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Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 1: The Problem Clarified: An Atheistic Philosophical Argument

By David Baggett

In this chapter, Flannagan and Copan (henceforth “F&C”) begin to subject to scrutiny an argument by Raymond Bradley, which relies on the “Crucial Moral Principle” that “it is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.” Bradley asserts that the Bible-believing theist can’t without contradiction believe all four of the following affirmations:

1. Any act that God commands us to perform is morally permissible.

2. The Bible reveals to us many of the acts that God commands us to perform.

3. It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle.

4. The Bible tells us that God commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle.

Bradley assumes the Old and New Testaments are the revealed Word of God—the position of biblical theism. This suggests his argument should be rephrased like this:

1. Any act that God commands us to perform is morally permissible.

2’. God is the author of the Bible.

3. It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle.

4’. The author of the Bible commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle.

Bradley argues the four statements taken together are inconsistent, but the biblical theist must accept all four propositions.

F&C will argue against Bradley’s claim. They will argue, in fact, that the biblical theist can defensibly reject both 3 and 4’—that it is always morally impermissible to mercilessly slaughter innocent people and that the divine author of scripture commands us to do this.

Initial Clarifications: Human and Divine Authors of Scripture

First F&C iron out an ambiguity from 2’, which affirms that God is the author of the Bible. Traditional Christian teaching accepts that the Bible has multiple authors. Each book of the Bible has a human author; at the same time, biblical theists accept that the primary author of scripture is God. But this leads to an issue with 4’ (“The author of the Bible commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle”), namely, does Bradley mean the human author(s) of the books in question, or the divine author?

Bradley’s argument is a reductio ad absurdum of biblical theism—an argument that attempts to reduce, in this case, biblical theism to absurdity. So, though Bradley doesn’t believe in God, he’s assuming the stance of the biblical theist to show the logical quandary that arises from the belief that the Bible is a reliable guide to what we should do.

But if we assume that the human author of scripture commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle, then this undermines Bradley’s argument. F&C rework the argument to show why:

1. Any act that God commands us to perform is morally permissible.

2’. God is the (primary) author of the Bible.

3. It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle.

4’’. The secondary human author of the Bible commands us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle.

In this case, a contradiction requires a further premise, namely, that God’s role as primary author entails that whatever the secondary human author of the Bible  affirms or commands, God likewise affirms or commands. But this is to presuppose a particular understanding of the relationships between divine and human authors of scripture, an understanding that is implausible.

Why is such a view implausible? F&C argue that it would be silly to say that whatever the human author says or affirms is identical to what God says or affirms. When, say, David repents, saying “Against you, you only, have I sinned,” surely the psalm is not affirming that God is a sinner. While the human author affirms the status of being a sinner, God is obviously not affirming this.

Indeed, God may intend to communicate things through the words of a human author of which the latter had no ideas. It would be unlikely, for example, that the author of Isaiah, though referring to Christ in various passages, intended to do so. What the original authors had in mind is important, but won’t necessarily settle the issue as to how to understand the text in question.

As William Lane Craig writes, “There are elements in Scripture that express the emotions and anxieties and the depression of the human authors, and it seems implausible to attribute those to God’s dictation. These seem rather to be genuine human emotions that are being expressed.” Psalm 137, an imprecatory psalm written during the exile in Babylon, ends with a startling statement: “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Craig argues this runs contrary to what Jesus said about loving our enemies, concluding that it is “hard to think of this as something that is dictated by God rather than a genuine expression of the Psalmist’s anger and indignation of those who opposed God.”

God may even allow human authors of scripture to express unrestrained emotion, even though God, the divine author, would not approve. Such a psalm reminds us about honestly expressing our emotions, such as rage or despair, in our prayers about where we should look for justice. And while psalmists may utilize hyperbole and strong speech in the midst of their white-hot rage, they are expressing the very biblical desire for justice to be done—that God repay people according to their deeds, as the martyrs do in Revelation 6:9-10. This illustrates how God’s being the author of the Bible doesn’t mean he endorses everything the human author expresses.

Image: “Grace Cathedral-Ghiberti doors detail” by Bernard Gagnon – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

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