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Matthew Flannagan’s Opening Statement: Bradley v Flannagan Debate

August 7th, 2010 by Madeleine

On Monday 2 August at the University of Auckland Emeritus Professor of Philosophy Dr Raymond Bradley and Dr Matthew Flannagan (of this blog) debated the topic “Is God the Source of Morality? Is it rational to ground right and wrong in commands issued by God?” For the benefit of those who could not be there, who are awaiting the editing and uploading of the video of the debate, we will be running a blog series where we bring you some of the debate in written form.


Published here with permission

Dr. Matthew Flannagan is quickly becoming a respected scholar on issues related to the philosophy of religion, ethics, and theology.  His articles and book chapters cover such weighty topics as, whether the Bible condones genocide, the ethics of holy war, abortion and tonight’s topic, the relationship of God and morality.  The importance of Dr. Flannagan’s work has led to many speaking engagements all over New Zealand and also in the United States.  Two of these speaking engagements were public debates, including one against Dr Bill Cooke, an erstwhile President of the New Zealand Association of Rational Humanists.  Dr Flannagan received his PhD in Theology from the University of Otago.  From the University of Waikato, he received his Master’s in Philosophy with First Class Honours.  You can follow Dr Flannagan’s work at, the blog that he co-authors with his wife, Madeleine Flannagan.  When he is not working, he enjoys spending time outdoors with his wife and four children. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Matthew Flannagan


Is it defensible to ground right and wrong in the commands of God? In this debate I will defend an affirmative answer to this question. I will defend the position that moral rightness and wrongness consist in agreement and disagreement, respectively, with Gods commands1– this is what Philosophers call a divine command theory. In defending this thesis I will do two things. First I will argue the standard arguments against a divine command theory fail. Second I will argue that Ray’s attempts to refute this theory fail. God is the source of morality.

1. Standard Arguments Against a Divine Command Theory

Divine command theories are frequently said to suffer a debilitating problem, they make morality arbitrary – anything at all could be deemed ‘right’ as long as God commanded it, even torturing other people for fun. This objection assumes that it is possible that God could command atrocious things like torturing people for fun. This assumption, however, seems very dubious. We need to remember that we are not talking about right or wrong as being based on the commands of just anyone, we are talking about God defined by Ray as “omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.

So, as the terms are defined, the claim that it is possible for God to command people to torture others for fun is true only if it is possible for a morally perfect person to command such an atrocious thing. But this is unlikely. The very reason critics cite examples such as torturing people for fun is because these actions are paradigms of conduct that no morally good person could ever entertain or endorse.

A predictable rejoinder to this response is that if some action is wrong because God prohibits it then God cannot be said to be good in any meaningful sense. The claim ‘God is good’ turns into no more than the claim that God obeys his own commands, if this is so, can God be said to have any duties at all?

The suggestion that if God has no duties then he cannot be said to be good in any meaningful sense, has a grain of truth to it. If we are going to understand God’s goodness in terms of God having duties that he consistently fulfils then a divine command theory cannot account for God’s goodness. However, why must the phrase ‘God is good’ be understood in terms of God having duties? I do not see why it should?

Many theologians and philosophers have suggested an alternative, God’s goodness should be understood in terms of God having certain character traits. To claim God is good is to claim that he is truthful, benevolent, loving, gracious, merciful, that he is opposed to certain actions such as murder, rape, torturing people for fun and so on. Now, even if God does not have duties, it does not follow that he cannot have character traits such as these. It is true that God is not under any obligation to love others or to tell the truth or what have you, but that does not mean he cannot love others or tell the truth. God does not have to have a duty to do something in order to do it.

So the standard criticisms of a divine command theory fail.

2. Raymond Bradley’s Moral Argument

Ray attempts a different tack. Ray argues the divine command theorist is committed to five inconsistent propositions:

1. What God proposes for our belief–including beliefs about what we ought to do–is what we ought to believe or do.

2. In his holy scripture God proposes for our belief that he has caused, committed, condoned, or laid down commands for us to obey, every one of the four types of crimes of types A, B, C, and D.

3. It is morally wrong to cause, commit, condone, or command any of the crimes of types A, B, C, D.

4. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.

5. A morally perfect being would not do anything that is morally wrong.

In response to this I will make three lines of criticism.


The first line of criticism is that even if Ray’s argument is sound it does not show that a divine command theory is false. Ray has argued that the Bible presents an indefensible picture of God. However, the question of biblical infallibility is not the topic of our debate tonight. While many divine command theorists believe in biblical infallibility, some do not. A divine command theorist could, for example, claim that the wrongness of an action is determined by God but we know what is right and wrong from our conscience and not from a written revelation. The Philosopher Philip Quinn suggested a theory like this.2 Alternatively he or she could accept some other revelation such as the Talmud or the Koran. So strictly speaking, Ray’s argument does not address the moot of the debate tonight. One could accept everything Ray says about the Bible and still defensibly embrace a divine command theory, the claim that God is the source of morality is untouched.


This brings me to my second line of criticism. Ray’s third proposition [3] is formulated as:

3. It is morally wrong to cause, commit, condone, or command any of the crimes of types A, B, C, D.

This claim is ambiguous; there are two ways it could be interpreted. The first is:

[3a] It is morally wrong for human beings to cause, commit, condone or command any of the crimes of types A, B, C, D.

or Ray could mean:

[3b] It is morally wrong for any person (including God) to cause, commit, condone or command any of the crimes of types A, B, C, D.

To be valid Ray’s argument needs to be interpreted in terms of [3b]. Ray argues that God, engages in wrongdoing when he causes, commits, commands and condones A B C and D. There are two problems with this interpretation.

First, Ray’s argument does not justify this conclusion. Ray states “to deny (3) would be to … ally oneself with moral monsters like Ghenghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.” This is false: Genghis Khan, Hitler and Stalin are human beings to condemn them we only need to accept [3a] not [3b].

Second, Ray’s argument is circular, [3b] assumes that God has duties; however, on my view the wrongness of an action consists in its being forbidden by God. Given that God does not issue commands to himself it follows that he has no duties. To propose [3b] Ray has to assume that my view is unjustified, which is what he is supposed to be proving. He is reasoning in a circle.


My third line of criticism concerns Ray’s second proposition,

2. In his holy scripture God proposes for our belief that he has caused, committed, condoned, or laid down commands for us to obey, every one of the four types of crimes of types A, B, C, and D.

Actually none of the passages Ray cites contain commands to us. He cites some of God’s actions and he cites some commands God gave to Israel and to Joshua but one cannot directly infer from these that these are commands issued to us.

We have to keep in mind that the Bible is a collection of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts. It was written centuries ago in three different languages, none of which were English. The cultural methods of written communication back then differ significantly from what we are used to when we pick up the latest ‘new atheist’ book at Whitcoulls. Further, the Bible is made up of various books written in various literary genres. To interpret it correctly one needs to take what it says in context – as a whole – and in accord with the literary conventions governing ancient texts translated from foreign languages. Ray fails to do this,

Instead he uses a selective, out of context, and excessively literalistic interpretation of these passages.

let me cite some examples.

1. The Slaughter of the Canaanites

The first is the slaughter the Canaanites. Ray claims God “orders the slaughter, without compassion, of hundreds of thousands of women, children, and suckling babes.” Ray here alludes to the book of Joshua’s record of the conquest of the Canaanites. Critics, like Ray, are quick to point out that this text states Joshua “totally destroyed all who breathed”, left “no survivors” in “the entire land”, went through the land “exterminating them without mercy” at God’s command.

What they do not note is that the text proceeds after this to state that the Canaanites were, in fact, not literally wiped out. Over and over the text affirms that the land was still occupied by the Canaanites, who remained heavily armed and deeply entrenched in the very same regions and the very same cities that Joshua was said to have “destroyed all who breathed” and left “no survivors” in. In light of this, it is unlikely that the author intended the language in question to be taken literally.3

This conclusion is confirmed by research into Ancient Near-Eastern history writing. In a comprehensive comparative study of Ancient Near-Eastern historiography. Old Testament scholar, K Lawson Younger concludes that the Old Testament uses the same literary conventions as other Ancient Near-Eastern conquest accounts. He also establishes that within this genre the rhetoric of total conquest, complete annihilation, destruction of the enemy, killing everyone, leaving no survivors, and so on are frequently used as hyperbole4: the language functions like a person watching David Tua in a boxing match, yells, “Knock his block off! Hand him his head! Take him out!” or hopes that the All Blacks will “annihilate the Springboks” or “totally slaughter the Wallabies.”5 Now, sports fans do not actually want David Tua to decapitate his opponent or the All Blacks to become mass murderers. Understood in a non-literal sense, the phrases probably meant something like, attack them, defeat them, drive them out; not literally kill every man, woman, child, donkey, etc.

2. Capital Punishment.

My second example is Ray’s reference to at least 34 offences for which God prescribes the death penalty. (Actually there are only 15 such offences). Ray contends that these passages constitute literal commands to the courts to execute people. This is dubious. The Torah is is written according to the literary and rhetorical conventions of Ancient Near-Eastern legal writing. J J Finkelstein notes that capital sanctions in such texts,

[W]ere not meant to be complied with literally even when they were first drawn up, [But rather they] serve an admonitory function. If one would be bold enough to restate Hammurabi’s 230 as a direct admonition it might run to this effect: “woe to the contractor who undertakes construction and in his greed cuts corners”.6

One of the leading experts on Ancient Near-Eastern legal texts Raymond Westbrook states they “reflect the scribal compilers’ concern for perfect symmetry and delicious irony rather than the pragmatic experience of the law courts.”7 The method used was “to set out principles by the use of often extreme examples.”8 In Ancient Near-Eastern legal practice a person who committed a serious crime would be legally considered to have forfeited their life or limb – this, however, did not mean that they were executed or mutilated. Instead they could ransom their life or limb by making a monetary payment decided by the courts “the death sentence is mostly hyperbole,” a literary device designed to under underscore the seriousness of the crime.9

A careful reading of the Torah confirms this. The clearest example occurs in Numbers 35. After laying out clearly and repeatedly that a person who kills in pre-meditation “shall surely be put to death” the text goes on to state “Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death… .” Unless there was an assumed practice of “ransoming” the lives of those under a capital sentence, this comment seems superfluous. Old Testament scholar Joe Sprinkle notes, “The availability of ransom seems to have been so prevalent that when biblical law wants to exclude it, as in the case of intentional murder, it must specifically prohibit it.”10

3. Hell

My third example is Ray’s discussion of hell. Ray cites the book of Revelation’s reference to “the lake of fire” where “they will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb, and the smoke of their torment ascendeth for ever and ever”. He maintains this text teaches God will torture people forever merely for not having the right religious beliefs.

This is dubious, Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature is highly metaphorical and uses stock symbols drawn from the Old Testament. If one looks at how the symbols Ray refers to are actually used in the Old Testament, they do not support Ray’s conclusion. The imagery of sulphur being poured upon people and smoke rising is regularly used in the Old Testament to symbolise the destruction of various nations.(Deut 29:23; Job 18:15-17; Ps 11:6; Isa 30:33, Isa 34-8-11). Similarly the “lake of fire” is drawn from Daniel, where it symbolises the destruction of various world empires. In Rev 18, a few chapters later, the destruction of a city, named Babylon (probably a reference to Rome or Jerusalem) is symbolised by the city being tormented by fire and onlookers watch the rising smoke. The message is that Babylon has been judged and destroyed, not that it continues to be tortured forever.

The same is true of Ray’s references to the Gospels; the phrase the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” occurs many times in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and in almost every instance signifies hatred or rage and envy at God or the righteous – not the agony of pain and torture.(Job 16:9; Ps 35:16, Psalm 112:10, 36:16, 37:12; Lam. 2:16, Acts 7:54) In one instance, in fact, it states “they will gnash their teeth and waste away.” Similarly, the phrase “unquenchable fire” is used nine times in the Old Testament. There it refers not to a fire that tortures but one that consumes what it devours because it is never put out. (see Isa 1:31, 34:10, 11; Jer 4:4, 7:20, 17:27, 21:12; Ezek 20:47, 48; Amos 5:6).

Ray cites from the King James version of 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8, “the Lord Jesus Christ shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God.” He, however, snips the end off the quote, the full text states,

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.

In context the reference to fire clearly means destruction and not torture.

Ray’s claim that the Bible teaches that people will be condemned ‘merely for having the wrong religion’ is equally dubious. An in context examination of the passages he cites show that the basis of judgement is a person’s actions not merely their beliefs.


First, even if Ray’s case is sound, at best it only amounts to an attack of the doctrine of biblical infallibility, the denial of which is perfectly compatible with a divine command theory of ethics.

Second, his argument for proposition (3) commits the fallacy of equivocation and assumes the very thing the argument is trying to prove.

Finally, Ray’s argument for (2) consists of citing a series of passages, often selectively, out of context and without regard for literary genre or literary conventions that are found within the texts itself.This might might be a sure-fire way to make the best-seller list at Whitcoulls but it is obviously not the way any serious biblical scholar should read a text.

Divine command theorists are not committed to all of the five inconsistent propositions he refers to and so are not required, on pain of contradiction, to deny that God is the source of morality.

1. Robert M Adams “Moral Arguments for Theism” in Robert Adams The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) 145.
2. Philip Quinn “Divine Command Theory” in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory ed Hugh La Follette (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing House, 2000) 67.
3. See Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Reading Joshua” in Divine Evil ? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham eds Micheal Rea, Michael Murray and Michael Bergmann (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) forthcoming.
4. K Lawson Younger Jr Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990).
5. This example is adapted from Alvin Plantinga “Reply to Fales” and Nicholas Wolterstorff “Reading Joshua” in Divine Evil ? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham eds Micheal Rea, Michael Murray and Michael Bergmann (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) forthcoming.
6. J. J. Finkelstein The Ox that Gored (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1981) 35.
7. Raymond Westbrook, “The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law,” in A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, Vol. 1, ed. Raymond Westbrook (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003) 74.
8. Ibid.
9. Walter Kaiser, “Gods Promise Plan and his Gracious Law,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35:3 (1992) 293. Joe M Sprinkle “The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 (Lex Talonis) and Abortion,” Westminster Theological Journal 55 (1993) 238.
10. Joe M Sprinkle “The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 (Lex Talonis) and Abortion,” Westminster Theological Journal 55 (1993) 238.

Please note that this series is not a transcript of the debate. Each post in this series is effectively a very close approximation of what was said on the night and has been put together from the papers and notes each speaker prepared and spoke from plus any additions each recalled making.

Video: Bradley v Flannagan “Is God the Source of Morality?
The Podcast: Bradley v Flannagan
Joint Communique: Bradley v Flannagan Debate
Raymond Bradley’s Opening Statement: Bradley v Flannagan Debate
Bradley’s Reply to Matt: Bradley v Flannagan Debate
Flannagan’s Reply to Ray: Bradley v Flannagan Debate
Glenn Peoples’ Review: Bradley v Flannagan Debate

William Lane Craig, Raymond Bradley and the Problem of Hell Part One
William Lane Craig, Raymond Bradley and the Problem of Hell. Part Two.
Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part I
Sunday Study: Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites Part II
Capital Punishment in the Old Testament: 1
Capital Punishment in the Old Testament: 2

Tags:   · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · 11 Comments

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11 responses so far ↓

  • @ Matt
    I thought you did a better job than your reply to my earlier comment implied.
    The one thing i might have added is the God as the source of morality is entitled to prescribe consequences and apply those consequences.
    If the law prescribes the death penalty for certain crimes and a judge sentences some one to death for one of those crimes in accordance with the law then neither the judge nor the executioner are guilty of murder.
    Whether i believe in the death penalty or not is inconsequential to the arguement.

    And in relpy to various other people, Christians have always maintained that scripture is “God breathed/inspired” not dictated, therefore we must expect it to be flavoured by the physical writers, ie their culture, language, literary conventions, scientific expertise or lack thereof. I struggle to understand why this is controversial, infact i think it is particularly honest of Christianity. What it does is demand study and honesty about interpretation while continuing to exercise faith. Ref Act 17:11 where the Bereans are commended for searching and checking scripture in the face of new information the must of contradicted previous understanding or expectation.
    Other religions [eg Islam, Mormonism] claim scripture by direct dictation and make no allowance for varied understanding or interpretation, although this still ends up happening.

    Overall , well done Matt, and looking forward to the rest.

  • Matt, thanks for replying. You’re right about the metaphor, apparently it was a common thing back in ANE to boast about your exterminations as a sign of strength and pride, Mernerptah of Egypt boasted “Israel is wasted and his seed is no more” so it wasn’t just Israel and Yahweh doing this, it was pretty much their hostile neighbours as well. Archaeology pretty much backs up your claim Matt

  • Clearly I need a life. I am standing here in my bookshop, without much in the way of custom, reading the blogsite [highly reccomended] and wishing more people were doing the same and commenting. I guess they all have something to do. A discussion is so much better when there is more than one participant—boo hoo.

  • It is Saturday afternoon give people time to come home and get online 😉

    Matt your argument is excellent, far clearer and more precise and more on topic than Ray’s. I would score 0:1 so far..

  • Fare call Murph, i did say it was me who needed the life

  • and I was at work, i am self employed,, work was slow and boring

  • […]Opening speeches from the Flannagan-Bradley debate on morality…[…]

    … Flannagan is awesome and you need to start to get familiar with him even though he is in New Zealand. He’s basically the William Lane Craig of New Zealand, and probably that whole area of the world. I don’t know any Australian scholars who are as capable as Matt. …

  • I agree with you totally.

  • As do I. The potential is palpable for Matt to rise to that level.

  • Matthew Flannagan vs. Raymond Bradley Debate: Is God the Source of Morality? MP3 Audio…

    In this debate, Matthew Flannagan and Raymond Bradley face off on the topic: “Is God the Source of Morality: Is it rational to ground right and wrong in commands issued by God?” Flannagan’s opening statements can be found here….

  • hello,nice to meet you.i come from to here.