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Summary of Chapter 4 of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin

Summary by Michael W. Austin

God and Morality

In the final chapter of God and Morality, Mark Linville argues for a view in which morality is objective and depends on God. He does not argue that moral realism is true, but assumes as much and then offers a model for understanding how objective moral truths depend on God, which he calls “moral particularism”.

Linville begins the chapter by offering a critique of a view he rejects, in which morality is made true by divine fiat. On this view, the claim that adultery is wrong is true only in a relational and contingent manner. Adultery is immoral because God has prohibited it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the act itself. One problem for this view, however, is that things really could go either way, i.e. God could have commanded adultery, and it would have been good. Or consider the following options: (i) God creates Adam, grants eternal friendship to him, and provides him with what he needs to flourish; or (ii) God creates Adam and allows him to experience nothing but eternal pain, grief, and torment. If morality is true merely by divine fiat, then God is good regardless of the option he actualizes. Both (i) and (ii) are consistent with God’s goodness. But as Linville points out, the term “good” appears to no longer have any real meaning here, because it fails to pick out any feature or property in a distinctive manner.

Fortunately, there are other options available for those who think that morality in some sense depends on God. Aquinas, for example, holds that God is himself the good. The good is not identical to God’s commands, but rather God is the criterion of goodness. As William Alston states it, God is himself the ultimate criterion of value. Alston calls this view value particularism, because “the criterion of value is a particular being rather than a principle or abstract idea” (p. 143). Linville agrees with this. However, Alston goes on to argue that moral obligation depends on God’s commands. Linville disagrees with this latter claim.

The view favored by Linville is moral particularism. This is the view that God’s nature is the standard for both the right and the good. On this view, the ultimate explanation of the significance and value of love is the loving nature of God. That is, loving others is commanded because it is obligatory. It is not obligatory because it is commanded. God is the ultimate ground of the requirement that we love others, because God is himself love (1 John 4:8). The command, “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) reflects this reasoning as well. God’s nature yields the obligation, ultimately.

When we reflect upon the obligation of loving others, it is also important to point out, as Linville does, the Christian doctrine of imago Dei. It is crucial that human persons are made in the image and likeness of God. This is the ground of our value. This fits nicely with the above. It is quite plausible to think that personhood has value because God is a person, just as love has value because God is love. We owe others love, justice, and mercy because they are persons, made in God’s image. God, a Person, “is both metaphysically and axiologically ultimate” (p. 158).

For those engaging in moral apologetics, there are many other issues in this chapter worth considering. One is a response that is often given to the claim that morality depends on God, namely, that there are plenty of atheists who still know particular moral facts and seek to apply them to their lives. I will focus here on the former claim concerning knowledge of moral facts. Consider the following moral fact, offered by Linville:

“Recreational baby-stomping is wrong.”

If we understand this claim, and our moral faculties are functioning properly, we should just see that it is true. One can know that recreational baby stomping is wrong, without any knowledge of theology or God. God can set up our world so that we can form such value judgments that do not depend on understanding their grounding in Him. This belief can have warrant, whether or not one believes in God. This is important because the claim that is relevant to moral apologetics here is not that one must believe in God to have properly functioning faculties. Rather, the claim that is relevant is that the theist can offer a better explanation for why human beings have faculties that reliably track moral truth—those faculties were specifically designed for the task.

I would add that theists have another and in my view stronger claim to make. On theism, there is an explanation for the very existence of such moral truths. There is a personal and morally perfect being whose nature grounds them. It is difficult to see how such truths are metaphysically grounded, on naturalism. In his reply, Evan Fales argues that there is no need to bring God into the explanation. Instead, we can simply say that the moral law is ultimate. The problem here, however, is explaining the existence of the moral law, with its self-evident moral truths, in a purely natural world. Did the moral law arise from the Big Bang? How would that work? Moral truths don’t seem natural. They don’t have weight, spatial location, and so on. The theist has a ready explanation for the existence of such truths, as we’ve seen, whereas the naturalist does not. A moral law fits well within a theistic framework, but not a naturalistic one. This is a key piece of evidence in favor of theism.

Find the other God and Morality summaries here. 

Image: Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Spectral Light by N. Howard. CC license. 

Summary of Chapter Three of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin.

Summary by Michael W. Austin 

In the third essay in God and Morality, theistic philosopher Keith Yandell engages in a discussion of a variety of topics in metaethics, including ethical relativism, divine command theory, and the Euthyphro dilemma. The breadth, concise nature, and complexity of the chapter make a comprehensive summary difficult. The view that Yandell seems to hold is moral essentialism. This will be the focus of my summary.

A moral essentialist believes that moral truths are necessarily true. A necessary truth is not merely true; it is also impossible for it to be false. To put it differently, a necessary truth is true across all possible worlds. In the non-moral realm, one example of a necessary truth is the claim that two logically contradictory statements cannot both be true. “X is y” and “X is not y” cannot both be true. Many philosophers argue that there are necessary moral truths. For example, if I claim “Torturing infants for fun is wrong” or “Humility is a virtue” I am making a claim involving a necessary moral truth. Yandell claims that it is the fundamental principles of ethics that are necessarily true, such as the claim that we ought to respect persons (unless they’ve forfeited that right).

Both theists and non-theists can hold to some type of moral essentialism. Both might adopt some form of Platonism, in which necessary moral truths are necessarily existing abstract objects of some sort. Platonism is not merely a view of moral truths, but also of other types of truths. On a non-theistic Platonic view,“2 + 2 = 4” is true whether or not there is a God. This necessary mathematical truth is simply a part of the furniture of the universe. Similarly, a necessary moral truth does not depend on God in some ontological sense, but rather it is true whether or not God exists. On such a view, “Torturing infants for fun is wrong” is also a part of the universe’s furniture, whether or not God exists.

Alternatively, a theist may conceive of such truths as “the propositional contents of thoughts that a necessarily existing Mind necessarily has” (p. 103). On this view, Yandell points out that “If ethical principles are made true by divine command or nature, and these principles are necessarily true, God must exist necessarily and necessarily command as God does” (p. 113).

Mark Linville’s reply to Yandell is helpful in further clarifying some of these issues. On Linville’s interpretation, Yandell holds that God is an exemplar of the good. God exists, as do the relevant abstracta, and God exemplifies those abstracta. For Linville, God is himself the good. That is, God’s character, his nature, are identical to the good. If Linville is right, and the good is in fact identical with God, then we have grounds for a distinct moral argument in support not only of God’s existence, but of the necessity of God’s existence. If such an argument is sound, it is difficult to imagine a more powerful case for the existence of God.

Find the other God and Morality summaries here. 



Summary of Chapter Two of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin.

Summary by Michael W. Austin

In the second chapter of Keith Loftin’s God and Morality: Four Views, philosopher Michael Ruse presents a case for what he calls naturalist moral nonrealism. This is a metaethical view that combines atheism with a form of moral subjectivism. On this view, all facts are natural facts, there is no supernatural reality, and moral principles depend on what people believe.

Ruse first argues that there are connections between natural selection and altruism. Our brains are subject to genetically determined rules. Related to this, we are social beings who must get along with one another in order to survive. As Ruse puts it,

“What evolutionary biologists believe, therefore, is that nature has given our brains certain genetically determined, strategic rules or directives, which we bring into play when dealing with new awkward situations. Rather like a self-correcting machine…we humans can adjust and go in different directions when faced with obstacles to our well-being. The rules are fixed, but how we use the rules is not” (p. 60).

This leads to a discussion of the origin of morality. Some of the rules that we’ve inherited from our ancestors are moral rules. We take them to be moral norms. For example, the belief that we ought to help one another is such a rule, and is genetically determined. Substantive moral beliefs, then, are adaptations. Non-human animals have similar adaptations, insofar as they exhibit altruistic behavior related to kin selection. An animal’s relatives share the same genes. Given this, altruism serves as reproduction by proxy. There is also “reciprocal altruism,” where help is given in expectation that it will be returned.  And these mechanisms are also at work in humans.

Ruse, then, is an advocate of evolutionary ethics, but rejects the traditional view that includes belief in the progressive nature of evolution. He accepts ethical skepticism, which is the view that there is no justification for our moral beliefs. Such beliefs are merely “psychological beliefs put in place by natural selection in order to maintain and improve our reproductive fitness” (p. 65). He contends that this follows from his views about evolution. We could have evolved a very different set of moral beliefs, and for him this is a challenge to those who argue for objective morality.

The upshot is that morality can be explained, but it cannot be justified. Yet morality is such a strong impulse in human beings, and is very difficult to ignore. We think that morality has an objective basis because this is evolutionarily advantageous, but it is still not true. It seems to be objective, but it simply is not. Interestingly, Ruse states that like Hume, he will forget about his skepticism when he goes back into the real world.

Ruse also argues that Christians must be careful when appealing to God as a justification for their metaethical views, because of the well-known Euthyphro problem. He does discuss a natural law reply to Euthyphro, stating that

“The Christian says that loving your neighbor as yourself is right because the feeling that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself is something built into human nature by God…The Darwinian says loving your neighbor as yourself is right because the feeling that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself is something built into human nature by natural selection” (p. 73).

There are several criticism worth considering related to evolutionary ethical skepticism. First, it is unclear to me how “reciprocal altruism” is genuine altruism, given that it is given in order to get something in return.

Second, there is a vast discussion of the Euthyphro dilemma, with many options on offer for Christian theists that are intended to resolve it. I take the natural law response as described by Ruse to be one of the weaker theistic replies. The replies given by William Alston and Robert Adams, for example, are much stronger.[1]

Third, moral realists, naturalistic or theistic, will be dissatisfied with the views espoused by Ruse in this chapter. They will agree that for Ruse, as Keith Yandell puts it, “[t]here are no obligations, only feelings of obligation. Such feelings have no more relation to reality than a strong sense of being surrounded by unicorns” (p. 82). There is no correspondence to reality here, only groundless moral feeling that is selected for via Darwinian processes. Morality is merely an adaptive feature of our evolutionary history.

This leads to a serious problem. Yandell points out that on this view, no set of morals is better than any other:

Better and worse, insofar as they have any sense, are relative to the propensities built into the survivors. If the propensities lead to murder and rape, then our mores will come to favor these, and in no objective sense will this be any worse than if the propensities led to love and peace” (p. 85).

Finally, Mark Linville points out in his reply that Ruse ends up saying that he believes something (morality) that he knows is not true. Once you know that morality is not true in any objective sense, why continue to follow it, especially when it frustrates other desires you possess? There are reasons, good reasons, to be moral. But Ruse’s view does not possess the resources to ground a robust form of moral motivation. This is one of the many serious flaws it contains.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

[1] See my “Divine Command Theory” at


Image: “Evolved” by thezombiesaid. CC License. 

Summary of Chapter One of God and Morality: Four Views, edited by R. Keith Loftin.

By Mike Austin

In this book, two atheists and two Christian theists explain and defend their answers to the following metaethical questions:

  • Where does morality come from?
  • What, if any, is God’s role with respect to morality?
  • Is God necessary for morality?
  • Are morals objective?
  • How do we come to know moral truths?

Each contributor presents and defends his own view, and the other three then provide their comments and critiques of that view. In my summaries of each chapter, I’ll focus on the presentation of the views, and leave the comments and critiques to the reader to pursue in the book itself. The four views included in the text are naturalist moral realism (Evan Fales), naturalist moral nonrealism (Michael Ruse), moral essentialism (Keith Yandell), and moral particularism (Mark Linville). In this post, I will summarize the naturalist moral realism position taken up by Fales, and close with one criticism.

Fales first explains some key terms concerning his view, Naturalist Moral Realism (NMR). For him naturalism is the view that there are no disembodied minds, and that ethical theory should be grounded in a scientific understanding of human beings. Moral realism is the view that moral norms are independent of our beliefs. These norms are determined by facts about us, and other creatures. Fales clarifies that there is still room for differences due to convention on his view. For example, how one expresses kindness through polite behavior might vary across different cultures. What matters for Fales is that the underlying moral principle concerning kindness is the same.

But how does Fales ontologically ground such moral truths? He contends that morality is based on what is good or bad for a being, and morality is primarily about how we ought to treat other human beings. The basis of morality, according to Fales, is our common human nature. Our common nature makes morality objective, because it is objective. That is, we have a particular objective nature as human beings, and it is this nature that grounds objective morality.

Human morality is based on what is good or bad for us, given that we are teleologically organized systems (TOS’s). We are organized such that we have one or more ends, goals, or purposes as human beings. There are several things that are intrinsic goods for human beings with such ends, including health, reproduction, and knowledge. Instrumental goods serve these intrinsic goods. Food, for example, serves the intrinsic good of health. Humans have the particular intrinsic goods or ends that we have as a result of natural evolutionary processes. There is no reason to bring God into the picture, on such a view, because our existence as the type of beings we are is fully explainable by natural means. And since human morality is based on human nature, it is also a result of naturalistic evolutionary processes.

So on this view, how should we live? Fales asserts that morality is primarily about how we ought to treat other human beings. Our most central obligations are those that promote social flourishing, because we are a fundamentally social species. In order to know what our obligations are, we can depend upon empirical data derived from an examination of our teleological organization. Other moral facts are necessary truths, which we can know a priori. For example, Fales states “There is a necessary connection—one we easily recognize—between the nature of a small human child and the prima facie duty not to kill it, a connection mediated by the understanding that in killing it we foreclose in the most fundamental and comprehensive sort of way on the realization of that child’s natural teloi” (p. 25).

A problem arises, however, with respect to justifying moral principles that conflict with demonstrable aspects of human nature, such as our tendencies toward violence, greed, dishonesty, and so on. Theism and naturalism offer distinct explanations of our corruption, and according to Fales they each offer a remedy as well.

On Christian theism, human beings are fallen creatures. Adam and Eve chose disobedience, as do the rest of us. We are morally corrupt, and in need of redemption and transformation. Fales argues that Christians have little evidence to offer that shows their remedy—the saving grace offered via the cross—is effective. For instance, over the centuries the individual and corporate behavior of Christians has been in direct contradiction to the ethical dictates of the Sermon on the Mount, in “sordid and massive ways” (p. 27). I will return to this below.

Naturalists can provide a different account of human corruption. Biological evolution is slow, but cultural evolution is quick. Biological evolution cannot keep pace with cultural evolution. As Fales puts it, “so far as our genetic makeup and the social instincts it controls go, we are basically hunter-gatherers who find ourselves born into social unit orders of magnitude larger and more complex than our biological adaptations are designed to handle” (p. 28). We are not suited for the kind of social life we find ourselves thrown into, but since we can reflect rationally on our moral commitments, there is hope for progress, if we focus on human eudaimonia and what it entails for personal and social morality. With this in mind, if theists and naturalists can agree on what human nature consists of, then there is common ground for agreement about normative ethics.

I think a focus on human eudaimonia and what it entails for personal and social morality is a good place to start. There is common ground based on what theists and naturalists hold in common about human nature. With this in mind theists and naturalists could construct a normative ethic that has much to recommend to them both. But there will be important differences, too, and this could lead to problems in constructing a common normative ethic.

More critically, I think Fales is too quick with respect to the evidence Christians have for the efficacy of their solution to human corruption. He is certainly right that much Christian behavior falls well short of the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere), and that there are lame justifications provided for this. However, it is important to emphasize that just because someone is, or claims to be, a Christian, it does not follow that they are participating in the kingdom of God to the extent that they should or could. There are many reasons for this. One is that on Christianity, human corruption persists in many ways, in both Christians and non-Christians. However, the relevant individuals to consider are those who profess faith in Christ and have diligently pursued transformation in partnership with the Spirit of Christ (see 2 Peter 1:3-11). It is those who have pursued the Way that are the crucial test cases here, not those who have merely professed it. I’m reminded of the well-known G.K. Chesterton line: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Image: “Pacific Silhouette” by T. Lucas. CC License.

God’s Goodness and Difficult Old Testament Passages

By Michael Austin

Old Testament passages dealing with slavery, the status of women, and the destruction of peoples such as the Canaanites and Amalekites have seemed morally problematic to both Christians and non-Christians. These passages, among others, are difficult because they portray God as seemingly condoning and even commanding actions that are, at least on the face of it, immoral. They are thought to be inconsistent or at least in tension with the claim that God is omnibenevolent and morally perfect. A variety of responses have been given with respect to such morally problematic passages. One response, the Concessionary Morality Response (CMR), includes the claim that portions of biblical morality are concessionary insofar as they (i) fall short of God’s ideal morality for human beings; and (ii) are instances of God making allowances for the hardness of human hearts and its consequences in human cultures. My purpose in this essay is to consider the plausibility of the Concessionary Morality Response as a biblical and philosophical component of a defense of God’s perfect moral character.[1]

First, however, consider something which C.S. Lewis once said about the doctrine of hell. In his book The Problem of Pain, Lewis says that “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.” I find myself in a similar position with respect to some of the passages at issue in this essay. I would prefer that they not be in the Bible, because as Alvin Plantinga observes, these passages “can constitute a perplexity”[2] for followers of Christ. Moreover, if I came across such passages within the sacred writings of another religion, this would at least initially be a reason for me to reject the claims of that religion. Nevertheless, these passages are present in the Scriptures, and as morally and intellectually responsible followers of Christ we need to deal with them as best we can.

I will set aside several other explanations that have been given for how we are to deal with these perplexing passages. Perhaps some of the following possibilities described by Plantinga are correct:

….how bad is the moral and spiritual corruption, blasphemy, infant sacrifice, temple prostitution and the like attributed to the Canaanites? Maybe it is worse, even much worse, than we think. (Earlier Christians may have been closer to the truth than we are presently inclined to think.) If so, perhaps God’s sentence upon these people is perfectly just. What about the infants and children? Perhaps, as William Craig says, they are spared a life of degradation and sin. Furthermore, Christians, of course, believe that our earthly career is a mere infinitesimal initial segment of our whole life; perhaps the suffering of these children is recompensed a thousand fold.[3]

Some of the other explanations of these passages include the view that they fail to accurately report God’s commands, that the passages include metaphoric and hyperbolic language, or that they are to be read in some allegorical manner. Though I am open to some of these options, I want to set them aside and focus on one particular response, the Concessionary Morality Response.


What is CMR?

As I stated above, CMR includes the claim that portions of biblical morality are concessionary insofar as they (i) fall short of God’s ideal morality for human beings; and (ii) are instances of God making allowances for the hardness of human hearts and its consequences in human cultures. But what is a moral concession, in this context? In what follows, I will define a divine moral concession as “God allowing, commanding, or performing actions which he would prefer not to allow, command, or perform, all things being equal.” My focus is on actions God performs and commands, rather than what he allows. I want to bracket discussion of the more general problems associated with the existence of evil and focus on the actions and commands of God, rather than human beings.

CMR is one aspect of a defense of the view that Yahweh is morally perfect, in spite of the tension this produces when considered alongside the passages at issue. CMR is sometimes discussed as including the assumption that humanity has made moral progress over the millennia, and that the reason certain perplexities appear in the Old Testament is that the Ancient Near East was especially inhumane and corrupt. I have no objection to offer here, but I am somewhat skeptical about sweeping claims concerning human moral progress. It is more accurate to say that we have progressed in some ways, and regressed in others. With this qualification in mind, I now turn to the biblical basis of CMR.


Biblical Basis for CMR

There is a strong biblical case to be made that God makes moral concessions. Consider the following passage from Matthew 19:

3Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” 4”Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

7”Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 8Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”

This is a clear example of God allowing an action because of the hardness of human hearts, even though the action (divorce, in this case) falls short of his perfect moral standard. It is important to note that God is not merely allowing us to misuse our freedom of the will, but he is also making a moral concession in the divine law because of the hardness of human hearts in his instructions to Israel through Moses. God morally concedes but does so for our good, given our character and choices at any particular moment in history and within a particular culture. In the case of divorce, the concession was for the sake of the woman’s welfare, so that she could avoid poverty and shame which would have been the likely result of divorce in the Ancient Near East.[4]

Another element of the Biblical case for God engaging in moral concessions comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus teaches about the fulfillment of the Law, and how the ethic of the Kingdom is more demanding than the Law (Matthew 5):

21“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person.”

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

In each of these instances—and others in the Sermon—we see a pattern in which Jesus states “You have heard it said that…but I tell you….” The law says x, but Jesus says go beyond x in ways that require a deep inner moral and spiritual transformation. It is generally not too difficult to avoid murdering others, but it is relatively much more difficult to refrain from being angry with one’s brother. The salient point is that there is a progression in the standards of God for human beings as his character and moral standards are more fully revealed over time. And if there is a progression of moral standards from time t1 to time t2, then it follows that at t1 God is making a moral concession to human beings. There is much more to say with respect to the Bible and these issues, but I will assume in what follows that there is a sound Biblical basis for the claim that our omnibenevolent God can and does make moral concessions as He relates to human beings.

CMR and God’s Moral Perfection

It has seemed to some that the following two propositions are inconsistent with each other:

(1) God is morally perfect.

(2) God commanded the Israelites to destroy the Amalekite and Canaanite men, women, children, and livestock.[5]

What CMR does, in part, is harmonize these two propositions by adding a third:

(3) God makes moral concessions due to the hardness of human hearts and corrupt nature of human culture.

Moreover, in order to fully grasp the import of this response, a further substantive claim must be made:

(4) Moral perfection does not entail immediate benevolence.

(1)-(4) are logically consistent propositions. Before continuing, it is also important to clarify what it is for God to be morally perfect. It means that God has no moral defects. However, given that God is very different from us, and stands in different relations to the created order than we do, what would be a moral defect in or an immoral act performed by a human is not necessarily a moral defect in or immoral act if performed by God. The similarities and differences between God and human beings must be taken into account when morally evaluating particular traits or actions.[6]

There are some analogous examples which lend support to the claim that (1) and (3) are consistent (i.e. God’s moral perfection is not compromised by divine moral concessions). Such concessions need not compromise moral character, and in fact can be taken as evidence for the goodness of the moral conceder.

Consider the clearly relevant case of a good parent. The rational and moral capacities of one’s child are very different at the ages of 5, 15, and 25. For example, imagine a parent who catches her 5 year old in a lie. It seems that there is a range of appropriate responses. I can imagine circumstances in which the parent might simply ignore this, or only make a minor comment about it in passing. Perhaps the child is having a very rough day emotionally—maybe it was her first day of kindergarten—or she is sick, or she was just disciplined for doing something else that was wrong and further correction would, at the moment, exasperate her (Eph. 6:4). A parent who does this, and who intentionally correlates her parenting with the capacities of her child is no less good, and is in fact better, for so doing. It is both wiser and morally better to concede and work patiently with the child at her developmental stage, than to fully implement all of the relevant moral and religious values in the life of her child without sensitivity to character, context, and other relevant considerations. By parity of reasoning, then, God is no less good by doing the same thing in connection with Israel and other nations.

Another example related to parenthood has to do with bullying in high school. I heard a speaker share about his son who was being bullied during school by another student. The administration and faculty were not addressing the issue, leaving the child vulnerable to harm. The father met with the son, the principal, and teacher, and said this to his son in their presence, “The next time he pushes you, I want you to hit him.” All else being equal, this is not the type of thing a good parent will tell his child. But when certain circumstances obtain, he may have to do so for the sake of some greater good—such as the physical safety of that child. In order to realize this good, the parent believed that he had to tell his child to do something in self-defense that in most circumstances he would not permit him to do. The upshot is that God may have to command his children to do certain things that he would prefer not to have to command them to do, and in ordinary circumstances would not permit them to do, but does so because certain mitigating circumstances obtain.

Next consider an example which I presume will be relevant to all of us. C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, has the demon say the following:

To anticipate the Enemy’s strategy, we must consider His aims. The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.[7]

This is one of the recognizable aspects of true humility. God could command us to have such a character at this very moment, and hold us accountable for our failure to do so. But he does not do this, because he knows that to become this type of person requires that we go through certain steps of moral and spiritual growth. To get to this point of moral and spiritual development one would first need to root out the anger and other emotions and beliefs that are barriers to this. God is willing to work with us in the process of spiritual formation. This requires divine patience and divine moral concessions. There is a higher standard which God desires that we achieve but in his moral perfection he is willing to allow for the incremental process that such change in human beings requires. Moreover, there is surely much more to morality and God’s moral nature which God does not burden us with at present, given who and what we are as well as the point we are at in history. God is still conceding, it seems to me, and for this we should be grateful.

In fact, the general point that God engages in moral concessions for our good also reveals the moral goodness of his character. Consider the divine virtues on display as God does this: patience, love, forgiveness, graciousness, longsuffering, and enduring commitment. God will not abandon his children, even if this means that he must make moral concessions, because the ultimate result is their inclusion in a loving community of human persons and the members of the Trinity in the new heavens and the new earth. That this greater good is perhaps the overriding consideration in play is the focus of the next section.


CMR, Pluralistic Deontology, and the Beatific Vision

One feature these examples share is the notion that the existence of some greater good justifies the divine moral concession. I would like to suggest that the greater good which justifies, at least in part, the passages at issue in this essay is the redemption of all things, including what Aquinas referred to as the beatific vision.

There is some biblical precedent for this argument. The purpose of Yahweh in another morally problematic OT episode—the sending of the plagues upon Egypt—was a redemptive purpose: “so you may know that I am the Lord…” (see Exodus 7:5, 17; 8:10; 9:14; 10:2; 14:4). Yet Pharaoh, as was and is true of many people, was not permanently effected by God’s mercy. Often the works of God that are intended to soften the heart of humanity have the opposite effect, depending on the condition of the heart and the free response of human beings.[8] This same redemptive purpose is at work in other morally difficult passages of the Bible. William Bruce has something like this in mind when he considers the morality of God’s wiping out of the Canaanite nation through Israel. Bruce argues that God was presented with a dilemma, in which the choice was between two evils. God could have spared the Canaanites, in which case they would have influenced Israel towards moral and religious corruption to the point at which Israel would no longer be fit as an instrument of God’s revelation to humankind. The other option, the one which God chose, was to end the existence of these Canaanites. Note, I am not saying what follows is true, only that it is one possible response worth considering as we think through these issues.

While Bruce states that “it is to be said with all reverence that there was here but a choice of two evils”,[9] I must take issue with his point. I would prefer not to characterize this as a choice between two evils, as it is a mistake to ascribe evil to God. I think Bruce is merely a bit careless in his terminology, as he states later that “evil can never be attributed to (God).”[10] Still there is something important to consider here. God certainly did not find it pleasing to wipe out the Canaanites, anymore than a morally admirable human judge or jury finds it pleasing to sentence a convicted criminal to death. However, there is still a sense that justice is accomplished, and a sense that we have protected society from future criminal acts by sentencing the criminal to death. Similarly, God is protecting the world and ensuring that his plan of redemption is fulfilled by sentencing the Canaanites to death. It is not a pleasant thing, but neither is it evil. God is doing what He must in response to the free response of human beings to Him. While some claim that God’s order to exterminate Canaan shows him to be a nationalistic God who shows favoritism, Bruce argues that God, as the moral governor of the earth, must take care of all the peoples of the earth. In this case that made it morally acceptable for him to order the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites. Yahweh had the interests of Israel and the rest of the nations of the earth in mind, and acted to prevent the further spread of this influential and morally corrupt culture. Perhaps God was faced with a choice between two different moral concessions, and chose the one which was the least concessionary. This illustrates (4), insofar as a particular action performed by morally perfect being could be justified by long-term considerations. That is, long-term benevolence may necessitate actions which in isolation appear to be non-benevolent or even malevolent.

One way of understanding these issues from the perspective of normative ethical theory is through the lens of pluralistic deontology.[11] On this moral theory, there is an objective fact of the matter with respect to our moral duties. These duties are prima facie duties. A prima facie duty is objectively true and exceptionless, but it may be overridden by a weightier duty in a particular circumstance, such as lying to save the life of an innocent person.[12]

Given that God relates to human beings in a fallen world, there will be times at which two or more prima facie duties come into conflict. When this occurs, the morally proper action is the one that is in accord with the weightier moral principle (or principles). Perhaps this is the best way to understand God’s actions at issue in (2). If we combine this understanding of moral duty with graded absolutism, we gain a way of understanding how God can be morally perfect and yet order the destruction of the Amalekites and Canaanites. Perhaps God’s actions are necessitated by beneficence (improving the lives of some people with respect to virtue, intelligence, or pleasure) and fidelity (keeping promises) at the expense of non-maleficence (not harming others). Non-maleficence remains relevant as an exempted moral principle which makes its presence felt in the situation, but it is overridden by the other two moral duties.[13] In such a situation, it seems that God’s moral perfection is preserved.

Recall that a divine moral concession is “God allowing, performing, or commanding actions which he would prefer not to allow, perform, or command, all things being equal.” But in our world, things are often not equal. For example, a good parent would never allow someone to kill his son, when it was in his power to stop it. This seems true, on the surface. However, when we fill in the details, we can see that there are counterexamples to this claim. What if allowing his son to be killed saves millions from death? If there is merit to some of the above points with respect to God’s redemptive motivations in his dealings with the Canaanites and others, then the redemption of humanity and the rest of creation could at least be part of the reason for these events. Given that, it is at least plausible to hold that God’s moral perfection is consistent with the passages at issue.

To be in relationship with us seems to entail that God must make certain moral concessions. These concessions show respect for persons, grace, forgiveness, and other morally praiseworthy traits. The divine moral concessions present in the perplexing passages at issue in this essay are perhaps a necessary means for the ultimate redemption of human beings who live in communion with one another and God. In this state, human beings attain what Aquinas refers to as the beatific vision: an intellectual vision of God which also engages the upright will and constitutes our ultimate happiness.[14] This, I suggest, is what may ultimately justify the divine moral concessions found in the Bible.[15]



I would like to close with a passage from Brennan Manning’s book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, because it captures something important about the character of God that is relevant to the issues considered in this paper:

Grace is the active expression of his love. The Christian lives by grace as Abba’s child…At the same time, the child of the Father rejects the pastel-colored patsy God who promises never to rain on our parade. A pastor I know recalls a Sunday morning Bible study at his church when the text under consideration was Genesis 22. God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him in sacrifice on Mount Moriah. After the group read the passage, the pastor offered some historical background on this period in salvation-history, including the prevalence of child sacrifice among the Canaanites. The group listened in awkward silence. Then the pastor asked, “But what does this story mean to us?” A middle-aged man spoke up, “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me. I’ve decided that me and my family are looking for another church.” The pastor was astonished, “What? Why?” “Because,” the man said, “when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel like I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club God we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person, and then want more. I want to know that God.”[16]

Image: “Adam, Noah, Moses” by W. Andersen. CC License. 





[1] This essay was inspired in part by the conference “My Ways are not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible,” available via streaming video at

[2] Alvin Plantinga, “Response to Fales,” unpublished paper from the conference “My Ways are not Your Ways: The Character of the God of the Hebrew Bible.”

[3] Ibid.


[4] Paul Copan, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” Philosophia Christi, 2 (2008): 7-37.

[5] See 1 Samuel 15 and Deuteronomy 20.

[6] Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 27.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1982), p. 64. The Enemy in this passage is God, as the speaker is the demon Screwtape.

[8] Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), p. 256.

[9] William S. Bruce, The Ethics of the Old Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895), p. 263.

[10] Ibid., p. 266.

[11] W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930; Hackett Reprint).

[12] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 453.

[13] This would not be the case if the claim was these passages constitute moral exceptions.

[14] Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, et. al. Aquinas’s Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), pp. 75-76.

[15] This is in fact consistent with the justification given in Dt.

For example, in Deuteronomy 7 Moses tells the Israelites

When the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods. . . This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.

Later in the same speech Moses says:

. . . in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them . . . Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God. (20:16, 18)


[16] Manning, pp. 96-97.

Morality and The Recalcitrant Imago Dei

By Michael Austin 

The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (SCM Press, 2009) is a concise, deep, challenging, and wide-ranging critique of philosophical naturalism. In it, philosopher J.P. Moreland argues that there are several aspects of reality which naturalism is unable to account for, while theism can: consciousness, free will, rationality, morality, value, and a substantial human soul. The arguments are controversial and many will disagree, but I would urge anyone who has the time and inclination to read and think about this book, if you are interested in comparing the explanatory power of naturalism compared to theism with respect to these issues. If Moreland is right, and I think he is, theism has more explanatory power regarding many central aspects of human persons. I don’t agree with everything in the book, of course, but the case is very well made.

Rather than summarizing the entire book, I will focus on the last chapter which is entitled “Naturalism, Objective Morality, Intrinsic Value and Human Persons.” Moreland begins the chapter by noting three features of the moral order:

  1. objective, intrinsic value and an objective moral law;
  2. the reality of human moral action; and
  3. intrinsic value and human rights.

His claim is that these features of moral reality fit very well within a theistic worldview. By contrast, some naturalist philosophers believe that naturalism yields defeaters for these aspects of moral reality. Moreland alludes to naturalists John Bishop and Michael Ruse as examples of such philosophers. (As a side note, other philosophical naturalists, such as Erik Wielenberg, disagree, and contend that the foregoing can fit within a naturalistic metaphysical framework. But Moreland’s points count against a naturalist view which seeks to accommodate such non-natural properties within its ontology if he’s right that these features have better metaphysical fit within a theistic framework.)

Moreland offers an argument that the following features are defeaters for a naturalistic worldview. To fully appreciate and evaluate his argument of course requires reading the chapter in the book, but I’ll give a quick summary of his points.

  1. The existence of objective moral value: If the universe starts with the Big Bang, and over its history we find the arrangement of microphysical entities into increasingly complex physical compounds, how does value arise? How can a naturalist, as a naturalist, embrace non-natural, objective values?
  2. The nature of the moral law: The moral order presents itself imperatively, that is, as something which commands action. The sense of guilt one feels for falling short of the moral law is best explained if a good God is the source or ultimate exemplification of that law. As Moreland puts it, “One cannot sense shame and guilt towards a Platonic form” (p. 147).
  3. The instantiation of morally relevant value properties: Even if a naturalist allows for the existence of some Platonic realm of the Forms, the naturalist has no explanation for why these universals were and are instantiated in the physical universe.
  4. The intersection of intrinsic value and human persons: How is it that human beings are able to do as morality requires, and that such obedience to the moral law also happens to contribute to human flourishing? Theism has an obvious answer to such questions related to human nature and the intentions and design of God, but it is not clear, and is far from obvious, how naturalism would account for this.
  5. Knowledge of intrinsic value and the moral law: Given that such values are not empirically detectable and cannot stand in physical causal relations with the brain, how is it that we could know such things? Evolutionary explanations fall short because of what is selected for in evolutionary processes on naturalistic versions of evolutionary theory.
  6. An adequate answer to the question, “Why should I be moral?”: Both naturalists and theists can respond, “Because it is the moral thing to do.” But beyond this, when thinking about the question outside of the moral point of view, the issue becomes why is it rational to adopt the moral point of view rather than an egoistic one? According to Moreland, this is a problem for the naturalist. But the theist can offer a variety of reasons to adopt the moral point of view–the moral law is true; it is an expression of the non-arbitrary character of a good, loving, wise, and just God; and we were designed to function properly when living a moral life.

The rest of the chapter includes a discussion of the value of human beings and human rights, which I’ll leave to the interested reader to explore. The book is worth the price, and I highly recommend it for those inclined to do the work of reading and considering the arguments it contains.

Photo: “creation.” by C. Kung. CC License. 

Humility, Naturalism, and Virtue

By. Dr. Michael W. Austin

Can we make sense of the virtues in a world without God? Let’s consider the virtue of humility as a way of addressing this question. In his Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, Erik Wielenberg develops a naturalized account of humility.[i] This account is worth considering given Wielenberg’s explicit aim of constructing a naturalized version of a virtue that is commonly thought to be uniquely Christian. Wielenberg constructs an account of humility grounded in the assumption that we know that naturalism is true. In order to do this, he first discusses a Christian account of humility. He then explores some of the similarities and differences of such an account with a naturalistic version of this virtue. After discussing these points, I offer several criticisms of Wielenberg’s view.

On a Christian analysis, according to Wielenberg, the humble person neither underestimates nor overestimates her own value or abilities, but instead recognizes that these are gifts from God. She also acknowledges her dependence on God, and knows that much of what contributes to her flourishing is not within her control, but God’s. Hence, the humble theist is grateful for her flourishing in light of this dependence, and gives credit to God. On naturalism, however, Wielenberg claims that there is also room for an acknowledgment of dependence on something outside of ourselves, because so much of what contributes to our success—psychological constitution, physical health, family background, where and when we are born, and economic factors—is outside of our control. On naturalism, these factors are not under God’s control; they are under no one’s control. Given this, no one gets the credit. Sheer chance and good fortune should receive the majority of the credit. As Wielenberg puts it, “It is the dependence of human beings and their actions on factors beyond their control—dependence that is present whether God exists or not—that makes humility in some form an appropriate attitude to have.”[ii]  In either kind of universe, naturalistic or theistic, “…taking the balance of credit for one’s accomplishments is foolish.”[iii] Like the humble theist, the humble naturalist can and should acknowledge her dependence on something outside of herself, substituting good fortune for God.

Wielenberg may be right that there is space within a naturalistic view of the universe for an attitude of humility. Perhaps we should generally expect that there will be somewhat plausible naturalistic versions of many particular virtues if Christianity is true. This is because according to Christianity, the structure of reality reflects aspects of God’s nature. Given this, even if one seeks to remove God from the picture, as it were, there will still be latent theistic features of reality which can make sense of the virtues. However, if Christianity is true then a Christian account of the virtues will be superior to any account available to naturalists, and the virtues themselves will ultimately possess better metaphysical fit with our understanding of the rest of reality, both of which we should expect if Christian theism is true.

For example, and as a way to compare naturalistic humility with theistic humility, consider the relationship between humility and gratitude. Of course the Christian can be humbly grateful to God and other people, for what he and they have done on her behalf. But the naturalist, given that dumb luck and blind chance are the ultimate causes of most of the factors contributing to his success—psychological constitution, physical health, family background, where and when he was born, and economic factors—has no good reason to be grateful for these things because there is no one to be grateful towards. Even the other human beings who have benefitted our fortunate naturalist only do so primarily and perhaps solely because of dumb luck and blind chance. On naturalism, no person, human (or, of course, divine), is ultimately responsible for anything, and so it becomes very difficult to see what reasons exist for gratitude towards persons, at least. Moreover, what it means for one to be grateful towards dumb luck or blind chance is at best quite mysterious, and at worst incoherent.

As a second way to critically compare naturalistic humility with theistic humility, consider the following thought experiment. Imagine you have suffered from a serious illness for many years. The treatments are quite expensive, and your insurance company will no longer cover the treatments because the policy’s coverage has been exhausted. Consider two distinct scenarios:

Scenario 1:  You are desperate to come up with the money to pay for continued treatment, and by sheer luck you find a large diamond buried in your back yard, worth enough to pay for your treatment indefinitely.

Scenario 2:  A wealthy benefactor gives you the money you need to pay for your treatments indefinitely. You know this benefactor because you cheated her in a business deal many years ago.

Which scenario is more conducive to humility?

In the first scenario you are very happy and feel very fortunate at such a stroke of luck. And of course you would have no reason to be proud of what occurred, because you would deserve none of the credit for finding the diamond or for being able to pay your medical bills. Perhaps the whole situation engenders some humility, because you realize you are receiving a great benefit that you did nothing to earn. On scenario 2 you again have no reason to be proud of being able to pay for your treatment, nor do you deserve the credit for being able to pay your bills. On this scenario, however, there are reasons to be more—and more deeply—humbled. First, not only is it the case that you did nothing to deserve the money given to you, but you actually deserve not to receive the money, given the fact that you wronged your benefactor in the past and owe her money because of your own wrongdoing. Second, the action of your benefactor is magnanimous, and simply witnessing and benefiting from the act should foster humility. Third, there is the presence of rational gratitude in scenario 2, but not in scenario 1. In scenario 1, there is no one to direct gratitude towards, because no one gets the credit for your newfound wealth. However, in the second scenario you should feel deep gratitude towards your benefactor, because of what she has done for you in spite of the debt you owe her. Gratitude seems to both deepen the humility you have and provides more reason to be humble.

It will be helpful to make explicit the lessons from the above thought experiment. On theism, humans rely on a personal being who provides constant and intentional support in all aspects of our existence. In contrast to this, on naturalism we rely on mere chance and the laws of nature (or perhaps just the latter). Many of the contributing factors to individual success that are outside of our control are present because of mere good fortune. It might seem that this fact should engender humility, because we realize that we are mere recipients of good luck, so to speak. Granting this to the naturalist, the theist still has reason for a deeper appreciation of her dependence and so for a deeper humility, given her belief that we do not deserve the assistance that God gives to us. This makes the humility deeper and more profound, because while both the naturalist and the theist can accept that there are many factors that contribute to our success in life that lie outside of our control, only the theist can say that she is undeserving of this aid and deserves not to receive it because of her rebellion against God. The upshot is that while the naturalist may be able to give an account of humility, the theistic account is superior because everything that we accomplish is done with God’s active assistance. This assistance is not only undeserved, but is given even though we deserve something quite different. This in turn gives the theist a reason to be more deeply humble, even if the need and justification for this humility too often go unrecognized.

Lastly, I would like to emphasize that in a universe where the majority of the credit for any human accomplishment goes to “blind chance,”[iv] it becomes more difficult to give a sound and comprehensive analysis of any virtue and its connections to human accomplishments. It is not clear to me that any sense can be made of attributing credit to chance in this way.[v] What does it actually mean to ascribe credit to blind chance? In contrast to this, we have a clear understanding of ascribing credit to God, and there are several theistic accounts of moral development that are both coherent and cogent.

[i] Erik Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 102-116.

[ii] Wielenberg, p. 112.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Wielenberg, p. 110.

[v] I owe this point to Doug Geivett.


Photo: “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by  Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Credit National Gallery of Art.