The Words of the Eby Family

Right Or Wrong Decreed By God

Lloyd Eby
July 1, 2006
World Peace Herald

The governing body of the Episcopal Church of America has just met again, and again it has endured a major internal trauma over the question of ordination of openly homosexual bishops. Moreover, the worldwide Anglican Church, of which the Episcopal Church of America is a part, has overwhelmingly condemned ordination of homosexual clergy and has sought to discipline the American church in some way for what a majority of members of the non-American part of the Anglican Church regard as sinful and unethical behavior.

Many people -- probably a great majority of all the people in the world who could accurately be described as religious -- derive their ethical norms or standards from their religion. According to this view, God gives ethical norms or standards, and it is the responsibility of people to accede to and support those God-given commands about what is right and wrong.

Ethicists often call this view the "divine command theory of ethics." According to the divine command theory, ethics comes from God or gods in that God or the gods decree or have decreed certain ethical principles or rules. Thus right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice are determined not by human reason, intuition, wish, or desire, but by the will or decree(s) of a deity (God) or deities. Those divine commands are known through revelation, or by things written in sacred scriptures, or found in the rites and rituals and traditions of the given religion, or from the pronouncements of the religion's prophets, preachers, priests, or teachers. Typically most adherents of religions accept and use some combination of several or all of those. Some mystics and seers claim that God speaks personally to them telling them His will or His commands or His ethical injunctions.

Many people who hold to the divine command theory of ethics also hold that all other ethical theories or principles are deficient because they do not have any ultimate sanction or force behind them. Some people who hold to the divine command theory also say that other theories or views of ethics give rise to confusion and lead to a slippery slope of ethical collapse. But, as we will see, the divine command theory is at least as deficient and inconclusive as any other.

Looking at the Episcopalian-Anglican example should quickly suggest a major problem with the divine command theory: It is difficult and perhaps impossible to ascertain with any degree of certainty what God's commands actually are. A majority of the worldwide Anglican bishops hold that God has decreed that homosexuality is a sin, but a majority of the American Episcopalian bishops disagree with that.

The person who has been the focus of the disagreement and tension, the openly homosexual American Episcopalian V. Eugene Robinson who was ordained a bishop in August, 2003, has been openly defiant against any who claim that homosexuality is forbidden by God. At this year's convention he said:

"It is very clear to us in the religious community that God is alive and well and working in the culture in organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign.... The church has been the primary source of the oppressions that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people have experienced through out their lives. Just as Scripture was used to justify slavery as recently as 150 years ago, just as Scripture was used to keep women out of leadership positions in the church . . . Scripture was used to fight both of those movements of the spirit. ...

"The conservative voices in our church are saying that at this very moment in the life of our church we are fighting for the soul of the church. I think that is absolutely right. The question is whether this will be a church about rules, about walls, about division, about schism, about threats, about violent language, or will this be a church about the all-inclusive love of God in which every, every baptized person will hear in his or her own heart what Jesus heard at his baptism ---- you are my beloved, in you I am well pleased.

"The reason we are at this moment in the life of the Episcopal Church is that there are enough of us gay and lesbian folk that have laid claim to that promise, to that blessing, if you will, that we are God's beloved children also along with all other baptized members of the church, and we will not let go of that blessing. ... we are fighting over the soul of this church, about whether this will be a church about God's love for all of God's children or something else, something from the past, something from which we should repent. ...

"It is not a surprise to me that the Archbishop of Nigeria is opposed to this issue. The Archbishop of Nigeria is supportive of legislation in that country that imprisons gay and lesbian people and he is supporting currently proposed legislation that will even criminalize a heterosexual person for speaking out for gay and lesbian rights....

"However, we do know those people in our church who are faithful and monogamous and have lifelong intention in their relationships....We do know those people and we are only seeking to do what God seems to be calling us to do in our context.... We are just trying to say this is what God is calling us to do at this moment . . ."

After the ordination of Robinson in 2003, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Lagos, head of Nigeria's Anglican Church, stated, "We deplore the act of those bishops who have taken part in the consecration which has now divided the Church." He added, "In addition to violating the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible, the consecration directly challenges the common practice and common witness within the one Anglican Communion." In an interview with Nigeria state radio on November 3, 2003, he said: "We cannot go to them and they cannot come to us ... we have come to the end of the road."

The point here is the direct and complete opposition between two church officials, people who speak for the church and thus supposedly for God, taking diametrically opposite sides on an explosive ethical question about which people care intensely -- whether their church should ordain homosexuals -- and both are basing their views on what they regard as being divine commands.

Many additional instances of such disagreements about divine commands could be given. President Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, delivered on Saturday, March 4, 1865, while the Civil War was still raging, noted of the two sides on that bloody and wrenching conflict: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

At the time of the Crusades, the Christians thought they represented the will of God in opposing the Muslims, and the Muslims thought the same about themselves in opposing the Christians. Those Christians in Europe during the Middle Ages and later who forced Jews to convert to Christianity thought that they were carrying out a Divine command. The Christians in America who killed Joseph Smith no doubt thought that they were doing Godís will. There have been bloody clashes between Hindus and Muslims in India, with both sides thinking that theirs was the one commanded by God and the other was the infidel.

So, as a matter of simple observation, we must notice that there have been frequent and even bloody conflicts between people or peoples, each of whom thought that they were representing and carrying out the divine command on some issue of ethics.

There is a second problem with divine command theory: Even if we were to know with certainty what God commanded, how would we know that Godís command in that case is actually good? Nearly all religiously devout people assume that God is good and that Godís commands -- assuming for the moment that we could know unequivocally what God had commanded in a given situation -- are good. But that assumption is itself highly questionable. In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato has Socrates ask Euthyphro whether the gods love what is holy because it is holy, or whether it is holy because the gods love it. For our purposes here we can assume monotheism and change holy to good; thus the question would become: Does God love what is good because it is good, or is it good because God loves it? Those who hold to the divine command theory answer that the good is good because God loves (or commands or wills) it to be good.

But that answer has serious problems. It makes God out to be able to command anything and thus have it be good. It would mean that if God had commanded murder or adultery or theft or infanticide, then those would be good and failure to do them would be evil. Moreover, good and evil have no independent or true meaning; they are simply surrogates for what God has commanded and what God has forbidden.

In fact, in the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible, God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. (Genesis 22: 1-19) Is child sacrifice good? Is it good if God commands it? It is also recorded that God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide against their neighbors. In fact, according to the Biblical account, God condemned King Saul for failing to carry out this genocide. (I Samuel 15) Is genocide good? Is it good if God commands it?

Those people who want to claim that God is always good and that Godís commands are also always good need to go through great contortions of interpretation and explanation to deal with these cases. One possible tack is to say that these episodes do not really represent the voice and commands of God, but only what certain writers of Biblical texts thought was the command of God. Another tack is to say that Godís command to Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice was really an attempt by God to do away with the practice of child sacrifice -- a practice that was common at the time -- because Abrahamís hand was stayed at the final moment by a command of an angel. Still another tack is to say that Godís morality or ethics is above human morality or ethics and cannot and should not be compared to human ethics because humans lack the ability to understand and criticize Godís commands or actions. But if humans lack the ability to understand and criticize Godís commands or actions, then that would suggest that they also lack the ability to accurately comprehend Divine commands, so that too would tend to make the divine command theory more-or-less inoperative and useless.

I think the conclusion should be to reject the divine command theory of ethics as fatally defective. Very difficult problems can be and have been raised against every other ethical theory that has been proposed, meaning that no simple adherence to any ethical theory will solve the problems of ethics. Adherents of the divine command theory have often thought, or tried to think, that their view avoids those difficulties. But the difficulties with divine command theory raised here show that this theory does not succeed in avoiding those difficulties. Divine command theory of ethics is at least as weak and vulnerable as almost every other ethical theory that has ever been proposed. Moreover divine command theory, in practice, has led to some of the most intractable and bloody conflicts in human history. The conflict between the pro-homosexual and anti-homosexual Anglican bishops may not erupt into armed warfare, but it is the ethical equivalent, and no resolution short of open schism or the dying out of one of the sides seems to be available.


Lloyd Eby teaches in the philosophy department of the George Washington University in Washington, DC.

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