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Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part IX

By David Baggett 

In this last installment, I’ll wrap up what I have to say by way of a critical reflection on Shafer-Landau’s (SL) chapter on God and ethics in his book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? I’ve resisted his caricature of theistic ethics in the form of an extreme voluntarist account that would render morality altogether arbitrary. In fact, I think instead an Anselmian God both makes good sense of and perfectly safeguards necessary moral truths and our pre-theoretic moral intuitions of the deepest ingression.

In SL’s view, in contrast, theists should embrace the horn of the Euthyphro dilemma that says God commands something because it’s already good or right. Again, in my view, this very distinction between the good and right is important, for DCT properly applies to the right, not to the good. On his view, however, he thinks that he’s shown that “even theists should resist taking up the view that God is the author of the moral law. God is constrained by the moral laws, in the same way that God is constrained by the laws of logic.”

SL notes that most theologians aren’t troubled by saying God can’t do what’s impossible, which is true enough, but he’s wrong to think his view is congenial to the classical view of theism. Here’s the difference: when I say God can’t do something, I mean to say it’s either impossible to be done (which hardly impugns his omnipotence) or it’s fundamentally contrary to God’s nature to do. The constraints on his behavior, in the latter case, are internal to his nature. This is exactly what SL denies, arguing that morality is autonomous and functions as an external constraint on what God does. This move is not needed, though, if the Anselmian is right about God’s essential perfection. The Anselmian view threatens neither God’s omnipotence, sovereignty, nor ontological primacy.

Cover for 

Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?

On my view, there’s likely a solid analogy between logic and morality after all in a certain respect. Each features a number of necessary truths, but since I think necessary truths have for their best explanation thoughts God thinks in all possible worlds, I see the necessary truths as reflective of God’s very own nature. This is how I generally would go about explicating the locus of goodness—in God’s nature, not his commands; but logic too likely reflects unchanging aspects of God’s perfect and essential nature. Perhaps the truths of mathematics, rationality, and even epistemology too. SL would doubtless be unconvinced, but the point is this: there are rigorous ways to lay out such a case, establishing a picture far more complicated than the simplistic caricatures he happily exposes for their flaws.

The crux of the difference on this score between me and SL can be seen in his suggestion that comes after his discussion: “I am suggesting that theists amend this traditional view to say that God’s omnipotence enables God to do anything, so long as it is compatible with the laws of logic and the laws of morality, neither of which are divinely created.” I happily concur God can’t violate the necessary truths of morality and logic, but their necessity finds its best explanation in God’s unchanging nature. The constraints are internal to God’s nature, not external, allowing room for the possibility that God functions after all as the better explanation and firm foundation of the truths of morality. SL has done nothing to undermine a nuanced, careful analysis of theistic ethics. He’s only defeated straw men.

It’s interesting to note that SL characterizes it as a piece of Socratic wisdom that we see actions as right prior to God’s endorsement of them—in light of the recurring claim Socrates made that he was under a divine mandate to engage in the reasoning he did. His skepticism was not about any ultimate God, but rather of Euthyphro’s pantheon.

SL concludes the chapter by suggesting that theists not take God to be the author of moral law, but rather assume that God perfectly knows, complies with, and enforces it. He says that if his criticisms of DCT are on target, this option is the preferable one for theists, and also carries with it the promise of objective ethical laws.

I agree with his view there is moral objectivity, and so sympathize with that goal. But this chapter of his pertained to God and ethics, and the way he cast the discussion—whether morality requires God—was, to my thinking, problematically strategic. It made the burden of proof for the theistic ethicist unreasonably high. It would be like my asking the atheist, “Is atheism necessary for morality?”

It stacks the deck too much in favor of the other view. The better question is whether there’s good reason to think that God functions at the foundation of morality. Or, does morality in its distinctive features point to a divine reality? Alternatively, what’s the better explanation of objective moral values and duties? Or something in that vicinity.

Finally, note once more that SL’s claim is that by knocking down the most simplistic version of DCT he’s thereby defeated theistic ethics, which is classic overreach, in my estimation.


Response to Chapter 15 of Russ Shafer-Landau’s book Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? “Does Ethical Objectivity Require God?” Part VII

By David Baggett 

Shafer-Landau (SL) admits that the most natural, straightforward way of getting God into the picture of morality is by thinking that if God exists, then God is the author of morality, and that morality is objective. But he then adds that it’s also deeply problematic. “In fact,” he writes, “it turns out that even if you believe in God, you should have serious reservations about tying the objectivity of morality to God’s existence.” Why does he think this, and what’s my assessment of his case?

First, let’s clarify what’s within his cross hairs: the view according to which God decides what’s right and wrong; that God communicated that information to us, as he worked out his divine plan, and it’s our job to do our part and aspire to live in accordance with the divine decrees. He thinks that seeing what’s wrong with such a story is to see why ethical objectivists—even theists—should insist on the existence of a ream of moral truths that have not been created by God.

Before we begin, note the language of “creation” here. Such language surely carries the connotation of dependence, but arguably something more—something like complete open-ended invention. This will be important to bear in mind as we examine his analysis.

Unsurprisingly, SL directs readers’ attention to Plato’s Euthyphro, and in particular the famous dilemma contained therein: is an action pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious? SL then gives a contemporary formulation focusing on rightness rather than piety, and polytheism rather than monotheism: Is an act right because God loves it, or does God love it because it is right?

SL then treads well-trod territory by reviewing the two horns: to embrace the second horn of the dilemma and say God loves an act because it is right is to suggest that divine love wouldn’t endow an action with its moral character; rather, such love would be an unerring response to the moral qualities that await divine appreciation. Many theists resist this notion because it suggests morality has an autonomous existence apart from God; at most, God would perform an epistemic function in cluing us in as to its contents. (Perhaps a prudential function too of warning us that he’ll burn our cosmic rear ends if we don’t comply.) SL characterizes the worry as one of disparaging or denying God’s omnipotence, but I suspect the bigger concern among most thoughtful theists is one of disparaging God’s sovereignty and ontological primacy. Whether this is a distinction without a difference remains to be seen.

CoverSL encourages theists to find a way past their reservations, though, because the other horn of the dilemma is far worse. For this alternative says acts are right because God loves or commands them. “Now it is God’s say-so that makes it so, transforming something that was previously morally neutral into something that is good or evil, right or wrong.” This is not congenial, but rather a “quite problematic picture of how God relates to morality.”

To make his case, SL likens such a picture to Divine Command Theory (DCT), which tells us that actions are right because (and only because) God commands them. But if a divine command lies at the heart of ethics, then ethics is arbitrary, “an implausible collection of ungrounded moral rules.” Here is a fuller description of DCT that SL says is guilty of only a bit of caricature: God awakes one morning, “yawns and stretches, decides to create a morality, and then picks a few dos and don’ts from column A and column B. . . . this is the picture we are left with on the assumptions that drive the Divine Command Theory.”

SL asks whether God commands and loves thing for reasons, or just arbitrarily? If arbitrarily, then this is hardly a God worthy of worship. “The caricature would be right in all essentials. God would be the inventor of the moral law, and so God’s omnipotence wouldn’t be threatened.” But if there were nothing that justified God’s commands, no reasons for those commands, then the choices would really be baseless.

If there were reasons for God’s love or commands, then “these reasons, and not the commands themselves, are what justify the schedule of duties. God’s commands would not create the standards of good and evil; instead, they would codify the standards that are sustained by whatever reasons God has relied upon to support the divine choices.”

Before proceeding, it’s worth pointing a few things out. All of this is pretty standard stuff when it comes to a critique of the most simplistic version of divine command theory. Much of it is entirely right as an effort to refute such a theory. But one problem is that very few divine command theorists embrace that variant of the theory any more. This book of SL’s was written five years after Robert Adams’ seminal Finite and Infinite Goods, for example, which features a divine command theory defense that bears little resemblance to the  most radically voluntarist version that’s the target of SL’s critique.

A small observation: having said he would replace piety with rightness, SL then proceeds to conflate goodness and rightness and badness with wrongness. Adams, though—following the advice William Alston had given to divine command theorists—rigidly distinguished the axiological matter of goodness from the deontic matter of rightness, which pertains to a cluster of concepts like permissibility, forbiddenness, and obligatoriness. Arguably the central deontic concept is one of obligation. But goodness and rightness (in the sense of obligation) are clearly not the same. Arguably goodness, in fact, is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of moral obligation. It’s not sufficient because we might have an obligation to choose the lesser of two evils, and it’s not necessary because there are, arguably, supererogatory actions.

Moreover, Adams (like Hare, Evans, and just about every other leading divine command theorist today) predicates his DCT on a theory of the good. In his case, he opts for a theistic Platonic account, whereas Evans opts for a theistic natural law account. If DCT is limited to deontic matters, it says little or nothing about what is morally good or bad, which means that actions might have ever so many moral features apart from being obligatory.

Even if we were to assume that moral goodness is a necessary condition for an act to be morally obligatory, recall it’s not sufficient. Not all good actions are obligatory. Thus some means of demarcation is necessary to identify which among the good actions are also obligatory. DCT’ists believe that divine commands serve that function. Perhaps they’re wrong, but note that, on a view like Adams’, God’s commands are anything but arbitrary. Typically God wouldn’t imbue a previously morally neutral action with obligatoriness, but a previously good but not required action with obligatoriness. We still may have ever so many good moral reasons to perform such an action before it’s rendered obligatory—it may well be an action that’s good, exemplary, loving, kind, etc. Until God’s command renders it obligatory, though, its performance would go above and beyond the call of duty. Duties are just one part of morality, not the whole kettle of fish.

DCT’ists are just one stripe of theistic ethicists—on the issue of moral obligation. Lots of variants are out there: natural law theorists, divine nature theorists of the good, divine will theorists of the right, divine desire theorists, etc. Delimiting a discussion of theistic ethics to DCT is problematic; confining it exclusively to the most radically and rabidly voluntarist version of DCT is tantamount to relegating it to the obscure periphery. This might be rhetorically effective, but it doesn’t earn high marks in intellectual honesty.

A big motivation of DCT, incidentally, is to account for the distinctive features of moral obligations: their authority, their person-centeredness, the guilt we experience when we fail to discharge them, etc. Often those skeptical of theistic ethics tend to domesticate moral obligations, subtly watering down their prescriptive force and binding authority, but these important features—which we glean by careful examination of the logic, language, and phenomenology of morality—are important clues that need adequate explanation. DCT’ists think divine commands are up to the job. Plenty of secular thinkers lower the bar so moral obligations become more amenable to the meager resources at their disposal. Nonnaturalists like SL, to their credit, tend not to water them down; they acknowledge their force and authority, but then chalk them up to synthetic a priori, sui generis moral properties that exist as brute facts. But retaining their distinctive features is only part of the explanatory task; by not watering down their authority and power, the need for adequate explanation becomes all the more pressing. DCT’ists try to answer this challenge, and shouldn’t be saddled with simplistic charges that entirely miss the mark of their formidable and impressive efforts.

Finally, harkening back to the “creation” point, the operative theology in DCT is an important variable in need of fleshing out. Obviously, the fallible, fickle, quarrelsome gods of Euthyphro found in the Greek pantheon were inadequate for task of serving as the foundation of ethics. But Anselm’s God—a God of perfect love, in whom there’s no shadow of turning, a God not even possibly susceptible to temptation, the ground of being, etc.—is a very different matter indeed. Conflating all such theistic proposals is eminently unjustified. So, whereas arbitrariness concerns invariably attach themselves to the gods of Euthyphro, a God of perfect love simply, by his nature, can’t do certain things, which includes certain commands he can’t issue. But the “constraints” are assuredly not external to God, but internal to his nature, if indeed God is perfect love, the very exemplar of goodness, essentially holy, impeccable, etc. There’s more to say, and we’ll have occasion as we continue exploring SL’s treatment when we resume our discussion in the next installment.

Image: Sunset by  T. Newton-Syms. Creative Commons. 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.3.3, “Al-Maturidi”

summary by David Baggett

What’s the relation Al-Maturidi sees between reason and revelation? He claims there are three possible outcomes of reasoning. The first is that the thinker will be led to the knowledge of being created and to see that he has a Creator who will reward him for his good and punish him for his bad deeds, which will inspire him to adopt that which pleases Him. The second is that the thinker will deny all this, and indulge himself in all kinds of pleasure, which will have its consequence in the hereafter. The third is that the thinker will be led to the realization of the incomprehensibility of knowledge and its reality which inspired him to search, but then his heart will rest and the pain will disappear that afflicts him when he tries to think. He doesn’t think the second outcome will happen, and that reasoning, whether on the first outcome or third, will be a gain to the thinker in all of its aspects.

He thinks that God has both given us a sign by way of which we can know God’s command, and He has stirred our mind to thought and reminded us of the various consequences of our actions. So if we disobey God, it’s only because we abandon the pursuit of reasoning and this is our fault. So we’ll be judged by the very thing that could have excused us. This is a result of our own act. Ignorance is no excuse, and that’s because God has given both the sign and the prompting, which are in happy harmony. Reflection will lead to belief in the very God who gives the command.

The important point here is al-Maturidi’s use of the language of “both/and,” in what Hare calls “two methods.” They are both theoretical intuition and the way of revelation. The way of revelation is clear, accessible within the domain of perceptible things. The way of speculative thought is hidden. It may start from something like theoretical intuition, but it requires difficult reflection about things that are beyond the reach of the senses. He makes these partners, though not equal partners.

Al-Maturidi also gives a role to reason in checking the reliability of reports. We need speculative thinking not merely to reflect about that which is beyond the reach of the senses, but also to check the kind of reports that may or may not be erroneous. He accepts the principle of credulity: that human beings have to rely on the reports of others and should therefore give initial credence to what someone tells them, as well as to what they receive through the senses and through reason. But what is received may be true or false, and needs to be tested by a form of knowledge that can discriminate between reliable and unreliable testimony. Al-Maturidi holds that the divine report (the Qur’an) and the Prophet’s personal reports pass this test, and are supported by the consensus of the faithful and by clear miraculous signs. But historical reports in general, and some of the traditions about the Prophet, do not have this degree of reliability.

Reason also has the function of showing that the universe has a purpose, being made by a rational Creator, for whom to act unwisely is a bad thing, who combines that which is properly combined and divides that which is properly divided, and who directs human beings in their different desires, divergent natures, and their various passions. He does, however, acknowledge that our reason has its own proper limits. For example, he thought Aristotle was misled by too ambitious an account of analogy.

We might say that al-Maturidi gives the place of a junior partner to reason in relation to divine command. It’s not, as in al-Jabbar, that revelation merely gives us instruments to what are already known as ends by reason. It’s not, as in al-Ash’ari, that reason simply works out the implications of what is already given by revelation. We could put the matter this way. For both al-Jabbar and al-Ash’ari there is only one final place for access to our proper ends; for the Mu’tazilite it is reason, and for al-Ash’ari it is revelation. But for al-Maturidi there are two, and they are mutually reinforcing. This is not to say that they are equal in status, for our human rational faculties were originated as finite and therefore are short of grasping the absolute reality of things. This is because the rational faculties are parts of the world which is in its entirety finite. The Qur’an is, al-Ash’ari and al-Maturidi agree, God’s own eternal word, received by the Prophet. But in the view of al-Maturidi, God has stirred our minds to be receptive to another source of value, the reason that God himself has for his command, and though we are divided in our nature, and our access to this source of value is not always reliable, we have been given difficult and partial access if we do the necessary hard work.

What can a divine command theorist learn from al-Maturidi? Many things, but here are three. First, it is consistent to hold both that God makes the divine command intelligible to us, even sometimes giving us access to the divine reason for the command, and to say that our access is only partial and difficult. The combination here comes from the fact that our nature is divided. God’s commands are more helpful even than our knowledge of ourselves. Second, it is consistent to hold both that we have the power to act in opposite ways, and that what we do is determined by the divine decree. This decree needs to be distinguished into what God reveals to us as the divine preference, which we can disappoint, and God’s final effective command, which always brings overall good. The three linked distinctions—between two kinds of power, two kinds of divine attitudes, and two kinds of divine decree—start to give us a way to hold together God’s sovereignty with our freedom. Finally, we can see in al-Maturidi an acknowledgment of the authority of both reason and revelation. He refuses to reduce the final authority of revelation to that of reason or vice versa. Reason is a junior partner; the idea is we need both, and not merely instrumentally. This is important for anyone living in a pluralistic culture. To some limited extent (because reason is the junior partner), we can rely on what is common between traditions to adjudicate disagreements between them.

In all three of these ways it’s instructive to compare al-Maturidi with Scotus. The two play some of the same mediating roles in the debates within their own communities. First, like al-Maturidi, Scotus is hesitant to allow a deduction from our nature to the moral law. They both thought there’s a consonance or fittingness of the commandments with our essence, and that our essence is to be pilgrims on the way to a certain relation to God. But our composite nature makes the deduction problematic, even though we can see the fittingness with our reason. Second, Scotus holds that we have the power of opposites, which is like al-Maturidi’s first kind of power. But God’s generosity leads to our good, despite our tendency towards what is not good. This generosity is consistent with the divine justice that punishes us when we fail to do what God commands by the revealed divine will. Finally, Scotus has the same combination of trust in human reason and emphasis on its limitations. He gives what is probably the most complex rational argument for the existence of God in the whole of Christian scholastic philosophy, and he is insistent on the need and capability of “right reason” to work out how we ought to live. On the other hand, he thinks we don’t know our own (individual) essence, or the essence of God, or who the people are that God has elected for salvation [I think that individualist take on election is wrong], and he is hesitant about saying that we know by reason what God must do.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.3.2, “Al-Ash’ari”

summary by David Baggett

Al-Ash’ari doesn’t reject the use of reason, but he does wish to reject the Mu’tazilite approach, but not to stop doing theology. Rather, he wished to use it for the defense of a more traditional doctrine. He uses reason conspicuously. But the relation between reason and revelation is approximately the opposite way round from how al-Jabbar describes it. Al-Ash’ari operates on the assumption that the Qur’an and the Traditions are to be interpreted literally wherever this is possible. He acknowledges that the Qur’an does also sometimes speak metaphorically, but he thinks the literal interpretation should be used when it isn’t impossible.

His second major criticism of the Mu’tazilites is that they hold the Qur’an to be created, whereas al-Ash’ari holds that it was recorded in time, but is itself eternal. The most important point for our purposes is that al-Ash’ari does not think we are justified in holding revelation to some standard of interpretation external to it. God gives guidance, he says, to the faithful, and not to the unfaithful (infidels). The Qur’an has a verse that teaches that the Prophet warns both the one who follows and the one who does not, the unfaithful one. Al-Ash’ari concludes from this that guidance and warning are different. The revelation warns both faithful and unfaithful, but only guides the faithful, and there are some warnings also that are given only to the faithful. The point is just that al-Ash’ari can’t allow what the Mu’tazilites assert, namely, that the guidance gives all human beings what they then recognize as means to what their reason already prescribed for them.

We can relate al-Ash’ari’s position about the sources of theological knowledge to the four traditional sources of Islamic law: the Qur’an, the Traditions, the consensus of the faithful, and analogical deduction from Scripture. Of these the first two are given by revelation. For al-Ash’ari, the third (consensus), as it applies to theological knowledge, is also given by special divine grace. But this is not because of a general truth about communities of religious believers, but because of a special dispensation given to Muslims. The fourth source, analogy, is likewise strictly restricted in its theological use to what is implied by the revealed texts themselves. Sometimes we can tell from a scriptural prescription what God’s reason is for prescribing in this way, and sometimes we can apply that reason to cases analogous to the original case. But the point is that al-Ash’ari, in accepting these four traditional sources, is not putting them under two mutually independent headings, revelation encompassing the first two and reason the second two. Rather, the second two depend for their authority on special revelation.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.3, “Revelation and Reason”

summary by David Baggett

All three of our authors have an important place for both revelation and reason, but they describe the relation between the two sources of knowledge differently. The term ‘revelation’ is a convenience, but is potentially misleading. It would be better, but cumbersome, to talk about God’s deliverances through the Scriptures and the Traditions.

6.3.1 “‘Abd al-Jabbar”

Al-Jabbar makes a distinction between necessary knowledge and acquired knowledge. Necessary knowledge, unlike acquired knowledge, is known immediately and is known by all sane adult human beings. This includes knowledge from sense perceptions and rules of logic and knowledge of one’s own mental states. The most important for present purposes are certain moral truths and reliable reports. An adult with sound mind necessarily knows the evil of wrongdoing, the evil of being ungrateful to a benefactor, and the evil of lying if it is not intended to bring about benefit or to repel harm. One also knows the goodness of compassion and giving. These moral principles are the basis for rational obligations. Knowledge of reliable reports is also necessary for knowledge, and is required for religious obligation, which is a part of obligation not known by reason—like the obligation to pray and fast.

So al-Jabbar gives a kind of priority to reason over revelation. Neither revelation nor reason makes something right or wrong. But the right that revelation indicates, reason sees is instrumental towards a right that reason already knows. We know by necessary knowledge that we should choose our duty, and revelation tells us that prayer is conducive to this end. There is a difference between intrinsic wrongs and things that are wrong by relation to their consequences, such as the wrongs of the Law, which are only wrong inasmuch as they lead to the performance of a rational wrong or ceasing to perform certain duties. This does not mean, however, that revelation is redundant. One may not know, before being told, how to achieve the end in question, and one also may be insufficiently motivated.

The opponents of the Mu’tazilites tended to object that the moral principles that are supposed to be necessarily known, and so known to all sane adults, are in fact not known by all. There is, in fact, widespread disagreement. For example, the nomadic Bedouins of Arabia approve the practice of plunder. But this does not mean that there is disagreement here about the principle that injustice is prohibited; it’s just that Bedouins have a different conception of private property. But it’s hard to see that the objection from disagreement can be overcome in this way. To be sure, ‘injustice’ is named together with the wrong and so anyone who agrees that some act is unjust is going to agree that it is wrong; but the relevant disagreement is surely about what kinds of act are unjust.

So take lying. One might object that this is not something about which all sane adults agree, and indeed many of al-Jabbar’s own opponents disagreed with him, holding that it would be right to lie to save the life of a prophet. But the case of lying is anomalous here, and it may be that the operative conception of lying is already evaluatively laden. There is nothing implausible, Hare writes, about holding that there are very general principles that are very widely shared across human cultures, as long as one does not insist that they generate absolute prohibitions.

According to al-Jabbar, we need to distinguish rational worship and religious worship. Both kinds involve obligations that are assigned by God. This seems to imply that we can worship rationally by obedience to the principles that are necessarily known, even if we do not know about God, and even if the obedience is not consciously directed towards God. On this view, it is only in relation to religious worship that God must be “described with every and each action,” to use al-Maturidi’s terms.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.2.3, “Al-Maturidi,”

summary by David Baggett

Al-Maturidi’s complex views on human freedom and divine command are best understood through three distinctions that he makes, distinctions between two kinds of power, two kinds of divine attitude, and two kinds of divine decree. Let’s start with the two kinds of power. Of these, the second kind of power is relatively straightforward. It’s the power not definable except as the power to perform the act at the time of the act. But acknowledging this kind of power is consistent with acknowledging a different kind of power, the first kind. What is this kind? It’s the human capacity to act in two opposite ways.

Al-Maturidi says God makes us responsible for things that are hard and easy, steep and level, and gives us principles by which to attain every virtue. He holds that everyone knows that he is the one who chooses to do what he is doing, even though the theological determinists deny this. The picture of the two powers we are given is that the first power precedes the act, and it is a power to choose, and the second power performs the act and is concurrent with the action. Both powers are the gift of God. The action that is taken by the second power must be the action that is chosen by the first power, since al-Maturidi says the action is performed “through” the choice made by the first power.

This brings us to the second distinction, between two kinds of divine attitude. It’s similar to the earlier distinction between decreeing and determining in the sense of producing something and decreeing and determining in the sense of commanding it. But whereas al-Ash’ari resists the implication that there exist things of which God disapproves (because he doesn’t want to attribute weakness to God), al-Maturidi gives us a way to take the distinction inside God’s will, without losing God’s global providential control. This solution distinguishes between satisfaction and will in general. But this isn’t intelligible until we have described the third distinction al-Maturidi makes, namely, the distinction between two kinds of divine decree.

The first decree is the definition with which things come into existence. In something like this sense God has said, “Surely we have created everything by a decree.” About the second kind of decree, al-Maturidi says, “Nor with regard to the second is it possible for human beings to determine their actions with respect to time and place, nor does their knowledge attain this. And so in this respect, too, it is not possible for it to be by them, such that their actions do not come to be from God.

What is the difference between these two kinds of decree, which we can refer to (somewhat imprecisely) as the “absolute decree” and the “detailed decree”? It’s noteworthy that the “absolute” decree is an evaluation that is all good for the object because the decree comes from divine wisdom and knowledge. The “detailed decree,” though, is of the coming-to-be of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, wisdom and foolishness. When al-Maturidi talks of the distinction between satisfaction and will, he has in mind (under “will”) that everything is good that is created by the absolute decree in its final connection with everything else in the history of the universe, and is under God’s working all things together for good. But when each type of action is put together with its results and circumstances, but still isolated from the final disposition of the whole universe, it can be good or evil. [Is the intimation that in ultimate context it ceases being, say, bad when it was bad before? That seems to confuse something being good versus something being used for good. An evil redeemed doesn’t mean it’s not evil.] God chooses to reward in accordance with the “detailed decree” only what satisfies Him and to punish only those “He does not like.” But God by His absolute decree and in His absolute power turns even the evil that we choose into good. [How can evil change into good?] One way to put this would be to use a distinction al-Maturidi does not: a murder can still be wrong even though God turns it to good. [Yes, and this is exactly the confusion: it’s not turned into something good, but it’s rather used to bring about some good.] Hare says if this is al-Maturidi’s picture, he has a way to repair the fissure in the providential circle that would otherwise result. It will still be the case that we can attribute the whole final circle to God’s good care.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.2.2., “Al-Ash’ari”

 summary by David Baggett

Of al-Ash’ari’s ten objections to the Mu’tazilites, three have to do with the matters discussed here (human freedom). The Mu’tazilites assert that human beings create evil, they think that God may wish what is not and that what He does not wish may be, and they think that they alone, and not their Lord, have power over their works. Al-Ash’ari responds that he who doesn’t will the existence of anything except what exists, and nothing exists except what he wills, and nothing is remote from his will, is the worthier of the attribute of divinity. If there are under His authority the existence of things of which He disapproves, this shows an attribute of weakness and poverty. Such a being would be weak in comparison with the sovereign omnipotent God of the tradition.

It’s tempting to think of al-Ash’ari as privileging God’s omnipotence over God’s justice, but this is not how he sees it. He is completely convinced of God’s justice (though he thinks we have to be careful not to think it is the same thing as human justice), and he’s convinced that we are responsible for our actions, and that God rightly holds us responsible. To understand this, we need to describe his notion of “acquisition.” This is the view that a single act can both be created by God and “acquired” or performed by a human being. We can distinguish between the one who lies, who is not the one who makes the act as it really is, and the one who makes it as it really is (namely, God) who does not lie. Similarly, we can make the distinction familiar from experience between cases of casual constraint and cases where we have the power to act, and so responsibility for our action. Al-Ash’ari calls these two cases “necessary motion” and “acquired motion,” and he gives the examples of shaking from palsy or shivering from fever, for the first case, and coming and going or approaching and receding, for the second.

We can ask al-Ash’ari whether God creates evil (or wrong). The answer is not straightforward. Has not God, then, created the injustice of creatures? Al-Ash’ari replies that God created it as their injustice, not as His. But then we deny that God is unjust? Al-Ash’ari replies that one who’s unjust is not unjust because he makes injustice as another’s injustice and not as his. The same reply comes with the question about whether God creates evil and whether God creates lying. God creates evil for another, and lying for another, but God Himself can’t do evil, or lie. Does this mean that God has decreed and determined acts of disobedience? Here al-Ash’ari makes another distinction, between decreed and determined acts of disobedience in the sense that He has commanded them. This is the difference Hare identified in Chapter 2 between two different kinds of prescriptions, namely, “precepts” (or “prohibitions”) and “directly effective commands.”

Someone might worry about God’s commanding things when God does not provide the recipients of the command with the power to carry it out. The interlocutor asks, “Has not God charged the unbeliever with the duty of believing?” Al-Ash’ari answers that He has. But this does not mean that God has given the unbeliever the power of believing, because, if God had given that power, the unbeliever would believe. It seems to follow that God enjoins on him an obligation that he cannot fulfill. Here, al-Ash’ari makes another distinction. Strictly, an inability is an inability both for some act and for its contrary. A stone has the inability to believe, because this inability is also an inability to disbelieve. But the unbeliever has the ability to disbelieve, and so does not strictly have the inability to believe. Al-Ash’ari considers an objection to this account of inability: namely, that he has denied that a power is for an act and its contrary. How can he deny this of powers and affirm it of inabilities? The reason is that, on al-Ash’ari’s conception of power and inability, they are necessarily concurrent with their exercise. The exercise of the inability both for the act and the contrary (to believe and to disbelieve) makes sense (as in the case of the stone). But the exercise of the power both for the act and the contrary does not make sense. It would require a thing to have two contrary attributes at the same time. His opponent could try to reverse the argument and say that it is obvious we have the power both to act and not to act, and so a power can’t be necessarily concurrent with its exercise. This dialectic will continue with the next section (on al-Maturidi).


John Hare’s God’s Command, 6.1.2, “Al-Ash’ari”

 summary by David Baggett

Al-Ash’ari issues several criticisms of the Mu’tazilites, but we’ll focus on those relevant to DCT. According to one story, he was persuaded to attack them by three dreams in which Mohammed himself spoke to him and commanded him to defend Islam as it had traditionally been taught. In chapter seven of Kitab al-Luma, he answers the charge that God’s unjust in relation to unbelievers, since he wills their perversity. Basically his answer is that God is gracious to some and not to others, and it’s all justice on God’s part. It wouldn’t be wrong for God to do whatever he might choose. God is the Supreme Monarch, subject to no one, with no superior over him who can permit or command or chide or forbid or prescribe what he will do. So nothing can be wrong on the part of God.

Al-Ash’ari is committed to the view that there is no standard for wrongness among human beings other than God’s setting a bound or limit for us, and there is no one to set a bound or limit for God, so there is no such thing as a wrong that God could so.

The objector then asks whether this means that lying is wrong only because God has declared it to be wrong. Al-Ash’ari thinks yes. If God declared it to be right, it would be right. If God commanded it, no one could gainsay him. This does not mean, though, that God can lie. There is a difference, al-Ash’ari maintains, between what God can do and what God can command. Thus God can command us to pray and to be submissive, but this doesn’t mean that God can pray or be submissive. God can’t lie, but that is not because it is wrong, but simply because that is not a power God can have. It is like the power to be ignorant, which is another power God can’t have. (My thought: God can’t be submissive because of his perfection; but likewise God can’t command us to do irremediable evil because of his perfection. God’s commands are part of what he does; I think al-Ash’ari misconstrues the import of disanalogies between us and God.)

Al-Ash’ari holds that our human perception of what is wrong is a reception of God’s command, and not (as for the Mu’tazilites) a faculty of reason independent of revelation. This is a point about Mu’tazilite moral epistemology, and not their moral ontology. God controls who hears the command and who does not. Al-Ash’ari uses the Qur’an extensively to make this point. God hardens the hearts of the infidels.

He presents a dilemma to the Mu’tazilites. According to the Qur’an, knowledge of the command comes with a gift of power to the faithful. The dilemma is that the Mu’tazilites have to say whether God gives the infidels the same sort of gift. If they say no, they are no longer maintaining that we humans have the power to determine our acts. If they say yes, then they have to say how the “settlement” produces for the Prophet the state of being settled, but for the infidels it does not produce this. Al-Ash’ari’s conclusion is that, since it does not produce this result, this means the divine settlement is not given to them.

His critics may quote the Qur’an to the effect that it gives guidance both to the infidels and to the faithful. But such a verse, al-Ash’ari claims, has particular meaning. Elsewhere it says it doesn’t guide the infidels, and the Qur’an doesn’t contradict itself. So the particular interpretation is justified. His principle of interpretation is that the Qur’an interprets itself, so that we can legitimately choose a particular meaning over a universal meaning if there are texts elsewhere that prohibit the universal meaning. One of the frequent refrains against the Mu’tazilites is that they are not careful about this principle of interpretation, and pick out verses independently of the sense of the text as a whole.

The next section will consider al-Maturidi’s attempt to stake out middle ground between al-Jabbar’s extreme natural law account and al-Ash’ari’s radical DCT.

Image: “Quran  4” by Themeplus. CC License. 

Summary of Chapter 7: “The Foreconditionality of God’s Love” of The Love of God: A Canonical Model by John Peckham

The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Summary by Gary Yates

The key question in chapter seven of Peckham’s Love of God is whether God’s love for the world is unconditional or conditional, the answer to which is also essential for determining if humans can forfeit divine love or if it is unilaterally consistent. Peckham employs the term “foreconditional” to express his understanding that “God’s love is freely bestowed prior to any conditions but not exclusive of conditions” (p. 192). He further elaborates: “God’s love is both prior to human love and yet responsive to and conditioned on human love, which is itself response to God’s initiative. This is the foreconditionality of divine love” (p. 196).

51WwYweH7VL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Peckham contrasts his understanding of the foreconditionality of God’s love with both the immanent-experientialist and transcendant-voluntarist models, which both in different ways view divine love as unconditional and as something that cannot be forfeited. In the immanent-experientialist model, divine love is ontologically necessary in that God has an essential sympathetic relationship to the world. In pantheism, God is bound to the world and is mutually dependent on others so that God is unable to choose not to love humans. In the transcendant-voluntarist model, God is self-sufficient so that his love depends solely on his sovereign will. Divine love is thus not conditioned on any external factor and is spontaneous and unmotivated in every way. In this system, the object of divine love can do nothing to inhibit, decrease, or forfeit divine love.


The Conditionality of Divine Love

Peckham opts for a model of divine love that recognizes the priority and necessity of divine initiative but that also sees conditionality and reciprocity as essential to the relationship between God and humans. He argues that Scripture depicts divine love as conditioned upon human response. In the OT, God’s “lovingkindness” (hesed) is for those who love him and obey his commands (Exod 20:6’ Deut 7:9-13). What God has promised within this covenant “is presented as explicitly conditional on the ongoing relationship” (p. 194). In the same vein, Jesus declares that the one who loves him is the one that he and the Father would love (John 14:12) and that the Father loves the disciples because they have loved Jesus (John 16:27). Mutuality is evident in these texts, which indicate that believers remain in the love of God and Jesus by obedience.

This conditionality in divine love is complemented by the evaluative aspect of God’s love that Peckham has developed in chapter five of this work. The Lord loves the righteous but hates the way of the wicked (Prov 15:9). Divine mercy is conditioned upon humans showing mercy to each other (Matt 5:7; 18:33-35). Friendship with Christ is also conditioned on obedience to his commands (John 15:14). God loves all persons and bestows his foreconditional love on all (John 3:16), but his “particular, intimate, relational love” is only received by those who respond to his foreconditional love.

The conditionality of divine love means that humans may also forfeit the benefits of divine love. The prophets Hosea and Jeremiah speak of God hating his people, not loving them, and withdrawing his hesed from them (Hos 9:15; Jer 11:15; 12:8; 14:20; 16:5). Jude’s exhortation for believers to “keep themselves” in the love of God (Jude 21) reflects that fellowship with God can be forfeited. The need for believers to “abide” in God’s love (John 15:5-10) also demonstrates that enjoyment of God’s love demands a proper response to it. Peckham argues that this biblical evidence does away with “the sentimental notion that God’s love is monolithic, constant and unconditional,” and he concludes that “God’s love relationship with the world, then, is not dependent on God’s will alone but takes into account human disposition and action” (p. 199).


Three Objections to the Condtionality of God’s Love

Peckham addresses three common objections to the idea of the conditionality of divine love. The first objection is that some would argue that such conditionality might mistakenly attribute primacy to human action in the divine-human relationship. In response to this objection, Peckham asserts the “absolute priority” of God’s love in the divine-human relationship (1 Jn 4:7-8, 16, 19) and argues that God “is the primary source of love and draws humans to himself prior to any human action” (p. 201). God’s love not only precedes human love, but also follows it as well, energizing love for God and obedience as an expression of that love.

The second objection is that the conditionality of divine love might appear to suggest that God’s love is something that could be earned or merited. Peckham explains that his foreconditional-reciprocal model makes a sharp distinction between conditionality and merit. God’s love toward humans is always undeserved, just as was his love for Israel (cf. Deut 4:37; 7:7-8; 10:15), but divine love can be unmerited while at the same time contingent upon human response. The individual who freely receives God’s love has not merited that love, because even the ability to receive divine love is something that comes as a gift from God (cf. 1 Cor 4:7).

The third objection is that the conditionality of divine love might seem to diminish the greatness of God by removing the assurance of divine love or suggesting that God’s love is not faithful. Peckham counters this objection by noting that God never arbitrarily rejects humans or withdraws his love, The removal of divine love always occurs in response to unrelenting human evil. Divine love is conditional but never capricious.

Peckham also assesses if God’s love would be greater by reconciling all to himself in a reciprocal love relationship. Certain forms of universalism are based on the premises that God desires a love relationship with all and also possesses the ability to effect such a relationship with all persons. Deterministic models of divine love would affirm the second premise, but some forms of determinism would deny the first. According to this understanding, God loves all in some respect but he only chooses some to irresistibly receive the benefits of divine love leading to eternal life. Humans do not possess the ability to accept divine love or not.

In contrasts to these perspectives, the foreconditional-reciprocal model accepts that God desires a love relationship with all (cf. Ezek 18:32; 33:11; 1 Tim 2:4-6; 2 Pet 3:9), but that a truly reciprocal loved relationship between God and individuals “cannot be unilaterally determined by God” (p. 207). This conditionality is not due to any defect in divine love or lack in his power but rather to the fact that any truly loving relationship requires “significant freedom.” Peckham argues that “it is impossible for God to determine that all beings freely love him” (p. 208).


The Conditionality and Unconditionality of God’s Love

The final question that Peckham addresses in this chapter is how we should view the many passages that speak of God’s love as everlasting (cf. Jer 31:3; Rom 8:35, 39) in light of the conditionality of divine love. Distinguishing between God’s subjective and objective love, Peckham argues that, “Divine love is everlasting in some respects, yet may nevertheless be discontinued in other respects” (p. 212). God’s subjective love refers to his loving disposition toward all humanity, and this love is everlasting because it is grounded only in his character. God’s subjective love is unconditional and everlasting because his character is unchanging. God’s objective love, however, is conditional because it is “foreconditional and requires reciprocal love for its permanent continuance” (p. 212). Humans possess the freedom to either accept or reject divine love, and God only removes his love relationship with humans “in response to the prior rejection of God’s love” (p. 213).

Peckham also argues that God’s love is unconditional and everlasting in a corporate sense. He writes, “That God will love and save some people is unconditional.” The Lord’s saving purposes and covenantal promises will come to fruition for his people, but conditionality is maintained at the individual level in regard to who will belong to the remnant. The remnant will only consist of those who favorably respond to God’s loving initiatives (cf. Isa 65:8-9; Rom 9:6; 11:7, 22-23). The interplay between the unconditionality and conditionality of divine love is specifically reflected in the working out of God’s covenant grants in the OT. These covenant promises are unconditional in terms of ultimate fulfillment, but individuals or even entire generations may forfeit the blessings of the covenant and even their covenant status. In the Davidic covenant, Christ is the “entirely faithful servant” who receives all of the blessings that are part of that covenant and to confer those blessings to all of his spiritual offspring. However, individuals may either choose to enjoy those blessings through adoption into God’s family or reject these intended blessings and the love relationship they might have enjoyed with God.

In concluding this chapter, Peckham summarizes the differences between God’s subjective and objective love in this manner: “While God’s subjective love never diminishes or ceases, God’s objective love will eventually no longer reach the one who finally rejects it. Those who respond positively to God’s love, however, enjoy everlasting reciprocal love relationship” (p. 217).

Find the other chapter summaries here.


Image:By Attributed to Cima da Conegliano – The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN, UK [1], Public Domain,

Summary of Chapter 6, “The Emotional Aspect of God’s Love” of The Love of God: A Canonical Model by John Peckham

The Love of God: A Canonical Model

Summary by Gary Yates 

In chapter six of The Love of God, Peckham explores “The Emotional Aspect of God’s Love.” God’s love is more than emotion and includes the qualities of volition and evaluation (as developed in previous chapters), but the emotional aspect of divine love uniquely reflects its passion and intensity. Peckham argues that “God’s love for humans is ardent and profoundly emotional” (p. 187). He further elaborates on the range of divine emotions reflected in the biblical portrayal of God, “Scripture presents God as affectionate and loving, devotedly interested and intimately concerned about humans, affected by the world in feeling joy and delight in goodness, yet sorrow, passion and intense anger at evil, alongside profound compassion and the desire to redeem humans” (p. 189).

51WwYweH7VL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This aspect of divine emotionality raises the question of whether God can be affected by the actions of humans. Because of the intensely emotional nature of divine love as portrayed in Scripture, Peckham rejects a view of God’s immutability that incorporates belief in his impassibility, the idea that God is not emotionally affected by the world or that he cannot be affected by anything outside himself. Peckham instead argues that God’s love is passible in the sense that “God is intensely interested in and affected by humans, and may be pleased or displeased by their response to him such that the quality of his life is affected by the state of affairs in the world” (p. 187). At the same time, Peckham acknowledges the very real differences that exist between divine and human emotions.

The Biblical Portrayal of Divine Emotionality

Peckham’s presentation of the biblical portrayal of divine love is both exegetical and devotional. He begins by exploring the most prominent terms for love in the OT and NT—the word groups for ’ahav and agapao respectively. Both terms denote a type of love that is “affectionate, passionate, warm, compassionately concerned with and interested in its object(s); love in the sense of high regard, value and appreciation for its object(s); and love that includes enjoyment pleasure and fondness” (cf. Col 3:9; 1 Thess 2:7; 1 Pet 1:22; 4:8) (p. 149). Jesus had a deep love for his followers (John 13:1) and even for the rich young man who would make the choice not to follow him (Mk 10:21). God takes genuine joy in his people (Zeph 3:7), and familial images of various types particularly reflect the emotionality of divine love. The Lord loves Israel as his bride (Isa 62:4; Jer 2:2-3; 16, 23; Hos 1-3) and has adopted Israel as his son (Hos 11:1-4). God’s compassion even exceeds that of a nursing mother for her newborn child (Isa 49:15). The Hebrew word for compassion (racham) is etymologically related to the noun for “womb” and thus likely reflects “a womb-like mother love.”

God does not merely will to love volitionally; he loves with “an emotion that is stirred and roused, responsive to the actual state of affairs” (p. 151). One of the primary NT terms for compassion (splagnizomai) belongs to a word group referring to the inward parts of the body as the seat of emotion and thus depicts compassion as a visceral emotion and a “gut response.” Jesus often reflected this type of compassion as he encountered people in need (cf. Mt. 9:36; 14:14; Mk 1:41; 6:34). The “yearning” of God’s heart (Jer 31:20; Is 63:5) in the OT reflects the churning of internal organs as God is touched by the pain and grief of his people. All of this language conveys “profoundly passible and intense emotionality” (p. 153).

God’s emotional love is particularly reflected in those times when he relents from sending judgment because of the entreaties of his people for grace and mercy. The Lord is moved to pity even at the plight of his rebellious people. The revelation that Yahweh is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger” so that he shows mercy and forgives iniquity (Exod 34:6-7) is foundational to the OT portrayal of God. The Lord continues to “bestow compassion beyond all reasonable expectations” throughout Israel’s history when they betray him and turn to other gods (cf. Judg 10:13; 1 Sam 8:8; 1 Kgs 11:33; 2 Kgs 22:17; Neh 9:7-33). The Lord relents from judgment when humans cry out to him for grace and mercy (cf. Exod 32:9-14; 1 Kgs 21:25-29; Amos 7:1-6; Jon 3:6-10). At the same time, God is not obligated or compelled to show mercy and he may not relent from sending judgment, and he may also withdraw his mercy when humans persistently rebel against him (Jer 16;5; Hos 9:15). The Lord’s “lovingkindness” toward Israel was unconditional in terms of his enduring commitment to the relationship, but conditional in that the blessings and benefits of that lovingkindness were for those who reciprocated with love and loyalty toward the Lord (Deut 7:9; Matt 18:27-35; Rom 11:22). God does everything that he can to avoid the outcome of judgment and destruction, but divine mercy may be forfeited by persistent human rebellion. Jesus lamented over those he desired to save but who were unwilling (Matt 23:37).

God’s compassion is complemented by his passion. God’s jealousy (qana’) in the OT conveys a passionate love and concern for his people and name (cf. Deut 4:24, 31; 5:9; 6:15) without the negative connotations associated with human jealousy. God is provoked to jealousy by Israel’s unfaithfulness (Deut 32:3`; Ps 78:58) and is often portrayed as a scorned husband (Isa 62:4; Jer 2:2; 3:1-12), but this aspect of divine emotionality reflects his protectiveness of the exclusive covenantal relationship he has with his people. God is not jealous in a manipulative, controlling, or envious way but in a manner that reflects the depth of his passionate love for Israel and his desire to protect his people from the consequences of their sinful choices.

God’s love manifests itself in both positive and negative emotions, but these negative emotions are never arbitrary or unmotivated. They always come in response to sin and evil, and God’s wrath is so terrifying because it is the divine response to the rejection of his powerful love. Even when humans sin, God is constantly pulled toward forgiveness and mercy. God is also deeply pained by human sin (Gen 6:6), because he can see the terrible consequences that will follow.

The Issue of Passibility Versus Impassibility

In light of the biblical data, Peckham concludes that maintaining divine impassibility and supposing God’s impassible passion and/or feelings fails to do justice to the many biblical passages in which God experiences responsive emotions. There are simply too many passages like Hosea 11:8-9 that “use passionate, gut-wrenching language” to depict God’s intense emotions, and this pervasive canonical witness argues against imposing an ontological presupposition of God’s impassibility onto the text that leads to reinterpretation of the biblical data (pp. 161-62). Impassibility is particularly difficult to maintain in light of texts that place God’s emotionality within the contexts of give-and-take-relationships where God reacts to unfolding events and human responses to his various initiatives. Based on his analogical understanding of language about God, Pekcham concludes that God’s emotions are real but not identical to human emotions. Nevertheless, there must be similarity for this language about God to have any real meaning. Because of his canonical approach, Peckham particularly seeks to establish a view of divine emotionality that prioritizes and is consistent with the canonical depiction of God. This approach recognizes anthropomorphism in the biblical portrayal of God, but also insists that divine emotionality should not be viewed merely as metaphorical language unless there are canonically derived reasons for doing so.

While rejecting the idea of impassibility, Peckham sees validity in the qualified impassibilist attempts to maintain divine transcendence and the ontological invulnerability of God to the effects of his creatures. God’s passibility is voluntary. God’s emotions may genuinely be affected by the free choices of his creatures and he may feel emotions in response to the free actions of his creatures that he does not causally determine, but God is not involuntarily invulnerable to these effects. God experiences emotions differently from humans because his experience of emotions is “entirely flawless” (p. 180). He is never overwhelmed by his emotions or manipulated by others because of some form of emotional codependency. God has freely opened himself to being affected by his creatures. While God maintains the sovereign freedom to remove himself from this arrangement, he also elects to remain constantly committed to it as an expression of his faithfulness (p. 181). In concluding the chapter, Peckham summarizes: “While none can overpower God, he is affected by worldly events because he has willingly opened himself up to reciprocal love relationship with creatures (p. 189). God loves in highly emotive ways but not in ways that are beyond his divine control.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image:By Michel Martin Drolling – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,