A review of Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality, by David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls. Oxford, 2011.
As our political debates become less and less logical and irenic, as they rely more and more on spin, name calling, and a refusal to concede any points to the opposition, Thomas Aquinas’s method of argumentation appears increasingly attractive. In his Summa, Aquinas begins each section by listing the reasons against the proposition he will defend. He even does this for the proposition that God exists (Part I, Question 2, Article 3)—though, significantly, he is only able to identify two rational reasons for denying God’s existence: the ubiquitous presence of pain and suffering and the belief that everything can be explained by natural processes.
The ever-mounting controversy over Intelligent Design attests to the latter argument’s still being alive and well. Meanwhile, the problem of pain—the argument that human suffering suggests that God is either too powerless to stop it or too apathetic to care to—continues to be the strongest and most frequently-used argument against the existence of the all-powerful, all-loving God of the Bible. New atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have made particularly effective use of it in their anti-theistic crusade. Indeed, they, along with other critics of God (that is, the Judeo-Christian God), have aggressively pushed the problem of pain from its negative formulation into its positive. The problem is not just that God allows evil; he actively promotes it when, for example, he commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac or orders the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites from the Holy Land.
Behind this positive formulation lies a much deeper critique of theism that goes back at least as far as Plato’s Euthyphro. In the dialogue, Socrates engages his titular interlocutor in a debate over the foundation of morality. Is a thing moral because the gods say it is? If so, what if the gods command something impious? The debate is better known to us today in terms of a question often asked by the medieval scholastics: Is a thing just because God does it, or does God do a thing because it is just?
This may at first sound like a frivolous question, like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but the dilemma it raises is far from frivolous. If we say that a thing is just because God says it is, then we are saying that whatever God commands is thereby just, moral, and good. But what if God commanded us to do something morally repugnant: like performing medical experiments on unwilling patients (as Hitler commanded the Nazis to do to “undesirables”), or murdering the members of a socio-economic class (as Stalin commanded the Soviets to do to the Kulaks). Would the mere fact that God commanded such actions make them good? If so, then we risk worshipping an arbitrary, tyrannical deity and giving up the possibility of fixed moral standards.
If, on the other hand, we say that God does a thing because it is just, we run into the problem of making God irrelevant to morality. True, God may take on the role of enforcer of morality, but his sovereignty is thereby severely compromised. God becomes answerable to something outside of himself over which he has no control. Indeed, if we press the issue further, we risk falling into a scenario where morality becomes an eternal, transcendent standard separate from God: a violation of the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”). “In the beginning,” Genesis 1:1 tells us, “God”—period! That is why the Nicene Creed asserts that God is the maker of “all things visible and invisible.” And that “all” includes any and all standards of goodness, truth, and beauty.
In a sense, the Euthyphro dilemma throws us back on to the horns of the problem of pain. Either God is not intrinsically loving and just and merciful (morality is only what he says it is), or he lacks the power, primacy, and sovereignty that define him as God (he is only, as it were, a divine policeman).
Enter David Baggett, professor of philosophy at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Jerry Walls, a former Research Fellow in the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame who (I am proud to say) just joined my university as a visiting professor in philosophy. In their well written and powerfully argued book, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality, Baggett and Walls take on the Euthyphro dilemma in all its dimensions. In the process, they not only resolve the dilemma, but demonstrate effectively that the God revealed in the Bible best accounts for morality.
Rather than overwhelm their readers with philosophical jargon, Baggett and Walls adopt a conversational, but still formal tone, slowly incorporating, and carefully defining, the necessary terminology as they go. To say that a thing is just because God does it is to adopt a voluntarist (or divine command) theory, because God is free to give moral commands. The opposing position, which limits God to following standards of morality, is called the nonvoluntarist (or guided will) theory. The strongest statement of divine command theory, they explain, is ascribed to William of Ockham who argued that “God’s sovereign choice fills in the content of morality… If God were to command, say, cruelty for cruelty’s sake … then such acts would be rendered morally appropriate. Ockham, of course, felt God never would issue abhorrent commands, but that he could.”
The authors of Good God take upon themselves the burden of defending a modified version of voluntarism that preserves God’s absolute sovereignty while not falling into the moral abyss of Ockhamism. Their method for doing so is to agree that fixed, transcendent moral standards exist (rather like the Form of the Good posited by Plato) but then, along with Augustine, place those Forms into the Mind of God. If we accept that God himself is the Platonic standard of Goodness, then we preserve God’s sovereignty (he is not answerable to standards outside of himself) while making God’s essential goodness a trustworthy bulwark against God issuing an arbitrary or immoral command.
Baggett and Walls develop this vital distinction further with help from Alvin Plantinga’s Does God Have a Nature? (1980). Building on Plantinga’s path-breaking work, they adopt a simple but profound way of absolving God from charges of arbitrariness while preserving his sovereignty: “God believes a proposition because it is true, but the proposition exists because God thinks it.” In other words truth depends fully on God, but is not subject to a kind of divine control that could potentially become tyrannical. The reason that this seeming paradox is possible for God but not for us is that whereas truth is independent of our minds, it is not independent from God’s absolute consciousness. Critics of Plato have long held that an eternal, transcendent Form of Goodness could not exist because there is no one to think it. By responding that Goodness exists because it exists in the thoughts of an eternal, transcendent God (I AM), Plantinga simultaneously silences critics of absolute moral standards and resolves the Euthyphro dilemma.
Having factored Plantinga’s insights into their argument, Baggett and Walls proceed to take a further cue from Robert Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods (1999). Not only does God’s mind contain Goodness; God is himself the “exemplar, perfect standard, ultimate paradigm, and final source” of Goodness. Or to put it another way: “Good isn’t merely a property of God, but God himself.” But Adams does not stop here, and Baggett and Walls show themselves willing to follow him: “The sublime, the beautiful, the intrinsically excellent, all represent the ultimate Good that Adams thinks is a role best fulfilled by God himself.” Though a growing number of evangelical theologians and philosophers have (mostly wrongly, I think) distanced themselves from Plato, Baggett and Walls are willing to find a greater theistic truth in the Platonic desire to bring together the Good, the True, and the Beautiful and to link them to the Beatific Vision that awaits the philosopher at the end of his journey. Postmodernism has pushed both secular and Christian philosophers toward a fragmentation of the Good, True, and Beautiful. Baggett and Walls show that Christians, rather than rejecting the absolute moral standards of Plato, can take them up into the full conscious personhood of a loving God.
Indeed, they argue that we cannot understand divine commands in the Old Testament that appear abhorrent to our moral sensibilities until we recognize that the “locus of authority for morality . . . is not an impersonal law but a personal God.” As a personal God, Yahweh allows moral latitude between “perfect duties” that impose a clear obligation (the divine injunction against adultery) and “imperfect duties” that allow for exceptions (the manner in which we will help the poor). Further latitude is found in the distinction between general moral commands and individual (or group) vocations. Yahweh, the personal God who called Israel into a special covenantal relationship, acts differently through Israel than through other nations, just as he acts differently through specially chosen individuals like Abraham, Moses, and David.
Thus, in trying to reconcile the conquest of Canaan with accepted codes of morality, Baggett and Walls suggest that God may have known “that unless he were to command the Israelites to wipe out their enemies, they themselves would be wiped out.” As for the binding of Isaac, they remind us that God’s purpose was to test his chosen vessel Abraham, not to receive unto himself (like Baal) the sacrifice of a child: “For the reader, the dramatic tension is not the content of the command, but whether Abraham will fully trust God, and what God will do to stop it. Including Abraham’s story in the history of revelation was a much more powerful way to show that God does not, in fact, want child sacrifice than just to say so.”
Though most of Good God is written in such a way as to appeal to theists who don’t necessarily accept the full Christian revelation, Baggett and Walls do, in their final chapter, consider the deeper understanding of morality that becomes accessible when we take into account the central Christian doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection. Because Christianity teaches that our bodies and our world are not only good creations of God but will someday be redeemed, Christian morality is able to surpass that of the Stoics. Stoic courage and temperance generally rest on a world- and body-despising ethos; Christians, in contrast, who reject worldly things for the sake of God’s higher call give up things that they consider good. The sacrifice is therefore greater, even as the vision—which looks to the perfection of the things renounced—is more wonderful and profound. Christianity means far more than following a law code: it means trusting in God and his promises; it means losing our lives that we might save them; it means enjoying forever the God who redeemed us.
Good God delivers on its dual promise to resolve the Euthyphro dilemma and champion Christian theism as the best system for accounting for morality. But it does something else that, though it may not carry much resonance in wider philosophical circles, will help spark a much-needed debate within evangelical (especially Baptist) circles. Over the last decade, there has been much discussion as to whether evangelicalism is (or should be) more Calvinist or Arminian in its nature and self-identity. Baggett and Walls boldly define themselves as Reformed Arminians who fully embrace salvation by grace through faith and the sovereignty of God but deny the U (unconditional election), L (limited atonement), and I (irresistible grace) of TULIP.
Whereas they strive heroically, and effectively, to reconcile the Conquest and the binding of Isaac with morality, they reject as incompatible with God’s nature the belief that before we were born and apart from any choices we would make in our lives, God chose our eternal destiny and set us on an unstoppable road to heaven or hell. They reject as well the belief that those who are members of the elect cannot refuse God’s grace. Their reason for doing so is based in part on their understanding of the love relationship that exists between God and man. Such relationships, they explain, are “by their nature and logic . . . two-way relationships. God’s irresistible grace, if it necessarily culminates in reconciliation and fellowship with God, seems like a divine love potion that, once administered, created eternal infatuation in the beloved, but no genuine love. . . The logic of love requires a more substantial element of volition.”
While I find Baggett and Walls’s arguments compelling and well worth considering, it must be admitted that the approach taken by Baggett and Walls could easily lead to an acceptance of annihilationalism—the belief that the damned will not spend eternity in hell but will be destroyed by God and cease to exist. The authors do not adopt this position, but their method risks leading theistic philosophers in that direction. Since our human understanding of morality cannot possibly fathom an eternal hell—especially when we stand it up against the choices made over a period of less than a century—we must find some way to disassociate the loving God of the Bible from this abhorrent teaching. Hence, we are driven by necessity to adopt annihilationalism.
It could, of course, be fairly argued that such issues lie outside the scope of Good God. Baggett and Walls are not duty-bound to take on all challenges to God’s character. There is, however, a deeper issue that lies behind not only questions of the Conquest and the binding of Isaac but of the eternal nature of hell that does need to be tackled more directly in the book. And that is the debate that surrounds the T of TULIP: total depravity.
Both Baggett and Walls are C. S. Lewis scholars, and they make excellent use in their book of ideas that are proposed or summarized in Lewis’s apologetical works. It is therefore puzzling that they never reference a series of passages from The Problem of Pain that lie at the very heart of the thesis of their book. First, in Chapter 6, Lewis directly responds to the Euthyphro dilemma:
It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. With Hooker, and against Dr. Johnson, I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion (reached, I think, by Paley) that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it—that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right.
Lewis here clearly adopts the nonvoluntarist position; yet, in all other ways, Lewis and the authors of Good God agree that the proper way to reconcile the dilemma is by making God himself the standard of morality. How can this be?
The reason for the discrepancy is that Lewis’s trouble with voluntarism is directly tied to his rejection of total depravity (as opposed to original sin, which he fully embraces). Lewis makes the connection clear in the opening of Chapter 3:
. . . 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 consequence 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.
Lewis here offers a critique of Calvinism that Baggett and Walls do not make. It is the T of TULIP, Lewis argues, that perpetuates the Euthyphro dilemma. If we are so utterly depraved as to have no understanding of the basic tenets of morality (those fixed, transcendent standards that Baggett and Walls so ably defend), then we are left incapable of evaluating any of the commands given by God—whether in the Bible or in our own lives.
In Chapter 4, Lewis returns to this issue one more time to state, unequivocally: “I disbelieve that doctrine [total depravity], partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature.” Along with Baggett and Walls, Lewis relies on simple observation and common sense to tell him that human beings are capable of understanding the rudiments of good and evil, and of choosing good over evil on many occasions.
Why then is there a seeming disconnect between Lewis and the authors of Good God on this point? The disconnect comes, I believe, from ambiguity surrounding the definition of total depravity. Most Calvinists today would define it as the belief that all aspects of our being—from our reason to our passions to our wills—have been subjected to the Fall. I firmly believe that if C. S. Lewis had been offered such a definition, he would have accepted it. Alas, even if this is the more or less official definition of total depravity used by Calvinists today, I would argue that in common parlance it takes on a far darker hue—that it means exactly the kind of thing that Lewis so adamantly rejects in The Problem of Pain.
Baggett and Walls, who in all other departments show an admirable thoroughness in addressing all the dimensions of the Euthyphro dilemma, really needed to devote a chapter (or at least a section of a chapter) to defining what exactly is meant by total depravity. Such a discussion is particularly needed today when evangelicals are finally moving forward to embrace natural law theories that were previously dominated by Catholic theologians. Though it is hard to prove, I would propose that evangelical resistance to natural law theory has been driven (at least unconsciously) by our preference for “total depravity” over “original sin.”
Most of the arguments in Good God rest on a belief that we, even in our unregenerate state, possess active consciences able to discern good from evil. A hyper-reading of the doctrine of total depravity must not be allowed to obliterate our status as moral agents or to turn the God of the Bible into someone so wholly other that we are powerless to understand his actions within the framework of fixed, transcendent moral standards. A vigorous discussion of this issue would have made the already excellent Good God into an even more timely and seminal book.