What is Divine Command Theory?
Question: "What is Divine Command Theory?"
Answer: The Divine Command Theory (DCT) essentially teaches that a thing (i.e., action, behavior, choice, etc.) is good because God commands it to be done or evil because God forbids it from being done. Thus, to say that it is good to love our neighbors is semantically equivalent to saying God commands us to love our neighbors. Similarly, it is evil to commit murder because God forbids murder.
Now, right away someone can object to Divine Command Theory on the grounds that good and evil become arbitrary to the whim of God. If good and evil are solely based on the whim of God, then morality is merely a will to power or “might makes right.” Since God is mightier than any of us, morality boils down to “His way or the highway.”
The alternative to Divine Command Theory is the assertion that the basis for morality lies outside of God, rather than at the mercy of His whim. This is the approach that Plato takes in his dialogue Euthyphro. The so-called Euthyphro Dilemma can be stated thus: “Is an action morally good because God commands it [DCT], or does God command it because it is morally good?” One might be tempted to abandon Divine Command Theory and instead ground morality in something external to God.
However, saying that God commands something because it is morally good threatens the sovereignty and independence of God. If an external principle, in this case the objective ground of morality, is outside of God, then God is obligated to adhere to this standard, and thus He is not sovereign. Furthermore, God’s morality depends on His adherence to this external standard; hence, His independence is threatened.
Thus, we are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Neither alternative is palatable to the Christian worldview. God is certainly not arbitrary in His moral actions, nor is God subject to some external standard of morality that governs His decisions. In the former case, we can say that God is not good, and in the latter we can say that God is not God. It’s quite understandable, at this point, why some reject Christianity and adopt moral relativism as their “standard,” except for the fact that the Bible presents us with a different picture of morality and demonstrates the Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma.
The classic Christian response to the Euthyphro Dilemma is to ground goodness in God’s nature. This solves the first horn of the dilemma because God isn’t arbitrarily deciding what is good and what is evil on a whim. Rather, it is God’s nature to do good, and God never acts contrary to His nature. This also solves the second horn of the dilemma because the ground of morality is God’s nature and not some external standard to which God must adhere. God’s sovereignty is preserved as well as an objective standard for morality, i.e., God’s nature.
The Scriptures, God’s self-revelation to humanity, illustrates this quite nicely. A sampling of passages that demonstrate that goodness is grounded in God’s nature:
• Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way (Psalm 25:8).
• Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him (Psalm 34:8).
• For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you (Psalm 86:5).
• For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 100:5).
• Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! (Psalm 107:1).
Even with this definition of the Divine Command Theory, there are two objections that can be anticipated. First, what if God’s nature changes such that what is good by God’s nature becomes evil and vice versa? God’s nature is the totality of His all attributes. Therefore, because God is immutable (Malachi 3:6), His goodness is an immutable goodness (James 1:17). Here’s another way to say it: God’s nature never changes—cannot change; therefore, goodness will never change since it is grounded in God’s nature.
Second, what about the times when God commands the Israelites to slaughter their enemies down to the very last man, woman and child? Isn’t this is a violation of God’s very own commandment prohibiting murder? The answer is similar to that of the first objection; namely, God’s nature is the totality of all His attributes. God is good—immutably good—but He is also holy, righteous, and just. God is a God who must punish sin and wickedness. The Canaanites were wicked and rebellious and under the just condemnation of God for their sin. We know that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23); and God, in His sovereignty, decreed the timing and manner of the Canaanites’ death, which was a demonstration of God’s judgment on sin. This, too, is an example of God’s goodness—it is good for God to execute holy judgment on sin.
Therefore, God commands certain actions as good and therefore to be done and forbids certain other actions as evil and therefore not to be done. What is good is not good simply because God commands it. It is good because it is reflective of His divine nature.
Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland
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What is Divine Command Theory?