Socrates is probably my favorite philosopher. The guy just walks around ancient Greece asking questions. Who can’t relate to that? I’ve always been the annoying kid with a thousand questions. One observation I have gleamed from asking questions is that people don’t like being questioned. Even if you are genuine in your asking, many people don’t want to be questioned or criticized. They are rather content with their ideas and not interested in learning something new. It’s a strange phenomena, but I understand why they would do so.
Socrates didn’t really care if people didn’t like his questions. If you had the boldness to make a claim to truth, you’d better be prepared for questions. In Plato’s Euthyphro, Euthyphro proposes that what is pious is what is loved by the gods. Socrates immediately sees a problem which he reveals with one question: Is it pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious?
The question has evolved with the rise of monotheism in general and Christianity in particular, but it is essentially the same. Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? The horns of the dilemma are thus, what is good is outside of God, or what is good is arbitrary to the will of God. The Christian cannot say that goodness lies outside of God and also cannot say that goodness is arbitrary. What will she do?
When faced with a dilemma, it is usually best to take a step back and reassess the assumptions of the dilemma. What is assumed? That these are the only options. Are they? Just looking at the way I’ve phrased it here, a third option emerges. Can the standard of good be “inside” God and not arbitrary?
Voluntarism and Intellectualism
Theological voluntarism places the good on the will of God. Here you find the Divine Command Theory. What God commands is good. The question raises again, is it good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? I actually agree with Socrates that this would fall prey to the dilemma. A theological voluntarist would have to pick her poison and live with the consequences.
However, there is another option, one in the line of Thomas Aquinas. Theological Intellectualism places the good in the intellect of God. Are we now just playing silly philosophical word games? Eh, maybe. But I think there is actually an important distinction to be made here. A command doesn’t become good because God commands it, but the good also isn’t outside of God; it’s in his “intellect”. The good is known by God (not arbitrary and not outside) and then commanded. God is good. This does, in my opinion, not only satisfy the dilemma, but actually avoid it all together. It doesn’t even become a question anymore.
Abraham and Isaac
This is where the rubber meets the road, and also why I think this is more than a philosophical word game. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Is this not evidence that God’s commands are arbitrary? Was it good for God to command this? Was Abraham good for obeying?
This seems to be the “go to” for proving the arbitrariness of God’s commands. I think it was Christopher Hitchens who used to say something to the effect of “Religion makes otherwise decent people do horrible things,” and the story of Abraham and Isaac is the prime example.
Consider a few things. God promised Abraham that his lineage would spread through Isaac. This assumes that Isaac has a future. Abraham had been on a journey to trust God’s promises. He had already learned not to doubt them. So, if the God of the universe promises you that your son has a future, it’s a safe bet. If you think I’m mistaken in thinking Abraham would be aware of such a thing consider Hebrews 11:17-19:
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and yet he was offering his one and only son, the one to whom it had been said, Your offspring will be traced through Isaac. He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead; therefore, he received him back, figuratively speaking.”
Abraham had decided to trust God’s promise that Isaac had a future. Even if Isaac were to die on this altar, he knew God must raise him from the dead to keep his promise. God always keeps his promise. However, in a sense, Abraham was wrong. There would be no sacrifice and therefore no resurrection. That would have to wait. Instead, God intervenes and provides a ram for sacrifice. What symbolism. A sacrifice in Isaac’s place. This is a typology of the sacrifice Jesus would make in our place.
So was it morally wrong, or arbitrary of God to command this? God is not interested in child sacrifice and he condemns and judges those who practice it. The command of Isaac’s sacrifice was preceded by the promise that Isaac had a future. Abraham knew that Isaac wouldn’t stay dead and it actually turned out that he didn’t need to die in the first place. So, I don’t see the arbitrariness in this command given the context.
Would You Sacrifice Your Son?
One last question: would you kill your son if God commanded it? First of all, if I heard a voice say, “Haden, sacrifice your son, this is God speaking.” I would immediately think that it wasn’t God speaking. Secondly, God has never promised me a son, let alone guaranteed that my son will have a long future. So, would I, Haden, sacrifice my son? No. God would never require it. Should Abraham have? Yes, the context is the answer.
What if we asked God, “Would you sacrifice Your Son?” His answer would be, “I have, for you.” Is God cruel for this? Maybe, if there was no resurrection! Just like with Isaac, Jesus was led to the slaughter, but God could’ve raised Isaac from the dead and He did raise Jesus!
God’s commands are good and never arbitrary. If it seems that they are, the fault is in your understanding. For the believers out there, always assume that the dilemma itself is faulty. When you think God is arbitrary, assume your knowledge is faulty. Don’t forget all the reasons you have to believe that God is good.
Now it’s your turn to play Socrates. Where have I erred? Is theological intellectualism just as flawed as voluntarism? Be gracious!