Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics 1

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.

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  • Amos Paul

    My answer against DCT is–of course it’s inadequate. I’ve never actually known (that is, am not aware of any) serious ethicists, Christian or not, that claim Divine Command Theory. I’d say that people like Chan are not primarily philosophical ehicists. If he was, I’d be surprised if he explicitly accepted DCT. Though I could certainly be wrong.

    The idea of the Christian God, though, is, in fact, that we cannot comprehend. But the idea of the Christian God is *also* that *anything* God says and does can be assured to be good objectively and thoroughly. This is not like the idea of a pagan god that can perform actions which are up to human scrutiny to decide if they are good or bad. So His commands, obviously on this definition, are indicative of good. But this is not because morality is simply arbitrary–but because morality, like existence itself, flows directly out of the very character and being of God. We know God through morality as much as we know morality through God. One is the extension of the other within our lives.

    If we cannot know who God is through morality, than I do not see how the concept of sin works as a literal estrangement from His character and being. Nor do I see how men could be expected to recognize ‘good’ and ‘bad’ without commands–and the Bible seems to be filled with accusations that all men are evil when, as James says, a man must know what is good to do and choose wrongly to sin.

  • John W Frye

    There are some subtle logical connections in divine command theory if I am understanding it correctly. It seems to start with the pre-creation, eternal, comprehensive divine decree of all things. In God’s eternal decree both good and evil are evident as reality unfolds. Since evil is decreed because nothing ever hapens outside the decree of God and since God is the Author of the decree, then we logically conclude that God is the Author of Evil. Divine Command Theorists at this point beg off with inscrutability and mystery. “No, we can’t go there.” Why? Human reason has become suspect of the inherent “goodness” of God. Augustine concluded that for God evil does not exist. Really?

    I like your point, Scot, that the commands do not just lie there in the Bible plain and clear as day. No, all commands must be interpreted. Thus, enter human reason and discussion. I don’t think the Bible denegrates human reason though it describes it as reeling under the impact of the crackedness of the Eikons.

  • Chris

    If God’s character / nature is good, and God creates the cosmos as a place where his character / nature can be expressed and can flourish, we would expect God to direct human beings toward goodness, since this would be the most abundant life possible in a God-shaped universe. We are not constrained to be good because God shapes arbitrary commandments, nor is God constrained to be good despite his desire to be otherwise. God is entirely free to be himself (good) – as were we, before the fall, and as we become under the action of grace.

  • Steve Jung

    I teach with Prof. Wilkens and must say that he relates very well to the undergrad students. His strength is explaining the complex in understandable term all with a touch of humor.

  • Joe Canner

    One of the reasons I’ve heard proposed for why humans have some of the same rules as God (even if they haven’t read His Word) is that since we are made in His image we naturally have some of his ethical ideals imprinted on us. I don’t know how to prove or disprove this theory, but it certainly suggests that we ought to be able to use our human reason (among other things) to work out the what and why of God’s law.

  • I did a double take when I saw this as a new book–i remember selling this puppy years ago when I was at IVP. Must be a new edition or new publisher. Good book.

  • The theories and questions in this discussion are difficult to disentangle. To me it seems that several of the questions and answers can have a lot of different implications and sometimes unrelated bases.

    First of all, I would say yes, if God says it or does it, then it is good. But then I would say just as when A=B, so B=A, if it is not good, then God has not said it or done it. I agree with others who have already posted, God’s nature is good. It is who he is. He is the definition of what is good, and we only know what is good and what is evil, because the definition sprang from what he is.

    Conversely, our only real avenue to understanding God is our Reason, our understanding of what is good and evil. Here we are on shaky ground either way you want to spin it. Our Reason is not infallible. Our interpretations of the commands, whether from a fallible or infallible text (recorded by what were surely fallible authors), or from teachers or our own independent understanding, must always be considered suspect. Thus if God commands one man to kill another, we either must doubt the source of the command (is it really God?), the interpretation of the command (Did we really hear him right? Does the command say what we think it says?), or is our morality at fault (is it always wrong for one man to kill another? Could it be right in this instance?).

    There is, on the one hand, a sense that our understanding of morality is extremely limited. We have a finite perception of the impact our actions/decisions may have. We often view death as the ultimate evil, and we rail at God for natural disasters, the deaths they bring and the suffering they cause. But there is a real discrepancy at work if we believe that God has a cosmic, timeless perspective. What is the ultimate nature of evil? Can we really say? So it is not that God says it, and that is the final word on right and wrong, but rather that we have such a finite understanding of right and wrong.

    I am a pacifist. I think violence brings harm to the soul and that life with God is meant to be life lived with trust, confidence and peace. But that does not mean I view death or even suffering as evil. For one thing, death is not the end. If there is one major lesson I can recommend to people concerning Jesus actions on earth, it is that after death, there is more! So if people die, yes it is sad for us who lose them, and yes we may feel that they are “missing out” on the lives they could have continued. But if it is not the end… well, God sees all this better than we do, right?

    I appreciate C.S.Lewis’ thoughts on these issues, especially in “the Problem of Pain.”

    So, yes, there is a sense that God’s ways are higher than our ways, but I do not think that means that God is able to do just anything, and then we must be forced to call it good. God is free to be himself, as others have already said, and in being himself he will conform to the highest standard of Good, which is also himself. It is up to us to carefully and humble discern what that good is. I believe our reason must play a pivotal role: in fact whether we like it or not, it will place the ultimate arbiter for our discovery of God’s purposes.

    Back to the example question, if we hear a command from God to kill another human, then our Reason should, and no doubt _will_ be the deciding factor. We either reason that God has said it and we must do it, or we reason that God has not said it or God has said something else. If we must subject our decisions to our Reason, we should humbly begin to perfect our Reason as well as we can through prayer and diligence. In the end, we will have to subject the words of a text to that same reason, and though we may get it wrong, we should trust in a God who is not only Good, but who is also actively involved in the world he created, to help us do so.

  • Randy

    Amos @1 – Richard Mouw at Fuller wrote a book about DCM (in his career as a philosopher), as did Robert Adams (loaded with modal logic, as I recall) and the late Philip Quinn. These are serious and sophisticated contemporary philosophers as well as Christians. The older lineage is more distinguished even if our average person in the pew holds a too simple a view.

  • DerekMc


    This is an expanded edition with two new chapters dealing with evolutionary ethics and narrative ethics.

  • Amos Paul one of the “serious ethicists” I am aware of who write in defence of Divine Command Theory is my blogging partner Matthew Flannagan. You can read the material on our blog on the topic here – this link should take you to 4-5 pages of links of his work on DCT – and whilst visiting if you click on his profile you’ll be able to see citations to his published works on the topic – thought he has a few forthcoming publications on DCT that are not listed on our blog

    I am aware of quite a few Divine Command Theorists:
    William Alston, William Lane Craig, Robert Adams, John Hare, Glenn Peoples, C Stephen Evans, Philip L Quinn, Edward Weirenga, Janine Marie Idziak, William Wrainwright, William Mann, Thomas Carson Value, Alvin Plantinga, William Paley, John Locke, Puffendorf – that is just off the top of my head.

    It is a serious position that serious scholars do hold to and defend in the literature today and it cannot just be written off or caricatured (as it commonly is in much literature).

  • Amos Paul


    While I respect that you want to point out some serious, Christian ethicisits that explicitly contend for DCT (though I was also referring to *contemporary* ethicists)–it is at this point that I think it’s necessary to know what you *mean* by DCT.

    For instance, William Lane Craig is an excellent example of someone using DCT language… but Craig, insofar as I understand him, also says that goodness is an objective thing constituted in God’s nature. This is not something God can violate. God’s commands, then, form moral duties for us because they are indicative of that objective nature that is goodness.

    Now, I personally wouldn’t call this DCT. In my view, DCT is the assertion that morality and goodness and *entirely* contingent upon the commands of God. Asserting that the commands of God, though, are themselves contingent upon some objective nature that is good which those commands cannot violate is directly opposed to this notion.

    Moreover, Plantinga is a great example of someone who believes in *logical* constrainst of God. Plantinga argues that if the structure of any truth is necessarily true, then that truth is outside of God’s control. He says, for example, “such entities exist eternally and [at the same time] depend upon God for their existence. Thus it is not that God created the numbers, but we might think rather that he eternally affirms their necessary existence.”

    Goodness is something that Plantinga says God eternally confirms. Goodness has necessary and objective truth. Similarly, this is also in direct contradiction to the definition of DCT that I accept.