Divine Command Theory

An interesting conversation was taking place here in the comment section regarding the origin and objectivity of morality. Given the length of that conversation, I decided to move it over to here and bring it out of the response/comment section as far as my own thoughts. One would need to go through and read the original blog post and then read through the comment section to obtain the context for this current post. Something my conversation partner (Steve) keeps bringing up is an idea called the “Divine Command Theory.”

With that in mind, I will keep Steve’s quotes in italics as I address them below:

I think there is a misunderstanding about my use of the idea of “power” earlier. I did not mean that God would appear powerful, but rather that He is the ultimate authority on what is good.

Before I address this point further, I just want to point out what, I think, should be an obvious problem. Steve is assuming something called “good.” He is assuming that this God knows something about some quality, action, motive, or essence that Steve knows somehow is “good.” Steve is presuming something that he is able to judge, from some position, regarding whether or not God has this knowledge. How is that possible? Where did he get this knowledge? If the universe is a purposeless, purely material, random gathering of matter in motion, then there is no true “good” or “evil” we simply name certain actions or events as such, but why? Why would we care? How would we know? In other words, Steve must assume that which he is trying to show can be substantiated by other means other than God’s existence, but his worldview (if he is a philosophical naturalist/atheist) provides for nothing other than the notion that the most powerful can “name” certain actions or motivations. Those same powers could name the torture of children “good” and so the entire idea of ethics/morality becomes meaningless. As noted below, he can see this when it comes to a powerful “god” of some sort, but I wonder if he cares if majorities or states do the same thing; and, if he does, on what basis is he able to say why they are “wrong” as opposed to “right”?

And if this is true, then anything God says would be good. Whether it’s commanding acts of genocide, torture or lovingkindness – it is good. God could also tell us one thing one moment and the exact opposite the next – he could change what is good on the spot. This is a “ground” of a sort I suppose. But would you actually do it if God commanded you to commit an atrocity? And once again, the word “good” has little meaning here, as it can change at any time on God’s whim.

The problem here is that I believe Steve is projecting out his own erroneous view of the Christian God. He imagines that an all-powerful being would simply act like a human would act who was suddenly given all-cosmic power like in a comic book or something. The Divine Command Theory might make sense if we were simply talking in abstractions about some all-powerful god or force out “there” somewhere, who acted suspiciously like modern dictators, and we had absolutely nothing else to inform us. But the Christian God cannot be an abstraction but is entirely tied into the historical reality of Jesus Christ, the people and history of Israel, and the historical reality of the people called the Church and their sacred writings, the Bible.

We know from those sources that God is not arbitrary, does not change in essence or in any fundamental way, and that his goodness and love are not based in an arbitrary will but are inseparable from God’s being and action in history. We know God through the actions of Jesus Christ, so saying that “God is good” is not meaningless. The Bible doesn’t say that God loves, but that “God is love.” But such only becomes knowable in the person of Christ and the events of the New Testament like the crucifixion. While that God is love and that God is good are eternal and internal features of God’s being, they are made manifest in creation by God’s action in history and are therefore external and knowable.

Steve responds below to my statement: “These categories called “good” and “evil” can’t exist in such a world and are simply arbitrary terms used by the powerful to name whatever they want.”

This is a very good description of what I am talking about. Simply replace “powerful” in your statement with “God”. Therefore the theist has no advantage in the debate. Your view of God matches perfectly with the view of the “majority” that you are arguing against.

But we cannot replace the term “powerful” with “God” because the Christian God doesn’t imitate the power of the majority to simply project their will or of any other “powerful” force, nation, or person we are aware of historically or otherwise. The God made manifest in Jesus Christ was killed by the majority, and by the most powerful forces of that day. That is why the Christian narrative subverts and up-ends all other narratives of power. Jesus humbled himself and gave himself over to the projection of the power you are talking about so they are not the same thing at all.

Strangely, Steve does seem to agree that morality is simply about power—he states that such is a good “description” of what he is talking about. I think his statement proves my point and one might ask at this point: Why the fuss then? Further, on the one hand Steve thinks that morality is about power and arbitrary, but, on the other, that he is somehow able to judge if this God is “good” or if this God could say such and such is “evil” one day, but “good” the next. From what position or place (philosophically) is Steve able to look down from and judge such matters? In other words, from where is one able to even bring such a critique when one’s very belief is that there are really no such categories to begin with?

(I do think your view of the “majority” is a straw man of the actual position Burk and I are attempting to describe, that’s beside the point for now – I just want to show that the traditional theist has zero advantage over alternate world-views when it comes to morality)

How is it a straw-man? And I think the advantage clear. In the Christian God, revealed in Jesus Christ and the actions 0f history, we have an objective basis for morality and ethics. The philosophical naturalist/atheist does not, and admits as much. In such a world, morality and ethics are entirely arbitrary and based purely in power. How is that an advantage? If such is an advantage, it is exactly the advantage that bullies and dictators (including such in the form of majorities) have been using throughout history.

Anyway, I enjoyed this conversation with Steve, who is clearly very bright and has spent a lot of time thinking about these things. Further, I have read and researched little regarding the “Divine Command Theory” and claim no expertise on that topic whatsoever–perhaps I’ve missed it completely. Finally, it is entirely possible I have not understood Steve correctly and have missed a more subtle point he is making. If I have, I ask his forgiveness in advance and certainly hope he corrects me.

  • Many of the same points are made here.
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11 Responses to Divine Command Theory

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Let me pop in here briefly.

    “We know from those sources that God is not arbitrary”

    You later bring up the people and history of Israel, where god is quite arbitrary. Indeed the book of Job is about Job indicting god for being petty and bad, not to mention arbitrary. You know that the refuge of theodicy is that the ways of god are mysterious. That means they are arbitrary, as far as we are concerned. Defining it otherwise might clear up the theology, but is completely meaningless as far as we are concerned, in our ignorance and in our need to know what is good.

    “Steve is assuming something called “good.” He is assuming that this God knows something about some quality, action, motive, or essence that Steve knows somehow is “good.” Steve is presuming something that he is able to judge, from some position, regarding whether or not God has this knowledge.”

    Here you are getting into simple obfuscation. You yourself define god as good, whatever that means. Steven is just dealing with your position, but if you think god is bad, do tell.

    The original issue is clear enough- is the criterion of good that anything god does is good, or is it elsewhere, such that we might judge some of the things god does as good, and some bad? If we simply unify the god and the good concepts, by way of our ignorance of both, and say that god is good by definition, then we have some 'splainin to do, as it were, when bad things happen and we spontaneously develop our own ideas about the goodness of things that are due to god, or that are not due to god (and not covered in the magic book). We are then speechless and bereft of our “objective basis”?

    At any rate, you display a remarkable incapacity to understand the basic criterion of “good”, not only from your own end of the argument, but from the other end, which is our like or dislike. Sugar is good, feces are bad. Suffering is bad, love is good. It is all about us, how we are built, and how we live / want to live.

    The theme of power was seriously mangled here as well. The point was that god is defined as all-powerful as well as all-good. Plus we do not have an internal/social autonomous criterion for good- we must, by your theology, take it from god.

    The question then was- does god impose this good on us through its power, or does it just lead by example? If god simply leads by the example of the blood of Christ, as you indicate, then this seems both historically absurd (people were surely good in some few precincts before that event, and are good outside its penumbra since) and pitifully insufficient considering the task at hand.

    The variation in interpretation in Christian sects alone would seem to make that example useless, starting from the “no works” predestination-ism of Calvin, theories of grace alone, etc. We get back to interpretation, by which criteria turn out to come from us after all, not from the supposedly “objective” source. After all, Jesus told us to forsake our families and worldly cares, for the end was neigh. Is that good?

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  2. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Thank you for the comments—the more the merrier.

    “You later bring up the people and history of Israel, where god is quite arbitrary. Indeed the book of Job is about Job indicting god for being petty and bad, not to mention arbitrary…” “…After all, Jesus told us to forsake our families and worldly cares, for the end was neigh. Is that good?”

    I’m not going to address your attempts to interpret the Bible for us. You will forgive me if I take the hundreds of Biblical scholars and teachers over the centuries who believe the Bible, from the book of Job to any other book, teaches that God is not arbitrary, over your thoughts here which are based in a view that starts with the presumption the Bible is basically ridiculous to begin with and a completely unhelpful source. Call me crazy.

    “Here you are getting into simple obfuscation. You yourself define god as good, whatever that means. Steven is just dealing with your position, but if you think god is bad, do tell.”

    You are missing the greater point. Steve is, of course, addressing my view that God is good, but in his questions he acts as if he knows what “good” must mean or how else could he even judge such? My point is that he, at a fundamental level, doesn’t even believe there are such things as “good” and “evil” so where is the critique coming from? I’m sure Steve is a very ethical person; I’m sure he is a very nice person. What I’m saying is that as far as reasoning from a philosophical basis, given his world-view, he has no true basis for making his critique.

    “At any rate, you display a remarkable incapacity to understand the basic criterion of “good”, not only from your own end of the argument, but from the other end, which is our like or dislike. Sugar is good, feces are bad. Suffering is bad, love is good. It is all about us, how we are built, and how we live / want to live.”

    You are mistaking simple likes and dislikes for the greater issue of ethics and morality in the sense talked about in the great philosophical conversations historically. Your suggestion that these things are as simple as liking sugar over feces is pretty shallow given the great ethical and moral dilemmas of history. The last time I checked it is a little more complicated than you suggest. I guess the countless books and centuries of great debates and conversations in these areas have been a waste of time. (Part 1)

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  3. Darrell says:

    (Part 2)
    “The theme of power was seriously mangled here as well. The point was that god is defined as all-powerful as well as all-good. Plus we do not have an internal/social autonomous criterion for good- we must, by your theology, take it from god.”

    I addressed the power issue. Who is doing the “defining”? I disagree with your definition. Christian theology does not define or think about power in the way you do. The Bible does not tell us of a God who is all-powerful in the sense you imagine. The power of God is ultimately displayed on the cross. Further, I wrote that we do have a way of knowing such things (morality/ethics) internally because such “are made manifest in creation by God’s action in history and are therefore external and knowable.” I include people as part of creation. I believe our moral sense also comes from what is taught in Christian theology as our being the “image bearers” of God. So we have both internal and external factors.

    “…If god simply leads by the example of the blood of Christ, as you indicate, then this seems both historically absurd (people were surely good in some few precincts before that event, and are good outside its penumbra since) and pitifully insufficient considering the task at hand.”

    I wrote that one of the sources was the history of Israel and God’s actions in the life of that people, such as the Exodus, so clearly there are examples before Christ. Again though, when you say people were “good” before then, how is it that you know what this “good” is? Further, the Christian view is that all people are capable of good and evil and know in their hearts/conscience of such things because of their being made in the image of God.

    Again, what you and Steve, I believe, have failed to address is how, from a philosophical naturalism/atheistic position, one is able to even critique whether the Christian God or any god, state, group, or person is “good” as opposed to “evil” when such are only tags one could apply to (name) any behavior or quality, even the exact opposite, at any given time.

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  4. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Thanks for being persistant..

    “Again, what you and Steve, I believe, have failed to address is how, from a philosophical naturalism/atheistic position, one is able to even critique whether the Christian God or any god, state, group, or person is “good” as opposed to “evil””

    Well, obviously we/I have addressed it, with the proposition that humans come up with good/bad judgments naturally from our inborn instincts, inculturation, and reasoning about conflicting values. The reasoning and inculturation aspects are those we can work on to make ourselves and others better at ethics.

    But this is not satisfying to you, who stake your criterion on god and want something from us that you would call “objective”, despite its impossibility. Unfortunately, your position does not hold up under scrutiny. The bible is woefully contradictory, and requires interpretation on every single ethical point, including that of killing people, which is fine and dandy in some genocidal situations, yet also prohibited. Yet the bible is your only source for your criterion of good and evil, since you do not credit individual conscience or personal revelation, or hopefully the infallibility of the Apostolic father.

    So right there you are in a bind- who does the interpretation, and by what means do they do so? Obviously, you would humbly offer yourself as a pastoral representative of god. Not that you talk to god directly, but you have a “closer relationship” than others do, by virtue of lots of prayer and your long study of the scriptures, under the tutelage of others who have taken their own crack at scriptural interpretation, having learned at the feet of others who… and so on, in a long game of telephone which ends up as easily in the theology of Jerry Fallwell as in that of Luther or the pope.

    Now, you might say that you offered a criterion (objective, indeed)- it doesn't have to be crystal clear or easily interpretable. Or even possible to fulfill, let alone practical. Each person will have their own perception of it. But how is that objective? I could just as well say that I take an ant colony as my objective criterion of what is good- taking lessons of selflessness, perseverence, and dedication as my touchstones. Though, for a few aspects of modern culture, I need to do a bit of “interpretation”.

    While such templates are interesting, possibly educational, even inspirational, they are are, in the end, useless as a criteria, since it is in the interpretation (indeed, in our inner feeling of what is right, driven by our conscience) that we have to make our own decisions. Your respect for the bible blinds you to the facts that it itself was written by humans making their own primitive interpretations of their spiritual and ethical impulses, that it is hopelessly contradictory and available for endless varieties of re-interpretation, and that such templates, however clear, can not be used in a mechanical way for our own ethics, which will always face novel situations that draw on our own, subjective value judgements.

    As an example, how do you apply the biblical criterion to our dilemma in Afghanistan?

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  5. Steven Stark says:

    Hi Darrell,

    Sorry I am just getting around to reading your post. I checked your blog a few times a couple of weeks back, but then the holidays arrived!

    “As noted below, he can see this when it comes to a powerful “god” of some sort, but I wonder if he cares if majorities or states do the same thing; and, if he does, on what basis is he able to say why they are “wrong” as opposed to “right”?”

    Darrell, I think this is a good point. I agree with you that a statement like “the majority is always right” is like saying “everything God does is right, for no other reason but that he does it.”

    But this was not my point. My point is that a sense of “objective” morality (or “objective” anything!) happens through community, over the LONG run. It doesn’t equal mob mentality in any present situation. In fact, probably any positive morality, as interpreted through our contemporary point of view looking backwards, started out as a minority position that found traction and slowly took over the majority. I was not stating an ideal, but rather a brute fact, that certain ideas become established over time.

    I do not reject the idea of objective morality – I am just pointing out that we arrive at our ideas of objective morality through subjective means. Many of them are first principles, that cannot be defended as necessarily true in a strict sense, but hopefully we have damn good reasons for believing them.

    “We know from those sources that God is not arbitrary, does not change in essence or in any fundamental way, and that his goodness and love are not based in an arbitrary will but are inseparable from God’s being and action in history”

    If we play the game that words like “good” are not meaningful if used without God, we might as well say the same thing of the word “arbitrary” and “love”.

    Why do you see “arbitrary” as bad? What is that based on? (and we can get in to whether God appears arbitrary in Scripture).

    And if you use your own thoughts and feelings, then what advantage does the Christian have over the non-Christian in determining morality? None that I can see. It just becomes a different metaphorical framework to describe the same process of determining right from wrong.

    “But we cannot replace the term “powerful” with “God” because the Christian God doesn’t imitate the power of the majority to simply project their will or of any other “powerful” force, nation, or person we are aware of historically or otherwise.”

    I was not arguing that the idea of “God” is equal to the idea of “majority”. I just meant that the two function the same way within this particular argument. Someone, whether God or the majority ( in this context), creates objective morality through reward and punishment.

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  6. Steven Stark says:

    reply to comments:

    Burk has done a good job of pointing out the confusion over the term “power”.

    “I’m sure Steve is a very ethical person; I’m sure he is a very nice person. What I’m saying is that as far as reasoning from a philosophical basis, given his world-view, he has no true basis for making his critique.”

    Well thanks! And, I must agree with you a bit here ( not on my ethics, but on your other point!). The only way you and I canhave a meaningful discussion on morality is if we accept the same premises. For instance – Humans are valuable. Can I defend that purely logically? I am not sure that I can. Humans are valuable to me, because I am human, not for any moral reason outside that.

    And even if I could defend the idea, that would mean there is a first premise behind that that is not defended. This is the nature of reality. We all make leaps of “faith” of a sort, when engaged in a moral argument. So the theist might claim, “see! You admit that everything is arbitrary from your point of view!” But that is not true. Despite a lack of logically unimpeachable premises, we still must have good reasons for our beliefs. Of course this requires a first premise that reason is worth something, etc, so it is self-refuting. But any line of reasoning self-refutes if you take it back “far” enough. Any of them.

    I have argued with Christians who take the Bible’s inerrancy as a first principle. I don’t think there are good enough reasons to do this, because the idea contradicts other, more basic, first principles for me and others.

    “our being the “image bearers” of God. So we have both internal and external factors.”

    “Further, the Christian view is that all people are capable of good and evil and know in their hearts/conscience of such things because of their being made in the image of God. “

    So in practice we do the same things to make decisions about what is good. We meditate on it. We think about what is truly important. A Christian prays, an atheist meditates and reasons and asks advice. The Christian probably asks advice and reasons too. So if there is a “heart/conscience” inside of us that can determine right or wrong, then there is little actual difference between our positions, just different language.

    Question – And what if certain actions of the God of the Bible violate our inner “hearts/conscience”? Which has greater authority, the written word or the inner voice? The law or the spirit?

    BTW, Darrell, I don't have a problem with Christianity completely. I still consider myself a super-liberal Christian in some ways. I just have a problem with the idea that Christianity is MORE reasonable than other points of view.

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  7. Steven Stark says:

    And thanks for the interesting conversation!

    Happy New Year!

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  8. Darrell says:

    Steve,

    Thank you for your response and thoughts. I guess what I’m not communicating very well is, what I think, a more radical and fundamental critique of you and Burk’s position. I will try and summarize:

    The question really comes down to whether or not the Christian narrative is true and whether or not the Christian God exists. If there is no such God and the world is completely material, purposeless, accidental, and without meaning then there really are no such things as “right” and “wrong” in the normal sense that most people mean when speaking of those categories. Most people and cultures throughout history have believed that murder was wrong, not simply because a majority thought so (even if it arose from a minority opinion), but because it was wrong in a more fundamental way. In other words, most cultures have thought it was something we should accede to outside of our own feelings about it…so even if I think personally and subjectively that perhaps in a certain case I should be able to murder someone, I should put my personal subjective feelings aside and recognize an objective law not to murder…recognize it even if a majority, law, or state says otherwise.

    If there is no God, what you really believe (I think) is that “likes” and “dislikes” (whether collective or individual) arise over time but they have no more hold or validity/weight if the exact opposite likes and dislikes had arisen over time. In other words, if over time the “like” had arisen that it was “moral” and “ethical” to throw weak newborns out with the garbage, you would say such was no different (in principle) than trying to save and nurture the weaker newborns. There may be different consequences or results from any given choice, but from your position one can believe that nothing, even child torture, is intrinsically “wrong.” Such a position, in my mind, is ugly and unacceptable because it opens the door, not to the better angels of our nature, but to our worst. Of course in your scheme, there can really be no “better” or “worse” there can only be neutral choices, actions—only matter in motion remains with such a view and nothing else. (Part 1)

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  9. Darrell says:

    (Part 2)
    It is easy after centuries of Western Judeo-Christian influence and enculturation as to moral and ethical frameworks to simply sit back and say “Gee, we are pretty moral and reasonable…that stuff is no more reasonable or helpful than pagan frameworks.” In other words, you sit in a mansion paid for by others and believe all architects, even you, could have produced the same. Historically that is simply not true.

    The truth is that all we know empirically and historically is that the Judeo-Christian framework in the West has produced a flawed but certainly a better moral and ethical world than the one that existed before it became the prevalent view—especially when we consider the plight of the weakest members of society—women, children, and the poor. One would think that such a framework was more reasonable than the one that protected the strong and made sure the weak either barely existed or didn’t survive to begin with.

    Thanks again for the conversation.

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  10. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    If I could pop in again… There is an interesting triangulation going on here. You “want” the world to be one way:

    “Such a position, in my mind, is ugly and unacceptable because it opens the door, not to the better angels of our nature, but to our worst.”

    I respect that position- you want the world to work in one way, and not another way. I can relate to that. That is something you can work on in our social sphere.

    But it isn't something you can work on in the physical world. You don't get a choice on whether evolution occurred, or whatever was the origin of the cosmos, or whether there is a god or not. That is an objective question.

    You “want” there to be a god in order to stake the moral world you “want”. But what does god have to do with it? As I was pointing out above, the connection is tenuous in the extreme. Whether there is a god or not, we have the morals we have anyhow, and we can work on them directly, without the mediation of a god-totem.

    As for what people “usually” mean by morals, they mean what they want, and what they want everyone else to want. The objectivity of morals is something that everyone wants so that the tell everyone what to do, but on the ground and in detail, they want different morals, so they can hardly be objective, can they?

    Best wishes!

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  11. Steven Stark says:

    Hi Darrell,

    William Lane Craig offers up this idea, which seems to coincide with yours. I will paraphrase:

    “I believe that Naziism is wrong, even if the Nazis had won and had brainwashed us to believe that they were right.”

    Of course, as you can see, if the Nazis had brainwashed us, we would be arguing that Naziism was objectively RIGHT – whether we believed it or not.

    Another way to phrase the idea is this:

    What I believe is right, whether I believe it or not.

    We all have a degree of this in our beliefs, but it is not exactly helpful since no one would say that what he believes is right is not actually right!

    I don't think our views are really that different. The question of whether things are good and evil is one of perspective. I happily use the terms good and evil, I think they are relevant in our society and I can make good arguments (hopefully) about what is and isn't good. But if we zoom out to an “ultimate” viewpoint, everything certainly does keep marching forward. Evil and good acts will both drive the universe forward.

    But is this so different than the Christian idea that God will ultimately use all good and evil to his glory? That eventually “God will be all in all” as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15?

    An atheist may say the universe will end in a big heat death. A theist may say that Christ will intervene in history and establish his kingdom – both of these scenarios regardless of our current choices.

    But both atheist and theist will also argue that our current choices still matter. And why? because of the consequences – both of our actions and the perspective/attitude that leads to them.

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