I’m not a philosopher or psychologist, so my functional anthropology lacks the precision and care that it deserves. But I’ve often been fascinated by what Paul means by the term “conscience.” It appears in the 2 Cor 4 text that I’ve been writing these meditations on. But the notion of the conscience also features prominently in the Pastorals (1,2 Tim, Titus). (I know this makes any claims about Paul dubious, since authorship of the Pastorals is highly disputed. While I’m open to someone else writing under Paul’s name, I’m more convinced that Paul wrote the Pastorals than Ephesians or Colossians).
In 1 Timothy, Paul urges Timothy to distinguish himself from those who would be teachers of the law. While the law is good, it’s usefulness is primarily for the disobedient, “for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral,” etc. You get the picture. The problem by insisting on the law is that it “shipwrecks” faith and good conscience. It is contrary to “sound doctrine,” literally “healthy words,” which build a capacity in those of faith for faithful judgment.
Now in my faith tradition, we flipped Paul’s notions of sound doctrine to be the black and white things (like the law), which could not be veered from without straying from the faith. For Paul, those who insist on breaking life down into black and white are the ones who shipwreck their faith. The faithful are those whose imaginations are funded with “healthy words” from which faithful judgments can be made. The place where these judgments occur Paul calls the conscience.
I think for Paul, the conscience is like a muscle that can be developed or trained for God. Using the law as a substitute for moral judgement is like always riding a bike with training wheels. It can get you only so far with God and you’ll never really know what riding a bike is like.
Faith depends on the capacity of the conscience to make godly judgments in the innumerable situations we will find ourselves in. To foreclose on this capacity with appeals like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is to put faith at risk. Though Paul doesn’t say it this way in 1 Tim, I think he would say that this is the place where the Spirit can influence us, change us, guide us. In fact, I wonder if this is what he means in Romans by a “renewing of the mind” which allows the believer to “discern what the will of God is, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
So, when Paul says in 2 Cor 4 that he “appeals to the conscience of everyone,” I think he might have two things in mind. First, unlike the tradition of Sophistry valued by the Corinthians, Paul makes his appeal to something other than people’s affections. He is not trying to secure his audience by flattering or entertaining them. Second, he is trying to build a capacity within them for discernment, for making judgments, for exercising a Christian imagination which will be open to the Spirit in all circumstances. He does not spoon feed his listeners principles for godly living. Instead, he funds their imagination with the gospel so that they can live faithfully in the wildly improvisational art of life.