Our God Is An…Ethical (!) God

Our God Is An…Ethical (!) God March 16, 2013

I was recently graciously granted on of the highest honors a university can bestow on a professor–an endowed, named “chair” (professorship). In my case it is the Foy Valentine Chair of Christian Ethics–named after a champion of equality and crusader for civil rights. I’m honored by this, and thankful to my dean and provost for their trust and esteem.

So, as a newly minted “official” Christian ethicist (although I’ve taught Christian ethics for many years), where should I begin?

Where but at the top?

Is God ethical?

I perceive people recoiling in horror at the question! “How can he even ask such a thing?”

The problem is, however, that many Christians (as I’ve argued here many times) apparently do NOT think of God as ethical. No doubt they THINK that they do, but I must respectfully disagree.

To be ethical is to act (in thought, word and deed) according to, consistently with, an ethical standard, ultimately a summum bonum–an ultimate good.

Frequently I hear Christians claim that “Whatever God does is good just because he does it.” That is, in effect, to deny that God is ethical. What they mean, I take it, is that God is above ethics, that there is no ethical standard, norm, by which God thinks, speaks or acts.

The only ethic we can derive from that is “divine command ethics.” But the question naturally arises “Why does God command things?” From this perspective (viz., that God is above ethics), the only answer can be that he does because he chooses to. But, ultimately, then, divine commands are arbitrary. God is arbitrary.

I believe every divine command reflects God’s character, ultimately his love, which is the summum bonum rooted in God’s own being.

God does not command arbitrarily; God is ethical. God is love (benevolence toward being).

Jonathan Edwards defined ethical goodness that way–as benevolence toward being–in his little book on virtue. (Unfortunately, I think some of his other writings go in a different direction–God above ethics.)

An ancient Christian tradition rooted in the church fathers says that goodness and being are inseparable such that to depart from goodness is to diminish being. God, being the fullness of being itself, unmixed with nonbeing, is perfectly good and cannot be otherwise. That is why God cannot lie. Not because he chooses arbitrarily not to but because it is not in his nature to do so. To lie would be to go against truth, to go against the  good, to diminish his being, which even God cannot do.

The alternative, popular these days especially among the “young, restless, Reformed” crowd, is to say that God is above ethics, above goodness as we can think of it, able to do absolutely anything, ungoverned by anything.

The problem with that view is that, ultimately, it makes God arbitrary and reduces “right” to might. And it makes ethics a matter of blind obedience to divine commands without any confidence that they are reasonable, rooted in being itself, immutably connected with ultimate reality. They may be, for all we can know or expect, divine whims.

The practical “take away” from all this is simply this: For every divine command there is a reason. We may not know what it is yet, but we can have confidence that God never commands something arbitrarily–for example, just to demonstrate who is in charge.

Ultimately, God has our best interest at heart because that is his nature. Every divine command was and is an expression of divine love–not just for God himself but for his creatures–because God IS love.

When we preach and teach that God commands something, we need to make clear that God commands it because it is best for us and NOT because God is a spoil-sport who delights in making us obey or robbing us of pleasure.

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  • Congratulations on your new chair, Roger!

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, Joel.

  • Beakerj

    And these are the things I’m hoping I will one day believe about God again, once I get the doubts that tangling with calvinism has put deep into my bone marrow out for good. Bravo for this article Roger.

  • Marshall

    Congratulations on your appointment!

    Since “we don’t know what it [the good reason] is yet”, doesn’t that make God’s commands “above goodness as we can think of it”?

    Given that “God commands it because it is best for us”, meaning I suppose best for his Creation, that doesn’t seem to imply that what he commands is good for any group of humans or for me as an individual, which is indeed what I read in scripture and observe in the world. Should I obey anyway?

    • rogereolson

      It is always best for me to obey his commands that apply to me. In spite of the Abraham and Isaac story, I don’t believe in the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” If God seemingly commanded me to do something that I could not imagine Jesus ever doing under any circumstances, I would think I was suffering a delusion.

  • Zach

    Great thoughts; particularly if we think of God as like a person (particularly three persons!) I think tying in reason and God’s nature are much more sensible than God as a tyrant, as Wesley called the Reformed conception!

  • Araghast

    Out of curiousity, how do we know that god is loving and has our best interests at heart?

    • rogereolson

      He sent Jesus to tell us so.

      • Sven

        But that’s really just another way of saying “We know God is loving because he said so”. It’s like when people defend the inerrancy of scripture… by citing scripture. It’a a tautology.

        • rogereolson

          Anyone who claims that there exists any belief system (including atheism) that involves no basic (presupposed) beliefs simply does not understand epistemology.

  • I did a whole blog post a while back on a perspective on the euthyphro dilemma from the perspective of the gospel: http://thereforenow.com/2011/11/the-euthyphro-dilemma/

    I think the whole problem you’ve artfully exposed here hinges on the division of the good – moral good and aesthetic good. We are attracted to the forbidden and so we must have a separate idea of the moral good which is a version of the good for which we see no aesthetic value. The question boils down to this: does God sometimes do things He wants to do which are not things which He ought to do? It is really similar to asking, can God make a sandwich which is so large that He can’t eat it? It is, as C.S. Lewis said, damned nonsense. We read our own fallenness onto God and so generate this problem.

  • Jim G.

    Hi Roger,

    Congrats on the chair. It is quite an honor and I know you will use it ethically (no pun intended).

    I fully agree that God is ethical. God is ethical because Jesus is ethical. Jesus is the full revelation of deity in bodily form. God’s ethics are consonant with human ethics because God the Son became (and remains) human.

    Unless there is a great disconnect between the Father and the Son (and who would think such a thing!), then God the Father is ethical because God the Son submitted to his own rules in the incarnation without any semblance of discord within himself. For the YRR folk to say that God is above ethics leads to a good and necessary consequence of either a rift between Father and Son or a union of divine and human in Christ that is not exactly hypostatic, wouldn’t you say? It surely would not be the first instance of a less-than-hypostatic understanding of the incarnation out of the Reformed tradition.

    Jim G.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, it seems to me they are assuming a deus absconditus, a hidden God “behind” the God revealed in Jesus. Luther did that. That makes God very unknowable and truly frightening (not in any good sense).

      • Beakerj

        That is exactly it! A ‘hidden God’ who is nothing like Jesus…I didn’t know there was a term for it. This is very scary stuff, because God could be, & want ANYTHING, no matter how weird, irrational or evil.

  • John C.Gardner

    Professor Olson.
    Hopefully you will write a book on the history of Christian ethics and something about the application of ethics to our lives. I for one would find such books worthy from your steady hand and knowledge of historical theology.

    • Kristi-Joy

      Same here!

  • Steve Rogers

    Congratulations on the chair appointment. I’m sure the ethics of the academy will be advanced.

  • Jon Van Dop

    I see your point about God being above ethics as pointing toward an arbitrary God. However, if God is not above ethics, does that not imply that there is a law above God to which God must adhere? It seems like there is a subtle challenge to the sovereignty of God somewhere in this.

    • rogereolson

      I thought I made clear my agreement with Augustine that goodness and being are inextricably united. God’s ethical character is who he is, not some law above him.

  • JD

    ‘To be ethical is to act (in thought, word and deed) according to, consistently with, an ethical standard, ultimately a summum bonum–an ultimate good.

    Frequently I hear Christians claim that “Whatever God does is good just because he does it.” That is, in effect, to deny that God is ethical. What they mean, I take it, is that God is above ethics, that there is no ethical standard, norm, by which God thinks, speaks or acts.’

    I am a little confused by this. You seem to be saying that God is subject to an ethical norm that transcends Him, that He is not Himself the Summum Bonum, but that the Summum Bonum is above Him.

    ‘When we preach and teach that God commands something, we need to make clear that God commands it because it is best for us and NOT because God is a spoil-sport who delights in making us obey or robbing us of pleasure.’

    Amen to that!

    • rogereolson

      I’m confused. Where did I even suggest an ethical norm transcending God? I thought I denied that by saying being and goodness are inextricably united. God’s ethical norm is his own character. I always get this objection from someone (two or three here already), but I have never event hinted at an ethical norm transcending God.

  • Tony Pounders


    Congratulations! Who are you currently reading in Christian ethics? Any suggestions?


    • rogereolson

      Due to some distractions (good ones) I’m still reading a book I blogged about some time ago. I hope to finish it today and blog about the rest of the book tomorrow. It is The Economy of Desire by Daniel Bell. I have a couple other books by him that I plan to delve into soon. My two favorite Christian ethicists are Reinhold Niebuhr and Stanley Hauerwas. I like cognitive dissonance!

  • Dr. Olson,
    Thank you for putting forward your thoughts here and congrats on the new chair appointment. I wonder if the “restless, Reformed” you speak of, of which I am not a part by the way, would respond to your characterization of divine command as ultimately drawing from the same premise you appeal to in your piece i.e. the reasons (insert Will) of God. I know the mysterious will of God looms large for these folks theologically and in some sense I think you are making a similar appeal in that you claim God has reasons for what he does. It may be that your appeal to God’s reason’s as ultimately a result of love goes a step further than Reformed folks are willing to go, but I think the same idea is present within that camp. Your thoughts?


    • rogereolson

      I think many within the YRR camp are simply confused about these matters. I urge them to think more deeply. They often claim to believe that God is eternally, unchangeably good–i.e., has an immutable character. But then, when faced with certain questions about God’s actions, they resort to a hidden God whose will is above any law–even one that is within God himself. In other words, they say “God can do anything and whatever he does is automatically good just because he does it.” That’s inconsistent with an ethical God (or God being ethical). It’s a nominalist claim. A milder version appears in “God’s goodness is so different from ours that we cannot comprehend it.” While that is not an ontological statement (necessarily), it points toward a hidden God, a voluntarist God, a God whose will determines goodness.

      • David Graham

        Are you saying that this “milder” claim logically presupposes voluntarism, or that it seems to do so in the particular case of the Reformed folks? Isn’t it possible that our metaphysical claims about God (i.e. the biblical/patristic doctrine of transcendence) could warrant epistemological humility without implying theological voluntarism? This is how I initially took your statement, “We may not know what it is yet, but we can have confidence that God never commands something arbitrarily”.

        • rogereolson

          What I object to (in my post to which you are responding) is the claim I often hear from Reformed/Calvinist types that “Whatever God does is good just because he does it.” It’s the “just” I’m objecting to. There is no way to interpret such a statement except as an expression of voluntarism/nominalism. I think the claim that “God’s goodness is different from our goodness” falls close to that. It requires some teasing out, but it seems to me, most often, it is another way of saying the same thing–that whatever God might do would automatically be good “just” because God does it. However, the latter could also be an expression of epistemological humility; it needs teasing out to discover that. When someone says to me “God’s goodness is different” I want to know what they mean. Very often it turns out they mean that whatever God does is automatically “good” just because God does it. It’s that to which I am objecting when I say that “our God is an ethical God.” I can say that and still hold that we cannot always understand how and in what sense something God does is good, but we must trust that there is a good reason for whatever God does and it is grounded in his character of love. Consigning people to eternal torment in hell when they could be saved because salvation is unconditional is absolutely incompatible with any meaning of “good” or “love” that I can imagine or think or know or believe. And it is incompatible with the character of God as revealed in Jesus.

  • Craig Wright

    Some Christian apologists use the moral argument for belief in God, and then point out that atheism does not provide a standard for moral absolutes. Then, some Christians would say that deliberately killing babies is wrong, but if God says to do it, it is right. The problem is that if one uses the Bible and belief in God to create moral standards, then God has to be consistent with those morals. I hear some Christians saying that God can do things that we think are not just and moral, like eternal conscious torment, or ordering the slaughter of the Canaanites, because his ways are higher than ours, and that we have a fallen sense of fairness and morality. That does not seem to be consistent.

  • Anthony

    God’s commands are a reflection of His moral character. However, the issue of killing is a tricky matter because one must consider life as encompassing the afterlife when God chooses to take a life here on earth. When we see God commanding man not to kill, it is a reflection of God’s character because no one has the right to take away life. However, it only applies to God if He arbirarily took away their AFTERLIFE because there is continuity whether we are with or without a body (or in the new heavens and earth). When man kills a person here on earth they are trying to DESTROY them. When God takes a life here on earth He still preserves their being. So, I believe that the issue of killing does apply to God but God does not violate it because He never intends to destroy them but rather to grant the justice of their actions while at the same time preserving their being. Also, hell should not be defined as “a place of torment” but rather a place of separation from God. Since relationship is God’s intent then without cooperation God’s relational intent is stifled. So hell is God’s cooperating with man’s will to choose other than Himself. That is why hell is “separation” and therefore consitent with the Christian view that morality is objectively grounded in God’s nature and He does not act contrary to that nature (nor can He).

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,
    Congratulations on the honor you’ve received.
    Of course you are correct that God acts ethically – it is nearly a given as I can see it. In my experience, if someone wanted to say otherwise, they are usually driving home the point that God does not exist. An unethical God has little space in Christian thought – such is reserved generally for the polytheists.
    That said, the sticky part is to evaluate individual instances where God has done some things that have the appearance of being unethical. The book of Job provides a rather extreme case study. What are the lessons that you learn from the book of Job about God’s ethics? More specifically, when God defends Himself against claims of unethical behavior (40:8), He appeals to the Behemoth and the Leviathan (Chapters 40-41). Do God’s arguments satisfy you that God was acting ethically in putting Job to such a severe test (as the narrator of the story insists He did do – 42:11)?

    • rogereolson

      The devil is always in the details, isn’t he? The only thing I can say about Job is that it was Satan (or “the Accuser”) who did the dirty work. God simply allowed it. Why and for what reasons, we don’t know with detailed, definite certainty. I can imagine many possibilities. What I can’t imagine is that an ethical God would pre-select some certain persons created in his image and likeness to damn to hell for eternity IF he saved others unconditionally.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        On your second point we are in agreement – the double predestination has real ethical troubles.
        On Job, I must demure. We do know the reasons and they are plain in Chapters 1 and 2 – they were tests to see if Job would cling to God even if God removed His hedge of protection. He passed the tests. But all along, responsibility was put squarely on God’s shoulders. God took the time to defend Himself, not by saying that He didn’t do it, but by the appeals to the Behemoth and Leviathan. It changed Job. And the message of the book is that we should also have the same perspective that Job eventually came to. It is not a “clean” resolution to the difficulty, but I don’t think that a fair reading of the book allows us simply to slough off responsibility from God to Satan for the hurts that come into our lives. It is really odd that a significant part of the crucial argumentation is about these exotic creatures/myths – makes the book seem foreign to me.

        • rogereolson

          Maybe the fact that it seems foreign to you should give you pause (as it does me) to rely too heavily on it for a theology of God’s sovereignty.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Indeed, this is where you and I part ways on our methods. You, as a theologian, are looking to synthesize into a coherent theology. This is necessary and it is good. Keep doing that. For myself, I aim to learn what the Bible is teaching about God and the world in the many voices that it uses – without care to synthesize it all. I don’t want to miss what you might care to cut off in your synthesis. I’m not so concerned with my theology of God’s sovereignty – I want to drink deeply from Job’s theology of God’s sovereignty.
            I’m very glad that it seems foreign to me – it gives me a focus to learn it more as was originally intended. Otherwise, I might fall into the trap of thinking I understand a falsely familiar book. They are all foreign to me whether they seem to me so or not.

  • Tom F.

    First, thanks for the good thoughts. I have been pondering this question for awhile, and it is helpful to know some of the theological history as well (like Luther’s hidden God).

    To me, it would seem the rub is in the “We may not know what it is yet, but we can have confidence that God never commands something arbitrarily”. I can see why this is important, and would be in deep sympathy with the direction this is headed in .

    But, on an ethical level, on what grounds would you be able to make this principle do any real ethical work?

    Suppose you receive a vision in which you are commanded to kill your child (perhaps like Abraham). The messenger in the vision claims to be from God. You object: “This doesn’t seem like something God would ask me to do, based on what I understand of God ethically.” The messenger replies, “Ah, but this is one of those circumstances where you won’t be able to understand why ethically that this is okay. You still need to kill your child.”

    Would your principle give you any help in this situation? I am having a hard time seeing why. If you do end up deciding to ignore the messenger because of the unethical nature of the command, wouldn’t that entail 1.) that God is ethical and 2.) that you have complete enough access to the “ethical” so as to reasonably determine when an action is ethical or not?

    You mention using Jesus as an ethical standard here, and that seems an attractive option to me as well. But I also have a nagging question: If your (our) ethical criteria is the life and teachings of Jesus, than how did you (we) evaluate Jesus’ life and teachings as being worthy of becoming your (our)ethical criteria? Again, I don’t mean to be argumentative, but is it possible that this just moves the question one step back, so that this time the messenger is Jesus?

    Even if the principle can’t do any actual ethical work, it may still be important to affirm theologically though, as I think an trans-ethical God destroys any possibility of having faith.


    • rogereolson

      I’m not sure of exactly what ethical work it does, but I tend to think I should not do anything Jesus would not do (except repent).

  • It is hard to overstate this case. The NeoPuritans seem to rejoice at times with God’s virtual ruthless flaunting of any definition of the good, the true, the beautiful. They seem to think this makes God grand, almost Clint Eastwood like, a gunslinger who is not in any way bound. I get the point they are trying to make, but where they end up is not a place you really want to go. And it leads to some very absurd ethical reasoning for Christians. I understand the philosophical problems but your position is really the only place we can end up if we are not to fall into irrationalism and a God who, to use your characterization, is not at some level that different than the devil.

  • Tom F.

    Okay, great, thanks for clarifying.

    I wonder if the Reformed have a similar “theological” (as opposed to ethical) affirmation of God’s attributes. Ethically, God’s attributes can’t really do or explain anything, because there is no way that we could ever evaluate any action of God and find it contrary to his attributes. And yet, the Reformed folks are often extremely strong on affirming those attributes, even if they don’t really do anything in explaining God’s behavior. For example, Reformed folks will be very clear that whatever God does will be correct, but they will fight tooth and nail to still ascribe attributes like “loving” and “just” to God.

    It may be that this sort of move (a theological vs. ethical affirmation) ends up being necessary in nearly every theological system, but that different systems feel more comfortable putting it in different places. For you (and I would include myself here), it is at the level of ethics (i.e., God’s actions are ethical even if we can’t make sense of them) , but perhaps for them, it is at the level of ontology (i.e., God’s attributes are true even if its hard to match them with his actions.)

    Theologically, this makes some sense to me, but I still wonder about the discernment question at the ethical level. I was thinking about this, and I remembered that this issue is why Lewis argued against complete depravity. Total depravity meant that our ethical “lights” were completely askew, and thus we would have no way of discerning between angels and demons. Lewis argued that our ethical “lights” are badly damaged and askew, but that they retain some basic functioning. Thus, we can use what remains of our damaged ethical lights to see that Jesus’ way is better, and to submit ourselves to Jesus in order to grow in Jesus’ better way.

    This makes me think that a big part of this discussion is total depravity, and theological anthropology more broadly. It may be that Reformed folks seem to make God trans-ethical (a-ethcial?, un-ethical?) when they really only mean to emphasize our complete lack of ability in discerning God’s ethical nature. I wonder if the Arminian concept of prevenient (sp?) grace would play an important role in this discussion, and might provide a distinctively Arminian response to a Reformed articulation of a seeemingly trans-ethical God.

    • rogereolson

      You raise good questions and offer fodder for further thought and comment. I tend to agree with Lewis about this, but I would emphasize common grace as the source of humanity’s best and highest ethical intuitions. Perhaps he did that as well. My main objection is to those (mostly Calvinists) who say things like “Whatever God would do would automatically be good just because God does it.” The “just” is the problem. It implies that God is not guided by any internal moral compass, that he acts (or might act) arbitrarily.

  • gingoro

    Congrats on your position!
    The question I struggle with is “How can it possibly be ethical to create a hell hole earth like the one we live in and see on the news?” Sure if one is well enough, rich enough and young enough, it may seem like a good earth but sooner or later disease and old age catches up with us all. When one struggles with multiple chronic diseases, day after day then the world seems pretty despicable. In Genesis how can God declare that it is Good when so much death and suffering over untold eons produced all of life and especially mankind? Even is you are right and God gives sinners a second chance the cost of all this for some number of redeemed does not justify the suffering of sentient beings.

    • rogereolson

      May I recommend Greg Boyd’s book Is God to Blame? I think it answers your questions satisfactorily. Soon to be published is a major revision of theologian Frank Tupper’s great book A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God (Mercer University Press). Also recommended (but quite long).

      • gingoro

        Thanks I have ordered it for my kindle. However I have doubts that the book can really answer the issue as I don’t believe that God’;s knowledge is limited nor do I believe that evil is the cause of all our suffering although certainly it is to blame for some.