Monday, May 12, 2014

God in Relation to Law: Ex Lex, Sub Lego or Sibi Ipsi Lex

See also my blogpost: Why Obey God? as well as Distinctions in God's Will from a Calvinist Perspective

In the Middle Ages, questions were raised about the propriety of thinking that the atonement of Jesus was made necessary by some abstract law of the universe that required God’s justice to be satisfied. This gave rise to the so-called Ex Lex debate. In the Ex Lex debate, the question was raised as to whether God’s will functioned apart from any law or outside of any law (ex lex), or whether the will of God was itself subjected to some norm of righteousness or cosmic law that God was required to follow and, therefore, His will was exercised under law (sub lego). The question was: Is God apart from law or is He under law?

The church’s response to this dilemma was to say basically “a pox on both houses,” and to declare that God is neither apart from law nor under law in these respective senses. Rather, the church responded by affirming that God is both apart from law and under law, in so far as He is free from any restraints imposed upon Him by some law that exists outside of Himself. In that sense, He is apart from law and not under law. Yet at the same time, God is not arbitrary or capricious and works according to the law of His own nature. The church declared that God is a law unto Himself. This reflects not a spirit of lawlessness within God, but that the norm for God’s behavior and God’s will is based on what the seventeenth-century orthodox theologians called “the natural law of God.”
- R.C. Sproul [source]

Philip Johnson wrote:

Anyway, I think John Frame's assessment of Clark's famous theodicy is helpful. Here it is. Frame's own footnotes are included in braces {and faint type}:

[Clark's] argument is that God is ex lex, which means "outside of the law." The idea is that God is outside of or above the laws he prescribes for man. He tells us not to kill, yet he retains for himself the right to take human life. Thus, he is not himself bound to obey the Ten Commandments or any other law given to man in Scripture. Morally, he is on an entirely different level from us. Therefore, he has the right to do many things that seem evil to us, even things which contradict Scriptural norms. For a man to cause evil indirectly might very well be wrong, but it would not be wrong for God. {But on this basis, it would also not be wrong for God to cause evil directly. That is why I said this argument makes the indirect-cause argument beside the point.} Thus Clark neatly finesses any argument against God's justice or goodness.

There is some truth in this approach. As we shall see, Scripture does forbid human criticism of God's actions, and the reason is, as Clark implies, divine transcendence. It is also true that God has some prerogatives that he forbids to us, such as the freedom to take human life.

Clark forgets, however, or perhaps denies, the Reformed and biblical maxim that the law reflects God's own character. To obey the law is to imitate God, to be like him, to image him (Ex. 20:11; Lev. 11:44-45; Matt. 5:45; 1 Peter 1:15-16). There is in biblical ethics also an imitation of Christ, centered on the atonement (John 13:34-35; Eph. 4:32; 5:1; Phil. 2:3ff.; 1 John 3:16; 4:8-10). Obviously, there is much about God that we cannot imitate, including those prerogatives mentioned earlier. Satan tempted Eve into seeking to become "like God" in the sense of coveting His prerogatives (Gen. 3:5). {John Murray said that the difference between the two ways of seeking God's likeness appears to be a razor's edge, while there is actually a deep chasm between them.} But the overall holiness, justice, and goodness of God is something we can and must imitate on the human level.

So God does honor, in general, the same law that he gives to us. He rules out murder because he hates to see one human being murder another, and he intends to reserve for himself the right to control human death. He prohibits adultery because he hates adultery (which is a mirror of idolatry—see Hosea). We can be assured that God will behave according to the same standards of holiness that he prescribes for us, except insofar as Scripture declares a difference between his responsibilities and ours.

{Oddly, Clark, who is usually accused of being a Platonic realist, at this point veers into the opposite of realism, namely, nominalism. The extreme nominalists held that the biblical laws were not reflections of God's nature, but merely arbitrary requirements. God could have as easily commanded adultery as forbidden it. I mentioned this once in a letter to Clark, and he appreciated the irony, but did not provide an answer. Why, I wonder, didn't he deal with moral law the same way he dealt with reason and logic in, e.g., The Johannine Logos (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972)? There he argued that God's reason/logic was neither above God (Plato) nor below God (nominalism), but God's own rational nature. Why did he not take the same view of God's moral standards?}

[From: Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), 166-68.]

Frame concludes that Clark's ex lex defense "simply is not biblical." I think he's right.

I think the above quotes are in keeping with the view that some modern Christian theologians/philosophers/apologists hold and sometimes call "Divine Command Essentialism" (William Lane Craig being one of the more popular proponents who actually uses that term). It seems to combine the advantages and eliminate the disadvantages of Divine Essentialism alone (simpliciter) and Divine Voluntarism alone (simpliciter).

On the one hand...

In Latin the word voluntas means "will." One of the main and most discussed problems with Divine Voluntarism (which is commonly expressed in the most common versions of the Divine Command Theory of morality [DCT]) is that it would make God's moral commands arbitrary. God could have theoretically assigned murder, rape and theft as virtues since on divine voluntarism what God wills and commands is the reason why some things are "good" and "right" while other things are "wrong" and "evil."

On the other hand...

One of the problems of Divine Essentialism on a Christian perspective is that it doesn't seem to a account for some Divine commands in the Bible that do seem to be arbitrary and wouldn't necessarily flow from God's nature. For example, the dietary laws in the Old Testament. Most Christian theologians/apologists would agree that they were given for multiple purposes. One of those purposes was to teach the Israelites how God separated and consecrated them from all other gentile nations. By giving the dietary laws in the Old Testament that distinguished between clean and unclean meats as He did, God was teaching the Israelites to see themselves as the consecrated people that they were. In that sense all of God's laws reflect and are grounded in God's nature and authority. However, those dietary laws were in some sense arbitrary and don't necessarily flow from God's nature/essence. There's nothing intrinsically evil or contrary to God's nature in swine. That's why such Old Covenant laws were able to be abrogated (or at least superceded) by the New Covenant laws and principles so that it's now permissible (though not required) to eat foods that were formerly considered unclean under the Old Covenant. Similar to how the principles of aerodynamics supercede the law of gravity. While other Old Covenant laws (which were typological) were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (the antitype).

 Another problem with Divine Essentialism is that God sometimes gives commands which seem prima facie to contradict God's nature of love. For example, God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son.

Additionally, if one is a Calvinist, simple Divine Essentialism would seem to conflict with (or even  contradict) the Calvinist understanding of reprobation (see my related blog HERE).

Divine Command Essentialism (DCE, not to be confused with ordinary DCT) holds that values and virtues flow from God's nature, while our moral duties as God's creatures flow from His will as they are expressed in His commands to us. Yet in some sense they also reflect God's nature/essence. It (DCE) seems to be a synthesis of both divine essentialism and divine voluntarism. Such a view 1. affirms God as the standard and paradigm of virtue and goodness, 2. exonerates God from being arbitrary, 3. allowing for (and accounting for) God's ability to act and command in ways that don't obviously or directly flow from God's nature or essence , and 4. nevertheless grounding God's commands in God's nature such that in some sense they always reflect that good nature.

A common objection to God being the standard of goodness is that it's actually not saying anything. It's a tautology. It's circular because all you're really saying is "God's nature is that which is God's nature" or " God is being God-like." But that objection is like asking the question, "What's north of the north pole?" Or, "Why is a bachelor and unmarried man?" The north pole is north by definition, just like bachelors are unmarried men by definition. The reason why we have a moral sense in the first place is because God implanted it within us by making us in His moral and rational image. To question God being the standard of goodness is to assume morality and goodness exist outside of God. It is to beg the question about the source of goodness and morality. Unless and until a better explanation is offered for the source of morality and goodness one cannot even begin to judge, evaluate or object to God's being the standard and source of goodness and morality.

It might be asked, "If our moral sense comes from God, why do many of God's commands in the Bible seem to contradict our moral intuitions?" One of the reasons is because we're applying to God moral categories and duties that we have toward creatures to God. As William Lane Craig said,

But then what about God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? Did God have the right to command such a thing and was Abraham morally obligated to obey? I am inclined simply to bite the bullet and say, "Yes, God did have the right and Abraham was so obligated." The uncomfortableness of this answer can perhaps be mitigated by the realization that God has the right to do certain things that would be immoral for a human person to do on his own initiative. For example, I do not have the right to kill another innocent person. But God, as the author and giver of life, has that prerogative. If He should choose to strike me dead right now, that is His right. (Notice how opponents of capital punishment, for example, will often say to its proponents, "Who do you think you are to play God?") Thus, Abraham would not have the right on his own initiative to take Isaac's life, for that would be murder. But if God should command Abraham to take Isaac's life, then the situation is different because Abraham is now no longer acting on his own but rather as the agent of God. God does not have the ability to command Abraham to commit murder; but God does have the ability to command Abraham to do something (viz., kill Isaac) which would have been murder had God not commanded it, i.e., if Abraham had undertaken the act on his own initiative in the absence of a divine command. This seems to me to be a coherent solution to the problem.

The case of Abraham and Isaac is, as I say, the exception that proves the rule. God doesn't normally issue such extraordinary commands, and so we should be highly sceptical of someone who says, "God has commanded me to kill soandso!" I do not mean in Prof. Curley's words that "normally God does not command us to do anything wrong; it's only occasionally that he does that, as in the case of Abraham and Isaac." Rather I mean that normally God doesn't command us to do anything which is such that, in the absence of a divine command, it would be morally wrong for us to do; the case of Abraham and Isaac is presented in Scripture as a highly unusual case.

I do think that these same considerations are relevant for the case of the destruction of the Canaanites at God's command. The Israeli armies were acting as God's agents to carry out God's judgement upon desperately corrupt nations which God had spared for 400 years until their wickedness made them ripe for judgement. Later God would also judge Israel by means of destruction by the pagan armies of Assyria and Babylon. In commanding the Israeli army to utterly exterminate the Canaanites, God was commanding them to do something, which in the absence of a divine command, they would have had no right to do. God had, however, morally sufficient reasons for issuing such an extraordinary command, namely to preserve Israel from apostasy through infection with Canaanite religion. Israel did not in fact obey God's command, and as a result Israel did succumb repeatedly to apostasy, which finally brought the judgement of God upon Israel itself. All of this is admittedly very disconcerting, but it is a reminder that a holy God may not pass comfortably into our modern Western concept of God as the big Sugar Daddy in the sky.
These are difficult questions; but consider the alternative: moral nihilism.

One has to eventually ask, "How can ultimate goodness by impersonal?" How can goodness and morality be grounded in a materialistic worldview? Even given Atheistic Moral Platonism which posits immaterial forms or idea, these ideas aren't personal. Positing Platonic forms may give one models for ideal behavior, but since they aren't personal they cannot truly obligate. There are real moral obligations and only persons can obligate us. If one agrees there are universal obligations, then one ought also to agree that we are obligated by a universal person, namely God. Causally effete abstract entities cannot obligate persons. Craig even questions whether atheistic moral Platonism is rationally coherent.

If God were really morally perfect and the very source of morality, then it naturally follows that to disobey God is, by definition, immoral. God, being the kind of Being God is, ought to be obeyed. That's an eminently rational reason to obey God.

Is Atheistic Moral Platonism More Plausible Than Theism?
(video link)

Divine Command Essenatialism answers the Euthyphro Dilemma. Socrates wanted to know "the good" regardless of men or the gods thought. In Plato's dialogues Socrates asked Euthyphro whether the pious (i.e. the holy or the good) was beloved of the gods (and willed by them) because it was pious, or whether it was pious/good because beloved by (and willed by) the gods. In modern times the question is often asked this way (especially by atheists); Is what God commands good because it is good, or is it good because God commands it? Among polytheists the question is especially problematic since the gods may disagree regarding which values and virtues have greater priority or which aren't values and virtues at all. For example, the god of war (Mars/Ares) may disagree with the god of love (Venus/Aphrodite). If the gods disagree, then the problem of subjectivity and competing views resurfaces even though Euthyphro originally appealed to the gods to overcome the subjectivity and moral relativism that exists among human beings.

In the context of Christian monotheism, if what God commands is good because it is good then that would necessitate that there are absolutes outside of God. Something which classic Christian theology would deny because it conflicts with divine aseity. However, if what God commands is good merely because God commands it on the basis of His sheer will, then that suffers from the problem of divine voluntarism mentioned above. Namely, that God could then theoretically assign things like murder, theft and rape as "good" and even command them. Moreover, God could arbitrarily change his commands in an inconsistent and contradictory way. Finally, God could renege on His promises by making other contradictory promises and commands.

Divine Command Essentialism seems to solve these problems and therefore should be considered a viable option for Christians to hold (even if not the only option). It also appears that Divine Command Essentialism seems to be best grounded in the conception of God found in the Ontological argument for God's existence where God is defined as the greatest conceivable or possible being who possesses all perfections and excellencies to their highest and fullest degree. For example, great making properties like omnipotence, omniscience (all-knowing), omnisapience (all-wise), omnibenevolence (or moral perfection, if one is uncomfortable with the term "omnibenevolence") etc.

 The following is a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED link to William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith  podcast where he discusses Divine Command Essentialism. Craig is not a Calvinist, but his description of Divine Command Essentialism can be modified to fit in with Calvinism.

(mp3 file)

See also:

The Euthyphro Dilemma 
(William Lane Craig)

Here's a PODCAST on the Euthyphro Dilemma with William Lane Craig

Another PODCAST.

On a related topic:

According to my limited understanding, some of the church fathers and medieval theologians (being influenced by neo-Platonism for better or worse) sometimes argued that evil is the privation, negation and twisting of the good. Also, borrowing from the neo-Platonic scale/chain of being the "good" was related to that which is pure and perfect being (i.e. God who is pure being and actuality) while "evil" to that which tends towards non-being (potentiality and ultimately to nothingness). I suppose we can combine this insight with the ontological argument to argue for how all virtues and excellencies (in being and in character) meet at the top, namely in God. And that's another reason for why appeal to God's nature and character as the paragon/paradigm/exemplar of goodness isn't arbitrary.

This would help in response to atheistic arguments against God being the ultimate moral authority. For example atheistic arguments against appealing to the Imago Dei as another reason to argue for God being the exemplar of morality. Atheists have argued that on that view if people were created by Satan in Satan's image they would have a moral obligation to do as he instructed. However, given the ontological argument for God's existence then morality based on God's nature wouldn't be arbitrary because goodness is, by necessity, related to being. To perfect and supreme being, namely God who is the greatest conceivable and possible being.

Again, See also my blogpost: Why Obey God?


For the sake of full disclosure I want to point out that some modern Christian apologists, theologians and philosophers don't limit the definition of evil to privation, negation and the twisting of the good. In fact, some reject that approach of defining evil altogether.

See also William Lane Craig's Q&A #387:

If ISIS’s God Were Real, Would I Be Obliged to Follow Him?

As well as Steve Hays' blogpost:

Must purported revelation pass a moral test?


  1. Dear Annoyed Pinoy:

    Think outside of the box of ecclesiastic orthodoxy. I would suggest that Ex Lex, Sub Lego or Sibi Ipsi Lex are all flawed. But you have to start by philosophically defining what is the Good, using Scriptures alone, and not using the bankruptcy of Hellenist thought.

    1. Why should I think outside of "ecclesiastic orthodoxy"? I believe there are times when it's necessary to go contrary to current "orthodoxy" in order to faithfully follow Sola Scriptura. But I also believe in building on the insights of past faithful Christians. Theology shouldn't start from scratch. I'm merely trying to stand on the shoulders of theological giants before me. The church didn't start with me. God has been working in church history from the beginning and has never left us without a (theological) witness. I don't believe any denomination in the past 2000 years has perfectly taught God's truth. But some have come closer than others. That's why I'm an Evangelical Protestant (soteriologically Calvinist and pnematologically Charismatic).

      But you have to start by philosophically defining what is the Good, using Scriptures alone, and not using the bankruptcy of Hellenist thought.

      My (orthodox) position that God IS the standard of goodness and the highest good IS biblical (e.g. Mark 10:18), not just philosophical.