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Eli, it looks like we can break your post down into general points: first, morality can’t come from God; second, God sets a poor moral example anyway.

You pose something like the classical objection to theistic morality, the Euthyphro Dilemma, when you said that

First, we have to ask ourselves where absolute morality comes from in a Christian universe. There are only two choices: 1) Morality is somehow woven into the fabric of the universe and is separate from God.  This being is perfectly moral and follows this mystical code without failure. 2) This  absolute morality that Craig is so fond of is actually created by God and is absolute in so far as  God is absolute.

Socrates said it like this: “Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” The implications of this dillema are tremendous. If God loves what is good because it is good, then goodness exists outside of God. Goodness is something external to God that he desries. In this case, when it comes to moral issues, we could just skip God and go straight to what is good. God would be unnecessary for moral goodness in this view. So that forces us to the other horn of the dilemma. If something is good just because God wills it to be, then goodness arbitrary. God could have willed that we eat all firstborn children. And this would not be a pleasant experience for the eater or the eaten. Further, it just seems flat ridficulous to think that something like canbialism could be considered morally good in any possible universe. So then, we theist have a problem don’t we?

Well, maybe not.

And while it’s rare thing to say, I think in this case Socrates had it wrong. The reason is rather straightforward: the Euthyphro Dillemma is a false one. A true dillema is when you are offered only two choices. Let me show you a true dillemma:

Either (A) Barak Obama is reptilian shape shifter from another dimension, or (~A) he is not a  reptilian shape shifter from another dimension.

A true dilemma only arises when there are really only two choices. Either it is A or not A. Socrates’s dillema could be written like this:

Either (A) something is loved by God because it is good, or (B) it is good because it is loved by God.

Since Socrates uses the form of Either A or B instead of Either A or not A, his dillemma doesn’t really have only two horns. In fact, I think we might add a C to the Euthyphro Dillemma.

Either (A) something is loved by God because it is good,  (B) it is good because it is loved by God, or (C) something is good when it is consistent with God’s nature.

Before I suggest that (C) is our best choice, I ought to first show why (A) and (B) are not good choices, not just for theist, but also the atheist. First, (A) is actually making a assumption about the nature of goodness that I think is impossible. It is suggesting that God is subject to a law of moral goodness that exists independently of him. The problem here concerns the relevancy of a impersonal, cosmic moral law. How could this moral law have any relevance to us or to God? It has no rights over us. It contributes nothing to the universe, can feel nothing, expects nothing, and demands nothing. In way, it’s like this:

A game of checkers between two friends, Tom and Lisa, is progressing along nicely. Lisa makes a move, a move she had been planning for half a dozen turns now, and jumps three of Tom’s checkers. Tom objects and says, “You can’t do that because I have a full house!”  Now, we know it’s ridiculous for Tom to try to apply the rules of poker in game of checkers. In the same way, it would be ridiculous to suppose that the “good” presupposed in (A) would be relevant to God or us. Just because other “rules” exist doesn’t make them applicable in a particular situation. And there are other, deeper issues with (A) that I’ll leave alone for now. But let me pose this simple question before we move to (B): Is the kind of goodness assumed in (A) even logically possible? It is even possible that goodness could exist like (A) presupposes it does?

Now for (B). First, I think it’s worth pointing out that (B) is not problematic for a theist (some theologians might recognize it as rather awkwardly stated version of the Divine Command Theory). It’s perfectly logical and fine to say that God determines (in  the sense that he chooses based on his desire) what is good. The trouble is that (B) creates some concern about goodness being arbitrary. What is evil could be considered good, if God just happened to be in a bad mood that day. This concern actually arises out of a misunderstanding of two issues: (1) what the word goodness means and (2) what it means for God to declare something good or evil. So (B) might be something that could be affirmed by a theist, if it had a little more nuance. In order to give it that nuance, let’s first address issue (1).

Perhaps the best definition of goodness is this: goodness is whatever is appropriate or proper. Goodness is revealed in relationships.[1] This means that love (which a morally good action) is the proper relationship between two beings. Justice, in a legal context, is the appropriate relationship between citizens and the society. Respect is the proper relationship between two or more parties. Hate would be the improper relationship between two beings. So would lust and selfishness. Such is the case with the rest of the virtues and vices.

A morality is a kind of spectrum. On one end there is evil (or inappropriate actions) and on the other end is goodness (or appropriate actions). That is simply what the words good and evil mean. They describe degrees of propriety and impropriety. But that scale is meaningless unless it is attached to some moral system that gives substance to the terms “good” and “evil.” (In utilitarianism, for example, goodness is whatever produces maximum happiness for the maximum number of people).

Christians argue that goodness can be given its substance by the nature of God. Whatever God is, he must be good, appropriate, and proper. That is what he is by definition – the being greater than which none other can be conceived. Augustus Strong held that the divine attributes, like perfect goodness, have an “objective existence” and are essential to the divine essence.[2] Now those terms, good and evil, have meaning.

So it is God’s nature that determines the actions and desires he has. And since God’s nature is perfectly good, all his moral commands are also perfectly good. They are not arbitrary. In a sense, when God declares a moral law, he is revealing part of his nature in a concrete way. When God commands human beings not to murder, he is telling us something about his nature. The ethics of God let us see his very heart. And what we find is that God values life, righteousness, truth, and justice.

Also, man is obligated to obey God “in view of his being a creature in God’s world.”[3] But if God were to disappear, then so would the standard of moral rightness (not to mention or obligation to behave morally, another reason why (A) is insufficient).[4] The moral spectrum would be without substance.

If God gives his commands to mankind out of his “unchangingly good character,”[5] then the divine command theory escapes the Euthyphro Dilemma and is a sound ethical system. On this view, goodness is not arbitrarily decided by God and neither is God subject to some external moral code. And we can thus affirm (C): something is good when it is in harmony with God’s nature.

Now let’s address your section objection: God sets a poor moral example. (I have to wonder here: by what standard do you object? What measure do you use to declare Christian ethics inadequate? But that’s another questions for another time.)  To make this argument, you have two lines of evidence: the God of the OT is inconsistent with the God of the NT and God’s moral commands are actually immoral.

The God of the OT is not inconsistent with the God the NT. However, I will grant that there are some differences in how God interacts with world from the OT to the NT. These differences are due to a number of reasons. First, in the OT  much of the text deals with God’s relationship to a theocratic state and God’s requirements for that state. And while God still has a plan for Israel, she is no longer a theocracy as such.

And this is not an idea imposed on the bible in order to reconcile contradictions. This is idea present in both the OT and the New. For example, Jeremiah proclaims that

“The time is coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah. (Jer. 31:31)

The difference between the presence of the theocratic state in the OT and the lack of it in the New explains the majority of apparent differences. Let’s take the issue of homosexuality that you brought up as an example. You quoted Lev. 20:13 which reads:

If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads (NIV).

There is a similar statement in the NT:

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion (Romans 1:26-27 NIV).

But notice that there is a very key difference. In the NT, there is no capital death penalty associated with homosexuality. Paul states that there is still a penalty (in Rom. 6:23, Paul lets us know that penalty of any sin is death), but it is not a legal one. This is because there is no theocratic state to enforce that penalty. In the OT, God judged sin directly through the state of Israel. Now that no such theocratic state exists, no injunction for capital punishment exists. But in the NT, God still judges sin; however, he longer does it through the state of Israel.

The theocracy of Israel was temporary. It had a purpose to fulfill; once it was fulfilled, God began the next stage (some call this stage in God’s redemptive plan the “Church Age.”) in his plan of redemption (For a brief exaplnation of these stages in God’s redemptive plan, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispensation_(period)). God’s moral character never changes. How that character is articulated or expressed might change depending on  the stage in God’s redemptive plan.

It’s important to realize that this shows continuity with character of God rather than contradiction. In both the OT and the NT, God will judge the sins of the world. In the OT, God often chose to judge sin immediately through the state of Israel. And since it was a state, there were laws that corresponded to this. In the NT, God remains as judge, but he postpones his judgment until after the return of Christ. However, he still will utilize direct and immediate judgment if it is appropriate for him to do so (See Acts 5:1-10).

But the most dramatic picture of the justice of God is not found in the OT, but in the New. The passion of Christ was to satisfy the justice of God: “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice…” (Romans 3:25). What we see demonstrated throughout the bible is the incredible balance between God’s love and his justice.

So there is no disconnect between the God of the OT and the God of the New. They are very much the same.

Your second of line of evidence concerns specific moral issues like the treatment of women, the Canaanite Conquest,  the issue of slavery, and divine judgment, the role of religion in the world, among other issues. These are great issues to raise and I think there are substantive and satisfactory Christian responses to all these issues, but trying to address them all in this blog post is probably too ambitious. If you’d like to raise one or two of these issues in your next post, I’d be happy to discuss it.

Thanks for the great conversation, brother.

Jon


[1]Millard Erikson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998). 309.

[2] Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge: Judson, 1907), 244-5.

[3]Oliver Barclay, “The Nature of Christian Morality,” in  Readings in Christian Ethics, edited by David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw(Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 1994), 48.

[4]Copan, 88.

[5] Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay (Downers Grover: InterVarsity, 2000), 250.

On the Sources of Morality

This little five minute snippet of what I assume is a much longer discussion manages to bring up questions that have dogged philosophers and theologians since the beginning of recorded history. Before I go any further I must note the first two things that passed through my brain when I started watching this: First I have no idea who the atheist is, and William Craig has a totally badass beard. If theology loses its luster for him, I imagine he would easily find work as a lumberjack or professional mountain climber or any other such masculine enterprise. Hopefully, we can all agree that he should seriously consider growing it back.

The main question that the rugged Mr. Craig seems to be asking (and answering) is, “Where does morality come from for an atheist?” The atheist guy give some common, but ultimately very weak answers that  Craig immediately uses to make the guy look like a Nazi apologist and possible child molester. Since none of the Atheist’s answers can provide us with an “objective morality,” Craig is able to label the guy with the dreaded term “moral relativist.” . Like I said earlier, I don’t know who the atheist guy is, but as far as I can tell he is terrible at debating. Prominent atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have both done a way better job of defending morality on humanistic grounds and I imagine I will end up using a lot of their arguments rather than atheist guy in the video.

So, first off I think we need to deconstruct this whole notion of “objective morality.” According to Craig, our morality must come from a divine, and therefore absolute, source to be of any real value. Otherwise, we are just following societal norms and our ideas about right and wrong are an illusion that we have concocted to make ourselves feel better. In Craig’s idea of an atheistic universe there is no difference between helping an old lady cross the street and shoving her into the path of an Hummer because we have no “absolute” source for why one would be preferable to the other.

I have to agree with Craig that without religion there is no “absolute” moral code. To be able to point to supposedly divine writing and judge somebody without having to think may seem like an attractive concept at first, but I believe the sort of intellectual laziness this type of thinking promotes is actually responsible for much of the evil in our world today. We live in a world of gray areas and I believe that reason and thoughtful contemplation are much better sources of morality that books written thousands of years ago by people who thought slaughtering livestock would appease the creator of the universe. I’ll try to defend humanistic morality later, but right now, I want to humbly put forth the idea that even with religion we still can’t have an absolute morality.

First, we have to ask ourselves where absolute morality comes from in a Christian universe. There are only two choices: 1) Morality is somehow woven into the fabric of the universe and is separate from God.  This being is perfectly moral and follows this mystical code without failure. 2) This absolute morality that Craig is so fond of is actually created by God and is absolute in so far as God is absolute.

The first situation does away with the need for religion as the source of morality because God is not the source and the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. Morality is separate from God and human beings could be moral by following this code. It would only be moral to follow God as long as God followed the absolute moral code perfectly. This scenario seems unlikely mainly because it undercuts God’s omnipotence and it doesn’t really offer the ultimate source of the absolute morality.

So the only other proposition we are left with is that God decides what is moral. Since I tend to view the God of the Bible as an individual moral actor this makes the absolute morality Craig talks about seem painfully arbitrary. God is making a personal decision that x is moral and y is immoral the same way that I would except that he/she/it is the creator of the universe (I hope that me comparing my decision making process to that of God’s doesn’t make me come off as vain.)

But maybe I’m being unfair. I suppose that a code of morals that comes from an absolute being would be absolutely moral. So what else would we expect from these absolute morals? I would expect that they are absolutely consistent. That God would confer the same moral judgments  upon people all throughout human history. Because if he didn’t, then his absolute moral judgments are in fact just decisions made on arbitrary whims.

The argument for absolute morality falls apart for me when you compare the Genocidal God of the Old Testament with the relatively dovish Triune God of the New Testament. I’m not a biblical scholar and I’ve barely studied the Bible at all since High School, but I don’t think it is really controversial to point out that Jesus emphasizes love and mercy over judgment and punishment. Why does God suddenly stop bringing horrid plagues and floods that drown the entire earth and command us to “judge not lest you be judged” and to “turn the other cheek”?

It seems most Christians don’t really take this absolute morality thing very seriously either, and thankfully so. Otherwise we would behave the way people did in the Old Testament (and the way that modern day theocracies like Iran behave now.) If God’s morality is absolute and unchanging then all good Christian women should immediately  renounce the evils or working outside the home, wearing makeup, and insisting on rights such as voting and owning property.

If I remember correctly, sex outside of marriage was also harshly punished.  If polls that claim a large majority of people have sex before marriage are to be believed, then why aren’t we facing a severe stone shortage in this country?

One of the great moral issue of our day is gay rights. Should they be able to get married and receive the same rights that society bestows upon heterosexual couples? If we turn to the perfect and unchanging word God we find that the answer is a resounding no; gays are an abomination and should be put to death (Leviticus 20:13 KJV). The Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t seem so crazy now, they’re just following the word of God!

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the greatest human rights struggle in our history, the fight against slavery. Modern secular societies that were influenced by the ideals of the enlightenment have all done away with the practice because they recognize that human being should not be able to own each other. The Bible has no problem with slavery, and in fact offers a helpful set of rules for how slaves should behave.

Westboro Baptist Church aside, I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the sort of absolute morality that is offered by the Bible. The Christian God appears to be on the wrong side of the moral issues I mentioned above. We have these rights not because they were sanctioned by some divine being but because of our capacity for empathy, because we could see a better world than the one we lived in, and because many have given their lives for the rights of others.

So what do you guys think?

 Sincerely,

Eli