With this session we begin three weeks that focus on Ethics. The main focus this week is to examine Divine Command Theory. I consider this issue to be theologically pivotal and suspect a large number – maybe even a large majority – of Adventists hold this belief. But I will be arguing strongly against it. So be forewarned and carefully think through the arguments I present. The road forks here.
This session will have no video section, just lecture material and discussion. That is because there is more content that I want to cover than could be done in one week, so the DVD discussion section entitled The Moral Law will have two parts (A & B) with the video segment as part of next week’s session.
Ethics considers what should be normative behavior – how we ought to act. It is closely intertwined with morality – the acceptable behavior of an individual or society. But how do we acquire this ‘ought’? Practically speaking, we begin by absorbing the norms of family, subculture (e.g. Adventism) and wider society. And, for many, that’s where the process mostly stops. We are comfortable in this acceptance and do not push deeper. The ‘apple’, so to speak, never falls far from the ‘tree’. But if we do push on and ask how we ought to act and what should be the grounding for our morality, things get more complicated.
One of the earliest questions to ask in this pursuit is whether morality is based on absolutes or is merely relative to culture. Most Christians come down solidly on the side of absolutes. That’s easy to understand when you believe in a God who has communicated with us and presented guidelines for behavior. We will consider Relativism in a bit more detail next week. But even if you believe in absolutes there are many substantive differences in how we interpret and apply that belief.
First of all, believing there are absolutes is not the same as believing we have certainty about what they are. We are tempted to think that if we have received revelation, such as the Bible, then certainty follows. After all, the source is God and He is infallible. And His word ought to be both normative and understandable. Otherwise we would be left in the dark. So we take what seem to be clear categorical statements from scripture and apply them to our present circumstances. End of story. And I believe in many instances this works, in practice. But as a method, I will argue here, there are serious problems to consider.
The Euthyphro Question
Plato wrote a dialog somewhere around 380 BCE entitled The Euthyphro (named after the person who is having a dialog with Socrates). Here is a partial plot summary:
Socrates meets Euthyphro outside the courthouse in Athens. Euthyphro, a very religious young man, has come to the court because he is going to prosecute his father for the murder of one of his father’s servants. The case is ambiguous, perhaps more manslaughter than murder. But it is also highly unusual to violate kinship norms by such a pursuit.
So Socrates asks Euthyphro whether he is confident that what he's doing is the right thing. Euthyphro replies, a bit haughtily, that ordinary people don't really understand the divine attitude to piety and impiety, whereas, he does know what the gods think about such matters. And he knows that what he's doing is pious (i.e. morally correct).
Socrates is at the courthouse to defend himself against a charge of impiety, and here Euthyphro claims to know what piety is. So, Socrates asks him to define it.
Euthyphro makes 3 attempts:
Then Socrates, as is frequently the case in Platonic dialogs, hits Euthyphro with the central question, which you suspect he has been carefully leading up to all along. He asks (at Euthyphro 10a): “Is what you’re doing pious because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love what you are doing because what you are doing is pious?”
At first I suspect this question may seem puzzling, hairsplitting or both options equivalent. Far from it. I contend that this question gets down near bedrock when we are determining how to ground our morality. But let’s recast the question in a bit more modern phraseology, to hopefully be clearer:
Does God command us to do right because it is right, or is it right because it is commanded by God?
In other words,
- Does ‘right’ emanate from God? So whatever He says becomes right. Or,
- Does ‘right’ stand independent of God, and is thus a standard which God would also presumably have to meet.
So, 1) God first? Or 2) right first? In my experience the typical response of an Adventist Christian (sort of like Euthyphro’s initial replies) is 1) God first. That sounds both orthodox and Anselmian (defining God as ‘that than which a greater cannot be conceived’). Choice 2 has the problem of apparent subordination of God to something higher. And that is tough to accept.
Choice one is called Divine Command Theory (DCT). It is the view that morality is dependent upon God, and that moral obligation consists in obedience to God’s commands. Divine Command Theory includes the claim that morality is ultimately based on the commands or character of God, and that the morally right action is the one that God commands or requires. The ‘bumper-sticker’ version of DCT is “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
But DCT has been heavily critiqued, with good reason. Consider some inter-related objections.
Arbitrary. If Divine Command Theory is true, morality is based merely upon God's whim. If, for example, God had commanded that we be cruel or dishonest then it would have been morally obligatory to do these things that are generally understood to be harmful, and morally impermissible to do the opposite.
The likely reply to this unpleasant thought would be to deny that God would ever command such things because, being essentially good, he would never affirm evil. But – this is the point – if the definition of what is good is rooted in whatever God commands, they who are we to say cruelty or dishonesty is wrong – if God commands it! There is no intrinsic wrong.
Here is a thought experiment to consider. I offer it with great hesitation because it is an extreme scenario. But its extremity is what helps make the point clear.
Let’s say the 2nd coming has occurred and we are saved and go to heaven. One day – as you might imagine it told in children’s Sabbath School – we are invited to spend the afternoon visiting Jesus. We’re having a wonderful visit when we see an attending angel bringing in a box of puppies to Jesus. Then Jesus, smiling, commences to strangle each puppy until it dies. We ask Jesus why he is doing this. And he replies that strangling puppies is one of his favorite activities. We should try it sometime.
So, how do you like my story? Were you repulsed? Or did you think that – if this happened – you would revise your views on the morality of strangling puppies, since Jesus sanctioned it?
I contend almost everyone would have some sort of negative reaction to such a story. It goes against everything we were taught about God. But more centrally, this teaching of God’s goodness and the sanctity of life syncs with our internal moral compass. So are you prepared to surrender that moral compass to whatever we believe God has commanded? If so you follow Divine Command Theory.
- Moral evaluation loses all meaning. If good is defined as whatever God does then how can we meaningfully say that ‘God is good’? That’s the same as saying ‘God is whatever God is’. This is a tautology. We like to say “Praise God!” That’s one of the most popular expressions in evangelical Christianity. But praise means to express approval and commendation. And if whatever God does is what we should approve and commend, then the word ‘praise’, when referring to God, has lost all meaning.
- We cannot evaluate ‘god-wannabes’. This is a practical consideration. There are and were lots of so-called gods and holy scriptures for us to choose from. How can we evaluate them? With a DCT premise (God precedes good) then you cannot differentiate between ‘gods’ – or even no God. Consider a Christian trying to convert a Muslim. What method would you use if the Muslim prospect believed in DCT? They would be impervious to any argument that sought to wean them from the primacy of the Koran.
Does the Bible support DCT? We might think of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction.” But if this is used as an argument for Biblical inspiration, let alone DCT, the reasoning is circular. Consider also this Old Testament story (emphasis mine):
Genesis 18:23,25 "Then Abraham approached him and said: ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? … Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’”
Abraham here is decidedly not following Divine Command Theory, else his question would be incoherent, i.e. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do whatever the judge of all the earth does?” Of course, perhaps Abraham’s thinking here was confused.
So, more fundamentally, consider Lucifer’s rebellion in heaven where he persuaded 1/3 of the angels to follow him. Adventists read an amplified account in The Great Controversy but Christians more generally believe this story also – from the much more limited Biblical information. Think of what the concept of persuasion entails. It necessarily casts doubt on one’s current view (in this case, allegiance to God) and seeks to change that view to something else. I suggest that if the angels used DCT as normative Lucifer would have only received puzzled looks when attempting to cast doubt in their minds. Any argument he might make contra God would be incoherent. And angels, being more exalted beings than sinful humanity and having ongoing access to God’s presence, would presumably be far less prone than Abraham to make such a fundamental error in their thinking.
Objections to Rejecting DCT
I think the main objection to rejecting DCT is that it would appear we then must become the primary judge of morality and ethics. We get to overrule God and that seems both backwards and dangerous. Mankind’s perspective is limited, God’s is not. Furthermore we are sinful and that perversity erodes good judgment. These are very valid concerns. Also, the apparent elevation of human judgment seems to smell of relativism.
So where do we go from here? First I would conclude, from my above argumentation, that we should reject DCT as the sole method in grounding our ethics and morality. It is too simplistic and arbitrary. It is also lazy. Too frequently DCT adherents are looking for some rule-based norms to apply without careful consideration of context, universality, literalness, etc.
Second I see an either-or false dichotomy here. We’re looking for compatiblism between the revelatory source and our internal moral compass. When we don’t get it we experience uncomfortable dissonance. We can resolve that dissonance in an either-or fashion by letting one side trump the other. DCT uses the revelatory source to trump reason/conscience (but do you really want to strangle puppies?). Conversely the complaint about Liberals, sometimes true, is that they essentially trump scripture with human-derived ‘wisdom’, thus creating God in their own image.
Compatiblism is a both-and approach. We must listen both to scripture and our moral compass. The problem with “God said it, I believe it and that settles it” is in the first clause – “God said it”. Lacking a Urim and Thummim we must exegete the revelation. We read the words and apply them as best we can. We ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit which, we expect, will help illuminate our thinking. We read the thoughts of trusted theologians. But clearly there are many interpretive differences within Christendom. And within Adventism. The “God said it” clause begs all of this complexity.
A both-and approach needs to respect all of these caveats, and be iterative. The iteration is crucial. We read scripture and/or listen to its expositors and then reflect whether what we read or heard syncs with our internal moral compass. If there is dissonance we must recognize the error could be on either side. One would hope our ethical norms can quickly eliminate the sort of ‘gods’ who ask us to (metaphorically) throw virgins into volcanoes. Likewise the true God can seek and find us, then turn us, and our faulty moral compass, toward greater truth. We make a – hopefully prayerful – decision to either revise our understanding of revelation or our internal norms. God can be behind a move in either direction. Our world-view is thus somewhat modified. But each move is tentative, at least at first. Over time the change should either lead to more or less dissonance. The iteration means we might make adjustments to our spiritual values and understanding, but then we re-evaluate and possibly re-adjust again. Refusing to tolerate dissonance and being impatient with the iteration can prevent spiritual growth.
Two Examples of Dissonance in Christianity/Adventism
Most scientists believe the earth is very old, life has been present for millions of years and it evolved from simple to complex. This obviously is seriously at odds with the frequently-held Christian view (and overwhelmingly-held Adventist view) of a literal Genesis account of creation. There seems to be very little, if any, middle ground. And the theological consequences of rejecting a straightforward reading of Genesis seem to be devastating to traditional Christian theology (see Romans 5). Some Christians have attempted a resolution via Theistic Evolution, but this grafting has its own set of formidable problems. Many Adventists have a circle-the-wagons mentality on this issue due, no doubt, to the high theological stakes and the almost non-existent traction within science toward a Young Earth Creation (YEC) and/or Young Life Creation (YLC) perspective.
Resolution seems to be a no-brainer if you resort to DCT. Perhaps the siege mentality on this contentious question has generated even more popularity for DCT as it avoids evaluating the scientific evidence. But what does a Christian do if they find some of this scientific evidence to be compelling? Such people may be wrong and a YEC/YLC compatible solution eventually may be found. But so far the scientific evidence is strongly in the other direction. I realize that last sentence is controversial to someone who advocates YEC/YLC. But the point I want to emphasize is not which side has better evidence. The issue is simple intellectual honesty. Would God ask us to deny evidence? If you – for whatever reason – have found evidence for an old earth or for evolution to correlate to the data should you have to choose between your religion and following the evidence wherever it seems to lead? Some would answer – yes. It’s my church’s current way or the highway. So how does that respect honest inquiry? Change becomes near-impossible and the church is reduced to dogmatism. Dissonance is reduced, yes, but by flushing out disagreement. All human conclusions need to be prayerfully cautious and tentative due to limitations of evidence, reasoning and exegesis. But a DCT mentality does injustice to someone who is just trying to exhibit personal integrity.
A straightforward reading of the texts appear to clearly condemn homosexuality. Many go no further in their consideration. Homosexuality is sin and thus should be condemned by the church. Others disagree with the exegesis but I would suggest the main reason some urge re-thinking of the default condemnatory position first comes not from scripture but from conscience. The argument would be as follows: There is some evidence, via both science and personal experience, that some (perhaps much) homosexuality is genetically-based. If so, even if this is a consequence of sin, how can God condemn as sin what people were born with? That clearly is not their fault and we expect God to be fair. Now both views have strengths and weaknesses. But using DCT does an end-run around all discussion, so the fairness question never gets on the table.
- Creation and Science
Some Questions to Consider:
Q: How do you ground your morality? Do you feel attracted to Divine Command Theory? Why or why not?
Q: How reliable do you think our conscience or ‘inner moral compass’ is?
Q: Do you believe it is possible for, say, a Muslim who adheres to DCT, to convert to Christianity? How might a missionary proceed? Would the Muslim have to give up DCT in the process?
Q: Do you agree or disagree with my contention that DCT is near the heart of Adventist disagreement over topics like homosexuality and creation/science? Why?
Links to the other essays in this series:
5) Why Believe?
7) Moral Law – Part A
11) Suffering and Death