Nicholas Turner considers the challenges of the age-old Euthyphro Dilemma and why it is so hard to answer, and offers a possible solution

There are many questions we would much prefer not to answer. In a pub as a young curate, I remember the delicate problem of ‘Who was the mother of Cain’s wife?’ and realizing that nothing I said would get me out of the hole such a question had dug for me.

One such is what is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, which comes from Plato’s Dialogue of the same name. Though we are no longer concerned with the details of the original discussion, the title is not without value. If someone asks the question, you can always roll your eyes, sigh deeply, ‘Oh, the Euthyphro Dilemma! That old chestnut,’ and quickly change the subject.

A dilemma

The question (now) is, ‘Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good; or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?’ It remains a dilemma for those who believe in an all-powerful, alljust God.

The eighteenth-century philosopher Leibniz summed up the problem thus, ‘It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it, or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary, or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths.’

Put like this, we are more likely to favour the second option. ‘God wills something because it is just and good.’ Unfortunately, in our godless age, such an answer gives great support to the atheist.

That something is good and just is, in Leibniz’s terms, a necessary and eternal truth, that God himself must be governed by. Any God who finds himself in second place to the (more important) truths of justice and goodness is not worth much as a God.

Faced with the suggestion we are now requiring God to do what he is told, by eternal truths higher than himself, we change our mind, and take the first option. Something is good and just because God wills it.

A real problem

God is all-powerful and not constrained by anyone or anything. To which the atheist replies, ‘You may say he is good and just, but then you would say that.’ And then he reels off the standard list of complaint – Crusades, Inquisition, etc. – and claims a moral superiority for rejecting God, vicious, cruel, arbitrary as he surely must be.

The problem is real enough. If God is not supreme, then he is not ‘True God’ and his Son is not ‘True God of true God’, and our hopes of salvation look rather weak and foolish. But if God is not moral, by which we actually mean constrained by morality, then he is not the sort of God we wish to have dealings with.

A common response

The common resolution has been simply to declare that as God, he is all powerful and he is all just. You can state it, but it is not an argument, and in our sceptical culture has to take its place alongside all the other unsubstantiated statements of faith. Better not to answer the question, than to answer it by a mere assertion.

Is there a solution? I believe so. Clearly, after 2,500 years, we are not looking for a slick knock-down, but a measured resolution of a genuine dilemma. The key is not to confuse God with his creation.

God and his creation

‘Is something good?’ We are speaking here of something within the world, within the created order. Before the creation of the world, the notion of good is not something that makes clear sense. God, complete in himself, presumably has no need to create. If he did so, it was, as we would say in our human terms, by an act of will. So initially, yes, it (creation) is good because God willed it, as Genesis chapter 1 relates.

Once the world is created, outside and separate from God, it has, by the act of his will, become distinct from him, and the values it holds – goodness for example – are to some extent self-sufficient. This is part of what we understand by creation, that it works, well or ill. If therefore God wishes to be involved with his world – and both natural theology and revelation assures us that he does – then (as he well knew) he has constrained his will (by his own act of will). If God wills something within his world which he has created, then now it surely follows that he wills something because it is good.

The answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma is then, ‘Both,’ but in a clear order. Before creation, when there is nothing, it can only be anything, including good, because God wills it. After the creation, God has restricted his own will, precisely to fulfil his purpose in creation.

All goodness comes from God, as God in Christ came to show us. ND