On Ward on Scotus on Divine Command Theory

January 31st, 2017 by

On Wednesday, January 11, we were delighted to have Dr. Thomas Ward of Loyola Marymount University present his talk “Love, Obedience and Moral Obligation: Reflection on Scotus” at our weekly AT seminar. Evident from the title, Ward focused his talk on a particular and nuanced exegesis of the medieval theologian and philosopher, John Duns Scotus. In particular, Ward’s paper laid out a case for thinking that Scotus offers theologians and philosophers a way of getting around one horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma upon which many think that a divine command theory of ethics is hopelessly skewered: divine voluntarism.

A gloss on the divine voluntarism horn is that divine command theory entails that God arbitrarily decrees moral obligations, for he’s not basing their goodness on some independently existing qualitative measure (e.g., the Platonic Good). Why is it good to obey divine command C? Because God commanded C. On this view, there’s nothing further to ground C’s goodness other than God’s having commanded it. Voluntarism is often taken to result in untoward consequences. For, on voluntarism, it seems as though, were God to command, for example, one to abuse a rabbit just for fun, it would be good. Ward is motivated to explicate Scotus vis-à-vis divine command theory because Scotus is often taken to be a voluntarist. But, says Ward, that’s not correct.

Now, one way that’s offered to get around the divine voluntarism objection is to posit that God’s being and essence—God Himself—just are/is what grounds any notion of goodness (think of the sorts of divine command arguments given by Jerry Walls, David Baggett, and William Lane Craig). One might say that, if there is such a thing as The Good, God is it. But, according to Ward, this isn’t the way Scotus goes. Instead, argues Ward, Scotus aims to get around voluntarism by suggesting that the proposition “it is morally obligatory to love God” is logically necessary. This moral fact cannot fail to be true.

What falls out of this conclusion is interesting and, I’d argue, plausibly biblical. Ward’s Scotus argues that obedience to the divine command—in all its decrees—follows necessarily from the necessary truth that one is obligated to love God. Quoting Ward: “loving God entails obeying God”. Biblically, one might say this is consistent with John 15:9ff. By this route, Scotus purportedly gets around the charge of voluntarism. Obeying God’s commands isn’t good because He commands them; it’s good because it’s the way one loves God. And it’s logically necessary that one is obligated to love God.

Surely, if Ward’s Scotus is correct, divine command theory doesn’t imply voluntarism, because it doesn’t imply that God is arbitrarily deciding what’s good. For the logically necessary truth “that one is morally obligated to love God” exists, on this account, independently of the divine will. If so, that’s a way to get around one horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma. But there is that second horn of the Dilemma, one that purportedly knocks God down a peg from divine aseity: The Good exists independently of God. The gloss goes like this: if God’s not arbitrarily deciding what’s good, then he’s decreeing what’s already, in fact (i.e., independent of God or His say-so), good. But this constrains God’s freedom (so goes the argument).

I’m inclined to think that, if Ward’s Scotus has worked around the voluntarism horn, he’s skewered on the one that implies that what’s good is good independently of God. For the logically necessary truth “that it’s morally obligatory to love God” exists independently of God. And if this logical necessity entails further things, e.g., that God, as good, must command that people love Him; that he must command obedience, etc., and that these commands just are good because they fall out of an independently existing logically necessary truth, it looks like what grounds goodness exists independently of God. So, it looks as if Scotus is impaled on the second horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma.

Is this a problem for Scotus? Well, it depends on how Scotus understands divine aseity. I’m not a Scotus scholar, so I can’t say for sure. To hazard a guess: I suspect that Scotus would be loath to agree with such a conclusion. Those medievals had some pretty rigid standards for divine aseity. I know some contemporary scholars that wouldn’t like it, either. Moreover, the second horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma (as I’ve sketched it) poses an apologetic problem: it provides a defeater for some versions of the moral argument for God’s existence. If God’s not the ground of moral facts and duties, then one can’t argue from moral facts and duties to God’s existence. Would this bother Scotus? Again, I don’t know. But I know it would bother some contemporary Christian thinkers.

As you might be able to tell, Ward’s paper is largely historical. But it is historical in such a way that it provides a number of arguments to mull over. In any case, I’m now rather persuaded that Scotus isn’t a voluntarist. I’m not persuaded, however, that positing a logically necessary truth concerning one’s moral obligation to love God saves a divine command theory of ethics.

J. T. Turner is a Research Associate on Fuller Theological Seminary’s Analytic Theology Project for the 2016 – 2017 academic year. He holds a PhD from The University of Edinburgh, a ThM from Erskine College and Seminary, and an MA and BS from Liberty University. Turner’s current research projects include writing a book on the metaphysics of afterlife in Christian theology, and work on constructing an analytic theology of what some biblical theologians call “holistic eschatology.”

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