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John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.2 “Novak”

By Jonathan Pruitt

In the second section of his chapter on Jewish thinkers, Hare explores David Novak’s Natural Law in Judaism. Hare sees Novak as trying to find a “middle way” between grounding moral knowledge and ontology in revelation or reason. If ethics is grounded solely in revelation, it will be arbitrary and inscrutable apart from revelation. If grounded merely in nature or reason, it will not need a personal, immanent God. Besides this general concern, Hare also sees Novak as specifically motivated by the testimony of the Hebrew Bible and a desire to make Jewish thought relevant to public life. This latter concern is what drives Novak to make moral precepts accessible and discernible by reason.

Novak considers a challenge from Richard Rorty. Rorty has said that appealing to the will of God is a “conversation stopper” in democratic society. Novak accepts Rorty’s claim and tries to overcome it. His first step is to draw a distinction between the command of God and the wisdom of God. God commands the Jews to not eat pork, but the command to refrain from murder is the wisdom of God. Novak thinks that the commands God gives to Noah after the Flood represent “divine wisdom.” God’s command is grounded in revelation while the God’s wisdom in nature or reason. The wisdom of God can be introduced into public dialogue because one need not appeal to the will of God to show it is true, but God’s commands cannot be.

Hare objects to Novak’s reply to Rorty. Hare thinks that Rorty is simply mistaken and that one can appeal to the will of God and make societal progress. Following Miroslav Volf, Hare suggests that Christians have a unique vision of the good life that is helpful to society, but that potentially Christians can benefit from open conversation with other faiths and worldviews. It is precisely because of the different understanding of revelation in different religions that conversation is beneficial. History also shows that faith often unites people in a common cause, like civil rights, rather than divide them.

Hare also criticizes Novak for misinterpreting the account of Abraham “bargaining” with God at Sodom and Gomorrah. Novak sees this account as implying that Abraham had prior knowledge of “divine wisdom” and this is the basis for God’s knowing Abraham and blessing him. What God knows is that Abraham knows the divine wisdom and will keep the natural law. However, Hare points out that the basis of the blessing is Abraham’s faith in God; it is primarily relational and personal, rather than rational (though it is not inconsistent with reason).

Cover for Gods Command Next, Hare turns to Novak’s interaction with Maimonides. Novak’s work tries to take seriously this idea from Maimonides: “Therefore I say that the Law, although it is not natural, enters into what is natural.” Novak thinks this means that one can only receive the Law given in the Torah when it can be shown to be rational. Reason precedes revelation and makes it possible. Novak, following what Hare thinks is a misinterpretation of Maimonides, argues this view coheres with the Torah because creation and revelation are single act. The moral law and creation are the result of the same divine act, so they are intimately intertwined. One may discern, then, the moral law from creation or nature. Hare argues that this is not what Maimonides had in mind; all he meant was that creation and revelation are the same kind of act, and not numerically the same. Further, if morality can be totally deduced from creation, then this results in a reductive view of God, perhaps even a view that eliminates God entirely. God’s commands may be consistent with nature, but it is not deducible from nature, even the Noahide commands. Hare points out that this is not Novak’s intention, but Novak’s view has been compromised by conceding too much to Rorty. Hare thinks that, epistemically, revelation should be sufficient for justifying moral knowledge.

Novak, again, is trying to find a “middle way” between revelation and reason. So far, he only tried to show how revelation is consistent with reason, but he also suggests some ways it is limited. To this end, Novak identifies three “teleological errors,” one of which will always occur in rationalistic attempts to ground moral knowledge. The first is the error of Saadiah. According to Novak, Saadiah mistakenly thinks that humans only relate to God through creation, and thus moral knowledge is discernible fully in the world. But God is not merely relating to humanity through, but also within it. The second error is from Maimonides, whom Novak thinks is guilty of making the human telos too rationalistic. Novak understands Maimonides as saying that the human telos is contemplation, but this is inconsistent with the reality of a meaningful, intricate material world and humanity.  Kant is the proponent of the final error. Novak thinks of Kant as setting morality over God, but Hare thinks this is bad reading of Kant. Kant, per Hare, thinks that Kant repeatedly appeals to God’s commands as grounds for morality, at least ontologically.

Instead of thinking that human nature will provide complete moral knowledge, Novak suggests that nature, properly understood, provides only moral limits and these limits are outlined in the Noahide laws. In other words, Novak thinks that the prescriptions of the Noahide laws are discernible by reason and form the precondition for more developed morality. Hare thinks this view is problematic for two reasons. First, the Noahide laws give much more than merely human dignity (the content of the precondition) and they also give less. They give more in the sense that articulate specific institutions that are not likely explained just by facts about human nature. Hare cites as examples private property, marriage, and a legal system, all of which are at least implicit in the Noahide laws. If human beings behaved in a way that was fully consistent with their nature, possibly none of these intuitions would be needed. They give less in the sense that they do not seem to meet the demand of universal discernibility by all rational creatures.  Novak thinks that there are clear facts about human nature which entail these moral values, but in human history these moral values are frequently ignored or violated. In hunter-gather societies, it may have seemed more natural to value the lives of one’s own tribe over the lives of the other.

The bottom like for Hare is that Novak ends up collapsing the distinction between revelation and reason, even though that was not his intention. The result is a contradictory position. The remedy, according to Hare, is recognizing the validity of natural law because it is verified by special revelation, and not the other way around.

Image: By Spaceboyjosh – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38705275

John Hare’s God’s Command, 7.3 “Rosenzweig”

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt 

In his final section on Jewish thinkers, Hare explores the thought of Franz Rosenzweig as it is found in his important work, The Star of Redemption. Before offering his analysis, Hare thinks it is important to provide some context for understanding Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig was deeply attracted to Christianity and nearly converted; the impact of Christian thought is evident in his ideas. Also, Rosenzweig has some of the same philosophical influences as Barth and works to address some of the same challenges, especially the challenge of idealism. It was within this context that Rosenzweig wrote The Star and Hare picks out three central themes from that book in his analysis: creation, revelation, and redemption.

Rosenzweig thinks that idealism results in a deficient view of God and his creation. The idealist position implies that God emanates or overflows as some static object and this is the cause of creation, but Rosenzweig is committed to the idea that God freely acts to create and to love. God is “absolute spirit” or the “unmoved mover” for the idealists; God is a concept or force and not a personal agent. He is not the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible. But idealism also flattens out the particularity of God’s creation. On idealism, the moral life is highly generalized and does not take into account the distinctiveness of created things. There is not a good for an individual as that particular creature, but only the good in totality. Hare describes this conclusion as resulting in the “disappearance of God.” Hare further argues that this sort of critique can be applied to any view that seeks to ground the moral law in creation, as some natural law theorists claim to do. If it is true that nature grounds all there is to morality, then it is not clear why morality need go any further and posit the existence of God.

In contrast, Rosenzweig offers a view that emphasizes the substantive reality of particular things. There are real distinctions between objects. He also holds that God freely chose to create, though the act of creation itself is necessarily righteous. In his creation, God continually acts towards humanity in love.

It is partly because of Rosenzweig’s strong view of the distinction between God and creation that he needs an equally strong view of revelation. Rosenzweig thinks that the primary message of revelation is of a love as strong as death. Significantly, Rosenzweig holds that death is part of the intended created order and not a consequence of sin. Thus, apart from this revelation, man would conclude that his end is death. God reveals himself in an event where he loves a particular person at a particular time; a deeply personal and intimate act. When we find ourselves being loved by God, this frees us from being “merely created” and the cycle of death. This revelation produces a change in us from “self to soul” and occurs in four stages. The first stage is self-enclosure; we become aware of being loved by God. Then we react in defiance, valuing our own freedom over the love of God. Third, we become aware of the implications of God’s love for us. Hare says this results in both pride and humility. We are proud because we are protected by the love of God and humbled because we are what we are only because of love. Finally, we allow ourselves to be loved; this is faithfulness and turns our proclivity for defiance into devotion to God.

Rosenzweig thinks that the personal nature of the revelation is important for a few reasons. First, the revelation of God is both the epistemic and ontological grounds for human virtue. God must first love us before we can love him and we must assume this is so. Second, he argues that it is only in the encounter with God that we are given a “name.” That is, God reveals to us who and what we are and frees us to live as we ought. Third, God’s love for us as individuals grounds and motivates his command to “love the Lord they God with all the heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might.” Love demands reciprocation and it because God loves us that we ought to respond in the way he requests. Love of neighbor is an extension of our love for God. If another is made in the image of God, then we ought to love the other because of God’s love for us. This is also means that God’s love should result in a practical, outward response to the world; the revelation of God requires that we move beyond mystical experience and act with love toward our neighbors.

The final theme explored in this section is redemption. Rosenzweig holds that the word is created teleologically, but that this telos is not discernible by mere human reason. We are only becoming what we were intended to be, and are not yet transformed into our intended form of life, which Rosenzweig calls, “immortality,” “eternal life,” or “soul.” Our true nature is hidden and if we were to ground our moral vision on only what we can discover on our own steam, we “disenchant” ourselves and the world. Our true nature is mysterious, “uncanny.” However, this is not to say that Rosenzweig thinks there is a break between what we are and our eschatological end. What we are now is the raw material of what we will be. We will endure through the change, even if we could not see final destination by our own dim lights. God’s command is consistent with nature, though it is not determined by it.

Thus, Rosenzweig’s view of the moral life is one that takes seriously both nature and divine command without collapsing one into the other. God’s creation is rich with telos, but that telos can only be understood and obtained by divine revelation or grace. Apart from providence, we cannot know or become what we were intended to be. Further, Rosenzweig suggests that it is the love of God that provides sufficient motivation to be moral. God is the right kind of person in the right kind of relation to us to ground a robust moral realism.

Image: By Frank Behnsen at German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11214437

Mailbag: Doubts about the Privation Theory of Evil

Berat Writes:

Hello,

Is there a post on the “ontological foundation of evil”? It seems to me that theistic metaethical theories have a strange implication like this: If God exists, he is the substantial ontological foundation of goodness. However, evil can’t have a substantial ethical foundation like goodness since God doesn’t have anything substantially evil in his nature. Therefore, evil is somehow derivative, it supervenes on God’s attitudes and/or commands. It seems to be that something like privation theory of evil has to be true for a theistic metaethical theory to be able to completely explain the realm of moral values.

I’m highly skeptical of privation theories. So, my question is this: Can theism provide a substantial ontological foundation for evil as well? Like something analogous to Goodness=God’s Essential Moral Nature.

Reply by Jonathan Pruitt

Hi Berat,

Thanks for this great question. Before attempting an answer, I think it will help to say what makes this such an important issue. If we think of God as identical to the good, as Baggett, Walls, Adams, and many other Christian thinkers propose, then we think that goodness has an essence and that it exists in a substantive way. God is the Good, that is, the ontological grounding for how we can meaningfully talk about goodness in daily life. In other words, we think that our moral judgments about moral goodness are meaningful only because there is some substantive, stable good which grounds them. Something is morally good when it bears a resemblance to God, who is the Good.

If then we ask, “What does it mean to say something is evil?” one obvious suggestion would be that there is some substantive evil which functions the same way that God as the good functions. When we say something is evil, we would mean it bears some resemblance to this object or person. This, however, would be a kind of dualism, according to which there are two fundamental and opposing forces in the world. Goodness would be grounded by reference to one and evil by reference to the other.  This is contradictory to theism and, therefore, not a live option for theists.

A second option would be that evil does exist, but that it was made by God or it is sustained by him. We might think that evil is some abstract object in the mind of God which does the kind of work that the Platonic forms do.[1] God would be the ground of evil in the same way he is the ground of the number 7 or the color red. However, it seems problematic to think of evil as ontologically grounded in God in this way. If God is wholly and perfectly good, we might expect that this entails that he could not be the ground of evil. This, then, is not option for the theist either.

The skeptic might pose one more possibility: if we can meaningfully speak of evil without it having the analogous ontological grounding of goodness, then why think goodness either needs or has God as its foundation? We seem to use the term “evil” with just as much confidence as we use the term “goodness,” but theists insist one needs ontological grounding and the other does not. Either both need grounds or neither does. Either way, the notion that God is identical to the good turns out to be false. Thus, the theist is faced with this “trilemma of evil”: Either (1) dualism is true, (2) God is not wholly good, or (3) God is not necessary for morality.[2]

It seems that the best way to overcome these objections and sustain our commitment to the idea that God is the good is to show how it is that evil is a meaningful concept, yet has its meaning in some way disanalogous from goodness. This is why a privation theory of evil might appear at least initially appealing. It is the threat of dualism that likely motivated Augustine, the former Manichean dualist, to think of evil as a privation of the good. He says, “All things that are corrupted suffer privation of some good.”[3] By this, Augustine meant that evil is not some entity which can have substance. Rather, evil is just some lack of goodness. Selfishness, for example, might be identical to a lack of love. The advantage of a theory like this is that it avoids a metaphysically substantive evil while also offering an explanation of the essence of evil. When we say something is evil, we are really saying that it lacks goodness.

However, it is not clear that mere privation can successfully ground our concept of evil. Adams suggests that God is the essential nature of the good similarly to the way that H20 is the essential nature of water. If water is essentially H20, then this would explain all the features that water has. Water is wet and quenches thirst exactly because it is H20 and our concept of water as having these features is best explained by its essential nature.[4] If evil is a unified concept like goodness, it ought to have an essence that makes sense of our usage of the term, assuming we have some understanding of evil. But it seems there is some difficulty with the idea that evil is merely privation. An example from Tolkien might help us see why this is the case.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which contains the deep mythology behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he explains that God or Eru creates the world through music. Eru intends that his creatures sing a song that corresponds to the main theme that Eru has begun in creation. When all his creatures play together harmoniously, goodness and beauty fill the world. However, some of Eru’s creatures refused to play in harmony with Eru’s theme and this is the origin of evil in Tolkien’s mythology. If we thought of evil as merely privation, then we might expect Tolkien to explain that some creatures simply refused to play the part he was given by Eru and were silent. But instead Tolkien imagines that evil begins when Melkor interwove “matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of [Eru]; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”[5]

Tolkien’s mythology helps us see that evil can be understood in at least two different ways. Certainly, we can imagine some creature who simply fails to play anything at all and this would a kind of evil. But it also seems that, when some creature opposes Eru’s theme, this is a different kind of evil altogether. We might be able to say that Melkor’s song is a privation in the sense that it lacks the order intended by Eru, but it also seems that is only one narrow feature of his act and that opposition to the good would be a better and fuller description. Opposition is something active and not merely negative, like privation. As Adams says, “No doubt privation of goodness often does constitute badness, but that is not an apt explanation of the nature of all badness.”[6]

It also seems that in our everyday usage of the term evil, we often mean more than merely privation of the good. If we say that Hitler was evil, it would be surprising to find out that all we really are saying is that Hitler lacked goodness. “He lacked goodness” might equally as well describe a couch potato as it does Hitler. It may be that our moral judgment of Hitler as evil would be better explained if it turned out that evil was essentially opposition to good, perhaps opposition so strong that it amounts to hatred of the good. This concept of “opposition,” I think, makes more sense of how we often see evil portrayed in mythology and culture.

Evil characters have a visceral, active quality about them that cannot be explained in terms of mere privation. Darth Vader is not merely the negation of the good or “light side” of the Force. He opposes it; he rivals it. Perhaps the greatest archetype of all evil characters is the biblical Satan, whose name literally means “the adversary.” Barth argues that the demons, of whom Satan is chief, “are not divine but non-divine and anti-divine. . . . They can only hate God and His creation. They can only exist in the attempt to rage against God and to spoil His creation.”[7] Here again we see the intuitive move to think of evil as opposition to the good. If privation were the essence of evil, then the archetype of evil might be better named “Nothingness” rather than “Adversary.”  But what we see in our best representations of evil is that their primary, salient feature seems to be opposition rather than privation. We would more naturally describe Melkor, Vader, Hitler, and Satan as hating the good rather than merely lacking it; a recalcitrant fact for the privation theory.[8]

Even if this opposition theory of evil is correct, we have not yet said how this synthesizes with theism or solves the trilemma I put in the mouth of the skeptic. Here is how an answer might go. First, this theory easily harmonizes with the idea that God is the good without entailing or implying dualism because evil understood as opposition clearly requires that evil supervene on the good. After all, evil is not merely opposition, but opposition in a definite direction. Martin Luther King Jr. actively opposed racism and inequality and we call him good precisely for that reason. Thus, if we have a definite concept of evil, it will likely be best explained by relation to some stable, ultimate good to which it is opposed.

Second, evil may depend on God in the same way that the notion of privation depends on existence or being, but this does not seem to pose a challenge to God’s goodness. We can think of the origin of evil as following from the reality of genuine freedom. God makes creatures with a will to choose between real alternatives, even to choose opposition to himself. God creates the possibility for opposition, but there is not a morally meaningful sense in which God is the ground of evil. If this is so, then we as theists have a way of thinking about evil that does not commit us to dualism, preserves God’s status as the best explanation of the good, and does justice to our best intuitions about the concept of evil.

[1] I have in mind the sort of metaphysics Plantinga describes in “How to be an Anti-Realist,” though Plantinga does not suggest that evil is one of the objects in the mind of God. See Alvin Plantinga, “How to Be an Anti-Realist,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 56, no. 1 (1982): 47–70.

[2] Of course, there is more to say about each of these possibilities, but my aim here is just to show some initial problems that this puzzle about evil might create.

[3] Saint Augustine, The Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 124.

[4] Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999), 15.

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), 18.

[6] Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 103.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of Creation, Volume 3, Part 3: The Creator and His Creature (Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 523.

[8] However, this view would not entail that privation is not evil at least in some cases. It would only mean that evil cannot essentially be privation.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 5.3, “Barth and Our Access to the Commands”

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the last section of chapter 5, Hare explores Barth’s view of our access to divine commands. In order to get a clear picture of how Barth thought about access, Hare thinks it will be helpful to use Kant’s view of conscience as a foil. To this end, Hare first discusses Barth’s view of Kant, then Kant’s view of conscience, and finally Hare lays out Barth’s view.

Barth is a careful interpreter of Kant, but his analysis does not always hit the target. Hare proposes that Barth has missed the mark in a couple of ways. First, Barth understands Kant as saying that God is a merely regulative idea and not a constitutive one. By Barth’s lights, Kant thought of God as just a useful (regulative) idea—it doesn’t matter if God actually exists. But a right reading of Kant will show that though Kant did not think we could have knowledge of God by pure rationality, through practical reason God becomes a constitutive idea. Kant needs God to exist in actuality for his moral theory to work.

Hare further thinks that Barth has misunderstood Kant’s view of divine revelation and grace. Contrary to many of his interpreters, Kant did think that divine revelation was possible, but that it must be justified from pure reason. Further, Kant held that divine grace was necessary for moral transformation. These misunderstandings of Kant are major reasons for Barth’s rejection of Kant. Barth did appreciate Kant’s recognition of radical evil, but Barth thought Kant’s acknowledgement of human depravity resulted in a contradiction and the complete failure of Kant’s system. Hare again thinks Barth has misunderstood. Kant begins with the reality of radical evil and works out from that point and so his system, when read charitably, is consistent with this reality. Hare works as a peacemaker, suggesting that many of Barth’s objections are mistaken and that the real difference between Kant and Barth is epistemological. Barth inverts Kant’s “concentric circles,” where pure reason lies inside the circle of revelation to reason. In this way, Barth takes up Kant’s role of “biblical theologian.” Where Kant thinks that divine revelation must be justified by pure reason, Barth thinks that revelation is fundamental and undergirds human reason.

Despite Barth’s criticism of Kant, both Barth and Hare agree that Kant’s account isn’t intended to be reductive; Kant wants to retain a “vertical” or theistic element. This non-reductive element can be seen in Kant’s view of conscience. In Kant’s discussion of the conscience, he argues that to make moral judgments, we must imagine that there is a third party (or parties) who serves legislative, executive, and judicial roles. These figures serve as our inner voice or conscience, prescribing the moral law, enforcing it, and omnisciently judging the heart. However, Kant held that these roles cannot be fulfilled by a mere human. As judge, he must scrutinize all hearts. As legislator, he must legislate all obligation, and as executive, he must enforce the moral law. These are not human capacities. Thus, Kant thinks we must imagine that this person speaking to us about morality is God, who is uniquely qualified to serve in all three roles. This imagining of an actual God who serves these roles is God as a regulative concept and makes morality accessible to us by reason. Phenomenologically, Kant holds that this view of morality is necessary to explain the weighty feeling of our moral duty. But Kant thinks that we must conclude that God actually exists in order for there to be the possibility of the highest moral good, which is the union of happiness and virtue. Reason requires God to exist as a constitutive principle.

hare god's commandFor Hare, the key difference between Kant and Barth with respect to our access to divine command is that Kant thinks our knowledge of the commands is discerned by pure reason and Barth thinks that they are given by revelation. Hare carefully nuances Kant’s view on this point. Kant did not think God could not give commands by way of revelation, only that we would never be justified in believing that these commands, if they are so given, were from God. The problem for Barth is to answer how we know when God has commanded us. People claim to be commanded by God when they are not and some divine commands, like the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, would be difficult to recognize as a divine command. To solve this dilemma, Hare argues that Barth provides phenomenological features of genuine divine commands.

First, the command will have a “certain kind of clarity or distinctness.” By this, Barth means that the command will have specific content. This does not mean we will always be able to discern the content easily. But the command will be persistent and will resist our effort to ignore it. Genuine commands, in a sense, pursue us and direct us in specific ways.

Second, the command will present itself as “having an external origin, either immediately or mediately.” Here Hare finds resonance between Barth and Kant. The command imposed on us must come to us from the outside; it is revealed and not invented.

Third, the command comes “in a familiar voice.” Barth’s central idea here is that we learn the “voice” of God through the practice of instruction, where instruction is grounded in both the individual meditation upon the Word of God and communally thinking together about God and his Word as is done in the church. The entire Christian tradition and one’s own history with God provide a knowledge of what God is like and shapes our expectations about what God will command and when he might do so.

Fourth, the command comes with “a sense of conviction or authority.” Barth thinks that genuine divine commands will carry a certain kind of weight. They make claims on us. Barth says that the divine command “must lay upon me the obligation of unconditional truth—truth which is not conditioned by myself. Its authority and power to do so must be intrinsic and objective, and not something which I lend to it.” Divine commands have the sense of obligation to a Person of immense authority. They are substantial, heavy things.

The fifth and most important phenomenological feature is that “the commands appear to be from a loving or merciful source.” For Barth, the chief exemplar of goodness and mercy is Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, God has both acted rightly for us and to us. Jesus demonstrates God’s grace and mercy, and in the teaching of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Golden Rule, God has clearly articulated the shape of the good. All of God’s commands should be ultimately consistent with the revelation of Jesus Christ.

At the end of the day, argues Hare, these phenomenological features of the divine command do not show that God has so commanded us. If one imagines he is commanded by a good God, her imagination may generate all the relevant phenomenology. However, on the assumption that God commands us, Barth’s five features of phenomenology can help us discern whether and when God has commanded us.

John Hare’s God’s Command, 5.2, “Three Pictures of Freedom”

 Summary by Jonathan Pruitt 

Having discussed the theme of particularity and universality in God’s commands in the previous section, Hare now sets his sights on Barth’s account of human freedom. Barth emphasizes the sovereignty of God throughout his work and, in the case of human freedom, Barth does not make an exception. For Barth, God elects man and this means God determines what he will be. But Barth simultaneously affirms the reality of human freedom. This has led many readers of Barth to take him as affirming a paradox (or even a contradiction) at this point.

However, Hare does not understand Barth this way. Hare thinks that when we apply Barth’s own distinctions to his writing, we can see how the freedom of God and man harmonize in a logically consistent way. On some conceptions of freedom, the freedom of God and man are thought to antagonize one another. But Barth rejects this notion. The Barthian solution to this notorious issue is to make an ontological point. God is the creator of humanity. It is God who places within man all of his capacities and powers, and thus human freedom supervenes on God’s freedom. Man has genuine freedom so that grace is not irresistible, but that freedom is derivative. By electing us, God has determined what we will be in Christ, but “we have to acknowledge this, or determine ourselves in correspondence to this” (p. 158).

In sketching out Barth’s view of freedom, Hare offers three different pictures. First, he asks us to imagine a mediocre piano player playing along with a master. They play a piece that requires two people. The master’s rhythm and artistry provides a context in which the lesser player can extend his skills beyond what he would be able to do on his own. The master does not force cooperation; her partner could stop at any moment. Still, the partner’s execution of the piece depends on the master. Her playing empowers his, but he must correspond to her artistry for there to be harmony.

Hare thinks this picture helps illustrate two conceptions of freedom. There is mere freedom, which is the ability to choose between two alternatives. If we are offered the choice between the evil maxim and the good maxim, or the choice between self and duty, we will always choose the evil maxim, according to Kant. But true freedom is freedom to obey the good maxim. This feat can only be accomplished through divine grace, or when God empowers our abilities by inviting us to play along and correspond with him.

hare god's commandThe second picture comes from Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s concern is to say how it is that human beings can love as God loves. To answer, Kierkegaard offers a picture of a lake which is fed by a spring deep below the surface. Kierkegaard asks us to think of ourselves as the lake and the spring as God. In the same way the lake depends on the spring for its existence and status as “living water,” so we too depend on God. The dependence includes the moral dimension. If we are able to keep God’s commands, it is only because, beneath the surface, we are fed by God’s power and love, given to us as God condescends to us. Our will can cooperate with God’s because as the paradigm of love, God enters history and makes intimate, life-giving connections with human beings.

The final picture comes by way of Barth’s view of prayer, specifically invocation. In invocation, we ask God to help us correspond to his divine command. However, this prayer can only be made with God’s help because of the bending inward of our will. If we are going to pray as we ought, we need God’s help. Hare finds echoes of Paul’s teaching of the Spirit’s intercessory role in prayer in this Barthian view. Thus, prayer is a dynamic and real interaction between God and man, where God is both the agent (the one who prays in the person of the Spirit) and the one who hears the prayer. But a real condition of this sort of prayer is the cooperation of man.

In the final part of this section, Hare retells the story of the Canaanite woman. In this story, Hare sees Barth’s model of human and divine cooperation realized. The opportunity of the woman to interact with Jesus only occurs because of his deliberate act of seeking her out. When the woman requests that Jesus heal her daughter, Jesus does not immediately respond. And when he finally does, his answer is negative; he will not heal her daughter. In these tense moments, Hare sees Jesus as peering into the soul of the woman in order to help her see the truth about himself, herself, and their relationship to one another. Though it may not seem this way on the surface, each response from Jesus is intentional and for the woman’s good. Humility and repentance are required to experience healing and that is what Jesus wants the woman to see. Jesus does not simply want the woman to outwardly acknowledge him as Lord. Rather, he wants to transform and heal the woman and this can only be done if the woman cooperates with Jesus, if she conforms to his will for her. Jesus wants the woman to see that his blessing only comes by way of complete divine freedom and grace, but he also wants her to submit to what he is doing in her soul. Her cooperation with the will of Jesus can only occur when Jesus comes to her, sees the condition of her soul, and lovingly provides the opportunity for her to participate in what he is doing.

 

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 5: Introduction and 5.1.

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the previous chapter, Hare argued that it is not possible to deduce the human good from human nature. But if the human good cannot be determined this way, then where should we look? Hare suggests that those who believe in God may find that God’s commands provide a rationally satisfying and sufficiently specific account of the human good. Therefore, in chapter 5, Hare takes a theological turn. Hare utilizes the insight of the prodigious theologian Karl Barth to flesh out some of the implications of God’s commands.

Hare emphasizes that though Barth is a theologian, he ably interacts with key philosophical ideas (especially Kant’s ideas) and he brings an awareness of the whole Christian theological and philosophical tradition to bear in his works. Barth thus provides Hare with a synthesis of exegetical, theological, and philosophical reflections on the commands of God.

Hare focuses on three themes in Barth’s treatment of God’s command: “the particularity of God’s commands, our freedom in response to the command, and our access to the command.” Barth suggests that the simple fact that we are commanded implies several things. First, God’s commands are given to particular people at a particular time. They are given to “responders,” who are “centers of agency.” Being commanded further implies that we can be obedient and bring about change in the world. We must also persist through time, through the hearing of the command to the realization of it. God’s command of us also suggests that we are sufficiently free to obey or not. And, if God commands us, we must be competent users of language to be able to understand the command.

The first Barthian theme that Hare explores is the particularity of the command (and this is the subject of section 1). Though there is a universal command to respect life, God commands specific persons. This respect begins with respect for one’s own life. But what does it mean to respect one’s own life? Barth rejects the notion that the substance of this command can be fleshed out through autonomous human reason. To attempt to establish what one must do on our own steam is both a denial of what we are (finite and fallible creatures) and a denial of who God is (utterly sovereign). Further, Barth holds that God’s has a highly specific form of life for every person. It is this form of life to which God calls us, and not to some merely general human good. Therefore, God’s plan cannot be captured in generalized statements about what humans ought to be. Rather, God has intimate and specific desires for each individual. We relate to God not only as a species, but person to person in the mode of “Thou-I.” Barth thinks we ought to allow God to completely determine for us what we are to do in every situation because of who he is and what we are in relation to him.

hare god's commandHare argues that in this regard Barth stands more in the tradition of Scotus than of Aristotle and Plato. Rather than think that all humans have the same essence, Barth holds that each human being is a unique essence and this distinguishes them from other human beings (each person is a “haecceity”). Humanity shares a common nature, but we each have a distinct essence. Hare quotes the passage from Revelation that teaches that God has a name for each human written on a white stone. Hare suggests this name is a representation of God’s purpose for our life and our haecceities. It is something only God knows and if we are going to live according to it, we must rely on God’s commands to us. For Barth, the end of man is to love God and others in a particular way as a reflection of the love in the Trinity.

Kant thought that all our moral obligations could be captured in terms of the categorical imperative, which is universally applied to all humans in all cases. No reference to particular people (either as subject or object) could be allowed or else the imperative could not be universalized.

Hare thinks this universal morality is too restrictive because there are clear cases where moral obligations rightly are limited to particular people in specific circumstances. To help support this point, Hare distinguishes four positions in moral judgment: addressee, agent, recipient, and action. Any of these elements may take on a specific, non-universal character. God may, for example, tell Joshua (the addressee) that the priests (the agent) should march around Jericho seven times (the action). Hare also points out Jesus’ greatest commandment, which is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” is not universalizable in the recipient position. Jesus is not saying, “love whoever or whatever is God with all your heart.” He is saying, “Love this specific God, who has a historical connection with Israel, with all your heart.” Thus, there seem to be cases where we have moral obligations that cannot be captured in all universalist terms. Of course, if these are genuine moral obligations, then Kant’s formulation, that “we have to treat humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end in itself, and never merely as a means,” would need to be qualified.

To further support his case for qualifying the categorical imperative, Hare produces the hypothetical case of his friend, Elizabeth, who needs a bat removed from her house. Hare argues that he does have a moral obligation to help Elizabeth, but that this obligation is not generated by an appeal to Elizabeth’s humanity. In other words, it does not obtain by appeal to the Kantian maxim as stated above. If it did, then Hare would be obligated to help anyone who needed bats removed whoever they were. What grounds the obligation is Hare’s relationship to Elizabeth in her particularity. The obligation exists just because Elizabeth is Elizabeth and Hare stands in special relation to Elizabeth that he does not share with humanity in general. Hare adds that he loves Elizabeth for her haecceity (her unique essence), and not merely because she is human. And since loving another for her own sake is characteristic of a moral relation, then it would seem he does have an obligation to Elizabeth just because of who she is and his relation to her. Of course, the particularist nature of this moral obligation does not mean that morality reduces to particularities. Usually, universal moral judgments accompany the particular. For example, “One ought to help one’s friend” accompanies “Hare ought to help Elizabeth.”

Finally, Hare wants to show how Barth’s view of God’s commands can be understood to be both particular and universal. So far, the discussion has emphasized the particularity of God’s commands to specific people, but Barth also thinks that many of God’s commands have universal validity.

To help show the consistency of Barth’s view, Hare lays out some important distinctions. First, Hare notes that Barth makes a distinction between instruction and reflection. By “instruction,” Barth has in mind something like the Ten Commandments. These commands give instruction and provide an opportunity and context for us to think through what we know about God and ourselves. After instruction comes reflection. In reflection, we take what he learned from instruction and apply to our own case; we hear God’s command to us in our place and time. Though the instruction is given to a particular people in a particular place, instruction provides the basis for our knowing what God is like and preparing ourselves to act as he wishes.

The narrative of the Bible in which the commands are embedded are to shape our moral sense. Hare clarifies Barth’s discussion of this by introducing the distinction between the good and the obligatory. All of God’s commands are good, but God does not command all that is good. So in every case of God’s commanding, he commands something good and this connection to goodness is universal. All of God’s commands are objectively and universally good. God’s commands as instruction show us what God values and they teach us the character of the good. The commands of God in the Bible, then, are not abstract laws that admit of no exceptions. Instead, they are didactic, shaping our moral sense. We can through instruction, know goodness in advance and that goodness is universally required, per Barth, but we cannot know what our obligation will be in a given case. This is because we need God to tell us “which good kind of thing we are now to realize, to which particular recipients.” Knowing what we are to do in a particular case requires reflection and dependence upon God and his Word. (One may wonder, given this dependence, what need we have for moral deliberation. Hare promises to address this later in the chapter.)

Hare sees some similarities between the morality of Barth and Kant. Both Barth and Kant agree that our obligations come to us independent of what we desire, though this does not mean desire and obligation are ultimately in conflict. But more importantly, both Barth and Kant have a “public” morality. For Kant, the formulation of the categorical imperative must be endorsable by all members of the kingdom of ends. For Barth, the act of obeying a divine command means making the claim that the “commander whose commands establish the covenant obligations for all human beings.” Further, Barth says that all divine commands are given to members of a body, humans in a community. This community provides accountability and a way to test the commands, through the communal hearing of the instruction and through reflection, whether the commands are from God or not.

 

 

Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge (Part 2: Aristotelian, Kantian, and Christian Accounts of Moral Knowledge)

Part I

By Jonathan Pruitt

Non-Trinitarian Accounts of Moral Knowledge

There are a variety of non-Trinitarian accounts of moral knowledge, but perhaps the most popular and viable are Aristotelian and Kantian accounts. Before briefly laying out these accounts and showing some of their short comings, we should note that Aristotelian and Kantian accounts have different targets. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is not primarily concerned with spelling out the conditions for right action or the framework for moral duties. Rather, his aim is to provide an explanation of the human good.[1] What will make human beings happy; what realizes eudaimonia? Kant, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with accounting for the existence of the moral law  and its applicability to us.[2] A rough way of seeing the difference is this: Aristotle is concerned with the good and Kant is concerned with the right.[3]

Aristotle’s Ethics 

Aristotle begins with the a priori premise “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[4] Any rational endeavor seeks some good. If human beings want to live rationally, they ought to seek after the good. But what is the human good? Whatever it is, it must be something chosen for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. Aristotle thinks that only happiness (eudaimonia) meets this requirement; “happiness is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”[5] But saying simply that “happiness is the chief good seems a platitude.”[6] Therefore, Aristotle seeks to specify exactly what characterizes happiness. Aristotle suggests that the human good consists in proper function according to a telos. What a human being is will determine what counts as proper function as well as the conditions and nature of happiness.

Aristotle thinks that the essential nature of human beings can be discerned by empirical means. Through observation, Aristotle thinks he can detect two kinds of proper function or virtue. First, one can see the difference between man and lower animals. Man possesses a rational element which beasts do not.[7] Aristotle argues that a life of contemplation is the highest good because it is “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.”[8] The virtues that allow for full utilization of the rational faculty (contemplation) are the intellectual virtues. But in addition to these, Aristotle says there are also the ethical virtues, or virtues of character.[9] Traditionally, the Greek virtues include, according to Thomas Aquinas, “temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude.”[10] Aristotle thinks that these virtues of character can be discerned through the “doctrine of the mean.” A virtue is the balance between two vices. Temperance, for example, is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility.[11]  Aristotle further thinks that the human good needs the right environment. Aristotle holds that it can be observed that man flourishes best when he lives in the Greek polis. The human good also requires certain material conditions, like physical health and monetary wealth. Happiness is not merely a matter of inward reflection and self-discipline; it also requires the right physical setting.

The upshot of Aristotle’s ethic for our purposes is this: Aristotle thinks that a full account of moral knowledge is available to us through the use of common sense and empirical observation. By considering the nature of human beings and their endeavors, and by observing how humans flourish, we can determine what the human good is.

Even in this brief sketch of Aristotle’s ethic, one can see how rich and multi-valent Aristotle’s account of the human good is. It strives to include all dimensions of embodied human life, and in this way, has some advantages over more Platonic accounts. The substantial nature of Aristotle’s conclusions along with his seemingly modest epistemological commitments may be why Aristotle’s model of ethics continues to be utilized. Philippa Foot, for example, argues for a naturalistic virtue ethic that attempts to justify moral realism and moral knowledge along Aristotelian lines.[12] Erik Wielenberg in his attempt to justify value and virtue in a Godless universe, suggests that Aristotle’s ethic provides “the most powerful response” to Christian morality.[13]  For many, an Aristotelian strategy provides a promising way to account for moral knowledge outside of the Bible.

While there is much to be commended in Aristotle’s approach, like his belief in the connection of facts and values, there are still some problems. One concern is whether Aristotle’s account of virtue actually follows from his insight about human beings. Kraut suggests that Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics may not establish the virtues, but merely shows a reason to be virtuous: “We may conclude that Aristotle proposes flourishing as the ‘ultimate justification of morality [why we ought to be moral].’”[14] In other words, Aristotle begins with the assumption that humans ought to be moral and his project, despite his intentions, only provides motivation to be moral rather than an explanation of morality itself.  Further, Aristotle’s project begs the question about the nature of the human good and the associated virtues; these values are assumed rather than demonstrated.

John Hare brings a similar charge against eudaemonist or Aristotelian ethics.[15] His contention, following Scotus, is that the moral law, or what humans ought to do, cannot be deduced from facts about human nature. Hare’s basic contention is that Aristotle’s account of moral goodness is too narrow. One piece of evidence Hare supplies comes in the contrast of Jesus and Aristotle’s view of “competitive goods.” Aristotle often thinks of the human good as requiring wealth and power; honor and magnanimity. For one to possess these qualities, others most have them in lesser degrees; they are competitive goods. Jesus, on the other hand, advocates for the virtue of humility. This is the inversion of Aristotle’s vision of the ideal man. As MacIntyre puts it, “Aristotle would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by St. Paul.”[16] This deep disagreement about the nature of the human good, argues Hare, highlights the inscrutability of ethical virtue from human nature.[17] What facts about human nature and how we flourish could be produced to settle the disagreement? This is one reason why Hare thinks special revelation with specific divine commands is necessary for justified moral beliefs. While Hare does not take his conclusion explicitly in this direction, one could extend his argument to say that the Word of God is necessary to supplement what we can know about the human good by reason.[18] For if divine commands are required, then the Bible would be a good place to look for those commands.

Another concern with Aristotle’s approach comes from his view of God. As mentioned above, Aristotle thought that greatest possible ways of human flourishing were intimately connected with the divine. It is not altogether clear how Aristotle conceives of this relation, however. Is contemplation the highest good simply because it is the full realization of the highest element in humanity, or because it resembles the activity of God? In support of the latter possibility, Aristotle says that the value of all things is judged by reference to “God and the good.”[19] Aristotle frames this dilemma rather directly:

It is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best. But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.[20]

Aristotle seemingly wants to gloss over the relation of God and the human good, but this relation is critical to his theory in at least two ways. First, it raises the question of the nature of goodness itself to human goodness. If God is the highest good, then should not he be the telos of humanity? If all rational endeavors pursue the good, then this question is not trivial. Second, if the human good is God-given, then what does this imply about the connection of the human telos and God’s intentions for human beings? If God is both the standard of the good and the one who gives goodness or happiness to humanity, then it would seem that the question of human virtue would be primarily theological and not philosophical (assuming there is a sharp distinction between these disciplines). Investigation into morality would be a question of who God is, what he is like, and whether or not he has revealed himself and his intentions for human beings.[21] In sum, Aristotle’s approach to ethics does not actually succeed at what it sets out to do and it leaves important theoretical questions about the nature of the good, specifically the relation of the good to God and the human telos, unanswered.

Kantian Ethics 

Kant’s approach to moral knowledge is different both in its method and its goal. Kant’s epistemology assumes a split between the phenomenal and the noumenal. There is a way that things appear to us which is determined by the mind and there is a way things actually are. We do not know external objects as they are, but only as they appear to us, as they are shaped by the categories of the mind. On the other hand, Kant says, “other possible things, which are not objects of our senses, but are cogitated by the understanding alone, and call them intelligible existences (noumena).”[22] God exists in the noumenal realm and is not directly accessible to us. Considering our epistemic situation, Kant thinks that the basis of moral knowledge must be established based on “pure reason.” Moral knowledge would not be knowledge of the Platonic forms, but knowledge of the entailments of reason. Pure reason operates only the analytic and a priori; it utilizes only those things known prior to experience and that are internal to the person. Kant thinks that one can postulate the existence of noumenal objects on the basis of practical reason. If some concept known analytically requires the postulation of some noumenal object to explain its existence, then this postulation is warranted. Seemingly, Kant thinks that the notion of the moral law is an a priori concept for in The Critique of Practical Reason, it is on the assumption of existence of the moral law that Kant, by use of practical reason, establishes the reality of human free will.[23]

Kant, like Aristotle, has an important role for God. But also like Aristotle, Kant’s search for moral knowledge does not begin with God. Rather, since God is in the realm of the noumenal, Kant says he “must, therefore, abolish knowledge [of noumenal objects like God], to make room for belief [in these objects]. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.”[24] Despite this move, Hare rightly argues that for Kant, God has three specific roles, the legislative, executive, and judicial so that for Kant “God gives us the assistance required to live according to the law. And God sees our hearts, as we do not, knows whether we are committed to obedience, and rewards us accordingly.”[25] It is based on God’s necessary judicial function that Kant develops a moral argument for God by means of practical reason. Kant held that a person was always obliged to keep the moral law. However, one’s self-interest or happiness and keeping the moral demand can seemingly conflict so that it would not be rational to follow the law. To keep this seeming contradiction from becoming actual, Kant, as a postulate of practical reason, thought that God must exist to make sure that the moral law and happiness coincide.

Kant’s understanding of human epistemological limitations shapes how he thinks of morality in general and moral knowledge in particular. The full extent of our moral obligations must be discovered a priori, without appeal to any external authority or empirical observation. According to Johnson, Kant’s method is to begin with analyzing our moral concepts, like “good will,” “moral agent,” and “obligation” and their logical relationship to one another.[26] Since the moral law should be necessary and absolute, it cannot consider any contingent features. It is these analytic considerations that lead Kant to his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”[27]

This brief sketch of Kant’s account of moral knowledge does create some concern. One problem has to do with Kant’s understanding of the epistemic starting point. Hume may have awoken Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, but Kant seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. Hume’s skeptical challenge leads Kant to embrace epistemological and ontological dualism, when he should have rejected the skepticism.[28] The result is the Kant believes an implicit contradiction. He says he cannot have knowledge of God, except by practical reason. But this is an a priori theological belief which is no better established than the alternative. A better response can be found in the work of Alvin Plantinga, which takes seriously the implications of the Christian worldview.[29] Kevin Diller suggests that Plantinga and Barth have similar positions on this front. When faced with the problem of skepticism, Diller argues that traditionally philosophers have seen the problem as a dilemma. Either one can embrace the skepticism or change the definition of truth and knowledge (anti-realism). Diller argues that both Barth and Plantinga “chart an escape through the horns of this dilemma by rejecting certain core epistemological assumptions of modernity. Plantinga identifies its origins in the unreasonable deontology associated with classical foundationalism. Barth heralds the pre-engaged givenness and self-grounding of divine self-revelation.”[30] They, instead of buckling under the weight of modernism, opt for a critical realist position of knowledge that “strongly affirms the possibility of theological knowledge.”[31]

Here is a related problem to Kant’s view. If his ethical theory ends up affirming the necessity of God, then why would God be left out of the epistemic story? Surely, if God exists and he is personal in the way that Kant’s view requires, then perhaps he might, as Plantinga suggests, create us to know him, perhaps even in a properly basic way. Considering the earlier argument that all epistemology is inherently theological, it would seem to make Barthian and Plantingian accounts at least prima facie more plausible because they at least acknowledge the determinate relation of epistemology to worldview.

A Trinitarian Account of Moral Knowledge

Having now shown some reasons to be skeptical of Aristotelian and Kantian accounts of moral knowledge, we will now see how a Trinitarian and biblical account is superior. But first we must sketch out this Trinitarian account. A significant difference between a Trinitarian account and the other accounts concerns their respective starting points. We begin with theology rather than epistemological method (particularism over methodism). The first theological assumption relevant to moral knowledge is that God is the good and that, therefore, any moral knowledge we might have will in some way be dependent on him. That God ought to be identified with the good is widely held Christian belief shared among theologians from Augustine to Robert Adams.[32] If goodness is identified with God, then the goodness of all other things must be explained in terms of resemblance to God. Moral knowledge, then is a kind of knowledge of God, either of himself directly or derivatively in his creation. That moral knowledge would be available to us given the existence of God is internally coherent and plausible. Plantinga, in a discussion of the availability of knowledge of God in general says this: “[If it is true that God exists, then] the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold true beliefs as that there is such a person as God, that he is our creator, that we owe him obedience and worship, that he is worthy of worship, that he loves us, and so on. And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer at producing that belief.”[33]  The other assumption is that the God in view is the Trinitarian God of the Bible who is revealed primarily by his Word, Jesus Christ.

Considering these assumptions, the obvious concern given our aim is to say what moral knowledge God has revealed in his Word and how he has done this. God’s modes of revelation can be divided into two categories: general and special and God has made moral knowledge available through both means, though to varying degrees. God the Father, through his Word, who made all things, reveals some of morality in his creation (Col. 1:15-16; Rom. 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is suppressed because of sin. Some limited amount of moral knowledge is available by this route, but it is fragmentary and clouded by what Plantinga calls “the noetic effects of sin.”[34] This means that the only ultimately reliable and full source of moral knowledge must come by way of divine grace and special revelation.

If special revelation is required for this sort of moral knowledge, which is a species of the genus “knowledge of God,” then written Word of God, the Bible, would be the place to turn. But if God primarily reveals himself in and through his Word, who is Jesus Christ, then this could create a problem. The problem arises if there is a disconnect between God’s primary and supreme mode of revelation, his Son, who is the Word, and the Bible, for as John writes, “No one has ever seen God. The only one [Who is the Word of God], himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18, NET). Carson concludes from this text that “the Word was simultaneously God and with God—has broken the barrier that made it impossible for human beings to see God, and has made him known.”[35] If this separation between written Word and Word of God were actual, then the implication would be that the only special revelation to which we have ready access would be inferior to the ideal revelation of God in Jesus Christ. To put the problem another way: If in the Bible we do not encounter the Word of God, who is the only one to make the Father known, then the Bible cannot be a reliable or full source of moral knowledge. The only sure source of moral knowledge is encounter with the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, if our moral knowledge is going to be the best kind possible for us, it must find its source in the Word of God; the Bible must be a revelation of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Barth shows us the way to understand the Written Word and the Word as intimately connected.

Barth contends that Holy Scripture is composed of the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ. In the Written Word, the Church is given “the promise of God’s mercy which is uttered in the person of Him who is very God and very Man and which takes up our cause when we could not help ourselves at all because of our enmity against God.”[36] The promise of the Written Word is “Immanuel;” it is the working out of John 1:18. Barth adds that the Bible is the word of men “who yearned, waited and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it. And by its declaration, attestation and proclamation it promises that it applies to us also and to us specifically.”[37] For Barth, then, the Bible functions on two levels. First, its subject is Jesus Christ. All of the Bible either looks forward or back to the revelation of God in his Son. Second, God is at work in the Bible. The Bible is not a static object, but has the character of “event.” God speaks in and through the Written Word and what he speaks is his Word, who is the Son. Thus, the content of the Written Word points to the Son, and in the Written Word, we encounter the Word of God. In this way, the Bible can serve as the best possible ground for moral knowledge. It is this sure ground that allows the Bible to not only supplement the limited moral knowledge available via general revelation, but also to correct misunderstandings. What is implicit in creation, is made explicit in Jesus Christ and his Written Word.

Barth’s comment about the person of Christ being “very God and very man” also shows why the Bible is especially fit to be our source of moral knowledge. Jesus as “very God,” possesses the right kind of authority to place upon us binding moral obligations for, plausibly, God as the creator of humanity would ipso facto have moral authority over them.[38] If Jesus were not God himself, then God’s revelation of himself in Christ would be deficient and not self-authenticating. On the other hand, the fact that Jesus is “very man” is also relevant, for in the life and person of Jesus, we find the ideal moral exemplar.[39] Jesus authoritatively as God not only tells us what we ought to do, but he also shows how humans ought to function. He gives us a clear picture of the human good. It is Jesus’ status as both “very God and very man” that puts him in a position to set forth authoritatively and completely moral knowledge with respect to the right and the good. And the fact that he communicates through and encounters us in the Written Word means this knowledge is accessible to us. The Written Word, as Barth says, is the concrete realization of Immanuel.

What the Written Word says about the right and the good also provide reason to prefer the Trinitarian account over the alternatives considered. With respect to the good, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deficient in two ways when compared with the ethic of the Bible. First, Aristotle’s account of the virtues is both incomplete and in error at certain points. The cardinal virtues, discoverable by general revelation according to Thomas Aquinas, are supplemented by the Written Word. The theological virtues are beyond “the capacity of human nature” to apprehend and therefore it is “necessary for man to receive [knowledge of them] from God.”[40] Second, Aristotle’s vision of the good life is inferior to the biblical vision. Aristotle’s conception of life in in the polis is based on a truncated view of the good for man. Fully realized human flourishing only occurs in shalom, where God and man live in love with one another and harmony with the whole of the created order (cf. Zeph 3:15;19-20; 8:3-12). With respect to the right, we also see that Kant’s account is inferior. While Kant argues that one ought to always treat others as ends and never merely as means, Jesus commands that we “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). While Kant may have intended to arrive at a conclusion like Jesus’, his insistence on basing moral knowledge of the deliverances of pure reason deemphasizes the central role that love ought to play in the working out of our moral obligations. One advantage of a Trinitarian account should already be evident: a Trinitarian account takes seriously the finitude of man and the inescapabilty of making theological assumptions (either implicitly or explicitly) in our quest for moral knowledge, but the other primary advantage is this: The central place of love in the Christian ethic and its deep, natural connection with the Trinity shows that the biblical ethic is both internally coherent and that it confirms our highest possible vision of what the ethical life  should be. This should count as evidence in favor of the credibility of the Bible as the source of moral knowledge for us.

However, we must not forget the kind of objection raised by Peter Enns at the beginning. Throughout Christian history, readers of the Bible have found certain elements of its moral vision to be abhorrent and incompatible with their understanding of a loving God. Some have seen the picture of God in the Old Testament to be the opposite of loving; they instead seem him as violent and vindictive. If the Bible presents an ultimately incoherent vision of ethics, then this would count as a defeater for thinking of the Bible as the source for moral knowledge. Therefore, some response to this charge must be made. Here are two suggestions. First, it may be that many of the objections to the ethics of the OT are simply based on hermeneutical error. For example, Copan and Flanagan argue that texts claiming the complete destruction of the Canaanites are hyperbolic and that all that God actually commands is that Israel drive them from the land.[41] The language of “total extermination” is an ancient idiom that should not be read literally. Second, we should not expect that our moral beliefs match univocally with what is actually the case about morality. There is also no reason to think our natural moral knowledge should be totally equivocal, either. Rather, we should expect that our knowledge of the good and the right is analogical and open to revision, but not that it would be totally overturned.[42] Lewis argues this view:

Divine “goodness” differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel. But when the child has learned to draw, it will know that the circle it then makes is what it was trying to make from the very beginning. This doctrine is presupposed in Scripture. Christ calls men to repent – a call which would be meaningless if God’s standard were sheerly different from that which they already knew and failed to practice.[43]

If the Bible did not challenge, expand, and correct our moral beliefs, then would it would be superfluous to moral knowledge, but as we have seen, there are good reasons to think it is necessary. So, while this objection should be taken seriously, there are at least two promising ways of responding that will preserve the coherence of the Bible as our source of moral knowledge.

 

Conclusion

The aim was to show why the Bible is necessary for moral knowledge. It was shown that two of the most popular alternative accounts for moral knowledge beg theological questions, have internal inconsistencies, and present a relatively truncated vision of the ethical life. For this reason, these alternate accounts do not provide the best explanation of moral knowledge. However, the Trinitarian account is internally coherent, has considerable explanatory power, and presents an ethical vision that exceeds our highest expectations. This vision is communicated to us by the Word of God in and through the Written Word, which means that moral knowledge is readily accessible to us. In view of the possibilities considered, the Bible as the source for moral knowledge for us is the best explanation available.

Notes:

[1] Gavin Lawrence, “Human Good and Human Fuction ” in The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Richard Kraut (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006). 50.

[2] John E. Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History (Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007). 138.

[3] Of course, pressing these distinctions too far would be a mistake. Aristotle’s account of the virtues is an account of right action, and Kant emphasizes the role of the “Supreme Good” in his ethic.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. W. D. Ross (MIT, 1994).Book 1 chapter 1.

[5] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 7.

[6] Ibid.Book 1, chapter 7.

[7] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 9.

[8] Ibid. Book 10, chapter 7.

[9] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Aristotle’s Ethics.”

[10] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New Advent, 1920). First Part of the Second Part; Question 61. However, Aristotle in Rhetoric, extends the list: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”

[11]Aristotle. Book 2, chapter 1.

[12] See Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[13] Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 31.

[14] Richard Kraut. The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (p. 344). Kindle Edition.

[15] John E. Hare, God’s Command (New York, NY: Oxford University, 2015). 99.

[16] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). 181.

[17] Hare, God’s Command. 118.

[18]This does not mean that fact and value come apart, however. The problem is epistemological and not ontological. And Hare does think that some ethical facts can be discerned, but they are more limited than many Aristotelians tend to think.

[19] Aristotle. Book 1, chapter 7.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Naturalist versions of virtue ethics do not escape this problem. All virtue theories require a realist account of teleology. That is, a necessary condition of a virtue ethic is that human beings have purpose or telos. Teleology is irreducibly mental. For a thing to have a telos just is for someone in appropriate relation to that thing to have intentions or purposes for that thing. In other words, any account of virtue ethics would require a Creator. I have argued for this position in more detail here:

[22] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason trans. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (Project Gutenberg, 2003 ). Chapter III.

[23] Immanuel Kant, The Critque of Pratical Reason, trans. Thomas Abbot (Start 2012). Kindle Location 13.

[24] Kant.

[25] Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History. Kindle Locations 1739-1742.

[26] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.”

[27] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals ; with, on a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, trans. James W. Ellington, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1993). 12.

[28] For a discussion of this see Morrison., 38-39.

[29] See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[30]Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma : How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014). 169.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Though I take this as an assumption, that does not mean the view cannot be supported. For example, Adams ably argues that identifying God with the good has considerable explanatory power and makes sense of our moral language. See Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods : A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). David Baggett and Jerry Walls also contend successfully that this view best explains all the moral facts in question. See David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God : The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[33] Plantinga. 189.

[34] Ibid.146.

[35] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press 1991). 134.

[36] Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1). 108.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Mark C. Murphy, An Essay on Divine Authority, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002). 18.

[39] See Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 247.

[40] Aquinas. First Part of the Second Part, Question 62.

[41] Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? : Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014). 76.

[42] Baggett and Walls. 48.

[43] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). 86.

Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge (Part 1: Epistemology and Worldview)

By Jonathan Pruitt 

Introduction

Humanity can have some moral knowledge without encountering the written Word of God. People throughout the world know that the proposition, “it always wrong to torture children for fun” is true. The Bible itself says that at least some moral knowledge is available through general revelation (Romans 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is deficient in several ways and requires the Bible for completion. I will argue that though there is natural moral knowledge, that it is deficient in its scope and authority and that the Bible, as the written Word of God, meets the conditions required for moral knowledge. And finally, I will specify how the Bible supplements the moral knowledge available through general revelation. My suggestion is that the Bible confirms what is properly known by nature and “pure’ reason, it corrects moral misunderstandings in moral knowledge, and it calls humanity to go beyond what can be naturally known to a complete vision of the moral life in Christ. The moral knowledge available in the Bible has the power it does precisely because it is the written Word of God under Jesus Christ for he is Lord and thus has the power to impose upon us moral duties and because as man he reveals, enacts, and makes possible eudaimonia or the good life. So why is the Bible necessary to compete our knowledge of the human good and human moral obligations?

Epistemology and Moral Knowledge

Though this question seems straightforward, it raises difficult and complex issues in epistemology. The question assumes that the Bible is a source of a particular kind of knowledge, moral knowledge, and that it is a superior source than any other available to humankind. This claim is controversial because many doubt the Bible’s credibility as a source of knowledge in general (the claim is that it is merely the work of men or that is has been severely compromised in its transmission), but many more doubt that adopting the ethics of the Bible would count as a gain in human moral knowledge. For example, Peter Enns argues that the morality of the Old Testament does not reflect the will of a good God, but merely adapts the “accepted cultural norms of the day.”[1] The Bible teaches a Bronze Age ethic which should be discarded in light of human moral progress. Not only is the Bible merely the work of men, it is the work of morally unenlightened ones; that is the idea. I will return to assess this claim later, but Enns’ view serves as an important and popular foil for the thesis I am proposing. What sort of argument can be given to support the idea that the Bible is a source of moral knowledge? Here the work of Karl Barth will provide some illumination.

Karl Barth argued that the “The Bible is the Word of God.”[2] Often, Barth is interpreted as meaning that the Bible becomes the Word of God only when God elects to use it as it is proclaimed in the Church. Further, the Bible itself does not communicate the Word of God, but rather, it is merely the vehicle by which divine encounter occurs (a view called “occasionalism”). However, John Morrison suggests that this view fundamentally misunderstands Barth. According to Morrison, Barth holds that the Word of God “always has the character of an event, and Scripture thus ‘becomes’ in/as an event.”[3] The “event” is God’s decision to speak in and through the Bible; this speaking is the result of divine decision and is “ever present.”[4] It is in this way that Barth identifies the Bible with the Word of God. But why should we think Barth’s account is correct?

Barth does not think that the veracity of the Bible can be established on the basis of authority external to it. Man does not grasp the Bible, “the Bible has grasped at man.”[5] What Barth is proposing is a Trinitarian worldview where God the Father speaks through his Son, the Word, and this Word is applied or realized by the power of the Holy Spirit. Man is a finite and limited creature and so knowledge of God comes only by divine grace. If this worldview is assumed, it does not make sense to try to establish the authority and veracity of the Bible as the Word of God on the basis on anything outside of the Bible.[6] Any endeavor like this would be contradictory to Barth’s view. More specifically, Barth’s answer to the question of how can know that the Bible is the Word of God is that he can know this because it is actually the case: “The possibility of revelation is actually to be read off from its reality in Jesus Christ. Therefore at bottom the individual explanation to which we now proceed can be only a reading and exegesis of this reality.”[7]

A superficial reading of Barth might lead to his dismissal as a fideist, but this would be a mistake. Showing why this would be a mistake will require the defense of another contentious thesis: all epistemological positions are inherently theological. If, for example, we adopt a view like Cartesian foundationalism, then we have made certain assumptions that have theological significance. Anthropologically, we have made assumptions about the kinds of things we are, along with the limits of our cognitive powers, and our relation to the world. Cosmologically, we have assumed that world is the sort place that is knowable and comprehensible, even if the comprehensibility extends only to our own thoughts. Morally, we have assumed that we have certain intellectual duties that must be fulfilled, namely we must establish all our beliefs on the basis of what can be deductively ascertained from within the mind of a human individual. In other words, epistemological methods imply a worldview or a view about ultimate reality and human nature. This is perhaps why Calvin argues that “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”[8] These issues are inherently theological and so one cannot help but beg the question for a worldview to some extent. Considering this, Barth should not be understood as a fideist, but as person who takes seriously the connection of epistemology and worldview. Barth has an honesty and clarity about his assumptions and their implications that few alternative views could claim.

But if epistemology and worldview share this deep connection, then how can we discern what account of our moral knowledge is correct in light of the challenges coming from scholars like Peter Enns? What I propose, then, is that the way to determine whether the Bible is necessary to complete our knowledge of the good and the right, is to apply two kinds of tests. First, is the worldview which claims to account for moral knowledge internally coherent? Does it make any assumptions that conflict with each other or its conclusions? Second, what account of moral knowledge best explains our most deeply held moral intuitions? If, for example, we find that the biblical vision of shalom more deeply resonates with us than Aristotle’s vision of the polis, then that is a reason to think that the biblical account is more likely the correct one.

[1] Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation : Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). Kindle location 601.

[2] Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1), ed. Geoffrey William & Torrance Bromiley, Thomas Forsyth and Geoffrey William Translator: Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). 513.

[3] John Douglas Morrison, Has God Said?, The Evangelical Monograph Series (Eugene: Pickwick, 2006). 155.

[4] Ibid. 156.

[5] Barth. 110.

[6]Though this does not mean that one could not confirm the veracity of the Bible in other ways. The point is that the Bible has its own authority as a source of knowledge; its has this authority both ontologically and epistemically. Ontologically, that authority cannot be supplemented by anything else. Epistemically, nothing else is required, but arguments that corroborate the Bible would be appropriate.

[7] Karl Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,2), ed. Geoffrey William & Torrance Bromiley, Thomas Forsyth and Geoffrey William Translator: Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). 31.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Christian Classics Ethereal Library 1845). Chapter 1, section 1.

 

Image: “Grandma’s Bible” by Andrew Seaman. CC License. 

Three Reasons Christmas Matters for Morality

By Jonathan Pruitt 

At this time of year, Christmas images are everywhere. As we walk into the grocery store, we see Santa and his reindeer painted in the window, adorned by the phrase, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” As we drive by a neighbor’s house, we notice a brightly lit nutcracker. Close beside, a nativity. These decorations go up right after Thanksgiving, and by the first week in December, they just blend into the background. I think the lack of attention we pay to ornaments often extends to Christmas itself. We hear the sermons and sing the carols, but the reality they point to, we often overlook. The preacher says, “One of Jesus’ names is ‘Emmanuel.’ That means ‘God is with us.” We nod our heads, and we know that is a good thing. But why is it a good thing, exactly? And what is this business about “peace on earth and good will to men?” That’s a question I aim to answer at least partially by giving three reasons Christmas matters for morality.

  1. Jesus’ birth reveals the metaphysical nature of human beings

Many atheists today think that human beings are merely biological machines. For example, Richard Dawkins has famously said, “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. … This is exactly what we are for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.” A similar idea is expressed by Daniel Dennett who thinks of humans as “information processing machines” created by mindless natural forces. Now, Dawkins and Dennett are likely quick to affirm the dignity and value of human persons. But difficulty arises when we ask, “How is it that a machine could have such value?” It does not seem the bare matter could ground real value. Besides that, what follows from such a view is that humans have no genuine free will. Instead, their actions are determined by physical necessity. Not everyone agrees this precludes free will, but the views of such compatibilists strain credulity and common sense. Another problem is that on such reductive materialist views, humans as humans don’t even exist. Instead what we have is a pile of parts arranged human-wise. Humans are, when we take the view seriously, a collection of elements hanging together due to natural forces. “Human” is just the term that human-shaped piles call other human-shaped piles. With a view like this, it easy to see why ethicists like Peter Singer have argued that very young babies or the mentally disabled are justifiably euthanized.[1]

Consider the contrast presented in the Christmas story. For one, there is a certain metaphysical view of human persons at work. God became a man.  We’ve got to keep in mind that God did not just appear to become a man. He really did become a man. If this is true, then humans could not possibly be mere machines. As Jesus tells us, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Something that is essentially and necessarily spiritual cannot become only material and retain its identity. If God, who is spirit, became a pile of parts arranged human-wise, he could no longer be called God. Therefore, there must be something more to man than his physical parts. But what kind of thing must humans be for God to become one of us? It seems that, at the least, humans need to be souls.

Why is this so? First we must realize that the Second Person of the Trinity existed as a person prior to his incarnation. This person is a person without any physical parts. If this person continues to be a person in the incarnation, his personhood cannot depend on any physical parts or else he would not be identical with himself prior to incarnation. That is to say, the material parts of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God must be only accidental properties and not essential ones. If they were essential, it would mean there was an essential difference between Jesus incarnated and Jesus prior to his incarnation. The person incarnated would not be the same person as the Second Person of the Trinity. But, Jesus, who is an essentially spiritual person, became an actual human person. Consider what this must means for humans in general. If Jesus really became a human, humans must also be essentially spiritual persons. Humans, then, must essentially be non-material substances; humans must be souls.[2]

If humans are souls, everything they do is not determined by the physical laws of the universe. Having a soul also provides the “metaphysical goods” to ground a human nature. If humans are souls, they are not piles of parts. Instead, they are a unified substance endowed by God with personhood. These powers include the power of volition so that humans are able to direct their lives toward one end or another. So when we see Jesus laying in manger, one of the things we ought to perceive is a rejection of the reductive view of human persons proposed by Dawkins and Dennett. The incarnation tells us that humans are body and soul. As such, they have the capacity to transcend the determinative laws of nature and become agents, capable of directing their own lives.

  1. Jesus’ birth demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings

Jesus’ birth also demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings. It does this a couple of ways. First, as we read in John 3:16, God sent Jesus into the world because he loved the world. God loved humanity and so he made a way for us to be saved from our sins. And he did this at very great cost. God could have loved us, but only a little. In that case, he might refrain from sending his Son, but feel very bad about doing so. Suppose you have a friend who you loved only half-heartedly. Unfortunately, some malicious criminals take your friend hostage. They are the kind of criminals that will slowly torture and kill your friend just for the fun of it. And then these criminals send you a ransom note saying that, if you agree, you can take her place. Now, only loving your friend half-heartedly, you feel empathy for her, but you don’t make the trade. You would have to love your friend deeply and fully if you were to trade your life for hers. And this is what Jesus has done for us.

For humans, though, we often love what we should not. We love things that are not good. However, God, who is maximally good, has no misplaced affections. When God loves us, he does so because we are his children and made in his image. We have intrinsic value and are therefore worth loving. Notice, though, that this worthiness is not autonomous from God, as if we could make ourselves worth loving. Instead, we are only worth loving because God graciously made us in his image, investing us with the worth we possess. As Mark Linville puts it: “God values human persons because they are intrinsically valuable. Further, they have such value because God has created them after his own image as a Person with a rational and moral nature.”

The fact that Jesus came as a man is another way his birth shows the value and dignity of humans. Not only were humans worth saving, it was also worth becoming a human to do it. Consider this proposition: “Being a human is good.” How could we know whether this was true or false? A reductive atheist would have real trouble here because (1) there are no such things as human beings, only human shaped piles, and (2) there is no clear way to make sense of “good.” David Bentley Hart, with his characteristic confidence and cadence, writes, “Among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, it is the longing for moral goodness that is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics.” However, as Christians we know both that humans exist and that God grounds the good. We also know that God, being maximally great, only ever does what is good. Therefore, if God became a human being, being a human being must be good. That may sound like a trivial idea, but consider the implications. If being human is good, it means that our lives have meaning. We do not need to progress to the next stage of evolution, we only need to live as humans as God intended. It also means, contra the worldview of many, that there’s nothing inherently bad about the body; salvation includes the redemption of the body, not deliverance from it. If being human is good, all humans have dignity and value.

  1. Jesus’ birth means it is possible for humans to live the moral life

If we consider the possibility of living the moral life on reductive atheism, we end up with some dim prospects. One worry is that there is no objectively good moral life. This is why so many atheists talk of making one’s own meaning in life. Though the universe is cold and dark, human ought to nevertheless pull themselves up by the bootstraps and choose to live a life of meaning. I am inclined to think this is just wishful thinking. Besides this, if humans are machines and have no free will, it seems impossible to live a moral life. It seems that for a choice to be moral, it must be chosen by an agent. We don’t think our computers are immoral when they crash (despite the temptation); neither are human biological machines when they do something destructive.

Further, unless the universe just happens to cause us to live a moral life by accident, we will have to work at becoming a virtuous person. We must act as agents who are capable of making moral progress. Atheist Sam Harris agrees and makes this suggestion: “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).”[3] But of course, to say that we can steer ourselves in any sense is to discard the idea that humans are machines. In order to steer ourselves, we must be something more than that. So reductive atheists seem to have no hope for living the moral life, whatever that might be. And the way Harris in such sanguine fashion affirms a contradiction as if doing so makes sense doesn’t eliminate the incoherence.

The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, suggests a very different outcome. To see why, we must go all the way back to the creation account in Genesis. There we see that God made man in his image and to rule and reign as his representatives on the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). Adam and Eve were, in a very real sense, responsible for realizing the kingdom of God. And God’s kingdom is what humans were made for, a place where God, humans, and creation live together in peace. It is important to understand here that peace means much more than we modern readers might normally think. We tend to think of peace as the absence of violence. But for the Jews, peace was much more robust than that. Peace, for them, was happiness and human flourishing—shalom. If we live in peace, we live according to the created order, enjoying and appreciating God and all that he has made, especially other humans.

However, humans chose to disobey God and thus sin entered the world. The effects of sin were so dramatic that humans could no longer live as God intended; the kingdom of God could not be established by these fallen humans. However, God did not leave us in this predicament. God set into motion a plan that would restore the kingdom of God to the earth and the story of the Bible is very much this story. God called Abraham and promised that through him, all the people of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Then, from the descendants of Abraham, God formed the nation of Israel. God promised Israel a King who would restore peace to the earth. God says this King will take away punishment and take great delight in his people. He will “rescue the lame” and “gather the exiles”; he will restore their fortunes (Zeph 3:15;19-20).  Zechariah records for us what God says it will be like when this King comes (8:3-12):

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty.

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’ This is also what the prophets said who were present when the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord Almighty. Before that time there were no wages for people or hire for animals. No one could go about their business safely because of their enemies, since I had turned everyone against their neighbor.  But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the Lord Almighty.

“The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.

The takeaway from this passage should be that this King will restore the robust, Jewish notion of peace to the world. Without this King, humans would be left without hope and the possibility of ever flourishing as humans. But, under the reign of this King, the effects of sin will be done away with and human flourishing will once again be possible.

We are also told by Micah that this king would be born in Bethlehem and from the tribe of Judah; his origin will be “from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). So when Jesus, Son of God and from the family of Judah, was born in Bethlehem, we know this must be the King about whom we were told. We should understand that God has kept his promise to make the world right again. Now, while Jesus was still laying in a manger, how this would happen had not been made clear. That would come later. But we should be very happy indeed to know that God, our King, was born on Christmas some 2000 years ago because with his birth came the promise that humans can live as God intended – in peace.

 

 

[1] Singer thinks that the only thing that counts as a person is a rational, self-conscious person. Babies and the mentally disabled are therefore not persons and do not deserve the same rights as other persons. See for example his Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (1988), Oxford University Press.

[2] This is not to say that having a body is not the ideal way for humans to exist. However, humans can apparently be separated from their bodies at least for a short while. Paul, for example, was caught up to the third heaven. Also, prior to the Second Coming, humans will apparently exist sans bodies while they await the resurrection. J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae defend this view in Body & Soul (2000) IVP Academic.

[3] Sam Harris, Free Will. Simon & Schuster.

Photo: “Nativity” by Jess Weese. CC License. 

Inspiring Kids to Become Christian Gumshoes : A Review of Cold Case Christianity For Kids by J. Warner Wallace

Review by Jonathan Pruitt 

J. Warner Wallace is a cold-case homicide detective. As a detective Wallace was well respected and earned the nickname “the Evidence Whisperer.” At the age of thirty-five when Wallace was still an atheist, he turned his honed and careful mind toward the claims of Christianity. What Wallace found in his investigation surprised him; not only did the claims of Christianity appear plausible, but they were the best explanation of a variety of important facts, like the origin of the cosmos, the reality of the moral law, and the New Testament claims about the resurrection of Jesus. Wallace laid out his case for Christianity methodically as a homicide detective would in his book Cold Case Christianity, which has received numerous accolades, not least from my wife who, though acquainted with many well-known Christian apologists, found Wallace to be the most engaging and accessible. Wallace and his wife, Susie, have now translated that book into Cold Case Christianity: For Kids.

51qib5depwl-_sx332_bo1204203200_In this new book, Wallace aims to illuminate two ideas for children: how to think critically and the evidence for Christianity. Wallace tells the story of several young cadets who have entered cadet training under the supervision of wise Detective Jefferies. Wallace illustrates principles of critical thinking as the detective guides the children through the mystery of a missing skateboard.  Wallace breaks down tough concepts like abductive reasoning and induction masterfully. One might doubt that children could understand abstract concepts like these, but as Wallace applies them concretely to the skateboard case, they are easy to understand and ought to be within the grasp of most children. But Wallace does not talk down to his audience, either. Wallace employs terms that many adults would need a dictionary to understand. How many of us know what “abduction” is off the top of our heads? And yes, the term is actually in the book! Wallace also shows that discovering the truth is often not a simple process. It will take time to gather evidence and think through all the implications. This reticence to water down the content while simultaneously making the ideas understandable to children is the greatest strength of the book. Wallace expects his young audience to rise to the occasion of thinking deeply and critically about some of life’s most important questions. That’s not an easy balance to strike, but Wallace does it well.

Though the theistic arguments are not the focus of this book, one of the highlights is Wallace’s simple but effective summary of the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments. The book also provides entertaining and informative pictures that will keep children engaged as well as provide clarity for them. Wallace further provides a simple but clear overview of some the primary issues relating to the resurrection of Jesus, and this is his main focus. Topics like “the chain of custody” of the New Testament documents, which I personally did not hear about until I was an undergraduate at a Christian college, are introduced and explained with ease.  Children who have read this book will be more prepared and aware of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than even many adults.

But it is the synthesis of critical thinking and the presentation of the evidence which deserves the most commendation. In a world that is increasingly pluralistic and challenges the central claims of Christianity, children will need more than simple articulation of Christian beliefs. They will need to learn to think critically, like Detective Jeffries. This book does not merely provide the evidence for the resurrection in a way that children can understand, it provides a model of intellectual virtues which its young readers will feel called to emulate.

This combination is the reason I will read and reread this book with my young son as he grows up. Wallace has provided parents an excellent tool that any parent concerned about teaching their children critical thinking and the truth of the resurrection should not overlook. Cold Case can help our children provide a reasoned defense for the hope that they have, and MoralApologetics.com gives it our highest recommendation.

 

Image: “Junior Detective” by Jessica Lucia. CC License.