Does God command particular actions because they are morally right, or are actions morally right because God commands them?

Q. How would you answer the “Euthyphro Dilemma,” that is, the question that asks, “Does God command particular actions because they are morally right, or are they morally right because God commands them?” If you accept the first option, it would seem that God is not the basis of morality, but is simply a “recognizer” of morally right things. On the other hand, if an action is morally right because God says so, it means that it could be potentially morally right and obligatory to inflict pain and suffering on others. There is more to the discussion than just that, obviously, but I was just wondering which (if either) path you tend to favor and how you answer this “dilemma”?

(This question was asked in a comment on my recent post on the topic “Why does the Bible say it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage?” because I said both that God had set apart sex as holy and that sex was intrinsically holy.)

The “Euthyphro Dilemma” (so called because it is first raised in Western literature and philosophy in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro) is a truly vast question that has received much consideration over the whole history of Christian moral theological reflection. I won’t be able to do much justice in a short blog post, but let me say briefly that I’m among those who consider this actually to be a false dilemma.  I believe that the inherent moral structure of the universe reflects the character of the God who created it, and that God’s own assessment of actions (whether they should be commanded or forbidden) similarly reflects His own character, so we don’t have to choose between where we think the rightness or wrongness of an action should be grounded.

From this perspective of mine, there’s no problem of God being subject to a moral authority outside himself. There’s also no problem of anything morally questionable that God might command (such as lying, killing, etc.) being “good,” because we have things like conscience and natural law, built into the moral fabric of the universe, to help us recognize that when God does tell people to do such troubling things, this must be under exceptional circumstances and for exceptional reasons that are somehow justifiable.

However, there still are a couple aspects of the question that remain something of a “dilemma” for me.  First, exactly what is going on in those “exceptional” circumstances?  How could a good God command lying or killing at all?  I’ve discussed this in some other posts on this blog; for example, for lying or deception, see the series of posts that begins here; for killing or “holy war,” see this post.  I say in these posts that these “exceptional” cases are among the most difficult and troubling passages in the entire Bible for thoughtful readers, and so in saying that I consider the Euthyphro Dilemma to be a false dilemma, I don’t want to minimize that at all.

The second aspect of the question that remains a dilemma is that there is no outside standard by which to determine whether what God has generally commanded and built into the moral fabric of the universe as an expression of His own character is objectively good on any other basis.  We are, in effect, “trapped” within the creation of this God, and as His creatures we can only flourish within it by conforming ourselves more and more to His character.  Now personally I have no problem with this!  But for those who might want to be able to hold God accountable to some objective standard, that actually isn’t possible.  (This is one of the main issues raised and debated in the book of Job, as I show in my study guide to that book.)

Nietzsche argued that the Christian ethic of love, compassion, humility, and forgiveness bred “weaklings” who failed to assert themselves, as they should, in acts of power against other creatures.  Nietzsche didn’t believe in God, but if he did, he would no doubt have said that the wrong kind of God had made our world and given us the wrong kind of guidance in our tender consciences and innate sense of fair play.

There’s no way to answer such a perspective, which is really an expression of faith in a way of life opposite to the one the Christian faith teaches, except by faith itself.  We can’t prove that we love and serve the best possible God from within a beautifully ordered moral universe of His creation.  We can only say that as we are getting to know Him and serve Him better and better, this certainly seems to be the case.  We have to take all the rest on faith.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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