God’s Morality and Ours

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the challenges to biblical morality, and one which has spurred much interesting discussion in values, is the so-called “Euthyphro dilemma,” which goes back to the Socratic dialogue called the Euthyphro.1 The dilemma goes like this: Why is something good? Is it good (1) because God says it is? Or, is it good (2) independent of whatever God says? Allegedly the Christian is faced with a problem: If we choose (1), the first horn of the dilemma, then morality is grounded not in our experience, but only in the mind of God, who might make arbitrary judgments that seem repugnant to us. On the other hand, if we choose (2), then God does not determine what is good. He might help us by pointing us toward what is good, but He has nothing to do with making it good.

We choose the first horn, and insist that the problem is illusory because all reality is grounded in God’s being and existence. If it were not for God, there would be nothing. There would be no value and nothing to value. Just nothing. Whatever value there is in the universe must be a result of God’s being.

If choosing (1) seems problematic to us, it is probably because we have not studied the morality of the Bible sufficiently to understand how compatible God’s morality is with everyday ethical judgments. God does not ask us to accept an approach to ethics that conflicts radically with our intuitions. Rather, the solution to the Euthyphro dilemma should give us an occasion to celebrate biblical morality and our own God-given potential to repent and improve.

This point of similarity between God’s morality and the morality of those who are made in His image is critical to a reasonable Christianity. Consider C.S. Lewis’ words on this point:

On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgement must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil. On the other hand, if God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good’, while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what’. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear—and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity—when the consquence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing—may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.

The escape from this dilemma depends on observing what happens, in human relations, when the man of inferior moral standards enters the society of those who are better and wiser than he and gradually learns to accept their standards. . . . Now what happens in such a case is not in the least like being asked to treat as ‘white’ what was hitherto called black. The new moral judgements never enter the mind as mere reversals (though they do reverse them) of previous judgements but ‘as lords that are certainly expected’. . . . [T]he recognition of the new standards is accompanied with the sense of shame and guilt: one is conscious of having blundered into society that one is unfit for. It is in the light of such experiences that we must consider the goodness of God. Beyond all doubt, His idea of ‘goodness’ differs from ours; but you need have no fear that, as you approach it, you will be asked simply to reverse your moral standards. . . . The Divine ‘goodness’ differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel.2

Lewis’ statement echoes Isaiah’s: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18, emp. added). God calls us to be better than we are, and yet the call is not alien to us. Lewis is correct that we are not inherently depraved (see Caleb Colley, “The Problematic Concept of a Sinful Human Nature,” http://bit.ly/1gesG1W [2010].)

Consider what happens to the church when its leaders cease to explain and emphasize biblical morality, instead choosing to affirm purely secular values, or norms that you might hear taught in the average social studies class, social club, or pre-school. No longer are congregations brought to appreciate the intuitive appeal of God’s higher calling, but rather are affirmed in not behaving any worse than their neighbors—not tremendously badly by contemporary standards, but not very like Jesus. The two tragic results of this kind of teaching are that there will be fewer and fewer people who actively try to be like Jesus, and that there will be more and more people who fall into a Euthyphro-like trap and begin to mistrust that we should ascribe moral authority to Jesus to begin with.

  1. See Caleb Colley, “Why is Good Good?,” http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=12&article=3601 (2010). 

  2. The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1996 reprint), 29-30, parenthetical items in orig. 

- 2017