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Genocide and Divine Command Theory

May 31, 2011

Brandon Watson is giving me grief for neglecting to address the arguments put forth by William Lane Craig in support of his literal reading of God’s command to Israel to slaughter the Canaanites. Such an engagement was not the objective of my previous post, which was intentionally more assertion than argument. However, Craig has a considered and finely executed argument for his interpretation, and so it seems only fair that I address it after (in this case) I’ve dismissed his conclusion.

Craig argues that one can read the offending passages in question as accurately depicting real events and real divine commands without endangering 1) the moral argument for God existence, 2) the deity of Christ, or 3) the conception of God as holy and loving. According to Craig, there’s no moral problem in saying that a good, holy, and loving God commanded his Chosen People to wipe out another people, including children and infants. To say such a command didn’t really happen is to reject biblical inerrancy: “the problem, it seems to me, is that if God could not have issued such a command, then the biblical stories must be false. Either the incidents never really happened but are just Israeli folklore; or else, if they did, then Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit these atrocities, when in fact He had not.”

His argument centers on a version of divine command ethics in which God’s holy and loving nature determines what he commands. It is on this ethics that I wish to dwell. Craig writes:

I think that a good start at this problem is to enunciate our ethical theory that underlies our moral judgements. According to the version of divine command ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses. We all recognize this when we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.” Human authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.

What that implies is that God has the right to take the lives of the Canaanites when He sees fit. How long they live and when they die is up to Him.

So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their own initiative, it would have been wrong.

On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.

It is important to note that Craig does not espouse voluntarism; he rejects a divine command theory in which God arbitrarily decides what is good and evil. Instead, says Craig, “our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a holy and loving God.” It is God’s commanding that obligates us, but the actions to which we are obligated because of his commands correspond to the standard of his holiness and love. Craig furthermore theorizes that God can command us to perform acts that would be sinful if we performed them without his command, but are not sinful if he commands them because a) his commands constitute our moral duties, b) God himself is not prohibited from doing them or commanding them, and c) commanding such actions is not contrary to God’s nature. According to Craig, the genocide committed by Israel in obedience to God’s order was such an act.

While Craig does not profess belief in a morally arbitrary deity, his theory, in practice, opens the city gates to the same practical consequences that result from voluntarism. To speak of God commanding X or Y is to refer to an act occurring beyond human experience. Assuming such commands actually occur, we only know about them because someone claiming to speak for God tells us what they are. Moses claimed to have been given the Ten Commandments. Jesus claimed that he and the Father were one. Paul claimed to speak in the name of Christ. The popes have claimed magisterial teaching authority guided by the Holy Spirit. We’re typically not directly present to divine commands, but rather to self-described religious authorities and religious texts through which, we’re told, God speaks.

Now maybe God actually has spoken through some select human beings, but Craig’s ethical theory doesn’t provide us with the tools to recognize the legitimate representatives from the phonies. Instead, his theory makes this discernment more difficult. By placing the origin of moral obligation in divine commands, he has in effect placed it in the words of people his faith tells him are the real deal. And how does his faith speak to him? Why, through people who claim to be religious authorities who have authored religious texts. People of other religious professions or merely of other interpretations of his own who likewise approach the source of morality through divine command theorizing will undoubtedly arrive at different conclusions about what God commands or what an alleged commandment from God means.

In practice, divine command theory, even one which depicts God as holy and loving, deprives us of a knowable objective moral standard. We’re presented with as many divine commands as there are alleged mouthpieces for the divine. Saying that God is holy and loving doesn’t settle the matter of what the terms mean when applied to God. To insist on a singular meaning for each term requires a step away from the proclamations of alleged religious authorities toward a standard by which even they can be judged; but if we subject them to such a standard, then we move away from the position from which we hear the ethical standard arising from their lips. We walk away from the practice of a divine command ethics.

Craig makes matters worse by opening the door to the justification of all manner of evils. Suppose a couple comes to believe that God has commanded them to suffocate their young children because the kids are destined to grow away from their faith when they become adults. According to Craig’s theory, God could conceivably command this horror, and if he did, the parents would be morally obligated to obey the command. What would we tell such parents? That God wouldn’t command such a terrible thing? That to carry out this command would be a sin? The parents could simply respond, “God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.” Maybe we’d bring up advanced theological ideas about dispensations to differentiate our world from the world of the Old Testament, and therefore the situation of the ancient Israelites from that of these parents, but such recourse would be more than a little odd. Should an ethical theory really need to reference the theological concept of divine dispensation in order to have a footing on which to persuade a couple not to murder their children?

Craig’s ethical theory may enable him to explain why the ancient Israelites were on solid moral ground when killing the children of their enemy, but it also, in practice, results in an authoritarian ethics, and ethics in which the basis of right and wrong is communicated to us by a self-described religious-moral authority and which therefore gives us no ground, solid or otherwise, to judge the moral truth of what the authority claims to communicate. If we assess the moral thinking of such an authority without simply taking the word of another such authority, then we’ve looked elsewhere for a basis of right and wrong.

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  1. Thales permalink
    May 31, 2011 9:27 am

    Maybe you’ve answered this elsewhere, and if so, my apologies. But assuming your position that a good, holy, and loving God can’t or wouldn’t command his Chosen People to wipe out another people, then how do you read those OT passages?

    • May 31, 2011 12:34 pm

      I basically share Craig’s alternative reading: “Either the incidents never really happened but are just Israeli folklore; or else, if they did, then Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit these atrocities, when in fact He had not.” However, whereas Craig says this alternative choice set means an abandonment of biblical inerrancy, I take the view that it just means thinking differently about the meaning of inerrancy.

      • Thales permalink
        May 31, 2011 2:03 pm

        Cool. Thanks, Kyle.

      • Jerry Beckett permalink
        June 3, 2011 11:39 am

        While I am inclined to go with

        “if they did, then Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit these atrocities, when in fact He had not”

        could not

        “God did command the Israelites to do what they did, but as God led His people to toward the fulfillment of His covenant with them and culminated it in the Person of Christ, His people grew in their understanding of Him and His will, and the era of ‘divine command’ ended with close of the Apostolic period”

        be a valid explanation? I guess I’m imagining a view of the OT of God leading His people step by step out of barbarism, allowing certain things (because they were not ready yet) that in time would be eliminated, with the fullness of his Revelation – and any divine command(s) – being realized in the Incarnation. Thus, therefore any further alleged ‘divine commands’ would either be invalid (those which contradicted the fullness of Revelation presented in Christ) or unnecessary (those that didn’t), as the era of divine commands would have ended with the close of the Apostolic period.

        I think it’s a potentially valid view. I’m interested in your opinion.



  2. May 31, 2011 10:02 am

    Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on “Faith,” explains that there are “motives of credibility” for why we believe certain authorities (in the New Covenant, the Church) speak for God, but that ultimately this can only provide us with a fallible human certainty. Only the grace of infused Faith can provide us with a supernatural object that would allow the Will to assent with supernatural certitude.

    The “answer” according to Catholic theology (extrapolated from the question of Revelation in general) would thus be that, yes, on purely human grounds we can’t know with certitude who is speaking for God. We make a choice, an act of Faith, to believe it in response to a supernatural grace. A grace provided only on the level of each and every individual case.

    Of course, do people in other religions claim they are making the same sort of act? Could a Muslim claim that he is the one who has infallible supernatural (rather than fallible human) certitude in response to a supernatural grace provided and that we are the ones who are merely saying that’s what we’re doing (but delusionally or else moved by some actually natural/human motive?) Yes. Of course.

    The Catholic “resolution” is only that we, in fact, do have that grace, and the Muslim doesn’t. But there’s no way to “prove” it; the ironic thing about certitude and Faith in the Catholic tradition is that Faith itself is an absolute infallible supernatural certitude, and yet we can only have fallible human certitude (albeit a good degree of it) on the question of whether or not we, in fact, have Faith!

    All knowledge works this way. What you mention are PRACTICAL objections based on the confusion that would result if God acted this way [too often]. But theoretically, of course what he says is true: if God can take life, He could permit humans to do so as well (just as the State can give its individual members permission to do so in, say, just executions, etc)

    How did the Israelites know that Joshua and company spoke for God? The same way we all know about any Revelation. Your “objections” don’t particularly apply to this question of morality/ethics…but to the question of the nature of knowledge, certitude, Faith, and Revelation in general. The Catholic answer is simply that the Israelites knew because they were acting in a sort of assent of Faith in response to a supernatural grace. But this will only be “proven” at Judgment.

    All your arguments show is that the stakes of that existential and epistemic leap are higher on questions of morality/actions than on questions of a purely abstract intellectual assent to abstract dogmas of faith. But your same basic questions apply to that of how a Muslim can know he’s not supposed to eat pork, or a Catholic can know we must attend Mass on Sundays. That it involves “killing” should make us consider the issue more deeply, of course, but it is ultimately a difference in degree only, not nature, when it comes to how all these questions of Revelation and Faith work.

    In that sense it is very existentialist: we’ll only “know” that we were right in the sense of “vision,” in the sense of immediate unmistakable intuition, when our life’s project is complete and we meet God.

    • May 31, 2011 11:59 am

      This is a very fine response, and I have little to add, save the following. Kyle presents the following dilemma: Suppose a couple comes to believe that God has commanded them to suffocate their young children because the kids are destined to grow away from their faith when they become adults. The thing is, this problem is no less worrisome on, e.g. the basis of virtue ethics. Let’s change the language. Suppose a couple comes to conclude through their moral reasoning that they are under an absolute moral obligation to suffocate their young children because the kids are destined to grow away from their faith when they become adults. Now, how to we prevent them from doing something gravely evil? We might argue that we would try to convince them otherwise, but how? If they have considered everything already and reached a faulty conclusion, what then? In the end, their only hope is to choose to accept that they have misinterpreted the case and decide to come to a different conclusion. This is Thomas’ classical argument that while conscience binds, it does not excuse, and that we can always change our conscience, since it is a conclusion and not a direct moral intuition. (Thomas actually uses the example of a man who becomes convinced that God requires him to commit adultery.)

      The divine command couple, however, can be led to do something analogous. We cannot, of course, demand that they disobey a divine command, but then we could not demand of the virtue ethics couple that they act against their conscience. In this case, their hope is to decide that they have misread what God has commanded, but surely this is not of itself more difficult than transforming someone’s conscience.

      A Sinner is right here to note that the corrective here is the supernatural habit of faith, and with it the habit of charity, which is accompanied by the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts. In other words, we are not alone in making decisions.

      • May 31, 2011 12:44 pm

        If they have considered everything already and reached a faulty conclusion, what then? In the end, their only hope is to choose to accept that they have misinterpreted the case and decide to come to a different conclusion.

        If they’ve reach a faulty conclusion through their moral reasoning, wouldn’t one be able to demonstrate that they’ve reasoned poorly? They may disagree with such a response, of course, but this situation seems to allow for dialogue in a way that a “God told me to do X” mentality doesn’t.

      • May 31, 2011 3:04 pm

        Well, one can argue about what their motives are for believing it is God who spoke to them, their “motives of credibility.” If they are truly mistaken, such arguments might convince them otherwise (as might a bribe…)

        Ultimately, a choice is a choice. If they CHOOSE to believe God has spoken (whether He has or not), there’s nothing we can really do as this is choice and not intuition. This is what must be understood about the Catholic epistemology surrounding “certitude.” It involves an act of the Will in alm0st all cases, because the intellect only directly intuitively perceives the content of its own consciousness and some very basic principles (like that of non-contradiction).

        I’d say this though: if God has really commanded this action and they have assented in Faith, NO other good can be presented to move their will, because the supernatural good that acts as the motive in Faith (eternal life) is better than all others. If they’re that set on, you won’t be able to dissuade them.

        If, however, their motive is NOT truly supernatural, is not an act of supernatural faith with the will inclined to that grace…then something else might sway them, some other good could be presented to them that might stop them.

        Might some people be sooooo set on a belief or action that they would abandon it for no other purely natural good, even though the good inclining them to it is itself also purely natural or human? Yes, possibly, but that’s rare. Most people acting out of something other than true supernatural Faith can be enticed by SOME other good to change their choice.

    • May 31, 2011 12:52 pm

      As ethics covers the practical sphere, you can bet the farm that I’ll offer practical objections to ethical theories I consider problematic.

    • May 31, 2011 12:54 pm

      All your arguments show is that the stakes of that existential and epistemic leap are higher on questions of morality/actions than on questions of a purely abstract intellectual assent to abstract dogmas of faith.

      So divine command ethics doesn’t lead to where I say it leads?

      • May 31, 2011 3:14 pm

        What you’re saying leads to abandoning any notion of Revelation generally, and Catholic notions of morality generally.

        Why should we take the “risk” that, say, the Church really isn’t speaking for God…but then the Israelites couldn’t take the risk that Joshua wasn’t?? The only reason I can see is if you think dogma and abstract stuff like that “doesn’t hurt anyone” if we’re wrong, but a command to kill does.

        Also, Catholic morality depends on a “divine command” theory of sorts, because ultimately the only way our acts have supernatural merit is if they have a supernatural motive. “Natural law” or virtue ethics etc are all good and dandy…but they won’t get anyone into heaven. For an act to be meritorious, it must be at least implicitly informed by Charity, which involves a submission to God’s Will simply because He is God.

        Saying “I’ll do this or avoid that because it is in accordance with natural human fulfillment” or whatever…is naturally good and can form the basis of conversation with infidels (and even the basis of secular law in a pluralist civil State).

        But to be supernaturally good, the act must be (at least implicitly, at least in terms of the supernatural habit) carried out with the motive of obtaining eternal life; in other words, obeying God ultimately just because He has sent that supernatural grace of that object inclining us to do so, NOT because some purely natural or human good attracts us to do so (although, of course, Reason or reward or whatever else may be a supplemental good inclining the will ALSO).

        But based on what you’ve written, I’m not sure you’re even actually familiar with this sort of (traditional, orthodox) Catholic soteriology. But becoming so might save you a lot of talking past people from a (post-modern?) paradigm that many Catholics are simply going to find foreign to our faith.

      • May 31, 2011 4:58 pm

        What I’m saying is that Revelation, if it comes to us at all, comes to us through human beings who claim to speak for God. This mediation doesn’t mean Revelation doesn’t happen or isn’t true, but is does raise some practical difficulties for how we know, understand, and judge what its said to be revealed from God.

        I’m familiar with the soteriological and theological language you’re using, and I understand what you mean by these terms (though perhaps not in profound detail as I’m no student of theology); but of course these concepts also come to us from self-defined religious authorities, so they don’t remove the difficulties.

      • May 31, 2011 9:43 pm

        But you’ll at least admit, then, that this really has nothing to do with just morals/ethics or with God commanding the ban in Joshua, and everything to do with the question of Public Revelation generally, whether about Faith or Morals, whether ultimately practically innocuous OR about something as grave as killing people.

        There can be no special pleading in the case of God commanding the ban just because it doesn’t fit ones own soft-pacifist sympathies. Either we can accept Revelation or we can’t (somehow). If we can, then it poses no real problem. And if it does pose a problem, then it poses a problem for Revelation in general, not just this one special case.

      • May 31, 2011 10:05 pm

        Well, I wouldn’t use the words “nothing” and “everything” as you do, but, yes, what I have to say applies not only to claims of divine commands, but also to any claim of revelation.

        Now I can and do accept some claims by self-defined religious authorities, namely those of Catholic orthodoxy, but I do so in part because they make sense not only within a specifically Catholic religious framework, but also in light of reason practiced without the aid of revelation. And I rule out even exploring some other claims made by religious authorities because what they say is revealed truth fails the test of reason.

      • June 1, 2011 2:07 am

        Does God authorizing some people to kill fail the test of reason, though?

        I guess that’s the heart of what is being argued here.

        From what I can tell, the whole tradition would say it doesn’t fail the test, because God is the final authority over Life (and because it’s in the Bible, after all!) There is nothing unjust in His taking it, even from innocents, and if He can do it, He could also delegate it.

        Or no?

        What must be established by your side is why a claim that God has commanded one to kill (especially in the context of Israelite Revelatory authority traceable from Moses to Joshua) fails the test of Reason. “God would never do something like that” is not an argument in itself, as that’s exactly what you need to prove!

        I will point out (as I did, basically, below) that the only thing that can be contested here is the possibility of the “delegation,” not the thing delegated in itself. No one can remain a Catholic (or even a theist) in any substantial sense of the word and believe that God Himself doesn’t have a right to kill, or that God is somehow bound by the moral law that belongs to humans.

        Clearly lots of bad things (including death) happen in the plan of Providence all the time; HOWEVER they happen, it was under God’s control either way. So the question becomes, not the nature of killing as bad or against God’s nature (it clearly doesn’t, as people die in the universe all the time, and nothing would happen that God doesn’t will, whatever secondary means He may use to achieve it either actively or permissively), but about whether it is unreasonable to imagine that God could “allow” HUMANS to kill while remain morally good, in circumstances that otherwise would not allow it.

        There can be no question that, if the Israelites did in fact slaughter the Canaanites…God willed this. If it happened, God willed it. Sin He may only will “permissively”/passively (though He still arranges all the circumstances, etc)…but all external events especially God is actively sovereign over as the First Cause. There can be NO argument, then, based on whether this was something God could will. He could. His Will is not limited, and if it happened…that by definition means He willed it.

        So it can’t be an argument of whether God could will this; if it happened, He did. The only thing that can be argued is whether God could expressly allow the human agents involved to carry this out while remaining moral, or whether their carrying it out HAD to be a case of Him “using” sin to achieve His will in the plan of Providence.

        The only argument I could see for your position is one that says, “Yes. God may have willed this to happen. But He could only will it to happen through providentially ‘using’ sin to achieve that will because, while God can be ‘utilitarian’ in the sense of willing physical ‘evil’ for the sake of maximizing the good of the whole…He has made humans in such a way that they are supposed to follow a virtue-ethic or deontic morality exactly because they DON’T have the perfect knowledge of all consequences needed to act in a utilitarian manner. And, therefore, without destroying human nature God could not permit a human to break his in-built human moral principles, even if in an individual case God DID need that physical evil to occur; in those cases, He can only then work THROUGH sin, but cannot excuse that sin without destroying the inner logic of human nature.”

        However, I think such a notion of a human-centric “internal” morality that humans must follow (or be considered sinning) due to some need to remain consistent to our nature even when we KNOW with the certainty of Faith that God’s will for the individual situation is otherwise…makes little sense.

        As Dominic pointed out, a human being “morally good” just means being rationally in accordance with God’s Will…so it would seem that if we KNEW God willed it (with Faith), we’d HAVE to do it to be moral. Our morality is rooted in the Will of God. Of course, we can’t know His specific Will in each moment, and so much trust providence to use our actions (good or evil) and usually just must follow the general commandments given both in Revelation and Nature and trust that following these general principles is, generally, to follow His Will. But if He Revealed to us specific exceptions for specific circumstances…there would be no INTERNAL referent in human nature by which such an action could be considered bad; the only referent for morality is God’s [presumed] Will.

        Murder is “killing unjustly”…but “unjustly” means merely “without a right to do so.” But that right belongs to God. He delegates it (within certain limits) to the State already. Who’s to say He couldn’t or would never delegate it in more individual circumstances?

        You can of course have a theory that the narrative is not historical and read it anthropologically or sociologically or whatever. But that’s a question of biblical historical criticism. What’s being discussed here, I think, however, is simply the question of the moral issues raised by the narrative IF it IS taken at face value (besides, the other interpretations are usually invoked only because of a need to “explain away” the story once the face-value interpretation has been declared problematic a priori).

  3. Charles Robertson permalink
    May 31, 2011 10:34 am

    How does Craig’s version of divine command compare to Ockham or Scotus? The former held that God could command anything, such that all 10 commandments were completely contingent on God’s will. The latter held that only the commandments of the second tablet were contingent on God’s will. St. Thomas, however, held that God could not command anything contrary to the commandments of either tablet. Yet all three held that God commanded the slaughter of the Amalekites justly.

    • May 31, 2011 11:47 am

      St. Thomas, however, held that God could not command anything contrary to the commandments of either tablet.

      This is true, but somewhat misleading. God, for St Thomas, decrees what he means, and means what he decrees. All of his decrees conform to the standard of his own very self. This is why God does not do things for “morally sufficient reasons” since he is not a moral agent. He is simply true to himself. However, he is Goodness itself, and therefore what he commands is always good, not merely because he decrees it to be such, but because it issues from him who alone is Good.

      Anyway, God can and has according to St Thomas required of persons in the past acts that, by any normal description, would violate not only the Decalogue, but natural law itself. Thomas explicitly mentions his command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (what would seem to be murder), his command to Hosea to take a “wife of fornications” (what would seem to be adultery), and his command to the Israelites to take the goods from the people of Egypt (what would seem to be theft). St Thomas’ reply is relevant to the present conversation (Summa theologiæ IaIIæ 94.5, ad 2):

      All men alike, both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature: which death of nature is inflicted by the power of God on account of original sin, according to 1 Samuel 2:6: “The Lord killeth and maketh alive.” Consequently, by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent, without any injustice whatever. In like manner adultery is intercourse with another’s wife; who is allotted to him by the law emanating from God. Consequently intercourse with any woman, by the command of God, is neither adultery nor fornication. The same applies to theft, which is the taking of another’s property. For whatever is taken by the command of God, to Whom all things belong, is not taken against the will of its owner, whereas it is in this that theft consists. Nor is it only in human things, that whatever is commanded by God is right; but also in natural things, whatever is done by God, is, in some way, natural, as stated in the I, 105, 6, ad 1.

      One of the difficulties of classification here is that St Thomas is neither really a divine command nor a virtue ethicist, even if he resembles more the latter than the former. The doctrine of divine simplicity, when coupled with the human vocation by grace to beatitude, is more fundamental to his understanding human moral action.

      • Charles Robertson permalink
        May 31, 2011 2:46 pm

        I would also look at I-II.100.8:

        I answer that, As stated above (96, 6; 97, 4), precepts admit of dispensation, when there occurs a particular case in which, if the letter of the law be observed, the intention of the lawgiver is frustrated. Now the intention of every lawgiver is directed first and chiefly to the common good; secondly, to the order of justice and virtue, whereby the common good is preserved and attained. If therefore there by any precepts which contain the very preservation of the common good, or the very order of justice and virtue, such precepts contain the intention of the lawgiver, and therefore are indispensable. For instance, if in some community a law were enacted, such as this–that no man should work for the destruction of the commonwealth, or betray the state to its enemies, or that no man should do anything unjust or evil, such precepts would not admit of dispensation. But if other precepts were enacted, subordinate to the above, and determining certain special modes of procedure, these latter precepts would admit of dispensation, in so far as the omission of these precepts in certain cases would not be prejudicial to the former precepts which contain the intention of the lawgiver. For instance if, for the safeguarding of the commonwealth, it were enacted in some city that from each ward some men should keep watch as sentries in case of siege, some might be dispensed from this on account of some greater utility.

        Now the precepts of the decalogue contain the very intention of the lawgiver, who is God. For the precepts of the first table, which direct us to God, contain the very order to the common and final good, which is God; while the precepts of the second table contain the order of justice to be observed among men, that nothing undue be done to anyone, and that each one be given his due; for it is in this sense that we are to take the precepts of the decalogue. Consequently the precepts of the decalogue admit of no dispensation whatever.

        And the reply to the 3rd objection:

        Reply to Objection 3. The slaying of a man is forbidden in the decalogue, in so far as it bears the character of something undue: for in this sense the precept contains the very essence of justice. Human law cannot make it lawful for a man to be slain unduly. But it is not undue for evil-doers or foes of the common weal to be slain: hence this is not contrary to the precept of the decalogue; and such a killing is no murder as forbidden by that precept, as Augustine observes (De Lib. Arb. i, 4). In like manner when a man’s property is taken from him, if it be due that he should lose it, this is not theft or robbery as forbidden by the decalogue.

        Consequently when the children of Israel, by God’s command, took away the spoils of the Egyptians, this was not theft; since it was due to them by the sentence of God. Likewise when Abraham consented to slay his son, he did not consent to murder, because his son was due to be slain by the command of God, Who is Lord of life and death: for He it is Who inflicts the punishment of death on all men, both godly and ungodly, on account of the sin of our first parent, and if a man be the executor of that sentence by Divine authority, he will be no murderer any more than God would be. Again Osee, by taking unto himself a wife of fornications, or an adulterous woman, was not guilty either of adultery or of fornication: because he took unto himself one who was his by command of God, Who is the Author of the institution of marriage.

        Accordingly, therefore, the precepts of the decalogue, as to the essence of justice which they contain, are unchangeable: but as to any determination by application to individual actions–for instance, that this or that be murder, theft or adultery, or not–in this point they admit of change; sometimes by Divine authority alone, namely, in such matters as are exclusively of Divine institution, as marriage and the like; sometimes also by human authority, namely in such matters as are subject to human jurisdiction: for in this respect men stand in the place of God: and yet not in all respects.

      • Dan permalink
        June 1, 2011 12:08 am

        This is all well and fine in theory, but the ultimate question is how can we determine what is truly God’s will? At some point you have to make a faith claim in a flawed and fallible human being (whether others or yourself) that what you perceive to be God’s will actually is. That’s where the theory breaks down.

        If my neighbor claims that God is asking him to offer up his dog in a burnt offering, should I believe him or try and stop him? If the former is true, am I not interfering with God’s will?

      • June 1, 2011 8:49 am

        But, as Dominic pointed out, this “conflict” happens regardless of the theory used. Just replace “that God is asking him to” with “is required by nature to” or “is required by virtue ethics to.” The same problems arise either way, as this isn’t a problem in moral theory specifically, really, but simply in the epistemology of Revelation.

        The Catholic answer is basically: If God wanted you to believe your neighbor had received a binding private revelation, He’d give YOU the efficacious grace to do so that would be stronger than any possible human motive or natural good. Otherwise, you should act according to what you already know is God’s general commandments to mankind.

    • June 2, 2011 2:36 am

      I don’t think Scotus, at least, is in any way, shape, or form a divine command theorist. He’s actually a pretty ordinary natural law theorist; but every natural law theorist has to consider the question of divine dispensation (with things like polygamy, etc.). Scotus differs from Aquinas largely in having a more robust theory of dispensation than Aquinas does, because he links the possibility of dispensation to the contingency of the object of the law and Aquinas doesn’t. But beyond that, his general account works very much like Aquinas’s.

  4. Gordie permalink
    May 31, 2011 1:40 pm


    I tend to lean towards the anthropological view of the Old Testament expounded on by Rene Girard. I have read some Rene Girard but found his writings very difficult to read. I was told that Gil Bailie’s “Unnveiled Voilence: Humanity at the Crossroads” was a good source for Rene Girard’s ideas. The book changed the way I see Christianity and has helped my faith.


    • May 31, 2011 4:55 pm

      You and me both, Gordie. Girard’s thinking – as mediated by popularizers like Bailie – goes a long way to untying the, forgive me, “Gordian knot” that a story like the slaughter of the Amalekites creates.

  5. Chris Sullivan permalink
    May 31, 2011 2:50 pm

    Many texts speak of consecrating to God the fruits of victory, called the ban (chérèm). To prevent all foreign religious contamination, the ban imposed the obligation of destroying all places and objects of pagan cults (Dt 7:5), as well as all living beings (20:15-18). The same applies when an Israelite town succumbs to idolatry, Dt 13:16-18 prescribes that all its inhabitants be put to death and that the town itself be burned down.

    At the time when Deuteronomy was written — as well as the Book of Joshua — the ban was a theoretical postulate, since non-Israelite populations no longer existed in Judah. The ban then could be the result of a projection into the past of later preoccupations. Indeed, Deuteronomy is anxious to reinforce the religious identity of a people exposed to the danger of foreign cults and mixed marriages.

    Therefore, to appreciate the ban, three factors must be taken into account in interpretation; theological, moral, and one mainly sociological: the recognition of the land as the inalienable domain of the lord;the necessity of guarding the people from all temptation which would compromise their fidelity to God; finally, the all too human temptation of mingling with religion the worst forms of resorting to violence.



    God Bless

  6. Chris Sullivan permalink
    May 31, 2011 2:58 pm

    The whole notion that God could do or command something which is intrinsically evil (which the Church has defined genocide to be) seems contrary to the Catholic idea that the morality of acts is specified by the moral object chosen.

    This applies to whoever does the choosing be it human, angel, or God.

    God Bless

    • May 31, 2011 3:20 pm

      “Genocide” is only intrinsically evil inasmuch as “murder” is intrinsically evil. But not all killing is murder, and not all killing of entire populations is necessarily genocide. God gives and takes life as He pleases. He will take EACH and EVERY one of OUR lives, eventually, severing the connection tween body and spirit. Sometimes He does it all at once for a given population, say in a tsunami or asteroid strike or whatever. This doesn’t make God a murderer, it makes God God. And if He has that right, surely He could delegate it by command. Whether He has or actually did in the biblical story is another question, but the principle itself is unquestionable.

      • Melody permalink
        May 31, 2011 7:41 pm

        As pro-life people, we have often made the point that natural death by illness or accident is different than euthansia, abortion, or the death penalty. Yes, it is built into the system that everything and everyone will die. But that isn’t the same as saying that God will “take” our lives. The one thing that is impossible for God is for Him to be “not God”. If the very definition of God is that he is Love, and All-Good, then for Him to act contrary to His essence, would be for Him to deny who He is. Which is why I can’t accept that He ordered the slaughter of innocents, which the children of the Canaanites certainly were.

      • May 31, 2011 10:05 pm

        Well, I’d put the death penalty in a THIRD category all together. Catholics must agree with the theoretical permissibility of the death penalty. We can oppose it in practice (and I do), but not in theory.

        But it raises an interesting example. Really, “murder” is “killing without the authority to do so.” Just like theft is actually “taking property without the authority to do so.” But God certainly has the authority, and He has given some measure of it (within the limits of a certain justice) to the State. The State can therefore kill (in executions for example), and take property (taxing, etc), without the one being “murder” or the other being “stealing.”

        If God Himself were to DIRECTLY give the authority (through a Revelation, public or private, either mediated by another or directly intuited by the individual) to take property, I doubt any of you would object. In fact, given your leftist socio-economic sympathies (which I share!) I think you’d find that all good and well.

        Well, we can’t hold a double-standard when it comes to killing. God can “authorize” that too, theoretically. No one can deny that. The questions here then really is about: how we know when it is God (as opposed to a hallucination, or a demon) revealing such an extra-ordinary command, and whether such a command actually took place in the case of the ban among the ancient Israelites.

        You telling God that taking life (or commanding it) is contrary to His Essence is the height of presumption, and shows a huge misunderstanding of basic theology. God is not constrained by some nature prior too or outside Himself. What God chooses to do is by definition in conformity with His nature. In some ways, God is only truly Existentialist being: He determines His essence, because His essence is His own freedom, as it were. He is not constrained by some “essence” limiting what He does. What He does is, by definition, His essence. God is also the only being who can be truly Utilitarian: God (having perfect knowledge and power) is able to act for maximizing the Good of the Whole in His Providence, even when that involves seeming privation in the individual situation. For God, causing physical evil (or permitting moral evil) may be part of the overall Good.

        Remember: EVERYTHING that happens is under the sovereignty of God’s Providence. As Catholic Encyclopedia says of “physical” (as opposed to moral) evil, such as death: “God is said (as in Isaiah 45) to be the author of evil in the sense that the corruption of material objects in nature is ordained by Him, as a means for carrying out the design of the universe.” And, yes, it is God who ultimately has to determine by a positive act of His will to sever the connection between body and soul for each of us.

        God is causing death, in the general sense of Providence at least, all the time. Whether He does so through something like the historical arrangement of natural disasters or through getting people to kill by having them hear a voice isn’t really at issue, then. A schizophrenic who “hears God” and kills, or a sinner who lets himself be seduced by demonic forces into doing so…is, in this sense, just as much “meant” to kill in the grand scheme of Providence as the Israelite army.

        What people seem to be objecting to here, then, is not the idea that God got some people to do something through having their leaders hear a voice or whatever (“Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit these atrocities” would be JUST AS MUCH attributable to God’s causation in in the sense of Providence)…but that God did so according to an infallible revelatory grace that EXCUSED the participants from sin in their actions rather than Providence simply “using” sin.

        So is the problem really this idea: not that God arranged for deaths to happen through human agency (which Providence does all the time), but that He did so in a manner in which that killing could be called moral rather than immoral?

        That’s a lot more subtle an objection, though, and requires correspondingly subtler arguments…

    • May 31, 2011 3:49 pm

      The challenge here is that “intrinsically evil” has no meaning independent of God. This is why the claim that the requirement not to do what is intrinsically evil applies even to God does not, in the end, make sense, even if it seems to do so. What makes something morally evil is that it turns the moral agent away from God (which also means turning the agent away from its own flourishing). Something would be intrinsically evil which, by its nature, could not be morally chosen. That is, for the will to chose it would require just that kind of deformity of the will which would make it, in its desires, turned against the kind of life which eternity with God is.

      Note, then, that the idea that God is a moral agent does not make any sense. God is pure act, he is being itself, the Good and the True. He is not directed to some thing (the good) to come to full flourishing since he is that very flourishing itself. Nothing external to him either enhances or diminishes the fulness of divinity which is God. This is why, among other reasons, we can only speak of God being true to himself (since a being who could be untrue to himself would be divided, complex, fallible, and thus not God), not being true to “the good,” and this necessarily complicates claims about what God “can” or “cannot” decree.

      • May 31, 2011 4:53 pm

        The point is, there is no Good prior to or external to God by which we could judge even His actions. If He does it, it’s good by definition, because Good is “God’s Will.”

        Any other notion seems to me like the modern tendency to submit Christianity’s teachings to the scrutiny of some other system of meta-values (usually those of liberal democratic secularism) and try to force them to conform to that rather than the other way around.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        May 31, 2011 10:27 pm

        Let me associate myself with the views of my favorite Dominican here, which I find quite apposite. If the Supreme Category of our conception (God) is such that it contains all that anyone could ever conceive of as good, then the fact that it contains much that might not seem good, is no big deal, to put it colloquially. What this means collaterally is that there much that is evil in life, but that it is both is, and is not, part of that Supreme Category. It is not part of that category if we conceive what our good is in a limited sense. On the level of society, what else could be good but that which makes society better? On the level of ultimate things, much of what we conceive of as “evil” may be part of some vast trajectory which we cannot conceive.

        Similarly, the horizon that the Catholic Church adopts today, is, despite its protestations to the contrary, entirely dictated by the horizon of the Enlightenment. There is a good reason for this, for as Charles Taylor has pointed out, the basic insight of the Enlightenment comes from Christianity. (But mostly Protestant) Still the world we live in, and the societal goals we collectively espouse are entirely in the arc of this 18th Century revolution. Thus the attitude towards “life” that the Catholic Church now espouses, even proscribing Capital Punishment, is quite against the vast cumulative evidence of its past, and of course colorfully so if we take the Medieval era into account.. There is little doubt that a number of theological and canon-legal memes can be adduced to support the themes of “life” now so prevalent, But if we balance those against the nearly constant involvement of the Church in all sorts of day-to-day deaths in tis past, for one reasons or another, the current horizon it espouses is well, rather attenuated, to say the least. The giant reasons for it is simply Enlightenment thinking, though it might prefer a medieval pedigree. Theologies of the past need to be seen in this horizon. It is not that they did not discourse on death, and morality. But they did so from a vantage point which assumed them as an omnipresent and thus essentially unproblematic reality. The point is, the Enlightenment taught different goals, and the fact that the Church assumes these is proof of where they came from. (Pace innumerable Thomists)

        Modern realities vis-a-vis your likelihood to killed for no reason are both, ironically, a great confirmation of the value of the Enlightenment, and a grave criticism of it. Some level of depersonaliztion seems endemic to it, thus may be an aid to those quite opposed tragically to its aims. On the other hand, the hyper-theologies based on Enlightenment tropes like the hyperbolic anti-abortion crusade has taken an Enlightenment notion of “right” and turned it into a mode of pure fanaticism. A fanaticism which tragically is not even good at halting the — it must be affirmed — tragic course of abortion for some women. In light of the involvement of the Church in all sorts of death in the past, its current “life” campaigns seem, in the arc of history, very johnny-come-lately. And surely hardly reason for them to assume some high-horse of judgment. Instead, its theological parsings could be used to compassionately help also parse very difficult decisions. Instead, as per usual lately, it is more interested in working to deny its own past, than change the future.

      • June 1, 2011 2:13 am

        True, yet while there is no “Good” prior to or apart from God by which God is measured, there is a measure, namely God’s own divine being, which is Goodness itself. This is why we do not want to say that something is good because God declares it such (i.e. “by definition”) if we mean by that something akin to the claim that goodness is arbitrary and has no objective truth in the thing itself, as though God’s declaration comes to the thing in a kind of extrinsic way. (I don’t think this is what you mean, but I thought it a helpful clarification here.) Rather, there is such a measure, namely God’s own self, in which created things participate. So, God’s free decision to make something in a given way, to participate in his goodness just so, is at one and the same time God’s declaring it to be good and God’s proportioning the thing to an objective, but non-external, yet nonetheless non-arbitrary, standard, viz. his very self.

  7. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    May 31, 2011 6:16 pm

    I am a strong believer that a lot of intellectuals have no real idea where their ideas come from. They have a favored personal discourse, which is usually related an actual mentor-protege relationship they either maintain or would like to, but their roots often aresomewhere else. In the case of Mr. Craig, he is one more case of a phenomenon long noted about intellectuals in the Anglo-American sphere. For the life of them, they can’t get away from from being Hobbesians, even if they hate Hobbes. If his little theory about God not being subject to moral stricture ain’t surrepetitiously cribbed from Hobbes’ Leviathan, then I am a monkey’s uncle. For amongst those most influenced by Hobbes are religionists who would otherwise decry his conclusions.

    • June 1, 2011 2:36 am

      What is curious, albeit hardly unique, about Craig’s position is that it does not reflect more robust versions of the claim of God’s “not being subject to moral stricture” of the classic tradition, at least not of the Medieval (inclusive of Thomist) line of thought. Consider his following claim: God had morally sufficient reasons for His judgement upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His justice, just as centuries later God would use the pagan nations of Assyria and Babylon to judge Israel. (emphasis mine) This way of putting it ironically understands God’s goodness to be intelligible precisely on the grounds that God can be judged in accord with some standard of goodness apart from God.

      By way of contrast, consider the following by Brian Davies, O.P., in his introduction to his translation and commentary on Thomas Aquinas’ De malo: So what does God’s goodness therefore amount to in detail? Aquinas does not claim to know. For, as we have seen, he takes God to be fundamentally incomprehensible to us. It is clear, however, that he does not take God’s goodness to be that of something like a human being acting in the light of moral considerations. He certainly thinks that we can speak of God as just, truthful, or loving, for instance. But words that designate moral perfections in human beings do not, for him, signify God’s moral integrity. They signify what flows from God and what must be somehow in God if God is the source of the being of things. But they do not signify moral attributes had by God as some of his creatures can be said to have such attributes. For Aquinas, therefore, questions like “Does God act with an eye on morally sufficient reasons?” or “Is God well behaved?” are irrelevant when it comes to thinking about God and evil (they are effectively like asking whether God always takes care to keep himself fit, or whether he does enough to provide for his retirement). They spring from confusing the Creator with his creatures.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        June 1, 2011 8:39 am

        It’s interesting, isn’t it, that this is just the sort of area that tends to make medieval views, and especially Thomism, look good against some modern philosophies. To me, lover of intellectual history, there is a simple reason why. Namely because the truly ridiculous and awful idea or belief of “predestination” in its most terrible (strict Calvinist) form. This view allowed a path of conceptualization that allowed some to say that a realm of activity or even people as completely damnable per se. Very far from the encompassing arc of medieval and especially Thomistic thinking. But later then the need of governments or, by modern conception, even God (!) to be involved in such ways of being, seemed suddenly conceivable for a society that had at least partially accepted “predestination” and its cleavages. Hobbes’ grim view is very indebted to all this. It almost goes without saying that all of this was inconceivable to to medieval mind. Though it is clear that predestnatory views were hardly the whole picture for the Reformation, that they were in there at all created, to my mind, a terrible pedigree for a lot the extremes of modern thinking, and in terrible irony for many of the most godless.

  8. Rodak permalink
    June 1, 2011 7:08 am

    Thank you all for not bringing Jesus into this.

    • June 1, 2011 10:00 am

      What’s He got to do with it? (Kidding … just kidding) :-)

      • Rodak permalink
        June 1, 2011 10:52 am

        Somebody cue Tina Turner…

  9. June 2, 2011 2:28 am

    Hi, Kyle,

    Sorry to take so long to get to this, but I’ve been busy with other things. I think divine command theories are often more subtle than you are suggesting. Divine command theorists are distinguished from natural law theorists, for instance, not in the nature of the standard they are capable of espousing, but in what they think makes it have moral force: natural law theorists think it has moral force simply from being a promulgation of rational authority, while divine command theorists think that moral force is the limit case of the force of sanction, and thus requires an agent establishing sanctions — rewards and punishments, to put it more crudely than many divine command theorists would like.

    Thus, to take the classic example of divine command theory, William Warburton’s theory as put forward in his eighteenth century work, The Divine Legation of Moses: when Warburton asks whether atheists can be moral, he admits to a certain extent they can: God has given us rational perception, and thus we can perceive that some things are more rationally appropriate than others; and God has given us moral sentiments, and thus some things are in better taste than others. Thus we can have broadly moral standards even without moral obligations; but we can’t, he argues, have morality in the full and proper sense without obligations, which require an Obliger because no amount of appropriateness and good taste will ever make anything strictly obligatory. Craig has a somewhat different version, but in it’s general outline it makes the same sort of move; all sophisticated divine command theories do.

    This makes me think that Dominic’s point about how your suggested problem really arises for any sufficiently developed moral theory is a pretty substantial one. In the case of the couple, you certainly can reason with them: but this is not going to be denied by the divine command theorist, who, if sufficiently sophisticated, will admit as perfectly fine every argument you can propose. What the divine command theorist will deny is that this reasoning actually gives you the result you think it does: namely, he will deny that any reasoning that does not involve appeal to an obliger will actually deal with obligation, rather than something that is often, but not necessarily, associated with it. You could appeal to rational evaluations of appropriateness and to moral taste as arguments for the initial plausibility of its being obligatory or prohbited, and the divine command theorist will even be likely to admit that this assessment of initial plausibility is often right, but without appeal to divine revelation, and the signs that confirm divine revelation, you have on his view no grounds on which to say anything whatsoever about prohibition or obligation in a definite sense. Ultimately, the sort of reasoning involved in the strictest form of morality, as A Sinner notes, comes down for the divine command theorist to the same sort of reasoning by which we judge of whether Scripture is the word of God. Far from conceding that it is an act occurring beyond human experience,the divine command theorist will insist that it is natural to us as moral beings to search out and accept divine commands, although something like original sin can cause complications with it (but original sin, again, causes complications with everyone).

    • June 2, 2011 12:54 pm

      Fair enough, but does this sophistication make much practical difference? If arguments based on moral sentiments or rational perception take one only so far, they may not even go far enough to reach the say so of the self-defined religious authority. Sure, it can look from these limited perspectives that a couple’s belief that they have to kill their children is wrong, but these appearances can’t compete with the unseen but apparently repeated divine command.

      Seems to me that divine command ethics can be used to justify any evil and, more to the point, leaves no room for debate or final questioning. If these parents instead made an argument based on virtue or some other philosophical concept, they could still come to the wrong conclusion, of course, but at least one could demonstrate the fallacy of their thinking or the why the ethical idea they use doesn’t lead to where they think it does.

  10. Ronald King permalink
    June 2, 2011 10:08 am

    I just read Joshua 5 and 6 and nowhere did I read God verbally commanding genocide. It was Joshua who commanded that.

    • June 2, 2011 11:43 am

      Perhaps, but that doesn’t handle passages like I Samuel 15.

      • Ronald King permalink
        June 2, 2011 1:19 pm

        In 1 Samuel 15 it is Samuel who interprets what God said. God did not speak to Saul directly. It is clear in verse 33 that Samuel’s motive is revenge, “As your sword has made women childless,so shall your mother be childless among women.”

      • June 2, 2011 5:59 pm

        Samuel is the one who interprets it to Saul, yes; but the narrative tells us flat out God’s response to Samuel in verse 10, and it confirms Samuel’s claims.

        Look, obviously there are a number of options for interpretation here, but it’s simply not reasonable to pretend that the narrative doesn’t seem to say what everyone has always seen that it seems to say.

  11. Ronald King permalink
    June 2, 2011 7:00 pm

    The narrator tells us what Samuel heard from God. There is no pretending, there is the obvious underlying rage influencing Samuel.

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