Conscience signifies knowledge in conjunction; that is, in conjunction with the fact to which it is a witness, as the eye is to the. action done before it; or, as South observes, it is a double or joint knowledge, namely, one of a divine law or rule, and the other of a man's own action. It may be defined to be the judgment which a man passes on the morality of his actions, as to their purity or turpitude; or the secret testimony of the soul, whereby it approves things that are good, and condemns those that are evil. Some object to its being called an act, habit, or faculty. An act, say they, would be represented as an agent, whereas conscience is a testimony. To say it is a habit, is to speak of it as a disposition acting, which is scarcely more accurate than ascribing one act to another; and, besides, it would be strange language to say that conscience itself is a habit. Against defining it by the name of a power or faculty it is objected, that it occasions a false notion of it, as a distinct power from reason.
I. The moral ground of conscience. We must distinguish between a rule that of itself and immediately binds the conscience, and a rule that is occasionally of use to direct and satisfy the conscience.
1. The will of God is the only rule immediately binding the conscience. No one has authority over the conscience but God. All penal laws, therefore, in matters of mere conscience, or things that do not evidently effect the civil state, are certainly unlawful.
2. The commands of superiors, not only natural parents, but civil, as magistrates or masters, and every man's private engagements, are rules of conscience in things indifferent.
3. The examples of wise and good men may become rules of conscience; but here it must be observed, that, no example or judgment is of any authority against. law: where the law is doubtful, and even where there is no doubt, the side of example cannot be taken till inquiry has been first made concerning what the law directs.
II. Conscience has been divided into the following kinds:
1. Natural, or that common principle which instructs men of all countries and religions in the duties to which they are all alike obliged. There seems to be something of this in the minds of all men. Even in the darkest regions of the earth, and among the rudest tribes of men, a distinction has ever been made between just and unjust, a duty and a crime.
2. A right conscience is that which decides aright, or according to the only rule of rectitude, the law of God. This is also called a well-informed conscience, which in all its decisions proceeds upon the most evident principles of truth.
3. A probable conscience is that which, in cases that admit of the brightest and fullest light, contents itself with bare probabilities. The consciences of many are of no higher character; and though we must not say a man cannot be saved with such a conscience, yet such a conscience is not so perfect as it might be.
4. An ignorant conscience is that which may declare right, but, as it were, by chance, and without any just ground to build on.
5. An erroneous conscience is a conscience mistaken in its decisions about the nature of actions.
6. A doubting conscience is a conscience unresolved about the nature of actions, on account of the equal or nearly equal probabilities which appear for and against each side of the question.
7. Of an evil conscience there are several kinds. Conscience, in regard to actions in general, is evil when it has lost more or less the sense it ought to have of the natural distinctions of moral good and evil: this is a polluted or defiled conscience. Conscience is evil in itself when it gives either none or a false testimony as to past actions; when, reflecting upon wickedness, it feels no pain, it is evil, and said to be seared or hardened (1Ti 4:2). It is also evil when, during the commission of sin, it lies quiet. In regard to future actions, conscience is evil if it does not start at the proposal of sin, or connives at the commission of it.
III. For the right management of conscience, we should,
1. Endeavor to obtain acquaintance with the law of God, and with our own tempers and lives, and frequently compare them together.
2. Furnish conscience with general principles of the most extensive nature and strongest influence; such as the supreme love of God; love to our neighbors as ourselves; and that the care of our souls is of the greatest importance.
3. Preserve the purity and sensibility of conscience.
4. Maintain the freedom of conscience, particularly against interest, passion, temper, example. and the authority of great names.
5. We should accustom ourselves tocool reflection on our past actionls. SEE MORAL SENSE.