The Euthyphro Dilemma – What Makes God “Good?”

From the very beginning of Christianity, its theology has been explored and expounded upon with the aid of philosophy – “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.”1 This is because philosophy and theology often deal with many of the same ideas, such as morality, wisdom, and other complex issues. Philosophy has also been used heavily in attempts to understand God and His nature. While philosophy can be used positively to death-of-socrates-abreaffirm and explain theological truths found in Scripture, others have used philosophy to attack Christianity and religion in general.

Socrates (470-399 BC), a very prominent Classical Greek philosopher, had been known to utilize philosophy and logic to challenge the Greek polytheistic religion of his day, something that eventually got him in trouble with the government, resulting in his execution. Plato, who was Socrates’ most famous student, recorded a discourse of Socrates in his dialogue Euthyphro. In this work, Socrates engages in discussion and debate with the eponymous Euthyphro, a religious expert and prophet of his day. The dialogue consists of Euthyphro’s attempts of defining what “goodness” and “piety” are – and Socrates’ challenges to his assertions.

Euthyphro gives this definition of goodness — goodness is that which the gods love (“the gods” can be replaced with “God” if we adapt this to the context of Christianity). However, this definition led Socrates to present the following question or dilemma:

  1. Is something good simply because the gods love it?
  2. Or do the gods simply love it because it is inherently good?

Either of these two answers leads to their own problem:

  1. If something is “good” just because the gods say that it is good, then goodness becomes arbitrary. Goodness is then not necessarily absolute, because the gods could decide to change what they decide is “good.”
  2. If the gods love something because it is good, then goodness itself is something that is above the gods, and something that they submit to because of its nature. Therefore, goodness is something independent of the gods, and the gods are not supreme in their authority.

In the context of ancient Greek mythology, there is little wonder this dilemma stumped Euthyphro. The gods of Ancient Greece were extremely petty individuals – they fought among themselves over petty problems, had sexual relations with mortals on various occasions – so they hardly exuded a strong ideal of “goodness.” He really had no way of answering this dilemma, because the gods he believed in were a far cry from the true God of the Bible.

This dilemma has been used frequently by atheists and critics of Christianity to challenge the idea that morality can be derived from God or, by extension, the Bible. If goodness is something completely arbitrary that God decides on a whim, then how cHoly_Trinityan that morality be any better than what a human wants to choose it to be? And if goodness is an ideal that is distinct from or even above God, then why does religion claim to have a monopoly on morality?

However, the triune God of the Scriptures stands up well against this challenge to Christian morality. In fact, the dilemma presents a false dichotomy – it only gives two choices when more than two are actually possible. In reality, goodness can be defined as whatever is godly. Something isn’t good just because God says it is good, but because it reflects and exemplifies God’s nature. In other words, godliness is goodness, and goodness is godliness. Goodness is not something outside of God that God must yield to. Goodness is what God is. Because God is perfect, holy, and supreme in his power, the goodness he exemplifies is perfect as well. In fact, the Apostle John tells us in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love.”

Goodness is also not arbitrary, because God is not arbitrary. Because God is omniscient and omnipotent, and because he does not change (Psalm 55:19), the goodness of his nature is a firm and eternal ideal of morality. As the Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 106:1-3:

Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord, or declare all his praise? Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!

The Dilemma for Atheism

Euthyphro’s dilemma can similarly be adapted in order to challenge atheistic assertions and claims to morality. Because atheists cannot derive their morality from any kind of supreme being or law, they are left to be their own source of morality. By substituting “the atheist” for “God” in the questions above, we get:

  1. Is something considered good simply because the atheist approves of it?
  2. Or does the atheist simply approve of it because it is inherently good?

If option 1 is correct, then “goodness” is an arbitrary concept that can quickly be redefined if the atheist chooses to do so. By this standard, morality could be a constantly-changing morality1aideal that is completely up to the individual. This also leads to the problem of two atheists with conflicting moral views. If one person believes that stealing is wrong, but another believes that stealing is perfectly fine, which one is correct? They could be “subjectively” correct, but there cannot be an objective morality due to the Law of Noncontradiction.

(While writing this article, I came across the fascinating fact that prominent atheist Richard Dawkins in an interview was unsure whether or not rape is inherently wrong (transcript here), but shows no hesitation in claiming that it is child abuse to call a child “Muslim” or “Christian.”)

If option 2 is correct, then the atheist is forced to admit that there is some transcendent ideal of “goodness” that exists separate from the laws of science and the material world. At that point, the idea of God existing is not too far off. For the atheist to admit that a transcendent and absolute “goodness” exists is to open the door very wide for accepting a belief in a higher power.

Atheists are perfectly capable of having a moral code of ethics, and might even believe that objective “good” exists. However, the notion of absolute morality is ultimately inconsistent with their belief system, painful as it may be to admit. The only “morality” that Darwinian evolution confers to humans is to take any measures necessary to survive and reproduce. There is no prescription to care for the weak, sick, or poor, as it weakens the species. For this very reason, famous atheist Richard Dawkins has described himself as strongly anti-Darwinian when it comes to society and ethics. Rather, he supports a Christian moral system when it comes to societal values.[2]

God is Good

Christian theology and the One True God of the Scriptures have stood up against scrutiny countless times in the past, and will only continue to do so in the years to come. Various secular scholars, beginning during the Enlightenment and continuing the today, have made claims that it’s only a short matter of time before people will realize how “irrational” it is to believe in God, and will trade their theistic beliefs for atheistic ones. However, the claim never seems to even come remotely true. Religion continues to stand firm against assaults of secular humanism. In fact, the cold and cruel ideals of Darwinian evolution and secularism seem to drive people towards religion as they search for true meaning.

We know that it is God who informs our morality by telling us what is right and wrong by means of His Word. And these moral standards are not arbitrary in the slightest – goodness reflects the holy and righteous nature of God Himself. These values should not be followed out of the fear of being punished, but as a loving response to God’s own love for us and our desire to serve all people. Those who have been called to faith are tasked to walk through this life with goodness and love:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

St. Paul to the Philippians, 4:8 (ESV)

Additionally, we are given the great mission of proclaiming the message of God’s ultimate act of goodness to all people:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you. . . For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. . .

1 Corinthians 15:1-4 (ESV)

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen. (Romans 15:13)

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The Use of Law and Gospel in Paul’s Epistles

The following essay was written for a theology course I took on The Pauline Epistles. I wanted to share it here so that anyone who reads it would hopefully benefit from it as well. The essay is meant to describe the relationship between law and gospel in Paul’s letters, while providing examples of how he uses both. I pray that God would work faith within your heart as you read these truths from His Word.

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. . . For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 5-6 (ESV)

 


 

The epistles of St. Paul offer a wealth of theological exposition on the doctrines of law and gospel. In his letters can be found the clearest explanation on the relationship between these two distinct yet intrinsically intertwined words from God. Before examining Paul’s use of both law and gospel in his epistles, it is necessary to establish the meaning of these terms. Edward Koehler, in his book A Summary of Christian Doctrine, briefly describes the meanings of the law and the gospel:

Both terms are used in the Bible in a wide and narrow sense. In the wide sense, either of the terms denotes the entire revelation of God. In the narrow and proper sense, the Law is the law of the commandments, and the Gospel is the glad tidings of God’s grace. The Law and the Gospel have these things in common: Both are God’s Word. Both apply to all people. Both are to be taught side by side in the church until the end of time. Nevertheless, they are fundamentally different. They are to be carefully distinguished, as the apostle Paul exhorts: “rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) (259)

Thus, because both the law and the gospel are part of God’s revelation to mankind through the Scriptures, they both must be upheld in their fullness. The apostle Paul maintains that both the law and the gospel have imperative applications in the lives of believers, although they each serve their own distinct purpose.st-paul-conversion

When describing the relationship between law and gospel, the law is typically outlined and explained first. This is because the gospel comes as God’s perfect response to the law, and therefore is reliant upon it. Paul discusses the law extensively in his letter to the Galatians. For instance, Paul talks about the purpose of the law in Galatians 3:19, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary” (ESV). Although Paul makes it clear in other places that God’s moral law was written on the hearts of men (Rom. 2:15), God also gave the law to the Israelites in physical form through Moses. The law is God’s perfect and holy command concerning what is right and what is wrong. Paul indicates here that the law was given in order to make people conscious of the fact that they are sinners. In fact, the law is so strict in its demands for perfection that no sinful human being is capable of following it anywhere near perfectly. Nobody can become justified and righteous before God by obeying the law, as Paul notes in Galatians 2:16, “… by the works of the law no one will be justified.”

Because of this fact, all men stand condemned before God for not obeying His holy will. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:56, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” If no human is capable of justifying himself before God, then how can one be saved? Paul answers this question with clarity in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This message of redemption by grace through faith is the message of the gospel. This passage also makes another important point—having faith in God is not a “work” that Christians perform to be saved. Faith itself is even a gift from God, one that men could not produce on their own. Because men are unable to save themselves through obedience to the law, God sent a savior to fulfill the law in man’s place. Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, paid the debt of sin by suffering and dying on the cross. In 2 Corinthians 2:19, Paul says, “… in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them….” That is, God sent Jesus to redeem mankind from its fallen and sinful state, in order that God and man would once again be at peace with one another, as before the fall.

Although the gospel makes it clear that the human race has been saved entirely by Jesus’ merits alone, some Christians in Paul’s day still wanted to fit human works of the law into the picture of redemption. Among Christians in Galatia, the Judaizers were propagating the idea that Christians could only be saved if they were circumcised and followed Old Testament Jewish customs. They were attempting to make works of the law some form of supplement to the gospel, something that men must do to become worthy of Christ’s work. As mentioned before, Paul rebuked this notion sharply. This teaching was a severe enough error that Paul resorted to the harsh disciplinary words of Galatians 3:1-2, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” Obviously, obedience to the law plays no part in the salvation of a believer. However, the law still does serve a very important purpose. Galatians 3:23-29 gives a picture of how the law and the gospel are related to each other:

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith [of the gospel of Christ] would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Essentially, the law was given in order to lead people to faith in the gospel promise of Christ’s redemptive work. The law pointed out mankind’s sin, and showed the desperate need for a savior. Now that the gospel has been revealed to the world, those who believe in it are no longer under the law’s curse of condemnation.

Unfortunately, this notion of “freedom from the law” can lead some Christians to abuse God’s grace, using His forgiveness as license to sin. Paul even addressed a specific instance of this happening within the Corinthian church, where a member was having sexual relations with his father’s wife: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor. 5:1-2). Although Christians are not held captive to the law, it should be the will of the new Man to carry out whatever God desires. In this sense, the law is a guide to Christians in how they are to live a godly life. This use of the law is also beneficial to fellow humans, as following God’s perfect will for creation will certainly benefit all people. Most of Paul’s epistles end with at least a chapter that deals with how Christians are to live their lives in response to God’s grace and gift of faith. In 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Paul exhorts the believers in Thessalonica to live according to God’s will, which is His law:

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Of course, Christians are still sinful humans beings—what separates them from unbelievers is the fact that they are made righteous by grace through faith in Christ. Although Christians are to flee from sin and build up the new Man made in them through the gospel, they are simultaneously saints and sinners. Paul brings this up in his letter to the Romans: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:18-20). Likewise, St. John says in 1 John 1:8-10, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” Because Christians are still sinners, they are to daily struggle against the old Adam within them, resisting temptations and taking every opportunity to do what is pleasing to God and beneficial to their neighbor. Martin Luther says in The Small Catechism, “… the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts. Also [baptism] shows that a new man should daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (340).

Because Christians have faith in Christ and recognize what is sinful, they always repent of the sins they commit, struggling with their flesh that they would cease committing them entirely. The sexually immoral Corinthian church member mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians appeared to be completely impenitent of his sin, and seemingly was even proud of it. In the case of a believer who continually refuses to repent, the most loving thing for their church to do is excommunicate them—to remove them from the Church that they would see the error of their ways and return to Christ. Paul instructs the Corinthians to “… deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). If an excommunicated member then shows true repentance for his sin, he is to be welcomed back into the Church with forgiveness and rejoicing (2 Cor. 2:5-11). It is clear from Paul’s epistles that God’s law is to be used by Christians as a guide for how to live God-pleasing lives.

In the same vein, it is a theme in Paul’s letters for him to remind the Christians to whom he is writing that they were once under the law, and were subjects of God’s wrath, before they heard the gospel and were saved by Christ. This is a message of the law—a reminder that a Christians is nothing in himself due to his sin, but his worth comes from God’s mercy on sinners. Paul uses this kind of message in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph. 2:1-3)

However, once this message of the law has been clearly put forth, Paul then immediately follows up with the gospel message of salvation:

But God, bring rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-7)

By doing this, Paul clearly sets forth a standard for Christians constantly being reminded of both the law and the gospel. In faithful churches across the world, each Sunday pastors will proclaim to their congregation the message that they are sinners who deserve God’s wrath—followed up by the gospel message that Christ has forgiven their sins on account of their faith—which itself is a gift from God.

Paul sets forth in his epistles the gold standard for how any Christian—pastor or layperson—ought to handle and understand both the law and the gospel. Each is crucial to the message of salvation. The law condemns the sinner, pointing out his faults, placing him under the wrath of God. The gospel redeems, pointing out how Christ has made up for those same faults, placing the sinner under God as His child and heir of eternal life. The proper use of these two doctrines is essential to the Christian faith. Koehler, in summarizing the law and gospel, says, “… the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is of utmost importance. The confusion or mixing of the two will make it impossible for anyone to become a Christian or to remain in the faith” (262). For this very reason, the Apostle Paul’s epistles are clear and focused on the details of both law and gospel, because both of them are imperative for the eternal life of believers.


 Sources Used

Engelbrecht, Edward, and Paul E. Deterding. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2009.

Koehler, Edward W. A. A Summary of Christian Doctrine. 3rd ed. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2006.

Luther, Martin. Concordia—The Lutheran Confessions. (Luther’s Small Catechism) Ed. Paul T. McCain. 2nd ed. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2006.