The Two Versions of Divine Command Theory Examined

Divine Command

There is a huge question concerning God and moral commands. Does God make these commands because they are good? Or are the commands only good because he says so and for no other reason?

Does God create right and wrong or does he simply discover it? Or is morality good regardless of what God thinks of it? Is morality good because God says so? The divine command theory says yes.

Divine Command - two opposing versions

It is said that there are two kinds of divine command doctrine. One is the voluntary theory and the other is the non-voluntary.

The voluntaristic theory says that it is up to God, it is his choice what is right and what is wrong, so evil is good when he says so. This does not make any sense. Abusing a baby for fun is not made good by God commanding you to do it.

The non-voluntaristic theory says that God is morality and he did not invent himself so he did not invent morality. He is the way he is and he cannot change it. We are talking about God's nature. God's will must flow from his nature. As he is good, he cannot command evil.

A moral value is not the same as a moral duty. Moral values and moral duties are related but distinct.

For example, the schoolmaster upholds the moral value of kindness. His nature is to morally value kindness. This does not force him to make a rule saying children must bring in fruit to share with one another every day. But he can make that rule - he makes it a duty. Or he can decide it is best to make it their duty to polish each other's shoes instead. It is up to him, to his will, how he honours the moral value of kindness. Kindness is just the way the schoolmaster is. The rules are up to him.

And so it is with God.

What is to be valued morally is not determined by what God wills or wants. Moral values are determined by the nature of God. What we have to do to be moral in the sense of having moral duties is grounded in his will. God's will determines what duties we have. To summarise, God's nature is all about moral values. God's will is about the duties he creates to uphold these values.

So God has no choice in regard to values such as kindness or justice. But he does have a choice in what rules he is going to make. The rules are not the values but express the values.

Christians say God cannot make unkind rules or duties but it is up to him what kind of rules/duties he makes to help us be kind. We might disagree with the duties he gives us but he knows best.

The duties regarding how to love God are given to us by God's will but moral values have nothing to do with his will. God is a God of moral value and that cannot change. What this means is that God cannot violate the moral value of love. So he is free to make laws in order to promote love and has some freedom to decide. If God had to manage a universe of evil rebels, he might have to endorse the death penalty because of the circumstances. The non-voluntaristic theory does not, in principle, give many people what they want: A God who would not ask a religion to kill.

The theory is of no use if you want moral rules for it only deals with moral values. Despite the lies of Christians, this proves that God is not enough. They say he is which is cruel of them.

The refutation of non-voluntaristic

Atheists may say that the non-voluntaristic theory has a problem. It is more of a contradiction than a problem! God's values are not voluntary. If he is kind and just, that is lucky but what if he were unkind and unjust?

What if his values were different? Believers say that if God were not kind they would not worship him. So they are judging God by a standard independent of him. And there they are pretending that they have no standard independent of God!

Also, if God's nature forces him to murder for fun, that is not God's fault and he can be called good in the sense that he cannot do any different and means as well as he can.

What if God's nature was not good and he could command the murder of the innocents for fun? You might say that God cannot be condemned for this for it is not his fault he is the way he is. So you could still call him good for he is good under the circumstances when he has no choice. It is good to do all you can even if it is bad - you cannot be blamed for what you cannot do. Even if you do grave harm, you are still to be rewarded under the circumstances for it is unreasonable to demand more of you than your best. Therefore it boils down to whatever kind of God exists, that God's character is the paradigm of goodness in a sense. If the non-voluntaristic view of God is right, then murder is fine if God's nature has no problem with us committing it.

The final point that needs to be made is that the notion that morality is not invented by God but is God's nature is another way of putting the non-voluntaristic divine command theory. It is the same thing.
Non-voluntary is a cover for the voluntary theory
God does not consider anything good unless he values it. But his valuing it does not depend on its being good. In other words, this is indeed the divine command theory with the wording changed. It is the divine command theory because it says what God values is good but its being good has nothing to do with his valuing it. What if he valued child abuse? Would it become good then? A God who values things and doesn't worry if they are good is a God that is arbitrarily inventing good and evil. If God values something and doesn't care if it is good or not, then he is inventing good.

Contradicts doctrine of the value of free will

Christians say that God commands only what is right and what is right is right because God's nature is right and good. They say that God's goodness is not voluntary. This contradicts their view that real or the best goodness is voluntary. Christians say that we human beings have the power to do evil so that we might refuse to use this power and do good instead. They say if we were programmed to do good or did it without having a choice we would not be as good as the being who can do evil and who does good instead. We must be better than God if we have more free will than he does! They don't admit that!

If God is not voluntarily good, then whatever forces this goodness on him is better than him. By saying morality is ultimately all about God makes you evil not good for you are denying that morality is independent of God. You are refusing to look at good and admit what it is. Instead of good, you create a replica of it that is not the real thing.

Religion desperately tries to avoid the notion that morality is a standard independent of God for that means God is not really God and we have the right to contradict him if we think his rules are wrong. But if God is not voluntarily good then the independent standard gets in the back door.

Binding God and Morality is not even needed

Even if there were no God and no universe and nothing at all there would still be some good. For example, there would be no suffering. God can't invent good. He has to subject himself to it. Hurting a baby would be evil whether there is a God or not and shame on religion for trying to say different. They imply it would be fine to hurt the baby if there were no God. It is terrible how they can suggest that and then say that God is right to let babies suffer terribly for he has a reason unknown to us.
God either makes the moral values/rules or he doesn’t. If he doesn't then they exist whether there is a God or not. For example, if there were no God or anything it would still be true that murder is bad even though there are no people to be murdered. Belief in God denies this truth for it denies that morality is independent of God so the Christians in fact, despite pretending they don’t, do actually believe that morality is invented by God. To say morality is not independent of God but is his character and one with him is the same as saying that God invents morality except the idea that he is this morality makes it worse. A God that invented morality would be bad enough but one that was identical with this invention would be worse. Belief in God is intrinsically evil. Saying God is morality solves nothing. Even if God is morality: the question, is God the maker of morality or is he not, is still left unanswered. The Christians are deceiving us with their strange answers that are not answers at all but just nonsense dished up in the hope that we will stop asking questions.

Something has to be good or evil. If something is neither then that is the same as saying it is both equally so you can't get away from good and evil. It is not a matter of developing belief in God in order to believe in good and evil. We cannot avoid accepting good and evil as true. That is a good thing and religion tries to distort it by saying we must link it to God and bring God into it. Religion despite its charm then is evil.
There is no free will to avoid good. If God is goodness then it follows that even the humanitarian atheist in some sense is following God. Religion would be lying that it and its God respect free will.


Both forms of divine command doctrine are wrong and are actually about inventing morality though they pose as enhancers and defenders of morality. One is as bad as the other in many respects. The notion that morality is grounded in God's character picks out the worst in the voluntary theory and adds to it.


The dark side of the doctrines might explain why believers in God have been so evil and fanatical throughout history. 

Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Monarch Publications, East Sussex, 1995
The Future of Atheism, Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett, SPCK, London , 2008
Ethics: The Fundamentals, Julia Driver, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2007
The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Edited by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2007
THE BIG QUESTIONS, Simon Blackburn, Quercus Books, London, 2009


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