I’m reading the 3rd edition (1999) of James Rachels’ widely-used undergraduate textbook The Elements of Moral Philosophy and have come to what I think is his metaethical position. Unfortunately I don’t think I understand it.
Rachels concedes that “Values are not the kinds of things that could exist in the way that stars and planets exist” (46). But that does not entail that “Our ‘values’ are nothing more than the expression of our subjective feelings” (46). It is at least possible that “Moral truths are truths of reason; that is, a moral judgment is true if it is backed by better reasons than the alternatives” (46).
I’m not sure what that means, and unfortunately Rachels doesn’t offer much more in the way of explanation or argument. It sounds like Rachels is saying that the reasons for a moral judgment are its truth-condition. But I would have thought that a proposition has to have a truth-condition before there can be reasons for thinking that it is true or false. As a side note, if Rachels does identify evidence with truth-conditions, is that form of verificationism?
Maybe Rachels is only saying that all and only the true moral judgments will have the best supporting reasons. But then he hasn’t explained the truth-conditions at all.
How am I supposed to take Rachels’ claim?
I am currently reading through Brannon Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son. Ellis’s thesis is, in part, that Calvin consistently defended the aseity of the Son by maintaining a distinction between two modes of predication relative to the triunity of God. The two ways of speaking, as noted throughout the text, are: essentially (as to essence) and relatively (as to personal distinctions). But Ellis equivocates, sometimes referring to a distinction between essential and personal modes, instead of essential and relative. My thought is that this equivocation invites problems, since, as it seems to me, a distinction between essential and personal predicates is unclear and difficult to maintain.
We might suppose that replacing relative with personal (as to person) allows us to name a rather more intuitive and more concrete distinction: essential oneness and personal threeness, and essential and personal ways of speaking about God. Relative to essence, in distinction from person, we affirm that there is one undivided, simple essence. But in order to respect the distinction between essential and personal language, we may either say only this, affirming the simple and numerical unity of the divine essence (little by way of tri-, much by way of -une), or we must affirm that there are also three essences, since something as to essence must be said relative to persons. But to affirm one essence and three essences is quite different from affirming that there is one essence that subsists in three hypostases or persons, since even if those persons possess the essence of themselves (even if they are a se, that is), they possess the one self-identical and undivided essence, not each one a unique essence. Nor is the one essence a fourth divine aseity, which is the complementary implication.
In terms of this essential/personal distinction, parallel oddities occur on the personal side. We affirm that there are three persons, and even that the persons are mutually identifying. That is, they are constituted by and known by their relations (generation and procession). A notion of a se personhood(s) is unintelligible. (Even the Father is the Father by virtue of being the Father of the Son.) But what may we say of personhood in terms of the unity of the Godhead? It is not within the traditional lexicon – or with only very few exceptions – to predicate one person and three persons. The notion of person as a subsisting relation itself precludes our speaking of a single person: what relationship would constitute this person? To whom would it relate? Who is the one person? And there is additional ambiguity in the sense that of persons it is on all accounts acceptable to predicate both in terms of oneness and in terms of threeness, or both in terms of unity and trinity. Speaking of the second person, we say that the Son is of the Father and that the Son is of the same essence as the Father. On both counts then, contrasting an essential mode of predication with a personal mode is problematic.
The two ways of speaking must be essentially and relatively. And to speak of the essence is to speak non-relatively, which is to say, where the essence is, it is of itself. And to speak relatively is to speak non-essentially: relations are not constitutive of the essence (nor is the essence possessed by virtue of relation, as Calvin contends), since this would be to say that deity itself is derived. Ellis wishes to say with Calvin that the three persons are “together,” he says, “the one self-existent God” (63).
The EPS has kindly posted “Necessity, Univocism, and the Triune God,” a response I wrote to Anderson and Welty’s much discussed “Lord of Noncontradiction.” I’ve interacted with their article numerous times here at P&T, but the piece for EPS is my most developed effort. I can’t help but think that in the end, my response boils down to simply pointing out the myriad complications that arise from claiming to speak of the God of the Bible without the aid of divine revelation. Historic Reformed theology has argued (1) that theology is only possible because God spoke first and true iff it depends upon that sovereign self-revelation of God, and consequently (2) that natural theology simply cannot speak truly of the God of the Bible. Van Til has sharpened considerably both claims: (1) he argues that all knowledge, not only theological knowledge, is true iff it depends on special revelation, and (2) that natural theology can only get us a finite God, one essentially inseparable from the creation, which is to say, any God but the triune, a se God of Scripture. Despite some renewed discussion of these issues (Plantinga’s “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology” and M. Sudduth’s text with the same title), I think these basic tenets of consistent Protestantism remain steadfast.
I’ve written a short piece on logic for Reformed Forum. Read it here.
My question is, what does it mean to glorify God? Or, what kinds of things glorify God? Do the good deeds of non-Christians glorify God? If not, do the good deeds of Christians glorify God, even though good works were prepared beforehand so that we would do them (Eph 2:10)? I was initially interested in the moral status of civic goods performed by Christians, such as restoring ‘urban beauty’. Also raised then is the question of the moral status of impersonal ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, of, for example, urban blight: what is the moral status of pollution or urban decay? Ought such things to trouble us in a moral sense? Does urban blight bring dishonor to God, and restoration bring him honor? This line of questioning can be expanded: does bad art dishonor God, and good art bring him glory? Is it possible to glorify God through the production of art or of ‘beautiful’ objects? What is the moral status of objects or of the making of them? Is it even legitimate to speak of the moral status of impersonal things? The technical question I will address is, specifically, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a thing’s glorifying God?
I have drawn a distinction between two ways in which this question may be answered, one in terms of glorifying God a se, the other in terms of glorifying God in covenant. I’ll address the former here, the latter down the road at some point.
The Glory of God A Se
My claim is this: If God is a se and self-consistent, a single sufficient condition for a thing’s glorying God is for a thing to be not God. (I’ll leave aside for now the question of whether God a se glorifies himself, which is why I haven’t called this a necessary condition.) That is, if God is a se and self-consistent, he exists necessarily as triune and personal rather than as abstract and impersonal; he is, we might say, a self-existent positive ontological fact: God is. And self-existence is exclusive to him. If all that is true, necessarily, all (other) things glorify him. Here’s a brief explanation.
If it is true that contingency cannot explain itself (the principle of sufficient reason), all contingent things are in some way derivative of and dependent upon the self-existent, triune, personal God. Therefore all things but God bring glory to God in the obvious sense that they ‘owe’ their existence to him. To put it perhaps crassly, God was ‘first’, and in the end, he’ll be the last one standing. “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom 11:36). In terms of moral properties, this would mean that both good and evil glorify God, that even sin glorifies God. I think this is uncontroversial.
Romans 9 is a great place to see this, but once we make an initial recognition of the fact, it appears all over Scripture, esp. on the cross. In Rom 9:17, Paul quotes Ex 9:16 to the effect that “for this very purpose” God “raised up” Pharaoh, “that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Romans 9:22 is also relevant:
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory . . .”
In these two verses, we see both specifically in terms of Pharaoh and broadly in terms of other agents of opposition, that God is glorified in wickedness.
Peter says at Pentecost that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” and that Jesus was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). If the lawless, wicked murder of Jesus was according to the definite plan of God, then is must also be the case that this wickedness glorifies God (see Eph 1).
If God is a se and self-consistent, he is, we might say, a self-existent ontological fact: God is. We’ve seen that this is borne out in history. The ontological sovereignty of God—longhand for aseity—is the backbone of history and redemption such that all things, good and evil, glorify God. Even when the sinner subjectively refuses to glorify God, if God is a se and self-consistent, and if Christ the Lord is the alpha and the omega, even in his subjective refusal, the sinner objectively glorifies God. Every knee will bow, and every tongue confess.
When we say that God is glorified by both good and evil, that is not to say that God is equally pleased by good and evil or that all creaturely actions regardless of moral considerations meet equally divine approval. Surely not. I hope soon to address this question, glorying God in covenant.