Answering The Euthyphro Dilemma with C.S. Lewis and Cornelius Van Til

The Euthyphro Dilemma is interesting enough on it’s own, but recently it became even more interesting for me when I stumbled upon somewhat of a debate between C.S. Lewis and Cornelius Van Til, two of my favorite Christian apologists. While I find a lot of similarity in the thought of these two (like their views on reason), every point of contention is a tremendous learning opportunity.

Though these men were contemporaries, unfortunately (for us) Lewis went on to be with the Lord in 1963, 24 years before Van Til and they never officially had a chance to dialogue or debate with one another. According to John R. Muether’s biography of Van Til, a mutual friend of Lewis and Van Til tried to get Lewis to read some of Van Til’s syllabi but Lewis couldn’t find time to read them. Thus the debate between these two has been one sided with Van Til both approving of Lewis at times and taking him to task at others.

This post will focus on the apparent disagreement between Lewis and Van Til on the nature of God’s goodness and actions, specifically their answers to The Euthyphro Dilemma. I became aware of this apparent disagreement while reading Peter Kreeft’s book, C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, where Kreeft lists Calvinism amongst twenty “moral heresies” that Lewis refuted in his works. I plan to show Kreeft’s description of Calvinism to be inadequate as well as to show that Lewis’ views are actually inline with calvinistic thought. After reading this chapter in Kreeft’s book, I was randomly skimming through Van Til’s Christian Theistic Ethics and found a section directed at Lewis’ view of the imprecatory Psalms which directly deals with The Euthyphro dilemma. This was all in the same day! Almost as if it had all been… predestined…

After interacting with Kreeft I’ll share some quotes by Lewis, Van Til, and a couple others who answer the dilemma.

The Euthyphro Dilemma
Before we go any further, we need to know exactly what this dilemma entails. The Euthyphro Dilemma was first proposed by Plato in his dialogue, Euthyphro. In this fictional dialogue, Plato uses his protagonist, Socrates, who’s awaiting his trial for corrupting the youth, to question Euthyphro, a Greek polytheistic theologian, who’s waiting to try his father for murder. Socrates is pretty shocked that Euthyphro would be so eager to prosecute his own father, especially since the father seems to be innocent of the charges. Their conversation turns into a dialogue about the nature of piety/goodness. In questioning Euthyphro, Socrates asks, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” (Euthyphro, in Plato the Collected Dialogues, Hamilton and Cairns, pg. 178). Their convo ends not with an answer from Euthyphro but with a dodge, saying “Another time, then, Socrates.”.

The “Two Horns” of the Dilemma
The Dilemma has two “horns”, horn A: x (some act) is good because the gods will it, and Horn B: if the gods will x then x is good prior to and independent of the gods willing it (I owe credit to Ronald Nash here). Plato, through his mouthpiece Socrates, affirms Horn B, that there is some form of goodness outside and above the Greek gods, by which their actions can be judged. The dilemma shows that the Greek gods are not the source of goodness/piety. Socrates shows this by reminding Euthyphro that the gods are constantly at odds with one another, thus in a disagreement one side could be right, or the other could be right, or neither, but if their positions are contradictory then they both can’t be right.

Peter Kreeft and Lewis vs. Calvinism?
While the dilemma is successful against the Greek gods, many have appropriated it as an attack against the God of Christianity. When it comes to a monotheistic God like Yahweh, is this argument equally potent? This brings us back to Peter Kreeft and C.S. Lewis. In his chapter, Goodness of Goodness and Badness of Badness, Kreeft does a masterful job of expounding on Lewis’s critique of 19 moral heresies like subjectivism, hedonism, pragmatism, Nietzscheanism, pop-psychobabble, and the like. While Lewis and Kreeft’s arguments fall hard on the other “isms”, Calvinism emerges unscathed, though it’s strawman is destroyed. Kreeft says,

Calvinism makes goodness arbitrary in making it depend solely on God’s will (not his reason or his nature). Calvinism is suspicious of the Tao, which is known by universal moral reason and conscience. Calvinism believes that man, including his reason, is “totally depraved”, therefore reason cannot be trusted to know true morality. Only faith can. With the divine will as the sole source of morality, if God wills us to murder, then murder becomes good. This is Euthyphro’s “divine command theory” as opposed to Socrates’ natural law theory that God does not will a thing because it is good, but a thing is good because God wills it.

Lewis argues that this Calvinism really reduces goodness to divine power and makes us ready to worship an omnipotent Fiend. Lewis explicitly rejects “total depravity” in The Problem of Pain and says he agrees with Socrates, Samuel Johnson, and George Macdonald against Euthyphro: God commands the good because it is good; it is not good because he commands it.

Calvinism is the extreme opposite of, and perhaps a reaction to, the rationalism that insists that goodness must always be plain and clear, and also to the secularism that tries to divorce morality from God altogether. Lewis stands between these two extremes. (C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Peter Kreeft, pg. 84-85).

Kreeft is mistaken in his critique of Calvinism. What he calls Calvinism is more accurately called “Ockhamism” (named after William of Ockham) which is a position that Lewis does in fact critique. Victor Reppert, in his book C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, notes this well when he says,

“…Lewis considers the possibility of replacing his good-in-our-sense God hypothesis with Ockhamism, the view that God’s sadistic conduct is in the final analysis justified because we are so fallen and depraved that our ideas of goodness simply do not count. According to Ockhamism, actions and commands are right because God does them; according to Platonism, God does what God does because it is right. If God were to announce a new, reversed set of Ten Commandments, which commanded adultery, homicide and thefts an Ockhamist would say that these actions would be right because they were divinely commanded.” (Pg. 26).

Ockhamism is not Calvinism, as Paul Helm, a prominent Calvin scholar, makes explicit in his book John Calvin’s Ideas. Helm writes,

“According to Robert Merrihew Adams, William of Ockham held the view that those acts which we call ‘theft’, ‘adultery’, and ‘hatred of God’ would be meritorious if God had commanded them. So God could command them even though Ockham himself was assured that God never would in fact do so. It is clear by now that Calvin would not countenance such possibilities: he would reject them as speculative in the worst sense, if not blasphemous. He would probably refer to Ockham as a ‘madman’… Calvin eschews theological voluntarism, any attempt to separate the will of God from his righteous character. And it would seem that any version of ‘weak’ voluntarism which we have identified as Calvin’s view is insufficiently strong to ground a version of the Divine Command Theory of ethics. For since on this view God epitomizes or instantiates supreme goodness he could not command what is not in accordance with this goodness.” (Pg. 352-53).

So again, Ockhamism is not Calvinism. Kreeft is mistaken when he says that calvinism makes goodness arbitrarily dependent on God’s will rather than his nature. Calvin and the calvinists affirm that God’s will and his nature are united and cannot be bifurcated, i.e. God acts according to His nature.

As an aside, C.S. lewis does in fact take issue with the calvinistic doctrine of total depravity in several different works, but he confuses the topic much like Kreeft confuses Calvinism and Ockhamism. In chapter four of The Problem of Pain, Lewis says, “This chapter will have been misunderstood if anyone describes it as a reinstatement of the doctrine of Total Depravity. I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experiences shows us much goodness in human nature.”(pg. 61). Of course that’s not the doctrine of Total Depravity. What Lewis describes here is actually something called “absolute depravity”, the idea that man is absolutely corrupted and there is no good left in him. Total depravity, on the other hand, states that man is not as bad as he could be, but rather, every aspect of man is affected by sin, his will, his reason, his emotions; everything is affected by sin. But I digress, let’s get back to the disagreement between Lewis and Van Til on the Euthyphro Dilemma.

Lewis Vs. Van Til?
When we think back to the horns of the dilemma, Lewis seems to affirm horn B: if God wills x then x is good prior to and independent of God’s willing it. For instance, in The Problem of Pain, Lewis says,

“It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. With Hooker, and against Dr Johnson, I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion (reached, I think, by Paley) that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it- that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right. I believe, on the contrary, that ‘they err who think that of the will of God to do this or that there is no reason besides His will’. God’s will is determined by His wisdom which always perceives, and His goodness which always embraces, the intrinsically good.”(pg. 99).

Likewise, In his Reflections on The Psalms, Lewis says,

“There were in the eighteenth century terrible theologians who held that ‘God did not command certain things because they are right, but certain things are right because God Commanded them’. To make the position perfectly clear, one of them even said that though God has, as it happens, commanded us to love Him and one another, He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another, and hatred would then have been right. It was apparently a mere toss-up which He decided on. Such a view of course makes God a mere arbitrary tyrant. It would be better and less irreligious to believe in no God and to have no ethics that to have such an ethics and such a theology as this.” (Reflections on the Psalms, pg. 70-71).

Notice again that Lewis’s critique can be leveled against the nominalistic Ockhamist but not the Calvinist.

Van Til takes issue with Lewis affirming the B horn of the dilemma, not because Van Til agrees with the A horn, but rather because to affirm that there is some standard of goodness outside of God is not a Christian understanding of goodness. Van Til uses Lewis as a teaching opportunity for his readers, to further drive home the point made above by Paul Helm about the unity of God’s will and nature. In his book Christian Theistic Ethics, Van Til replies specifically to the quote from Reflections on The Psalms cited above by saying,

In putting the matter this way Lewis makes a caricature of the Christian view and confuses the issue. Whatever some of the “terrible theologians” may have said, simple orthodox theology has always stood by the teaching that truth is true because God says it is true, and right is right because God says it is right. But in asserting this, orthodox theology assumes or asserts that what God says about truth and righteousness is based upon his absolute holiness and righteousness.
On the other hand, when orthodox thinking rejects the notion that the truth is truth in itself and the right is right in itself independent of God’s assertion with respect to them, it merely rejects the idea of human autonomy.
It was Socrates the pagan philosopher who insisted that he wanted himself to be the ultimate judge of the nature of piety, and that he did not care what God said about it.
Lewis is quite right in stating the issue between Christianity and non-Christianity in the terms he uses. He is, however, quite mistaken when, as an evangelical Christian, he chooses the side of paganism against Christianity.
To be sure, it is because he is committed to an Arminian view of free will that Lewis chooses for the idea of the autonomy of the human moral consciousness as the source and standard of ethical behavior. He thinks that “the doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depressed, our idea of good is worth simply nothing- may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil worship”. In doing so Lewis appears not to realize in taking the side of Socrates, the idea of the self-sufficient moral consciousness, he has virtually renounced the right to appeal to either the God or the Christ of Scripture for either help or light. He must, after this “when the consequence is drawn” hold with Kant that the goal, the standard and the ultimate motive power for ethics are to be found in man as self-sufficient. (Pg. 84-85).

Van Til rightly smacks Lewis for accepting the dilemma and choosing to side with Socrates. In doing so, Lewis is saying that God has to act according to some higher good than himself, just like the gods of Greek mythology. Van Til, in contradiction to both the Platonists and the Ockhamists, says that God does good because it’s His nature to do good, He is the summum bonum, the greatest good. There is no standard outside of God by which He has to conform to, His nature is good and thus His good actions aren’t “arbitrary”, they conform to Himself, the ultimate standard of goodness.

In the two quotes above, Lewis passively takes on the Platonist’s presuppositions that goodness is an impersonal form above and beyond the Greek gods and the Christian God. In response to this impersonalistic view, John Frame writes,

.. if goodness is independent of God, then he is subordinate to the abstract concept of goodness. The same problem would arise with righteousness, truth, wisdom, beauty, or any attribute that serves as a model or criterion for the same attributes imaged in creation.
In my view, this problem arises from the inability of Plato and other philosophers to see goodness as something personal. Many of them never seem to question the view that goodness, truth, etc., are impersonal. They reason that since goodness is an abstract entity, it cannot be identical with a person.
I question this assumption, It is plausible to argue this way on the human level, for human goodness is shared by many and thus should not be identified absolutely with any one of us. And of course the behavior of one human being cannot define goodness. Since goodness is not a human person, some conclude, it must be something impersonal, an abstract object.
But when we think of goodness as an attribute of God, we must surely think differently… God’s goodness is strictly his own. It is not shared by anybody else, but God has imaged it in the creation. Before creation, only God existed, and his goodness was not shared with anyone but the persons of the Trinity. Indeed is was nothing less than God’s own nature. So God’s goodness is God, and therefore personal.
So goodness is the behavior and self-revelation of a person, not a vernal or abstract concept. Certainly it would be wrong to regard the behavior of any mere human being as the ccriterion of goodness. But of course God is unique.
So the good is not, as in Plato’s view, an abstract form superior to God. Is the good, then, what God says it is? Yes, but God’s word is not arbitrary. God commends goodness to us because he himself is supremely good. His commands to us are based on what he himself is. So it is true to say that goodness is what God says it is, and it is also true to say that God commends the good because it is good. (The Doctrine of God, John Frame, pg. 406-406).

Lewis Renounces The Dilemma
So it’s settled then, right? We’ve demonstrated that in uncritically taking on the premises of the Euthyphro Dilemma, C.S. Lewis sides with the pagan philosophers over against a Christin understanding of goodness, right? Well, it’s not quite that easy. Lewis was not a theologian, as he often said, and he surely can’t be charged with being the most systematic or consistent thinker. Yes, in the two quotes above, Lewis emphatically sided with the B horn of the dilemma, which makes God subject to a higher form of goodness. But that’s not all Lewis had to say on the matter.

In one of my favorite essays by Lewis, The Poison of Subjectivism, he sounds very much like Frame and Van Til,

When we attempt to think of a person and a law, we are compelled to think of this person either as obeying the law or as making it. And when we think of Him as making it we are compelled to think of Him either as making it in conformity to some yet more ultimate pattern of goodness (in which case that pattern, and not He, would be supreme) or else as making it arbitrarily by a sic volo, sic jubeo (in which case He would be neither good nor wise). But it is probably just here that our categories betray us. It would be idle, with our merely mortal resources, to attempt a positive correction or our categories -ambulavi in mirablilibus supra me. But it might be permissible to lay down two negations: that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it never could have been otherwise; it has in it no shadows of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. It is the Rita of the Hindus by which the gods themselves are divine, the Tao of the Chinese from which all realities proceed. But we, favored beyond the wisest pagans, know what lies beyond existence, what admits no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground of all existence, is not simply a law but also a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, being between these two, is also imminent in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their self-caused life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God. (Poison of Subjectivism, in Christian Reflections, pg. 99).

That last sentence says it all. In contradiction to the Platonists, and even to himself, Lewis says that God is the standard of goodness, nothing beyond or above Him, but His very nature is goodness. So as I stated back at the beginning of this post, Kreeft is wrong in listing Calvinism amongst the moral heresies that Lewis rebuffed, and Lewis does- at least at times- sound like a Calvinist when it comes to answering the Euthyphro Dilemma.

The Christian Answer
In answering the dilemma, the Christian shouldn’t uncritically buy into the false dilemma of only two choices. There’s a third choice for us, as Ronald Nash (as well as Lewis, Van Til, and Frame) make clear, “A third alternative holds that the Good is what God wills; this third position goes on to add, however, that God’s willing is never arbitrary. The Good is defined not merely by God’s will but also by God’s eternal and unchanging nature.” (Life’s Ultimate Questions, Ronald H. Nash, pg. 87).

While the Euthyphro Dilemma was a conundrum for it’s original audience, the Greeks, it’s no dilemma for the Christian theist. God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good.

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8 thoughts on “Answering The Euthyphro Dilemma with C.S. Lewis and Cornelius Van Til

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  1. I followed you here from the Facebook group where you shared this post. I appreciate the fact you brought in Lewis’ essay on “The Poison of Subjectivism,” because that really does lay out his view with greater theological sophistication than some of his more popular-level works do.

    I’m not sure whether Lewis’ views developed over time, or whether it was just a matter of different emphases for him, depending on who his audience was.

    Consider that in The Problem of Pain (1940) he says that he “emphatically embraces” that “God commands certain things because they are right.” But that in the same passage you quoted from in “Subjectivism (1943)” he explicitly states there’s a problem with that view, and says it’s “intolerable”: “If the second, then we seem to be admitting a cosmic dyarchy, or even making God himself the mere executor of a law somehow external and antecedent to His own being. Both views are intolerable.”

    Finally, in “Reflections on the Psalms (1958),” after the part you quoted about the “terrible theologians,” he goes on to say: “[the Jews] know that the Lord (not merely obedience to the Lord) is “righteous” and commands “righteousness” because He loves it. He enjoins what is good because it is good, because He is good. Hence His laws have emeth “truth”, intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, being rooted in His own nature, and are therefore as solid as that Nature which He has created.”

    I would bring these up as a matter of drawing your attention to the fact that Lewis’ thought on the subject was either under development, or else more subtle than either Kreeft or Van Til portray. But you could hardly have quoted from Lewis’ passages without noticing this yourself! I’m curious as to why you didn’t quote the above sentences, which complete his statements? For instance, he explicitly says “both views [horns of the dilemma] are intolerable,” and that “He enjoins what is good…because He is good….being rooted in His own nature.”

    In fact, I don’t see anything for Van Til to argue with Lewis about in either Subjectivism or Reflections. From them we get that God is Goodness, that both horns of the dilemma are intolerable, and that God’s Goodness is rooted in his nature — it’s his earliest comments in The Problem of Pain that need explaining.

    And as far as Kreeft goes, in his zeal to use Lewis to attack Calvinism (note that I’m not Reformed myself), has Kreeft forgotten the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church? I’m quite sure they don’t embrace one of the horns of the dilemma either.

    Sorry about the length. I truly enjoyed your post, and the thoughtful and irenic way in which you approached the issue.

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    1. What a tremendous comment! I appreciate the length, no worries at all! I totally missed that section in reflections on the psalms, i read CVT’s quotation and dug into Reflections just to make sure it was there with the goal of quoting the Poison of Subjectivism at the end to show Lewis’s more admirable position. Thanks for brining that to my attention!
      I think there might be a section concernin the dilemma in A Grief Observed where he goes back to siding with Socrates but I’d like to believe that his thought did indeed progress.
      As for Kreeft, I really enjoy reading him but I believe he’d comsider himself a Christian Platonist which would explain it.

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  2. Thanks! I’ll have to look up A Grief Observed and see what he says.
    Interesting about Kreeft as well. You’re right about him being in the Platonist tradition. I had forgotten that! Lewis was also highly influenced by Platonic thought. But then, Euthyphro is Plato, right? And if there’s any point to the dialog at all, it’s that both options are “intolerable!” Puzzling.
    Changing channels, I was educated by your comments regarding Ockhamism vs Calvinism. I knew Ockham was a volantarist, but I thought Calvin’s theology implied this as well. Or is it the fact that this “just is” the debate: whether Calvinism necessarily implies voluntarism or not?
    My understanding was that both Calvin and Lewis had a high view of God’s sovereignty, the difference being what they thought was reasonable to follow from this.
    I’m not on firm ground here, knowledge-wise. Perhaps I should just ask, why do you think it’s the case that so many confuse Calvinism with Ockhamism?

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    1. This is such a great convo I have to say that first!
      I believe that Plato was affirming a higher good above the Greek gods in the dialogue, Euthyphro. Some Christian platonists was to say that Plato’s view of the good is compatible with the Christian view of God, but I remain unconvinced. I love the way Lewis was influenced by Plato though, I see him as being more Augustinian than purely Platonist, of course Augustine was influenced by Plato as well.
      I think that people expect Calvinists to be nominalists because of our high view of God’s sovereignty, not recognizing that we consider ourselves thoroughly Augustinian and many of us believe in the forms but like Augustine we believe they reside in the mind of God. Many people have had a bad experience with “cage stage Calvinists”, those that have just become Calvinists and ought to be locked in a cage till they can behave.
      I think Lewis’s thought became more and more Augustinian, and I’ve heard this was a point of contention between him and Tolkein. I think there are several instances of Lewis affirming a compatibilist view of free will.
      Overall i think both Arminians and Calvinists rather strawman each other than sit down as brothers and have a good healthy debate

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      1. It is! (a great convo!) Good points on Plato, Euthyphro, and Aristotle.

        You’re right about Calvinists and Arminians strawmanning each other. The temperature gets very high on this subject.

        I liked the “cage stage” Calvinist comic (which I followed to from your blog)! I remember Wayne Grudem calling himself a “happy Calvinist.”

        All the best to you!

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