Steve Wilkens, at Azusa Pacific, is one of those professors who can write textbooks for students that can also be used in churches. His newest book, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong, is an excellent introduction to ethical theory.
Here is what a good introduction does: first, it knows where people are and begins there and takes them to understanding the subject. (Too many textbooks assume too much on the part of the reader.) Second, it explains a discipline comprehensively and adequately. (Too many are neither comprehensive nor adequate; too many try to be exhaustive, and they become exhausting to read.) Third, a good textbook makes something not possible to misunderstand. (Some explain but leave too many points unclear and misunderstandings arise.) Fourth, a good introduction needs to have some wit and fun and personality. (The legacy of modernity and scientism is disinterestedness and impersonality. OK, if you want that, but my own experience with students is that they want to have some fun, too, so the textbook writer needs to gain the journalist’s capacity to find the right personal connection so that it becomes absorbing too.)
What do you think of “divine command theory”? Do you think this is how best to frame biblical and Christian ethics?
Steve Wilkens knows how to do this, and he does it well. In addition to his worldviews book (Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives), this book is useful to students taking an ethics class and I believe church study groups can use this book, too. (If we can get people away from thinking study groups are for … I’ll stop there.)
I want to begin today with Steve’s last chapter, the one on “divine command theory.” I want to begin here because it is what I think one of the most common approaches to Christian ethics, it is a strong element in some of the responses to Rob Bell (e.g., at times in the Chan-Sprinkle book), and while it may appear to be the one of the most natural approaches to ethics for Christians, it is not without its problems. So, what is divine command theory? Wilkens trots out three elements but before I give his three elements, I want to give a simplistic summary:
God says it, therefore it’s right. Or,
God says, I have to learn to trust God no matter what I think, that settles it!
First, our creaturely nature obligates us to rules that are part of the created order. God, who is not a created being, is not bound by these rules.
Second, good and evil do not exist independently of God. Instead, they are created by God just as surely as we are.
Third, while there may be a logic to God’s action and decrees, it is presumptuous for humans to believe that our finite minds can discover it.
As you can see, the sovereignty, even inscrutability, of God is uppermost. That is, the authority of God in the Bible, often expressed as the authority of the Bible, becomes supreme, and the fundamental response of humans is to surrender and to trust and to obey (and not to ask questions).
The singular issue is often expressed this way: Is it right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right? [That is, is God the standard, whether we grasp its logic or not, or does God, too, live up to the standard?] Many, of course, want to say God is the standard and it is right because God commands it, but what is right is also good and justifiable.
This view assumes God’s absolute freedom (and therefore whatever God does is right because God is, by definition, right). It emphasizes the fallenness/sinfulness of humans (likes the ending of Job, therefore), the need for divine revelation in Scripture, the limitations of the human mind, and the need to trust and obey.
Wilkens points to some questions:
Could God command cruelty? And the moment one says “No,” one is pushed into the problem itself because then non-cruelty becomes a standard by which God is measured. God’s freedom, we often say, is not arbitrary.
Does good exist independently of God?
Can we discount the role of reason? Why, then, does God give us reason? Can we use reason for everything but our faith? Are we using reason to establish the validity of divine command ethics?
How do we interpret commands? So God gives commands. But we have to interpret them, which means we are using reason.
Why do non-Christians have so many of the same morals as the Bible? Is not reason at work establishing morals?
Do the divine commands tell us enough? Here Steve pushes into the realm for the need to update, apply, discern, etc, when it comes to living the will of God today in our world in our way.