The "Strong Divine Command Theory Ethic"

Two groundbreaking comments last night deserve to be highlighted in a post of their own. They are both of foundational importance to the discussions we have been having on this blog for years. Thanks be to God for the wisdom and insight of these two faithful servants of our Lord!

Firstly, consider this comment by Rev. Gifford A. Grobien over at Four and Twenty Blackbirds:

...Dr. Heidenreich is correct in his account of the history of interpretation of contraception, but Rev. Brown challenges the validity of this interpretation because he does not see the argument in Scripture. The two gentlemen thus have not merely different opinions about contraception or the interpretation of this or that passage of Scripture, but they demonstrate epistemologies at odds. The interpretation offered by Dr. Heidenreich is a classical interpretation that operates out of ontological assumptions: what a creature does is related to who or what it is, and who or what it is is not simply the observable properties and characteristics, but the purpose for which the creature exists and the relationship he is engaged in. When purpose and relationship is assumed, then attributes are less likely to be seen as independent and incidental, but integrated with each other attributes and with other creatures. In other words, for human beings, because semen is emitted through sexual excitement which deepens the emotional bonds between the male and female, sexual relations are for procreation, satisfying sexual urges, and building loving unity. They all go together, and cannot be separated in an independent way, as if each aspect was unimportant for the flourishing of the other aspects.

The interpretation offered by Rev. Brown, on the other hand, even if he does not like it, is a modernist one. Yes, the skeptical aspect is postmodern. But what is fundamental is his move away from a holistic understanding of purpose that relies on ontology and relationship, to a subjective perspective that analyzes act and function as relatively independent from any metaphysical essence and purpose of the creature. Relationships and purposes may even be thought to be unchallenged presuppositions, and therefore should be discarded for a truly proper interpretation of a creature or action. From this perspective it is more difficult to make inferences and draw implications. So just because semen is emitted, and one is sexually aroused, and emotional attachment deepens in sexual relations doesn't mean that these cannot be sharply distinguished or even separated when it comes to consideration of the integrity of the act or the complementarity of the aspects. Thus one would also be in greater need of explicit commands or passages from whatever one's authority is (in this case, the Scriptures) for determining the integrity of the act and what is allowed or prohibited.

So I suspect that you are at an impasse until you address this epistemological difference. Most people don't think the way Dr. Heidenreich is arguing, which I think was his point in the first place.

Secondly, consider this comment last night by Rev. Robert C. Baker in a discussion here on L & P:

...at the turn of the last century many Christians were divided over the issue of evolution, the purpose, role, and authority of Scripture, etc.

The world was changing. Because believers also use the language of the world, which brings with it ideas and concepts foreign to the faith, they begin to reflect and write on their faith in a different way. Some believers followed after the Princeton theologians and accepted Fundamentalism. Others, following Kant and Schleiermacher, accepted Liberalism. When you are accused of being a Fundamentalist, or a literalist, or a traditionalist, for example, most likely the person making such an exaggeration is operating from a Liberal set of beliefs, whether or not he or she is aware of it.

In addition to Fundamentalism, another reaction to Liberalism came through the teaching of Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Barth denied natural law and taught a strong divine command theory ethic, which means that the only commands that are valid for the Christian are those that are recorded verbatim in Scripture. If you cannot find a Bible verse specifically condemning any activity, then you are free to do that activity.

I find this line of reasoning being utilized, with no apparent credit to Barth, by Missouri Synod theologians beginning in the 1930's, about the same time as when Barth was having his famous debate with Emil Brunner.

The strong divine command theory ethic is why, in my opinion, that modern Lutherans accept contraception (because it is not specifically condemned in Scripture), whereas orthodox Lutherans (Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz, Gerhard, et. al.) condemned it as violating the first, fourth, fifth, and six commandments. This method is also why "conservative" Lutherans are unable successfully to address current moral crises today. To wit, most current condemnations of the ELCA's decision to allow same-sex unions and the ordination of gays and lesbians highlight that these are condemned in Scripture.

True, but same-sex attraction and activity also violates the moral law embedded in human nature. Even without Scripture, these folks should know better. If you don't believe me, ask St. Paul.

For more about my views, log on to bioethike.com.

Robert C. Baker


GL said...

These are both excellent posts. I won't even begin to address the Liberals, who come from such a different vantage point, that I doubt any common foundations can be found from which to build. The "Literalist" or "Fundamentalist" (the term I prefer), however, are, like the us, seeking the Truth of God. As Pr. Baker points out, their approach to understanding Scripture came about as a reaction (an overreaction) to the Liberals. It is, however, also a deviation from the historic Christian approach to understanding Scripture. Let's apply it to a few other issues and we can see its flaws.

First, take polygamy. Polygamy is nowhere explicitly condemned in Scripture. Its practice is certainly not a salvation issue, as King David practiced it, as did Jacob, and Scripture gives every indication that both are counted among the Saints. St. Paul makes clear that a man with more than one wife may not serve in a pastoral office. That injunction, however, could be read as implicitly condoning the practice among the laity since he never explicitly condemned the practice per se. A Fundamentalist cannot, therefore, condemn polygamy while condoning contraception and be consistent in his approach hermeneutic. He must deduce the condemnation, as do we, from what Scripture teaches about the nature of marriage as God created it. Yet, Scripture also shows that God created marriage to be procreative and that fruitfulness within marriage is blessing from Him, while barrenness is a curse. The same hermeneutic which is used to condemn polygamy leads to the condemnation of contraception.

What of abortion? The pro-life Fundamentalist will assert that the explicit command not to murder applies to this sin, and I would agree. Unfortunately, for the Fundamentalist, he cannot find an explicit teaching as to when a conceived human reaches a state of development that calls into operation that command. We can deduce that it comes into operation at conception from a variety of Scriptural passages, but none are explicit. One often cited is Jeremiah 1:5:

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

But this creates real problems for the anti-abortion, pro-contraception Fundamentalist. God says that He knew the prophet BEFORE He formed Him in the womb, not afterwards or during or, even, when He began to do so. Yet, God begins to form us at the moment of conception. If God knew Jeremiah BEFORE He formed Him, He knew Him before Jeremiah was conceived. This supports the anti-contraceptionist.

Take another frequently cited verse employed by anti-abortion, but pro-contraception Fundamentalist, Deuteronomy 30:19, which reads:

"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live."

Again, this highlights the inconsistency of the Fundamentalist. God commands us to choose life, yet contraception is an explicit attempt to reject life. God's Word repeatedly calls fertility a blessing and barrenness a curse, yet contraception rejects the blessing which God has set before us and, instead, chooses the curse.

It is, in short, impossible to be consistent in one's hermeneutic and at the same time condemn abortion while condoning contraception. Such a person is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. Better be the liberal, who at least is consistent in his rejection of the clear meaning and necessary implications of God's Word.

Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz, Gerhard, Walther, Sr., et al. were not ignorant of Scripture nor were the defective in their hermeneutic when they condemned contraception. When one's understanding differs completely from the great fathers of the Faith in an important matter, he should carefully consider whether his approach to Scripture is sound and, in humility, consider the reasoning of his ancestors in the Faith.

J.Clausing said...

In addition to polygamy and abortion, a few more examples of things never explicitly forbidden in scripture, but that fundamentalists typically consider wrong would be suicide, euthanasia, slavery, and masturbation. A consistent hermeneutic would lead to the conclusion that, in the absence of scriptural prohibition, all these activities must be acceptable in God's sight.

Tim Rossow said...

I agree that the ethical reductionism of the strong divine command ethic is unacceptable. It wrongly allows a disconnect between reality and morality. (Kant wrongly wins over Aristotle.)

I would also assert i nagreement with many in this discussion that natural law theory is about as close as we can come in a fallen world to some sort of rationale ethic. However, let us not forget two things.

First this is indeed a fallen world. Nature has been cursed, thus any natural law ethic will always be incomplete. A cursed nature cannot be a complete guide to morality. Thus we need to be careful about fully endorsing natural law theory.

Secondly, there is a very important insight that the divine command folks point us towards. I believe that there is no such thing as a Christian ethic. Ethics is a matter of the law. The Christian life is ultimately defined by the Gospel. I do not mean this in an antinomian way. God's law is real and it is true. But fundamentally Christians live, move and have their being in and by the Gospel. Turning the other cheek does not comply with nature. The Gospel life is not definable by the law. The law kills and the Gospel gives life. The Gospel is so radically different from the law that it cannot be captured in an ethic.

I think Elert may be on to something. He speaks of ethos instead of ethics. I have done some work on this but need to do more. The point is that the morality for the Christian is a matter of life than it is a matter of a science (e.g. ethics).

Again, I am all for plumbing the depths of natural law. If there is a Christian ethic it is more in keeping with Aristotle and Aquinas than it is with Kant. But let's be careful not to equate natural law theory with the ethics of the universe or the scriptures.

Tim Rossow

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Pr. Rossow,

Thanks for your post and for your agreement. As to your first point, as far as I understand you I do not disagree, nor do I believe either of the men I quoted above would. Since nature has been corrupted, our interpretation of what natural law teaches will also be subject to this corruption. However, so will our interpretation of Scripture. That, I believe, is one reason it is important that we continue to utilize both natural law and Scripture to inform our ethics. I am confused as to what you mean by "fully endorsing natural law theory."

As to your second point, I am even less clear about what you are saying here. Much of it seems to be semantics, but is your main point summed up in your last sentence ("But let's be careful not to equate natural law theory with the ethics of the universe or the scriptures.")? If so, I would agree that we should not "equate" natural law with Scripture. Most importantly, the natural law does not express the Gospel. But we're not talking about the Gospel here in this discussion. We are talking about the law.

Therefore, let us also be careful not to set up a false dichotomy between natural law and the law revealed in Scripture. They are distinct, but inseparable and in complete harmony in their essence.

The law found in Scripture is most certainly the absolute infallible word of God. Yet our eyes, ears, and hearts are not infallible.

How, then, does natural law compare?

In addition to being viewed by these same corrupted senses, the nature itself that expresses the law we are viewing is itself corrupted. But, remember, the natural law is not itself therefore fallen.

Natural law, properly understood, is also a perfect revelation of God's law, and is in complete conformance with the law revealed in Scripture in that regard. If we could but view it with uncorrupted senses, it would be as infallible as God's Word -- even in a fallen world. By antithesis, the fallen state of nature is itself a witness to the perfection from which nature has fallen.

In this sense, we can and must fully endorse natural law as being in complete conformance with the law revealed in Scripture.

Continued below due to comment length restrictions...

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

In fact, consider the following statement found in the most recent CTQ:

"[Luther] does not argue for the natural law by using the Ten Commandments as its basis but rather judges the Ten Commandments according to the natural law. Insofar as the Commandments conform to the natural law, they may be received, but where the Commandments depart from the natural law, they are to be rejected as impinging upon Christian freedom." [Gifford Grobien, "A Lutheran Understanding of Natural Law in the Three Estates," Concordia Theological Quarterly, July, 2009]

Here are Luther's own words which Rev. Grobien's subsequent quote and footnote take us to:

"Where then the Mosaic law and the natural law are one, there the law remains and is not abrogated externally, but only through faith spiritually, which is nothing else than the fulfilling of the law (Rom. 3[:31]). This is not the place to speak about that, and elsewhere enough has been said about it. Therefore Moses’ legislation about images and the sabbath, and what else goes beyond the natural law, since it is not supported by the natural law, is free, null and void, and is specifically given to the Jewish people alone. It is as when an emperor or a king makes special laws and ordinances in his territory, as the Sachsenspiegel in Saxony, and yet common natural laws such as to honor parents, not to kill, not to commit adultery, to serve God, etc., prevail and remain in all lands. Therefore one is to let Moses be the Sachsenspiegel of the Jews and not to confuse us gentiles with it, just as the Sachsenspiegel is not observed in France, though the natural law there is in agreement with it.
Why does one then keep and teach the Ten Commandments? Answer: Because the natural laws were never so orderly and well written as by Moses. Therefore it is reasonable to follow the example of Moses. And I wish that we would accept even more of Moses in worldly matters, such as the laws about the bill of divorce [Deut. 24:1], the sabbath year [Lev. 25:2–7], the year of jubilee, tithes, and the like. Through such laws the world would be better governed than now with its practices in usury, trade, and marriage. This occurs whenever a land follows examples from laws of other lands, as the Romans took the Twelve Tables from the Greeks.
It is not necessary to observe the sabbath or Sunday because of Moses’ commandment. Nature also shows and teaches that one must now and then rest a day, so that man and beast may be refreshed. This natural reason Moses also recognized in his sabbath law, for he places the sabbath under man, as also Christ does (Matt. 12[:1ff.] and Mark 3[:2ff.]). For where it is kept for the sake of rest alone, it is clear that he who does not need rest may break the sabbath and rest on some other day, as nature allows. The sabbath is also to be kept for the purpose of preaching and hearing the Word of God."
[Luther's Works, 40:97]

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Let me also quote Rev. Robert Baker's assumptions stated as first principles for discussions at his blog Bioethike.com:

* all ethics is law;

* classical Lutheran ethics embraced
lex natura, the natural law; its abandonment by some Lutherans in the 20th century has impoverished Lutheran contributions to the field;

* dichotomies such as Law/Gospel, sinner/saint, etc. are helpful only as pastoral applications.

trossow said...


The best way for me to respond to your excellent questions is to share my approach to ethics.

1. If one wants to talk about ethics one is talking about a science of morality.

2. Ethics is about morality and not about the greatest good, language games, categorical imperatives, etc. It is about morality because there is a God and He has determined in His word what is right and what is wrong. He gives the believer a set of rules that are discernable through common–sense reading of the Bible.

3. Christians are not all that interested in ethics because their moral behavior is caused by the Gospel. They know that Christ has forgiven them and so they live their lives loving others as Christ has loved them with an agape love. Turning the other cheek just does not make any rational sense apart from the agape love of Christ.

4. The Lutheran theologian Werner Ehlert writes about the Christian ethos instead of Christian ethics. I believe he is trying to get at this truth that Biblical morality is a lifestyle (an ethos) and not a science. (I need to explore this some more.)

5. How does this Biblical morality play out in the world? The world really does not care about what the Bible says. Biblical morality can only be embraced by believers.

6. However, Christian morality is not unrelated to the universe God created. God says you shall not kill. This squares with the natural fact that human beings are unique among animals. They are rational animals and ought not to be killed. (By faith we understand this to mean that they have a soul but by nature we understand this at the very least to include a unique level of intellect among animals.) Another example is sexual ethics. The male organ naturally fits the female sexual organ and is not intended by nature for the male deprecation orifice. Another example is the notion of rest that you cite from Luther. (to be continued...)

trossow said...

(...continued from the last comment)

7. So ethics are not unrelated to the natural world. However, an ethic based on nature is far equal to Biblical morality. For instance, sexual intercourse is naturally to be between a male and a female but can monogamy be determined from nature? The Bible says we are to rest every seventh day. Luther says we are to rest when we need it, whether it be the seventh day or not.

8. Ethics in the modern philosophy has been divorced from nature by Kantian metaphysics (or lack thereof). Christians need not fall for the Kantian separation of the thing-in-itself from true knowledge. Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics and epistemology make at least as much sense if not more than do modern theories that disallow any meaningful knowledge of the sense world.

9. So we Christians do allow knowledge of the sense world and we find that true Biblical morality is not dislocated from the sense world. However, this natural law ethic is incomplete. It did not define the relationship between God and man in the Garden of Eden (Kierkegaard is partially correct in that the command to not eat of the tree of knowledge and the command to sacrifice Isaac are irrational) nor does it define the relationship between God and man and even man and man after the fall. We are sinful and can never know the complete law of God perfectly. Nature is also cursed and so it can never give up/reveal to us the perfect law of God.

This is merely an outline. It is not as clear and simple as it could be. I am not an ethicist (nor care to be as you can probably tell from this outline) but I do have a masters in philosophy from the Jesuits (and have thus studied more formal ethics than most and seek to base ethics on a broad view of human reason and not just a good Christian desire to defend Biblical morality rationally) and I do have a Doctor of Ministry which means that I have spent a lot of focused brain power on administering word and sacrament for the everyday life of believers.

One last comment, to say that the Lutheran dichotomies are merely pastoral is setting up a false dichotomy of its own and does not properly estimate the depth of the Christian life as agape and its incapability of being fit into a box of scientific ethics.


Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

This post and comments have brought a few things to mind:

1) Clarifying the Natural Law.
Natural law theory is an extraordinarily complicated subject and deep disagreements have always existed even between the best natural law scholars. One of the traditional areas of disagreement has to do with simply what the natural law is. Is the natural law nature, or is the natural law reason? By this I mean, is what we observe in nature lawful simply because it occurs in nature, or is natural? Or is something naturally lawful because it accords with practical reason (prudence), that is, the pursuit of the good? Most developed natural law theory recognizes that the natural law is the latter, that is, the pursuit of the good. St Thomas actually acknowledged both (and a couple subsets of the former, at that), but was concerned primarily with the latter, as that is what concerns the human person. Dr Luther expresses it a lot more simply: Law is about what ought to be, not what is. Thus, the natural law is not simply what we observe occurring in nature according to laws of nature or animal instinct, but the natural law is what man ought to do to reach the good purpose for which he was created.

Rev. Rossow’s comments indicate that he seems to understand the natural law primarily as nature, not as reason. This understanding of the natural law could explain why he not only believes that discernment of the natural law is corrupt (as I expect all Lutherans do), but also that the natural law in se is incomplete.

2) The Third Function of the Law
The exact nature of the third function of the Law has, to my knowledge, never been clarified. Even among Lutherans who do not deny the third function of the Law, many think that the third function is only one of killing. Indeed, Luther himself often speaks this way even in his later antinomian writings, such as the Antinomian Theses and Disputations. If the third function is only one of killing, then it serves to kill the old man that remains in the Christian after conversion, and the actual life of the new man is defined not just ultimately but only by the Gospel. The Law would serve to strip away the harassing old man so that the new man could live unhampered according to the Gospel.

It is not clear to me that the third function is only one of killing, however. The Law always kills in this creation, but does it only kill? If we understand the intellect as something that can grow and mature, and if we understand the Law to be divine reason that appeals to intellect, can not the law also simply teach? This is, in fact, what I believe to be the role of the Law for the new man. The new man himself has no need of the killing function of the law, yet the Law teaches his intellect, not specific actions, but prudence--that is, how to live in love toward God and his neighbor. Thus, even our Lord “kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).

The Law trains one to be prudent so that the natural law--pursue good and avoid evil--can be properly applied in every situation. If this is the case, Luther’s argument that the natural law is superior even to the Ten Commandments is more understandable: the Ten Commandments teach us how to apply the natural law and are in perfect harmony with it, even while the natural law is superior and prior because of its universal scope and application.

Robert said...

My blog, bioethike.com, treats ethics in the narrow sense, as Law. I am quite willing to discuss "Christian ethics," if one will, in the broad sense, which would ask questions such as, How may a Christian act in such a situation? Or, To what extent does faith inform our ethical reasoning? But I have my reasons for limiting the discussion of "ethics" on my blog to Law, according to its traditional, philosophical definition.

That being said, I would be interested in learning if Rev. Rossow would assume that, apart from faith, there is an essential difference between ethical act A done by an unbeliever, and ethical act A done by a believer. Say, a mother caring for a child, for example.

As a corollary, I would be interested in learning whether or not Rev. Rossow believes that ethical acts mandated by Scripture are superior to and, if so, how and why, from ethical acts perceived in the natural realm of things apart from Scripture. Say, obeying our parents. Or, to up the ante, worshiping God.

Robert at bioethike.com