Issue No 64
Affinity convened its biannual theological studies conference in January this year, titled “Using the Bible Ethically”. Unsurprisingly the conference generated stimulating debate as we grappled with questions concerning economic justice, the ethics of war, and the beginning and end of life. One of the highlights of the conference was its format with the opportunity to spend significant time in small groups discussing some of the issues raised in the conference papers. There is no conference like it (at least none that I am aware of) where church members, pastors and internationally renowned theologians get to spend hours together working through the implications of what they have heard. I was truly grateful for the opportunity to be involved.
One of the issues that inevitably arise in debates concerning Christian Ethics is the place of the conscience in the Christian life. Of course, conscience questions are not limited to academic debates about medical ethics or the use of torture; they arise frequently in day-to-day Christian living as believers ask themselves what godly conduct looks like in any given situation. A trend that I have noticed in recent times is the tendency to use “conscience arguments” to justify conduct which either falls short of what Scripture requires or short-circuits the hard-work of identifying precisely what Scripture does indeed teach. For example, a husband leaves his wife for another woman and justifies the decision by insisting that, according to his conscience, it is better to live with a woman whom he “really loves” than to carry on in a loveless marriage. Or, a student goes out with his friends and drinks four pints in one sitting claiming that his conscience permitted him to do so. Or, a GP admits that she doesn’t really know what Scripture teaches about when human life begins but relies upon her conscience which is happy with her decision to prescribe post-fertilisation modes of contraception. In situations such as these, Christians use their conscience to justify conduct which falls short of what most Bible-believing Christians believe Scripture to require.
It seems to me that this is precisely the opposite of the direction that conscience arguments take in the New Testament. The word translated conscience in most English translations, syneídēsis, simply means an awareness of information about something (see BDAG and Louw & Nida), although it often carries the sense of “moral consciousness”. The word is used in its various forms 30 times in the New Testament. The importance of having a “good” and “clear” conscience (Acts 23:1; 24:16; 2 Tim 1:3) is emphasised and the possibility of a person’s conscience being “seared” or “defiled” is acknowledged (1 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:15).
For our purposes, it is Paul’s discussion of the conscience in 1 Cor 8 and 10 that is of particular significance because it is here that Paul discusses how the conscience ought to affect a believer’s conduct and decisions. In chapter 8, he begins by insisting that believers are free to eat food sacrificed to idols since idols have “no real existence” (v. 4). He supports this by alluding to various Old Testament texts, most notably the Shema (Deut 6:4). He is quick, however, to insist that believers should not exercise this freedom to the detriment of others. Some in the church did not possess the same knowledge about their freedom in the matter (presumably because of their previous attachment to idols), and therefore their consciences (self-awareness) would have been defiled (v. 7). For that reason, they should not eat – even though biblically they “are no worse off if [they] do not eat, and no better off if [they] do” (v. 8). Moreover, Paul insists that the Christians who are aware of their freedom in this matter should refrain from eating too because to do so would wound another’s conscience and hence constitute a sin against Christ (v. 12). The flow of Paul’s “conscience argument” is clear. Believers should refrain from exercising biblical freedoms if to do so would detrimentally affect their own or another person’s conscience.
The same pattern is evident in chapter 10. Once again the context is food sacrificed to idols and Paul insists, relying on Scripture (this time Psa 24:1) that Christians are free to eat anything (vv. 25-26). Having established the biblical principle, he warns the Corinthians that they should relinquish this freedom if to exercise it would endanger another person’s conscience (this time an unbeliever). The apostle is quick to insist that this in no way determines the believers’ own conscience (v. 29; see also 1 Tim 4:1-5), but it is right for believers to forgo their freedoms for the sake of others.
The pattern of “conscience arguments” in the Bible is clear. They are used to restrict the exercise of biblical freedoms rather than to liberate believers from the constraints of what the Bible teaches or from the effort of working out exactly what the Bible does indeed teach. Anthony Thiselton has put it really well: “Paul is not advocating the kind of ‘autonomy’ mistakenly regarded widely today as ‘liberty of conscience’. Rather, he is arguing for the reverse. Freedom and ‘rights’ must be restrained by self-discipline for the sake of love for the insecure or the vulnerable, for whom ‘my freedom’ might be ‘their ruin’” (1 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000] p. 644). We must remember how arguments based upon conscience are used in Scripture, both in the public sphere and in personal morality (on the latter, see Kevin DeYoung’s helpful recent discussion in The Hole in our Holiness [Wheaton: Crossway, 2012] pp. 41-45).
Turning to the current issue, I am delighted to be able to present four articles and one review article spanning the breadth of the journal’s disciplines. Ted Turnau (one of the journal’s Associate Editors) contributes an article critically examining the translation of Road to Perdition from its original form as a graphic novel to a film. He challenges the commonly-held view that Hollywood movie makers secularise their source material by suppressing the religious, and argues instead that they tend to displace the religious by emphasis upon other “secular sacreds”. This, Turnau argues, is reflective of how humanity reacts to God’s general revelation by suppressing it and shifting their sacred commitments to other, created forms.
The following two articles engage in the field of Biblical Studies. In Issue 61 of Foundations, John Legg contributed a stimulating article contending that the traditional reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan was mistaken. According to Legg, instead of expanding the standard Jewish definition of “neighbour”, Jesus’ intent in telling the parable was to warn his listeners that if they did not love their fellow-Christians (“neighbours”) then they were showing themselves not to be Christians at all. In his contribution to this issue, Craig Blomberg challenges that reading and defends the classical interpretation of the parable. In Andrew Evans’ article, Evans examines possible allusions to the Song of Songs in John’s Gospel and Revelation. He argues that these allusions point to a typological reading of the Song which allows it to speak of human love and human lovers while maintaining a spiritual meaning as well.
Stephen Clark’s article is a revised version of the paper he delivered at the theological studies conference in January. It considers how Christians ought to use the Bible to engage ethically with the various challenges that twenty-first century living presents. It is broad in its scope, covering issues ranging from evangelism, to the workplace, and to the role of the state. The journal concludes with a number of book reviews including an article-length review of Tim Keller’s book, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). I have found Keller’s book immensely helpful as we have laid plans for a church plant in the city centre of Manchester. Pickett raises some helpful questions and urges readers to make sure that they do the hard work of contextualising to their own situation rather than seeking to import a model from elsewhere (a warning Keller himself sounds).
I trust that the contributions to this journal will be of benefit to you and your church and, as ever, welcome correspondence and contributions to future issues.
Lecturer in Cultural and Religious Studies, Anglo-American University and Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary, Littleton, Colorado, USA.
Andrew R. Evans
Pastor of Christ Church Liverpool.
Minister of Freeschool Court Evangelical Church, Bridgend, and Lecturer in Systematic Theology at London Theological Seminary.
Lecturer in Missiology, Wales Evangelical School of Theology
Foundations is an international journal of evangelical theology published by Affinity.
Its aim is to cover contemporary theological issues by articles and reviews, taking in exegesis, biblical theology, church history and apologetics, and to indicate their relevance to pastoral ministry. Its particular focus is the theology of evangelical churches which are committed to biblical truth and evangelical ecumenism. It has been published by Affinity (formerly The British Evangelical Council) from its inception as a print journal. It became a digital journal in May 2011.
It is published twice each year online.
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Iain D Campbell
Free Church of Scotland, Point, and Westminster Seminary
Cornhill Training Course (Scotland)
Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland
Oak Hill College, London
Anglo-American University, Prague & Wales Evangelical School of Theology
The John Owen Centre, London Theological Seminary
Tyndale House, Cambridge
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