Divine commands, ethics and same-sex relationships

The aim of this paper

An essay by James Harper entitled ‘Ian Paul and moral arguments against homosexuality’ was recently posted on the Thinking Anglicans website.[1] This paper is a response to that essay.

The aim this paper is not to defend Paul against the criticisms of him made by Harper in his essay. Paul is entirely capable of making his own response to these should he wish to do so. Its aim is instead to explore the fundamental issues raised by Harper’s paper and to show why, in the light of these, the case he makes for the moral acceptability of same-sex relationships is not convincing.

The heart of Harper’s case

The heart of Harper’s essay is the claim that those who believe same-sex relationships to be morally wrong have to either ‘show pretty clearly why homosexuality violates moral standards’ or ‘appeal to pure Divine Command theory’ and say that homosexuality is wrong simply and solely because God says so in the Bible.

According to Harper, in order to assess whether a form of behaviour violates moral standards we should apply the tests used in ‘modern moral philosophy.’ Applying these tests, he argues, involves: ‘weighing up the good and bad consequences of an act, considering rights and responsibilities of those involved, and applying rules and principles which we generally believe to be important.’

Applying these criteria, Harper contends that the good consequences of people being in homosexual relationships is that they obtain the benefits of ‘intimate loving relationships’ which he describes as ‘happiness, support, security, warmth, passion, zest for life etc.’

The bad consequences that have been suggested are, he says, ‘vague and unexplored correlations between being gay and higher incidences of mental health [problems] or IPV [intimate partner violence].’  In his view even if such correlations could be shown to exist:

‘….they do not on any reasonable moral view stand any chance of making homosexuality wrong. To do that, gay relationships would need to bring with them a profound and incurable risk of destruction, injury, death or abuse, to the point where it would simply be necessary to contain ones sexuality- to restrict one’s very humanity- in order to avoid severely harming oneself and others. I do not envy anyone trying to defend such a claim.’

In relation to responsibilities Harper argues that ‘Gay people choose to accept any risks there may be, just as straight people accept risks in their relationships and in other areas of life.’ Right come into the picture because human beings ‘have the moral right to realise their inherent capacities for love and happiness- and that’s a right which is very hard indeed to override.’

Why Harper’s case requires Divine Command Theory

To quote David Baggett and Jerry Walls in their book Good God – the theistic foundations of morality, Divine Command Theory holds that ‘God’s commands dictate what is moral.’[2] Although Harper is dismissive of Divine Command Theory, in actual fact his case for the moral acceptability of same-sex relationships depends on this theory being true.

To understand why this is the case we need to take a step back and ask why it is reasonable to say that there are authoritative moral standards which we can appeal to in order to determine whether any given form of behaviour is good or bad.

A secular ideology which denies the existence of God law fails to provide a strong and coherent basis for affirming the existence of authoritative moral standards by which to make such a judgement. In a famous passage in his book River Out of Eden the atheist author Richard Dawkins declares:

‘The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it:‘For Nature, heartless, witless Nature will neither know nor care.’  DNA neither knows nor cares.DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’ [3]

If this view of the universe is accepted then there is no coherent basis for any form of ethics. As the Yale law professor Arthur Leff argues in his celebrated paper ‘Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law’, in the absence of any transcendent moral authority, any objective standard of good or evil, what is left is the arbitrary choice of either the individual or the state. Leff’s argument is helpfully summarised by Andy Bannister as follows:

‘ …[Leff] points out that any moral claims (e.g. ‘You ought to help old ladies across the road’; ‘You ought not to poke badgers with a stick’;  ‘Generosity is good’; ‘Paris Hilton is bad’) – are authority claims, and to any authority claim we can respond like the school bully or the town drunk and cry, ‘Yeah? Sez who?’  In the absence of God, says Leff, there are but two options: you can turn every individual person into a little godlet, able to decide good and evil for themselves. But then who evaluates between them when there are clashes between godlet claims. Alternatively, you can turn the state into God and let it determine good and evil, but then might becomes right and you have sheer, naked brutality (and what’s wrong with government-sponsored brutality, if the state is the only moral authority?). In short, if you try this latter route, morality becomes meaningless. If you go down the former route, morality becomes impossible. And in either case, whenever another godlet, or the state, tells you that anything is good, right, or the Proper Thing To Do, you can look them squarely in the eye and sneer: ‘Really, sez who?’ Leff ends his essay by pointing out that there is only one solution to this – and that would be if goodness were something bigger than us, something outside us.  Only then could ethics, morality, and law actually work.’ [4]

According to the Bible, and Christian theism building on the Bible, the reason that ethics, morality and law actually work is that God is not absent and there is therefore a transcendent source of moral authority outside us. This means we can answer the ‘sez who?’ question by replying ‘God says.’

The appeal to God as the source of moral authority is however, often challenged on the basis of the Euthyphro dilemma, to which Harper refers in his essay. The Euthyphro dilemma is so called because it is first formulated in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro in which Socrates poses the question ‘whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.’ [5] As Louise Anthony notes:

‘Translated into contemporary terms, the question Socrates is asking is that: Are morally good actions morally good simply in virtue of God’s favouring them? Or does God favour them because they are – independently of his favouring them – morally good?’ [6]

The dilemma this question poses for those who want to appeal to God as the source of moral authority is that it appears to leave them with two problematic alternatives. If we go for the first option then we have to go down the voluntarist route favoured by thinkers such as William of Ockham and say whatever God willed would be right even if, for example, he was to command us to torture children for fun. If we go for the second option we have to say there is a standard of rightness independent of and antecedent to God (in which case God is no longer needed as the source of moral authority).  In short, we appear to be faced with either making morality arbitrary or God unnecessary.

However, as many theologians have pointed out, this dilemma is a false one. This is because God’s will cannot be separated from his nature. The reason why God would not command us to torture babies for fun is because not because he is subject to an external standard of goodness, but because what God wills is in accordance with his nature and God’s nature is perfectly good.  Thus in response to Socrates’ question we can say that good actions are favoured by God because they are in accordance with his own perfect goodness.

As Baggett and Wells note, it is because God is perfectly good as well as perfectly wise and all powerful that he rightfully possesses supreme moral authority and therefore provides the secure basis for ethics to which we can appeal in response to the challenge ‘sez who?’  They write:

‘…God has supreme, power, knowledge and goodness, and all of these underwrite his moral authority. He created us and this world and stamped us with his image, and has the power to hold us fully accountable for our actions. Since he has perfect knowledge of us, he understands perfectly what is good for us and our flourishing. Moreover, since he is perfectly good he desires our well-being and does everything short of overriding our freedom to promote it. In view of his nature as a perfect being, there are no grounds for doubting his authority. There can be no blindsidedness, no bias, no imperfect understanding, no possibility of misuse of power, or having obtained it wrongly. If all rational witholdings are blocked we ought to accept God as an authority. And part of what is involved in that is accepting his commands, unless we have good reason to do otherwise; but again, with a perfect being, there cannot possibly be good reasons to do otherwise.’ [7]

Knowing what God commands

For the reasons just outlined, a Divine Command Theory of ethics not only makes sense, but is in fact the only theory of ethics that ultimately makes sense.[8] However, if we accept it for this reason we are still left with the question of how we can determine what God commands us to do. The fact that God’s will is perfectly good cannot help to us in making ethical decisions unless we can know what his will is.

Happily, we can know what God’s will is because, as Christian theology teaches us, God has made it known to us by communicating with us in three ways:

  • God communicates with us through the world which he has made and which therefore reflects his character and purposes.
  • God communicates with us through the words of the Bible which he has caused to be written in order to make know to us what he is like, what he has done for us and how we should live in response.
  • God communicates with us through our consciences, that innate knowledge of right and wrong that we have as creatures made in God’s ‘image and likeness.’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

It is important to note, however, that in the world we currently inhabit all three forms of communication are liable to distortion.

The created order has been distorted by sin (human and angelic) and as such no longer perfectly corresponds to God’s intention. Thus God created humans to be creatures who see, but some people are blind. This means we have to be careful about simply reading God’s will off the face of creation as it currently exists.

Our understanding of the Bible can be distorted by ignorance or wilful misreading with the result that we read it in a way that does not God correspond with what God intended to say when he caused the Bible to be written.

Our consciences can become distorted so what we sincerely feel and believe to be right and wrong does not correspond with what is actually right and wrong.

In order to counteract such distortion we need to do our best to make sure that we have read the Bible in a way that corresponds to its actual intended meaning, that we have distinguished properly between God’s creation and the way it has been marred as a result of sin, and that we allowed our consciences to be corrected by the true witness of creation and the Bible.

The application of all this sexual ethics

If we apply what we have looked at thus far to the issue of sexual ethics, we find that both the witness of creation and itself, and the teaching of the Bible in Genesis 1 and 2 and Jesus’ discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:3- 12 and the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, tell us that the God who has redeemed us in Christ has created human beings as two sexes, male and female, who are biologically designed to reproduce through sexual intercourse.

A proper form of sexual ethics means living in the light of this reality. To quote Christopher Roberts is his book Creation and Covenant:

‘The same God whom we know in Christ, has in his goodness, created us as male and female. To be male or female, then, is to be blessed, for it is be something that is good. To be this sexually differentiated creature is to be something that will be redeemed and redeemed as it was made and not as some other creature; in other words, sexual difference will be present in our redemption. In other words, sexual difference is not something that human beings should attempt to ignore or deplore. Sexual differentiation is something that humans should embrace and welcome, for to do that is honour creation and anticipate redemption. Such a way of life, to which Christ calls all human beings, means to love the neighbor and enable the neighbor to be what he or she is meant to be in the sexual sphere.’ [9]

As he goes on to say:

‘God is a being-in-relation and so are we. We are male and female. There are many types of human relationships, many types of encounters between human subjectivities, but there is always this one. Sexual difference is the most primordial of the distinctions between different modes of being human, and it is the only distinction that implicates everyone. Humans can resent this distinction, and our life in this sphere can be marred by sin and imperfection, but in the end, our own humanity depends upon finding ways of life that are premised on gratitude for it. To be what we are, we must find ways of life that thank God for having made us male and female. To be fully human and follow Christ faithfully, there are many things that we must do, but among them must be some sort of embrace of sexual difference.’[10]

According to the teaching of both Genesis and Jesus in the gospels a key way in which God calls us to embrace sexual difference is through the God given institution of marriage.

Marriage as the Bible (Genesis 2:24) and the Christian tradition describes it, is an relationship between one man and one woman entered into for life which provides not only for support and companionship between men and women as they fulfil their vocation of being God’s image bearers in the world, but also provides the context for them to beget and raise children in accordance with God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28).

Marriage also exists to bear witness to the love of Christ for his people (Ephesians 5:28-33) and to be a sign and foretaste of the ‘marriage of the lamb’ (Revelation 19:7), the perfect loving union between God and his human creatures that will exist in the new heaven and the new earth at the end of time.

In the Bible and the Christian tradition sexual intercourse exists within marriage as the means by which a man and woman enter into a ‘one flesh’ union with each other and are enabled to bear children.  It might be objected at this point that not all marital sex either does, or is intended to, lead to children, and the Christian Church does not for this reason say that it is wrong. The answer to this objection is that an act of sexual intercourse between a married couple may not result in children, but it can be a unitive act of love of a sort that has the potential to be generative. It thus corresponds to the purpose for which sex and marriage exists.

Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson and Robert George have a helpful analogy to illustrate this point in their 2011 article ‘What is marriage?’:

‘A baseball team has its characteristic structure largely because of its orientation to winning games; it involves developing and sharing one’s athletic skills in the way best suited for honorably winning (among other things, with assiduous practice and good sportsmanship). But such development and sharing are possible and inherently valuable for teammates even when they lose their games. Just so, marriage has its characteristic structure largely because of its orientation to procreation; it involves developing and sharing one’s body and whole self in the way best suited for honorable parenthood—among other things, permanently and exclusively. But such development and sharing, including the bodily union of the generative act, are possible and inherently valuable for spouses even when they do not conceive children. Therefore, people who can unite bodily can be spouses without children, just as people who can practice baseball can be teammates without victories on the field. Although marriage is a social practice that has its basic structure by nature whereas baseball is wholly conventional, the analogy highlights a crucial point: Infertile couples and winless baseball teams both meet the basic requirements for participating in the practice (conjugal union; practicing and playing the game) and retain their basic orientation to the fulfilment of that practice (bearing and rearing children; winning games), even if that fulfilment is never reached.’[11]

The understanding of sex which I have just outlined rules out both same-sex sex and same-sex ‘marriage’. (a) Same sex couples cannot engage in sex which corresponds to their biology as men and women. The pieces simply do not fit (which is one of the reasons that same-sex activity can be medically dangerous). (b) For this reason they cannot have a sexual union that is both unitive and potentially or actually generative. (c) For this reason their union cannot fulfil the nature or purpose of marriage.

What has been said so far in this section might seem to give no place for men and women who do not have the opportunity to enter into marriage, either through circumstance, or because of the nature of their sexual desires, to live out their creation as male and female. However, this is not the case.

The Bible tells us that human beings will live in God’s coming kingdom as bodily creatures who are male and female (as pointed to by Christ’s resurrection as a male human being) , but that in this kingdom ‘they neither marry nor are given in marriage’ (Matthew 22:30). Because humans beings will have attained the reality to which marriage points, and of which it is the foretaste, marriage itself as we know it in this world, will cease to exist.

In the words of Oliver O’Donovan:

‘To this eschatological hope the New Testament church bore witness by fostering the social conditions which could support a vocation to the single life. It conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatological transformation.’ [12]

In line with the witness of the New Testament, the Christian Church down the ages has thus taught there are two equally good ways to respond God’s creation of human beings as male and female and to point forward to the completion of human existence in the life of the world to come, one is by being married and one is by being single. The fact that being single is a morally good way of life is proved supremely for Christians by the fact that Jesus, who lived a perfect human life, lived it as a single human being.

It is important to note, however, that in order to bear their proper witness to what God has done and will do these two ways of life need to remain distinct ‘the married must live in the ways of marriage, the single in the ways of singleness.’[13] The problem with same-sex sexual unions and same-sex ‘marriages’ is that they not only go against a series of specific biblical passages which reject homosexual activity (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Deuteronomy 23:17-18, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:10, Jude ), but  also involve a rejection of the truth that God has created sex as something that should take place within marriage between a man and a woman and should be in principle capable of leading to children and the truth that in the world to come human beings will exist in a state in which marriage and therefore sex will no longer exist. Same sex-sexual activity and same-sex ‘marriages’ conform to neither truth.

To put it another way, the Christian rejection of same-sex relationships is simply the inevitable negative side of the positive truth witnessed to in creation and in Scripture that God has created human beings as male and female and calls them to glorify him as male or female through living faithfully in either marriage or singleness. Living faithfully in either of these ways involves self-denial and the rejection of sexual temptation, but both of them are also capable of involving the giving and receiving of love and  resulting in happiness and fulfillment not only in this life, but in the life of the world to come.

What all this means is that the answer to James Harper’s question what ‘would make entering such relationships wrong?’ is that same-sex relationships that are sexually active and/or claim to be marriages are wrong not only because same-sex relationships carry with them a seriously elevated risk to people’s physical and mental well-being (serious though this is), but because they involve a rejection of God’s call to people to live in accordance with the goodness he has shown in creating this world and establishing the world that is to come. They are rejecting the reality of what God has done and made known to us and by so doing are rejecting God himself.

As C S Lewis once wrote, ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says in the end ‘Thy will be done.’’[14] The issue of whether or not to enter in a same-sex relationship or ‘marriage’ is simply one more form of this fundamental choice.

M B Davie 15.10.16

[1] James Harper, ‘Ian Paul and moral arguments against homosexuality’ at http://jamesharper1.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/the-indefatigable-ian-paul-has-recently.html

[2] David Baggett and Jerry Walls, Good God – the theistic foundations of morality, New York: OUP, 2011, p.32.

[3] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, New York: Basic Books, 1995, p.133.

[4] Andy Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist, Oxford and Grand Rapids: Monarch, 2015, e-edition, chapter 8, quoting Arthur A Leff, ‘Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law’, Duke Law Journal, Vol.6, 1979, p.1249. Leff’s full essay can be found online at http://bit.ly/leff.

[5] Euthyphro, translated by Benjamin Jowett at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html

[6] Louise Anthony, ‘Atheist as Perfect Piety’ in Robert K Garcia and Nathan L King (eds), Is Goodness without God Good Enough, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009, p.71.

[7] Baggett and Wells, op.cit. p.123.

[8] For a comprehensive review of secular views of ethics and the problems they raise see David Baggett and Jerry Walls, God & Cosmos – Moral Truth and Human Meaning, New York:OUP, 2016.

[9] Christopher Roberts, Creation and Covenant, New York and London: T&T Clark, 2007, p.236.

[10] Ibid, p.238.

[11] S Girgis, R P George and  R T Anderson ‘What is marriage?’ in the Winter 2011 edition of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy  (Vol 34, No 1 pp.18-19),

[12] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, Leicester: Apollos, 1994, p.70.

[13] Ibid, p.70.

[14] C S Lewis, The Great Divorce, Glasgow: Fontana, 19074, pp.66-67.

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