The Euthyphro Dilemma: A Fatal Challenge to the Christian Worldview?

Perplexing scholars and laypersons since its inception, Plato’s famous quandary asks, “Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?” (Plato, Euthyphro 10a). Reformulating the question into contemporary monotheistic terms, Plato is asking, “Is an attribute or command moral because God values or commands it, or does God value an attribute because it is morally good and issue a command because it is morally right?”1 Essentially, the question is seeking to establish moral ontology, encompassing both axiology (what God values) and deontology (what God commands). If God values an attribute because it is “good,” then morality must encompass properties distinguishable from Him and exist as a transcendent standard.

However, if an attribute becomes “good” because God values it, then morality exists arbitrarily. Consequently, seemingly immoral actions and properties (e.g., rape, murder, and dishonesty) become moral if God desires them. Either alternative is problematic to Christian theism, as the first alternative constrains God’s nature, while the second renders His characteristics and commands arbitrary.2 Additionally, the second alternative seems to contradict our moral experience, as it is inconceivable to think of a situation in which a morally abhorrent action (e.g., child molestation) is “good.”3 Conversely, it is inconceivable to think of a situation in which a morally good attribute or action (e.g., liberty, justice, love, or self-sacrifice) would be considered abhorrent.

Primarily, the Euthyphro objection is a false dilemma. Since the query is not in the form of “A or not A,” there could always be a third possibility, and there is no logical reason to limit our alternatives to these two.4 Accordingly, Christian theism recognizes God’s immutable nature as the paradigm of goodness, providing both a standard of morality and a necessary foundation for divine commands. Elucidating this principle, Dr. Scott Rea comments, “The Bible makes a clear connection between God’s character and his commands. . . . Thus morality is not grounded ultimately in God’s commands, but in his character, which then expresses itself in his commands. . . . This solution avoids the charge of ethical voluntarism by linking God’s commands with his character.”5 Although the Euthyphro objection is reasonable under a model of theological voluntarism, the predicament is inoperative in the context of the Christian worldview. Since God’s will and actions necessarily reflect His character, it is logically incoherent to suppose God could approve of a morally abhorrent act, or value an immoral attribute.

  1. Actually, the Euthyphro Dilemma raises a similar question about piety or holiness, yet philosophers have long sought to apply the dilemma to morality itself.
  2. Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 191.
  3. Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King, “Introduction,” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough? A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics, ed. Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2009), 11.
  4. Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 356; Paul Copan, “The Moral Argument,” in Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources, ed. Khaldoun A. Sweis and Chad V. Meister (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 188; William Lane Craig, “The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again,” Reasonable Faith, January 04, 2015,; C. Stephen Evans, God & Moral Obligation (New York, NY: Oxford, 2014), 88-91.
  5. Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 25; 48.
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