July 2012


David Baggett and jerry Walls have written an excellent book exploring God’s relationship to morality.  The book aims to provide a moral argument for the existence of God, and to answer criticisms to theistic ethics.  After showing how various non-theistic foundations for ethics fail, the authors take a close look at the most common objection to theistic ethics: the Euthyphro argument.  They critique both horns of the dilemma: pure voluntarism (X is good because God commands it) and non-voluntarism (X is good wholly independent of God and His will).  If goodness is determined by God’s commands, then morality seems arbitrary.  Indeed, if God willed that rape is good rape would be good (abhorrent commands objection).  There is also the epistemic problem.  How would we know what God has commanded, or if God has changed His mind?  The problem with non-voluntarism is that it makes God irrelevant to morality.  Goodness stands outside of God.  Indeed, God is subject to the good in the same way we are.  At best His role is to communicate to us what is good.  He is like the divine meteorologist who reports the weather rather can creating it.  If goodness is independent of God, then God’s aseity (self-existence) is called into question.  He cannot be the metaphysical ultimate.

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I often hear Christians of every stripe say they wish hell did not exist, or that no people would end up there.  I understand what they mean.  Hell is a gruesome prospect.  The idea of people suffering for eternity is a grim one.  It’s hard to be excited about a doctrine like this, particularly when all of us have family and loved ones that we have good reason to believe will end up in hell.  On a purely emotional level, there is a sense in which all of us can say we wish there was no hell or that no one would go there. 

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Perhaps I am a slow learner, but it just occurred to me recently that the Calvinistic doctrine of eternal security, while germane to Calvinism, is not limited to a Calvinistic theology.  Even an Arminian could hold to the doctrine of eternal security (once saved always saved) while disagreeing with the Calvinists on the question of how people become saved.  Arminians could hold that it is impossible for someone whose spirit has been regenerated by the Spirit to fall away without accepting the Calvinist notion that God alone determines who will be regenerated.  The question of how we are saved (monergism or synergism) is separate from the question of the permanence of salvation.  It could be true that humans have to freely respond to God’s offer of grace before God saves them (synergism), and that once saved, a person will always persevere to the end.  There is no logical incompatibility between these two positions.

I’ve been reading through the book of Proverbs with my wife.  I’ve noticed something in the text that clues me into the history of the book, and poses interesting questions for the doctrine of Biblical inspiration.  

The book opens with the words, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1:1, ESV).  These words read like the words of an editor, not Solomon himself.  They were added by the individual(s) who compiled Solomon’s proverbs and edited them into the form and order we see in our Bibles.  There is reason to believe, however, that this collection of Solomonic proverbs consisted only of the first nine chapters.  Proverbs 10:1 reads, “The proverbs of Solomon.”  If the introduction to the book of Proverbs tells us these are the proverbs of Solomon, why mention this again unless (1) there had been a shift in authors from Solomon to someone else somewhere between chapter one and chapter nine, or (2) if the proverbs beginning with chapter 10 were not part of the original collection of proverbs.  There is no indication of a change in authorship between chapter one and chapter nine, so it follows that chapter 10 begins a new collection of Solomonic proverbs that was not part of the original collection.  How long did the first collection circulate before this second collection was added?  We do not know, but clearly enough time elapsed that when the new collection was added to the first, it was important to preface the collection by noting that these, too, were the proverbs of Solomon.  

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It is often said that Adam and Eve did not know the difference between good and evil prior to eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (TKGE).  This does seem to be the straightforward meaning of Genesis 3:22a: “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.’” (ESV)  There are a couple of problems I see with this interpretation, however:

  1. The text does not say Adam and Eve only gained knowledge of evil after the Fall, but knowledge of “good and evil.”  If we understand “knowledge” in a cognitive sense, this would mean God originally created human beings as amoral beings, having no knowledge of moral concepts or moral categories.  If we were created as amoral beings, then our moral intuitions and our capacity for moral reasoning are not part of the imago Dei (image of God) in which we were created, but rather a consequence of the Fall.  That’s a tough pill to swallow for two reasons: (1) Moral reasoning is one of the unique characteristics of God that among God creatures, humans alone exhibit.  Since humans alone were created in the imago Dei, it stands to reason that moral reasoning was part of that original imago Dei; (2) How is it possible for an act of disobedience to produce in us the knowledge of good?  Evil, yes, but good?
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The evidential problem of evil points to the improbability that the amount of evil we see in the world – particularly gratuitous evil – would exist if an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists.  The argument usually takes the following form: 

(1)   If God exists, gratuitous evil would not exist
(2)   Gratuitous evil exists
(3)   Therefore God does not exist 

Many theists attempt to undermine this argument by attacking the veracity of premise two.  For example, William Lane Craig and William Alston argue that humans are not in an epistemic place to judge any act of evil as gratuitous since we cannot see the big picture of history.  For all we know, an act of seemingly gratuitous evil will result in a greater good years or even centuries from now, either in the life of the person who experienced the evil or in the life of another person in another country.  Our cognitive limitations should not be used as evidence that gratuitous evil exists.  At best we must remain agnostic on the question.

This is an appeal to the Greater-Good Defense, which argues that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting all evils—including those that appear gratuitous to us—such as using them to bring about some greater good that could not have been brought about apart from those evils.

In the latest issue of Philosophia Christi, Kirk R. MacGregor provides some reasons for thinking that this response to the evidential problem of evil is misguided.  Just because our cognitive and temporal limitations make it impossible for us to prove that any act of evil is truly gratuitous does not mean that gratuitous evil does not exist.  He argues that the belief that some evils are gratuitous is a properly basic belief.  For example, we do not believe that every time we are bitten by a mosquito or stub our two that these evils have some greater purpose or will be used to accomplish a greater good.  Such things make virtually no difference in our own lives, yet alone on the grand scheme of things.  Given the proper basicality of belief in gratuitous evil, MacGregor says the burden of proof is on those who would deny the existence of gratuitous evils, and to meet their burden of proof they must explain how every instance of gratuitous evil actually results in some greater good.  This is not possible, and thus the person who believes in the existence of gratuitous evil is prima facie justified in maintaining that belief, even given his cognitive and temporal limitations.

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A former professor of medical ethics and former chairman of the Institute of Medical Ethics in Britain, Raanan Gillon, wrote an editorial in the British Medical Journal lambasting a judicial ruling that gave pre-eminence to the sanctity of life.  Gillon argues that given scant medical resources, physicians should be allowed to withdraw treatment from stable, but minimally conscious patients suffering from severe dementia in order to cause their premature death.  

Yes, this is a preeminent bioethicist.  The field has become overrun with utilitarians who espouse views that are anything but ethical.

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