Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Wednesday, January 31, 2007

    Euthyphro's dilemma

    The standard of ethical and rational in the Christian worldview is God. To make ethical judgments on God, one has to propose a standard greater than God, that God would be subject to.

    For those unfamiliar with the dilemma, it stems from Plato's dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, and was later rehashed by Bertrand Russell to refer to the Christian God.

    It goes like this:

    Socrates: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro? Is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

    Euthyphro: Certainly.

    Socrates: Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

    Euthyphro: No, that is the reason.

    Socrates: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?

    In terms of non-believers assertions then, is something good because God says so, or is God good because He adheres to a morally good code of conduct?

    At first, almost all Christians will say something is good because God says so, and be done with it. God is sovereign and His commands must be obeyed. However, the further objection will be raised to say that "good" is then completely arbitrary. And back to our non-believer, if some Christians interpret that it is God's will to murder, then it becomes moral by God's whim, and is so justified.

    If we then turn around and state that God is Himself subject to a universal moral code, that has obvious implications for God's omnipotence. Where does that code come from, and who or what decides what should be in there?

    I just want to interject here, and point out that the dilemma applies equally well to any alternatives too. For example, if we are to assume that the majority of society determines right from wrong, then the question becomes: Is something good because society follows it, or does society follow it because it is good?

    The dilemma for the Christian is not addressed by merely pointing out that the dilemma applies equally to all positions. The dilemma, as stated, leaves a no-win position for the Christian. Either good is arbitrary, or good is something that dictates to God.

    In addressing this, as always, we have to look at what premises underlie the argument. We have to look at the logical foundation of morality, on what basis does it rest? To raise the objection that Socrates and Russell (and our objector here) did, they must first establish what it is what "good" means, how they logically came to know it, how they can logically apply it, by what authority does it demand compliance, and why is there an obligation to do good? It is here where non-believers have their feet firmly in mid-air.

    The Christian answer is that this is a false dilemma. There are not only two options, there are three. There is an objective standard, which is internal to God. If there is a standard, then it is not arbitrary, and if it is internal to God, then God is not subject to an external authority. Morality is rooted in God's character. Whatever a good God commands, will be good.

    There are further objections to this line of reasoning. If God is good, and good is God, it becomes a tautology, claims the objector, and tautologies are useless to explain things. However, once again the assumption is false. To say that God is good is to explain more about His character, it is not to conflate God and goodness. It explains more about the qualities of God, it does not state that God and "good" have the exact same identity.

    To close then, what is "good" from a Christian perspective?

    God reveals (ESV):
    Gen 18:25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"
    Job 34:10 "Therefore, hear me, you men of understanding: far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.
    Job 34:17 Shall one who hates justice govern? Will you condemn him who is righteous and mighty,
    Rom 3:5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)
    Rom 3:6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world?

    So how did Abraham, Job and Paul know that a just God does right, and not wrong, that He judges the wicked but not the good, and God does not do what is wicked?

    Everyone recognizes what is right and wrong, even non-believers. The question is how does one make sense of that?

    The answer is that when humans were made in the image of God, they were given moral intuition ability, and by falling to temptation, mankind acquired knowledge of good and evil to go along with the moral intuition. God reveals to us, no, He hard-wires into us what good and evil is.

    Rom 1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."
    Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
    Rom 1:19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

    By faith in God can we make sense of God's righteousness, He has revealed it to us.


    DagoodS said...

    I’ve discussed Euthyphro in a variety of places. Coincidentally, I am engaged in a discussion about it right now. I have a question about this proposed third alternative, but I hesitate to ask for two reasons.

    First, I am uncertain of the purpose of this blog. Is it written to reinforce Christians in their beliefs, or is it written to convince non-believers? I wonder this from:

    Rule: Don’t look for us to mud wrestle with critics in our own blog comments.

    If this blog is intended to post a position, but not engage in…uh…”mud wrestling”—that is great! I appreciate your coming out and explaining it. It would be rude of me to come here and expect anything different.

    Secondly, I question whether to spend the time composing a comment. I wonder this from:

    Rule: Don’t expect us to reply to your comments.

    I suspect my comments will come across as mud wrestling, and if the poster is not going to reply (again, that’s fine. The wonderful thing about the internet is that we can choose a variety of ways in which to present information.) then it is neither appropriate for me to do so, and would be a waste of everyone’s time.


    jdlongmire said...


    Thanks for popping in!

    You said:
    First, I am uncertain of the purpose of this blog. Is it written to reinforce Christians in their beliefs, or is it written to convince non-believers?

    To a degree, both - how that works out is really dependent on how the Lord wants it to be used. The team is committed to Soli Deo Gloria.

    You said:
    Rule: Don’t expect us to reply to your comments.

    I suspect my comments will come across as mud wrestling, and if the poster is not going to reply (again, that’s fine. The wonderful thing about the internet is that we can choose a variety of ways in which to present information.) then it is neither appropriate for me to do so, and would be a waste of everyone’s time.

    This is mostly to set expectations, partially in respect to the team's other ventures, particularly for potential trolls. Having interacted with you before, I doubt your response would not elicit some counter-response...just not as...verbose as it will probably be presented... :D (sorry, just good-natured ribbing - couldn't resist and not meant to promote "mud wrestling" - I am working on a response to another post you have done elsewhere...)

    Grace and Peace,


    DagoodS said...

    Fair enough.

    My first (standard) question is this: If “God” is not synonymous with “God’s Character” can you tell me what is within God’s Character but is not within God, or what is within God that is not within God’s Character?

    My second question is this: If God does not have the same identity as “good,” what part of God is not good?

    If you would like to see my past interactions regarding this issue you are free to review the comments
    here and here.

    However, as J.D. Longmire correctly notes, I tend to be verbose, so they can get a bit long.

    August said...

    Dagoods, I am sorry but I don't understand your questions in the context of my post.

    God's nature is righteous and therefore normative. God loves good because it is good, but He does not need to look outside Himself to define good, it is inherent in His character.

    For anyone to dispute whether God is good or not, they must establish their own standard, just as God's character is His standard and the standard for Christians, as self-expressed in His Word.

    DagoodS said...

    Sorry, ‘bout that august. I will try to explain.

    You blog entry touched on a number of concepts, the only one upon which I had a question was the proposed third alternative to the Euthyphro Dilemma. The Dilemma: “Is it Good because God says it is, OR Does God do it because it is good?”

    As you aptly pointed out, the first alternative is problematic to Christians, as it makes determination of morality solely on God’s whim. Today He can decide murder is “moral” but lying is “immoral” and tomorrow decide that murder is “immoral” and lying is “moral.” (Worse, and a concept many do not think about, tomorrow God could decide that the day before murder really WAS “immoral” and actually change the rules for past actions! Hardly an absolute morality.)

    The second alternative is problematic to Christians because it means there is a greater concept or idea than God, that being this “good.” That God is not fully God, because there is something “higher” than Him. “Good” is more-God than God. (Curiously, whenever the oft-stupid question of “Can God make a rock he can’t lift?” is posed, Christians have no problem with God being limited by logic. Which [seems to me] is as problematic. But a discussion for another time…)

    You then propose a solution I have seen before being:

    August: The Christian answer is that this is a false dilemma. There are not only two options, there are three. There is an objective standard, which is internal to God. If there is a standard, then it is not arbitrary, and if it is internal to God, then God is not subject to an external authority. Morality is rooted in God's character. Whatever a good God commands, will be good.

    You use the term “internal objective standard” whereas most use the term “God’s Character.” (You appear to later interchange these terms.) Perhaps my use of “God’s Character” was confusing, so I will use your nomenclature of “internal objective standard.”

    My question, then, is this: Is “internal objective standard” the exact same as God? Or is it different? If different, what is within “internal objective standard” that is NOT within God, or what is within God that is not within “internal objective standard”?

    I will try to explain, so you can see where I am coming from.

    Euthyphro makes no distinction between “external” or “internal” when it comes to God, and the ability to make moral decisions. Whether the standard is external or internal makes no difference. The question is whether the decision making process is external or internal to the standard.

    Assume there is some internal objective standard within God that absolutely, positively mandates that humans cannot eat meat on Friday’s. Whether we look at this standard, God looks at it or anyone else—there it is: No meat on Friday.

    However, within the rest of God is the ability to choose whether to follow this standard or not. God can look at the standard and say, “Yes. I like that. I will make it a rule” OR God can look at it and say, “Well. I considered it. While I recognize it as a standard, even a standard that I made, I can choose to not implement it.”

    OR, is there something within God that binds Him to that internal standard? That God looks at the standard, and has no ability to choose to do anything BUT mandate no meat on Friday?

    I hope I have explained why the question is not whether the standard is internal, but rather the decision making process is.

    I guess before I go further, I would have to know how you would answer that question—Can God make a choice about the “internal objective standard”?

    More: God loves good because it is good, but He does not need to look outside Himself to define good, it is inherent in His character.

    O.K. But the question of Euthyphro is NOT where God can find the definition of Good, but rather whether God is bound to follow that definition, or God can change the definition as he goes along.

    August said...

    Dagoods, thanks for the explanation.

    The short answer is that God's character is immutable, and that His character determines the standard He holds to. You seem to conflate the standard and the practicalities of following the standard within God, as if He can change His character as He goes along. I've already answered this in my initial post, that any standard that is not part of God's Godliness would mean that there is something bigger and greater than Him that set that standard.

    That kind of God would be very worrisome, that on His whims He could change the standard, because it means that it would be impossible for anyone to know what God expects of them. Thankfully that scenario is not true, God's character stays the same, as does the standards derived from it.

    In that way we can trust God, and be sure that both His expectations and promises are believable and eternal.

    I'm sure you want to go somewhere with this, so can you maybe get to the point?

    Puritan Lad said...

    That which is perfect cannot and need not change.

    DagoodS said...

    The point is not that complicated. I have been, and continually search to see if there really is a third alternative to Euthyphro. You touched on the alternative, “God is bound by God’s Character” (or as you prefer “internal objective standard”) which is a fairly common Christian response.

    What I see is that upon inspection, “God’s Character” or “Internal Objective Standard” are completely synonymous with “God.” A definition without a distinction. And if that is true, then it leaves the two options as the sole choice.

    I am a simple person, and I like to put things in simple terms. The Euthyphro Dilemma noticed something about the concepts of “God” and “good” (meaning “moral” not “of sufficient quality” of course.) God could arguably do whatever He wants, and label it “good.” Today it is murder, tomorrow it is not. A God of whims, as you note. OR is God, just as humanity, limited by some other concept that by virtue of limiting a God, is greater than God, this thing called “Good.”

    God wakes up today. Looks about. And thinks, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to make men having hair an ‘immoral’ act today.” Euthyphro claims either one of two choices MUST occur (hence the dichotomy):

    1) Since God is God, and can do whatever He wants—voila! Having hair is immoral; OR
    2) God has to check with some standard, some Board of Review, and follow that when making the determination as to what is moral or not. If the Board of Review allows him to make it immoral—it is. If not—it is not.

    In order to avoid this dichotomy, as your entry points out, this proposes a third alternative—“God’s Character.” We really could call it anything: “God’s Essence,” “God’s nature,” “God’s Being,” “God’s persona.” The important thing is trying to determine what it is, not what it is called.

    In response to the first proposal, this alternative says, “No, no, no! God can’t do whatever he wants. He has to check with his Character first.” (Which, we can see, suspiciously looks like the second alternative to Euthyphro.)

    In response to the second proposal, this alternative says, “No, no, no! God is merely checking with himself (something internal).” (Which, we can see, suspiciously looks like the first alternative to Euthyphro.) (See, if “God’s Character” is the exact same as “God” then God is REALLY checking with himself. The limiting Board of Review is…Him. He can do what he wants.)

    The only way in which this third alternative has any viability is if “God’s Character” (or whatever you choose to call it) is different than God. The reason I ask this question is to try and figure out what exactly that difference is.

    Look, let me try again. (I point this out in my two links, so if you went there, I apologize for the repetition.) I think of it in terms of a Venn Diagram.

    Draw a Circle. Title it “God.” Now, because we have this new concept, “God’s Character”—draw another circle indicating what that is. If the two circles overlap exactly, then we are stuck with the same problem.

    Since most times (and you do as well) this alternative finds the distinction between “internal” and “external” as significant, the smaller circle of “God’s Character” fits within “God.”

    We have a large circle of “God.” A Smaller circle of “God’s character” within this large circle.

    Herein lies the problem. Shade the part of the large circle that is NOT within the smaller circle of “God’s Character.” That is a part of God that is NOT within his Character. I tend to call it “Other God.”

    What parts of God are NOT within God’s Character? To demonstrate the problem; if, as you claim, God’s Character is unchangeable, this necessarily means That there are parts of God that ARE changeable. (Otherwise, it would be in the “Character Part” of God.)

    What people don’t realize, is that by creating this new thing—this “God’s character” they automatically and necessarily create something that is NOT “God’s Character” within God.

    I hand you a pushpin that says “Truth.” Where do you put it? If you put it in God’s Character, then part of God is NOT truth. If you put it in Other God, then God’s Character is not truth. What about Justice? What about Love? What about Morality?

    Thus my original question. The same all along. What is in “God” that is NOT in “God’s Character”?

    Puritan Lad said...

    The problem here is that God's Omniscience and timelessness are both denied. God does not have to "check with His character" to see what it good or not. God decides what is good by simply determining it. Simple.

    God does not "wake up" for He neither sleeps nor slumbers. He doesn't "Look about" and think, “Wouldn’t it be interesting...", for He has already declared the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done, saying "My council shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure".

    Take God out of your time warp, and your delimma will be solved.

    (I'll be kind and not quote what Calvin says about these suggested delimmas).

    August said...

    Come-on Dagoods, you keep repeating the dilemma while dancing around the presented solution. This is also typical in discussions I've had around this, the answer is always ignored in order to put forward some other objections, most commonly the problem of evil. The purpose here was to adress Euthypro specifically, and not the normal oft-refuted set of objections.

    There may be some other surrounding issues, but the dilemma is solved by option 3 in my presentation.

    I will try one more time, and then I am done.

    The objection basically has two parts, both of which has been addressed satisfactorily. The first is the objection of arbitrariness. It is answered, as demonstrated, by the fact that there is an objective standard of good as defined by the nature of God. In addition, certain of God's decrees and actions may have other reasons than moral reasons, which further defeats the assertion of arbitrariness. There may be some adjacent arguments that ask questions about the morality or rationality of some of God's decrees or actions, but that has nothing to do with the dilemma at hand. I showed the Biblical definition of good just to make sure that we are very clear that the standard exists.

    The second part of the dilemma is that of God's substance. Does the standard exist apart from God or not? Is God rationally or morally empty or not? Once again, the very nature or character of God is what defines the standard, and not some unknown theoretical source. You may well speculate that such a source exists, but it is not logically neccessary (nor demonstrated that it does), for it to exist given the nature of God. God's nature is that He is good, and that is the ultimate standard, or He would not be God.

    Finally, you seem to indicate that you think that God could some day wake up and decide to make immorality moral or irrationality rational. To clarify, God is unchanging in His being, perfections, purposes and promises.There are several Scriptures that demonstrate this.

    You may object to some other issues that are tangental to the argument, but the dilemma is satisfactorily adressed by option 3 in my post. Unless you have any new arguments, I don't see any sense in going over the same things again.

    DagoodS said...

    Thank you for your hospitality. I am obviously not communicating my question clearly. To be honest, I am involved in an invigorating conversation on Euthyphro elsewhere, and I do not find myself with the energy or the inclination to try and re-phrase it here.

    Suffice it to say then, at this time, good luck with your blog!

    August said...

    Thanks for dropping by.

    Paul said...

    Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
    "A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).