Divine Command Theory


For AO1 you need to know:

  • God as the origin and regulator of morality. Objective metaphysical foundation for morality based on God’s will/command.
  • Divine command as a requirement of God’s omnipotence.
  • Robert Adams’ ‘Modifies Divine Command Theory’.

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • The Euthyphro dilemma
  • The arbitrariness problem.
  • The Pluralism objection
  • Whether morality is what God commands
  • Whether Divine command theory, virtue theory or ethical egoism is superior to the other theories.

Divine Command Theory

This is the view that God is the origin and regulator of morality. God’s act of commanding something as good or bad is what makes it good or bad. E.g. 10 commandments & Aquinas’ notion of the ‘divine law’ – God’s revelation to humans.

Abraham and Isaac – God commanded Abraham to kill his son Isaac to prove his faith and loyalty. Abraham was about to kill his son when God sent an angel to stop him, saying he had proved his faith and they sacrificed a ram instead. If God commands something, even if it’s killing your child – it is good.

God’s command makes something right or wrong in an objective sense. Objective means mind-independent. If something is objectively true then it is a matter of fact, not of opinion. It cannot be relativised. Since right/wrong is a matter of God’s command, becoming good or achieving moral goodness is simply a matter of following God’s commands. Christians believe that God exists and therefore the fundamental nature of reality includes divinity. Since morality is what God commands, morality therefore has a meta-physical foundation in reality.

If there were a command superior to God’s command then God would be inferior to that thing. However, God is all-powerful and cannot be inferior to or subject to anything else. If goodness were not a matter of God’s command, then God would be unable to change what is good/bad or to make something good/bad. In that case, there would be something God lacks the power to do – which would make him not omnipotent. Omnipotent power has to include power over morality.

The Euthyphro dilemma

In Philosophy, a Dilemma is when there are two ways something could be, each way leading to a problem. The two options are called horns.

The Euthyphro dilemma in its modern form asks: is what God commands good because it is good (1st horn), or is it good because God commands it? (2nd horn).

God’s Omnibenevolence is the idea that God is perfectly good. However, the Euthyphro dilemma shows that there are two ways we could understand God being perfectly good.

The first horn Is it that what God commands is intrinsically good independently of God. This suggests that God is perfectly good because he perfectly follows an intrinsically good moral standard that is separate from God. The problem this leads to an apparent conflict with omnipotence, since this external moral standard is beyond God’s power to control.

The second horn is that it is God’s act of commanding something that makes it good. This suggests that God is perfectly good because perfectly good is whatever God commands it to be. This leads to the arbitrariness problem, that God could change his mind about what is good.

Divine command theorists attempt to either defend the second horn from the arbitrariness problem or reject the Euthyphro dilemma as a false dilemma.

The first horn leads to a conflict with God’s omnipotence

If we take the other horn and suppose that when God commands something to be right or wrong, he is really just informing us about what is intrinsically good. This seems to require that goodness is a standard which is independent of God and has some objective status of its own. In that case, God would be just as judged by that standard as we are, and God would not have the power to change it, otherwise what’s good would then ultimately reduce to his command. The idea that God cannot do something or is himself held to a standard higher than himself seems to conflict with his omnipotence.

Swinburne defends taking the second horn. He argues that some moral truths are necessary. In that case, they must be true, so it would be logically impossible for God to change it. Most theologians agree that omnipotence involves the power to do any logically possible thing, not logically impossible things. An intrinsic moral standard external to God which involves necessary moral truths cannot possibly be changed. It is logically impossible to make necessary truths false. In that case, that God cannot control or change morality is not actually undermining of God’s omnipotence.

The second horn (Divine command theory) leads to the arbitrariness problem

Those who accept the second horn are called divine command theorists. They face the arbitrariness problem. This is the problem that if what is good is only good because God commanded it to be so, then it seems that God could change his mind tomorrow and command that murder is good, which would mean that it thereby became good on the divine command theory view. Furthermore, it seems that God’s choice of murder to be what he commanded as wrong must have been random and arbitrary. On divine command theory, there was nothing wrong about murder until God commanded it wrong, but that means there was nothing that could have prompted God’s choice for it to be wrong. Once it is admitted that the only thing which confers rightness or wrongness is God’s command, then it seems that absent his command, nothing has any rightness or wrongness and his choice of what to command must therefore be completely random.

This also seems to bring God’s reasonableness into question. If God is acting arbitrarily then he cannot be acting based on reasons.

Robert Adams’ modified divine command theory

Medieval theologians (Augustine, Aquinas and Anselm) attempted to solve the Euthyphro dilemma by appealing to a third option of God’s nature, making it a false dilemma.

A false dilemma is one which poses two options when really there are others. Arguably there is a third option than the two proposed by the Euthyphro dilemma. This third option is that what God commands is good because it accords with God’s omnibenevolent nature.

K. Rogers explains this move: “God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.”

Robert Adams builds on these ideas. He suggests that the Euthyphro problem can be solved through divine command theory if it is modified. Instead of God’s commands being good because God commands them, God’s commands are good because they are the commands of a loving God.

This solves the arbitrariness problem because God’s choices of what to command are not arbitrary but a consequence of his perfect omnibenevolent nature. Essentially, God won’t and can’t change his mind tomorrow about what is good because his commands are a result of his perfect unchanging omnibenevolent nature.

This also solves the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma; that God commands what is good because it is good. For Adams, what makes God’s commands good is their accordance with God’s omnibenevolent nature. This avoids the threat to omnipotence made by an external standard to which God must conform. The standard is God himself.

“an act is wrong if and only if it is contrary to God’s will or commands (assuming God loves us)” 

“Any action is ethically wrong if and only if it is contrary to the commands of a loving God”

Adams is arguing that e.g., killing is wrong because it is contrary to the commands of a loving God. The goodness of God’s commands does not depend on God’s arbitrary choice, nor on some intrinsic standard of goodness external to God, but on God’s perfectly loving nature which is intrinsic to God. The claim that God is omnibenevolent in that God is the standard and source of moral goodness is therefore defended against the Euthyphro dilemma.

God does change his mind. There seems to be evidence in the bible of God changing his mind about the moral code we need to live by. Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, changed some of the old testament laws – e.g. ‘eye for an eye’ into ‘turn the other cheek’.

Christians tend to respond to this by claiming that this was not God changing his mind, it was simply God changing the covenant he had with humans from the restrictive one he had only with the Jewish tribe to the expanded covenant enabled by Jesus’ sacrifice which became open to all people. It was a change in covenant – not in God’s mind.

The issue of the grounding of God’s goodness. Attempts to solve the Euthyphro dilemma by appealing to God’s intrinsic loving nature are vulnerable to the issue of accounting for why God’s nature is good. The Euthyphro dilemma is trying to get to the bottom of why/what it is that makes God’s commands good. If the answer is God’s nature, then the question simply becomes why is God’s nature good or what is it that makes God’s nature good? This move by philosophers like Aquinas and Adams arguably merely kicks the can down the road.

The Pluralism objection

There are multiple religions and many more have existed in the past and there are potentially an infinite number that we could invent. Even if we accepted divine command theory, how could we possibly know which God is real, and so which divine commands are the right ones? As Hume said about miracles, the fact that different religions all have miracle stories in them mean that their claims cancel each other out. The same could be said of different divine commands in different religions.

The pluralism objection can be developed by pointing to the possibility of an infinite number of interpretations of the Bible. It looks like you could potentially justify anything since the Bible is infinitely interpretable – or at least interpretable to a worrying degree. So the pluralism of divine commands issue applies even within Christianity – not just between Christianity and other religions.

Response to the Pluralism objection can involve attempting to prove that a particular religion like Christianity is true, such as N. T. Wright’s arguments for the historicity resurrection for example.

The success of such attempts are debatable, however. Even if they succeed, they still have the issue of inter-denominational dispute over divine commands.

The other approach to dealing with the pluralism objection is simply to accept pluralism – the view that all religions are just different cultural manifestations of the divine, therefore all are true. This means they are not compatible. This view is held by William James and Hick. James thinks that mystical religious experience occurring in all religions shows that they are all true. Hick argues that the different religions of the world are like blind men each touching a different part of an elephant. They each report they are feeling something different, yet that is because they are just too blind to see how they are really part of the same thing. Hick claims that the main command from divinity in all religions is that we should be righteous and loving. So, that’s the command we should follow.

It’s hard to see how all religions could be true given their incompatible truth claims, however.

The issue of immoral commands

Divine command theory has the issue that the Bible seems full of commands which are immoral. For example:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one who was deceived, it was the woman … But women will be saved through childbearing”. 1 Timothy 2:12

“If a man lies with a man as he does with a woman, both have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death, their blood is upon them”. Leviticus 20:13.

The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” Hosea 13:16

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Ephesians 6:5.

Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property. Exodus 21:20-21

Richard Dawkins sums this up: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction … [a] bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser … misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal”

Liberal Christians solve this issue through a subjective theory of inspiration – accepting that the Bible is the product of the human mind, not the perfect word of God.

However, that means the Bible cannot be used as a list of divine commands and so cannot help the divine command theorist.