Divine Command Theories

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 4: Moral and Political Secularism

Divine Command Theories

The question now is this: what is the effect of theism, which lies at the heart of the three major religions in Europe, on morality? Is theism tied to a certain ethics and if so, which one?

Before answering this question we first have to elucidate that the term “ethics” has at least two different meanings. First, “ethics” can refer to theories on substantive judgments of right and wrong. Substantive judgments on right and wrong are for instance: “Stealing is wrong,” “Lying is wrong.” The “ethics” of Christianity comprises a whole list of what Christianity considers morally right and wrong.[64] But – and now we shift to the second meaning of the term – “ethics” can also refer to questions about the nature of moral theories and judgments. Then we focus on questions like: “What is the nature of moral disagreement?” Or: “How can our moral judgments be justified?” That last branch of ethics is also characterized as “metaethics.”

In this book I will be mainly concerned with metaethics, but because linguistic terminology is loose here, I will not be consistent in upholding the distinction between “metaethics” and “ethics.” This may serve as a caveat. If we talk about “ethics” in The Secular Outlook this is primarily about what philosophers would indicate as “metaethics.” The question that concerns me in this book is: “What do the three theistic religions have to say on the nature of moral obligation?” And strictly speaking this is metaethics.

The metaethics of theism can best be illustrated through a story about the father of the Abrahamic religions: Abraham himself. As will be made clear from what follows, the ethics (or metaethics) that appears to resonate best with the theistic faiths is the theory known as divine command theory. This divine command theory assumes that what is morally right is synonymous with what has been commanded, prescribed, or ordered by God. Morally wrong are those actions forbidden by God. In other words, “morally wrong” means: “forbidden by God.” “Morally right” means: “commanded by God.”[65] Or, as the Victorian theologian John Bernard Dalgairns (1818–1876) formulated it: “If morals are to have a foundation in a real obligation, then there is a God.”[66]

It is against the background of the divine command theory that the abhorrence of atheism which I have described in the first chapter becomes understandable. Atheists are so much hated because they are supposed to be immoral. Psalm 14:1 formulates this clearly:

The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”

They are corrupt, they do
abominable deeds,
There is none who does good.

So anyone who says “there is no God” is suspected of “abominable deeds.”

Some ethicists have called the divine command theory “supernaturalism.” “Supernaturalism says that moral judgments describe God’s will,” logician and ethicist Harry J. Gensler writes. “Calling something ‘good’ means that God desires it. Ethics is based on religion.”[67] A contemporary proponent of the divine command theory, Janine Marie Idziak, puts it as follows: “Generally speaking, a ‘divine command moralist’ is one who maintains that the content of morality (i.e. what is right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust, and the like) is directly and solely dependent upon the commands and prohibitions of God.”[68] Divine command ethics sees morality as “revealed.” According to divine command ethics there is an intimate relationship between theology and ethics.

Theology or the science of God can be divided into two categories. On the one hand there is natural theology. Natural theology seeks knowledge of God through human reason. On the other hand there is revealed theology. Revealed theology requires faith in the veracity of divine revelation. According to most Christian theologians (Thomas Aquinas being the most important) the certainty of faith is superior to the certainty that reason can attain; reason is subservient to faith.

The articles of faith are to be found in the Bible as the infallible authority of God that cannot be demonstrated by reason. Although natural theology, according to Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) can justify theism, it cannot justify Christian theism.[69]

The relationship between “faith” and “reason” is a great theme in the Christian tradition.[70] It even plays a role in the Bible, as we have seen on several occasions. The Bible, like every other holy book, contains a mixture of general rules that could safely be copied and made the basis for our contemporary morals and legislation in combination with the most atrocious precepts that mirror a world that is definitely not something to aspire to. Here are some good pieces of advice from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.

In Romans 12:9 Paul defines the characteristics of the true Christian and writes: “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” That is an important passage because it is difficult to see how this can be interpreted otherwise than as the recognition of an autonomous idea of “good.” Paul also gives some other advice that may sound somewhat impractical but is certainly not evil. He says “Let love be genuine” (Romans: 12:9) and “if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). He also tells us: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19). “It is written,” says Paul, and he cites here Deuteronomy 32:35:

Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
and their doom comes swiftly.

The motivation for the dismissal of vigilante justice might be less laudable but, anyhow, religious terrorists will be discouraged from taking the law in their own hands as a result if passages like these are taken seriously. That impression is reinforced by the well-known opening sentences of Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

Those laudable recommendations go hand in hand with ideas that we can hardly accept nowadays, the most important one, perhaps, the idea that having a different opinion on religious matters has to be punished by God. Paul’s Letter to the Romans opens with a diatribe against the unbelievers who have not accepted God’s message although they could have understood this by purely rational means. Romans 1:18 says:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Here we encounter one of the most obnoxious elements of the theistic creeds: their tendency to intimidate people into the right sort of faith by threatening punishments for those who think otherwise. Paul draws the speedy and unwarranted conclusion that people who don’t believe in the Christian god do so with “unrighteousness.” And he tells us – again without good reason – that those who think differently “suppress the truth.” This is nonsense, of course. What makes this passage important, though, is that Paul also reproaches those who have not accepted God’s word on the ground that they could have figured out some of the divine attributes for themselves. “What can be known about God is plain to them,” he writes. God had shown it to them. How? The answer is that his invisible attributes could be perceived “in the things that have been made.”

The idea seems to be that in analyzing the world around us we could have drawn the conclusion that this must have been made by a divine creator. Not concluding that makes us involved in, in Paul’s words, “suppressing the truth,” something for which we have to be (and will be) punished. This seems to be a confirmation of the position that apart from revelation in Christ and Holy Scripture there is also the opportunity to know God from his creation. The relationship between natural theology and revealed theology, between reason and faith, has been an immensely important theme in the theistic tradition with the most controversial question being: which should have priority?

Here is one quote from a famous Christian philosopher, theologian and scientist who lays heavy stress on the importance of “faith” and subsequently on revealed theology above natural theology. In his Pensées Blaise Pascal writes:

The metaphysical proofs for the existence of God are so remote from human reason and so involved that they make little impact, and, even if they did help some people, it would only be for the moment during which they watched the demonstration, because an hour later they would be afraid they had made a mistake.[71]

So we have to rely on revealed theology for the most important truths. That has relevance for morality as well. We cannot discover by reason what the most important moral rules are, we have to rely on revelation. Divine command ethics pays tribute to that fundamental insight of Pascal. The divine command theory, ethicist James Rachels wrote, typically views God as a lawgiver who has issued the rules that we, human beings, must obey.[72]

According to the philosopher Louis Pojman (1935–2005) the divine command theory of morality is based on three assumptions:

1. Morality (i.e. rightness and wrongness) originates with God.
2. Moral rightness simply means “willed by God,” and moral wrongness means “against the will of God.”
3. Since morality essentially is based on divine will, not on independently existing reasons for action, no further reasons for action are necessary.[73]

Divine command theories come in three varieties.

First there is the mystic brand. “Mysticism may broadly be defined as the direct apprehension of the divine by a faculty of mind or soul,” Owen Chadwick (1916– ) writes.[74] We find this in Exodus when God directs himself to Moses: “Then the Lord said to Moses” (Exodus 7:14; 8:20; 9:1). The famous passage containing the Ten Commandmentss (Exodus 20:1) is introduced with: “And God spoke all these words, saying … .” So God directs himself immediately to the individual believer. The same idea is found in Islam: “The Prophet of Islam is seen as a second Moses, a man who brings the Law to this earth,” writes the French scholar of Islam Abdelwahab Meddeb (1946– ).[75]

Second, there is a kind of divine command theory that operates on the basis of mediation: the divine will is made known to humanity by God’s special representative on earth (a pope, priest, or ayatollah). In a way this is also present in the story of Moses, because the people of Israel only know what God wants because the will of God has been revealed to Moses. Spiritual leaders, like Moses, “interpret” the will of God for the common man. The Catholic Church is based on this principle. The pope is the ultimate interpreter of the divine will. This second theory might be called the catholic divine command theory.

A third theory goes back to the Reformation. Luther’s theological teaching boils down to the idea of Sola Scriptura (only scripture). The Greeks did not have anything like scripture. The closest they had to it, writes philosopher B.R. Tilghman, was poetry. “It was on the great epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey, and works such as Hesiod’s Theogony that the Greeks relied for their knowledge of the gods.”[76] But the Iliad and Odyssey never attained the status of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. What distinguishes Protestantism from Catholicism is that the status of the Bible as scripture was even more strongly emphasized. As Christopher Catherwood (1955– ) argues, this “totally overturned hundreds of years of Catholic Church teaching.”[77] Luther taught that Christians can have a direct relationship with God, unmediated by any other human being.[78] This meant that individual Christians could interpret the Bible directly, rather than having an infallible Church impose its meaning on them.[79] The conception of the Catholic Church was different. As the British historian Diarmaid McCulloch (1951– ) indicates, Pope Paul V (1552–1621) was serious when in 1606 he confronted the Venetian ambassador with the rhetorical question: “Do you not know that so much reading of Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?”[80] Obviously, there is considerable difference between the Catholic and the Protestant divine command theory.

To sum up, there are three versions: the mystic, Catholic and Protestant divine command theories, each theory drawing inspiration from a certain kind of revelation.

Now, let us see what the problems with this theory are. The most dramatic example of the moral dilemmas of divine command theory are to be found with Abraham, the founding father of all the three theistic creeds: the Jewish religion, Christianity, and Islam. The classic example here is the story of Abraham receiving the divine command to sacrifice his son Isaac.[81]

It is an Old Testament story and is therefore important to both Judaism and Christendom. But it also features (with small variations) in the Qur’an.[82] Let me start with the description of what happened according to the narrative in the Bible.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

Part II: Abraham and Isaac


[64] See on this: Gill, Robin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2001; McCoy, Alban, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Christian Ethics, Continuum, London 2004; Geisler, Norman L., Christian Ethics: Options and Issues, Apollos, Leicester 1990.

[65] Blackburn, Pierre, “L’appel au commandement divin et ses critiques,” [The Appeal to Divine Command and Its Critics] in: Pierre Blackburn, L’éthique. Fondements et problèmatiques contemporaines [Ethics. Contemporary Foundations and Problematics], Éditions du Renouveau Pédagogique, Saint Laurent 1996, pp. 115–133, p. 116: “Thus, what is good, is what God commands; what is bad, is what God forbids.”

[66] Dalgairns, John Bernard, “Is God unknowable?” in: Contemporary Review, Vol. XX, 1872, pp. 615–630, also in: Andrew Pyle, ed., Agnosticism: Contemporary Responses to Spencer and Huxley, Thoemmes Press, Bristol 1995, pp. 20–38, p. 27.

[67] Gensler, Harry J., “Supernaturalism,” in: Ethics, Routledge, London 1998, pp. 33–46, p. 34.

[68] Idziak, Janine Marie, “Divine Command Morality: A Guide to the Literature,” in: Janine Marie Idziak, Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings, The Edwin Mellen Press, New York 1979, pp. 1–38, p. 1.

[69] See on the proofs of God’s existence: McGrath, Alister E., Theology: The Basics, p. 3; Steenbergen, Fernand van, Le Thomisme [Thomism], Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1983, p. 31 ff.

[70] See on this: Helm, Paul, ed., Faith and Reason, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999; Helm, Paul, Faith and Understanding, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 1997.

[71] Pascal Pensées, p. 168.

[72] Rachels, James, “Does Morality Depend on Religion?” in: James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, fourth edition, McGraw-Hill Inc., New York etc. 2003 (1986), pp. 48–63, p. 50.

[73] Louis P. Pojman, Ethics. Discovering Right and Wrong, second edition, Wadsworth, Belmont, California 1995, p. 236.

[74] Chadwick, Owen, The Counter-Reformation, Penguin Books, Harmondworth 1964, p. 296.

[75] Meddeb, Abdelwahab, “En terre d’islam” [On Islamic Soil], p. 140.

[76] Tilghman, B.R., An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, Oxford 1994, p. 24.

[77] Catherwood, Christopher, Making War in the Name of God, Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing Corp., New York 2007, p. 112.

[78] Ibid., p. 55.

[79] Ibid., p. 112.

[80] MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490–1700, Penguin Books, London 2004 (2003), p. 406.

[81] The story of Job would be another good example. By approaching Job in the guise of the devil, God puts Job to the test, Jack Miles explains. He tempts Job, as he tempted Abraham. “That is, he tempts him by speaking to him in the tones of merciless power. Job passes the test precisely as Abraham did.” See: Miles, Jack, God. A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1995, p. 322.

[82] In the Islamic version the would-be victim is Ishmael or Isma’il, Abraham’s son with the bondwoman Hager, who lived to become ancestor of the Arabs. See: Ruthven, Malise, Islam: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000 (1997), p. 30.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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