The Euthyphro Dilemma

No, this isn’t my next intrigue novel! This is a reference to one of Plato’s dialogs, where according to wikipedia Socrates asks,

“Is the pious (τὸ ὅσιον) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”

A more current monotheistic person would phrase the question like this: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”

Not only do I think that grace speaks powerfully to this question, but I think the question itself betrays the kind of mindset which rejects grace and which interprets the word and work of God from inside the prison of legalism. Let’s unpack this a bit together.

If the moral good is commanded by God because it is morally good, then there is a higher authority than God which God bows the knee to. In effect, the moral good is greater than God, because God lies under its authority and submits to its demands. To borrow St. Anselm’s idea, God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, and if the law is greater than God, then God is no longer God.

On the other hand, if the moral good is good because it is commanded by God, then God is like a cosmic despot who rules according to His capricious whim, and does whatever He likes. Principle and justice fly out the window, the moral good is defined only by what God wants. If God would like for someone to be murdered, or raped, then suddenly murder and rape become morally good, simply because God wants it to be so.

Clearly, I reject both of these options. Fortunately, grace offers us a different way to think about this.

Notice that this whole question hinges on the separation of moral good from aesthetic good. (You might want to review my thoughts about this here: Two Kinds of Good.) We imagine that for God the moral good and aesthetic good are separate, just like they are for us. God must want one, or he must want the other. Clearly this is not the case for God, because for Him what is right and what is beautiful flow equally from love.

The legalist loves this separation, because if God bows the knee to the moral good, he is free to serve the idol of the moral instead of the actual living God. After all, God also bows the knee in the same way. If God commands the moral good because it is moral, we can dispense with God and serve the true authority, which is the moral good. This is why legalism is idolatry – it sets the law above God, and divides moral good from aesthetic good. This is a comfort to the legalist, because from his cold isolation he must only adhere to a dead principle, and can dispense with all the mysterious vagaries of a relationship with a living being. The law is a simple and predictable idol, similar to a wooden block carved as an idol. We are free to be our own god bowing the knee to principle, just like we imagine God Himself does, when we make ourselves legalists.

The question of Euthyphro’s Dilemma only arises because we view the world from inside the prison of law. We interpret God’s actions from the place of the knowledge of good and evil. A thing is either good or evil, and God actions must be judged that way. It is as if we wear blue sunglasses, and everything is blue, and we cannot conceive of a world that is not blue. Grace disturbs us because it a sudden intrusion of life and color into our previously gray lifeless predictable world.

This is really quite profound, and we see Jesus using various parables and teachings to break the power of this kind of thinking over people. For example, look at the following:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or no you begrudge my generosity?’1 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” Matthew 20:1-16, ESV

What’s the problem the workers are complaining about? The master isn’t FAIR! We require justice! The master was doing what he wanted to do instead of doing what was fair, because he wanted to be gracious with what was his. Grace offends our sense of fairness. So God does what He wants; if we must say so, the good is good because He likes it. However, it isn’t that His version of the good transgresses the law, but rather his version of the good fulfills it and goes right past it. He gives aesthetic good beyond the point of what is deserved. His actions are both moral and desired, and offend the moral, because He acts only from love and seeks to break that which harms and imprisons.

In the universe of grace, there is no division between moral good and aesthetic good. God acts from love, and love rejoices with the truth. We may try to ask whether the demonstration of His love and grace constitutes an act that He wants over and against what is right, but He does not conform to such a grid. He acts only form love, and love is both the moral good AND the thing that He wants. If we live and think from the perspective of grace there is no such dilemma at all.

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  1. Another terrific post, thank you, I really appreciate your ideas and their expression, (“viewing the world from the prison of law” – exactly right, and our tragedy) and I borrow them happily for my small groups. Don’t worry about the car keys, there is no rush – they like being used for good analogies!

  2. Thanks Robin! You saw my post on Mockingbird? I have not quite become a raging kleptomaniac yet, but I thought that might be funny! I’m so glad you read this, sometimes I wonder when I do a post like this who ends up reading it through. I think it is actually an important issue and I think that the grace message answers it perfectly, and gives us a very solid and unique answer. I recently listened to a philosophy podcast about this little gem from Plato’s dialogs, and it occurred to me that grace actually has the answer to this.

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