit it was conceived in sin and shaped in iniquity (Ps51:5) . But by habitually taking heed to the dictates of conscience, the soul/spirit is effectively relating positively to something, in fact Someone superior to itself; hence the person is regarded as exercising faith in God and so is justified through the merits of Christ’s atonement.

The latter paragraph’s assertions on the role of conscience are my own and go beyond what can specifically be drawn from our featured passage but not beyond what can be gleaned from Paul’s teaching as a whole, as hopefully future posts will demonstrate, as indeed does my book [3].

[1]  John Henry Newman: “Grammar of Ascent”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Free PDF HERE

Author’s Facebook page HERE

Related post: conscience and natural law


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