Posted by: mattcolvin | May 11, 2012

Apologetics and “Conscience” falsely so called


Thursday of the fourth week after Easter: 1 Peter 3:13-22.

But sanctify the Lord God[b] in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; 16 having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.

The portion in bold reads συνείδησιν ἔχοντες ἀγαθήν. I have had occasion before to mention that I do not believe that “conscience” is the best translation for the Greek word συνείδησις. In an earlier post, I looked at other instances in the New Testament. But I somehow forgot to comment on the logic of 1 Peter 3 itself. Let me do so here:

In 1 Peter 3, one of the goals of maintaining a good συνείδησις is to put to shame those who revile your conduct. This refutation or shaming is an outward matter. The adversaries’ accusation concerns actions of public record, hence they are said to “revile” (ἐπηρεάζειν) and “defame” (καταλαλεῖν) – that is, they slander. They contradict the facts. Those facts, the record of deeds, constitute one’s συνείδησις. The word should not be translated “conscience.” The very etymology of the word (συν-, “together’) suggests that it refers to something known in common with other people.

Our adversaries are to be answered by the demonstration of an objectively blameless life, not by a subjective mental disagreement about whether a life has been blameless.

This is Peter’s syllabus for his course in apologetics. Verse 15 has been quoted out of context so often, as though it really meant that we must master a number of tricky arguments, and carry them around in our back pockets, ready to debate if a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens should loom across our paths. What Peter really means is simply that we should point to Christ, and that our lives should be the best testimony. It is the same apologetic that he advises for Christian women married to unbelieving husbands earlier in the same chapter:

Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear.

Good works and kindness, – not a high powered presuppositional argument, still less the serrated edge or a bloviating blog – are the Christian’s main answer to those who do not believe.


  1. Do you think “conscience” is the predominant pick by translators ( ) because it parallels their understanding of v15’s “heart” as opposed to “lives”?

  2. Frank,

    The word συνείδησις was rendered as Latin “conscientia” by Jerome and the Old Latin versions. It’s an etymologically equivalent word. I think our English translators have just gone with the closest English derivative of Jerome’s Latin.

    This is the same unfortunate sort of misunderstanding that made marriage a “sacrament” in the medieval church, when Jerome rendered Greek μυστήριον with Latin “sacramentum”.

    So the “Jiminy Cricket” sense of “conscience” is just not the meaning of this Bible word. We cannot assume that we know what Bible words mean. We have to do the grunt work and figure them out.

  3. Good work here, and you know I appreciate your trajectory, but mightn’t you have gone too far in your conclusion? The apostle Paul reasoned quite frequently with pagans and Jews alike, ostensibly attempting to prove by argument that Jesus was the Christ. Surely good works and reasoned arguments are not antithetical to one another?

    • Right. I’m not against reasoned argument in its place. My point is that Peter isn’t talking about philosophical apologetics in this passage — which is usually mistakenly quoted as though it were talking about philosophical apologetics!

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