Ultimate Paradigm of Goodness

The classical Greek matrix of holiness (goodness) is expressed in one of the two horns of a classic moral dilemma called Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In one of Plato’s early dialogues, Euthyphro, Socrates inquires of Euthyphro, a religious expert on the subject of holiness, why holiness is loved by the gods: either holiness is holy because it is loved by the gods or it is loved by the gods because it is holy. A Christianized translation could be restated as: either goodness is good because God commanded it or God commanded it because it is good. The first horn of the dilemma is morally problematic because holiness (or goodness) turns out to be arbitrary. Here holiness is synonymous with whatever God commands, and his commands should be obeyed because he is all-powerful. In other words, divine might makes right. Socrates/Plato sides with the second horn of the dilemma: holiness is loved by the gods because it is holy. This implies that holiness is separate from the gods. That is, holiness is an eternal moral truth that the gods can choose to abide by or ignore. For Christianity, this could prove to be problematic since traditionally God is viewed as the ultimate paradigm of goodness or the master (epitome) of goodness, not its servant.

This view that “eternal moral truths that God did not create and that are valid for God as well as for us” is called intellectualism (or Socratic intellectualism) because God’s commands “come from his intellect’s knowledge of these truths.” Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 185.

The problem with intellectualism is fourfold: (1) the doctrine of theology proper throughout ecclesiastical history, which deals with the foundation of moral values (meta-ethics), has been an anti-intellectualism of either voluntarism or non-voluntarism; (2) anti-intellectualism throughout the centuries holds that God’s essential characteristics or nature is simple and not composed of parts. But intellectualism makes reason an essential divine characteristic or nature, while goodness is non-essential. This rationalistic impulse to compartmentalize God’s “head” (reason) from his “heart” (goodness) is problematic to historical Judeo-Christianity. (3) Intellectualism makes God dependent on eternal moral truths, which implies that God lacks transcendent goodness; and (4) from (3) we are left with a conundrum: on the one hand, if God lacks an essential characteristic or nature, such as goodness, then he is not a maximally great being, and thus, he does not deserve to be worshipped. On the other hand, if God seeks to be good, then that is a good moral choice, which means that God has to already be good before he chooses goodness. But God cannot be both non-moral and moral, simultaneously. How can God make a good free will choice to consistently seek eternal moral truths and also be non-moral? The act of seeking is itself an act of good will.

We do ourselves a great service to remember to “[g]ive thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His faithful love endures forever” (Ps 107:1; 136:1; 118:1, HCSB, emphases added. See also Ps 25:8-10; 34:8).


Chester Delagneau

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