On Divine Command Theories

On Divine Command Theories October 25, 2019

Christians are often quick to accuse atheists of having no grounding to their moral frameworks; however, the reality is that their own groundings are fraught with terminal issues. One such problematic moral framework is Divine Command Theory.

The basic premise is this: morality does not exist independently of God, it is instead reflected (or perhaps determined) by God’s commands. God commanded it; therefore, it is good. Of course, Socrates, in Plato’s Euthryphro, asked, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Or rather, does God command it because it is good, or is it good solely because God commands it?

There are two ways which Christians can approach divine commands. First, one obeys such moral commands prudentially, meaning that if one doesn’t, then the eternal hellfires await. Those hot places are not worth entertaining, thus we follow the “good” path. Such a view is integral to the notion that without God, we would all be atheist mass-murderers, and analogies to Hitler abound. This, however, is fallacious in being an argumentum ad baculum, or an appeal to force.

Theologians tend to favour the idea that we follow God’s commands because God is good. The commands reflect his perfectly good nature (remember Craig). Plato’s ruminations, though, leave us with a potential circularity. If God is good, then we have a sort of tautology and cannot have any independent appreciation of the value of his goodness. But if there is an independent criterion then I have no need of God for a moral judgment. Philosopher Kai Nielsen looks at this tautology with reference to the claim “puppies are young”:

If we had no understanding of the word “young” and if we did not know the criteria for deciding whether a dog was young, we could not know how correctly to apply the word “puppy.”  Without such a prior understanding of what it is to be young we could not understand the sentence, “Puppies are young.”[i]

Wesley Edwards, in an excellent essay “Does Morality Depend On God?”, shows us the inherent problems with this approach:

Now for the statement, “God is good,” or more generally, “X is good,” to even make sense, we need some idea of what “good” means. For example, if I say, “Fred is perfectly zugblub,” then you have no idea what I mean unless you have some idea of what “zugblub” means. Suppose after pointing this out to me, I respond, “Fred is the very standard by which zugblub is defined; Zugblub is part of the very essence of Fred. Indeed, Fred actually forms the necessary ground of all zugblub. That is what zugblub means.”

This so-called definition of zugblub communicates no information.  The problem is that I have not defined zuglub independently of Fred. All my definition amounts to is different ways of saying “Fred is Fred” and “zugblub is zugblub.” These are true statements to be sure, but not particularly informative ones. In other words, my definition of zugblub is tautological—an empty truth

There is simply no way of getting around this circularity. Even appealing to God’s nature, as opposed to his commands, gets the theist into the same problem. From the evidence of the Bible itself we can see that God derives his morality from the consequences of his actions, not, it seems, as intrinsically value-laden reflections of his nature (as we shall see).

One of the most fundamental issues with Divine Command Theory is that we don’t seem to know clearly what the commands are. Biblical studies revolve around interpretation of one historically compiled text. Theologians disagree on what certain texts mean and what they are in some way commanding. That there are some 40,000 denominations[ii] of Christianity suggests that there is a denomination for everyone, no matter your moral preference… Is homosexuality morally evil or good (or neither)? Abortion? Divorce? Eating shellfish? Working on the Sabbath? War? Should we look after our environment or should prosperity rule? There is no clarity. Pragmatically speaking, divine command theories are nothing but impotent abstract ideals.

Of course, one could also object that if God commanded us to torture babies for fun it would be good (or take people as slaves…). The theist would counter that God hasn’t done this nor could he, since it is not in his nature. The problem here, though, is that we have no idea what is means to say God’s nature is good apart from what he does. In fact, if God’s nature is good then whatever he does is good. Can he do and say things that would run counter to our conception of his goodness? Based on this divine command theory we discover what it means to say he’s good by what he does. So the Christian response is trumping God’s omnipotence with his supposed omnibenevolence—yet another example of how the characteristics of God are internally incompatible. Could it be, then, that God knows vastly more about the consequences of any act than we do? Theists enjoy appealing to the omniscience of God, pulling the “God moves in mysterious ways” card. We have to entirely trust, supposedly, in God’s providence. Using our God-given reason, which one must assume is reliable since it is given to us by an all-good God (being made in his image, surely we have access to his good nature and reason), we are, however, left with some rather irrational-looking prospects. The evidence of the Old Testament leaves us questioning such faith in divine omniscience: we read of God changing his mind, deceiving, countenancing slavery and rape, committing genocide or mass murder, punishing people for using free will in a way that he presumably foreknew, and so on. In some cases, good people are rewarded on earth while others, children and old people alike, have to wait for heaven for their rewards, while still others are punished on earth, although other truly bad people get away with it and have to await hell, presumably. Such evidence hardly points to an obvious, divinely inspired morality. As A.C. Grayling states, “we are being asked to accept as sound the following reasoning: ‘A loves B and therefore B must do as A requires.’ This is an obvious non sequitur.”[iii]

Whole books fail to exhibit any coherent account of divine command theory or theories. All of these theories are highly problematic.

I have produced a comprehensive rebuttal to Divine Command Theory here: 16 Problems with Divine Command Theory. Check it out.


[i] Nielsen, Kai. Ethics Without God (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1990), p.59

[ii] As according to the Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in “Status of Global Mission, 2013, in the Context of AD 1800–2025″, http://christianityinview.com/downloads/StatusOfGlobalMission.pdf (accessed January 11th, 2014)

[iii] Grayling, What Is Good? The Search For The Best Way To Live, p. 63


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