Audio Series for D. A. Carson’s The God Who is There

This month, Don Carson’s latest book The God Who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story comes out. Today, with rising Biblical illiteracy inside the church and many abandoning a content-less Christianity, the necessity of proclaiming the sweep of the Biblical plot-line and our place in redemptive history is  increasingly important in our evangelism. Carson’s book is a great introduction to the Biblical storyline through the lens of God’s character and work. If you read this blog, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Carson and this book looks to be an excellent buy for new Christians and those who are thinking about exploring Christianity (if you’re thinking of taking a small group through the book, there is also a Leader’s Guide).

To get an appetite for Carson’s book, Andy Naselli has posted the audio from Carson’s 14-part seminar at Bethlehem Baptist Church’s North Campus in Minneapolis. The seminar was held on February 2009 and will be released this year as a DVD (check out the 10-minute video preview for each talk as well).

The MP3s are the full audio lectures and highly recommended.

  1. The God Who Made Everything | MP3 | Video Preview
  2. The God Who Does Not Wipe Out Rebels | MP3 | Video Preview
  3. The God Who Writes His Own Agreements | MP3 | Video Preview
  4. The God Who Legislates | MP3 | Video Preview
  5. The God Who Reigns | MP3 | Video Preview
  6. The God Who Is Unfathomably Wise | MP3 | Video Preview
  7. The God Who Becomes a Human Being | MP3 | Video Preview
  8. The God Who Grants New Birth | MP3 | Video Preview
  9. The God Who Loves | MP3 | Video Preview
  10. The God Who Dies—and Lives Again | MP3 | Video Preview
  11. The God Who Declares the Guilty Just | MP3 | Video Preview
  12. The God Who Gathers and Transforms His People | MP3 | Video Preview
  13. The God Who Is Very Angry | MP3 | Video Preview
  14. The God Who Triumphs | MP3 | Video Preview

The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s StoryBinding by D. A. Carson (Baker, 2010, Paperback), 240 Pages, is available now on Amazon.

The Myth of Religious Violence

Brad S. Gregory, writing in the First Things journal, reviews William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict:

“The “Myth” of religious violence? Is the head of this ivory tower academic (Cavanaugh teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota) buried in the sand? Cavanaugh has no interest in denying the obvious, that human beings are sometimes motivated by religion to act in violent ways. Nor does he seek to differentiate between “genuine” and “so-called” religion in an effort to keep the sincere and the devout free from the taint of violence.

Exposing the myth of religious violence means something else: the careful demolition of the variously argued idea that in ostensible contrast to rational, modern, secular ideologies, there is something distinctively disruptive, divisive, and dangerous about religion that makes it, across historical epochs and cultures and peoples, inherently prone to irrational, intractable violence. Because of this, the argument goes, religion must be resolutely corralled and controlled by the benign secularism of the liberal state, if necessary by justifiable, pacifying violence of the state’s own.

Cavanaugh rightly sees that, for this argument to work, there must be something identifiable about “religion” that makes it susceptible to violence and sets it apart from secular ideologies and commitments. But those who make this argument have offered no account of religion that can sustain the argument. Ignoring much scholarship about the historical and cultural variability of the concept of religion itself, they argue as if the differences are apparent. Hence they offer, in the guise of description and analysis, the myth of religious violence: the powerful and pervasive perpetuation of the false notion that because it is especially liable to violence, religion merits special attention by a secular state whose legitimacy is reaffirmed every time it performs its policing function, thereby reinforcing the myth and deflecting attention away from its own violence.

The Myth of Religious Violence begins with the arguments of nine leading scholars-including John Hick, Martin Marty, and Charles Kimball-who argue in their respective ways that religion tends especially to violence because it is absolutist, divisive, and/or not rational. Cavanaugh demonstrates that all such arguments founder: If they define religion in substantive terms, he shows with abundant evidence that “there is no reason to suppose that so-called secular ideologies such as nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and liberalism are any less prone to be absolutist, divisive, and irrational than belief in, for example, the biblical God,” and if they employ a functionalist definition of religion, they dissolve the analytical distinction between religious and secular, because “the term religion comes to cover virtually anything humans do that gives their lives order and meaning . . .”

. . . “But didn’t the “wars of religion” in the Reformation era show beyond any doubt that religion is absolutist, divisive, and irrational and therefore prone to violence? And, as a result, wasn’t the modern liberal state created and construed as a secular, privatizing, and individualizing religion in order to tame it?

This “creation myth of the wars of religion” Cavanaugh dismantles thoroughly. He rightly directs his analysis especially against contemporary liberal political theorists and legal scholars who construe the creation of the secular state as the creation of a peacemaking savior from the religious unrest of early modern Europe. The contemporary liberals’ story simply echoes the story’s self-serving creators, from Hobbes and Spinoza through Voltaire and Rousseau.

Against this narrative Cavanaugh marshals a wide range of evidence from historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that hopelessly complicates any construal of major European conflicts from the Schmalkaldic War (1546-1547) through the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) as “wars of religion.” More fundamentally, he correctly notes the inseparability of religion from politics and society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hence, one cannot, for example, say that a Catholic Eucharistic procession was religious rather than political or social–unless one applies, anachronistically, a conception of religion that itself arose only as a rejection of the human realities it sought to refashion . . .”

“. . . In place of the myth of religious violence, Cavanaugh suggests leveling the playing field: Both secularist liberalism and religious traditions should be placed within the same analytical framework when it comes to answering without prejudice a straightforwardly functionalist question: “Do certain ideologies and practices have more of a tendency to produce violence than others?” In this endeavor, “the distinction between secular and religious violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and it should be avoided altogether.””

Read the whole article here.

The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, by William T. Cavanaugh (Oxford University Press, 2009), 296 pages is available for $39.96 on Amazon.

Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part III

My first post in this series, Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I, I examined Peter Singer’s version of the Euthyphro argument and demonstrated that it relies upon a strawman. In Part II I criticised Singer’s utilisation of the arbitrariness objection against divine command theory. Singer’s last objection comes as a rejoinder to the line of response sketched.

Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?[i]

The problems with this response have already been demonstrated. Singer suggests that the modern theists who propose this response hold that ‘good’ means approved by God. However, this is not what they propose. Some, like Quinn and Weirenga, suggest that what makes actions right or wrong are the commands of God. Adams holds that wrongness is the property of being contrary to God’s commands. Neither of these views entails that ‘God is good’ means ‘God is approved’ by God.

In order for Singer’s objection to be something other than a straw man, it needs to be reformulated to deal with theories like the ones actually proposed by defenders of divine command theory. One such formulation is suggested, though not endorsed, by Edward Weirenga.

[I]f to be morally good is to do no wrong, and if what is wrong is what is forbidden by God, then to say that God is good is just to say that he never does what he forbids himself to do. But there is no moral value in never doing what one forbids oneself to do.[ii]

This objection is problematic. Firstly, the last premise affirms that there is no moral value in never doing what one forbids oneself to do; i.e. there is no moral value in living by the standards you set yourself, so to speak. This is false. There very clearly is moral value in avoiding hypocrisy and hypocrisy involves, in part, not following the standards one lays down for one’s own behaviour. Moreover, the very notion at the heart of much contemporary, ethical theory is that of autonomy. Autonomy refers to the act of regulating one’s own behaviour in light of the laws or principles of which one approves.

Finally, note that Weirenga’s objection begins with “if to be morally good is to do no wrong … then”. [Emphasis added]. The argument assumes that goodness is defined purely in terms of doing one’s duty. This was not claimed in the theory proposed and this assumption is at best controversial. Many ethical theories define ‘right’ in terms of a relationship to what is good and others see rightness as involving side constraints upon the quest for good. At best, what is needed is an argument as to why a theist must accept such a definition and none has been offered.

Paul Faber notes that within Presbyterian tradition there are strong precedents for not characterising goodness this way. He notes how God’s goodness is characterised in the Westminster Confession.[iii]

[M]ost loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.[iv]

Here God’s goodness is not defined so much in terms of conformity to duties but in terms of various character traits or excellence. Virtues such as being loving, truthful, forgiving, etc, hating actions that are wrong, praising and rewarding what is right. Nothing in divine command theory entails that God cannot have such attributes. The theory might have this implication if it also maintained that God has such traits because he is required to or if the virtues mentioned cannot be attributed to God without defining them in terms of various commands he has issued. However, none of this is necessary. God does not have to have a duty to have something in order to have it and such things as being loving, truthful, forgiving, etc. can all be understood without specifying any divine command.

[i] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3-4.
[ii] Edward Weirenga,
The Nature of God, 222.
[iii] Paul Faber, “The Euthyphro Objection to Divine Normative Theories: A Response”
Religious Studies 21 (1985): 564-567.
[iv] Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 2, Article 1, 145.

Cross Posted at MandM

Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part II

In his work Practical Ethics Singer proposes a version of the Euthyphro dilemma to criticise a divine command theory of ethics,

Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad.[i]

In my previous post, Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I, pointed out that his version of the Euthyphro argument relies upon a straw man. Divine command theory is not typically proposed as a theory about what is good but is usually restricted to deontic properties such as right and wrong. Its worth noting however that, this fact is not fatal to Singer’s position; it is possible to develop analogies to the Euthyphro that do not rely on this straw man. James Rachels is an example, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy he suggests that an action is right either because God commands it or he commands it because it is right. He then offers the same arguments Singer does to suggest that only by embracing the second horn of the dilemma which amounts to giving up divine command theory, can one escape absurdity.[ii]

The key argument Singer raises against divine command theory is, “if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad”.[iii] Singer couches this objection in terms of goodness and badness but the same objection can be raised with regards to claims that Gods commands constitutes what is right and wrong. Rachels for example states that divine command theory “leads to trouble” because “it represents Gods commands as arbitrary. It means God could have given different commands just as easily. He could have commanded us to be liars, and then lying, not truthfulness would be right.”[iv]

The objection is that divine command theory entails a certain counter-factual conditional; to use Singer’s example, if God commanded torture then torture would not be wrong. While Singer does not state that this conditional is false, he appears to take it for granted that it is. After all, if the conditional were true then the fact that divine command theory entails it would not constitute an objection to the theory. Unfortunately Singer provides no reason for thinking this conditional is false. He appears to think that it is obvious.

Phillip Quinn has given reasons for questioning this assumption. Quinn notes that a counter-factual conditional such as ‘If God commands torture then torture is not wrong’ is false only if the antecedent is true and the consequent false.[v] In other words, the conditional is only false in a situation where God in fact does command torture and torture in that situation is wrong. In order for Singer’s objection to be sound there needs to be a logically-possible situation in which God does offer the command in question and the action he commands is wrong. Is such a scenario logically possible?

It is doubtful it is. God is perfectly and maximally good. Hence, the first premise is true only if a perfectly-good being would command an action such as the torture of children. This is unlikely. The claim that a perfectly-good being would command something morally abhorrent is on the face of it incoherent. Hence, it is unlikely that such a situation is possible.

A former teacher of mine, Mane Hajdin, suggested to me that this assertion is too hasty a few years ago he offered me the following criticism,

[I]t is assumed that being good involves being loving, forgiving, etc, in all possible worlds. But why should we assume that? Why aren’t there worlds in which being good involves being cruel, ruthless, etc? To simply assume that, in this context, may leave the impression of begging the question.

Roy Perrett suggested to me that that there are possible states of affairs where the contingent and factual structure of the world would be so different that what we take as paradigms of virtue in fact are not. In such a world, torture may be conducive to human flourishing or be, in fact, a virtuous activity.There may be something to this response. The problem with this response is that it still fails to provide reasons for thinking that the above-mentioned conditional is false. In order for this conditional to be false it must be logically possible not just for God to command an action but for that action to be wrong in the given situation. Perrett and Hajdin provide us reasons for thinking that it is possible for a perfectly-good being to command actions such as torture or cruelty. However, the situations envisaged are ones in which torture is not, in fact, wrong. In the situation Perrett envisages, torture is, in fact, virtuous and in Hajdin’s torture is good. In such examples it is the virtuous nature of torture that makes it plausible to assume that a perfectly-good being could command it.

It remains doubtful whether a logically-possible situation in which God commands an action and that action is wrong could exist. This is because a perfectly-good being would not command wrongdoing. To the extent that we think a perfectly-good being could command a particular action, we have reasons for thinking the action permissible. On the other hand, to the extent that we think it is impossible for the action to be wrong we find it impossible to envisage how a perfectly-good being could command it.

In Part III, I will look at the emptiness objection.

[i] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3.
[ii] James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 42.
[iii] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3.
[iv] Rachels The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 42
[v] Phillip Quinn, “Divine Command Theory,” in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. H Lafollette (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 2000) 70.

Cross Posted at MandM

Video from Plantinga’s Retirement Celebration

This last May, Alvin Plantinga was honoured on his retirement by a special conference at the University of Notre Dame. Plantinga is one of the most important and influential living philosophers  in the area of metaphysics, epistemology, and, particularly, philosophy of religion. His retirement at Notre Dame was commemorated with several  presentations from a wide range of scholars over three days. Here is the video from the talks (I’ve embedded the first part of each talk – for all the parts go here).

Michael Bergmann (Purdue University) “Commonsense Skeptical Theism”
RESPONDENT: Stephen Wykstra (Calvin College)
CHAIR: W. Jay Wood (Wheaton College)

Trenton Merricks (University of Virginia) “Singular Propositions”
RESPONDENT: David Vander Laan (Westmont College)
CHAIR: Jerome Gellman (Ben-Gurion University)

Peter van Inwagen (University of Notre Dame) “Causation and the Mental”
RESPONDENT: Robin Collins (Messiah College)
CHAIR: Bernard W. Kobes (Arizona State University)

Richard Otte (University of California) “Theory Comparison in Science and Religion”
RESPONDENT: Bas van Fraassen (San Francisco State University)
CHAIR: René van Woudenberg (Free University)

Ernest Sosa (Rutgers University) “Descartes and Virtue Epistemology”
RESPONDENT: Raymond VanArragon (Bethel University)
CHAIR: Rik Peels (University of Utrecht)

Eleonore Stump (Saint Louis University) “The Value of Atonement”
RESPONDENT: E. J. Coffman (University of Tennessee)
CHAIR: Laura Ekstrom (The College of William and Mary)

Thomas P. Flint (University of Notre Dame) “Varieties of Accidental Necessity”
RESPONDENT: Thomas Crisp (Biola University)
CHAIR: Laura Garcia (Boston College)

Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers University) “Stages in God’s Foreknowledge”
RESPONDENT: Donald Smith (Virginia Commonwealth University)
CHAIR: John Mullen (Oklahoma Baptist University)

Nicholas Wolterstorff  (Yale University, Emeritus, and Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia)
“Then, Now, and Al”
CHAIR: Andrew Chignell – Cornell University

(Source: Michael Sudduth)

Praying for Christopher Hitchens

David Brog:

“When I heard the sad news that Christopher Hitchens had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, I did what I typically do upon learning of someone’s illness: I said a silent prayer for his recovery. Call it habit, hope, or faith — but this is what I do. While I could not disagree more with this fierce critic of the Judeo-Christian tradition, I also recognize that Hitchens is not a bad man. He’s never employed or condoned violence in furtherance of his atheism. I can wish for him physical health and personal happiness even while I fight with everything I’ve got against what he stands for. Our hearts should be big enough to rise above the petty.”

Indeed.

Some things that we can specifically pray for:

– that Hitchens might see that the Gospel enables us to grieve over our enemies calamities (Proverbs 24:17) and seek their relief (Exodus 23:4).
– that his pain would lead not to worldly sorrow, but a Godly sorrow that both brings repentance and leads to his salvation (2 Cor 7:10).
– that God’s grace would be shown to be greater than his sinfulness (Romans 5:15-21) and can rescue even those who are objects of His wrath (Ephesians 2:3).
– that he might see that the Gospel does not gloss over sin, nor see justice as unimportant (Romans 3:26), but frees us from harbouring thoughts of retaliation (1 Peter 2:23b) and enables us to truly love even those who hurt the church (Matt 5:44).
– that he might be snatched from the fire (Jude 23) for God’s salvation is better than destruction (Psalm 30:9, Isaiah 38:18).

Auckland Debate: Is God the Source of Morality?

This August, Raymond Bradley and Matthew Flannagan will debate the topic “Is God the Source of Morality?

Is it rational to ground right and wrong in commands issued by God?”

The debate will be held at the University of Auckland on Monday 2 August at 7pm, in “The Centennial” 260 – 098 OGGB (the bottom level of the Business School) on 12 Grafton Rd, Auckland.

Bradley is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy with areas of specialty in Philosophical Logic, Metaphysics, Logical Atomism; he has previously debated William Lane Craig, Edward Blaiklock and many other Christian scholars and describes himself as an older generation “new atheist”.

Flannagan is an Auckland based Philosopher and Theologian with areas of specialty in Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Theology; he has previously debated Bill Cooke, Zoe During and writes for the popular Christian blog MandM.

The format of the debate will be as follows:

Dr Bradley: Opening Comments [20 min]
Dr Flannagan: Opening Comments [20 min]
Dr Bradley: Reply to Dr Flannagan [10 min]
Dr Flannagan: Reply to Dr Bradley[10 min]
Dr Bradley: Closing Comments [7 min]
Dr Flannagan: Closing Comments [7 min]
Questions from the floor: [30 min]

The moderator for the debate will be Professor John Bishop.

Both Bradley and Flannagan are experienced and engaging public speakers who are practiced at pitching their topics to suit their audiences. So, invite all your friends, and block out the evening of Monday 2 August from 7-9 pm now and make sure you get to the debate early to locate parking and grab a good seat.

This debate is brought to you by the Evangelical Union and the Reason and Science Society as part of the University of Auckland’s Jesus week/Atheist week, with support from Thinking Matters.

The event will be videoed and will be published on this blog. Entry is free and any and all are welcome.

There is even a Facebook page you can rsvp on and use to invite your friends.

UPDATE: (7 August)

For the audio from the debate: Click here to stream the debate,  or click here to download the mp3.

Auckland Event: Christ in the Workplace

The Tertiary Student Christian Fellowship’s graduate ministry is organizing their National Conference this year on Christ and the workplace. With a vision to seeing godly people who are willing to bring their faith and professional lives together, Catalyst are hosting a compelling program of speakers, worship and workshops to nurture and encourage Christians to be better disciples of Christ in the workplace.

The conference will be held at Laidlaw College in Henderson, Auckland, beginning on the 3rd of September and ending on the 5th. Catalyst have organized some amazing speakers from a broad range of specialized fields and working environments, from architecture, health care, law, business, farming, town planning and more. Speakers include Andrew Thorburn (CEO of the BNZ bank), Andrew Becroft (Principal Youth Court Judge), Chris Clarke (CEO of World Vision NZ), Peter Thirkell (professor of Marketing at Victoria University), and Paul Windsor (associate director of Langham Preaching).

The conference will offer a unique opportunity to develop networks with colleagues gathered from around New Zealand and deepen professional, intellectual, and spiritual relationships. Catalyst hopes that participants will be able to leave able to:

• communicate the gospel in word and deed
• translate the Bible’s story into their profession
• live for Christ on Monday as much as Sunday
• are participants with God in his global mission

You can download the brochure here or visit the Catalyst site for more details.

Event Details:

What: Christ in the Workplace: National Catalyst Conference 2010
When: 3 – 5 September 2010
Where: Laidlaw College, 80A Central Park Drive Henderson, West Auckland

Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I

Perhaps the most common argument against an appeal to divine commands in ethical reasoning is the Euthyphro dilemma, first articulated by Plato and utilised by numerous critics of divine commands ever since. A representative example of this line of argument occurs in Peter Singer’s widely-acclaimed monograph Practical Ethics. In the first chapter of Practical Ethics, Singer offers the following argument.

[E]thics is not something intelligible only in the context of religion. I shall treat ethics entirely independent of religion. Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad.[i]

Several features of this critique are noteworthy. Singer identifies a position known as the divine command theory of ethics. He construes this position as the view that “the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves.” He bases this on the testimony of “some theists”. Singer’s argument here consists of three stages. He proposes the famous dilemma proposed by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro. He then claims that divine command theory makes God’s commands arbitrary. He asserts that acceptance of divine command theory entails that paradigmatically-evil actions such as torture could be good. He concludes that divine command theory makes God’s goodness redundant,

Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?[ii]

In this three part blog series I will respond to the Euthyphro dilemma. In this post I will comment upon Singer’s description of his opponents’ position and suggest it is a straw-man. In the next two posts I will assess the arguments he proposes and argue they are unsuccessful. Contrary to what is commonly asserted in ethics textbooks and first year philosophy lectures, I do not think the Euthyphro dilemma is sound.

As I stated above, Singer’s argument is an attack upon a position known in the literature as divine command theory or voluntarism. Schneewind notes that in the late Middle Ages two schools emerged as to the relationship between God and the existence of an objective law. The first and older position is known as Intellectualism. In this view, God does not create morality; rather, God’s will is guided by his intellectual knowledge of eternal moral standards. The second position is divine command theory. This position grounded the moral law not so much in God’s intellect but in his will. God himself creates the moral law.[iii]

It is worth noting at this juncture that divine command theory is only one possible way of construing the nature of divine law and since Singer only offers an argument against this position, even if his argument is sound it fails to establish that the idea of divine law is problematic. Nevertheless, even as a critique of this theory the argument appears to attack a straw man.

Singer construes divine command theory as claiming “the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what God approves.’” It appears then that Singer characterises divine command theory as a theory about the meaning of the evaluative term “good”; however, this is a caricature.

Few, if any, notable defenders of divine command theory propose it as a theory about the meaning of the term ‘good’. This is demonstrated by examining the literature of those contemporary theists who do defend versions of the theory. A notable, contemporary defender of divine command theory is Robert Adams. In Divine Command Ethics Modified Again and later in his monograph Finite and Infinite Good, Adams puts forward the view that “ethical wrongness is (i.e., is identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God”.[iv] [Emphasis original]

Note two things here; firstly, Adams does not offer a theory about ‘the good’ but explicitly limits his theory to deontological properties such as wrongness. Secondly, his theory is not about the meaning of terms; rather it is a metaphysical claim about identity.

This last distinction is important. Contemporary philosophy of language offers several examples of this distinction between two terms having the same meaning and two things being identical. One of the most famous is the relationship between water and H20. Water is H20. This is a claim of identity. The liquid on earth that we call water is hydrogen hydroxide. However, this is not a claim of meaning. The claim that water is H20 is not an analytic truth that is true in virtue of the meaning of the words, rather it is a claim discovered by empirical investigation. Moreover, a competent language user could refer to water and understand the meaning of this term without needing to know about the atomic structure H20. Similar examples are available with such claims as ‘the morning star is the evening star’ or ‘Superman is Clark Kent.’ In each case, we have a statement of identity that is distinct from the claim that two words have the same meaning. Adams then explicitly denies he is proposing the position Singer attributes to modern theists.

Similar things can be said about the other major defenders of divine command theory. William Alston holds that divine commands are constitutive of deontological properties and notes Adam’s identity claim as a paradigm of the type of relationship he is defending.[v]

Philip Quinn defends a version of divine command theory that is limited to the deontological status of actions.

In speaking of the deontological status of an action, I mean to refer to whether it has such properties as being morally permitted, being morally forbidden or prohibited, and being morally obligatory or required.[vi]

Quinn argues that God’s commands cause or bring about these properties. He specifically denies that he is offering a theory of ‘the good’ in general or that the relationship between God’s commands and moral properties is one of meaning. In fact, he argues against such a view.[vii]

Edward Weirenga defends a similar theory proposing that divine commands are those properties of actions that make them possess deontic properties such as right and wrong. He does not affirm that the word ‘good’ means commanded by God.[viii] Similarly, John Hare argues, “that what makes something obligatory for us is that God commands it”.[ix]

This is not just true of contemporary defenders of divine command theory. In a survey of the historical literature, Janine Marie Idziak notes that, historically, divine command theory was usually understood as a theory about what makes actions right and wrong and not a theory about the meaning of moral terms.[x] Moreover, historically, divine command theorists such as Locke[xi] and Puffendorf limited it to deontological properties and not to broader axiological properties such as goodness.

Robert Adams did defend a semantic theory in some of his earlier writings but, as noted, he later rejected his theory in favour of the one I sketched above. Moreover, the semantic theory Adams did initially defend bears little resemblance to the interpretation of divine command theory made by Singer. Adams explicitly asserted that his theory was limited to analysing the meaning of the word wrong and not broader notions such as goodness. Moreover, it was limited to an analysis of what the word means in Judeo-Christian discourse not what the word meant in general.[xii]

It is difficult then to ascertain to whom exactly Singer is referring when he states “Some theists” hold this view and he fails to provide any citations as to whom he is referring. He appears to attack a straw man that has little resemblance to the theory as it has usually been articulated and defended in both historical and contemporary literature.

Not only does Singer attack a straw man but attention to the arguments he uses reveals that in the very next sentence he changes his interpretation from a theory of meaning to a dependence or causal theory. Immediately after stating, “the very meaning of “good” [is nothing other than] what God approves”, Singer follows Plato in suggesting that either something is good because God approves of it or God approves of it because it is good.[xiii] However, this presupposes that the relationship between divine approval and goodness is some kind of asymmetrical relationship where one entity in the relationship is temporally or ontologically prior to the other.

If, as Singer maintains, divine command theory is the claim that “the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what God approves’,” then the relationship between divine approval and goodness is not an asymmetrical relationship but rather a relationship of meaning so this dilemma simply does not apply.

Consider the following example. A person tells you that a bachelor is an unmarried man because the word bachelor means unmarried man. It would not make sense to respond to this claim ‘yes, but is he a bachelor because he is unmarried or is he unmarried because he is a bachelor?’ A person’s unmarried-ness is not prior to or the cause of his bachelorhood nor is his bachelorhood the cause of his being unmarried. His being unmarried is just a different way of referring to his bachelorhood. The relationship between a bachelor and an unmarried man is not causal; the relationship is one of meaning.

Immediately after stating that divine command theory is a theory about the meaning of terms, Singer offers an objection that presupposes it is not a semantic theory but a causal one. However, only a few lines later he offers the following objection to the theory “what can they [theists] possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?”[xiv] Here Singer’s objection relies on the claim that good means approved by God in order to generate the trap he refers to. Not only does Singer attack a straw man but also his target appears to change throughout the discussion. In fact, it appears to change in order to fit the objections raised.

In Part II I will look at the arbitrariness objection.

[i] Singer, Practical Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 3.
[ii] Ibid., 3-4.
[iii] Jerome Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 8-9.
[iv] Robert Adams, “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again,” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979): 76.
[v] William Alston, “Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists,” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 303-304.
[vi] Phillip Quinn, “An Argument for Divine Command Theory,” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 291.
[vii] Ibid., 293.
[viii] Edward Weirenga, The Nature of God: An Inquiry into the Divine Attributes, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 215-27. See also “Utilitarianism and the Divine Command Theory,” American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984): 311-318 and “A Defensible Divine Command Theory,” Nous 17 (1983): 387-408.
[ix] John Hare, God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands and Human Autonomy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 49.
[x] Janine Maree Idziak, “In Search of Good Positive Reasons for an Ethics of Divine Commands: A Catalogue of Arguments,” Faith and Philosophy 6:1 (1989): 60.
[xi] For a defence of the claim that Locke was a voluntarist see Francis Oakley & Elliot W. Urdang, “Locke, Natural Law and God,” Natural Law Forum, 11 (1966): 92-109.
[xii] Robert Adams, “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness” In Divine Commands and Morality, ed. Paul Helm (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 83-108.
[xiii] Singer, Practical Ethics, 4.
[xiv] Ibid., 3-4.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Ibid., 40.

Cross Posted at MandM

The Jesus of History: The 2nd & 3rd Quest (part 3)

The Period of No Quest

The first half of the twentieth century saw the rise of the dialectical and existential schools of theology represented by Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann. For these men the quest for the historical Jesus was well over. Barth ignored the New Testament criticism of Jesus, for what mattered to him was the Christ of Faith proclaimed by the Church. The historical Jesus was, besides being inaccessible to investigation, theologically irrelevant and distracting. Bultmann’s project of demythologization was characteristic of those who preceded him, but this time with surprisingly transparent naturalistic presuppositions.[1] For this project he developed the “form critical” method, to uncover the oral traditions that lay behind the earliest scriptural writing. To him the hope was to show that the gospel’s picture of Jesus was largely an invention of the early church. Of the historical Jesus he wrote “In my opinion, of the life of and personality of Jesus we can now know as good as nothing.”[2] It did not matter to him though, for what was important was the truth expressed by the Christ-myth in the kerygma.[3]

The Second Quest

A new quest began with the disciples of Bultmann who were not content with the mere fact of Jesus’ existence as a ground for the Christian faith. The launch of the quest was a lecture delivered in 1953 by Ernst Käsemann (1906-1998) to his fellow students in Göttingen. There he selected sayings of Jesus he believed to be assuredly authentic and asked the question what impression do we get of Jesus’ proclamation and character. Redaction-criticism was born: its aim to discover the theological and literary tendencies of the authors of scripture. Others soon joined him in the quest.[4]

James Robinson (1924-) distinguished between the Jesus of history and the historical Jesus. The first was the actual person who lived, and the second was the person who could be proved. The new quest, he says, was only concerned with the historical Jesus. Because of the presence of theology in the gospels, Robinson believed the burden of proof belonged to the one who would ascribe some attribute to Jesus, and not the one who denied it. Thus, if some feature of the historical Jesus could not be proved to be authentic, we should regard it as inauthentic. This presumption has been sharply criticized[5] but lies behind much of New Testament scholarship today. More will latter be said on Robinson’s presumption and its effect on the criteria for authenticity.

John Meier, professor of New Testament at the University of Notre Dame, and author of the massive and ongoing series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, makes a distinction similar to Robinson. To him the Jesus of history or the historical Jesus is a modern abstraction and construct of what can be recovered and examined using ‘the scientific tools of modern historical research.’[6] He uses those terms interchangeably, and contrasts them with what he calls the real Jesus, which is “a reasonably complete record of [his] public words and deeds.”[7] On final analysis however, this is just another modern abstraction and construct: not a living, breathing person that is the subject of historical research, but a list of propositions. Craig notes a “third abstraction in the wings” [8] which Meier calls the total reality of Jesus. This is “everything he . . . ever thought, felt, experienced, did and said.”[9] He concludes that assigning Jesus’ proper name to lists of propositions only leads to confusion, and muses that “one cannot help but wonder what has happened to the actual person Jesus of Nazareth.”[10]

The Third Quest

The energy with which the second quest was taken up had deflated by the seventies. But not for long. Jesus scholarship in the eighties and nineties received a burst of new life. A convergence of factors is thought to be responsible for the growing confidence that the historical Jesus can be known. In part this is due to the application of new methodologies from other disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and linguistics. It is also due in part to the inclusion of non-canonical literature as evidence,[11] a relaxing of the prohibition to mix theology and history,[12] and scholarly renderings of historical portraits of Jesus being made accessible to the general public. Beyond these generalizations, Martin notes, it is difficult to identify which schools of thought individual scholars belong, so diverse and popular is historical Jesus scholarship.[13]

Distinctive features of the Third Quest have been to place Jesus in a Jewish context, and the jettisoning of the gospels as mythology: an idea that waxed so large from Strauss through to Bultmann.[14] Since the release of Richard A. Burridge’s book What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco- Roman Biography in 1992, somewhat of a consensus among scholars has emerged, such that the gospel’s literary genre is thought to be that of ancient biography. Many Jewish scholars have made their mark by interpreting Jesus as fitting within the first century Israeli cultural-milieu,[15] particularly as a teacher of ethics, an eschatological prophet, miracle worker and exorcist.[16]

Today, the quest for the Jesus of history is alive and well; a marked contrast to the miserable state of historical Jesus research at the opening of the twentieth century. From here we will leave our survey of the historical background and go on to examine some of the philosophical dilemmas that have surrounded this search.


[1] In his essay entitles “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” he argued that while scholars should not presuppose their results, there is nevertheless “one presupposition that cannot be dismissed” – that “history is a unity in the sense of a closed continuum of effects.” Bultmann explained that, “this closed-ness means that the continuum of historical happenings cannot be rent by the interference of supernatural, transcendent powers and that therefore there is no ‘miracle’ in this sense of the word.” R. Bultmann, “Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?” Existence and Faith: Short Writings of Rudolph Bultmann, ed. and trans. S. M. M. Ogden (New York: World, 1966), pp. 289-291. Cited in The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 42.

[2] Rudolph Bultmann, Jesus (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1951), p. 11.

[3] Kerygma: The proclamation on the church.

[4] G. Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth (1960), J. Jeremias, Jesus’ Promise to the Nation (1958), The Proclaimation of Jesus (1971), E. Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (1979).

[5] See Morna Hooker, “On Using the Wrong Tool,” Theology 75 (1972): 570-81.

[6] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 25.

[7] Ibid., 1:22.

[8] Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 291.

[9] A Marginal Jew: vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, p. 21.

[10] Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 292.

[11] Such as the Gospel of Thomas

[12] Martin describes it as a “a reluctant admission that theology and history are not mutually exclusive categories” The Elusive Messiah, p. 45

[13] The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 45, 209.

[14] Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 294.

[15] Spearheaded by C. G. Montefiore (The Synoptic Gospels, 1909), Israel Abrams (Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, 1917, 1929) Joseph Klausner (Jesus of Nazereth: His life Times, and Teaching, 1922), and contemporary scholars such as Samuel Sandmel (We Jews and Jesus, 1965), Schalom Ben-Chorin (Bruder Jesus: Der Nazarener in Jüdischer Sicht, 1967), David Flusser (Jesus, 1969, Pinchas Lapide (Der Rabbi von Nazereth, 1974), Geza Vermes (Jesus the Jew, 1973; The Religion of Jesus the Jew, 1993). Non-jewish scholars with similar projects are E. P. Sanders (Jews and Judaism, 1985), Birger Gerhardsson (Memory and Manuscript, 1961) and Rainer Riesner (Jesus als Lehrer, 1981).

[16] Leaving aside the question of the miracles supernatural character, it is now generally regarded as acceptable for the historical portrait of Jesus to include miracle working and exorcisms. See Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 295.