Thomas Aquinas on Euthyphro’s Dilemma

Here’s a question that I increasingly find to be foundational to a person’s overall theology:

Does God command a thing because it is good,
or is it good because God commands it?

[From Plato’s Euthyphro]

The question forces one to prioritize what comes first in God’s nature – his freedom (pure will and power) or his goodness (cruciform [self-sacrifical] love)?

The question becomes practical when it turns to questions of some of the “alleged” genocides commanded or committed by God in the Old Testament. Are we forced to say those mass killings were somehow “good and right” – even though it goes against our deepest moral instincts and seemingly the morality of the God revealed through Jesus Christ? If not – then how do we account for their presence in our inspired Scriptures?

In the Medieval Theological Period, the stance that continues to remain popular today was firmly established by Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. It’s sometimes called voluntarism or nominalism. David Bently Hart describes the rise and logic of voluntarism as such: “They placed an unprecedented emphasis on God’s sovereign will as being the first and highest and primary attribute in God… In such thought, God does not command that which is good, that which is good is good because God commands it. That is, his will is not obedient to his nature as God; his will does not follow from his divine goodness.”

While there are biblical proof-texts for both positions [1] Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens, he does all that he pleases.” 2] Hebrews 6:17-18, “… it is impossible for God to lie…” – I have long thought it was a grave mistake to place God’s unfettered will above his divine goodness. Roger Olsen has also noticed this trend among Evangelicals and sees it as alarming: A Much Neglected Basic Choice in TheologyWhile I have many reasons for thinking that the cruciform nature of the Trinity guides his will and actions, I came across a quote from Thomas Aquinas on the issue that was quite interesting to me:

It is commonly said that God is almighty. Yet it seems difficult to understand the reason for this, on account of the doubt about what is meant when it is said that “God can do ‘everything'” […] If it is said that God is omnipotent because he can do everything possible to his power, the understanding of omnipotence is circular, doing nothing more than saying that God is omnipotent because he can do everything that he can do. […]
To sin is to fall short of a perfect action. Hence to be able to sin is to be able to be deficient in relation to an action, which cannot be reconciled with omnipotence. It is because God is omnipresent that he cannot sin. […]
– Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 

Aquinas here turns the apparent contradiction of omnipotence and an inability to sin on its head by further defining omnipotence. For Aquinas, omnipotence implies doing everything perfectly – while sin is am imperfect action. Thus – for Aquinas, it is not a denial of God’s omnipotence to say that he cannot sin… it is precisely because God is omnipotent that he cannot sin.

What do you think about Aquinas’ logic?
Where do you fall on the basic issue? Can God do anything (even if it seem or be “evil” for us to do) or is God limited by his loving nature?

7 thoughts on “Thomas Aquinas on Euthyphro’s Dilemma

  1. Mike- good to see you blogging again! I had composed a response to your question, but something got fouled up and I lost the whole comment. I’ll try to remember what I wrote and send it later. Just wanted to let you know that people are reading the blog and actively commenting.

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    1. Matt – as always, thanks for the encouragement and the engagement (looking forward to your thoughts). I’m in a new stage of life, so I’m committing to getting back on the blog-train. Are we friends on twitter?

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    1. I wouldn’t say it’s correct or incorrect, but it’s definitely a possibility. Your suggestion seems to me a “third” way between choosing between prioritizing God’s freedom or his nature – God is fully free (not bound by his divine nature), but he has voluntarily submitted himself to acting in accordance with his divine nature.

      My biggest concern with that stance is this: what then keeps God from deciding to stop choosing not to sin? Can a Christian have any hope if we really think that God is so free that one day He can just say “forget salvation and redemption – I’m destroying this whole thing and everyone in it.” It seems to me like a person of faith couldn’t never really have assurance. Sure, God has so far chosen not to sin – but who knows what could happen at any moment?

      Thoughts?

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      1. My bible says that God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever”, which would lead me to believe that He is in fact bound by his nature. This bondage, however, does not mean that we always agree with God’s commands in our world. Yes, God has a loving self sacrificial nature AND has commanded genocide which, however difficult to understand, means that somehow this genocide was necessary and had a reason. Those difficult words being said I dont think that God can choose to sin. He is outside of space and time in which sin might not even exist.

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