Augustine’s Confessions Episode Ten

In the next two episodes I tackle the question of whether Augustine exaggerated his sinful past and the suffering he experienced. Episode Ten focuses on what it truly means to suffer apart from Christ.

Follow me on Instagram @spaciously_spaced for all the episodes in the Confessions Challenge.

Augustine’s Confessions Episode Ten

Karl Barth’s Ethical Vision


As a young evangelical Christian, I was taught early on that Barth’s neoorthodoxy was the cause of liberalism in the Church today. Of course, I had never personally read Barth, only encountering him through conservative secondary sources. Preparing this essay forced me to read Barth for myself, as well as learn a great deal about his historical situation. I was surprised to learn three things. First, I enjoyed Barth’s writing style and his emphasis on Christ and the Holy Spirit. It was evident that Barth was devout and committed to the supernatural nature of the Christian faith. Second, Barth was writing in reaction to the growing liberalism within the Church. He very much saw himself as a conservative. And finally, I found his view on scripture to be highly inventive. I found myself repeatedly wonder if Barth had a high view of scripture, even though he declared it a fallible historical document. I do not claim to be a Barthian scholar by virtue of my limited study. However, I do feel I understand him a great deal more. I hope you find this essay as fascinating as I found preparing it. 

There is little doubt that Karl Barth has had a substantial impact on the landscape of evangelical theology. Can the same be said for his ethics? Yes and no. On the one hand, Barth lays out an ethical vision that has had far reaching implications for Christian moral theory. There can be no question that the nature of contemporary Christian ethics is more situationally minded, giving greater attention to the historical particularity of the ethical agent. While Barth cannot be solely credited with this turn from the absolute toward that which is more relative, his focus on the command of God to each individual has certainly fomented its growth.[1]  On the other hand, Barth’s ethical teachings are ambiguous (at times even contradictory), lacking the kind of practical specificity that would render them useful in making actual decisions. As such, Barth’s ethical teachings are often overlooked, only recently receiving significant scholarly analysis.[2] This essay will humbly attempt to present Barth’s ethical position in as positive a light as possible, especially in response to criticisms that it is too subjective and essentially impractical. The goal is to determine whether Barth is successful in overcoming these criticisms (revealing him as merely the victim of fundamentalist butchers and cannibals), or whether he truly was a wolf in sheep’s clothing leading Evangelical Christianity down the road of moral relativism.[3]

Before analyzing these criticisms I will attempt to provide a brief summary of Barth’s position, primarily in his own words, and primarily as stated in his Church Dogmatics. Despite most scholars agreeing that Barth’s ethical views evolve over the years, I will incorporate a few notations from his early works, particularly when they are in agreement with what is stated in greater detail in the Dogmatics. It is fitting that we look to Barth’s systematic theology for ethics; for him, the Christian approach to morality is grounded in doctrine. Specifically, it is the command of God to elect and sanctify man through Jesus Christ that becomes the determining doctrine for Barth’s ethics. The Gospel and the grace of God revealed in Christ’s work on the cross become the foundation upon which his theological ethics is established.


Given that some have charged Barth with being ambiguous, it may be easier to begin by defining his ethical approach in terms of what it is not. First and foremost, Barth stood against moral absolutes that delineated timeless and general rules of moral behavior. Barth emphatically tells us that obedience to the command of God is not found in a universal principle but is instead “a very particular matter –something which comes to each individual in a highly particular way in his own particular time and situation.”[4] This emphasis on the historical particularity of the ethical agent directly flows from Barth’s conception of God. In his brilliant book, Being in Action, Paul Nimmo argues that Barth sees God as a dynamic, living being in action “who speaks through the Word of God and exists in relationship with creatures.”[5] Barth says of God that

His eternal being of and by Himself has not to be understood as a being which is inactive because of its pure deity, but as a being which is supremely active in a positing of itself which is eternally new.[6]

Barth does not hold a rigid or static conception of God. God is a being who acts in the lives of his creatures anew each day. As such, understanding how we are to act cannot be separated from our personal encounter with God in our historical particularity. Alexander Massmann tells us that for Barth, “morals are not about action, but about an encounter with God.”[7] Once the ethical agent is claimed by God through divine election, her ontological status corresponds to God’s. She is transformed into a being in action, just as God is in action.

Barth saw the delineation of ethical principles as undercutting this dynamic relationship between God and man. Barth tells us that moral principles,

are instruments of the misinterpretation and misapplication of the command, provoking the very desires which are excluded by the command, the very attempt at human self-justification and sanctification which is forbidden by God and absolutely fatal.[8]

This naturally invites the question of how Barth deals with passages of scripture which seem to present us with universal moral principles, such as the Ten Commandments or The Sermon on the Mount. Barth explains that these kinds of passages can only be understood in their specific historical and concrete particularity. What these texts do reveal is the moral ontology underlying a personal encounter between God and specific ethical agents. As such, they are merely summaries of God’s specific will being made known to specific individuals at a specific time. Barth cautions that we must never view the command of God as remaining “somewhere behind us as the past of an instruction and conversion already accomplished.”[9] We must instead ask what God wills for us today. While these rules, axioms and commands are clearly good, Barth tells us that we must “bracket and hold in reserve all that we think we know” about them, understanding that God has a specific will for us today. “None of these has an unlimited claim to be valid again today as it was valid yesterday.”[10]

This can be illustrated by pointing to the common Christian goal of imitating Christ and all that he commanded his disciples. Barth sees this as an aspiration based upon the view that scripture consists of universal commands and principles that are to be timelessly followed. Instead, he argues that we need to view these texts as showing what Christ required of his followers at that specific time. What he requires of us today will likely be similar, but simply imitating what Christ commanded his disciples may very well put us out of God’s will for our own life.  Our circumstances are different, thus God’s command to us will necessarily be different (albeit retaining a degree of similarity). Barth says,

the action of man must be one which always and in all directions is open, eager to learn, capable of modification, perpetually ready, in obedience to the exclusively sovereign command of God, to allow itself to be orientated afresh and in very different ways from those which might have seemed possible and necessary on the basis of man’s own ideas of his ability and capacity.[11]

The Bible should not be approached as an ethical rule book from which we retrieve timeless moral principles. Instead the Bible is a witness to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The Bible recounts stories of God revealing himself to particular human beings in particular historical contexts. The most important of these revelatory stories is that of Jesus. Viewing scripture as communicating eternal truths for all people, places the focus of scripture on man. Instead, Barth tells us to place the focus on God. The specific commands of scripture are not about man and what he needs to do, but rather about God and who he is. The “particular commands” revealed in scripture should be seen as bringing us face to face with the person of God. This shifts the moral vision away from principles and rules to having a vision of a living God who actively speaks afresh to each individual. Barth is therefore not concerned with delineating the content of ethics. Instead, he is concerned with the form it takes, as revelation of who God is.

The concept of the command of God denotes a dynamic reality. … The command of God is the event in which God commands. It is a specific command of God in each specific form of his dealings with man, in each specific time, in relation to the presuppositions and consequences of each specific existence of each man. It is the one very definite thing that God demands for this or that man. The command of God is not a principle of action . . . God in his command, however, tells him very concretely what he is to do or not do here and now in these or those particular circumstances.[12]



Next, Barth was a fierce critic of natural law. Natural law ethicists contend that by virtue of creating the universe, God has imbued it with an order that reflects his rational and moral nature. Therefore, there is a point of contact between God, creation, and mankind, enabling the rational discernment of general moral principles. For advocates of natural law, this point of contact is the analogia entis. David Haddorff tells us that, “Regarding moral knowledge, this presumes that persons can objectively discover the human good through natural reason or experience or through some “moral order” established through God’s creation (order of creation).”[13] Barth famously referred to this doctrine as the invention of the anti-Christ, specifically in that it made claim to know the good apart from the revelation of God. Barth vigorously maintained that there can be no understanding of morality in abstraction of revelation; to suggest otherwise ascribes an ability to man which he simply does not possess. Barth felt that natural law interposed general moral truths between God and man, which then dictated how God should act apart from the individual’s historical particularity.[14] This gives us a static, rationalistic conception of God, rather than a living and active God that personally engages with humanity.

Barth, however, should not be viewed as entirely negating so-called orders of creation. For example, there does seem to be tension between Barth’s repudiation of natural law seen in CD II/2, and his acknowledgement of the constant character of the command of God in CD III/4. Nigel Biggar reconciles this tension by pointing out that Barth never intended to repudiate the “ontological notion that moral law is based, proximately and in part, on human nature.”[15] According to him, Barth merely intended to highlight the insufficiency of human reason and reflection to know such orders of creation apart from the Word of God in Jesus Christ. Biggar reads Barth as pointing to humanity’s quest for what is good as indicating some kind of inherent contact between God and man. Regarding this aspect of human nature, early in his career Barth writes, “The ethical question is obviously not just one question among many others but is in an eminent sense the question of human existence.”[16] Building on this idea, Alexander Massmann tells us,

After the universal moral question has been raised in every human person, God asserts God’s self successfully in gospel and commandment, since only God’s grace and command provide an answer to this question.[17]

In the place of the analogia entis Barth substitutes the analogia fidei, which posits an analogy, “not between divine and human being, but between divine and human action.”[18] Human nature becomes a suitable medium for God’s revelation only after the work of election, as the I-Thou relationship is established between God and man. This forms the analogy upon which revelation becomes possible.[19] Barth himself maintains,

If there is a real analogy between God and man … what other analogy can it be than the analogy of being which is posited and created by the work and action of God Himself, the analogy which has its actuality from God and from God alone, and therefore in faith and in faith alone? How can we assert any other analogy …?[20]

This means that Barth views the image of God in man, not as something inherent at birth, but “exclusively the affair of God Himself in His disposing of man in incomprehensible mercy.”[21] Only through this divine act can humans share in what God is and have an ontological connection with the divine. Nimmo tells us, “It is revealed in this very particular history –in which humanity is elected in Jesus Christ –that individuals share in what He is and therefore in the history actualized in Him.”[22] The image of God is constituted in man only as an act of transformation, as the result of God’s sovereign decision of election. Barth uses the language of the imago Dei when he writes that the ethical agent “should become the image of God: the reflection which represents, although in itself it is completely different from, God and His action; the reflection in which God recognizes Himself and His action.”[23] This actualization of the imago Dei in the ethical agent is the goal of her election.

Barth’s rejection of natural law also explains his distaste for casuistry, which Barth sees as putting man in the position of God, distinguishing between good and evil. Barth viewed casuistry as setting up ethical rationalism independent of God, where sinful humans deduce rules and their application on the basis of first principles.


Finally, while it may be tempting to do, Barth’s ethics should not be viewed as a version of divine command theory. Simply put, divine command ethics understands moral obligation on the sole basis of what God chooses to command. Good does not exist independently of God’s will, the good is what God wills. Theoretically, since God is not bound to any external duties, he can command whatever he wills. Divine command ethicists typically assert that what God has commanded in scripture represents his will toward man. Those viewing Barth in this way see a voluntaristic bent in his emphasis on the command of God, especially since he has little place for constant orders of creation. Biggar tells us that such a voluntaristic approach would mean that “since right and wrong are decided by God’s commanding, and since God is free to command as he pleases, there can be no constant features of the nature of created reality from which we can rationally derive reliable ethical principles.”[24]

However, Barth does not use the language of command in a voluntaristic or Occamist sense. According to Haddorff, Barth’s command prioritizes divine action which stresses “a living God’s engagement with persons, society and the world.”[25] Contrary to traditional divine command theory, Barth’s command of God is not a proposition grasped by reason. Barth himself states that, “we never at any point know the divine command in itself and as such, but only in its relations.”[26] God’s command does not present itself in the form of a principle or timeless imperative that is revealed in scripture; it is God meeting the individual in a deeply personal way. If we are to view Barth as a divine command theorist, then this subjective aspect becomes highly problematic, as what God commands to one person could very well be the exact opposite of what he commands to another. To avoid the charge that God’s command is arbitrary, Barth will need to provide some kind of ‘objective’ grounding.


Having a relatively clear understanding of what Barth’s ethical vision does and does not entail, we can now consider the most significant criticisms of his approach. The first is that his position is too subjective, depending upon the individual’s affirmation of the command of God to them. If Barth is unable to overcome this charge, then his theological ethics is essentially tantamount to relativism.

For Barth, “theological ethics is itself dogmatics, not an independent discipline alongside it.”[27] This aphorism indicates that theology must be the engine that drives and informs ethical development. Theological reasons are Barth’s primary justification for his positions. Barth never accepted the idea that ethics was somehow a separate discipline from theology, characterizing any attempt to split the two as insidious.

We regard all these attempts at a methodological distinction between dogmatics and ethics as ethically suspect because with great regularity there takes place in all of them a suspicious change in direction, a suspicious exchange of subjects, namely, of God and man . . . [28]

In his early ethical lectures at Münster (1928) and Bonn (1930), Barth was already beginning to assert ethics as an auxiliary science of dogmatics. If dogmatics shows us how and what we are to believe, then how we should act can proceed only on the basis of those beliefs. Barth very clearly tied this to an “old Augustinian theme that we must view together divine and human action in grace as two sides of one and the same event.”[29]   But ethics is not a mere flip to the other side “once enough has been said about what God has done for and to and in us.”[30] To separate the behavior of the Christian from the behavior of God is an ontological abstraction that fails to see the ethical agent as a being in action, “called to correspond to the being in action of God.”[31] For Barth, the question of human existence has its origin in the Word of God, which is the theme of theology and dogmatics. Theological ethics is therefore never justified within the sphere of philosophical ethics. Theological ethics is obedience to the Word of God. Unfortunately, theology is never produced in a philosophical vacuum. Despite Barth’s efforts to remain grounded in scripture alone, philosophical beliefs permeate his thinking.

Many evangelicals have embraced Barth because of his rejection of the immanentistic theology of modern liberal Protestantism. Liberal theology tended to either downplay God’s transcendence, or simply deny it altogether. This tradition was clearly shaped by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who reduced religion entirely to the realm of the ethical. For Kant and the liberal theologians who followed his thinking, prayer and worship were specifically idle distractions from what Christianity was truly about: duty to moral truth. It was Christianity within the confines of reason, albeit practical reason. To Barth’s credit, his Church Dogmatics is very much a reaction against this thinking. While a Kantian sense of duty is retained in his theology, it is duty to the command of God. Barth shifts the moral discussion back to the realm of the metaphysical. In direct contrast to this liberal tradition, Barth constructs his ethics on a transcendent, living and active God, in which prayer and worship remain integral (as will be shown below). If rationalistic liberalism made God in man’s image (often entirely rejecting any supernatural element), then Barth’s approach returns man to being transformed supernaturally into the image of God.

One of the earliest criticisms of Barth’s approach was that he went too far in denying the immanence of God, emphasizing him as the “wholly other.” Cornelius Van Til’s 1946 book The New Modernism, specifically took Barth to task for rejecting the orthodox understanding that God retains a direct revelational presence in the universe. Van Til maintained that by virtue of creating the temporal, a permanent and objectively accessible revelation of God is available to man.[32] Far from a rejection of Kantian thought, Van Til saw Barth as completely embodying Kant’s metaphysical skepticism.

vantilBarth has repeatedly asserted his desire to construct his theology in total independence of all the philosophical schools. Yet he has also admitted that in his earlier writings he had been influenced by modern epistemology. Indeed he has been keenly aware of the fact that his theology at every stage has taken a definite attitude toward, and has at least been negatively oriented to, the modern epistemological debate. The Ritschlian theology in which Barth was nurtured was controlled by a modern form of the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant.[33]

To be sure, Kant’s distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal realms does bolster a theology of radical transcendence and likely informs Barth’s theology to some degree. Kant believed that if we can only have conceptual knowledge of sensory experience, then we are in essence “cut off” from knowing the world as it truly is. Therefore, knowledge of transcendental reality is utterly incomprehensible. On the one hand, it can be said that Barth accepted Kant’s skepticism about reason’s ability to know God (which likely fueled his criticism of the analogia entis). Van Til and others saw this reflected in his “theology of crisis,” which painted God as a distant stranger to humans, who because of sin and the finitude of human nature cannot unambiguously comprehend God’s will.  For Van Til, this radical overemphasis on divine transcendence was neither based on Christian scripture nor theistic.[34]

On the other hand, Barth is in clear disagreement with Kantian idealism and the notion that humans are the ultimate interpreters of reality (which appears to be the concern of Van Til).[35] For Barth, man is not entirely cut off from God and left on his own to forge “his own” morality. God is able to bridge the epistemological gulf by speaking to man revelationally, through a direct command of God. Though man cannot know God, God can make himself (and his will) known to man. In this sense, Barth cannot properly be accused of personalism. But it is precisely this theological approach that leads Carl F. H. Henry to criticize Barth as being too subjective (the ethics of revelation reduces ethical action to a subjective experience which the individual embraces on blind faith). For Henry, this is nothing more than theological existentialism. Existentialism emphasizes the individual particularity of the ethical being. The theological existentialist asks, “What is God speaking to me? What is right for me in this particular situation?”


Barth professes to derive ethics from the sovereign transcendent command of God alone. The Word of God seeks man out and confronts him from above. No point-of-contact in man’s moral life supplies continuity between God and man. The Wholly Other shapes his own point of contact in the confrontation.  It is in the spirit’s address that man in the midst of his existential involvement deals with God.[36]

Barth may not side with Kant in justifying the discovery of moral truth “by means of a process of autonomous reasoning,”[37] but the influence of Kant is undeniable.  Because we are alienated from God, we can only discover ethical truth in a personal encounter with God in which the divine invades the here and now of the individual. The result is an emphasis on the subjective particularity of morality rather than an objective comprehension of universal principle. While this is clearly Kierkegaardian in its emphasis, one must remember that Kierkegaard’s subjective supra-rational turn was formulated in response to the metaphysical skepticism of Kant. Kierkegaard’s contrast between religious-ethical knowledge and empirical knowledge reflects Kant’s division of the noumenal and phenomenal. Kierkegaard’s influence is reflected in Barth’s preface to his second edition to Romans, where he cites the Dane’s “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and humanity.[38] For Henry, such an emphasis is problematic in that it makes ethics purely subjective, with man being “related to moral claims only by non-cognitive decision.”[39]

It is important to note that these philosophical and theological underpinnings directly impacted how Barth approached the Bible, likely necessitating his unique view of the command of God. While he may have rejected the immanentistic theology of liberal Protestantism, he did not fully reject the liberal skepticism regarding the supernatural nature of scripture. Given his acceptance of the “infinite qualitative difference” between God and man, it is not surprising that Barth believed the Bible to contain errors. As the product of finite, sinful humans, how could it be anything other than fallible?[40] But despite his acceptance of scripture’s fallibility, he still considered it authoritative. When Barth speaks of the command of God or the word of God, he is not speaking of the words of scripture. Instead, he is referring to a divinely supernatural revelation to a specific person.

For Barth, the Bible should not be viewed as the revelation of God (the actual words), but as a witness to the revelation of God to particular people in particular times. This entails that there is no such thing as revelation “in itself.”[41] Thus, while the Bible may contain historical inaccuracies, it is a profoundly historical work. Massmann says of Barth’s position,

When the Bible gives an account of revelation it means to narrate history, i.e., not to tell of a relation between God and man that exists generally in every time and place and that is always in process, but to tell of an event that takes place there and only there, then and only then, between God and certain very specific men.[42]

This reduces the Biblical texts to a strictly personalistic encounter between an individual person and God. Barth claims that “A real witness is not identical with that to which it witnesses, but it sets it before us.”[43] This means that divine revelation can only be conceived actualistically.[44] According to Barth, “It is only by revelation that revelation can be spoken in the Bible and that it can be heard as the real substance of the Bible.”[45] It is then that the Holy Spirit “actually reveals and makes known and imparts and writes on our heart and conscience the will of God.”[46] Because of this, Barth tells us that “in Holy Scripture the command of God does not confront us in the guise of rules, principles, axioms and general moral truths, but purely in the form of concrete, historical, unique and singular orders, prohibitions and directions.”[47]  Barth claims we do damage to scripture when we attempt to “generalize and transform them into universally valid principles.”[48]

But where does all this discussion leave us? Given Barth’s views on transcendence and scripture, I can only know God through individual subjective experience, via a personal revelation of the command of God to me. The Bible should not be viewed as anything more than an historical record of one subjective encounter with God after another, which God then uses as a tool to subjectively speak to me when I read it. In a very real sense, Barth is basing our own subjective encounter with God upon the subjective encounter of others. How does Barth escape all this subjectivity?


In light of these views, it is easy to see how some could charge Barth with removing all objectivity and continuity for ethics and relegating it to relativistic subjectivity. Given Barth’s emphasis upon the personal self-authenticating nature of the divine command, it is only natural to wonder how one can distinguish between an authentic command of God and mere personal desire. Bartholomew Carey asks,

The question I have is this: is it possible that one could be absolutely, subjectively certain that one had heard the command of God, when in fact one had heard only the echo of one’s own desires? The testimony of history seems to answer this question with a “yes.” (The history of religious fanaticism is a long and not so venerable one. And it is usually characterized by its insistence on a Biblical authenticity and by an immediate divine authorization, i.e., by an absolute “certainty” of the divine command).[49]

Biggar indicates that this is the most obvious problem facing Barth’s approach: “[I]t is difficult to locate an event of hearing a command of God in ordinary human experience. Even if one does regard God as a real, living super-Person, one is not aware of being constantly confronted by divine commands to do this or that.”[50] Thus, how can we know we are not simply deceiving ourselves when we claim to hear the command of God?  If the command of God is self-attesting, and if there is no other criterion by which to determine its authenticity other than its origin, then how can it be distinguished from relativism? Barth seems to recognize this danger.

If this is so, it might easily be asked whether this does not amount in practice to a Direction to let oneself be governed from moment to moment and situation to situation by a kind of direct and particular divine inspiration and guidance, and to prepare oneself, to make and keep oneself fit and ready, for the reception of such guidance, perhaps by quiet times or similar exercises.[51]

In order to overcome this charge, Barth must provide a qualification. Here, Barth’s Christological approach places the command of God securely in Christ. Biggar tells us that the person of Christ “not only reveals the benevolent form of God’s commanding, but also informs its content.”[52]  Therefore the command of God can never be seen in isolation as the command of the Creator, but rather as the command of all members of the Trinity: the creator, reconciler, and the redeemer. Massmann tells us that Jesus Christ is indeed the beginning of God. By electing humanity from eternity, God has eternally put himself in relationship with humanity.[53] As Colossians 2:9 tells us, “In Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Likewise, Nimmo concludes that “for Barth, the beginning of all the ways and works of God, and therefore of the identity of God, is the self-giving of God in Jesus Christ.”[54]

By adding this qualification, Barth seems to avoid the claim that God is capricious, confirming a certain material continuity between the divine command in Scripture and the divine command today.[55] The constancy and content of the command of God is guaranteed in Christ. What is the command of God for us? Barth tells us it “is the word and work of God in Jesus Christ, in which the right action of man has already been performed and therefore waits only to be confirmed by our action.”[56] Jesus Christ is the only ultimate determination for the life of the believer. Barth says, “All the new and inconceivable predicates of our life are real because they are the predicates of Jesus Christ.”[57] God’s will is that our ethical actions correspond to our election in Christ. Barth affirms that “out of man’s life there should come a repetition, an analogy, a parallel to His own being –that he should be conformable to Christ.”[58] The pattern of God’s command is Christ. Therefore, Barth is able to posit that “the divine command which can and will be given to us and heard by us … cannot either formally or materially differ from that which was given to them and heard by them,”[59] in scripture. When this is properly grasped, it becomes clear how Barth can write that “In different times and circumstances [the command of God] is the same and not the same.”[60] While continuity is retained, the power of the Holy Spirit “produces the same effect in continually new forms.”[61]


The second major criticism of Barth’s ethical vision is that it is simply that . . . a vision. Given the above discussion, it’s easy to see how Barth’s ethics may be accused of being of little use to the Christian looking for answers on what to do in a certain situation. It should be clear that providing answers was not a part of Barth’s agenda. He was determined to present an ethic of transformation, where the elect in Christ share an ontological grounding with the God who has claimed them as his own. However, Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas believes that while this may provide a compelling ethical vision, it remains too abstract.[62] Nigel Biggar goes further, suggesting that unless we can find principles in Barth’s ethics, “a novel by Trollope would be more useful in the moral education of the young than selections from the Church Dogmatics.”[63] Of course, Biggar is optimistic that the reader can find practical principles for ethical decision making and identifying the command of God.

So where does the Christian seeking ethical guidance begin? Barth himself characterizes the search as beginning with surrender. Barth says that we can be sure that we have a

Father in Heaven who, in a way that far transcends that of any earthly father, is ready to give the good to those who ask him. . .  The man who does all this can grasp the fact that God never makes a mistake, and that for all his fallibility he himself will not make a mistake. Asking, seeking and knocking, he will definitely do the will of God.[64]

This means that the Christian begins with an attitude of submission expressed in humble prayer to God. Barth states that prayer is “the normal action corresponding to the fulfillment of the covenant in Jesus Christ”[65] For him it is the most effective thing that the Christian can do and is the most fundamental of actions. Barth writes of prayer that it is “the one thing necessary, the one thing that is demanded of the Christian, the one service that is required of him.”[66]

It is interesting to note that because of the fundamental nature of prayer, Barth views the Sabbath day of rest as one of the most extensive commands of scripture. In keeping the Sabbath, the Christian cultivates a life characterized by prayer and worship.[67] Far from being a negative command requiring the believer to withdraw from culture for twenty-four hours, it is a positive action in which the Christian seeks out and celebrates the command of God. Thus, the Sabbath becomes an effective tool in orienting the believer in prayer and surrender to God.

Barth then directs the Christian to the scriptures, where they are to pray that “the Bible may be the Word of God here and now.”[68] Even though it is only God who can open the door to a revelation event in scripture, it is up to us as to whether we “wait at this door or leave it for other doors, whether we want to enter and knock or sit idly facing it.”[69] And for Barth this requires prayer. “[W]e cannot read and understand Holy Scripture without prayer, that is, without invoking the grace of God.”[70] Nimmo tells us that “while the divine command is to be heard afresh in every new moment, the ethical agent who is commanded lives in and with a history that cannot and should not be excluded in the practice of theological ethics.”[71] This means that the Christian is to approach the scripture in a particular way, understanding that she is part of a larger history of God’s action. While Barth tells us of the vertical command of God, God speaking directly to an individual in their historical particularity, there is also the horizontal element of the command, which places the individual within the entire history of God commanding his people.

Barth addresses the problem of an arbitrary command in not only speaking of a vertical dimension of God’s command, which denotes the irreducible character of the event, but also of its horizontal aspect, in which God’s commanding constitutes a continuity. The continuity of God’s command consists in God’s faithfulness as the Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer.[72]

Each individual encounter in this history represents a distinct moment in the larger context of the divine order. It is this horizontal dimension that accounts for “the constancy and continuity both of the divine command and human action.”[73]

In CD II/ 2, Massmann argues that Barth delineates a few simple rules which help the reader avoid the possibility of distorting scripture.[74] First, the reader should not come to the scriptures with a high-handed attitude of judgment. The Bible must be approached in prayerful surrender. The reader must cast aside any presuppositions about what the Bible says and be open to hearing the individual command of God. Second, the reader must become contemporaneous with the text. Here Barth tells us that

The Bible wills that we should be contemporaneous with and of the same mind as these other men in regard to the divine command, our hearing and understanding of it, and our situation as affected by it. In this connection we are to be in every sense the contemporaries of these men. Whether or not we comply with this biblical intention is another question. But it cannot well be denied that this is its intention, and that its texts were conceived and written down with the object of exercising this influence upon its readers and hearers.[75]

This means that we are to identify features within the text that resemble features of our own experience, “in a way resembling a judge who explores the extent to which a case matches with an existing legal precedent, or, in continental law, subsumes a particular case under a general rule specified by a law.”[76] Finally, Barth affirms the classic Protestant doctrines of the sufficiency, perspicuity, and self-imposition of Scripture. The scriptures can be easily understood by any layperson, and even works to correct us when we misinterpret the text. As sinners we are prone to make mistakes, but the Bible will defend itself “against the encroachments of individual or total periods and tendencies in the Church.”[77]

In keeping with his views on the particularity of the command of God, Barth is quick to remind us that placing oneself within the horizontal outline of God’s history provides “guidance to the individual in the form of an approximation to the knowledge of the divine command and right human action.”[78] He refers to it as a definite lead, but not a determination. Nimmo directs us to Bruce McCormack who notes that “what God has said through the prophets and apostles to the Church in the past may give hints of what he will say through the same to the Church in our own day, but he is not bound to repeat himself.”[79]  But the Christian does not simply look at the horizontal history of scripture. We must also be mindful of how the command of God has addressed us in the past.

[W]hat we will and do should take place in this self-examination –with a glance backward at what we willed and did formerly, and forward to what we shall will and do in the path that is now to be pursued or not, and therefore with a readiness for the next thing, or rather for the judgment which we approach in and with it –this is our proper attitude to the divine decision which awaits our own decision in God’s command.[80]

But just as God’s consistency does not guarantee that the command of God to the individual will be in keeping with how God has commanded others in the past, it likewise does not guarantee that it will be in keeping with how he has commanded the individual in the past. Barth tells us that “even if our enquiry as to God’s command leads us necessarily to a different answer today from that of yesterday, then no wrong is done to the former.”[81]


It would seem that these criticisms of subjectivity and irrelevance are necessarily tied together. Even though Barth provides helpful guidelines in seeking out and hearing the command of God (he should be applauded for the reverence that is reflected in the guidance discussed above), and even though he grounds the subjective command of God firmly in Christ, he never fully escapes his ultimate qualification that God is free to command otherwise.

In regard to the criticism of subjectivity, Barth answers that we can find constancy in God’s commands because of his Christological qualification, as well as his emphasis on the horizontal continuity of scripture. But neither of these preclude God’s command to us being different than what we might expect given these qualifications. As was noted earlier, Barth tells us that none of these considerations provides “an unlimited claim” to validate today what was valid yesterday.[82] Barth’s qualification has a qualification of its own. Any attempt to find objective stability in the command of God is overridden by the qualification of God’s freedom to act anew. In regard to the criticism of irrelevance and impracticability, even when we follow the steps delineated above and turn to scripture for guidance, we can have no confidence that God’s command to them will be the same to us. The result is that even if one can claim that Barth’s theological ethics does provide specific guidance for today’s Christian, his emphasis on subjectivity undermines it.

Barth is never able to overcome the fundamental weakness of his approach: our inability to distinguish between a genuine command of God and personal whim. Even if someone commits an action entirely “out of step” with the teachings of scripture, if they are certain in their assertion that it is an authentic command of God, on what basis can their claim be refuted? Certainly not because it conflicts with scripture, and certainly not because it conflicts with the way God has commanded the individual in the past. It seems that Barth fell victim to this weakness in his own personal life. Even though he wrote extensively about the significance of monogamous matrimony, he maintained a decades long adulterous relationship with his personal secretary which he justified as decreed by God.[83] While the moral failings of an individual should never be the grounds upon which to invalidate teachings, in the case of Barth his polyamorous relationship with his wife and mistress illustrate that his theological ethics can be used to justify any behavior.


Karl Barth & Charlotte von Kirschbaum

I had mentioned earlier that Barth’s theological ethics should not be viewed as a version of divine command theory. Given the above criticisms, one might argue that I was wrong in that assertion. I stand by it on the basis of the following distinction: The divine command ethicist will either objectively ground God’s command in scripture or in natural law; Barth does neither. Barth grounds the divine command in the certainty of a private supernatural revelation. Is that private experience authentic? Perhaps, but can we ever really know for sure? All we are left with is an existential leap of faith and an assertion of the will. It is for this reason that I see Barth’s ethical vision as essentially relativistic, grounded in an existentialist approach to truth.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide an analysis of the varieties of existentialism. Whether one considers themselves a Christian existentialist, or an atheistic existentialist, the starting point is subjectivity. In the case of Barth, it is the subjective experience of the command of God. In the case of the atheist, it is the subjective experience of coming to believe that there is no God. Both are subjective leaps of faith where the individual decides what is true for them personally, and then acts in accordance. I agree with Sartre’s assessment of existentialism that the question of God’s existence is irrelevant.[84] For Sartre, there was essentially no distinction between the atheist and Christian existentialist: at the end of the day, both make a subjective choice to believe what they will. For both, there is no reality except in action. The Barthian may protest that it is the prompting of the Holy Spirit that offers guidance and encouragement to accept the command of God as true. But again, it is the individual who makes the subjective determination as to what the Spirit might be prompting. How are we to discern between a legitimate prompting of the Spirit and a mere will to power? Barth himself seems to recognize this risk when he says of the Spirit’s leading,

[E]ven in giving this encouragement, it can not save man from what is expected of him, namely, to dare to make for himself the leap of choice, decision and action, which he must make for himself and on his own responsibility . . . and it cannot conceal from him that this leap, if it is not one of obedience, can only be a leap in the dark in the worst sense of the term.[85]

Regardless of the many admirable and ingenious aspects of Barth’s theology, using it as a guide for ethical decision-making has the very real potential of leading the Christian down the dark road of moral relativism. Perhaps, we can find no better warning of this than what Anna Katharina Barth wrote in a personal letter to her son, dated 1933. Barth’s mother expressed her disapproval with Karl’s behavior, directing him back to the universally binding commandments found in God’s word. She very pointedly asked him, “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”[86] The simple response should be that it is good for nothing.

[1]Joseph Fletcher talks about the influence of Barth in his seminal work, Situation Ethics. While he acknowledges the insights of Barth regarding the situational nature of ethical decisions, he criticizes Barth for retaining belief in the intrinsic nature of good and bad.

[2]I have chosen to primarily focus on scholarly analysis within the last twenty years.

[3]The allusion here is to Barth’s own characterization of his critics, and to Van Til’s characterization of Barth.

[4]Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1967), IV/2: 547.

[5]Paul T. Nimmo, Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth’s Ethical Vision (London: T & T Clark, 2007), 6.

[6]Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1:561

[7]Alexander Massmann, Citizenship in Heaven and on Earth: Karl Barth’s Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 62.

[8]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:727.

[9]Ibid., II/2:647.

[10]Ibid., II/2:646.

[11]Ibid., III/4:629.

[12]Karl Barth, The Christian Life, ed. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 33.

[13]David Haddorff, Christian Ethics as Witness: Barth’s Ethics for a World at Risk (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 204.

[14]Nimmo, Being in Action, 48.

[15]Nigel Biggar, “Barth’s Trinitarian Ethic,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 218.

[16]Karl Barth and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Ethics ed. Dietrich Braun (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1981), 16. Emphasis is mine.

[17]Massmann, Citizenship, 191.

[18]Haddorff, Christian Ethics, 204.

[19]Massmann, Citizenship, 78.

[20]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1:83.

[21]Ibid., III/1:202.

[22]Nimmo, Being in Action, 94.

[23]Barth, Church Dogmatics, CD II/2:575.

[24]Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 217.

[25]Haddorff, Christian Ethics, 208.

[26]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/ 2:550.

[27]Barth, Ethics, 18.

[28]Ibid., 12.

[29]Ibid., 11.

[30]Ibid., 15.

[31]Nimmo, Being in Action, 1.

[32]Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1946), 5.

[33]Ibid., vii-viii.

[34]George Harinck, “How can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa? The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, eds. Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 25.

[35]John E. Hare, “Karl Barth, American Evangelicalism, and Kant,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, eds. Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 77.

[36]Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 134.

[37]Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 214.

[38]Ibid., 213.

[39]Henry, Personal Ethics, 135.

[40]D.G. Hart, “Beyond the Battle for the Bible: What Evangelicals Missed in Van Til’s Critique of Barth,” in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism, eds. Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 51.

[41]Nimmo, Being in Action, 26.

[42]Massmann, Citizenship, 92.

[43]Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2:463.

[44]Nimmo, Being in Action, 26.

[45]Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2:469.

[46]Ibid., IV/2: 372.

[47]Ibid., III/4:12.

[48]Ibid., II/2:672.

[49]Bartholomew Carey, “God’s Command and Human Judgment: The Problem of Karl Barth’s Command Category in his Doctrine of Theological Ethics,” Dominicana 52, no. 1 (Spring 1967): 64.

[50]Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 214.

[51]Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/4:15.

[52]Biggar, “Trinitarian Ethic.” 216.

[53]Massmann, Citizenship, 172.

[54]Nimmo, Being in Action, 8.

[55]Ibid., 33.

[56]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:543.

[57]Ibid., II/2:761.

[58]Ibid., I/2:277.

[59]Ibid., II/2:706.


[61]Ibid., I/2:684.

[62]Nimmo, Being in Action, 74.

[63]Ibid., 75.

[64]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:695.

[65]Barth, Christian Life, 43.

[66]Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/3:265.

[67]Massmann, Citizenship, 278.

[68]Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2: 514.

[69]Ibid., I/1:533.

[70]Ibid., I/2:684.

[71]Nimmo, Being in Action, 64.

[72]Massmann, Citizenship, 270.

[73]Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/4:17.

[74]Massmann, Citizenship, 235.

[75]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:701-702.

[76]Massmann, Citizenship, 225.

[77]Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1:106.

[78]Ibid., III/4:31.

[79]Nimmo, Being in Action, 36.

[80]Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2:635.

[81]Ibid., II/2:648.

[82]Ibid., II/2:646.

[83]For a complete analysis of the letters between Barth, his wife, and his mistress, see Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today, vol. 74 (2) (2017): 86-111

[84]I am thinking here of Sartre’s comments in his 1946 lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism.

[85]Ibid., III/4:16.

[86]Tietz, “Barth and Kirschbaum,” 106-107.

Three Rival Versions & the Thomistic Solution


Thomas Aquinas

This is part two of my analysis of Alasdair MacIntyre’s approach to virtue ethics. This part focuses on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.  Click here to view part one.

We are faced with a variety of competing views of morality within our society. There are many who would like us to believe that no one view is superior to another, or that all views are equally valid. This is problematic. On an intuitive level we somehow know this is not the way it should be. There remains within us the desire to resolve our differences – to enter discussion and debate for the intended purpose of convincing others that our view is correct (and theirs mistaken). But this problem goes deeper than simply having different starting points and perspectives. Every other person is convinced that their view is best, that it makes the most sense, that it is entirely rational, and in fact, more rational than any other. The result is that we are locked in a moral standoff, where no amount of arguing is likely to convince our counterparts. In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, Alasdair MacIntyre provides an excellent summation of this moral mess.

Debate between fundamentally opposed standpoints does occur; But it is inevitably inconclusive. Each warring position characteristically appears irrefutable to its own adherents; Indeed in its own terms and by its own standards of argument it is in practice irrefutable. But each warring position seems to its opponent to be insufficiently warranted by rational argument.[1]

How did we get to this point? More importantly, how do we get out of this predicament? MacIntyre’s purpose in writing is to answer these questions and further develop the vision of virtue ethics that he initially articulated in After Virtue.

three rivalIf After Virtue is perceived as an incomplete work, as I believe it should, then Three Rival Versions should be viewed as bringing MacIntyre’s aretaic vision to completion, providing the metaphysical grounding for objective virtues and providing us the means of arbitrating between competing moral views. Of course, MacIntyre’s proposed solution is not without its critics. The first, is the more serious charge that MacIntyre’s solution simply doesn’t provide enough clarity to make any difference in our moral standoff. I say this is more serious, in that if true, then the work is inconsequential. Second, is the charge that MacIntyre’s vision is essentially postmodern. This concern has been expressed by several prominent Christian philosophers. What one thinks of postmodernism, and the extent to which MacIntyre is thought to incorporate aspects of it into his position, will determine if this is a serious charge or not.

So, how did we get to this point? MacIntyre begins Three Rival Versions by delineating the development and presuppositions of three different conceptions of moral inquiry: Encyclopaedia, which is named for the 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica; Genealogy, after Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals; and Tradition, representing the Thomism put forth by Pope Leo XIII as the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. By tracing these three views, MacIntyre demonstrates that moral enquiry has progressed from objectivity, to subjectivity, to complete incommensurability and untranslatability of rival conceptions of morality.[2] The essential move being the genealogist’s rejection of any theoretically neutral, pretheoretical ground by which all competing claims can be judged.[3] So while contemporary moral theorists still cling to the idea that we can enter rational discussion with those who hold different points of view (a weak conception of rationality left over from the Enlightenment project), they deny the ability to reach rational conclusions and resolve differences (the strong conception of rationality that Nietzsche rejected). MacIntyre’s point here is to expose the irrationality of clinging to this weaker conception of rationality, if no such independent standard of adjudication can be found.

It is precisely here that MacIntyre challenges the conclusion of the Nietzschean genealogist, pointing to the example of Aquinas. By resolving the conflicting issues between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism, Aquinas proves that one tradition can be demonstrated as rationally superior to another. In MacIntyre’s thinking, Thomism provides us with the philosophical craft-methodology of how to engage morally incommensurable views. Thomas was able to articulate problems within both these rival traditions in terms internal to each system, demonstrating how each lacked the necessary resources to resolve those problems. He was able to demonstrate how the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition was then able to provide solutions to those same problems. And finally, Aquinas anticipated his critics best counterarguments (framed again in terms of these rival views) and emerged with a superior response.[4] This alone is a significant contribution to moral discussion. But MacIntyre believes that Thomism provides more than just this methodological approach; it is also the tradition which offers the metaphysical grounding required to provide an objective standard for the virtues, something that was lacking in After Virtue.


Alasdair MacIntyre

At this point, some have raised concerns that MacIntyre has not sufficiently delineated the finer points of his moral theory. As Richard T. De George has pointed out, “MacIntyre never makes clear how we are to use whatever in Thomism he believes valuable.”[5] But this doesn’t seem to be an accurate assessment. MacIntyre discusses at length several key features of Thomism that are essential in demonstrating its superiority to other views. For example, just as Aquinas argued on the basis of natural law, MacIntyre states that contemporary society’s unwillingness to discard the fragments of morality is evidence of its metaphysical grounding in human nature.

The Thomist . . . discerns in the continuous reappropriation of the rules, and in the recurring resistance to discarding them, evidence of the work of synderesis, of that fundamental initial grasp of the primary precepts of the natural law, to which cultural degeneration can partially or temporarily blind us but which can never be obliterated.[6]

Synderesis is the idea that human consciousness has an innate inclination toward the good. MacIntyre is therefore arguing that our intuitive desire to determine a morally superior view is grounded in human nature, an insight he sees as essential to Thomism. MacIntyre states elsewhere,

The plain person initially, as plain child, exhibits his or her knowledge of the principium of the natural law, which is the principium of practical reasoning, in the same way that he or she exhibits his or her knowledge of the principle of noncontradiction, that is to say, not in any ability to formulate the principle explicitly, but by showing a potentiality to do just that, in the way in which the truth of the principle is presupposed in a multiplicity of particular practical judgments.[7]

Additionally, MacIntyre identifies Thomism as providing both a human telos which is eternal and the virtues and right actions required to direct humanity towards that telos.[8] De George concurs with MacIntyre that Thomism provides the philosophical and methodological activity necessary to conduct moral enquiry, but he conveniently overlooks the metaphysical contributions of Thomism. It is these two Thomistic contributions that allow us to not only arbitrate between rival moral theories, but also between rival approaches to the virtues. In this regard, it doesn’t seem possible to view Three Rival Views as an inconsequential work, especially when read in conjunction with After Virtue.

But what of the criticism that MacIntyre’s view is postmodern? Thomas S. Hibbs argues that MacIntyre’s overall body of work has presented a postmodern Thomism, prominently featuring three postmodern motifs: namely, the emphasis on tradition and Moreland and Craig.106authority, the role narrative plays in shaping thought and culture, and the part community plays in shaping one’s personal identity.[9] But, does simply using these motifs make MacIntyre postmodern? Given MacIntyre’s commitment to essentialism, the belief that we can arbitrate between competing moral claims, as well as his intimations about the authority of scripture, it is hard to see how this can be the case. For example, both William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland have characterized MacIntyre’s overall approach as presenting virtues as mere “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.”[10] While one might be able to make this case solely based on After Virtue, it cannot be maintained given the contributions of Three Rival Versions. In this latter work, MacIntyre has demonstrated a commitment to the idea that human nature provides an objective grounding for the virtues. Essential to who we are as human beings, is an innate knowledge of what is good and virtuous. This belief would certainly seem to undermine the idea that he is postmodern, or, at the very least, Craig and Moreland’s charge that he is anti-essentialist. While it is true that, for MacIntyre, community plays an important role in cultivating the virtues, he clearly establishes nature as providing the objective grounding and impetus for such cultivation. As such, a fully orbed postmodern rejection of a transcendent, overarching telos/narrative cannot be harmonized with what MacIntyre is presenting.

I have stated elsewhere that the overall contribution of this work, in conjunction with After Virtue, provides Christians with a viable alternative to deontological approaches to moral theory. Virtue theory, properly grounded in the objective understanding of the human good afforded by MacIntyre’s reading of Aquinas, could provide a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. This is not to say that MacIntyre’s approach should be adopted wholesale. However, the groundwork presented in Three Rival Views should guide our consideration. Christians, who fear that wading into such waters would open them to the influence of postmodern thinking, must keep in mind that simply borrowing common motifs from postmodernism does not make one postmodern. If anything, MacIntyre has demonstrated that these motifs are premodern, being originally found in the writings of both Aristotle and Aquinas.

[1]Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 7.

[2]MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 75. Even the Thomistic tradition which factors heavily into MacIntyre’s proposed solution, has not escaped “the indefinite multiplication of disagreements,” by wrongly giving priority to epistemological questions. It is important to note that when MacIntyre advocates for Thomism, he is advocating the version articulated by Thomas himself.

[3]Ibid., 172-173.

[4]Ibid., 182.

[5]Richard T. De George, review of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition, by Alasdair MacIntyre, Faith and Philosophy 8, no. 4 (1991): 542. De George is actually quite emphatic in making this point, going on to claim that “If MacIntyre wants to be heard more, he must produce the substantive theory that will engage his opponents. Simply to claim that Saint Thomas has the solution to the ethical and philosophical problems of our times is a move that has been tried in Catholic schools for over a hundred years, with less than compelling success.” And then a few lines later, “This volume argues for a method. The proof of whether it is in fact superior to alternative and opposing methods will be whether it can yield a moral theory adequate to the times. This series of lectures claims that it can; but the lectures contain only a promise.” Ibid., 545.

[6]MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 170.

[7]Ibid., 136.

[8]Ibid., 79-80.

[9]Thomas S. Hibbs, “MacIntyre’s Postmodern Thomism: Reflections on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry,” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 57, no. 2 (1993): 277.

[10]J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455.

After Virtue & Relativism


A brief review of MacIntyre’s seminal work on Virtue Ethics, After Virtue. This is part one of a two part analysis of MacIntyre’s overall theory of ethics.

There is no question that Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a significant work in moral philosophy, if not the most significant moral work of the 20th century. While it certainly figures as a major contributor to the modern revival of aretaic ethics, its true value can only be assessed within the larger context of MacIntyre’s follow-up works, particularly Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. On its own, After Virtue presents an incomplete rendering of the virtues that not only falls short of the Aristotelian variety that MacIntyre professes to be offering,[1] but that additionally runs the risk of contributing to the very moral quagmire from which MacIntyre is attempting to deliver his readers.  Despite these concerns, After Virtue offers the aspiring Christian moral theorist an attractive alternative to the deontological approaches that have dominated Christian ethics for much of the church’s history.

There are two heroes in this book. The first is Friedrich Nietzsche, whom MacIntyre views as a hero of sorts; not because he is right, but because he takes the moral discussion in the modern period to its logical end. Nietzsche properly discerned that the rise of emotivism had effectively undermined the Enlightenment project’s attempt to craft an objective science of ethics. If all assertions of morality are nothing more than mere expressions of will, then better for us simply to abandon all pretense of objectivity and embrace our autonomy. MacIntyre understands Nietzsche as saying,

. . . my morality can only be what my will creates. There can be no place for such fictions as natural rights, utility, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. I myself must now bring into existence ‘new tables of what is good.’[2]



In other words, there is no transcendent moral truths to which we can turn for guidance. What is good, is what the individual wills it to be. While Nietzsche is not responsible for morality devolving into utter subjectivity (MacIntyre places that responsibility on those who came before), he is responsible for justifying its acceptance. The result is the moral theorist’s complete inability to arbitrate between rival expressions of morality; moral discussion and debate is effectively halted.

Those thinking that Aristotle is the other hero in this book, better think again. That honor falls squarely upon MacIntyre himself. If Nietzsche is the King Kamehameha II of the European tradition because he awakened the world to the fiction of what morality had become,[3] then what are we to make of MacIntyre? In like fashion, MacIntyre stands as a Nietzschean type hero, conducting his own genealogy of moral theory and awakening the world to the moral morass of modernity.

What then the conjunction of philosophical and historical argument reveals is that either one must follow through the aspirations and the collapse of the different versions of the Enlightenment project until there remains only the Nietzschean diagnosis and the Nietzschean problematic or one must hold that the Enlightenment project was not only mistaken, but should never have been commenced in the first place.[4]

We can either follow Nietzsche or follow MacIntyre as he takes us back to a theory of morality rooted in Aristotelian virtues. MacIntyre plays the role of Nietzschean prophet, delineating the problems of modernity, and claiming to offer a solution far better than Nietzsche himself ever offered. What MacIntyre has done, as Richard Bernstein so ably points out, is to present us with a choice between morality and no morality.[5] The question is whether he has sufficiently convinced his readers why they should choose the former and not simply embrace the liberation that the latter promises. Even if MacIntyre is successful in exposing modernity as devoid of morality, and even if countless moralists are awakened to realize their present condition for what it is, what’s to stop them from simply declaring, “Thanks, but no thanks.” There is no doubt that MacIntyre has laid out a substantial vision for moral theory, but why is it better than Nietzsche’s opposing vision? Why should we choose MacIntyre over Nietzsche?

The answer to this question hinges on one task. If MacIntyre is successful in presenting his readers with a teleology common to all of humanity, a shared telos such that it necessitates everyone embracing an objective catalog of core virtues, then I think they have no choice but to choose MacIntyre. To do otherwise would be to go contrary to nature and undermine the very idea of what it means to live in community. However, this is a big if. As it turns out, the most significant criticism of MacIntyre is that he has failed to do just that, instead leaving many to wonder if his account is more relativistic than objective. This charge of relativism is not entirely unjustified, and MacIntyre seems to have anticipated it. After reviewing various historical traditions related to the virtues, he finds incompatible lists and differences in rank order, acknowledging that it would be all too easy to draw the conclusion that no “single core conception” of the virtues can be found.[6]


Martha Nussbaum

MacIntyre attempts to avoid this conclusion by providing a three-tiered account of the virtues, placing them within the context of practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives. But it is precisely here, with MacIntyre’s emphasis on goods and standards internal to practices, that the charge of relativism is introduced. Martha Nussbaum characterizes MacIntyre’s approach as a clear turn toward relativism, in which “the only appropriate criteria of ethical goodness are local ones internal to the traditions and practices of each local society or group that has questions about the good.”[7] Part of this criticism is grounded in the fact that MacIntyre’s vision does not seem to rule out practices that adopt vices rather than virtues. Building upon MacIntyre’s own speculation about the possibility of evil practices, Bernstein raises the prospect of a practice aimed at international espionage which requires excelling at dishonesty in appropriate situations. He, too, claims that MacIntyre’s position is in danger of being relativistic “because there is no reason to believe that the ‘acquired human qualities’ required to excel in one practice are the same as, or even similar to, those required for other, incompatible practices.”[8] He rightly concludes that what seems to be missing is a clear objective standard to arbitrate between rival traditions and practices, the very task MacIntyre’s whole work hinges upon. To summarize this criticism in MacIntyre’s own words:

I have suggested so far that unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.[9]

aristotleThe fundamental problem with MacIntyre’s approach is his insistence on rejecting Aristotle’s metaphysical grounding of the human telos. If MacIntyre were truly harkening the reader back to a thoroughgoing Aristotelian approach to the virtues, then he would need to embrace an essentialist view of human beings that includes what it means to properly function and flourish as a person. Defending the notion of an objective teleology without grounding it firmly in human nature denies MacIntyre of the one feature that could tie all local traditions and practices together and provide them with an external referent by which to judge the value of conflicting virtues. This is a problem that MacIntyre seems to recognize and acknowledge in his prologue to the third addition of After Virtue.

. . . my attempt to provide an account of the human good purely in social terms, in terms of practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives, was bound to be inadequate until I had provided it with a metaphysical grounding. It is only because human beings have an end towards which they are directed by reason of their specific nature, that practices, traditions, and the like are able to function as they do.[10]

It is only in MacIntyre’s later works that this deficiency is definitively addressed. In this sense, After Virtue is an incomplete work.

No one should interpret this to mean that After Virtue is an inconsequential contribution to moral discussion. While MacIntyre might have downplayed the need to provide a metaphysical and biological grounding of the good, he was correct in emphasizing its inherent social context. Our conception of the good cannot be articulated apart from what it means to live the good in community. This is a contribution that Christian moralists cannot afford to overlook. Virtue theory, properly grounded in an objective understanding of the human good, provides a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. Remaining fixed in a mindset that absolutizes all the individual commands and truths of scripture will take us down the path of developing curious theological schemes for arbitrating the conflicts that necessarily result.[11] In this sense, MacIntyre’s approach retains a degree of relativism, but it is a relativism we Christians should not be afraid to embrace. Applying moral values differently to different contexts does not deny the existence of objective moral truths. Even one of MacIntyre’s harshest critics acknowledges this. Nussbaum concludes, “The fact that a good and virtuous decision is context-sensitive does not imply that it is right only relative to, or inside, a limited context . . . It is right absolutely, objectively, from anywhere in the human world, to attend to the particular features of one’s context.”[12] Of course, the fundamental problem with extending relativism to all moral truth is that it prevents us from judging which application is appropriate, and which misses the mark. In the larger context of his writings on the virtues, no one should be charging MacIntyre with making this error.[13]

[1]Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 118. I am thinking here of MacIntyre’s own claim to be presenting something like that of Aristotle’s approach, as well as his rejection of Aristotle’s metaphysical grounding of the virtues which will be addressed more fully later in this review.

[2]MacIntyre, After Virtue, 113-114.


[4]Ibid., 118.

[5]Richard J. Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle? Reflections on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 100, no. 4 (2017): 296.

[6]MacIntyre, After Virtue, 181.

[7]Martha Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach,” in Ethical Theory: An Anthology, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2013), 631.

[8]Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle,” 304.

[9]MacIntyre, After Virtue, 203.

[10]Ibid., xi.

[11]I am thinking here of conflicting, non-conflicting and graded absolutism.

[12]Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues,” 639.

[13]J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455. In my opinion, the criticisms leveled by Craig and Moreland are a bit too harsh. They read MacIntyre as presenting the virtues as “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.” On a simple reading of After Virtue, that seems a fair criticism. However, they most certainly have failed to take MacIntyre’s later works into consideration in making this assessment.

The Problem of Induction & The Existence of God


Special thanks to the GMU chapter of Ratio Christi for allowing me to present on this topic at a recent meeting. I would like to apologize for not being able to adequately address the question regarding Plantinga’s argument against metaphysical naturalism. I have updated my comments below to include a brief summation. I will readily acknowledge that I still find myself trying to grasp all of its intricacies. I want to especially thank Marcel for his insightful feedback regarding Spiegel’s argument. I have incorporated the idea of UGN briefly in my summation.


David Hume

What explains the practice of making inductive inferences? Why do we seem inclined to think that the future will resemble the past? Is this simply the result of conditioning; something baked into us through the repetition of daily experience? Or, is it something hardwired into us, an essential part of our cognitive makeup? The distinction here is significant. On the one side is David Hume’s position which represents an authentically empiricist perspective. For Hume, beliefs based upon inductive reasoning are without any rational justification and calls into question the foundation of scientific knowledge. If he is correct in his thinking, then the so-called problem of induction may well prove to be far more problematic for the Christian than it is for the scientist. On the other side, is the position being put forth in this paper. I wish to argue that inductive reasoning, far from being the product of nurture, is more properly conceived as the product of nature. I will begin by exploring what has come to be known as the problem of induction, arguing that Hume is not so much stating a problem as he is making a demonstration regarding the limitations of reason. It is in this section that I will delineate the larger implications of Hume’s thinking for the theist. I will then discuss what has come to be known as the principle of induction. Far from weakening the ability of reason, I contend that Hume’s demonstration actually points to a priori powers of reason. Finally, I will attempt to account for the production of inductive reasoning. How are we to explain the emergence of this phenomenon? Ultimately, I will contend that inductive reasoning provides a compelling demonstration of theistic design.[1]

The Problem of Induction

Antony Flew defines induction as “a method of reasoning by which a general law or principle is inferred from observed particular instances.”[2] We use it all the time in our day to day life. Anytime we make a general conclusion based upon limited observation, we are reasoning inductively. If I conclude that all women from El Paso are beautiful, solely based on having met a few dozen women who were born in that city, then I have drawn an inductive conclusion. Perhaps, more commonly, we all believe the sun will rise tomorrow and do so on the basis that we have seen it rise every morning of our lives. But induction transcends these mundane beliefs. Indeed, science itself, despite efforts to demonstrate otherwise, relies heavily upon induction.[3] Flew underscores this long tradition of inductive reasoning in science by pointing to Newton’s rules of reasoning, as delineated in the preface to Book III of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

The third rule runs: ‘The qualities of bodies, which admit neither intensification nor remission of degrees, and which are found to belong to all bodies within reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.’ The fourth, which ‘we must follow, that the argument of induction may not be evaded by arbitrary hypotheses’, states: ‘In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions inferred by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true … till such time as other phenomena occur, by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions.’[4]

Whereas deductive reasoning provides certainty (starting with true premises leads one to a true conclusion), inductive reasoning does not. But the problem with induction is not simply the lack of certainty that it provides (most would agree that this really is not problematic at all), but rather that it seems to admit no justification whatsoever.

David Hume famously argued that while we certainly use induction all the time, when asked to justify it, we cannot. Take for instance the aforementioned belief that the sun will rise tomorrow. What justifies our believing this? Hume tells us that the belief is based upon an assumption commonly referred to as the uniformity of nature (UN).  Simply put, it is the assumption that the future will resemble the past. As Samir Okasha states, it is “the assumption that objects we haven’t examined will be similar, in relevant respects, to objects of the same sort that we have examined.”[5] But as Hume points out, this assumption is not necessarily true. One could easily conceive of a universe where the uniformity of nature does not hold.

The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality. That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction than the affirmation, that it will rise.[6]

But if UN is not logically true, can we at least provide empirical evidence to demonstrate its truth? Hume says that any attempt to do so descends into circular reasoning. If we argue that UN is true because it has always held true in the past, then we have simply used UN to prove UN and are guilty of begging the question. There are therefore no rational or empirical grounds upon which to justify inductively held beliefs. According to Okasha, “Hume concludes that our confidence in induction is just blind faith.”[7] This is what is traditionally known as the problem of induction.

In response to Hume, some have turned to probability as a means of justifying inductive reasoning. If the premises of an inductive argument cannot guarantee the truth of its conclusion, at the very least they make it more likely than not. Bertrand Russell states,

Winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature

Bertrand Russell

It must be conceded, to begin with, that the fact that two things have been found often together and never apart does not, by itself, suffice to prove demonstratively that they will be found together in the next case we examine. The most we can hope is that the oftener things are found together, the more probable it becomes that they will be found together another time, and that, if they have been found together often enough, the probability will amount almost to certainty. It can never quite reach certainty, because we know that in spite of frequent repetitions there sometimes is a failure at the last, as in the case of the chicken whose neck is wrung. Thus probability is all we ought to seek.[8]

Of course, an inductive argument’s probability is relative to the truth of the premises and whether it is based upon our total relevant knowledge.[9] The upshot is that while scientific knowledge is not certain, we are justified in holding inductively formed beliefs on the basis that they are highly probable.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it relies upon induction. To say that something is highly probable, is to say that a very high proportion of occurrences follow a particular pattern. Hume tells us in his Treatise on Human Nature that “probability is founded on the presumption of a resemblance betwixt those objects, of which we have had experience, and those, of which we have had none.”[10] In other words, probability presupposes UN; and thus, also falls prey to circular reasoning. Hume continues,

I will go farther, and assert, that he could not so much as prove by any probable arguments, that the future must be conformable to the past. All probable arguments are built on the supposition, that there is this conformity betwixt the future and the past, and therefore can never prove it.[11]

The question is whether this leaves us in a state of total skepticism. Has Hume effectively undermined our ability to justify any scientifically obtained knowledge? There is much debate as to whether Hume embraced this radical conclusion. In reviewing the many interpretations, Alexander Rosenberg concludes that Hume did not reject inductive reasoning. Instead, he confidently asserts that Hume considered it to be an inevitability for humans and essential to the scientific enterprise.[12] Hume himself states, “. . . none but a fool or madman will ever pretend to dispute the authority of experience, or to reject that great guide of human life . . .”[13] Or, as Alvin Plantinga states, “it is the person who does not reason inductively who requires therapy.”[14] So then, if Hume was not advocating a form of Pyrrhonean skepticism, what exactly was his point?


A. J. Ayer

Many philosophers would agree with Rosenberg that Hume was never suggesting that we abandon inductive reasoning. In separate works, both Antony Flew and A. J. Ayer argue that Hume should not be read as presenting a problem or difficulty. Instead, he was simply demonstrating the limitations of reason.[15]  We can see this clearly in Hume’s own words.

. . . in all reasonings from experience, there is a step taken by the mind, which is not supported by any argument or process of the understanding; there is no danger, that these reasonings, on which almost all knowledge depends, will ever be affected by such a discovery. If the mind be not engaged by argument to make this step, it must be induced by some other principle of equal weight and authority; and that principle will preserve its influence as long as human nature remains the same.[16]

For Hume, that principle is custom or habit. Ayer points us to the Treatise on Human Nature where Hume states,

. . . that all our reasonings concerning matters of fact are deriv’d from nothing but custom: and that belief is more properly an act of the sensitive, than of the cogitative part of our natures.[17]

By sheer repetition of experience, the mind begins to naturally and automatically make the inductive step. It is not reason or universally intuited principles that serve as “the great guide to human life,” but rather custom built upon experience. Just as a dog expects to be fed by her master whenever he comes home from work, so also humans form inductive beliefs on the basis of instinct. When something happens often enough, we form the expectation that it will happen again.

Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is that principle alone, which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past.[18]

As we will see later, Hume’s point is not terribly challenging for the scientist. However, for the Christian it has potential to be highly problematic. By relegating inductive reasoning to habit, Hume believed he had demonstrated a fundamental weakness of our cognitive faculties. According to Hume,

. . . we cannot give a satisfactory reason, why we believe after a thousand experiments, that a stone will fall, or a fire burn; can we ever satisfy ourselves concerning any determination, which we may form, with regard to the origin of worlds, and the situation of nature, from, and to eternity?[19]

Because the natural powers of the human mind are so limited, as a matter of practice we should refrain from metaphysical speculation. Or as Hume more eloquently puts it, we should limit “our enquiries to such subjects as are best adapted to the narrow capacity of human understanding.”[20] If we can’t even justify induction, how can we possibly justify anything beyond our own immediate experience? Rather than advocating complete skepticism, Hume is simply espousing a naturalistic, mitigated version which rejects knowledge claims that go beyond immediate experience.[21] Hume continues,

It seems to me, that the only objects of the abstract sciences or of demonstration are quantity and number, and that all attempts to extend this more perfect species of knowledge beyond these bounds are mere sophistry and illusion.[22]

According to Flew, Hume’s point is that it is impossible to postulate “any universal proposition from any evidence which can be provided by experience.”[23]  While philosophers of science have wrestled with the implications of Hume’s thought for generations, all the scientist needed to do to free herself from the problem of induction was to abandon any universal or metaphysical conclusions. So, in essence, the problem of induction provides atheists like Hume, Flew, Ayer and Russell a key premise in the argument for scientific naturalism: we cannot and should not draw conclusions that transcend the very grounds upon which those conclusions are based.[24]

Sir Anthony Flew

Antony Flew

The Principle of Induction

In formulating a response to this challenge, the Christian can look to what has come to be known as the principle of induction. It is important to note that Hume himself seems to speak of induction in terms of being a principle, as evidenced by the quotes above.  Many philosophers have picked up on this, taking Hume’s intimations much farther. For example, Flew believes induction should be viewed as a rule guiding how we reason.

. . . the much talked about Principle of Induction should be construed: not as the wonder premise missing from Hume’s failed syllogism; but rather as a fundamental and primary rule of procedure for argument from experience.[25]

While the principle of induction doesn’t prove that something is necessarily true, as with logical principles, it does prove that something is probably true. But Russell goes much farther than Flew, making an interesting connection between the principle of induction and the logical principles of thought.

In addition to the logical principles which enable us to prove from a given premise that something is certainly true, there are other logical principles which enable us to prove, from a given premise, that there is a greater or less probability that something is true. An example of such principles—perhaps the most important example is the inductive principle . . .[26]

The logical principles of thought to which Russell alludes, are known a priori; they are self-evident laws that govern all reasoning. Can we say the same for the principle of induction? Or is it more appropriate to think of it as an ad hoc principle, which seems more in keeping with what Hume is saying? Consider what makes a principle of reason a priori. When we think of the logical laws of thought pertaining to contradiction and identity, we can say that they are properly basic. Their truth is prima facie; we accept them without the need of supporting argumentation. In fact, they are incapable of being supported by argumentation. As Russell points out, “logical principles are known to us, and cannot be themselves proved by experience, since all proof presupposes them.”[27] Is this also the case with the principle of induction? Some of the most well-known commentators on Hume would seem to think so. Ayer asserts that there is no question that the principle of induction is universally assumed by all humans. In fact, he specifically connects it with the entire corpus of principles of logic, including causality, saying that, “They cannot be proved . . . nature is so constituted that we cannot avoid accepting them.”[28] Returning to Flew, he adds:

it would be absurd to dismiss as irrational or non-rational all appeals to experience as a guide for our expectations, on the grounds that no further reason could be offered for such appeals beyond the ultimate reason that just this is a large part of what it is to be a rational man.[29]

Perhaps Russell gives us our most forceful statements regarding the nature of the principle of induction. He begins by stating that “. . . the principle of induction . . . is itself not capable of being proved by experience, and yet is unhesitatingly believed by everyone, at least in all its concrete applications. In these characteristics the principle of induction does not stand alone.”[30] He is, of course, speaking of the other laws of thought, such as identity, contradiction and excluded middle, all of which are self-evident and fundamental to all thinking. But is it proper to think of the principle of induction in this same way? It is if we think of it in terms that Alvin Plantinga proposes. “A self-evident proposition is such that a properly functioning (mature) human being can’t grasp it without believing it.”[31] Certainly, this would seem to be the case with the principle of induction, which cannot be proven without assuming its truth. This is why Russell accepts it as a priori, and has no trouble connecting it with the logical principles of thought. Experience cannot confirm or confute these principles, and yet they all seem to be firmly rooted in our rational nature. Of course, if we are to conceive of the principle of induction as an a priori truth, then we have moved beyond the traditional understanding of the concept. Plantinga asserts that we should view a priori beliefs as displaying “the same defeasibility structure displayed by perceptual beliefs, inductive beliefs, and so on.”[32] More specifically,

But it doesn’t follow that what has a priori intuitive warrant is indefeasible, or infallible, or rationally unrevisable or indubitable, or anything of that Cartesian sort. Nor does it even follow that beliefs formed a priori are independent of experience in that they can’t be corrected or defeated by beliefs from other sources—testimony, for example. It may be, of course, that the very highest degrees of warrant are occupied only by a priori beliefs . . .[33]

Therefore, it is entirely reasonable to view a priori warrant as coming in degrees with some a priori principles being more certain than others. In this way, the logical principles of thought have a different kind of a priori warrant than the principle of induction. Russell refers to this as non-logical a priori knowledge.[34]

This does not mean that Russell is advocating rationalism or that to accept what he is arguing is somehow to abandon empiricism. While empiricism maintains that all knowledge is derived from experience, being an empiricist does not preclude one from acknowledging that there exist certain aspects of our knowledge (such as the principles of thought) which are logically independent of experience. Russell is careful to distinguish that knowledge of these principles is not innate as a pure rationalist would maintain. However, while experience cannot prove them, it most certainly makes their existence known. “Even that part of our knowledge which is logically independent of experience (in the sense that experience cannot prove it) is yet elicited and caused by experience.”[35] We might say that the distinction he is making is between cognitive content and cognitive capacity. We are not born into this world pre-loaded with knowledge (cognitive content). However, we are born into this world pre-loaded with principles of reasoning (cognitive capacity), that make possible the accumulation of knowledge. Russell concludes,

Thus, while admitting that all knowledge is elicited and caused by experience, we shall nevertheless hold that some knowledge is a priori, in the sense that the experience which makes us think of it does not suffice to prove it, but merely so directs our attention that we see its truth without requiring any proof from experience.[36]

While I agree with Russell’s assessment, I am not convinced that it is a proper interpretation of Hume.

Hume would say that the principle of induction is something conditioned within us entirely based upon our experience. He would deny any overarching universal principle of reason, or laws which are hardwired, or pre-loaded into our cognitive structure. For Hume, the principle of induction strictly refers to custom itself, which produces ad hoc guides which have wrongly come to be construed as innate and a priori. In this regard, he is a true empiricist. However, I don’t think Russell is wrong in extrapolating something more on the basis of what Hume has demonstrated. Even if Hume is correct that we only come to form beliefs about causality and the uniformity of nature after having been exposed to repeated experience, he still must account for why it is that human nature is prone to consistently and uniformly form these beliefs. Is it logically necessary that we form these beliefs? If, as Hume suggests, we can easily conceive of a universe where nature is not uniform, then it is also just as easy for us to conceive of a universe where nature is uniform, and yet individuals fail to form beliefs about the uniformity of nature. Hume uses the first case to demonstrate that inductive beliefs are not logically necessary, but rather formed upon the basis of custom. But what about the second case? How would he address that? He doesn’t. His entire argument presupposes a necessary connection between repeated experience and the formation of certain beliefs about repeated experience. Hume assumes that this happens, but he never explains why it does. Hume’s own argument reveals a blind spot which seems to have been properly identified by Russell. The great guide to life is not custom or habit, but rather a priori principles of reasoning, such as the principle of induction, which govern all thought and the formation of knowledge.

Let us briefly consider a scenario that illustrates this point with greater clarity. Early in Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he considers a thought experiment which has come to be known as the missing shade of blue.


Suppose, therefore, a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years, and to have become perfectly acquainted with colours of all kinds, except one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with. Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest; it is plain, that he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting, and will be sensible, that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous colours than in any other. Now I ask, whether it be possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses?[37]

Hume readily acknowledges that it is universally accepted that the man will indeed be able mentally conjure up the missing shade of blue, without ever having experienced it. Of course, this contradicts his maxim that it is impossible for ideas to arise apart from experience, also a point which Hume readily acknowledges. So, how does Hume explain this phenomenon? He doesn’t. Hume simply dismisses it as an anomaly. “[T]his instance is so singular, that it is scarcely worth our observing, and does not merit, that for it alone we should alter our general maxim.”[38] But I’m not so sure it is as singular as Hume suggests. Perhaps, the missing shade of blue reveals the fundamental problem with Hume’s entire argument about induction and causality. Hume fails to acknowledge the possibility that the man’s ability to envision the missing shade of blue is due to an innate cognitive power of abstraction, by which the missing shade is produced by comparing and contrasting all other known shades. Likewise, he also fails to acknowledge the possibility that our ability to reason inductively is due to an innate cognitive capacity to make connections between repeated events. One can admit innate cognitive capacity (the power of abstraction and the ability to make causal connections) without admitting to innate cognitive content (that we have prior knowledge of the missing shades universal essence or that we have pre-loaded knowledge of the uniformity of nature).

Of course, even though Hume doesn’t overtly make this distinction, he certainly speaks in terms that lend themselves to drawing these conclusions.  He readily acknowledges that there is something essential within the operations of the mind that leads us to make causal connections and inductive inferences. Ultimately, it is unexplainable to him, and he is unwilling to chalk it up to anything more than instinct.

As nature has taught us the use of our limbs, without giving us the knowledge of the muscles and nerves, by which they are actuated; so has she implanted in us an instinct, which carries forward the thought in a correspondent course to that which she has established among external objects; though we are ignorant of those powers and forces, on which this regular course and succession of objects totally depends.[39]

But this is really not so far from where we wish to go in this discussion. If Humean scholar Robert Fogelin can say of Hume’s argument that “we are naturally determined – hardwired, as it were – to form certain beliefs in certain circumstances,”[40] then why can’t we wonder if this power is an essential part of cognition? And if it is, why can’t we ask what accounts for that ability?

The Production of Inductive Reasoning


Alvin Plantinga

It is not difficult to imagine why Hume avoids this discussion. Once we acknowledge that we have this innate cognitive ability to reason inductively, it invites the question as to its origin. How do we account for the production of this cognitive capacity? Plantinga states that inductive reasoning is warranted on the basis that “that is how a properly functioning human being forms beliefs . . .”[41] In other words, part of the design plan of humanity is the ability to form nondeductive beliefs about the future based upon past observations. This ability to recognize uniformity in nature, and form beliefs and predictions about the future, is an essential part of human nature. Plantinga turns to Thomas Reid, from whom he draws heavily, to make this point.

. . . the principle is necessary for us before we are able to discover it by reasoning, and therefore is made a part of our constitution, and produces its effects before the use of reason.”[42]

Reid argues that this truth is demonstrated by looking at the natural practice of children, who clearly utilize the principle long before they can confirm it rationally.[43] Inductive reasoning comes to us naturally. Additionally, Plantinga acknowledges that it is not a principle that can be confirmed noncircularly.

. . . suppose I do note that when what was future came to pass, it resembled what was past: that is to note no more than that past futures have resembled past pasts. It is only by employing the very principle (or habit) in question, however, that I can see this as confirming that future futures will resemble past futures. So I can’t noncircularly confirm Reid’s principle.[44]

But Plantinga argues that this isn’t problematic, as there are many principles that we accept in a properly basic way.[45] If this is not problematic for the laws of reason, then why should it be problematic for the principle of induction?

For Plantinga, what we see operating in human reasoning suggests “intentional design on the part of a conscious agent, one who takes thought and aims to accomplish a purpose.”[46] In fact, he takes the formation of this idea itself to be properly basic.[47] It seems we have an inclination to consider as designed any natural organism which displays purpose and proper function. Our epistemic structure and powers, including the ability to form inductive inferences and grasp the laws of reason, represent a significantly high degree of purpose. Given this, it seems only natural to think of our cognitive capabilities as functioning according to a design plan. “If you think there is no naturalistic analysis of these notions, what you have is a powerful argument against naturalism. Given the plausible alternatives, what you have, more specifically, is a powerful theistic argument.”[48]

Plantinga’s overall argument against metaphysical naturalism‘ s inability to account for design is both complex and compelling. As such, it is beyond the scope of this paper. Speaking in evolutionary terms, Plantinga argues that since metaphysical naturalism tends to be skeptical of beliefs, with some even discounting them as legitimate causes of action, then reliable cognition is not necessarily more fitness-enhancing than that of an unreliable sort. If this is the case, then truth is irrelevant and the naturalist cannot argue that extensive false beliefs would lead to maladaptive behavior, which in turn would not be favored by natural selection. Plantinga concludes that the probability of metaphysical naturalism plus evolution generating reliable cognition aimed at the production of true beliefs is either very low, or inscrutable.


George Berkeley

James Spiegel provides a more overt argument for theism, specifically built upon the regularities we find in nature. Drawing upon George Berkeley’s language metaphor in his 1732 apologetic Alciphron, Spiegel attempts to formulate a Berkeleyian approach to the problem of induction.[49] In this polemic, Berkeley argues that we can infer the existence of God from signs in the world. Spiegel points us to the words of Euphranor, Berkeley’s spokesperson in Alciphron.

Though I cannot with eyes of flesh behold the invisible God, yet I do in the strictest sense behold and perceive by all my senses such signs and tokens, such effects and operations, as suggest, indicate and demonstrate an invisible God, as certainly, and with the same evidence, at least, as any other signs perceived by sense do suggest to me the existence of your soul, spirit, or thinking principle . . .”[50]

Just as we infer the existence of other minds (an invisible, rational cause) from the outward signs displayed by others (specifically language), we can infer the existence of an invisible, universal agent speaking through the workings of nature. “Like human language, the language of nature has a syntax, which we call the laws of nature.”[51] Again, pointing to Berkeley’s own words:

The phenomena of nature, which strike on the senses and are understood by the mind, form not only a magnificent spectacle but also a most coherent, entertaining, and instructive . . . language or discourse.[52]

Spiegel’s point is that along with the logical laws of thought (which Berkeley would have considered part of the language of nature), we can include the principle of induction. All of these principles together make up the syntax of nature, functioning very much like human language. Much like Plantinga’s argument above, this leads us quite naturally to think of this syntax in terms of being designed by an intelligent being. But whereas Plantinga locates his argument in the design plan evidenced by our cognitive faculties functioning properly, Speigel’s Berkeleyian approach is more focused outward, on the regularities found in nature. There are three steps in his argument.

  • We begin with the observation that there are regularities in nature that help sustain and prosper life. Because these regularities have obtained universally and without exception (given certain qualifications), humanity has not only been able to survive, we have flourished. Since these regularities are fundamental to scientific discovery, we have been able to make astounding advances in science and technology. This has led to even greater benefits for humanity. In fact, these regularities are what have allowed us to discover more and more of the syntax of nature (its laws and principles).
  • We next move to the conclusion that these regularities, benefits and syntax (laws of nature) are the result of an intelligent, purposeful and powerful mind which has designed the universe for our benefit.
  • We conclude by maintaining that since this God is so obviously benevolent, we can trust that he will continue to maintain these regularities, benefits and laws. In other words, we can have complete confidence in the uniformity of nature that the future will continue to resemble the past.

We might add that while it is not logically necessary that nature remain uniform, Hume is correct that we can conceive of a universe where it doesn’t hold; it certainly seems logically necessary in a universe where God exists. It would be contradictory to God’s benevolent nature if he allowed the uniformity of nature to cease. In conclusion, Spiegel summarizes his argument.

In short, regularities in nature are useful for human welfare and thus indirectly testify to the existence of a purposeful, intelligent, and powerful mind at work behind the cosmic scene who seeks to benefit his creatures. That is, the laws of nature evidence the existence of a benevolent God.[53]


James Spiegel

While Spiegel’s and Plantinga’s approaches clearly differ, they do share two common points. First, they point to design as evidence of divine intelligence and purpose standing behind the workings of the universe. Second, they both maintain the inability of metaphysical naturalism to properly account for the design found in nature. Spiegel states,

When it comes to the basic principle that nature is uniform, the scientist, whether or not she believes in the supernatural, exercises faith, precisely because no empirical evidence sufficient to justify this belief can be provided.[54]

For Plantinga,

If you are dead certain naturalism is true, you will have to accept the cost, not only of rejecting this account of warrant, but of rejecting the very idea of proper function. A high price, no doubt—but no more than what a serious naturalism exacts.[55]

Ultimately, it is their differences that leads me to favor Plantinga’s approach. On the one hand, Plantinga is justifying inductive reasoning on the grounds that it represents a properly basic belief, which in turn points to intentional design on the part of a conscious agent. Spiegel seems to approach the matter from the completely opposite direction, using the existence of a benevolent God to justify inductive reasoning and our continued belief in the uniformity of nature. The problem with this is that Spiegel opens himself up to Hume’s familiar charge of circular reasoning. He has essentially used the uniformity of God’s nature, or UGN, to justify our belief in UN.  Spiegel’s Berkeleyian approach now has to address questions about the uniformity and benevolence of God’s nature. Specifically, how do we know that God’s past benevolence will continue into the future? Additionally, if we are going to argue that a failure of the uniformity of nature would be irreconcilable with the benevolent nature of God, then by the same logic we could reason that the existence of evil is irreconcilable as well. As theists, we know that the existence of evil is not incompatible with the existence of God. So, why should we suppose that the existence of dis-uniformity would? Because he doesn’t invoke the existence of God to justify inductive reasoning, Plantinga’s simplicity is to be preferred.


I began this paper by stating that the problem of induction was possibly a more troubling idea for the Christian than it ever was for the scientist – at least this has been the claim of scientific and metaphysical naturalists alike. My hope is that by facing the problem head on and seeing it for what it is, we have actually reversed that claim and demonstrated that it is more problematic for the atheist. Inductive reasoning provides a compelling premise in our overall argument for an intelligently designed universe.

[1] This paper will limit its focus to what has come to be called the old riddle of induction. The new riddle of induction, which deals with the question of what makes a property projectible, is not pertinent to my overall purpose of using inductive reasoning to point to the existence of God.

[2] Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 171.

[3] I’m thinking here of Popper’s attempt to account for scientific knowledge on non-inductive grounds. Popper accepted Hume’s idea that inductive reasoning was completely without justification and maintained that scientists need only use deductive inferences. While it is not possible to prove a scientific theory true on the basis of limited observation (by induction), it is possible to prove a scientific theory false (by deduction).

[4] Antony Flew, Hume’s Philosophy of Belief: A Study of His First Inquiry (New York: Routledge Press, 2013), 80. Newton’s work was published in 1687, a few decades before the birth of Hume. His comments are quite sophisticated, anticipating some of the later discussion among philosophers of science wrestling with Hume’s writings on induction.

[5] Samir Okasha, Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 24.

[6] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Millican (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 18.

[7] Okasha, Philosophy of Science, 27.

[8] Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Overland Park, KS: Press, 2011), 44-45, Kindle.

[9] Richard Swinburne, introduction to The Justification of Induction, ed. Richard Swinburne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 6-7. Total relevant knowledge would include anything that might affect the probability of the conclusion. While “all swans are white” is a common example of inductive reasoning, it actually represents a bad inductive conclusion. Given what was known prior to Captain Cook’s discovery of black swans, an induction based upon species coloration had a high probability of error. Even at that time it was general knowledge that in multiple species of animals, color is a common variable characteristic.

[10] Robert J. Fogelin, “Hume’s Scepticism” in The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. David Fate Norton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 95.

[11] Hume, Enquiry, 138.

[12] Alexander Rosenberg, “Hume and the Philosophy of Science,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hume, ed. David Fate Norton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 77.

[13] Hume, Enquiry, 26.

[14] Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 126.

[15] A. J. Ayer, Hume: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 91; Flew, Hume’s Philosophy of Belief, 70, 88. The argument that follows is largely built upon the common flow of Flew and Ayer’s arguments. I will admit that I am clearly using observations by Flew, Ayer, and Russell (a bit later) in a manner that they would likely find unacceptable. However, my point is that even in the writings of some of the most well-known atheists, we can find elements that both undermine Hume’s thesis and, when properly understood, set us on a path to find evidence of theistic design in nature.

[16] Hume, Enquiry, 30.

[17] Ayer, Hume, 86

[18] Hume, Enquiry, 32.

[19] Ibid., 118.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Rosenberg, “Hume and the Philosophy of Science,” 76.

[22] Hume, Enquiry, 118

[23] Flew, Hume’s Philosophy of Belief, 71.

[24] For example, logical positivism has its roots in Hume’s empiricism. It is easy to see Ayer’s verification principle as a natural outgrowth of Hume’s argument regarding inductive reasoning.

[25] Ibid., 88. It seems that Flew has included a subtle critique of his colleague Russell, who put the principle of induction forth to serve as the hidden premise in every inductive argument. In this way, Russell seemed to be attempting to make inductive reasoning logically conclusive, by converting it to a deduction.

[26] Russell, Problems, 50-51.

[27] Ibid., 51.

[28] Ayer, Hume, 87

[29] Flew, Hume’s Philosophy of Belief, 79.

[30] Russell, Problems, 48.

[31] Plantinga, Warrant, 108.

[32] Ibid., 112.

[33] Ibid., 111-112.

[34] Russell, Problems, 53.

[35] Ibid., 51.

[36] Ibid., 52.  Russell’s argument that we must accept the principle of induction a priori or embrace total skepticism is not without contention. Russell states that “we must either accept the inductive principle on the ground of its intrinsic evidence or forgo all justification of our expectations about the future (56).” Paul Edwards argued that it was not necessary to embrace a non-empirical principle, arguing instead that we can provide justification for induction without begging the question. See Paul Edwards, “Russell’s Doubts About Induction,” in The Justification of Induction, ed. Richard Swinburne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 19-25.

[37] Hume, Enquiry, 14.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 40.

[40] Fogelin, Hume’s Scepticism, 112.

[41] Plantinga, Warrant, 136.

[42] Ibid., 122.

[43] Ibid., 123.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 126.

[46] Ibid., 195.

[47] A case he makes in Warranted Christian Belief.

[48] Ibid., 214. Plantinga considers this to be a version of Thomas Aquinas’s Fifth Way, and at this point quotes Aquinas at length: “The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.” As part of his overall argument, Plantinga agrees with the claim of Richard Dawkins that evolution is a “blind watchmaker,” arguing that evolution cannot produce design without the assistance of a divine watch-maker.

[49] He is constructing an argument based upon how he believes Berkeley would have responded to Hume. Even though Berkeley was alive at the time Hume first published his thoughts on induction, he never specifically addresses it in his writings.

[50] James Spiegel, “A Berkeleyan Approach to the Problem of Induction,” Science & Christian Belief 10, no. 1 (April 1998): 77

[51] Ibid., 78.

[52] Ibid. Here he is quoting from Siris.

[53] Spiegel, 79.

[54] Ibid., 80.

[55] Planting, Warrant, 213. He follows this up rather nicely by asserting, “the way to be a naturalist in epistemology, is to be a supernaturalist in ontology.”

Ethical Hypocrites?


Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe

My commentary on a recent article I ran across.  

“Dennis Prager Doth Protest Too Much,” by Jeff Jacoby

The Boston Globe, 23 October 2016 (view article here)

How should we view ethicists and moral experts who fail to live up to their own standard of ethics? Does it discredit the moral views they espouse?

For moral and religious leaders, this past presidential election was a challenge. Conservative Christians were faced with having to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. On the Democratic side, the candidate not only stood opposed to the vast majority of views that Christians hold dear (i.e. abortion, gay marriage, immigration, etc.), but her campaign was mired in accusations of corruption and abuse involving both her and the former president. On the Republican side, the candidate was beset with recriminations of sexual harassment, adultery, and financial misconduct. What was a good Christian to do? Pick the lesser of two evils and hope for the best? Or, vote for a third party candidate and potentially hand the election to Clinton? Six months into the Trump presidency, and it’s obvious which path most Christians chose. Following the example of prominent Christians who publicly endorsed Trump, as well as conservative leaders such as Dennis Prager, evangelical Christians overwhelming voted for Trump.

Jeff Jacoby finds this troubling. Dennis Prager does not. Dennis Prager is a conservative


Dennis Prager

radio talk show host and nationally syndicated columnist. Jacoby describes him as “an important ethicist on the Jewish right” whose work has focused “on goodness and decent values as the most important ingredients in a healthy society.” Jacoby, himself a syndicated conservative columnist, criticized Christian and conservative leaders for being hypocritical. His basis for such an accusation? Many of these Trump supporters, were the same ones who declared Bill Clinton unfit for office back in the late 90s, and for virtually the same behavior.

While Jacoby did not name Prager in his original column denouncing “those in the highest ranks of the religious right,” in this article he responds to Prager’s claim that the accusation of pharisaism was an expression of gratuitous hatred. Jacoby is convinced that integrity and decency are indispensable qualities for those in leadership. Speaking in terms that he knows Prager will understand, he makes reference to Deuteronomy 16: 18-20, pointing out that God charged Israel with appointing judges and officers who were impartial, incorruptible and righteous. In supporting Trump, Jacoby sees Prager clearly violating this principle. And the result? When those who stand for morality support candidates who violate practically every standard of good character and decency, they damage their own reputation and influence. Jacoby fears that such inconsistency ultimately undermines the moral message of these leaders.

But is Jacoby’s fear misguided? Does the inconsistency of Christian leaders supporting


Mark Coppenger of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Trump serve to impeach their testimony as moral authorities and undermine their message? While Jacoby’s reasoning is based upon an ad hominin argument, a noted fallacy, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he is wrong. Mark Coppenger points out in Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians, “if someone proposes to instruct others in how to live, his behavior is fair game for scrutiny.” But, while examining the moral credentials of an ethicist is valid, it cannot be said to carry the argument. Jacoby is right that the man on the street may well conclude that these moral leaders have damaged their authority, and that is unfortunate. But his inference that their moral message may also be damaged is a leap.

Here is the reality: Christians are not only capable of hypocrisy, we should expect it. At the heart of the Christian ethic is the message that humans are fallible creatures. It is not possible for us to live up to the moral standards that God sets out in his word, and inscribes upon our hearts. This shouldn’t surprise us, given how every moral example put forth in the Bible (with the exception of Christ) suffered from moral failure. But our ethic is not truly about living up to a standard of what is right; it’s about receiving God’s forgiveness and allowing him to live through us. So while some may be disappointed in those who threw their support behind Donald Trump, they shouldn’t be too quick to cast aspersions. After all, they were imperfect people, in imperfect circumstances, making an imperfect choice. Ultimately, in a fallen world we shouldn’t put our confidence in fallen people. We can, however, put our confidence in God and the truths expressed in his Word. As such, Prager does not view his own support of Trump, and prior condemnation of Bill Clinton, as hypocritical. He views it as standing up for principles greater than any one individual. According to him, “defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the left is also a principle.” In fact, Prager calls it a higher principle.

The Age of Twidiocy


I wish I could take credit for coining this term, but I can’t. Driving in my car, listening to the news about the President’s latest Tweets, the word twidiot came to mind. Now please, don’t get upset. I am not calling the president an idiot. I am also not getting ready to play armchair psychologist and diagnose him as suffering from some form of mental disorder. It was all of the hoopla associated with the President’s Tweets that triggered my moment of genius. Unfortunately, a simple Google search revealed that I was clearly not as original as I imagined. Twidiot is already a part of the vernacular, albeit not well known.  The Urban Dictionary defines it as “Someone who twitters constantly, usually about insignificant or trifling events.” By definition, that would make the President a twidiot. Sorry, Mr. President. But don’t worry, you are not alone. It turns out we’re all twidiots.


Why are we so surprised that anyone, especially a 70 something year old man, would be Tweeting such inanity? Isn’t that what people do on Twitter? Somehow, the media is acting as if the President is the only person to ever act like an imbecile on social media. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter, cyberspace is rife with opportunities for the masses to unleash their distinct brands of verbal diarrhea. All one has to do is scroll through the history of tweets from any well known celebrity to prove my point.


Social platforms give everyone the ability to instantly vent or pontificate about whatever foolishness comes to mind.


And let’s be honest, we are all prone to outlandish and vapid thoughts.


There are a great many things that come to my mind throughout the day – most of them ridiculous and juvenile. Fortunately for me, I don’t have a Twitter account, and never will. It provides me the luxury of reflecting upon, and ultimately censoring, the rubbish that never turns out to be as profound as I’d like to think. But if I did have a Twitter account, I’ve no doubt that it would inevitably reveal that I too am a Twidiot.


Can We Know Good Apart from God?


The following is my review of Michael Shermer’s book, The Moral Arc: How Science Makes us Better People. The book was a gift from one of my professors at Southern and sat on my shelf for nearly a year before I decided to take on this review. I must admit that after my initial read, I was very troubled about the potential impact this book might have in Christian circles (especially among young believers heading off to college). I found Shermer’s arguments compelling, and his overall thesis challenging to my own faith. That doesn’t happen often, so it had me concerned. This is not a subject that should be taken lightly for Christian educators and pastors. If we fail to confront the moral claims of the new atheists (Shermer is not alone in his argument that objective moral values can exist apart from God and his message is becoming increasingly prevelant), the Church runs the risk of becoming irrelevant in the eyes of the educated world. We can’t let that happen. Taking on Shermer’s book is no small task, but I can assure you that we have nothing to fear from his claims. As is the pattern with most of the work being generated by popular atheist authors, its bark is much worse than its bite. 

It used to be that if you found yourself reading a book that argued for the existence of universal, objective moral values, then you were likely reading something written by a theist. In his classic work Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, atheist J. L. Mackey opens with the definitive assertion, “There are no objective values.”[1] Perhaps no other philosopher better articulated the connection between moral objectivism and belief in God.

If we adopted moral objectivism, we should have to regard the relations of supervenience which connect values and obligations with their natural grounds as synthetic; they would then be in principle something that a god might conceivably create; and since they would otherwise be a very odd sort of thing, the admitting of them would be an inductive ground for admitting also a god to create them.[2]

MoralArc deep gray metallicFor Mackie, the only way to avoid this problem would be to adopt ethical subjectivism. Oh, how times have changed. Michael Shermer represents a growing trend among contemporary atheists, who argue for ethical naturalism (the view that ethics can be understood in terms of natural science). It is a trend that threatens to undermine one of the strongest arguments for theism: The moral argument for the existence of God. In The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People, Shermer, an atheist, makes the claim that morality is not relative, and moral judgments are not arbitrary.[3] Universal, objective moral values exist, and are not the result of religion; they are the result of secular forces emerging from the Age of Reason, namely, science and reason.  While morality has long been the province of religion, according to Shermer, it now belongs to science. The new moral authority in this world is not the minister wearing a collar, but the scientist in a lab coat.  No longer is science confined to simply describing how the world functions and how we live, it can now inform us on how we should live. The goal of this paper is to provide an overview of Shermer’s argument, pointing out what I believe to be its major weaknesses.

Clearing a Humean Hurdle

Before attempting to construct a system of morality based entirely upon the scientific method and empirical data, Shermer needs to address what is commonly referred to as the naturalistic fallacy. Is it possible to derive an “ought,” a statement about how we should behave, from an “is,” an observation about how we do behave? Shermer concedes that science has traditionally steered clear of morality.

. . . most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be. This is a mistake.[4]

The great debate in philosophy is whether Hume, for which the distinction first receives attention (often referred to as Hume’s Law), actually held it to constitute an unbridgeable gap. Shermer addresses this issue in the very first chapter of the book, and rightly so. For if the naturalistic fallacy establishes that observations about the way things are have nothing to say about the way things should be, then his whole enterprise fails and science cannot play a role in determining moral values.

Not surprisingly, Shermer doesn’t agree that the naturalistic fallacy actually constitutes a fallacy. Giving considerable attention to what Hume actually says, Shermer quotes him at length.


David Hume

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d,
that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning. . . when of a sudden I am surpris’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Many would agree with Shermer that Hume is not saying that a leap from “is” to “ought” is impossible, simply that it must be made carefully, with adequate justification.[6] In other words, when shifting from observation to valuation, reason and evidence must be provided.[7] Otherwise, one would simply be asserting opinion and preference. Shermer provides an example to make his point,

If you agree that it is better that millions of people no longer die of yellow fever and smallpox, cholera and bronchitis, dysentery and diarrhea, consumption and tuberculosis, measles and mumps, gangrene and gastritis, and many other assaults on the human body, then you have offered your assent that the way something is (diseases such as yellow fever and smallpox kill people) means we ought to prevent them through vaccinations and other medical and public health technologies.[8]

But in justifying his use of science to make moral valuations, Shermer has fallen prey to what Hume is actually cautioning against. Hume is calling out the imperceptible shift that both scientists and ethicists are prone to make, and Shermer’s own example highlights this error. The true shift from “is” to “ought” is not in wanting to stop millions of people from dying of terrible diseases. Who wouldn’t want that? The shift is in making the valuation that diseases are “bad things” and that people dying is a “moral evil.” On what basis is this valuation made?[9] From where does he get the ideas of good and bad? As Hume says, we cannot deduce the non-material (such as moral valuations) from something that is material – the two are entirely different. The imperceptible shift that Shermer makes, and fails to justify, is from the observational fact that people die every day from disease, to the valuation that we ought to view this as wrong.

It isn’t surprising that Shermer feels the need to do this, or that he is able to make moral valuations. Epistemologically speaking, because all human beings are made in the image of God, all human beings (including the atheist) can know the difference between good and bad. They are able to see the world as it is, and recognize how we ought to respond. Not even Hume would deny this. However, ontologically speaking, upon what is this knowledge based?[10] Whenever the shift is made from is to ought, epistemological assertion is not enough; ontological justification must be provided.

For the theist, this shift is explained; such valuations are made against, and grounded in, a transcendent moral standard of right and wrong. But how do the atheist and scientist justify such a shift? What standard are they using to make this determination? The scientist can point out what is happening, even offer ideas on how to stop what is happening (as science rightly does), but she cannot sneak in her valuation that natural processes are either good or bad, without shifting to an non-material explanation. In the absence of such an explanation, her valuation is reduced to mere opinion or preference. Of course, admitting that would be to admit that moral valuations are not objective – something Shermer does not want to do. Philosopher Rachel Cohon states, “It is not simply by reasoning from the abstract and causal relations one has discovered that one comes to have the ideas of virtue and vice; one must respond to such information with feelings of approval and disapproval.”[11] The issue is identifying where these moral sentiments originate. How can we assign moral properties to non-moral observations? For the Christian, the answer is obvious: the standard of moral goodness is grounded in God. For Shermer, he just assumes that we already know what is good and bad, without explaining where he derives such notions. Hume’s guillotine claims another victim. Unfortunately, Shermer doesn’t see the problem. He has stated elsewhere,

The Is-Ought problem is itself a fallacy. Morals and values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing. Before we abandon the ship just as it leaves port, let’s give science a chance to steer a course toward a destination where scientists at least have a voice in the conversation on how best we should live.[12]


Michael Shermer

Moral Improvement as an Empirical Fact

Believing he has adequately addressed the issue of the possibility of ethical naturalism, Shermer begins constructing his moral system on a key observational fact: the world is becoming an increasingly moral (and less violent) place. He believes this to be “the most moral period in our species’ history,” readily acknowledging that many will find such a claim to be absurd.[13] If the mainstream media is to be believed, we appear to be on the brink of destruction (and apparently Donald Trump is to blame). Shermer reminds us, and rightly so, that the media focuses on what brings in the highest ratings, asserting that the reason the negative gets so much attention is that it is so uncommon. Much of The Moral Arc is focused on proving this overall point, and Shermer has plenty of statistics to back up his argument. Take terrorism for example. Doesn’t the rise in terrorist activity refute the idea that the world is becoming less violent? Shermer cites that 13,700 people die each year in the United States from homicide. Compare that with the 340 people who died in the 38 years prior to 9/11, and the 33 that have died since (these statistics are based on data at the time of publication), and the situation is not as dire as it first seems.[14] Shermer adds that violent crime rates in major US cities have fallen by as much as 75%, the overall rate of rape has decreased by 58% since 1995, and domestic abuse has fallen 21 % nationally.[15] And what about war? Shermer states that it’s simply not true that more people are dying today from state sponsored conflicts than in the past, especially when computed “as a percentage of the population killed.”[16]  Then there are the many advances in civil rights, treatment of women, gay rights, animal rights, the reduction in human trafficking, the rise in liberal democracies, and a decrease in the number of people living in poverty.  Of course, all of this invites the question, why? Why are we becoming less violent? For Shermer, the answer is obvious: we are becoming more moral, and the clear cause of this moral progress is scientific rationalism.

I demonstrate that the arc of the moral universe bends not merely toward justice, but also toward truth and freedom, and that these positive outcomes have largely been the product of societies moving toward more secular forms of governance and politics, law and jurisprudence, moral reasoning and ethical analysis.[17]

Evolutionary Biology as a Means of Explaining Moral Improvement

Essential to Shermer’s theory of scientific morality, are the notions of survival and flourishing, which he sees as part of human nature. Humanity has an instinctive drive to survive, the result of evolutionary biology. Because this is part of our essence, hardwired into our DNA, it is universal and inalienable. As such, it’s not relative, or based upon a particular culture or period of time; it is firmly entrenched in who we are.[18]  Therefore, as Shermer sees it, the most fundamental right is the freedom to pursue survival and flourishing. This, however, is not something that should be viewed in terms of the community as a whole. For Shermer, this is an individual right. When we link morality to what is good for the group, morality is relative to what the group decides, and individuals are sacrificed for the sake of the many (which is why he sees ethical systems such as utilitarianism as deficient). “We are first and foremost individual within social groups and therefore ought not to be subservient to the collective.”[19] This in turn leads Shermer to conclude that the personal autonomy of the individual is the standard by which all actions are judged as right or wrong. “Do they increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings?”[20] This is the fundamental moral principle that science produces.

The Scientific Method as a Means of Explaining Moral Improvement


Steven Pinker

But doesn’t this simply result in ethical egoism and social anarchy, with everyone living and making choices on the basis of their own needs? At first, yes. We come into this world selfish, but based upon our interactions with other people, along with our rational reflection upon those relations, we evolve toward what is beneficial to all. Much of Shermer’s thinking is based upon Steven Pinker’s analysis in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.

If the members of species have the power to reason with one another, and enough opportunities to exercise that power, sooner or later they will stumble upon the mutual benefits of nonviolence and other forms of reciprocal consideration, and apply them more and more broadly.[21]

Here, through a process of trial and error (not unlike the scientific method), a secondary moral principle emerges: reciprocity and mutual beneficence. In a strange way, looking out for our own selfish interests leads to us helping others. Shermer refers to this as reciprocal altruism: we help ourselves by helping others. In this sense, humans are not altruistic for the sake of altruism, but rather because it “pays” to help others.[22] Shermer draws insight from moral philosopher Adam Smith (known mostly for his writings on capitalism). These ideas of reciprocity and mutual beneficence are reflected in Smith’s two great works. First, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith states,

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him.[23]

In his later work, Wealth of Nations, Smith again echoes this sentiment.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantage.[24]

It is important to note here, that Shermer’s views have evolved from his previous work on objective moral values. In The Science of Good and Evil, Shermer provides an entirely evolutionary account of morality, where certain characteristics and traits (such as beneficence and altruism) become dominant (and thereby firmly entrenched in human nature) through the process of natural selection.[25] The change here is subtle, and more so a matter of emphasis for Shermer. Instead of having evolutionary biology determine which characteristics survive, elevating them to the status of being “good,” these values emerge through a de facto scientific process of trial and error. It is then human reason that identifies these values as the most rational means of survival. So while evolutionary biology supplied the foundational drive to “thrive and survive,” it does not provide the objective moral values of reciprocity and beneficence. What is good and moral in Shermer’s system, is simply a matter of what works for human flourishing. I am convinced that Shermer makes this shift in emphasis as an attempt to circumvent the primary criticism of any evolutionary account of moral values, namely, that it leads to ethical skepticism. If objective values have arisen from an evolutionary process, then they are arbitrary and could just as easily have turned out to be different.[26] Ultimately, Shermer fails to escape this criticism, as his moral values still ultimately originate through a process of random mutation. Again, we find ourselves asking the same question we did when considering Shermer’s response to the is-ought fallacy: why should we consider these values “good,” when they just as easily could have been entirely different?

The Age of Reason as a Means of Explaining Moral Improvement

This development toward a more benevolent society slowly evolved over the course of human history, with sporadic and intermittent success. However, Shermer believes that following the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason), this process of moral development accelerated greatly, especially as humanity began to depend less and less on superstition and religious belief, and more and more on science and reason. To illustrate this point, Shermer uses the medieval example of burning witches, which he refers to as the Witch Theory of Causality. People burned witches, not because they were blood-thirsty, but because they had a faulty understanding of the universe. Witches were burned because people believed they caused bad things to happen in the world. In other words, these immoral actions were the direct result of faulty causal reasoning. “My point here is that beliefs such as witchcraft are not immoral so much as they are mistaken.”[27] Magical and supernatural superstition is based upon uncertainty and unpredictability. The scientific revolution led the drive to better understand our world, ultimately disproving the witch theory of causality (as well as countless other errors of understanding).



The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire explicated the problem succinctly: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” One path (among many) to a more moral world is to get people to quit believing in absurdities. Science and reason are the best methods for doing that.[28]

The scientific revolution and the Enlightenment led people to question Christianity’s emphasis on the Bible as the ultimate authority, and instead check assumptions on the basis of rational reflection and empirical data. For Shermer, the Age of Reason was the age when “humanity was born again, not from original sin, but from original ignorance and dependence on authority and superstition.”[29]

This emphasis on science and reason has in turn led to better education, increased literacy, better living conditions, and ultimately less crime and violence against other people. As a result, we are more rational than at any other time in our history. Shermer cites evidence demonstrating that the average IQ has risen 30 points over the last 100 years (at a rate of 3 points per year). The specific rise is in abstract reasoning. “I claim that our improvement in abstract reasoning generally has translated into a specific improvement in abstract moral reasoning, particularly about other people who are not our immediate kith and kin.”[30] Science has increased our rational ability to better consider the needs and perspectives of others. For Shermer, this is an essential skill in the process of reciprocity and mutual beneficence.

No doubt, the influence of science has been great, and the subsequent gains to humanity significant. Unfortunately, what Shermer fails to do in touting the values of science and reason, is analyze the environment that gave rise to these values. The drive to understand our world and use our rational faculties to a greater extent did not arise in a vacuum. It is far beyond the scope of this paper to present an argument detailing Christianity’s contributions to the birth of the scientific movement. However, all that is truly sufficient here is to disprove the negative assertion that Shermer is making. The fact is that science was born in a Christian culture, that the first scientists were largely Christian, and that the Church encouraged study of the created order in order to achieve greater understanding of God (a value they took from the Bible). While these facts do not prove a direct causal link, it makes it significantly more difficult to maintain, as Shermer does in the next section of his book, that Christianity was an obstacle to scientific progress.

The Failure of Religion to Contribute to Moral Progress


Galileo before the inquisitor.

Shermer spends a great deal of the time challenging the assumption that religion is the source of moral value and the best facilitator of moral development. While he acknowledges that religion can and does motivate people to do good works, he is convinced that religion is the primary contributor to moral regress. To demonstrate, he examines the biblical record of Christianity, declaring the Bible to be one of the most immoral books in history. Just as we see many things we dislike in modern Islam tracing back to the teachings of the Quran, Shermer points out that most of the disagreeable things that society has condemned today, can be found commanded in the Bible.

The handful of positive moral commands in the Old Testament are desultory and scattered among a sea of violent stories of murder, rape, torture, slavery, and all manner of violence . . .[31]

Shermer argues that when Christians hold up the Bible as the ultimate moral standard, they are conveniently overlooking the record of the text. The Bible, as characterized by Shermer, endorses slavery, the selling of virgin daughters, the killing of headstrong children, the stoning of homosexuals, the condemnation of interracial marriages, and the suppression of women’s rights. When Christians complain that such a characterization is unfair, Shermer adds that they are conveniently overlooking the record of history. The Bible was used by devout Christians to justify slavery in the South, stand in the way of racial desegregation, argue against women’s suffrage, and condemn gay marriage. In response to those who would argue that these were all textual misinterpretations on the part of the faithful, Shermer wonders why God’s word wasn’t more specific. If the Bible espouses a radical ethic, wonders Shermer, then why doesn’t it categorically denounce slavery? If it had just been clearer, maybe a little more emphatic, then generations could have been spared this immoral practice. “The kind of moral clarity one might expect to find in a book purported to be the final authority on the subject is nowhere to be found . . .”[32] Arguing largely against Dinesh D’Souza’s claim that Christianity has been a major contributor to the moral progress that we see in Western society, Shermer writes,

D’Souza’s claim that the Bible points toward equality is especially nonsensical in light of the fact that slaves remained slaves for eighteen more centuries, and women remained little more than property for nineteen more centuries in Christian countries around the world. Clearly, even if Paul’s message were interpreted to mean that we’re all equal, absolutely no one took it seriously.[33]

It is not surprising that Shermer shows such a lack of understanding and scholarship when it comes to representing the Bible, even given his evangelical past. It’s a common tactic on the part of atheists to paint the Bible in as negative a picture as possible. Take for instance the issue of slavery, for which Shermer dedicates an entire chapter. It is simply not the case that the biblical practice of indentured service was anything like southern slavery. Servant-hood in the Old Testament was a voluntary arrangement that served primarily as a means of debt repayment. Experientially, it was on the level of paid employment.[34] Anyone taking the time to study the text would see that it was far from the barbarism to which Shermer equates it. Given that the Old Testament was written a very long time ago, in a culture very different from the present, and in an ancient language, would it be too much to ask that it be approached with the same care and scholarship that would be taken in approaching any other ancient work? It is unlikely that Shermer would approach Aristotle’s Physics or Copernicus’s Revolutions with such lack of scholarship. But then, treating the biblical text fairly wouldn’t fit his purpose.

In light of how Shermer views the morality of the Bible, it is only natural to find him concluding that today’s society is morally better. According to Shermer’s thesis, the reason the Bible does not condemn slavery, is because it reflects the values and moral beliefs that were prevalent at the time it was written. The Bible reflects a pre-enlightenment stage of moral development. And because the Church is continually struggling to maintain this antiquated scriptural tradition, it is more often than not a late adopter of moral progress.

Once moral progress in a particular area is under way, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, women’s rights in the twentieth century, and gay rights in the twenty-first century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time.[35]

While Shermer doesn’t agree with fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens that religion poisons everything, he does believe it to be harmful enough to merit its elimination from society. He rounds out his critique of the Bible with a deconstruction of the Ten Commandments, which he sees as immoral and violating the liberties delineated in the US constitution.[36] In its place he offers an alternate, secular Ten Provisional Moral Principles.

The problem with any religious moral code that is set in stone is just that—it is set in stone. Anything that can never be changed has within its DNA the seeds of its own extinction. A science-based morality has the virtue of having built into it a self-correcting mechanism that does not just allow redaction, correction, and improvement; it insists upon it. Science and reason can be employed to inform—and in some cases even determine—moral values. Science thrives on change, on improvement, on updating and upgrading its methods and conclusions.[37]

It’s in this section of the book that we see one of Shermer’s greatest flaws revealed. Virtually every secular principle that he delineates is simply a restatement of a value or principle found in the Bible. For example, let’s evaluate what he refers to as The Responsibility and Forgiveness Principle:

Take full responsibility for your own moral actions and be prepared to be genuinely sorry and make restitution for your own wrongdoing to others; hold others fully accountable for their moral actions and be open to forgiving moral transgressors who are genuinely sorry and prepared to make restitution for their wrongdoing.[38]

Sound familiar? These are values that go all the way back to the Old Testament, the very one he referred to as the most immoral book in history. It also has the Gold Rule embedded within it – forgive others just as you would like them to forgive you. Next he presents The Golden Rule Principle: behave toward others as you would desire that they behave toward you. Again, Shermer is not even trying to hide where he gets this value from, changing only a few words from what Jesus originally said in the Gospels.  It’s amazing how far 2,000 years of moral progress has brought us! He accepts the Golden Rule because it’s essentially a principle of reciprocity and reciprocal altruism. Of course, although he elevates it to the level of moral principle, he argues that it’s in need of a correction. Shermer questions, “What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? What if you would not mind having action X done unto you, but someone else would mind it?”  In response, he offers The Ask First Principle: to find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first.[39] Unfortunately, Shermer fails to see that this is also covered under the original Golden Rule, which fundamentally asks people to never disregard how others would want to be treated. If you don’t want your preferences disregarded, don’t disregard the preferences of others. The fact that Shermer is so clearly borrowing moral values from the Bible, undermines his main assertions.  First, Shermer wants us to believe that moral values and behavior are improving, and yet he goes back to texts thousands of years old to borrow their values. Secondly, he wants us to believe that his provisional moral principles are the products of science and reason, and yet as we have seen, they clearly predate the Age of Reason. Going back to the start of this paper, I wondered where Shermer was able to get his valuation that diseases were bad and that saving lives was good. Now it is obvious. The reality is that Shermer gets his universal, objective moral values from the same place as the Christian: God. He is able to shift from “is” to “ought” on the basis of non-material moral standards, grounded in the nature of a transcendent, divine moral law giver. He is just not willing to admit it.


The remainder of the book is an application of his previously stated principles to the issues of gay rights, abortion, capital punishment and animal rights. While a full evaluation of everything Shermer addresses is simply not possible (the book exceeds five hundred pages and includes over a thousand footnotes, many of which extend the discussion), I have attempted to provide a response to the essential elements of his overall argument.  Ultimately, Shermer’s account of ethical naturalism is self-defeating. The idea that objective moral values exist, independent of God, is at odds with the very first moral principle that Shermer puts forth – that the personal autonomy of the individual is the standard by which all actions are judged as right or wrong. What does the individual do when this principle clashes with those that later emerge under Shermer’s account? There will inevitably be times when self-interest runs contrary to upholding an objective moral value. Given the fundamental premise of autonomy, the individual acting in violation of these other objective moral principles cannot be accused of having done something wrong. So, if upholding an objective moral principle is the right thing to do, and acting in such a way that violates an objective moral principle can also be the right thing to do, then Shermer has essentially laid out a relativistic moral system. So, why the pretense of claiming that moral values are objective and universal? Perhaps, it is simply a ruse designed to play upon our intuitions regarding moral objectivity and undermine the moral argument for the existence of God. Shermer’s system simply leads back to the place that J. L. Mackey indicated it would – moral subjectivism. Without God, objective moral values cannot survive.

Overall, The Moral Arc is well written, is considerably less acerbic than similar works written by contemporary atheists, and comes across as well documented and researched. Unfortunately, the book has more bark than bite. Its general size, the amount of data and statistics included, and its intellectually sober tone, should not intimidate the Christian reader. Instead, the Christian can give thanks that once again, atheism has proven that objective moral values cannot exist without reference to an objective reality beyond the material world. Rest assured, the moral argument for God’s existence is as formidable as ever.

[1]J. L. Mackey, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (London: Penguin Books, 1977), 15.

[2]J. L. Mackey, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 118.

[3]Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science Makes us Better People (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2015), 2.

[4]Michael Shermer, “The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality,” 2013: What Should We be Worried About Blog, February 12, 2013, accessed June 1, 2017,

[5]David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (London: John Noon, 1739), 335.

[6]Antony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 240-241.  Flew discusses the difference in interpretation, noting that some believe Hume to be saying it is not a fallacy. Of course others, take Hume to be saying that the world is forever divided into statements of is, and statements of ought, and that the former are statements of fact, and the latter statements of opinion.

[7]James Rachels, “Naturalism,” in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. Hugh LaFollette, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing , 2000), 75. Rachels takes the view that Hume was in fact making the claim that we can never move from an ought to an is, to which he responds, “Hume was wrong.” If our premises (based upon factual information) include information about a person’s relevant desires, then we may draw conclusions about what we ought to do.

[8]Shermer, The Moral Arc, 35.

[9]Rachels, “Naturalism,” 90. If I’m reading Rachels correctly, he is saying that scientific facts can very well inform us about what we should do, especially when the scientific information takes into consideration our own desires. Shermer certainly does this. Where he runs into trouble is when he seeks to place a moral value of good or bad, right or wrong on the action.

[10]Paul Copan, “God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality,” in The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 146.

[11]Rachel Cohon, “Hume’s Moral Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

[12]Michael Shermer, “The Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” 2013: What Should We be Worried About Blog, February 12, 2013, accessed June 1, 2017.

[13]Michael Shermer, “Morality is Real, Objective, and Natural,” Annals of New York Academy of Sciences 1385 (November 2016): 57.

[14]Shermer, The Moral Arc, 83

[15]Shermer, “Morality is Real,” 58.

[16]Shermer, The Moral Arc, 92

[17]Ibid., 3.

[18]Ibid., 13.


[20]Ibid., 14.

[21]Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking Press, 2011), 16. Pinker has actually stated that he considers Shermer’s book as a continuation of his own.

[22]Shermer, The Moral Arc, 39. It is this kind of thinking that leads Shermer to argue much later that a free market economy is the best economic means of furthering moral development in society.

[23]Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 34.

[24]Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: The Modern Library, 1937), 14.

[25]Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (New York: Times Books, 2004), 56.

[26]Copan, “God, Naturalism,” 152.

[27]Shermer, The Moral Arc, 114.

[28]Ibid., 7.

[29]Ibid., 147.

[30]Ibid., 25.

[31]Ibid., 156.

[32]Ibid., 197.

[33]Ibid., 165. See D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2008).

[34]Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 125.

[35]Ibid., 150.

[36] Shermer sees the Tenth commandment treating women as property, and the fifth commandment punishing descendants for the sins of their ancestors – something he states is intuitively immoral.

[37]Ibid., 180.

[38]Ibid., 183.

[39]Ibid., 180.

Serrano’s Piss Christ Reconsidered


Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, vandalized at a Paris exhibition.

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a 60 x 40 inch full color glossy photo of a plastic crucifix submerged in a container of the artist’s urine, was first displayed in 1988 at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The photo took first prize in the center’s annual competition, but immediately caused outrage among the Christian community. Its subsequent display at museums around the world has lead to protests, accusations of desecration, a reduction in funding for the


Ed Knippers

National Endowment for the Arts (the government agency that funded the SECCA competition won by Serrano), and acts of vandalism carried out against the controversial photograph.[1] While violence should never be condoned, it’s understandable why so many Christians are upset. What Christian could possibly view this so-called work of art as anything other than an offense against the faith? One would think, we would be hard pressed to find a single follower of Christ for whom this photo is deemed beautiful. And yet, this is exactly what we find in Christian artist Edward Knippers, who believes that after more than twenty-five years it’s time for the church to no longer view Piss Christ as sacrilegious, but rather as a statement of divine truth.[2]

How exactly does Knippers come to this conclusion? He begins by asking the reader to consider what she would think upon viewing the photograph without any prior knowledge of the fluid in which it is contained, or of the artist’s intention in creating the work. Under such conditions, Knippers cannot help but feel that she would consider it beautiful.

The image in and of itself is quite beautiful as we see a crucifix almost nostalgically glowing in a golden mist of timelessness.[3]

It’s only upon becoming aware of the title and the realization of what the fluid is, that one takes offense. Knippers describes it as a jolt to the emotions. In his own reflection on Piss Christ, philosopher Jorge J. E. Gracia states that this is because of how society views the act of deliberately urinating on another person or object. It’s considered an act of power, defiance and humiliation. It’s as if the one pissing is declaring the person or object as worthless and disposable, like piss.[4] It seems only natural for the viewer to conclude that this is exactly what Serrano is doing. But what if the viewer were to discover that this was not the artist’s intention? If this disturbing immersion was for a noble purpose, would it no longer be considered an offense? Knippers is not the first to make such a speculation. It’s entirely possible that Serrano is trying to make some statement about the trivialization and commercialization of the Christian faith. In this sense, he would be attacking the reduction “of one of Christianity’s most precious and seminal moments to a plastic trinket.”[5] That would mean that Serrano is not attacking the Christian faith, but rather the Christian community for the way they themselves have desecrated the image of Christ. Along these same lines, Serrano may be expressing his anger about corruption in the Catholic Church (the institution most commonly associated with crucifixes), acting in a manner not unlike Christ when he overturned tables in the temple and chased out the money changers. Wouldn’t we then have to view Piss Christ as a work of piety and righteous indignation?[6]

Even though Knippers considers these possibilities, in the end he dismisses the artist’s intention as unimportant. It wouldn’t even matter to Knippers if the artist was Catholic, or considered himself a Christian. What matters for Knippers is what Piss Christ comes to mean for him (and for Christians in general), independent of the artist’s actual purpose.

No matter what Serrano’s intent or what this piece has become through the crucible of the culture wars, at this distance in time, from all of the shouting and wounded feelings of hard fought battles, the Piss Christ has become for me an elegant statement of the Christian truth that should be at the heart of our contemplation . . . the fact that our dear Lord and Savior has come, and is here, to powerfully redeem the likes of us with his love.[7]

Knippers has come to view Serrano’s work as symbolic of the incarnation: Jesus left the splendor of Heaven to be immersed in the cesspool of earth, in order to sacrifice his life on the cross for a fallen and filthy world. In this way, Piss Christ is to be seen as a powerfully instructive tool aimed at shocking us out of our comfortable lives to “wrestle with the hard reality of what Christ has done for us.”[8]

Is Knippers correct in his interpretation? Given that Serrano has been largely silent regarding his intention, one might conclude that the meaning of this work is ambiguous. If this is the case, then Knippers is certainly justified in his postulation. It’s not



uncommon for artists to construct works that lend themselves to multiple interpretations. In a recent interview focusing on Piss Christ, the artist acknowledged that this was his goal.

I distrust anyone with a message. The best artistic intentions are usually cloaked in mysteries and contradictions. It wouldn’t be interesting for me if the art were not “loaded” in some way. I always say my work is open for interpretation and that’s why I prefer not to read many of the “interpretations” out there. Suffice it to say, the work is like a mirror, and it reveals itself in different ways, to different people.[9]

But Knippers is not premising his interpretation on the basis of ambiguity. He is declaring that Serrano’s intention makes no difference in how he interprets this photograph. In taking this approach, he is isolating it from the context in which it is necessarily embedded.

First, there is the context of the artist’s intention. While Serrano may have intended for it to be a debatable thing, the fact that it has outraged so many would seem to suggest that he has failed in his goal and “loaded” the work too heavily in the direction of desecration. Is this a surprise? There is nothing ambiguous in the title he has chosen. As Gracia points out, the title is not Piss on Christianity, or Pissed Christ.[10] Serrano entitled the work Piss Christ. There is simply no getting around the fact that Serrano has pissed on an image of Christ, and that alone is not easily separated from negative intention (especially given that he knew it would outrage people). Second, there is the context of the cultural reaction to the photo. To casually dismiss the perceptions of seemingly countless Christians worldwide (and quite a large number of non-Christians as well) and ask that they instead view it as an elegant statement of faith is ludicrous. Knippers is advocating a reckless hermeneutic. And because of this, I believe his interpretation is wrong.

This photo is disgusting and insulting. Given our society’s perception of what it means to urinate on someone or something, there is simply no other way to interpret it. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not instructive. Piss Christ should serve as a visual reminder of precisely why Christ came into this world. Even knowing that men would reject him, even knowing that they would mock his work on the cross, he still came. Though the world would piss upon it, the image of Christ’s unconditional love remains visible.

“. . . While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”[11]

[1] In 2011 a print of the photograph was destroyed by a mob of protesters in Avignon, France.

[2] Edward Knippers, “Serrano’s Piss Christ Reconsidered,” Critique, February, 2016, 8.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jorge J. E. Gracia, “On Desecration: Andres Serrano, Piss Christ,” Michigan Quarterly Review 52, no. 4 (Fall 2013): accessed October 15, 2016,;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0052.415;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1.

[5] Knippers, Piss Christ Reconsidered, 8.

[6] Gracia, On Desecration.

[7] Knippers, Piss Christ Reconsidered, 8.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Udoka Okafer, “Exclusive Interview with Andres Serrano, Photographer of Piss Christ,The Huffington Post, June 4, 2014, accessed on December 1, 2016,

[10] Gracia, On Desecration.

[11] Romans 5:8 (NASB).