Proposing a Divine Love Theory

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from Divine Love Theory: How the Trinity is the Source and Foundation of Morality
by Adam Lloyd Johnson

The Question at Hand

Celebrated contemporary philosopher John Searle writes that “for many of us, myself included, the central question in philosophy at the beginning of the twenty-first century is how to give an account of ourselves as apparently conscious, mindful, free, rational, speaking, social, and political agents in a world that science tells us consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical particles.”[1] The issue I’m considering in this book is how to give an account of an important part of our human experience: objective morality. All moral realists are convinced that objective moral truths do exist, but nonnatural realists and supernatural realists disagree as to what the best explanation is for their existence. How do we decide who’s correct?

Advocates on both sides of this disagreement agree that this issue should be evaluated abductively—that is, as an inference to the best explanation. David Baggett, a proponent of theistic moral theories, explains,

An inquiry into the “best explanation” invokes the process of abduction, a common form of reasoning that distinguishes itself from deduction in a few ways. Most importantly, whereas a deductive argument makes an effort at forging an airtight evidential connection between premises and conclusion, an abductive approach asks, less ambitiously, what the best explanation of the relevant phenomena is. It typically uses criteria like explanatory scope and power (along with plausibility, conformity with other beliefs, etc.) to narrow down the explanation candidates to the best explanation, and warrants, potentially anyway, to infer that the best explanation is likely the true explanation.[2]

Similarly, David Enoch, a proponent of nonnatural moral realism, argues that inference to the best explanation is a viable approach for this issue.[3] He explicitly notes the importance of plausibility when he writes, “The game being played is . . . that of overall plausibility points,”[4] and “the plausibility-points game is comparative: the view that we should endorse is the one that has—when all considerations are taken into account—the most plausibility points overall.”[5]

Here’s a simple example of how the process of abduction works. Let’s say you’re a farmer, your crops have produced a harvest ten times greater than you’ve ever seen, and you don’t know why this happened. Your friend Toni comes to you and presents a possible explanation: the weather conditions this year (sun, rain, wind, etc.) were just so perfect that they caused your crops to produce this tremendous amount. Another friend, Lenny, approaches you with an alternative explanation: a local scientist developed a new super-fertilizer and secretly put it on your crops to test its effectiveness. Now you have two explanations to consider. Which one best fits the evidence? It will take some work on your part to fully explore both explanations and see which one is most plausible and best fits the evidence.

This simple farmer example illustrates the process of abductive reasoning, which boils down to an inference to the best explanation. This is the abductive approach I will use in this book to evaluate my theory and Wielenberg’s theory. The question I’ve set out to answer is this: Which theory has more plausibility points, Wielenberg’s godless normative realism or my divine love theory?[6]

My Primary Argument

In this book I’ll attempt to explain how God is the source and foundation of objective morality. While this proposal, which I’ll refer to as my divine love theory, isn’t wholly unlike those made by others, it does provide further details that help shed light on the issue and has the potential to answer some of Wielenberg’s critiques of theistic moral theories. In particular, I’ll argue that the ultimate ground of objective morality is God’s trinitarian nature as found in, and expressed among, the loving relationships between the divine persons of the Trinity. I’ll then show how this theory is a more plausible explanation of objective morality than Wielenberg’s by pointing out the strengths of my theory and the weaknesses of his.

As for the order of this book, in part 2, I’ll present my divine love theory as a proposed explanation for the existence of objective morality, respond to several potential objections, and highlight several ways in which my theory is explanatorily superior to Wielenberg’s godless normative realism. In part 3, I’ll raise a metaphysical objection to Wielenberg’s theory: the bloated model objection. In part 4, I’ll raise an epistemological objection to Wielenberg’s theory: the lucky coincidence objection. Toward the end of both parts 3 and 4, I’ll show how Wielenberg has tried to turn the tables by claiming that theistic moral theories also face similar objections. However, in both cases I’ll argue that my theory overcomes these objections.

The uniqueness of this book is threefold. First, while many Christians ground objective morality in God’s nature, here I specifically propose that it’s grounded in the trinitarian aspect of his nature—that is, in the loving relationships between the persons of the Trinity. My divine love theory is similar to Robert Adams’s moral theory but includes several adjustments and one large addition. The large addition is that important truths concerning God’s triune nature are used to expand Adams’s theory in significant ways, shed greater light on the nature of morality, and more clearly show how trinitarian theism provides a better explanation for morality than Wielenberg’s godless normative realism. Second, while many have critiqued Wielenberg’s theory, several of the critiques I offer in this book are not found elsewhere. Third, this book is unique in that it provides the most extended responses in the literature to Wielenberg’s critiques of theistic moral theories, often utilizing truths concerning God’s trinitarian nature to build the responses. I’ll attempt to show that if God does in fact exist as three persons, then this truth nullifies several of Wielenberg’s key criticisms of theistic moral theories.

When it comes to moral theory, over the last few decades Christians have mostly focused on defending the notion that morality is objective, and rightfully so, as the relative morality of postmodernism has been predominant in our West- ern culture. However, as I showed above, belief in objective morality has made an incredible comeback in the early part of the twenty-first century. This resurgence could be part of Western culture’s recent yearning for objective truth in light of what many saw as political truth-spinning in the recent American presidential elections and the European Brexit controversy. Many of those who had promoted subjective and relative truth in the past have awoken to its ills and now herald the importance of objective truth while lamenting what they call our current “post- truth era.” Broadly speaking, then, there’s greater emphasis on objective truth in our culture right now, of which objective moral truth is but a subset. With moral issues taking the forefront in our society’s conversations (abortion, gender identity, same-sex marriage, the use of force by police, racism, etc.), the issue of how morality can be objectively real in the first place is especially pertinent.

There are many reasons to be thankful for this revival of objective truth and moral realism. One reason is that it has created an opportunity for Christians to join the conversation and advocate for important truths. However, it does mean that Christians now need to focus less on fighting for objective morality itself and spend more time arguing that God is the best explanation for objective morality. Christians need to move beyond merely fighting yesterday’s enemy of relative morality and focus their attention instead on defeating atheistic explanations of objective morality like Wielenberg’s.

Christians also need to move beyond merely fighting yesterday’s enemy of reductive materialism, the idea that all that exists is the physical material universe, and instead focus their attention on defeating nonnatural atheistic theories like Wielenberg’s godless normative realism. While reductive materialism still has plenty of adherents, that position is waning. Top-notch atheist philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and David Enoch have pointed out the weaknesses and absurdities of reductive materialism.[7] While it may be useful to refer to them at times as fellow combatants against reductive materialism, Christians must remember that their positions are also ultimately atheistic and thus are competitors to Christianity.

A Theological and Apologetic Approach

This book is both theological and apologetic. First, it’s a theological project in that in chapters 4 and 5, I attempt to explain how God’s trinitarian nature provides the source and foundation of objective morality. In this theological part of the book, I’ll assume without argument that God exists and the Bible is from him.[8] John Hare expresses the same assumptions at the beginning of his book God’s Command when he writes, “I myself am a Christian, and I have the conviction that God has spoken decisively in the Scriptures that Christians call ‘the Old and New Testaments.’”[9] Therefore, in my attempt to describe reality accurately, in this theological part of the book I’ll freely help myself to information from special revelation (Scripture) and also from general revelation (philosophy and human moral experience). The following brief but insightful guide- line from Keith Whitfield will direct my theological method: “While Scripture is the primary source of our theology, we recognize that the role reason and tradition play in our biblical interpretation remains fundamental to theological projects.”[10] This theological part is also tied to analytic philosophy in the sense that, because I work within this tradition, I’ll interact with analytic philosophers to help explicate my theory, and I’ll occasionally use the tools of analytic philosophy to understand and defend trinitarian theism.

Second, this book is apologetic because, starting in chapter 6 and continuing through the rest of the book, I’ll attempt to show that my divine love theory is a better explanation for objective morality than Wielenberg’s godless normative realism. Since Wielenberg and I both affirm objective morality, its existence will not be argued for but assumed. Thus the apologetic task will involve challenging Wielenberg’s proposal that objective morality can exist even if God does not and responding to his critiques of theistic moral theories.

If my divine love theory is true, or even close to true, then it would suggest that God is necessary for the existence of objective morality. Conversely, it would also suggest that if God doesn’t exist, then there would be no ultimate foundation for morality, and thus we should conclude that morality doesn’t exist objectively. Hence this apologetic part of the book, where my theory is compared and contrasted with Wielenberg’s, could be crafted as an argument for the existence of God as follows:

  1. There are objective moral truths.
  2. A trinitarian God provides the best explanation for objective moral truths.
  3. Therefore, a trinitarian God exists.[11]

As a theist, I believe that if God did not exist, then nothing else would either. Because God is a necessary being and thus exists in all possible worlds, I ultimately reject the notion of a possible world where humans exist and God does not. Mark Murphy explains well this theistic position:

Here is a very crude picture of how to think about counterfactual thinking. You start with the way the actual world is, and then you ask what would be the case if the world were as close as possible to how it actually is, but differs in just a certain respect. But what you think about such counterfactual questions will of course differ based on what you think is actual. If you are an atheist, and you ask “what value would creatures have without God?,” the “nearest” world is the one we live in. So just ask: what value do they have? If you are a theist, by contrast, the “nearest” world in which there is no God is outrageously remote. It is an impossible world, a deeply, deeply impossible world. It is of the essence of every possible creaturely substance that it is a creature. It is of the essence of God that all things distinct from God depend on God. When I try to take this thought experiment, as a theist, seriously, I go blank. And I think theists should go blank on this.[12]

In other words, theists believe that if God did not exist, then not only would objective morality not exist, but nothing else would either. However, when inter- acting with atheists, it’s useful, for the sake of argument, to discuss a situation where humans exist and God does not, and then to argue that in such a scenario, though technically impossible, there would be no objective moral truth.

At one level this book has to do with a debate between theism and atheism—answering, Which is the better explanation for objective morality? Craig has often framed the theist’s side of this debate as follows: “I. If theism is true, we have a sound foundation for morality. II. If theism is false, we do not have a sound foundation for morality.”[13] A comprehensive case for these contentions would involve evaluating and debunking all the atheistic explanations for how objective morality could exist without God. Since such a task would take much more than one book, my task at hand is more narrow: it is to support these contentions by developing a divine love theory to show how trinitarian theism provides a superior explanation for morality compared to a leading atheistic explanation.

Therefore, yes, at one level this book is about a debate between theism and atheism, but at another level it is specifically between a particular theistic model and a particular atheistic model, both of which are trying to describe reality, how things really are. My divine love theory is unique but similar to Craig’s, Adams’s, and Hare’s theories, much like Wielenberg’s godless normative realism is unique but similar to Enoch’s, Shafer-Landau’s, and Huemer’s theories. The point is that even if I’m successful here, I’ll rule out only Wielenberg’s atheistic explanation for objective morality, not necessarily all atheistic models. Similarly, if my divine love theory is inaccurate or has substantial failings, it doesn’t necessarily mean theism is not the best explanation of morality, but only that my particular theistic model is wrong. If such is the case, then there may be a better theistic model that does successfully explain how God functions as the source, foundation, and ground of objective morality.

In my research for this book, I focused on primary works and secondary research in several fields, both historical and contemporary, including but not limited to metaethics, trinitarian theology, divine command theory, natural law theory, the moral argument for God, abstract objects, supervenience, Evolutionary Debunking Arguments, eternal functional subordination, the Euthyphro dilemma, moral epistemology, Platonism, and divine attributes. My research task required a comprehensive survey of the main views within each of these topics while focusing on particular writers who address the issues covered in this book. I especially engaged work by John Duns Scotus, Robert Adams, John Hare, William Lane Craig, and of course Erik Wielenberg.

[1] Seatle, Mind, 7.

[2] Baggett, “Psychopathy and Supererogation,” 131.

[3] Enoch, Taking Morality Seriously, 57–58.

[4] Enoch, Taking Morality Seriously, 14—15.

[5] Enoch, Taking Morality Seriously, 267.

[6] In this book I don’t make a formal “inference to the best explanation” argument, but this style of argument operates at an implicit level throughout this book. For an exhaustive treatment on this form of argument, see Lipton, Inference to the Best Explanation.

[7] Nagel, Mind and Cosmos; Enoch, Taking Morality Seriously.

[8] Though I certainly affirm doing so is possible and important, it’s beyond the scope of this book to argue for these assumptions. The interested reader can find such arguments in Swinburne, Existence of God, and Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.

[9] Hare, God’s Command, v.

[10] Whitfield, conclusion to Trinitarian Theology, 178.

[11] This is the basic argument Adams presents, without the trinitarian aspect, in Adams, “Moral Arguments,” 116–17.

[12] Murphy, “No Creaturely Intrinsic Value,” 354.

[13] Craig, Goodness without God, 30.

This post is adapted from Divine Love Theory: How the Trinity is the Source and Foundations of Morality by Adam Lloyd Johnson. This title will be available March 14th, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

What if the loving relationships of the Trinity are the ultimate, objective source for living morally?

Adam Lloyd Johnson injects a fresh yet eternal reality into the thriving debate over the basis of moral absolutes. While postmodernism’s moral relativism once temporarily disrupted the footing of classic moral theories like natural law and divine command, many nontheistic philosophers assert that morality must rest on something real and objective. Divine Love Theory proposes a grounding for morality not only in the creator God but as revealed in the Christian Scriptures–Father, Son, and Spirit eternally loving one another.

Johnson contends that the Trinity provides a remarkably convincing foundation for making moral judgments. One leading atheistic proposal, godless normative realism, finds many deficiencies in theistic and Christian theories, yet Johnson shows how godless normative realism is susceptible to similar errors. He then demonstrates how the loving relationships of the Trinity as outlined in historic Christian theology resolve many of the weakest points in both theistic and atheistic moral theories.


About Author

Dr. Adam Lloyd Johnson earned his Ph.D. with a concentration in Philosophy of Religion at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He teaches for the Rhineland School of Theology in Wölmersen, Germany and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He also serves with Ratio Christi, a university campus ministry. He is the author or editor of several published works including A Debate on God and Morality: What is the Best Account of Objective Moral Values and Duties?, co-authored with William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Erik Wielenberg, and others.

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