“God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This is the bumper sticker theology Dr. Steve Wilkens uses to describe the foundation of the divine command theory. Or, as usually phrased today, “Because God said so.” For Christians, in a lot of cases, we say this to settle the ethical score. When we fail to ultimately fathom why something is ethical and why something else is not, being duped in our rationality, we say, “Because God said so.” It is right to say this in some circumstances, which I will cover later, but for many of us it’s not enough, neither should it be the end-all be-all of every ethical discussion. As human beings, we have the intrinsic drive to discover the whys and wherefores of what ought to be and what not ought to be. The divine command theory is, I believe, the ethical roadway to walk on, though in some cases, “because God said so” is not a sufficient answer. Though our human reasoning is limited, there are some things we can explain adequately that Scripture speaks on.
Before I begin to defend the divine command theory, I first need to identify and examine what it is so that it becomes properly defined. First, I have to say people who don’t believe in God will not find this ethical theory valid. So, if one does not believe in God, explaining this theory to them will be a waste of their time unless they’re genuinely interested in the Christian worldview (which is all too often rare).
There are, indeed, some good reasons why an ethical truth is commanded to commit and why an unethical truth is commanded to omit. In some cases, however, where human reason cannot wrap its mind around why God commands the commission or omission of something, “Because God said so” can be a sufficient answer.
Three Factours to the Divine Command Theory
All that being said, divine command theory recognises human limitation—that we are dependent, sinful, and mentally inadequate. First, it affirms that apart from God, we cannot save ourselves from sin, death, and the Devil. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
This last clause is essential. In verse four He says, “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” This brilliant metaphor Jesus uses illustrates perfectly how vital our relationship to Him is. A branch is dependent on the vine, for it cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine. Likewise, we cannot bear fruit unless we abide in Christ; we can do nothing apart from Him. Our salvation is completely dependent on God; we play no part in it. Indeed, our very existence depends on God.
Second, it affirms we are innately sinful. It also affirms that when we sin against people, we also sin against God. Wilkens uses the parable of the prodigal son as an example, who says when he returns to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven [i.e. God] in your sight” (Luke 15:21). Wilkens comments, “It is true that his earthly father has been wronged, but doing wrong by others also puts us at odds with God. The prodigal’s wandering has a deeper dimension to it because God’s desire that we honor our parents has been put aside” (Wilkens, 198). Because of our concupiscence to sin, our moral standards are easily subjected to distortion; therefore, God is the standard of right and wrong.
Lastly, divine command theory affirms we are mentally inadequate. This theory acknowledges we are finite beings and, therefore, our mental capacity for abstract thought has limits, whereas God who is an infinite being has no limits. “Human intellect, as powerful as it may seem from our point of view, is limited in its ability to comprehend the way and will of God” (Wilkens, 198). Christians—and atheists especially—who think they have a full understanding of God fool and deceive themselves. As God said to Job:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”Job 38:4-7
Job was inundated with questions he was unable to answer. He could only respond:
“I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore, I have declared that which I do not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.’ I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eyes see You; therefore, I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.”Job 42:2-6
Job was put in his place, which is good because it put him in touch with the reality of his own limitations and finitude as well as that of humankind. As Wilkens describes:
Divine command theory stresses that only when we acknowledge the reality of our dependence, our sinfulness, and the inability of human reason to grasp God’s ways, can we be in a position to move forward… Divine command ethics says that it is arrogant to believe that our puny little minds will do any better than Job’s at comprehending the secrets of the universe. If God’s way of existing is above our own, then human reason, a tool used to discern the natural world, surely cannot know anything of God’s existence.Wilkens, 199, 201
Wilkens’ statement is accurate. God’s existence is supernatural, which is defined as being “unable to be explained by science or the laws of nature” and “of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Although a simple dictionary definition, it agrees with the etymology of supernatural. “Super,” from the Latin word spelled the same way, super, means “above” or “beyond.” Supernatural, then, means something that is “beyond natural,” which properly explains God’s existence. Being “beyond natural,” then, this means God’s very Being goes beyond the natural observances, reasoning, and laws of the universe He created.
The Human Mind is Limited
Divine command theory recognises the limits of the human mind, and this is where the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason come into effect, as well as the theology of glory and theology of the cross. The magisterial use of reason “places reason above the Scriptures. If there is a conflict, Scripture is generally assumed to be in error and the conclusion of reason is followed” (Mueller, 9). This reasoning belongs to the theologian of glory, which is a person who attempts to ascertain and understand the hidden things of God, such as the Holy Trinity. The theologian of glory, utilising magisterial reason, attempts to explain the Holy Trinity and ends up committing heresies like modalism (the heresy that the three Persons of the Trinity represent three modes of God rather than being distinct yet coexisting persons in the divine nature).
Thus, the magisterial use of reason—the theologian of glory—ignores and denies the authority of the Scriptures. For example, Scripture explicitly says acts of homosexuality are sinful and marriage is exclusively defined as being between a man and a woman, yet there are Christians who will use flawed human reasoning to argue the Bible is outdated, no longer making homosexuality and gay marriage a sin.
The ministerial use of reason, however, “subjects the conclusions of reason to scriptural authority. If they are in conflict, Scripture prevails” (Mueller, 9-10). This reasoning belongs to the theologian of the cross, which is a person who says what a thing is, and that everything hinges on the death and resurrection of Christ. This is where “because God says so” becomes sufficient in some cases. When our reason is conflicted with something Scripture explicitly says is sinful and wrong, the reason of a responsible Christian—a theologian of the cross—will say, “I do not understand, but God said so. Therefore, I will trust and believe what He says and subject my flawed, limited reasoning to the inerrant, infallible Word of God.” As Mueller writes:
At issue is the trustworthiness of reason. Can we trust ourselves to make correct decisions and draw logical conclusions from our mental abilities? While some put a great deal of trust in their reason, others note that reason itself is part of our fallen human nature. Our reasonable capabilities have been affected by our human sinfulness and so may not be as trustworthy as some think!Mueller, 10
It is Adam and Eve’s reasoning that caused man’s fall into the corruption of sin and why we live in a sick, murderous, death-filled world today. Human reason is ultimately unreliable. If it weren’t so unreliable, then we wouldn’t have multiple ethical theories that contradict one another. Its unreliability is the cause of our reluctance to choose one ethical theory over another, and one morality over another. With God as the source of all morality, we have a standard by which we can view all issues of life and a standard to humbly submit to. This isn’t to say we are incapable of making reasonable decisions with genuine positive outcomes. Ultimately, however, our reason is extremely flawed because it is inherently corrupted and easily decays throughout time.
Trust and Obey
The underlying foundation of the divine command theory is not necessarily, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Rather, it is more accurate to say it is, “Trust and obey.” Wilkens writes, “Since we are not saved by understanding, it is not necessary that we understand why God calls us to do certain things… When we recognize that God has a right to demand anything he desires and that he has made his demands known in Scripture, our duty is to believe and conform to his will” (Wilkens, 202-203).
There comes a time when we must humble ourselves and give up our limited human reason over to God and trust He knows what He’s doing, and to obey His will. Hence the proverb, “Trust in Yahweh with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Faith is trusting God, and it is by faith that we recognise our finitude and that we are powerless, acknowledging God’s ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Potential Problems with the Divine Command Theory?
Wilkens discusses some potential problems with the divine command theory. He poses the question, “Could God command cruelty?” He poses a philosophical question, paraphrasing Mouw, “God’s commands can be seen as either ‘right-indicating’ (pointers to rightness) or ‘right-making’ (creators of rightness)” (Wilkens, 206). The problem with this question is that it creates an either/or scenario with God.
It proposes, “Either right exists on its own and God simply points it out, or God is the creator of what is right.” It is not an either/or answer; it is a both/and answer. Since God is the Creator, He is both “right-indicating” and “right-making.” Since God created all forms of matter and everything that is good and right, He obviously has the ability to point out what is right. If He were not the creator of right, how could He point it out? Rightness does not exist apart from God. Rightness exists because of God and it is God who indicates what rightness is. This is why God alone is righteous in and of Himself.
Before posing this question, Wilkens briefly discussed Plato’s dialogue in Euthyphro in which Euthyphro asks Socrates, “What is holiness?” Wilkens then changes the term holy to right since his book is concerned with right and wrong, not holiness and wickedness. Wilkens, and Plato, are putting too much dependence on human rationality. They both commit the error of magisterial reasoning and both are thus theologians of glory.
The answer to “What is holiness” is simple: holiness is God, for God is holy. That’s what the Scriptures tell us. The human mind is incapable of dissecting exactly what this means.
God tells the Israelites: “Thus, you are to be holy to Me, for I, Yahweh, am holy” (Leviticus 20:26), which is a recurring theme throughout Leviticus. Likewise, St. Peter reminds us in his epistle, “…but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behaviour; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Ergo, God is holiness and because He is holy and the Creator of all things, what He has declared to be holy (or right) as He reveals it to us is what holiness (or rightness) is. Holiness, therefore, is whatever Scripture says it is. The answer to Plato’s question, then, can easily be found in Scripture.
This answers Wilkens’ second question, “Does good exist independently of God” (Wilkens, 208)? What I said earlier about rightness existing apart from God applies to goodness as well.
On this same topic on the question if God could command cruelty, Wilkens writes, “The only way to know if this assertion is true is to test it, so the question whether God could command torture or some similarly horrendous act is a fair test case” (Wilkens, 207). Wilkens enters into dangerous territory here: testing God. Not once does Wilkens mention Satan, who brought evil into existence.
When Satan tested Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus responded, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7), which He was quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16. Likewise, St. James writes, “…for God cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1:13). Wilkens’ question, “Could God command cruelty,” then, is a stupid question. God, in His essence, is holy, good, and right. He would never command cruelty because it is not who He is. It is who the Devil is, however.
I understand Wilkens’ intentions here, but he consistently utilises the magisterial use of reason in which he puts human reason above God’s Word and authority, and the evidence is shown when he thinks we can test God’s holiness. His philosophical curiosity leads him to ask stupid questions about God.
Another question he poses is, “Can we discount the role of reason?” He also claims the divine command theory often puts “faith and reason at opposite poles” (Wilkens, 208). The answer to this question is: not completely. My response to his statement that the divine command theory puts “faith and reason at opposite poles” is: that’s not done indefinitely.
The Word of God uses our human reasoning as an instrument. This is why we can form systems of theology, such as theology on creation, the communication of attributes, and so on. Human reason, however, always subjects itself to the authority of God’s Word and never in its own limited effectiveness. It is our reason through the influence of the Holy Spirit that enables us to fathom God’s Word as He enables. As much as the Holy Spirit enables our puny human minds to comprehend, there are still plenty of other things to which we can only say, “God only knows,” and trust in His Word.
We can also use our human reasoning to make daily decisions such as what to eat, what to wear, what jobs to apply for, what career and education to choose, and so forth. We can come to sufficient decisions by using human reasoning. However, the error comes when we put our complete trust in our limited ability to reason.
Another way in which we can use human reason with God’s Word guided by the Holy Spirit is on issues of adiaphora (matters Scripture is silent on, or things neither forbidden nor commanded in Scripture).
For example, a friend once asked me, “What does the Bible say about addiction?” I told her the truth. I told her the Bible doesn’t speak specifically on addiction in exact words, but it does speak plenty on idolatry. I defined idolatry for her: that idolatry is putting an idol—something we are addicted to, for example—over God. Idolatry is trusting that thing more than we trust God.
I told her what Jesus said about an issue that can relate to addiction, in which He uses money as an exmaple: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). When someone is facing troublesome times, choosing to rely on a substance for comfort is trusting over that substance over God. Since idolatry is a sin, addiction is, therefore, a sin because like idolatry, it is a failure to trust God, and the addict loves the substance more than he or she loves God. The addict needs great patience and grace to help them gain sobriety by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Wilkens’ next question is, “How do we interpret commands?” He uses the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” as an example and questions what this is limited to. Does it only refer to humans and animals? Does it include banning self-defence or going to war? Is it against capital punishment and abortion? All these questions are a failure of taking God’s command at face value.
We know war and serving one’s country is not a sin because in order to preserve His nation Israel, God commanded the Israelites to go to war multiple times (these nations were also wicked, committing heinous acts such as cultic prostitution, abortion, child sacrifice, and other terrors). Also, Romans 13:1-7 tells us the government (and, therefore, whom it employs) do not bear the sword for no reason, so capital punishment is not sinful insofar as it is practised by the government and not someone whom the government has not employed.
I don’t think I have to defend why it’s wrong to murder people. Abortion is also clearly sinful since Scripture views infants in the womb as being life and specifically handmade by God (Psalm 139:13-16).
For animals, as we are God’s stewards of creation and are supposed to care for God’s creation, killing animals in cruelty would be considered a sin. It is not a sin, however, when killing animals for food and to protect one’s way of living (livestock, crops, family) since God permits us to eat animals in Genesis 9:3 and every person has the duty to care and provide for his or her family.
There is an easy answer to Wilkens’ next question, “Why do non-Christians come up with the same laws” (Wilkens, 210)? St. Paul has given the answer: “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing the witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:14-15).
In other words, God’s moral law is bound on all human hearts at all times. Since all human beings are created in the image of God, all people—even non-Christians—can know certain rights and wrongs without the assistance of God’s Word. However, their knowledge of what is right remains insufficient without the Word of God. Sin corrupts their understanding (“a law to themselves”), which is what happens when cultures create their own morals that are actually contrary to God’s Word.
Finally, Wilkens’ last question is, “Do divine commands tell us enough” (Wilkens, 211)? The only time this becomes a problem for us is when we create a multitude of “what-if” scenarios that are unique to modern times, just like the questions Wilkens asked about “Thou shalt not kill.” For example, euthanasia is unique to our modern era, which is why using Scripture to argue against it can become quite difficult. Or, when people ask, “What does the Bible teach about socialism and capitalism,” the answer is easy: Nothing, because neither existed during Old Testament and New Testament times.
The divine command theory is ultimately the commands of God through His love for us. What God commands us to do and commands we omit, we have to trust He instituted rightness and goodness as the Creator of rightness and goodness for our own good. Through the divine command theory, we see that we are dependent, sinful, and mentally inadequate creatures. It helps us recognise we are truly dependent on God, can do nothing for our sins in and of ourselves, and that our finitude causes us to realise our own limits. Thus, as a response to these liberating realisations, we learn to rely on God.
When we are faced with supposed problems of this theory, we must turn to the Scriptures—God’s Word as the ultimate authority. When Scripture seems problematic or contradictory, we must exercise the rule of faith, which is to remember what God’s people believe about God and who He is and His plan for salvation. It is not God’s Word that is in question. Rather, it is the limit of our human rationality that attempts to comprehend things it is incapable of comprehending.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2004.
Mueller, Steven P., Korey Maas, Timothy Maschke, Brian M. Mosemann, and Gregory Seltz. Called to Believe, Teach, and Confess: An Introduction to Doctrinal Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005.
Wilkens, Steve. Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right & Wrong. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995.