Morality and God’s Choice, Part I: Divine Command Theory

(This is the 7th of 17 posts in my self-imposed “200 for 200” challenge. Send your friends my way!)

In thinking about the conflict over sexuality in the United Methodist Church–and the impending General Conference later this month, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about morality in general. This is in great part because many conservatives within the Church have made the sexuality issue one of morality in that they say that they cannot be in fellowship with those who support the “immoral” practice of homosexuality.

With that background, I’m not actually interested in discussing (in this post, at least), the sexuality issues before the UMC–there’s plenty of discussion to be had on that topic, which I’ve written on in the past and will continue to do. Here, though, I’d like to talk more generally about morality.

The Source–and What Does That Mean?

Most Christians will tell you that God is the source of all morality. I would agree; if God is the Creator of all that is, then it necessarily follows that morality in any absolute sense flows from God and God’s creation. For many, though, that’s the end of the analysis–or rather, the analysis goes like this: all morality comes from God, the Bible is God’s word, therefore the Bible contains the black-and-white guidelines to all moral questions.

If only things were so simple! I’ll be talking about the interpretive issues in such an approach in much greater detail next week in a special post. For now, let’s combine a  logical/philosophical approach with Scripture and see where that leads us.

I’ve written elsewhere a little about Divine Command Theory, the theory that underlies what I’ll call the “Simple Approach” to Christian morality. For convenience, the short definition of the Divine Command Theory is the idea that something is morally good if God commands it because God commanded it.

This is not really a statement of morality, though. It relies on the premise that the created has no right to question the Creator. That may be true, but it is a statement of power and authority one over the other, not one of morality.

Here is probably a good place for a quick break to talk about terminology. I’m going to have to use my own definitions to avoid the sort of circular logic I see in dictionary definitions of the terms that I’ll use. When speaking of “morality,” I mean those thoughts and actions that are “right” or “good”: for now let’s say that this means those thoughts and actions that are beneficial to others and not injurious (we’ll look at a more Biblical definition later). When speaking of “justice,” I’m going to use a common-sense definition of “equity and fairness.”

With this terminology, I’m going to ask a series of related questions:
(1) If morality comes from God, can God be moral?
(2) If the answer to (1) is “yes,” is God moral?
(3) If God is the source of morality, has morality become independent enough of God that humans could evaluate the morality of God’s action?
(4) If the answer to (3) is “yes,” what should our evaluation be?
(5) In light of the answers to the above, how do we determine what God has determined is moral and what is not moral?

Moral action requires free will–without the ability to choose one’s actions, there can be no praise or condemnation for actions taken, because the actor could not have done differently. With this in mind, going to offer two possibilities that comport with Divine Command Theory:

Divine Command Theory, Option 1 – Morality is Mandatory
In this possibility, we accept that Divine Command Theory is an existential truth, a law of reality that simply is, whether God wills it or not.

This approach is on its face unacceptable, for two reasons. The first is the logical necessity of will and causation in moral culpability. In this formulation, God’s action by necessity is moral; there is no possibility of immoral action. This removes any meaning of the word “morality” from God’s action–the terms simply stops making logical sense because there is no alternative and therefore there can be no distinction between moral and immoral.

The second is that such a statement undermines God’s sovereignty (the whole point of the Divine Command Theory in the first place). If God cannot act in a way that is immoral, than God is not impassible and some external force has a power over God, which seriously injures the commonly-accepted idea that the definition of God in the monotheistic sense implies that there is no higher power. Certainly, in the usual Christian understanding, such an admission is extremely problematic.

To be fair, though, I don’t think that the above is the intent of anyone making an argument for Divine Command Theory, so let’s dismiss this out of hand.

Divine Command Theory, Option 2 – Essential Nature
We might be able to salvage the argument made in Option 1 if, instead of saying that Divine Command Theory is a truth of reality that stands above God, we argue that Divine Command Theory is true because morality is simply part of the essential nature of God, therefore it follows that everything that God does is moral and the Theory holds.

Ultimately, though, we are faced with the same dilemma. If God is unable to self-determine whether or not God is moral, we have problem with God’s sovereignty. This is a distinction without a difference from Option 1–we’ve simply moved the mandatory nature of Divine Command Theory from the external to the internal. But, in either place, the claim that Divine Command Theory is inherently true raises the same challenge to God’s sovereignty by placing some restriction on the free and unfettered will of God to determine reality, internal or external.

Divine Command Theory, Option 3 – God is in Control
Under this formulation, Divine Command Theory is a result of God’s choice to create in such a way that Divine Command Theory is a fact of reality. This preserves God’s sovereignty in that it is the will of God that determines the existential fact of Divine Command Theory.

On its face, this option is logically consistent; it allows Divine Command Theory to be true while maintaining God’s sovereignty and God’s place as the arbiter of morality. For these reasons, if we rely solely upon our philosophical approach, we must admit the possibility that Divine Command Theory is true under this statement of it.

But there are consequences (as always). If this statement of Divine Command Theory is true, what does it say about the character and nature of God? Under this formulation, God has chosen amorality for God’s self. God would be amoral because it would be logically inconsistent to say that God acted or commanded immorally if it is necessarily true that God’s action or command is moral. Without a choice between the moral and the immoral, there cannot be a determination of morality because there are is no meaningful difference or alternative. As we stated above, it is the use of the will to choose between alternatives that makes moral responsibility possible.

The only choice between alternatives that God could be said to have made under this ideology is that God chose arbitrarily to be counted as moral. This choice is not so much a choice about moral action but a choice to be unaccountable to anyone (or anything) for moral judgment. God would stand above any concept of morality.

Again, there is no logical problem with such a reality, but there are some practical and Scriptural problems.

In general, the Christian understanding of God includes an acknowledgment that God is good. It is tempting here to use John 3:16 as a Scriptural support for this idea. For now, though, I’m going to play devil’s advocate and temper that understanding by reference to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:44-46, Jesus calls for his followers to love not just those who love them (which even the tax collectors do!) but to love their enemies. For Jesus, love alone is not the factor that determines morality–the choice to love those who may be difficult to love is a sign of morality.

That passage in Matthew in and of itself provides some basis for a Biblical definition of morality. In the last sentence of Chapter 5, Jesus tells us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Sidestepping any trinitarian dilemmas there, is that a meaningful statement if we are to understand that God has chosen to be above any human concept of morality?

Likewise, what do we do with Jesus’ statement in Luke 18:19 that “No one is good–except God alone.” Admittedly, that statement could be true under the Divine Command Theory, because God could have decided that God is “moral” and no created thing is (because, of course, no created thing is God) in establishing DCT as a fact of reality. But think about what it says about the nature of God if that’s the way we read the statement. It becomes a reminder only of God’s sovereignty, empty of the hope that lies in a knowledge of God’s goodness.

To take a broader approach, can Divine Command Theory co-exist with most (perhaps all) of our theories of atonement in Christ? If as we trinitarians believe, Jesus Christ is God, and if God is necessarily moral and unable to be questioned on a moral basis by humans, do Jesus’ deeds really count for much as a poultice for the many misdeeds of humanity? If Jesus was incapable of immorality (whether by necessity or by will exercised at the time of Creation), could Jesus be the resolution of Adam’s Fall?

If God so ordered all Creation such that God could never be immoral, would God be just? From a standpoint of pure power, the answer is “yes,” because no created being has the power to question God.  But, from a human perspective (insufficient for a real determination of reality as that is) would God’s judgment of the created be just when God refuses to allow judgment of God’s action by the created?

I have referenced elsewhere the following quotation from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, but it bears repeating here. The character Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw says:

“For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour–you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. ”

Finkle-McGraw goes on to state that that’s not a terribly fair approach to apply to humans, who might earnestly believe the values they espouse but prove through human frailty to fail to meet their own values in their actions. For God, though, there is no such caveat. Regardless of the question of God’s morality, if God were to issue a moral command to humanity that God refused to follow God’s self, there would be an argument against God’s justice there. And we return to the point here, I think: if God chooses to be morally unquestionable by the created, then God has prioritized power and authority over goodness. God would be entitled to do such a thing (how could we resist it?), but is that the God of the Gospels? That’s a question we’ll try to answer in this series.

In the next post, we’ll take a look at Job and God’s response to just this situation–being questioned by the created.

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