Several Christian thinkers, most notably, C S Lewis, John Hare, Robert Adams and William Lane Craig have argued that Theism provides a superior foundation for moral obligation than Naturalism does. Most of these thinkers defend this notion by developing and defending a divine command theory. John W Loftus is aware of this and in The Christian Illusion of Moral Superiority, he offers a refutation of divine command theory. I will argue that Loftus is mistaken; his arguments are based on a confusion between ontological and epistemological foundations.
Before turning to Loftus’ arguments, it is necessary to spell out exactly what a divine command theory of ethics is. It is the thesis that “an action or kind of action is right or wrong if and only if and because it is commanded or forbidden by God.” two things are noteworthy about this definition.
What is a Divine Command Theory?
First, the thesis is limited to deontological properties. Philip Quinn defines deontological properties as follows, “I mean to refer to whether it has such properties as being morally permitted, being morally forbidden or prohibited, and being morally obligatory or required.” Deontological properties are contrasted with axiological properties such as goodness and badness. Evans notes, “it does not appear that the concept of obligation is identical to the concept of what it is ‘good to do’ … It might be good, even saintly, for me to give a kidney to benefit a stranger, but it not an act I am obliged to do.”
Despite frequently being portrayed this way in common critiques, divine command theories do not offer accounts of broader axiological properties. This is evident from the writings of those who defend such theories. Quinn, after defining deontological properties in the aforementioned way, affirms he is not offering a divine command theory of axiological properties. In this he is followed by Adams, Alston, Craig, Wierenga, Hare and Plantinga and, even to some extent, Thomas Carson. This is not something unique to modern divine command theories; older divine command theorists such as Paley, Locke, Berkley and Suarez typically limited divine command theories to accounts of deontological properties and not to broader axiological properties such as goodness in general.
The second point is to note is that the word “because” in English is ambiguous. When a divine command theorist claims that “an action or kind of action is right or wrong if and only if and because it is commanded or forbidden by God.” The theorist could mean either, that one cannot know what is right and wrong unless one believes in divine commands; or that right and wrong cannot exist independently of Gods commands. The first claim states that beliefs about right and wrong are epistemologically dependent on beliefs about divine commands. The second is that the existence of moral properties, such as right and wrong, are ontologically dependent on God’s commands.
It is important to note that epistemological dependence and ontological dependence are not the same thing. Take a straightforward example of identity; the property of being water is identical with (or constituted by) the property of being H20. As such, H20 and water are not ontologically independent. Yet people for thousands of years could perceive water, drink it, detect it and use it without knowing anything about atomic theory. Hence, our knowledge of the existence water is not dependent on our knowledge of H20.
When divine command theorists state that an action or kind of action is right or wrong if and only if and because it is commanded or forbidden by God they are using “because” in an ontological sense. The locus classicus for contemporary defences of divine command theory is the work of Robert Adams who affirms that “ethical wrongness is [identical with] the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God.” Adams here states that the relationship between the property of being contrary to God’s commands and wrongness is the ontological relationship of identity.
Elsewhere in the article he is explicit about this; he suggests that wrongness is identical with or constituted by being contrary to divine commands in the same way that water is constituted by (or identical with) H20. Other divine command theorists explicitly follow Adam’s lead on this. Stephen Evans and William Alston both affirm that divine commands are constitutive of deontological properties and note Adams’ identity claim as a paradigm of the type of relationship he is defending. Craig cites Alston as the inspiration for his position and contends that “commands constitute our moral duties” he explains that by this he means to make divine commands an ontological foundation, and in particular, the concept of “informative identity” analogous to the way “we explain the nature of water by identifying it with H20 or explain the nature of heat by identifying it with molecular motion.” Craig is explicit that he is not offering divine commands as an epistemological foundation, “It would, indeed, be arrogant and ignorant to claim that people cannot be good without belief in God. But that was not the question.”Also, “My concern here is with moral ontology not moral epistemology … to repeat, my concern is with an ontological foundation for morality, not with epistemological foundations.”
The other leading defenders of divine command theory are equally clear that they are proposing a theory of the ontological and not the epistemological foundations of moral obligation. Quinn, Weirenga, Hare and Plantinga all offer accounts of the ontological foundations of deontological properties. Janine Marie Idziak notes that, historically, divine command theories were usually understood as ontological theories and not epistemological theories about how one knows what is right and wrong.
John Loftus’ Mischaracterisation of Divine Command Theories
These observations lead into my main criticism of Loftus’ discussion. Loftus mistakenly understands divine command theories as signifying epistemological dependence. At the beginning of his article Loftus refers to the view that “[moral] standards are grounded in the commands of a good creator God, and these commands come from God’s very nature” and infers from this that “the Christian claims to have absolute and objective ethical standards for knowing right from wrong, which is something they claim atheists don’t have” [Emphasis added] here Loftus suggests that the claim that right and wrong depend on God’s commands is the claim that knowledge of right and wrong depends on belief in divine commands.
The same interpretation is seen elsewhere in his chapter when he defines a divine command theory Loftus states Morality is based upon what God commands. “No other reasons are needed but that God so commanded it. If God commanded it, then it is right. If God forbids it, then it is wrong.” and citing the Divine Command theory of William Lane Craig he states “Many Christians will maintain they have a superior foundation for knowing and for choosing to do what is good. They claim to have objective ethical standards for being good, based in a morally good creator God, and that the atheist has no ultimate justification for being moral.” [Emphasis added] Despite the fact that Craig and other divine command theorists have repeatedly stated they claim no such thing.
Another problem with Loftus’ characterisation is that in several places he suggests that divine command theories claim that axiological properties such as goodness depend on God’s commands. He states, for example, that divine command theory entails that “God could’ve commanded something else, or even something contrary, or something horribly evil and simply declared it good” or that “If we think that the commands of God are good merely because he commands them, then his commands are….well….just his commands.” Examples could be multiplied; the problem is, as I have noted, divine command theorists typically do not offer their theories as foundations for axiological properties, they limit their theories to deontological properties.
These misconstruals undermine many of the criticisms Loftus makes. As I will show, many of his objections are based on a conflation between epistemology and ontology.
In my next post, John W. Loftus on The Christian Illusion of Moral Superiority Part II, I will address Loftus’ arguments against a divine command theory, the emptiness of God is good and his arbitrariness objection.
 C S Lewis rejected a divine command theory; I believe, however, that Lewis’ dismissal is based on unsound arguments and the divine command theory coheres better with his argument in Mere Christianity as I argued in my paper “God and the Moral Law in C. S. Lewis” Theological Perspectives on C S Lewis Conference Carey Baptist College, Auckland, 1 July 2008.
 W K Frankena Ethics 2nd edn (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973) 28.
 Philip Quinn “An Argument for Divine Command Theory” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) 291.
 C Stephen Evans Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 16.
 Frankena Ethics 28.
 Robert Adams “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979) 76.
 William Alston “Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) 303-304.
 William Lane Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests” eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan King Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith Secularism and Ethics (Lanhan: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009) 186.
 William Lane Craig “The Craig/Kurtz Debate: Is Goodness Without God Good Enough” Eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan King Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith Secularism and Ethics (Lanhan: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009) 30.
 Mark C Murphy “Theism, Atheism and the Explanation of Moral Value” eds Robert K Garcia and Nathan King Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith Secularism and Ethics (Lanhan: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009) 127.
 William Lane Craig “The Indefensibility of Theistic Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality” Foundations 5 (1997) 9.
 Craig “This Most Gruesome of Guests” 168.
 Ibid, 293.
 Edward Weirenga The Nature of God: An Inquiry into the Divine Attributes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989) 215-27. See also “Utilitarianism and the Divine Command Theory” American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984) 311-318; and “A Defensible Divine Command Theory” Nous 17 (1983) 387-408.
 John Hare God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands and Human Autonomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001) 49.
 Alvin Plantinga “Naturalism, Theism, Obligation and Supervenience”
 Janine Maree Idziak “In Search of Good Positive Reasons for an Ethics of Divine Commands: A Catalogue of Arguments,” Faith and Philosophy 6:1 (1989) 60.