Bradley on the alleged contradiction of Christian ethics

I’m a bit of a fan of the moral argument for the existence of God.  I think that theism provides a foundation for moral truth. There are a few ways that Christians have made this argument, but the model that I have settled on is a divine command theory of ethics, where moral right and wrong is determined by the commands or will of God.

Raymond Bradley isn’t a fan of the moral argument. Not at all. I know, infidels.org hasn’t exactly built up a reputation for stellar or fair minded scholarship in the philosophy of religion, but bear with me. Not only does Bradley not buy the moral argument, he also thinks that Christian theism, if true, would fail to provide a basis for moral truth. He goes even further: Christians find themselves in an unavoidable contradiction.  Observe:

[T]heists are confronted with a logical quandary which strikes at the very heart of their belief that the God of Scripture is holy. They cannot, without contradiction, believe all four of the statements:

(1) Any act that God commits, causes, commands, or condones is morally permissible.
(2) The Bible reveals to us many of the acts that God commits, causes, commands, and condones.
(3) It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate our moral principles.
(4) The Bible tells us that God does in fact commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate our moral principles.

The trouble is that these statements form an inconsistent tetrad such that from any three one can validly infer the falsity of the remaining one. Thus, one can coherently assert (1), (2), and (3) only at the cost of giving up (4); assert (2), (3), and (4) only at the cost of giving up (1); and so on.
The problem for a theist is to decide which of these four statements to give up in order to preserve the minimal requirement of truth and rationality, viz., logical consistency. After all, if someone has contradictory beliefs then their beliefs can’t all be true. And rational discussion with persons who contradict themselves is impossible; if contradictions are allowed then anything goes.

Let’s have a look for this contradiction. I am not aware of any Christian, let alone Christian ethicist, who endorses claim 1. I certainly do not. The view I hold is that an act is right if God commands or wills it, and an act is wrong if God forbids or wills against it. God, according to the Bible, does many things that it would be wrong for me to do, but which he does not command or will that I do: Bringing civilizations to an end, ending human lives all the time, and so forth. So premise 1 simply misrepresents Christian ethical theories. Let’s grant premise 2.

What about premise 3? Is it morally impermissible for anyone to commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate our moral principles? My own view as a Christian ethicist is that “our” moral beliefs make absolutely no difference at all in whether or not an act is morally right or wrong. On the contrary, it is God’s will that makes such a difference and not mine. Indeed, even if premise 1 were correct, premise 3 would clearly be false (it would be false precisely because premise 1 was correct). So premise 3 simply begs the question against Christian views of morality by assuming that they are false. We arrive then at premise 4, which is actually a statement of the writer’s point of view on morality. Perhaps God’s commands in Scripture do violate the moral beliefs that a person has. This not morally significant if it is God’s will that determine what is moral or immoral. Premise 4, in that case, would be doing nothing more than telling us that some of us are morally mistaken, for we think that in some cases it is right to disobey God’s will. What Christian will embrace this claim?

Where, then, is this supposed contradiction that Christians must accept? The premises that are doing all the work, namely 1 – but most importantly premise 3, are simply not held by Christians and amount to begging the question by assuming that in spite of what Christians say, God’s will is not normative for morality, and that is that.

Ah, the crippling power of logic. I can see Christians running for the hills now.

Glenn Peoples

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12 thoughts on “Bradley on the alleged contradiction of Christian ethics

  1. I took (1) to mean that any act that God commits, causes, commands, or condones is morally permissible for God to commit, cause or command; I didn’t take it to mean that anything God does, we are allowed to do too.

    Not that I disagree with you on the whole, of course.

  2. Tuck, if that’s what he meant then further problems arise. For one, the Christian ethicist can endorse that claim and yet still maintain that the acts of God in the Old Testament are immoral for us to do (since, on this reading of 1), it only refers to divine acts).

    But I don’t think the writer could have only had divine acts in mind, because he says that “any act that God commits, causes, commands, or condones is morally permissible.” Obviously God doesn’t “command” or “condone” his own acts. This must be talking about human actions that God commands or condones, or God’s acts that he commits.

  3. if that’s what he meant then further problems arise. For one, the Christian ethicist can endorse that claim and yet still maintain that the acts of God in the Old Testament are immoral for us to do (since, on this reading of 1), it only refers to divine acts).

    Well, I think that is exactly why I took it the way I took it; I didn’t take it the way you took it precisely because, as you say, the way you took it it’s a silly position that nobody actually argues for.

    Still:

    But I don’t think the writer could have only had divine acts in mind, because he says that “any act that God commits, causes, commands, or condones is morally permissible.” Obviously God doesn’t “command” or “condone” his own acts. This must be talking about human actions that God commands or condones, or God’s acts that he commits.

    Yeah, I agree with that on further reflection.

  4. I have been meaning to write a refutation of Bradley for some time ( there is a partial one on my blog at http://www.mandm.org.nz/2008/06/william-lane-craig-raymond-bradley-and.html) Bradley pushed this line at the Cooke Craig debate during the Q&A . I think his argument has several flaws.

    First [3] is ambigious it could be interpreted as:

    [3a] It is wrong for human persons to violate our moral principles

    or

    [3b] It is wrong for any person including God to violate our moral principles .

    In order for Bradley’s argument to follow, [3b] needs to be the case. It needs to be the case that God is engaging in wrongdoing if he violates our moral principles. However, in the article Bradley cites in support of this argument, he provides reasons only for [3a]. He argues that to deny [3]

    “… would be to ally oneself with moral monsters like Ghenghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. It would be to abandon all pretense to a belief in objective moral values. Indeed, if it is permissible to violate the above principles, then it isn’t easy to see what sorts of acts would not be permissible. .. [It] would be tantamount to an embrace of moral nihilism. And no theist who believes in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount could assent to that.”

    But these consquences follow if one rejects [3a] not [3b].

    Moreover if a divine command theory is correct [3b] is probably false. Hence, far from arguing for the independence of morality from God Bradley’s argument actually assumes it.

    Second, Bradley’s exegesis in support of [4] is really poor in places, he interprets descriptive statements as prescriptions. Takes the most unchartible reading of everything. See’s rape where there is none misreads, genres, etc.

  5. Precisely Matt. His argument only has teeth if “it’s always wrong for God to do things that violate our moral beliefs.”

    He asks with apparent incredulity which of these premises Christians are going to reject. Ooo, I don’t know Bradley, how about THAT one?

  6. If one of you guys; Glenn/Matt; would be interested in debating the aforementioned atheist philosopher, is that something that could be looked into? After hearing an atheist promo-lecture from him @ UofA a couple of years back (a bit b4 the Craig visit), I’ve been interested in having him speak to some kind of group at uni, maybe with rebuttal, or a debate or something.. (There were a few minor points from his lecture that I had a quibble with, like the existence of Jesus & pretty much the rest of the lecture.)

  7. Thanks, it seems like it could be rather interesting. I shall talk to some people, since we’re (TSCF groups, Thinking Matters, ..) looking for speakers/debaters near the start of next semester. (If you temporarily leave the mainland for Auckland sometime this year, there are certain people who might like to make a financial contribution towards some of your time)

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