Moral Realism in the Bible?

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 9, 2010 in Bible,Ethics

Most theologians seem to think the Hebrew Bible presupposes a subjective theory of ethics that grounds right and wrong in the nature or attitudes of a person, Yahweh. This is called divine command theory.

Bible scholar Jaco Gericke has proposed an alternate view: that some passages of the Bible presuppose objective moral realism, such that right and wrong are grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a person or persons. Under such a view, Yahweh might sometimes be wrong.

Let’s look at the text.

Something like divine command theory seems to be implied when God gives his Ten Commandments, when he gives the seemingly arbitrary commands of Leviticus, when he gives normally immoral commands such as to sacrifice Isaac, to plunder the Egyptians, or to slaughter the Canaanites. Such things seem only to be good in that God commanded them, not because they are moral apart from God’s commands.

Clearly, subjective moral theory is present in the Bible.

But there is also evidence of objective moral realism. Consider:

Taste and see that Yahweh is good. (Psalm 34:9)

This statement only makes sense if the reader assumes a standard of goodness apart from God, or else it translates directly into “Taste and see that Yahweh is Yahweh.”

Consider also that the Bible sometimes questions the justice of the gods, a question that only makes sense if goodness is concieved independently of divinity. For example:

Do you gods really speak justly, and with uprightness judge humans? (Psalm 58:2)

God stands in the midst of the divine assembly; in the midst of the gods he judges. How long will you judge unjustly, and lift the face of the wicked? (Psalm 82)

In Psalm 44 and 89, Yahweh is further charged with immorality, with breaking his promises to Israel. In these passages, it is acknowledged that God has unbeatable power, but it is not assumed that might makes right. It is not assumed that God is good by definition, as is assumed by divine command theory.

Moreover, God is often thought to be a “judge” in a strict sense, such that he does not author the moral order, but rather hands it down upon others. Thus it is that Abraham appeals to this higher moral order in Genesis 18:25:

Far be it from you to act in this way,

to slay the righteous with the wicked,

that the righteous should be as the wicked.

Far be it from you.

Shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?

Such a question only makes sense if justice is not defined in terms of God’s commands or attitudes.

Consider also Exodus 33, in which Moses reprimands Yahweh for his angry plans for the Israelites, and “Yahweh repented of the evil which he said he would do to his people” (verse 11).

Perhaps the most blatant denial of divine command theory comes when Yahweh calls his own commands evil, for example in Ezekiel 20:25:

Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and ordinances whereby they should not live.

Many more examples are given in Gericke’s paper. It seems the Hebrew Bible does not wholly presuppose subjective divine command ethics. Many passages presuppose an objective moral order beyond the attitudes of Yahweh.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

antiplastic July 9, 2010 at 5:24 am

On a first pass through the paper, I’m pretty convinced (as thought I weren’t already!) that DCT is not consistently maintained in the scriptures. But I don’t see, outside of a blatant false dichotomy, why “not DCT” entails realism by default. None of the passages at first glance seemed to me to be incompatible with relativism or even emotivism.


sestark19 July 9, 2010 at 5:47 am

Also, Psalm 82 is one of the most fantastic pieces of Scripture in the Bible. God takes his place in the divine council and judges the other gods. Is it because God is more powerful than they? No, it’s because of their inability to “give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintains the right of the lowly and the destitute.” God judges the gods according to what is right. As Crossan says, “they are dethroned for injustice, for divine malpractice, for transcendental malfeasance in office.”


noen July 9, 2010 at 6:08 am

Yahweh is tasty?


G'DIsraeli July 9, 2010 at 7:13 am

Very interesting. I think the most efficient way to attack theists is via the bible, even more then the philosophical problems (e.g. problem of evil, non-belief).
Just read an article on biblical cosmology and Mesopotamian mythology. How clear, how difficult to deny.
Even tho books in Hebrew are coming out to protect biblical history as basically true (“The Bible’s Genetic Code”). Still biblical attacks on faith are devastating tho.


CarlosTheJackal July 9, 2010 at 7:48 am

“…true remains an entrenched ‘unassailable DOGMA’ of Western thought…In recent years, the ‘unassailable DOGMA’ was assailed.”
“…neither Aristotle’s arguments for (non-) contradiction nor modifications of these arguments have produced strong arguments that no contradiction could be true…moreover there is reason to think some contradictions are true”.
– “The Law of Non-Contradiction” by
Graham Priest

This solves the problem of evil before it starts.
And it shows, the “eternal truths of logic” are false.
Your god is dead?

more interesting reading here:


Davead July 9, 2010 at 9:42 am

We really can’t look at The Bible as a single text in which we would expect coherency of any kind. The fact that some Biblical books can be read as endorsing subjective divine command theory and others can be read as endorsing moral realism shouldn’t be surprising, but it is problematic for Biblical inerrancy. From the historical perspective, this inconsitency shows the differing beliefs or different ways of expressing beliefs of different Biblical authors, or the differing beliefs or different ways of expressing beliefs of different communities in which these scriptural traditions developed.

Some Christian philosophers, however, can make sense of this. For example, Richard Swinburne is a moral realist, but also believes in a kind of subjective divine command theory that because he believes that certain acts are made morally right or obligatory due to the existence of God (like worship, prayer, etc.). So someone who believes like Swinburne might be able to maintain that the Bible’s endorsing of both moral realism and divine command theory is coherent and philosophically and theologically unproblematic.

This would obviously be a problem for William Lane Craig, who believes that God is logically necessary (Swinburne thinks God exists contingently) and that morality depends on God, and hence all moral truths are logically necessary. I discussed this on your previous post, “Dr. Craig and Objective Morality,” when I wrote:

“So then we could ask, on divine command theory, isn’t morality contingent (though Craig might say subjective) on God’s command? Well, perhaps Craig would deny this, since he believes God exists necessarily, and maybe that moral facts entail from God’s good nature.

Consider a philosopher like Richard Swinburne, who believes that God exists contingently. He does not think God is necessarily for morality. Although, he thinks that the existence of God entails some moral obligations and makes certain acts morally good that would otherwise be morally neutral or wrong, like spending hours in prayer or worship.”

TaiChi agreed with me, and you lukeprog said this might be the correct reading of Craig. I know I’m going a little off-topic, but I’ve encountered some more support for this idea. In this video,, Craig is discussing the necessity of God. He says:

“Or again the moral argument roots morality and moral values in God. But moral values, at least some of them, seem to exist necessarily. There’s no possible world in which it is morally justified to torture little children because it’s fun. There are moral truths that hold in every possible world, and if morality is grounded in God, that implies therefore that God exists in every possible world, and is therefore a metaphysically necessary being.”

I’m not sure how Craig would flesh out the logic of his argument, but it maybe like this (assuming God exists):

(1) Moral truths are logically necessary
(2) Moral truths are dependent on God
(3) Logically necessary things can only be dependent on logically necessary things
(4) God is logically necessary (1,2,3)

However, (2) is also a premise of Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God, which I think he actually argues for using premises (1) and (4). The way he uses the term objective seems to be that morality cannot be contingent on anything, whether it be a person, the existence of desires, etc., hence they are necessary. Craig then seems to tacitly argue that the best explanation of necessary morality is a necessarily existing God. Maybe he’s tacitly employing something along the lines of this (non-formalized of course):

(5) Moral truths exist
(6) Moral truths do not exist contingently
(7) Moral truths exist necessarily (5,6)
(8) Moral truths must have an explanation
(9) The explanation of something necessary must also be necessary
(10) A necessarily existing God is the best (only?) explanation
(11) A necessary God exists

This would make sense coming from Craig. Consider this quote from his Q&A “Does Theistic Ethics Derive an “Ought” from an “Is”?”, where he writes, “God’s nature serves to establish values—goodness and badness” Craig believes that necessary existence and all-goodness are parts of God’s nature, the latter of which serves to ‘establish’ (a relation that transfers necessary existence, unlike God’s relation to the universe) moral values and the former of which establishes moral values’ necessary quality.

This is very rough and not very thought-through. I’m also interested if there’s any conflict between using both of the arguments I suggested since they use similar premises defended differently in a different order. It’s very curious. Anyways. I’ll stop rambling now.


Teapot July 9, 2010 at 11:03 am

In the beginning of Genesis, when God is finished actualizing the world, he looks at it and then sees that it is good. He does not determine that it is good; he doesn’t set aside a day for imbuing the world with goodness, he gives it a look-over and essentially realizes or understands that it is good. Isn’t this enough to make it clear that God is measuring goodness against some standard that is different from his own determination?


Hermes July 9, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Teapot, that’s excellent; simple and well supported.


Ex Hypothesi July 9, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Luke: On Christian Theism (CT), all facts that do not depend on creaturely freedom depend on either God’s nature or God’s decree, and hence, on CT the distinction between “mind independence” (objective) and “mind dependent” (subjective) break down when you’re talking about any facts that do no pertain to creaturely freedom.

the upshot: On CT, if DCT is true, then moral truths are no more subjective than the truth that “grass is green”, since both depend on God’s command. Hence, DCT is only trivially a “subjective” moral theory. Hence, you should drop the misleading label.

C.f. Plantinga’s “How to be an Anti-Realist”


Hermes July 9, 2010 at 7:18 pm

[ waits for gap to be filled; wonders if Ex Hypotheisi will have additional comments later ]


Red-agnostic July 9, 2010 at 7:28 pm

If we assume that God is an invention of man’s mind, then God’s incoherence (or the incoherence between books endorsing subjective divine command and books endorsing moral realism) is just a reflection of man’s ignorance of the origin of moral values. But I think we have the less reason to reproach the authors of the Bible on this account since the same thing (not knowing where morality comes from) is happening right now. Otherwise we wouldn’t have so many interesting atheism-theism debates. I guess…


Hermes July 9, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Red, of course it’s all humans. The split between theists and atheists is just based on belief, though. A theist believes there is some set of gods, and an atheist does not share that belief. Nothing more nor less. Religious texts or deep discussions of values don’t really come into it until specific narrow theistic sects are discussed. Only then do things like the Christian Bibles (counting all variations) end up getting discussed.

I’m an agnostic too, btw. An agnostic atheist in general but a gnostic atheist for specific deity claims.


TaiChi July 9, 2010 at 7:58 pm

This solves the problem of evil before it starts.” ~ CarlosTheJackal

I’m not impressed.

This is very rough and not very thought-through. I’m also interested if there’s any conflict between using both of the arguments I suggested since they use similar premises defended differently in a different order” ~ Davead

Good stuff, Davead. That sounds about right. As for the arguments, I don’t think there is conflict here, as it’s perfectly reasonable to offer your first argument to somone who would accept (1)-(3) but is uncertain of (4), and to offer your second argument to someone who would accept (5)-(10), not yet believing (11). More specifically, you’d give the first argument to a believer, and the second to a non-believer. So long as Craig doesn’t give them both to the non-believer, it’s fine.


Josh July 10, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Holy crap, is this dialetheism really legit? It seems positively insane—can proponents supply even a single example where it is the case that P and not P are both true?


Ex Hypothesi July 11, 2010 at 5:17 pm


“This sentence is false.”


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