The Euthyphro Dilemma and the Christian Life

Introduction

How should people live?  This seemingly basic question is at the heart of the study of ethics.  John Frame defines ethics as “theology, viewed as a means of determining which persons, acts, and attitudes receive God’s blessings and which do not.”[1]  This means that, for Frame, the primary concern of ethics is how people should live underneath the lordship of God.  One of the subcategories of ethics is metaethics.  Of this subcategory Frame says, “metaethics discusses the nature of right and wrong, ethical methods, the presuppositions of ethics, and so on.”[2]  Metaethics, then, examines the nature of ethics.  It is concerned with “the epistemology of ethics,” or how one knows what is ethical, and “the justification of ethical theories and judgments,” or how one grounds their knowledge of what is ethical.[3]

This paper examines, from an apologetic angle, how the Euthyphro Dilemma and metaethics relate to the Christian life.  A brief description of the Euthyphro Dilemma and metaethics is followed by an exploration of their relationship to Christian apologetics.  Some implications for the Christian life are drawn out in the final portion of the paper.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

“Does God (in Plato’s case, the gods) command things because they are good, or are things good because God commands them?”[4]  This question, put forward by Scott Rae, introduces the Euthyphro Dilemma.  Plato, through the mouth of Socrates, states the problem this way: “if the god-loved and the pious were the same, my dear Euthyphro, then if the pious was being loved because it was pious, the god-loved would also be being loved because it was god-loved; and if the god-loved was god-loved because it was being loved by the gods, then the pious would also be pious because it was being loved by the gods.”[5]  Basically, Euthyphro seeks to know whether the gods approve of what is good because it is independently good, or if what is good is good simply because the gods arbitrarily approve of it.

At the most fundamental level, the Euthyphro Dilemma challenges divine command theories of ethics by presenting the problem of ethical grounding.  Ethical grounding is concerned with knowing why something is authoritative.  In Euthyphro, Socrates seeks to know why certain divine commands are authoritative.  The Dilemma introduces two different options for ethical grounding: 1) the divine commands are authoritative because they are good; or 2) the divine commands are authoritative because the gods gave them.

There are immediate difficulties for either option.  If divine commands are authoritative because they are good, on the one hand, then there is something more ultimate than God.  This means that God cannot be absolute, for he necessarily looks to realities outside of and above himself in order to determine what is ethical.  It follows from this that the grounds of divine commands are not actually in God, but they are found in the good which is both independent of and more ultimate than God.  This renders the divine commands somewhat unnecessary because God is merely conforming to a higher standard than his own being as he issues divine commands.

If, on the other hand, the divine commands are authoritative because God gives them, then there is a certain level of arbitrariness to the divine commands.  What is virtuous is not intrinsically virtuous; rather, it becomes virtuous when God declares it to be virtuous by way of issuing divine commands.  The problem with this is that God might change his mind at some point about what is and is not virtuous.  What is right today may become wrong in the future, and vice versa.  Thus, while the grounds for the divine commands is located in God, it is very much unstable, always having the potential to change according to the whim of God.

Since the Euthyphro Dilemma challenges divine command theories of ethics by presenting the problem of ethical grounding, it necessarily falls within the purview of metaethics.  One of the principle concerns of metaethics is ethical grounding, or how one provides a justification for ethical theories.  So, in Euthyphro, the grounds for ethical claims are either independent virtues on the one hand, or the arbitrary approval of God on the other.  If the former, then God need not be obeyed since he is not ultimately authoritative; if the latter, the grounding for ethics is always potentially shifting.

Metaethics and Christian Apologetics

Christian apologetics is concerned with the Euthyphro Dilemma and metaethics.  It is important for every Christian to be able to answer the Dilemma as presented in Euthyphro, even if not in academic terms.  Every Christian, at least in theory, should be concerned with how to live a virtuous life in obedience to God.  In order to do that, one must know something of God and of the nature of virtue and ethics.  For how could one know why or how to live a life of obedience to God if one knew nothing of God?  What follows, then, is an exploration of the metaphysical and epistemological grounds of ethics.  The Christian answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma is that the absolute and immutable God, who created the heavens and the earth, loves what is good because God himself is the very fountain of goodness.  Thus, God issues commands to his creatures not because goodness is more ultimate than God, nor because God approves of the good in an arbitrary fashion; rather, all of God’s commands are good because they reflect the goodness of God.

Metaphysics and Ethics

In order to ground an ethical discussion, one must also discuss metaphysics.  Though these are traditionally thought of as two distinct spheres of philosophy, they are not so distinct as to be able to stand on their own.  Metaphysics and ethics (and, to be discussed shortly, epistemology) mutually reinforce one another.  The question, “What is good?” cannot be asked without at least some consideration of the question, “What is?”  In order to know what is good, one must have an idea of what is.  Thus, metaphysical categories are actually very helpful for grounding ethical considerations.  While the Euthyphro Dilemma focuses primarily on ethics, it is also concerned in a secondary way with metaphysics (for example, whether God or goodness is absolute).

At least two things should be said here of the Christian understanding of the metaphysics of ethics.  First, God is absolute.  Paul says that “from God and through God and to God are all things” (Romans 11:36).  The implication of this is that God is the ultimate foundation for all things, including ethics.  It is not the case that an abstract good or virtue exists apart from or more fundamentally than God.  When God comes to Israel after their exodus from Egypt, he declares, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2).  The commandments which God gives to them are grounded in God’s being.  The reason that the Ten Commandments are authoritative is because God is the Lord, the absolute One, the “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).

Second, classical Christian theism argues that God is immutable.  James 1:17 says that God is “the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”  The point is that God’s essence and character will not and cannot change.  John says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  If God could change, it is conceivable that he could change, at least in some respect, from light to dark.  But immutability functions as a safeguard against this kind of thinking by arguing that God essentially remains the same eternally (cf. Psalm 102:26-27; Lamentations 3:22; Malachi 3:6).  When the Psalmist says that “the LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (Psalm 145:17), immutability argues that God will remain righteous in all his ways rather than somehow mutating to be unrighteous in his ways.

Both God’s absoluteness and his immutability have profound implications for the Christian answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma.  The Christian cannot say that anything is more ultimate than God, since God is absolute being.  God does not look to anything outside of himself in order to decide what is good.  All of God’s commands are good because God himself, as the absolute God, is the fountain of goodness.  Immutability stands alongside God’s absoluteness to safeguard not only that absoluteness, but also his unchanging, righteous nature.  Immutability is a valuable doctrine in this discussion precisely because it argues for both God’s absoluteness and for God’s unchanging nature.  This means that goodness itself is unchanging, since the God from which goodness flows is himself unchanging.  Metaphysics is related to ethics such that ethical claims can be grounded in God’s absoluteness and immutability.  God’s commands are authoritative, good, and unchanging because God is absolute and immutable.

Epistemology and Ethics

The preceding discussion about metaphysics and ethics is incomplete without also considering the role and relationship of epistemology to metaphysics and ethics.  The entire discussion is moot if nothing can be known of “What is good?” or “What is?”  It is one thing to say that the Christian can solve the Euthyphro Dilemma by positing an absolute and immutable God who is the fountain of goodness.  But what if this God is unknowable?  If that is the case, then there can be no knowledge of what is good or what is.  Therefore, epistemology is crucial in order to rightly ground ethical considerations.  As Cornelius Van Til says, “the whole of Christian ethics is related to the Christian view of knowledge.”[6]

Two things should be said here of the Christian understanding of the epistemology of ethics.  First, Christian epistemology considers the knowledge of God.  To quote from Van Til again, the “all-important” concept of epistemology is the concept of a “completely self-conscious God.”[7]  This follows from the metaphysical absoluteness of God and has implications for ethics as well.  Since God created all things, it follows that he has created the laws of thought according to which the human mind should rightly operate.  Thus, human knowledge is made possible by the fact that God created humans and the laws of thought.  Moreover, God knows all things.  The reason that humans can know the answers to the questions of “What is good?” and “What is?” is because God knows them and has seen fit to communicate to humans by way of revelation.  So the knowledge of God, following the being of God, is absolute.

Second, the knowledge of humanity is, then, derivative.  This follows from the idea that God’s knowledge is absolute.  But this need not lead to skepticism or the idea that human knowledge is inadequate in itself; rather, it simply means that human knowledge is correct insofar as it corresponds to God’s knowledge.  Human beings cannot “get out in front of God” in order to know.  Humans are completely dependent upon God for knowledge.  What this means for ethics is that God himself is authoritative because he is metaphysically and epistemologically absolute.  That God is epistemologically absolute means that, in the current discussion of the Euthyphro Dilemma, humans need not look beyond the absolute God in order to know what is good.  For God himself knows what is good.  There is nothing beyond his knowledge which might change his mind or change what is good.  When God issues good commands, he does so because he knows that each command is good.  So when the Christian answers the Euthyphro Dilemma, they can argue that God is epistemologically absolute.  God knows what is good because he is completely self-conscious.  And since the good flows from God’s absolute being, God is completely conscious of what is good.  It this basis, the basis of God’s absolute being and knowledge, upon which God issues his good commands.

Apologetics and the Christian Life

What does all of this mean, then, for the Christian life?  Three implications of the preceding discussion should be established.  First, the Christian faith is capable of answering the Euthyphro Dilemma.  Christianity is able to answer difficult problems and objections lodged against it by critics and unbelievers.  In this way, not only are these problems and objections answered, but the Christian faith is itself proven to be more than capable of answering difficulties.  This has a profound impact on unbelievers who might consider the faith to be anti-intellectual.  But it also is a great help to believers for the strengthening of their faith.  The Euthyphro Dilemma need not keep anyone away from Jesus Christ and the Christian faith, for Christianity is capable of answering the Dilemma.

Second, the Christian faith is an entire worldview with an able understanding of the relationship of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  Christianity is philosophically and theologically robust.  It makes justified claims about the nature of reality, the nature of knowledge, and the nature of virtue.  As a worldview, Christianity is capable not only of answering the difficult questions people may have, but also of presenting a vigorous, articulate view of all reality which can and should be contrasted with other worldviews.  Thus, the Christian can answer the Euthyphro Dilemma, and they can also answer such questions as the meaning and purpose of life, the nature and reality of God, and the value and truthfulness of virtue.

Third, the absolute and immutably good God is alone worthy of worship.  The God who answers the Euthyphro Dilemma is the God who Christians worship.  Humans were made to worship God, as the famous Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  So when the Dilemma argues that God is either arbitrary in his approval of the good or else not absolute or ultimate in his being, the Christian argues that the absolute and immutable God not only “solves” this alleged problem, but is also the God to whom Christians fully entrust themselves.

Conclusion

The Euthyphro Dilemma is a metaethical problem which seeks the right knowledge of the metaphysical grounds for ethical claims.  Basically, it asks whether God approves of the good because it is good, or if what God approves becomes good because he approves of it.  The Christian answer to the Dilemma is that the absolute and immutable God of Christian theism is the fountain of goodness, and therefore God issues ethically good commands which reflect his own absolute and unchanging goodness.  Since God’s knowledge is absolute and immutable as well, Christians can be assured that God will not change his mind about what is good.  In this line of thinking, the Christian draws on and intentionally places together metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.  Ultimately, the Christian faith is capable of answering the Euthyphro Dilemma by positing the absolute and immutable God who is alone worthy of worship.


[1] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 10.

[2] Ibid., 11-12.

[3] Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 16.

[4] Ibid., 47.

[5] Plato, Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002), 14.

[6] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., edited by K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 75.

[7] Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, n.d.), 1.


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