Mining the Riches of the Philosophical Tradition

Mining the Riches of the Philosophical Tradition August 5, 2016

These days when people think of a theologian or philosopher they tend to imagine someone really old like Confucius or Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. But contemporary Christian philosophy is a youthful movement. In fact in the last two decades it has been spreading rapidly to universities around the world. Its ambitious projects have been of enormous value to the church. One of the central concerns of contemporary Christian philosophers has been the knowledge of God. So their insights ought to be of particular benefit to us here. In the spirit of the exciting new developments in recent years in Christian philosophy, I want to explore here a couple of the key questions in philosophy of religion. The responses that Christian philosophers have developed to these questions are not the spiritual equivalent of the Scriptures. Yet they certainly do clarify our understanding of God’s nature and attributes. It is true that Christian philosophy is a technical field. But we ought not to be intimidated by it because what matters is the struggle to learn, and not just the end-result. To struggle is to build up our intellectual and spiritual muscles, and ultimately to develop a better comprehension of God’s character.

Plato and Aristotle, 'The School of Athens,' by Rafael, Public Domain
Plato and Aristotle, ‘The School of Athens,’ by Rafael, Public Domain


Consider a couple of the key dilemmas that have arisen in the history of philosophy. One of the oldest dilemmas in philosophy is the ‘Euthyphro’ [you-thi-fro] problem, first raised by Plato in 395 B.C. In the course of a dialogue between Euthyphro and Socrates the question is raised, ‘what is it to be pious?’ What they mean by ‘pious’ is ‘moral.’ So they really are saying ‘what makes one thing moral, and another, not?’ Socrates and Euthyphro consider two answers. Euthyphro first says that ‘To be moral is to be loved by all the gods.’ But Socrates responds, somewhat unsettlingly, “Are moral things loved by the gods because they are moral, or are they moral because they are loved by the gods?” The first horn of this sentence – are moral things loved by the gods because they are moral – is one possible answer to the Euthyphro problem. The sentence’s second horn – are things moral because they are loved by the gods – is another.


Suppose the Euthyphro were updated for our modern and monotheistic context. When Socrates asks whether what is loved by God is moral because it is loved by him, or loved by him because it is moral, he is formulating a debate about “Divine Command Theory.”  Divine Command theorists say that morally good actions are good because God commands them. But such theorists then must respond to a further question: “why does God command those particular actions?” One answer is to say that God commands them precisely because they are good. But if that is true then Divine Command Theory must be wrong, because then there would have to be an independent standard of goodness by which God would decide which actions are good and which are not. Of course, as William Lane Craig has noted, to say that God does not command according to an independent moral standard does not require one to say also that his commands are arbitrary. For instance, perhaps God commands as he does because of his love. And a loving God might not be a being who could issue abhorrent commands. Perhaps a divine command theorist could also assert that the commands of a God who does not love could not give rise to moral obligations.


At any rate, Craig has likewise noted that we could avoid these gymnastics and avoid also the problem of the independent standard if we were instead to say that it is God’s will that determines which actions are good. Good actions are good precisely because he has commanded them. But this second answer in turn has problems of its own: the problem of arbitrariness, the problem of triviality, and the problem of abominable commands. As for arbitrariness, to say that God’s will is what determines goodness seems to make his decision arbitrary – he might just be commanding things on a whim. This is unsettling because whims are poor candidates for morally obligatory statements. Why follow a whimsical deity? There is also the problem of triviality. Perhaps God wills what he does because he is good. But this might set up something like a tautology – a circular claim. If, as is asserted by Divine Command Theory, God’s will is the source of goodness, then to say that God’s will is good is just to say that God’s will is as he wills it to be. One would hope that Divine Command Theory is about more than just this when it asserts that God is good-willed. Finally, as Craig has noted there is the problem of abominable commands. Suppose it is God’s will that determines what actions are good, and that there is no independent standard to shape God’s commands. Then perhaps God could have told us to murder, steal, exploit, rape, and so forth, and such activities would have to have been considered good. This violates our most basic moral sensibilities. Divine Command Theory appears to suggest that if God had willed things differently, then actions that by our most basic moral sensibilities are good might in fact be bad. At any rate, whether or not one endorses Divine Command theory, the upshot is that there are advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the Euthyphro problem.


In fact my intention in exploring the Euthyphro problem has not been to try to solve it. It rather has been to envision how one might turn to the tradition to learn more about God, herself, and her larger purposes. What the Euthyphro problem illustrates is how profitable it is to mine the riches of theology and philosophy. Over the centuries, the doctrinal dilemmas of Christianity have inspired philosophers to develop some ingenious solutions. Investigations of their solutions, though dense, are of great value. The Euthyphro problem is just one of a number of different issues that have arisen over the centuries in the Christian tradition and which have honed our collective understanding of God’s nature and attributes. In exploring these issues we can increase our spiritual knowledge and develop a better doctrinal grounding for our experiences.


Note: fragments of this post have appeared in earlier posts on this blog. I have worked up these fragments into a more substantive post here.



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