From N. F. Gier, God, Reason, and the Evangelicals

(University Press of America, 1987), chapter 10.  Copyright held by author.


Author's Note:  Since the writing of this chapter, I've been converted to virtue ethics and you can see my recent work at


Full bibliographical information for references will be supplied at a later date.  Until then please check the full bibliography of the hard copy of God, Reason, and the Evangelicals.




            In an interview with Jerry Falwell (Christianity Today, September, 1981), the interviewer predicts that the Moral Majority may succeed in making Americans more moral but fail in saving their souls.  This insightful comment reveals that Falwell and his followers may have lost the true focus of Christianity's role in the world:  they are emphasizing adherence to Law rather than the Gospel. Paul explicitly states that "we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the spirit and not in the old way of the written code" (Ro. 7:6).  Christian humanist Robert Alley says that the true Christian seeks "to preserve rights in the name of love rather than impose right belief in the name of law."(1)  The Religious Right are new Pharisees who, like the biblical ones, preach a mere moralism and not true morality.


            The distinction between moralism and morality can be seen in terms of Lawrence Kohlberg's six stages of moral development.  Moralism represents the first primitive stages of morality:  individuals respond to an external moral authority upon the threat of punishment.  Kohlberg has observed individuals mature to a sixth stage in which morality springs from the inner conscience of free, autonomous agents.  Kohlberg has noted a strong consensus among these individuals about what is right and wrong, and he offers this evidence as proof against moral relativism.(2)  Even though Kohlberg overemphasizes rational autonomy (this describes neither Jesus nor Martin Luther King if they are indeed heroes of the sixth stage), his contributions to a new humanistic ethic are undeniable.


            John Stuart Mill said that the highest form of utilitarianism would be produced by moral agents who guide their actions on the basis of internal, rather than external, sanctions.  According to Walter Bruggemann, this is the position of the Bible's Wisdom writers and it is also the teaching of Confucius.  Both of these views have the advantage of a social psychology based on human relatedness and not rational self-legislation.  Confucians believe that we become righteous not because of some inner faculty like conscience but by emulating the actions of our betters and making their standards ours.  For my own ethical thinking, this means that the very concept of moral authority must be rejected.  If divine omnicausality is really the case, then God could force us to obey the law or compel us to love him.  But a process or feminist God could not do this, and out of respect for our integrity, would not do it. (For three types of divine power, see this link.)  One is persuaded to become moral; one can never be forced to be.  Obedience to an external authority may be prudent, but such an act does not have any intrinsic moral value.


            Many evangelicals repeatedly tell us that without the external, objective, and sovereign moral rule of God human actions would degenerate into moral nihilism and anarchism.  To say that ethics is relative or based on any subjective conditions is anathema for conservative Christians.  In this chapter I will attempt to demonstrate that biblical ethics is most accurately described as a moral subjectivism or voluntarism.  It will come as a surprise to many readers that evangelical rationalists Carl Henry and Gordon Clark actually support this view. Christianity's traditional moral objectivism seems to be borrowed from Greco-Roman philosophy and/or Pharisaic Judaism.  I also discuss the possibility of ethics without God or with an essentially transmoral God.  Before discussing these topics, however, I will begin with an even more controversial question:  Does the biblical God, particularly the Old Testament Yahweh, offer an appropriate model for moral emulation or authority?




            Writing to The Times (March 3, 1970) about the New English Bible, Lord Platt said:  "Perhaps, now that it is written in a language all can understand, the Old Testament will be seen for what it is, an obscene chronicle of man's cruelty to man, or perhaps, his cruelty to woman, and of man's selfishness and cupidity, backed up by his appeal to his god; a horror story if ever there was one."  A century earlier another famous Englishman observed that most Christians were far less wicked than their professed God.  James Mill thought that the biblical God was the "ne plus ultra of wickedness" and that Christians could do much better by worshipping "their own idea of excellence."  For more on Jehovah's immorality see this link.


            Let us take a look at some of the biblical evidence where Yahweh's wickedness appears to exceed that of his creatures.  In his campaign against the Amalekites, Saul spared the life of Agag and the best of the livestock, which he had saved for a sacrifice to Yahweh.  Samuel came to Saul, reminded him of Yahweh's scorched earth policy, told him that "obedience is better than sacrifice,"  and that because of his disobedience God had rejected him as king (1 Sam. 15:123).  See Joshua 6:21 and 10:40 for more on Yahweh's policy that one must "utterly destroy all that breathed."


            In Numbers 31 we are given the grisly details of the genocide of the Midianites.  Moses is very displeased when his commanders return with the women and children.  Moses is obliged to enforce the Lord's command:  "Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him.  But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves" (Num. 31:1718).  (In his Age of Reason Thomas Paine shocked pious Americans by openly speculating about what was done with these virgins.)  At Sodom and Gomorrah Yahweh decides who will be spared on the basis of righteousness (viz., obedience to him) not innocence, and many innocents obviously died in the destruction of those two cities.


            Using the principle of contextualization, modern Christians should attribute these atrocities to sinful men rather than the will of God.  Evangelicals Stephen Davis and C. S. Lewis, however, stand virtually alone in their view that these acts are not morally justified.(3)  Many evangelicals, even the recently liberalized Clark Pinnock, support the traditional view that Israel's enemies deserved to be liquidated because of their wickedness. Geisler condemns Davis for using his own "moral sentiment" to ground his view that "killing innocent people is morally wrong."(4)  But Geisler's own moral absolutism must support this rule; and he must also assume that there were countless innocent people among Israel's victims.  Despite his moral rationalism, Kant was right to say that "even the Holy One of the Gospels must first be compared with our idea of moral perfection before we can recognize him as such."(5)  If our moral intuitions count for anything, especially those which are so universally attested, then we are obliged to judge that anyone, even if he claims to be God, who commands the death of innocent persons is not a "Holy One."


            For the ancient Hebrews the killing of innocents could be justified in at least two ways.  First, their concept of corporate personality also meant corporate guilt and responsibility.  Second, the most literal translation of the Sixth Commandment is "Thou shalt not kill a fellow Hebrew."(6)  Fortunately, both the Hebrew prophets and classical Greeks helped us develop beyond tribal ethics and such a thoroughly collectivist notion of the self.  Unfortunately, however, evangelical William B. Greene uses the idea of the corporate self as a modern justification for Yahweh's commands.  Because of the "principle that individuals share in the life of the family and the nation to which they belong," Greene believes it is "right that they should participate in its punishments as in its rewards....Though many innocent persons could not but suffer, it was right, because of the relation in which they stood to the guilty, that this should be so."(7)


            Instead of the corporate self defense, Pinnock says that "if we had faced a Stalin or a Hitler we would find it easier to read these texts"; that it is our moral instincts, not the Hebrew writers, that need changing; that the Canaanites "were ripe for destruction"; and that this punishment belongs to a "larger doctrine of God's justice."(8)  Henry is more specific on this point:  "The temporal punishment of the heathen in Palestine was in fact incidental [sic!] to his larger purpose, that of providing salvation for mankind through a redemptive history threatened by the Canaanites."(9)


            Let us take a contemporary example to prove how unacceptable these theories are.  In terms of the number of people killed per capita Pol Pot's reign of terror must be considered worse than that of Hitler, Stalin, and certainly what we know of the ancient Canaanites.  Would Walter Kaiser, who supports the deceased Greene's views, seriously entertain the proposition that the three million Cambodians who died, because of their participation in "the life of the family and the nation to which they belonged," deserved what they got?  Even more absurd is the proposition that the Cambodians who were fortunate enough to escape the Khmer Rouge holocaust are just as guilty as the perpetrators of these atrocities.  This application of the principle of corporate responsibility to the Canaanites or the Cambodians is of course abhorrent to us.


            If one says, as Henry and Pinnock do, that Pol Pot is wrong but Moses is right because the genocide of the Canaanites was necessary for God's history of salvation, then we are presented with a theology of history which is at least unprovable if not morally unacceptable.  One would have to establish the plausibility of an Augustinian theodicy to persuade us that these horrors are really disguised goods for the greater glory of God.  Finally, I am baffled by Pinnock's remark that victims of Stalin or Hitler would understand Yahweh's morality better.  For the Jews at least, Richard Rubenstein's After Auschwitz presents a different thesis:  Not only has God's will become more inscrutable and arbitrary, his very existence must now be doubted.  Only the most antisemitic Christian could now say that the Nazi death camps were "incidental to God's larger purpose."


            A typical response to the foregoing is that it is blasphemous to judge God for these actions.  Yahweh is God and as such he can command or do whatever he pleases.  Those who say this do not realize that they are actually proposing an absurd form of moral relativism:  e.g., genocide is always wrong unless God commands it.  Such a response, however, does touch on a fundamental axiom about the biblical God, viz., that his will is the cause of all things and events.  Just as the Bible has no concept of scientific laws (e.g., God directly sends hail; it is not caused by atmospheric conditions), it does not have any idea of a natural moral law independent of what God commands.  Even though the New Testament writers were under the influence of Pharisaic Judaism, whose philosophical speculation introduced the idea of an uncreated, eternal Torah,(10) Paul seemed to disagree.  For him the Law is not eternal:  it came into being at the Fall for a specific purpose: to show the magnitude of sin and human depravity.  God created the Law to drive us toward Christ in whom Christians have the freedom of the Spirit and are no longer bound by the Law.




            I have already mentioned the ethical subjectivism (in this case, utilitarianism) of the Wisdom literature, but now I have raised the possibility that the Bible teaches another form of subjectivism.  Instead of human beings deciding what is right on the basis of their life experiences (Bruggemann's interpretation of Wisdom ethics), the principal biblical view seems to be that the divine subject wills what is right and what is wrong.  The divine will can decide on punishment or no punishment for acts against the moral law; or as in the mystery religions and Christianity, God or the designated agent takes on the punishment himself.  In any case, the moral law still stands as a freely chosen creation of God.  Ethical subjectivism does not mean that violators of the law are not wrong; it simply allows for grace and forgiveness of sins and wrongdoings.


            In ethical objectivism the moral law is uncreated and eternal and not subject to any will, divine or human.  No will can lessen the consequence of acts against the law; there is no grace in ethical objectivism.  In order to avoid punishment, one must perfect one's life and follow the law perfectly.  The law of karma, continuous birth, death and rebirth until such moral perfection is reached, is the best example of ethical objectivism.  In other words, for most people one lifetime is not enough for such moral perfection.  The law of karma does not make much sense to Westerners unless they see it as the ultimate logical implication of ethical objectivism.


            The three great savior religions--Christianity, the religion of Krishna, and Mahayana Buddhism (especially the "Pure Land" sect)--grew out of a reaction to two forms of ethical objectivism:  the Pharisaic view of the Law and the Hindu law of karma.  Each of these religions developed doctrines in which the savior infused his grace so that the dictates of the law could be met (or transcended) and the effects of sin removed.  Theological ethical subjectivism or voluntarism has been called the "divine command theory," and some contemporary scholars have attempted to show that this idea had a much larger following than previously thought.  Evangelical laypersons and most of their theologians have always been solidly committed to ethical objectivism (absolutism), but Henry and Clark support a divine command theory on biblical and historical grounds.  Henry claims that Augustine, Scotus, Ockham, the Reformers, the English Puritans, Barth, and Brunner held this view; and he also notes that some distinguished contemporary analytic philosophers have ably defended this position.(11)


            Before analyzing the evangelical divine command theory, it is necessary to take a close look at William of Ockham, the most radical proponent of theological voluntarism.  Ockham distinguished between two divine powers:  God's ordained power (potentia ordinata) and absolute power (potentia absoluta).  Out of the former power God has ordained and revealed specific prohibitions, precepts, counsels, promises, and fulfillments.  These ethical acts have been ordained exclusively for a fallen world; in other words original sin made them necessary.  This idea seems to relate to Paul's idea that the Law came into being as a result of the Fall.  In other words, the Law is not an end itself; furthermore, the Law is not eternal, for it has been replaced by the gospel and Christian love.  As we have seen, Paul says that Christians live in the Spirit (an expression of God's absolute power) not by the Law.


            Examples of God's ordained power are the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments, the precepts of Proverbs, and the promise that all humans will be saved.  Since not all people will fulfill the requirements for salvation, and since those personal acts and decisions still lie in the future, God does not ordain which particular individuals will be saved.  (This distinguishes Ockham from John Calvin and his doctrine of predestination.)  Individual salvation will come at the Last Judgment and will come out of God's absolute power.


            With regard to God's ordained power, the revealed will has two aspects:  the "antecedent"  will and the "disposing" will.  God's antecedent will is that which he has ordained beforehand in terms of prohibition, precept, counsel, promise, and fulfillment.  In addition, through the disposing will, God decided to operate the universe by means of secondary causes or physical laws.  These natural laws, just like the ethical acts out of his antecedent will, are not eternal.  At the destruction of the world, all natural laws will cease; furthermore, God can intervene out of his absolute power, suspend certain physical laws, and perform miracles.  It is interesting to note that God can be thwarted in his antecedent will; that is, we can go against what God has commanded or advised.  Obviously, we cannot go against the physical laws which God has laid down under the disposing will.


            The disposing will is common to both powers.  Out of it God can set physical laws in motion over which we have no control or power; and out of it God can act in any way that he wishes short of self-contradiction and "undoing" the past.  The absolute power is expressed in the "consequent" will, an unlimited (except for the qualifications above) will by which God acts consequent to his own momentary desires or consequent to the individual actions of humans.  As explained above, individual salvation is willed "consequently" and not "antecedently."  Even though God has set the sun and moon into regular motions, he can, out of the consequent will, stop them if he wishes, as he allegedly did in Joshua 10:12.  Similarly, even though God ordained that adultery was forbidden, God could conceivably (but not probably) command a person to have sex with another's wife.


            In his excellent book on C. S. Lewis John Beversluis offers a concise summary of Ockham's position:  "According to this view, when we talk about God's goodness, we must be prepared to give up our ordinary moral standards....To suppose that God must conform to some standard other than his own sovereign will is to deny his ultimacy.  God is bound by nothing and answerable to no one.  He is not under any moral constraint to command certain actions and forbid others.  He does not, for example, forbid murder because it is wrong; it is wrong because he forbids it."(12)


            We have noted that the ancient Hebrews were ruthlessly consistent in seeing the implications of God's power with regard to the origins of evil.  This can be seen in the fact that the Old Testament writers preferred to speak of Yahweh's holiness rather than his goodness.  Beversluis reminds us that the Hebrew kadosh does not mean "very, very good," but it literally means "set apart" or "other."(13)  (Kadosh serves as a single word indicator for a radical form of the Hebraic principle, viz., the transcendence of God over his creation.)  The biblical meaning of the saints is that they too are set apart, not that they are necessarily good.  This explains why Yahweh defines righteousness in terms of obedience and not moral purity or innocence.  This is also the only way to understand the theodicy of Job:  Yahweh never proves his goodness to Job, only his holiness, i.e., his unapproachable and inscrutable otherness.  In the whirlwind Yahweh justifies himself solely by a boastful display of absolute power not by any moral arguments.  It is clear that Yahweh will not be held to anything that he has ordained (e.g., that a righteous man should prosper and be rewarded); rather, he shall be feared and obeyed unconditionally.


            Because of the scholarly work of people like Heiko Oberman, we are now becoming more aware of the profound effect that Ockham had on the Reformers.  Luther's teachers were Occamists and one can definitely their pervasive influence in his theology.  Luther, however, did not accept the whole Occamist package.  Luther intensified the split between philosophy and theology much more than Ockham, who despite his professed fideism, was able, as is clearly evident above, to give us a very detailed account of God's nature and intentions.  (In this regard he was very much like Karl Barth.)  Luther's temperament was simply not compatible with the attention to technical detail and logical subtlety which has made Ockham a medieval hero among contemporary analytic philosophers.  Furthermore, Luther, although a voluntarist, supported Scotus' view that the Decalogue was eternal law and that God could not possibly command the immoral acts about which Ockham speculated.  With even more emphasis on God's sovereign power, John Calvin agreed on this point as well as on the divine command theory:  "For God's will is so much the the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous."(14)


            As contemporary Calvinists, Henry and Clark feel obliged to preserve this voluntarist tradition.  Henry states that "God's command constitutes an action right, while his prohibition constitutes it wrong."(15)  Like Ockham both Henry and Clark reject the Platonic idea that God is bound to a moral standard independent from his nature or will.  At the same time, however, Henry rejects the theological voluntarism of Barth and Brunner which is even more radical than Ockham's.  With them God's potentia ordinata seems to be replaced by the potentia absoluta, at least with regard to morality.  According to Brunner, divine commandments are not fixed in stone; they "are not abstract law, not a program that can be known beforehand and codified";(16) rather, they can be known only existentially in one's encounter with God.


            I agree with Henry that neo-orthodoxy went too far in these attempts to preserve divine sovereignty and to avoid moral legalism.  This can be seen as part of Barth's total rejection of any natural theology, including one which would speak of moral laws discernible by natural reason.  Barth eschewed a natural morality independent of divine decree as vigorously as he rejected general revelation in nature.  Just as the Bible unequivocally supports the latter, so does it, without giving clear indications of its origin or nature, justify the former.  Although we have argued that he must view the Law as contingent and teleological, Paul does maintain that even the pagans have it within their hearts (Ro. 2:1415).


            But Clark and Henry also diverge significantly from Ockham.  If the neoorthodox theologians tended to dissolve the ordained in the absolute power, these evangelicals, Henry at least, are inclined to do just the reverse.  Henry is not entirely clear in his understanding of divine power, but it seems that he is saying something like:  "What God wills has always been the divine will."  This means that what God has ordained constitutes eternal principles that are not only "propositions" in the divine mind but also "ethical his image-bearing rational-moral creatures."(17)


            Clark offers the valuable insight that both rationalists and voluntarists have made the mistaken assumption that reason and will are two mental faculties that are in conflict with one another.  Clark is correct that the rationalist-voluntarist debate violates the unity of persons in both humans and God.(18) The proper response to this, however, is not Clark's strongly rationalist view of the unified person or the related tendency to completely identify all of God's attributes as one.  Herman Bavinck presumably speaks for many evangelicals when he presents the "biblical position" in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:  "God's will is identical with his being, his wisdom, his goodness, and with all his attributes."(19)  This sounds more like Thomistic actus purus than the living Yahweh of unlimited potentiality. R. E. O. White's description of the divine will as what God has "already done as creator and redeemer"(20) confirms my thesis that these evangelicals have joined Henry in supplanting the absolute power with the ordained power.


            These thinkers seem to be oblivious to the arguments which Ockham and others have raised against such a view of God.  If God is pure actuality, then God cannot be or do anything other than what the divine nature has eternally been or done.  Identifying God's essence and existence makes a divine "life" at least unintelligible if not impossible.  The new unity of persons which we seek definitely does not mean static undifferentiation.  Even though we must reject the faculty psychology (recall Clark found it "unscriptural"), this does not mean that we cannot (indeed we must) distinguish between thoughts and volitions.  This is absolutely essential if we are to support freedom in both God and humans.  The little regard that evangelical M. E. Osterhaven has for the latter can be seen in his critique of Ockham's idea of the consequent will.


            Osterhaven contends that such a notion, one which ensures that our redemption is freely chosen and not preordained, "compromises the biblical picture of God Almighty in complete control of the world and of mankind as having a will which is only contingently free."(21)  It is difficult to see how such a thoroughly Calvinistic response can support divine, let alone, human freedom.  Without fully supporting the view, Clark describes the situation aptly:  "Possibly the immutability of purpose and the eternality of the decrees imply that this is the only possible world, a Calvinistic twist to a Spinozistic phrase."  What God has preordained, including our predestined election, is forever immutable:  neither God nor we could possibly do otherwise.


            With their strong emphasis on God's ordained power, Henry and Clark actually turn their professed voluntarism into a form of moral rationalism.  Just as God necessarily acts according to his perfect nature, so we must act according to the dictates of a conscience which God has implanted in us.  When Henry speaks of the "imperishable cognitive links of reason and conscience" which must also hold for God,(23) then Henry's theory is subject to the same criticisms as Kant's moral rationalism.  It does not help to propose that the divine will and reason are the same, because such a view does not allow enough potentiality for divine life and freedom.


            The ease with which Henry switches from "commands" to moral "principles" or Clark from "definite commands" to "complete preceptive will" reveals more confusion in their divine command theory.  First, there is a semantic problem:  the meaning of the word "command" is not the same as the word "principle"; and second, it is clear that many of Yahweh's commands are completely at odds with universally attested moral rules.  Indeed, when Yahweh is angry or when he is testing people, he seems to be totally devoid of moral scruple.  In his discussion of Abraham, Clark implies that God's command to sacrifice Isaac was actually a principle of God's "complete preceptive will."(24)  It would then follow that Yahweh's command to liquidate the Canaanites means that genocide is a moral imperative that we all ought to follow.


            Ockham would be embarrassed by these theological offspring and their inability to distinguish between the absolute and ordained power.  Ockham would have said that Yahweh's command to Abraham, as well as countless other specific directives, were definitely not part of what God had ordained for everyday life.  Abraham obviously did not go back and tell his people that child sacrifice was now permissible and that they should all practice it.  To the contrary, Abraham undoubtedly was relieved that the horrible ordeal was over and that his terrifying and inscrutable God was finished testing him.


            Clark does actually have an inkling of Ockham's point, but he is still confused:  "No doubt God had previously forbidden human sacrifice; and so long as that command remained in force, human sacrifice was a sin.  But if now, for some undetermined period of time, God commands human sacrifice, then it becomes obligatory and right."(25)  What I declared absurd above Clark has now deemed completely reasonable.  How are such proposals compatible with a preceptive will which is supposed to be, according to Osterhaven's definition, eternal and unchanging?  Furthermore, how can Clark claim that in contrast to moral skepticism "we are left with the definite demands of God...and his complete preceptive will..."?  According to Clark's own account, moral laws will not be absolute but relative to God's whimi.e., human sacrifice is right at one time but wrong at another.  Clark's words "definite" and "complete" are poorly chosen, for he presents us with an ethics which is obviously indefinite and incomplete.  If there are no independent moral standards other than what God wills, then it is difficult to see how Clark's view keeps from dissolving into a neoorthodox fideism, in which one will know what is right for today only by one's direct encounter with God.  Brunner, for example, seemed to require a moment-by-moment check on divine intentions.(26)


            Clark argues that the Christian religion is superior to Hinduism, in which the ritual human sacrifice was based on mere priestly authority.  In contrast, however, Clark contends that Abraham knew his directive came from God and not from men.  The crucial question of course is:  How does Clark know that Abraham knew that the angel was of God?  I believe that Kierkegaard was probably correct in his reconstructed account in Fear and Trembling:  Abraham did not tell Sarah or any other people because he knew full well that they would have thought him insane.  At least the Hindu sacrifice, like Agamemnon's offering, had the support of the people and remained within Kierkegaard's ethical stage; but Abraham was left totally alone without guidance in a situation just as absurd as Clark describes it.


            These arguments against Henry and Clark reveal the reasons why most evangelicals stay clear of moral voluntarism.  Clark criticizes E. J. Carnell for insisting on separate moral standards for judging the "character of God...and the character of God's representatives"; (27) but I will argue that this is the only tenable option for theological ethics.  One of the positive virtues of the biblical God is his faithfulness, and Christians must insist that their God remain true to what he has ordained.  Carnell avoids a strict moral rationalism by correctly observing that in contrast to Greek ethics "love took primacy over reason" in Christianity.(28)  In view of Asian philosophers (e.g., Vasubandhu) in which this is also true, I am skeptical of Carnell's claim that "this was a unique religious claim." 


            Donald Bloesch seems to resist the idea of any independent moral check on God, but he also believes that divine power must betempered by divine love.  Bloesch therefore supports a voluntarism with many qualifications.  He rejects Ockham's idea of absolute power as "speculative" and "arbitrary" but still attempts to preserve divine freedom by holding that "God's decrees are not an eternal aspect of his nature."(29)  This reliance on divine love, however, can be made intelligible only on the basis of Stephen Davis' solution to the problem of Old Testament atrocities.  Recall that he contends that we must trust our moral intuitions, and they allow us to reject any notion of deity which permits God to suspend moral rules.  Davis argues that Ockham's voluntarism renders all moral terms hopelessly equivocal and makes God something to be feared but not trusted, loved, or worshipped.(30)


            As we have already noted, most evangelical theologians firmly support ethical objectivism.  Faithfully following his inductive theological method and making no appeal to special revelation, Stuart Hackett proposes a moral rationalism which reminds one most of the Greeks, Aquinas, and Kant.(31)  He presents his own version of the moral argument for the existence of God, insisting that the premise of contingent moral value logically implies an "Ultimate Good" embodied in a divine person.  Moral rules are available to all people through conscience, and human persons, whose "intrinsic" value is dependent on God as supreme value, are exhorted to conform to God's objective moral laws.  Hackett agrees with Kant that the moral law must be fulfilled for all men and women; but he breaks with Kant in proposing that the Incarnation--Christ as representative of perfect humanity--allows us to participate in a moral perfection otherwise blocked by sin.  A critique of this view comes in the next section, but suffice it to say that Hackett's view of moral law appears to be considerably at odds with the Pauline idea that the Gospel supplants the Law, not fulfills it.


            In his book Options in Contemporary Christian Ethics Norman Geisler argues that the "unqualified" moral absolutism that most evangelicals espouse has serious problems.  Specifically, such a view does not offer satisfactory solutions in cases of conflicting moral obligations.  Geisler contends that Augustine was wrong to hold that such conflicts were just apparent and not real; and he is just as unhappy with Christians who believe that moral conflicts are indeed real, that we are guilty in either choice, and that asking for God's forgiveness is the only consolation.  Geisler's main response to the latter is that "logic dictates that a just God will not hold a person responsible for doing what is actually impossible...viz. to take both opposite courses of action at the same time."(32)


            Geisler's position is what he calls "graded absolutism," an "ethical essentialism" in which God's will is bound to moral attributes which are hierarchically arranged in the divine naturee.g., divine mercy is higher than divine justice.  With regard to his human creatures, "God anticipated the fall of man and the resulting moral conflicts and designed a way out for any morally responsible being."(33)  If one reads the Bible carefully, one will find that love of God takes precedence over any other love and that one will always lie to save a life.  Again I will defer criticism until the next section, but one should be struck by the unbiblical character of Hackett's and Geisler's ethics.  It is difficult for me to imagine an Abraham or a Job recognizing this "nice guy" deity who offers such easy solutions to life's dilemmas.  Instead of the God of the rational "way out" Yahweh appears to be more a God of theological apriori.




           Ever since Plato's Euthyphro many philosophers have been displeased with the divine command theory of ethics.  Socrates has a clear answer to the question "Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or because it is loved by the gods?"  For him that which is holy and right must be independent from divine desire.  An action is wrong for a reason, not just because God has willed it so.  The main problem with Socrates' argument is that he does not give a reason why piety has intrinsic value.  His answer is essentially circular:  piety is to be preferred over impiety because it is pious.  The problem is not solved within the framework of Plato's more speculative philosophy.  The statement "acts are pious because they participate in the form of piety" also begs the question.  As we shall see, grounding moral value in a transcendent Good is just as unsatisfactory as an appeal to the goodness of God. 


            It is Kai Nielsen who has been most active in debating the philosophical proponents of the divine command theory.  He analyzes the proposition "God is good" and concludes that, even if it is analytic, an independent standard for the good is still required.  Just as the "is of identity" led to absurdities with regard to the Incarnation (see this link), we can see that the terms "God" and "good" are not linked analytically in this way.  (This demonstrates that theologians who identify God and the divine attributes must be conceptually confused.)  Rather, Nielsen proposes that "God is good" is analytic in the same way that "puppies are young" and "triangles are three-sided" are.  In these two examples the predicates only partially define their subjects.  If the propositions above are indeed conceptually analogous, then a significant insight can be drawn from their comparison.  In the same way that one would need to understand the meaning of "young" or "three-sided" as a condition for understanding any proposition in which they are used, one must also have a prior understanding of goodness before comprehending the meaning of "God is good."  Nielsen concludes:  "We can intelligibly say, 'I have a three-sided figure here that is most certainly not a triangle' and 'colts are young but they are not puppies.'  Similarly, we can well say ' good even in a world without God.'"(34)


            Traditional ideas of divine perfection would lead most theologians to reject the alternative that "God is good" is synthetic.  This of course would mean that God could choose to be evil, which sounds like a contradiction.  Therefore, Nielsen must be on the right track when he proposes that "goodness is partially definitive of Godhood."  But notice that partially analytic propositions have something in common with synthetic ones:  in both the meaning of the predicate is found outside the subject.  If Krystal Carrington of Dynasty comes to me and invites me to see Ginger, one of her new Arabian colts, no necessity of course obtains between the horse and its name.  But if she shows me an old grey mare instead, I can be sure that the strain of her problems with Blake and Daniel has disturbed her mind.  To transfer the analogy, if someone tells me to read about the good God in the Bible, I have independent grounds to judge whether or not a deity who commands genocide really deserves to be called "God" or "good."


            Nielsen's arguments are the best I have seen for humanists who insist that right and wrong ultimately rest on our own moral intuitions.  But they should not think that Kant's moral rationalism is any better than Plato's, for his view also begs the question of axiological grounds.  The logic of the categorical imperative is as circular as explaining that one must stop at a red light simply because it is red.  The reason we stop on red is hypothetical not categorical.   We stop because of the consequences that might follow:  we might hit someone and hurt them or we might be stopped by the police and receive a fine.(35)  Benjamin Franklin's utilitarian response to the divine command theory goes directly to the point:  "Vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful."(36)  Franklin also would have rejected any rationalist appeal to either a transcendent or immanent Good.  Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill carried the argument further against both theological voluntarism and rationalism:  they insisted that God would use the same criterion that humans do:  viz., the greatest happiness principle.(37)


            Nielsen himself joins this tradition and gives a brilliant defense of consequentialist ethics in his last chapter.  I have been forced to give up an earlier commitment to moral rationalism, but I am not yet ready to follow Nielsen's lead.  I believe that he is correct that the only worthwhile goals are human, not divine, ones;  and that these "purely human purposes--those goals we set for ourselves, the intentions we form--are enough to give meaning to our lives."(38)  I am also sympathetic to his ethical pluralism, in which the futile search for the summum bonum is given up in favor of several higher goods.  I am not sure if I am in total agreement with his top three--happiness, self-consciousness, and self-identity--because I would definitely want to include concern for others or at least define happiness nonegoistically.  It seems as if Nielsen has betrayed his own method when he calls these "intrinsic" goods.  It is my understanding that there are, strictly speaking, no intrinsic values for the consequentialist.


            For my humanistic ethics I would simply prefer to recognize a number of intrinsic goods as proper human goals, sought for their own sake rather than for their consequences.  And instead of turning to consequentialism as a way of resolving moral conflicts, I believe that Geisler has the right model in his "value pyramid."  I think that Geisler is correct in judging that it is right to lie in order to save a life, but he is wrong to hold that only the Bible can tell us this.  Just as human beings came up with the positive insights of the biblical record, so will they also be the final authority in establishing any value hierarchy, however fallible it may be.  Just as I propose a hierarchy of persons, animals, and nonliving things, so is it also possible to arrange priorities among rights and moral rules.(39)


            There is one more significant difference between Nielsen's ethics and mine.  Even though I agree with him that moral rules do not have their origin in God, I am committed to a theistic worldview.  While Nielsen's proposal is an ethics literally without God, my preference is a theistic humanism in which God plays no moral role in the cosmos.  Although the process Christians reject God as "Cosmic Moralist," they still choose to maintain the traditional idea of divine ethical motives for the world.  I believe that this might be yet another anthropomorphic residue which philosophical theology has an option to reject. That the process God can be interpreted in a transethical way is apparent in Charles Hartshorne.  In a recent interview Hartshorne said: "The most universal value is aesthetic value, not moral nor intellectual, and what I mean by that is that every animal is sensitive to aesthetic values and disvalues, but is not sensitive to moral values and disvalues or to intellectual values and disvalues.  Aesthetic values are universal; they apply to all life and they apply to God.  God enjoys the beauty of the world--I agree one hundred per cent with Whitehead on that.  The value of the world is its beauty for God."(40) We do not have to accept Hartshorne's panpsychism in order to affirm the truth of what he is saying here.


            The orthodox God is the ground of ethical order, but the process God is the ground of novelty, creative transformation, contrast, harmony, and the intensification of enjoyment.  In short, the process God's goal in the universe is not justice but beauty.  If God's task is to aid in the fulfillment of every possible telos (all enjoyment aims at a purpose), then it is clear that God's role cannot possibly be one of a judge.  For example, God must care just as much for the Nile River fluke and the Egyptian peasant, even though the former has a devastating effect on the health of the latter.  If God's role were specifically ethical and judicial, then God would be paralyzed as the preeminent cosmic agent.  If there is life after death, and the evidence of near-death experiences must be studied carefully, then the biblical Last Judgment should be replaced by a humanistic selfjudgment.  For more see this link.


            These are of course radical suggestions, but they are not new.  The God of Epicurus and Aristotle played no role in ethics, and some of the deists also removed God from the moral sphere.  Both of these traditions argued, persuasively I believe, that many divine attributes assumed by common piety were merely projections out of a unique human perspective.  As opposed to the distant, indifferent nonprovidential God of deism, a transmoral process God would have an intimate and caring role in an organically related but selfrealizing world.  God would not directly intervene in creaturely affairs, nor would God favor one group over another.  Rather, God would work impartially, indirectly, and noncoercively in order to effect the divine teleology.(41)


            The full implications of the foregoing are far reaching and, for many religious people, unacceptable.  It means, for example, that specific petitions to God would be meaningless.  General worship would still be appropriate, but the whole concept of intercessory prayer would have no foundation in the theology I am proposing.  Faith as fiducia would remain as strong as in orthodox formulations.  In a humanistic process theism, faith would mean trust in a God who is maximizing all value for the creative transformation of the cosmos.  It also means confidence that God will preserve all value worth preserving so that none of it will be lost.  Such a faith would also serve as an answer to nihilism and thus would relieve the anxiety and despair that the threat of meaninglessness engenders.  In essence, a process humanistic faith would be the same as Cobb's faith in Christ, except that I have not chosen to name creative transformation in terms of any specific revelation.


            Morality and politics then are exclusively the domains of finite persons, realms in which they will, to phrase it colloquially, "make it or break it" on their own.  As Thomas Paine once had God proclaiming:  "I have made earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts.  He can now provide for his own comfort,... learn from my munificence to all, [and] be kind to each other."(42)  If we can put aside Paine's nasty anti-Christian polemics, his specieism, his excessive rationalism, and the deistic implication of God's absence, then his words would make a nice motto for the humanistic, process theology that I envision.



Full bibliographical information for references will be supplied at a later date.  Until then please check the full bibliography of the hard copy of God, Reason, and the Evangelicals.

   1. Robert Alley, Address to the Cable Club of Chicago, January 14, 1982. 


2. See Lawrence Kohlberg, Essays in Moral Development, vol. 1.  For a critique of Kohlberg's claim that he has refuted moral relativism, see Gilbert Harman's review in The New Republic (March 3, 1982), pp. 34-37.  Insofar as Kohlberg overemphasizes rational autonomy in the sixth stage, his surveys have also been criticized for being gender biased.  See Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice.


3. "I frankly find it difficult to believe that it was God's will that every Canaaniteman, woman, and childbe slaughtered.  Since the Bible clearly says that this was God's will, I must conclude that the biblical writers in this case were mistaken" (The Debate about the Bible, p. 97).  In response to the same question, C. S. Lewis gives the same response:  "The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scripture is to prevail when they conflict.  I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two" (quoted in John Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search..., p. 157).


4. Geisler, Biblical Errancy, p. 237.


5. Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 25.


6. See Peter Craige, The Problem of War in the Old Testament, p. 58.


7. William B. Greene, Classical Evangelical Essays, pp. 221-22; quoted in Walter Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Ethics, p. 268.  Let me emphasize once again that my theological anthropology, even though it draws on the idea of a social self, still preserves the moral integrity of the individual and rejects the idea of corporate responsibility.


8. Pinnock, The Scriptural Principle, pp. 112-13.


9. Henry, vol. 6, p. 295.


10. The Pharisaic author of the Book of Jubilees speaks clearly of the eternity of the Law (Torah), that it is uncreated and that there are no exceptions to it.  Late Judaism's fondness for the concept of Wisdom (Gk. sophia), which Philo and some early Christians used instead of logos, also implied that the Law was cosmic and absolute, having an ontological status distinct from God.  The Jewish Pessachim (54a) tells of seven things which were created before the world and the first was the Torah.  On Jubilees see Stephen L. Harris, Understanding the Bible, p. 193; on sophia see Howard C. Kee, Jesus in History, p. 245; on the Pessachim see J. M. Ford, The Anchor Revelation, p. 81.


11. Henry, vol. 6, pp. 25357.  Gordon Clark states that there are moral laws "because God has commanded them"; and that "anything God does is right, because he does it" (Religion, Reason..., pp. 151, 189).  John Beversluis claims that C. S. Lewis flirts with Ockhamism but always leaves one foot in the camp of the Platonists who believe that the good is independent of any will, human or divine (op. cit., pp. 156158).  See J. M. Idziak's Divine Command Morality:  Historical and Contemporary Readings for more on this topic, including Henry's own chapter "The Good as the Will of God as Lord."  The discussion of Ockham is drawn from Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, pp. 3056; and M. M. Adams and Norman Kretzmann, eds. and trans., William of Ockham:  Predestination, God's Foreknowledge, and Future Contingents, pp. 1626.


12. Beversluis, op. cit., p. 102.  As Beversluis states:  "Given this conception of God's goodness, evil is not a problem" (p. 153).


13. Ibid., p. 153.


14. Calvin, Institutes, bk. 3, ch. 23, sec. 2.


15. Henry, vol. 6, p. 253.  Henry states that "in the Bible God himself decides what is good and evil....The unrighteous are those who do not obey Yahweh's commands and those who refuse his offer of salvation.  Evil is therefore whatever opposes God's revealed will and word"; and God's "will and commands define the content of good and evil for his creatures" (ibid.).


16. Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, pp. 111ff.; quoted in ibid., p. 254.


17. Ibid.                                  


18. Clark, Religion, Reason..., p. 105.


19. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 1172, 2nd col.  Geisler has the same view in his own entry in this dictionary (p. 452, 1st col.) and other works (e.g., Options in Contemporary Christian Ethics, p. 72).


20. Ibid., p. 375, 2nd col.


21. Ibid., p. 1173, 1st col.


22.Clark, Religion, Reason..., p. 189.  In contrast to Henry and other evangelicals, Clark's mention of "some hypothetical world not now in existence" (ibid.) shows an appreciation for the logic of the potentia absoluta.


23.Henry, vol. 6, p. 254.  The following passage also shows Henry riding the fence between rationalism and voluntarism:  "If the sinner comes to terms...with an enlightened conscience and with the Lord of that conscience, he will bow before the sovereign God, the good Sovereign or sovereign Good, will repent of sin and submit to the moral law affirmed and commanded by the Creator of all life" (ibid.).  


24.Clark, Religion, Reason..., p. 192.  My point is confirmed by one of Osterhaven's textual supports for the "preceptive" will (op. cit.).  Deut. 29:29 indicates that God's revelation, specifically the "words of this law" belong to Israel forever.  This is one passage among many which apparently supports the eternity of the Law instead of the Pauline idea of its contingency.




26. "The Good consists in always doing what God wills at any particular moment" (The Divine Imperative, quoted in Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God, p. 1).


27. Carnell, Christian Commitment, p. 142; quoted in ibid., p. 190.


28. Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology, p. 15.


29. Bloesch, Essentials..., vol. 1, pp. 27-29.


30. S. T. Davis, Logic and the Nature of God, pp. 91-93.


31. Hackett, The Reconstruction..., pp. 111-117; 166-177.


32. Geisler, Options in Contemporary Christian Ethics, pp. 8788.  Geisler is to be praised for rejecting the dualism in the traditional Christian view that the sins of the soul are worse than those of the body.


33. Ibid., p. 104.


34. Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God, p. 9.


35. I have taken this example from William T. Jones, Kant and the Nineteenth Century, pp. 76-77.


36. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiographical Writings, p. 632.


37. See John Stuart Mill:  Utilitarianism, On Liberty..., pp. 56, 273ff.


38. Nielsen, op. cit., p. 54.


39. See, e.g., Alan H. Goldman's Moral Foundations of Professional Ethics for an extended argument for this view.  See also my discussion of some abortion dilemmas at this link.


40. From an interview with Charles Hartshorne, Unitarian Universalist World (November 15, 1982), p. 1.


41. Although he still wants to use moral language about God, David Platt's discussion about morality and Whitehead's God contains many insights which I would incorporate in my own view.  See Platt, "Does Whitehead's God Possess a Moral Will?"


42. Thomas Paine, The Complete Writings, p. 490.