That’s the crux of the Euthyphro dilemma, so-named because it derives from Socrates’ question in Plato’s Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” It’s a great question. And it raises an interesting question about whether the “essences” of God are created by Him or are inherent and unchangable, even by God. For example, we know that God is Love. Could He decide not to be Love and still be God? Could He decide not to be Love at all?
The Biblical Evidence: Titus 1:2
Titus 1:2 is a lone verse which holds a lot of importance, because there is a chance it provides an answer. In it, Paul either says that “God cannot lie” or that “God does not lie.” Obviously, there’s a world of translation between those two concepts. The first establishes that there is a limit on God’s omnipotence: that His Power and Sovereignty is bound by His Goodness and Love. The second doesn’t suggest anything of the sort: perhaps He does not lie because He cannot, or perhaps because He chooses not to.
The English translations are split between these two, as this list of translations shows:
- The NASB, ISV, KJV (interestingly), AKJV, ASV, Darby, ERV, Webster’s, World English Bible, are solidly in the first camp: they all translate the verse as saying that God cannot lie.
- The NIV takes the latter position: that God “does not” lie. So does Young’s Literal Translation: God “doth not” lie. The Weymouth New Testament says God “is never false to His word,” which isn’t very helpful either way, but leaves the possibility open that God could lie.
So a 9-3 skew amongst Protestant Bibles. Of the Catholic translations, the NAB says that God “does not” lie, as does the NJB. The Douay-Rheims says that God “lieth not.” The RSV:CE says that God “never lies.” So they’re 0-3, strangely enough, bringing it to a 9-6 total. Obviously, this isn’t the most accurate way of determining what the verse says, so the next step should be taking a look at a good Concordance/Lexicon. Strong’s is great, and it’s free online. Turns out, the term being translated as either “does not lie” or “can not lie,” apseudēs, is defined by Strong’s as “without lie, truthful,” or alternately, “veracious – that cannot lie.” Which means that even amongst the Lexicon definitions, it looks like it can mean either “does not” or “cannot” lie. What about context? Well, apseudēs appears all of one time in the Bible: in Titus 1:2, of course.
So Titus 1:2 is a hint at the answer, but that’s it. Comparing translations, looking at lexicons, and examining parallel uses of the Greek word all come up short.
The Philosophical Question: Can God Command the Immoral?
Søren Kierkegaard, in his book Fear and Trembling, uses the story of Abraham and Isaac as a starting point to ask this basic question. He wants to know if there is a “teleological suspension of the ethical?” That is, can God command (for purposes known only to Him) you to do unethical things? Is your duty to God higher than your duty to behave ethically, so that no Christian can have an absolute code of ethics or even morals? The story Kierkegaard chose is perhaps the most compelling within the scope of the Bible. Normally, human sacrifice is both immoral and unethical. But what if God commands it?
So here, it’s not simply that one’s obligation to God overrides the ethical or moral concerns against taking human life. It’s that taking human life is only wrong if we’re doing it outside of our authority. So, taking the life of the justly condemned isn’t intrinsically immoral, and neither is killing in the scope of duty (killing enemy combatants within the course of combat). Certainly, moral and ethical decisions remain in those cases, but they’re not intrinsicall evil in the way taking a life outside of your authority is (terrorism, murdering the innocent, assassinations, and so forth). If God commissions you to do something, it’s now within your authority, so it’s not that God’s will trumps the moral calculation, but that His approval actually changes the moral calculation. Similarly, an executioner killing someone he suspects to be a murderer is wrong; but if a valid tribunal finds that suspect guilty and condemns him, the moral calculation is changed.
These thoughts are just sort of a first take on the subject. I made a Euthyphro tag so that I can return to this later. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts on this!