THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA AND THE SOURCE OF GOD’S STANDARDS

THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA AND THE SOURCE OF GOD’S STANDARDS

© 2020, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

The Problem

The Euthyphro Dilemma is a philosophical conundrum posited by Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro.  It asks, “Are pious things pious because the gods love them, or do the gods love them because they are pious?[1]  Eventually, that question was asked of the Christian God:

Is something good because God approves it

or does God approve it because it is good?

The putative dilemma is this: If God approves something because it is good, that would mean there is a standard of good apart from God Himself, to which God must submit.  From a Christian standpoint, that is a nonstarter.[2]  But if something is good because God approves it, then God could conceivably change His pronouncements as to good and evil.

Proposed Solutions

Now, prima facie the Euthyphro dilemma is not actually a dilemma; if God can change His mind then that is the way things are and we have to accept it.[3]  But some Christians feel that this compromises our ability to trust in God; what if He should change His mind about, say, salvation so that we would all be lost at the end?  Eventually, some theologians, such as Anselm (AD 1033-1109) came up with a third way, which is that “God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.[4]  Good and evil are, therefore, determined by God’s own nature, so that He cannot change the standards.

Yet this third way is problematic.  It is not based on anything specifically stated in Scripture; in fact, it seems to have been invented as an ad hoc solution to the Euthyphro dilemma.  God’s ability to change His mind worries us, so we create a philosophical position that does not allow Him to do that, without (we hope) compromising His sovereignty.  But one cannot legitimately obviate a concern by arbitrarily defining it out of existence.  If we feel the hot breath of the man-eating tiger in the enclosed room with us, we can choose to believe and proclaim that it is only a warm summer breeze – but our proclamation will not change the reality and the tiger will eat us.  Thus, if God can change His mind, then our pronouncement that He cannot do so because He can only act according to His nature will not alter the fact that He can, in fact, change His mind.

Biblical Considerations

Does God act according to His will or according to His nature?  What does Scripture say?

There are only two passages in the entire Bible that refer to the nature of God (Acts 17:29; 2 Peter 1:4), neither of which link His nature to moral standards.  On the other hand, there are some thirty-nine references to the will of God, at least some of which do link His will to morality (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:3).

Furthermore, there are several passages that affirm that God can do whatever He wants, with no hint of any sort of constraint on Him:

But our God is in heaven;
He does whatever He pleases. (Psalm 115:3)

Whatever the LORD pleases He does,
In heaven and in earth,
In the seas and in all deep places. (Psalm 135:6)

But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:27 cf. Matthew 19:26)

“All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing;
He does according to His will in the army of heaven
And among the inhabitants of the earth.
No one can restrain His hand
Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Daniel 4:35)

So the Bible certainly does affirm that God can do whatever He wants.  Against this, the Naturalists can offer only three passages that seem to teach the contrary:[5]

in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began (Titus 1:2)

If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself. (2 Timothy 2:13)

that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. (Hebrews 6:18)

We can immediately eliminate the first one; in the original Titus 1:2 reads ἐπ᾽ ἐλπίδι ζωῆς αἰωνίου ἣν ἐπηγγείλατο ὁ ἀψευδὴς θεὸς πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων, which actually says, “the unlying God” (i.e. He does not lie), not “God, who cannot lie.”  Regarding the other two, οὐ δύναται (“cannot” in 2 Timothy 2:13) and ἀδύνατον (“impossible” in Hebrews 6:18) speak of something that absolutely will not happen (probability = 0) but do not rule out the ontological ability of the agent to do so.  Consider Acts 4:16-20:

saying, “What shall we do to these men? For, indeed, that a notable miracle has been done through them is evident to all who dwell in Jerusalem, and we cannot (οὐ δύναται) deny it.  But so that it spreads no further among the people, let us severely threaten them, that from now on they speak to no man in this name.” So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.  But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.  For we cannot (οὐ δύναται) but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”

Now, it is beyond dispute that the members of the Sanhedrin were ontologically capable of denying the miracle that had been done and that Peter and John were ontologically capable of not speaking any further about the things they had seen and heard.  “Cannot” does not here denote an ontological inability but a choice made such that there is no chance of any other outcome.[6]  Therefore, the only two verses the Naturalists can adduce for their view, 2 Timothy 2:13 and Hebrews 6:18, do not contradict the plain fact taught elsewhere in the Bible that God has the ontological ability to do anything He wants.

In sum, then, the clear Biblical picture is that God is ontologically capable of doing whatever He wants and there is no hint that He is bound by His own nature in doing so.  In fact, Descartes insisted that God had even created the truths of logic and mathematics and was not bound by them, being able to create what seem to us to be contradictions as true facts (for example, creating triangles with internal angles not equal to 180°).

Modern Christian philosophers deride this notion, saying that God cannot do things that violate the laws of logic, thus rewriting Scripture to say that “with God all things that are possible are possible.”  But their inability even to begin to conceive how God could do such things does not mean He cannot do them.  After all, most of us can see objects and colours, but one born blind cannot even conceive of such things (try describing the colour red to a blind person!); that does not mean they are not realities.  We would do well to remember Job 26:14, where, after describing some of God’s mighty acts, Job says,

“Indeed these are the mere edges of His ways,
Αnd how small a whisper we hear of Him!
But the thunder of His power who can understand?”

Do remember that God “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20b).  We are with Descartes on this.

Finally, let us point out that the gambit of trying to assuage our worry about God changing His mind by positing that morals are linked to His character so that He cannot change His mind on these things is actually pointless.  Voluntarists do not have to worry that God will change His mind or that He will act arbitrarily, since God makes it clear in His word that He does not do so but will keep His promises to us, and we believe His word.[7]  The Naturalists insist that God’s standards are immutably linked to His character and so do not change, but how do we know what that character is?  We must read and believe His word.  So either view depends for its peace of mind on believing God’s word, but the former by believing what He actually says, the latter by inventing artificial limits on God’s sovereignty and then merging that with things God does actually say.  So they adulterate the word of God with human philosophy but gain nothing for doing so.

A Case Study

Recently, our IT Administrator, Moses Neelam, engaged in an online discussion about this issue.  Moses’ view is Voluntarist and that of his interlocutor is Naturalist.  Let us look at the arguments made and see which view comes out better.

After Moses’ stated his Voluntarist view, including saying that He believes that God will never do what He says He will not do, his interlocutor responded by saying that there are “very big problems” with his position, and summed it up as being that “God’s will is primary as distinguished from his essence.”  It seems he has misunderstood our position, which is that God is completely free to act according to His will; it makes no weighting of this against His “essence.”  Indeed, that is a category error.

The interlocutor then claims that

This is actually more of a certain Muslim theological position and not a traditional Christian one.

That is certainly not correct; the Voluntarist position has been held by many Christians throughout the ages, and was held by both Luther and Calvin.  The Naturalist position, as we have seen, is a much later innovation, and, while is held in certain Christian subgroups today, it is by no means clear that it is a majority view among all Christians.  It is difficult to see, then, how the interlocutor can claim that the Voluntarist position is not a “traditional” Christian view.

Next, the interlocutor charges Moses’ view with being “inherently contradictory” and “irrational ultimately” and claims that it therefore should not be accepted.  But what is the basis for these charges?

First, he claims that Moses’ view “contradicts Christian theology. To say that God transcends our thinking entails that God is unknowable to the human mind. That contradicts Scripture, the incarnation, and general revelation which all reveal God as knowable.

Here, at minimum, the interlocutor is committing the logical fallacy of False Dichotomy or, if you will, the fallacy of Converse Accident.  His claim boils down to “either we can know God completely or not at all” (the False Dichotomy) or “if we can know some things about God then we can know all things about God” (the Converse Accident).  In fact, the Bible never says (nor has it ever been a tenet of Christian theology) that we can know everything about God; how could finite beings fully grasp an infinite Being?  An ant would have a better chance of knowing everything about human beings.

On the contrary, the Bible is clear that we cannot know everything about God:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
“For who has known the mind of the LORD?
Or who has become His counselor?” (Romans 11:33-34)

As we have seen in Job 26:14, the totality of God’s power is far beyond our ability to understand, and in Deuteronomy 29:29 God tells us that He has revealed some things to us and kept others secret.  So, in light of these passages, it is the height of arrogance to assume we can fully  know God (and, in fact, I have never heard of another Christian who suggested such an absurd thing).  So it is not Moses’ view but that of the interlocutor that is “inherently contradictory” and “irrational ultimately” and should not be accepted.

Next, the interlocutor claims that Moses’ view of Hebrews 6:18 “that God simply always chooses not to lie is not what Hebrews says. It says he ‘cannot lie.’ That is a different modal claim—not that he simply does not but that it is impossible that he lie.”  Here, the interlocutor is guilty of the fallacy of Cherry Picking, citing only verses that he thinks support his view while ignoring those (which we cited before) that contradict his view.  A proper understanding must align with all that Scripture says on the issue, and, as we have already shown, the Voluntarist position does so.  The interlocutor, however, has not shown how his view can align with such passages as Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135:6, and Mark 10:27.  Until he does so, his position remains untenable.

The interlocutor’s next claim is just plain silly.  He claims that

Voluntarism is inherently self-contradictory too because you’re saying we can in our limited knowledge know that God is beyond our limited knowledge. How can that be known, if you cannot know God as he really is in his essence?

Our limited knowledge is not complete absence of knowledge; we can know some things, and one of those things is that we cannot know everything about God – and we can know that because, as we have already seen, it is one of those things that God has revealed to us.  We do not need to know God in His full essence to know this.

(It should be noted that misrepresenting our view as saying that “God is beyond our limited knowledge” is either extremely careless on the part of the interlocutor, or it is a Straw Man fallacy[8] on his part.)

In his next comment, the interlocutor actually condemns his own view, saying,

Whether something works as a method is another issue. But I don’t think something should be used simply because it may work or be useful. That’s pragmatism. What matters is if it is consistent, honest, clear, and true to Scripture.

Now, it is patently obvious that it is the Naturalist position, not the Voluntarist position, that is based on pragmatism.  It was invented not from anything Scripture says, as we have seen, but simply to allow Christians not to worry about God changing His mind.  It is pragmatic from start to finish.  Nor, as we have seen, is it “consistent, honest, clear, and true to Scripture.”  The Voluntarist position, does, however, meet these criteria.

And then the other shoe drops.  The interlocutor asks “If you’re motivated to take this position in order to answer the ‘Canaanite genocide’ issue.”  (For the record, he was not.)  The interlocutor avers that

I would say it’s a bad answer. I think it would be a more objectionable position to take because it requires you to say murdering babies is good.

He goes on to claim that there is a better way to go:

There are good explanations of this issue that are hermeneutical—about how to interpret the texts—that don’t require to take a position like this. I would argue that most of it is just hyperbole or otherwise is ancient near eastern warfare rhetoric. God doesn’t command babies to be slaughtered or even for the Israelites to literally exterminate the Canaanites. He commands them to destroy their military strongholds and armies, to drive the people out of the land (exile), and to destroy their idols, and not to intermarry.

And here we go.  Those who set philosophy as the interpretive lens always end up overruling what the Bible says on the basis of their own personal “reasoning.”  In the matter of the destruction of the Canaanites, the historical narrative of the Bible makes it clear that that is exactly what God commanded and the Israelites should indeed have carried it out.  This does not mean that “murdering babies is good,” as if that were a general truth; it does mean that God can and does execute judgment whenever and however He chooses, regardless of what the interlocutor and “Christian philosophers” might think about.

There are no “good explanations” or legitimate hermeneutics that deny what the historical narrative says here; there is only false interpretations from those arrogant enough to think they know better than God as to what He did.  Interestingly, the destruction of the Canaanites was not as comprehensive as the destruction wrought by the world-wide flood, which killed everyone other than the eight people on the ark; will the interlocutor also deny this historical reality?  And this is the person who said that our views must be “true to Scripture”!

Not surprisingly, the rest of the interlocutor’s arguments are intellectually vacuous.  He goes on to assert that

Saying the OT is all violence and the NT is all peace and non-violence is contradictory and arbitrarily selective.

It would indeed be – but no Christian says such a thing.  God is a God of love and of wrath in both Testaments, and anyone familiar with the Bible knows this and should not make such an asinine statement as the interlocutor has done here.

In his final argument, the interlocutor goes all philosophy, no Bible.  He claims that

God is absolutely perfect. That means by definition that he lacks all imperfection. Something that is absolutely perfect not only IS perfect but CANNOT BECOME imperfect. Otherwise it would be less perfect that something that could not become imperfect. That is why God being immutable/unchangeable is an aspect of him being truly perfect in his being.

The obvious problem with this is: who decides what is perfect?  Who decides what is imperfect?  God?  Or the philosopher?  Can the philosopher say to God, “Because you have commanded the destruction of the Canaanites, you are now imperfect”?  By what standard does he determine this?  There is no standard apart from God – unless one actually adopts the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, viz. that there is a standard of perfection apart from God and to which God must submit.  That is what the interlocutor is doing, though he may not even realize it.  But such a position is to be rejected; there is no standard one can point to that is independent of God.  (No, the imaginings of philosophers is not a standard to which God must submit.)

So if God does change His mind, that is the new “perfect,” and there is no way to style that as an imperfection.  (This is the sort of nonsense that led some Christian theologians to posit that God is impassible i.e. that He cannot experience emotion – regardless of the clear testimony of Scripture to the contrary – because that would be a “change” and therefore an imperfection.)  It is for this reason that the interlocutor’s statement that “God cannot do evil” is meaningless, for there is no standard by which any of God’s actions could be deemed “evil.”

Not surprisingly, the interlocutor ends with two errors, saying that “There is much more that can be said. But the position isn’t something to really entertain without accepting incoherency” – when we have seen that it is only his position that is incoherent – and that “This is the traditional Christian position that has been that way since the beginning of church history with the post-apostolic church fathers until today” – when, as we have seen, this position is not “traditional,” not being floated fully until at least the time of Anselm, being denied by Luther and Calvin, and certainly not being universal (and perhaps not even the majority view) today.  Truly, there is much to be said about knowing a topic before vouchsafing opinions on it.

Conclusion

Long ago, the Euthyphro Dilemma was levied against Christianity.  As we have seen, it is no dilemma at all; Scripture teaches quite clearly that God acts according to His will and is bound by no standard.  Nevertheless, His self revelation makes it clear that we can trust Him fully.

Some Christians, on the other hand, in thrall to philosophy, worried about the possibility of God changing His mind about values and sought to define that out of existence by philosophical reasoning.  As we have seen, that cannot be done and, indeed, need not be done.  The Euthyphro Dilemma is no dilemma at all for the Bible-believing Christian.


Footnotes

[1] Blackburn, Simon. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 164

[2] Through the years, there were some Roman Catholic theologians who did hold to this view (called Naturalism, from Natural Law), including Thomas Aquinas and Gabriel Vasquez.  It was also the view of the Mu’tazilah school of Islam and the Muslim philosopher Averroes.

[3] Through the years, there were Roman Catholic theologians who held to this view (called Voluntarism or Divine Command Theory), including William of Ockham and René Descartes.  Martin Luther and John Calvin both held to this view.

[4] Rogers, Katherin A. Anselm on Freedom. Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 8

[5] In doing so, they set Scripture against Scripture, as they do not explain how the passages we have adduced align with the three passages to which they appeal.

[6] See also Mark 2:19; Luke 11:7, 14:20; and 1 John 3:9.

[7] If the Naturalist objects that according to the Voluntarist view God could change His mind even on these things, we will point out that (which we do not for a moment believe) He would do so, us proclaiming that He is bound by His own nature will not stop that.

[8] A Straw Man fallacy occurs when one who cannot attack his opponent’s argument alters that argument into something that seems similar (but is not what the opponent says) and that can be attacked.

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