[posted March 17, 2013]
It is a tenet of Christian belief that the
moral values which God commanded are “good.” By this I do not mean to say that
they are a “good job” or that they were “done well” or that God should receive
a gold star for creating them. No, I mean that, according to Christian belief,
God’s ethics represent the highest form of good possible. They are the epitome
of moral values; it is impossible for a better moral system to exist.
Of course, in the modern world we disagree with
specific moral rules and no longer practice some of them, such as the rules
about slavery and divorce. Indeed, fewer than half of the Ten Commandments are
encoded in United States law. But as a theological claim, if God is good, then
the moral rules He proclaimed must be good. And, since God is by definition
perfect, then the morality he proclaimed must also be perfectly good.
From this viewpoint, it is interesting to ask
this question: Is God’s morality good because He commanded it, or did He
command it because it was good? This is a difficult question, and different
forms of Christianity have answered in different ways. It is so difficult that
many forms of Christianity have refused to address it. It is a conundrum for
all monotheistic religions, including Judaism and Islam.
The conundrum is this: While all Christian and
monotheistic believers happily affirm that God and his ethics are good, the
possible answers to the question require the affirmation of a second point, and
that point is less willingly accepted. Indeed, there are two possible points,
one for each answer to the question, and both are uncomfortable for
If God’s morality is good because He commanded
it, then that means that whatever He commanded would have been equally good. He
could have commanded anything and it would have been just as good. God could
have decreed that Wednesday was the holy day instead of the Sabbath. And that
would be good. He could have decreed that murder or theft were good.
Our ethical and moral sense, therefore, comes
from God’s commands. If He had commanded something else, then Christian moral
sensibilities would be different. It is rather uncomfortable to think that
Christian morality was open to all possibilities before God uttered His
commands, and that He arbitrarily chose to declare some actions good and some
The alternative answer to our question resolves
this problem, but only by creating another one. If God commanded Christian
morality because it was good, that means that each rule in it has an essence of
goodness. Due to its inherent nature, then, and not because God said it, each
command is good in and of itself. When all moral rules are taken together, that
means there is a standard of goodness that is independent of God. The standard
did not come from God, because then it would evidence the problem of
arbitrariness and actually be the answer discussed above. Instead, this moral
standard exists apart from God, and existed before God commanded the Jewish and
Christian moral rules.
The problem this causes for Christianity, or
for any monotheism, is that it creates something ultimate that is not God. It
also implies that God is not omnipotent in the area of morality, but consults
the standard to ensure the goodness of his moral rules. To be sure, the
goodness standard is not a second god, and so does not require the conclusion
of polytheism. But it does mean that God is not alone and that He did not
create goodness, but instead followed a pre-existing standard of inherent good.
Of course, this theological conundrum has no
impact on the specific character of Christianity’s moral rules. Its ethical
demands remain the same whichever answer one takes, and even if one chooses not
to address the question. For in the end, Christianity believes, God’s morality
requires obedience, not understanding.
Thanks to James Rachel’s “The Elements of Moral
Philosophy” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986). For information, see
the section on Divine Command Theory.
Labels: Christianity, Ethics, god, goodness, morality, philosophy of good