Stepanova Elena

Divine command theory: logical refutation and theological justification

Stepanova Elena (2020) "Divine command theory: logical refutation and theological justification ", Vestnik Pravoslavnogo Sviato-Tikhonovskogo gumanitarnogo universiteta. Seriia I : Bogoslovie. Filosofiia. Religiovedenie, 2020, vol. 87, pp. 70-86 (in Russian).

DOI of the paper: 10.15382/sturI202087.70-86


In the article, the problem of sources of moral authority in intellectual history associated with Christianity is observed. Among possible concepts of moral sources, namely, virtue ethics, ethics of natural law, and divine command theory, the focus is on the latter. The author describes main principles of divine command theory (DCT): it is based on the conviction that the essence of morality, i. e. the concept of good and evil, justice and injustice, etc., directly depends on God’s commands and prohibitions. In the last decades of the twentieth century, the principle of divine command as an independent theory has obtained a fresh impetus in English-speaking analytic philosophy. The meta-ethical nature of the divine command theory reveals inself in defining ethical judgments through theological concepts. The main provisions of the divine command theory are defi ned: fi rstly, the identity of a prescribing or prohibiting divine will as a source of morality, and will in the form of obedience as the cause of moral action; secondly, a consideration of moral prescriptions as the subject of revelation (faith), but not of rational choice; thirdly, the sovereignty of God as a source of morality. The main critical arguments addressed to the divine command theory are considered: fi rstly, arguments, which arose from so-called “Euthyphro dilemma” related to the arbitrary nature of the concept of good, as well as to the question of what is primary — the concept of good or divine command; secondly, the incompatibility of the divine command theory with moral autonomy; thirdly, critique of the divine command theory from the standpoint of pluralism, and the problem of the DCT’s persuasiveness for unbelievers, or adherents of other religions besides Christianity. The author concludes that the divine command theory seems to be unconvinced from a rational point of view; at the same time, rational critical arguments seem to be useless for theologically-minded researchers. Nonetheless, such discrepancy does not exclude the need to find adequate forms of dialogue between believers and non-believers.


morality, revelation, obedience, divine command, Euthyphro dilemma, moral autonomy, pluralism


  1. Adams R. M. (1973) “Modifi ed Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness”, in G. Outka, J. P. Reeder (eds) Religion and Morality. Garden City, pp. 320‒344.
  2. Adams R. M. (1987) The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology. New York.
  3. Adams R. M. (1999) Finite and Infi nite Goods: A Framework for Ethics. New York.
  4. Adams R. M. (2003) “A Modifi ed Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness”, in C. Taliaferro, P. J. Griffiths (eds) Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. New Jersey, pp. 472‒473.
  5. Anscombe G. E. M. (1958) “Modern Moral Philosophy”. Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, XXXIII (124), pp. 1‒19.
  6. Appolonov A. (2002) “Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo Uil’yama Okkama” [Life and Works of William Ockham], in Uil’yam Okkam. Izbrannoe [William Ockham. Selected Works]. Moscow, pp. vii‒xxvii (in Russian).
  7. Austin M. W. (2018) “Divine Command Theory”, in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at: https://www.iep.utm.edu/divine-c/ (7 December 2018).
  8. Brunner E. (2002) The Divine Imperative: A Study in Christian Ethics. James Clarke & Co.
  9. Habermas J. (2006) “Religion in the Public Sphere”. European Journal of Philosophy, 14 (1), pp. 1‒25.
  10. Hare J. E. (2011) “Ethics and Religion: Two Kantian Arguments”. Philosophical Investigations, 34 (2), pp. 151‒168.
  11. Hare J. E. (2017) “Divine Command Theory”, in S. Wilkens (ed.) Christian Ethics: Four Views. InterVarsity Press, pp. 125‒147.
  12. Hauerwas S. (1991) The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame, I: University of Notre Dame Press.
  13. Heltzel P. G. (2017) “A Prophetic Ethics Response”, in S. Wilkens (ed.) Christian Ethics: Four Views. InterVarsity Press, pp. 159‒164.
  14. Idziak J. M. (1979) Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings. New York.
  15. Idziak J. M. (1989) “In Search of Good Positive Reason for an Ethics of Divine Commands: Catalogue of Arguments”. Faith and Philosophy, 6 (4), pp. 47‒64.
  16. Idziak J. M. (2004) “Divine Commands are the Foundation of Morality”, in M. L. Peterson, R. J. VanArragon (eds) Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion. Blackwell Publishing, pp. 292‒301.
  17. Kant I. (1980) “Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der bloßen Vernunft”, in I. Kant. Traktaty i pis’ma [Treatises and Letters]. Moscow (Russian translation).
  18. Lewis C. S. (2004) “Mere Christianity”, in Sobranie sochineniy v 8 t. [Collected Works in 8 vols], vol. 1. Moscow; St Petersburg, pp. 11‒202 (Russian translation).
  19. Lobkovich N., Appolonov A. (eds) (2012) Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologiae, vol. 4. Moscow (Russian translation).
  20. Maiorov G. (ed.) (2001) Blazhennyi Ioann Duns Scotus. Izbrannoe [Ioannes Duns Scotus. Selected Works]. Moscow (Russian translation).
  21. Moore G. (1984) Principia Ethica. Moscow (Russian translation).
  22. Murray M., Rea M. (2010) An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Moscow (Russian translation).
  23. Nowell-Smith P. (1999) “Morality: Religious and Secular”, in E. Stump, M. J. Murray (eds) Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions, Blackwell, pp. 6‒403.
  24. Ockham W. (2002) Izbrannoe [Selected Works]. Moscow (Russian translation).
  25. Quinn P. L. (1992) “The Primacy of God’s Will in Christian Ethics”. Philosophical Perspectives, 6, pp. 493‒513.
  26. Rorty R. (1994) “Religion as Conversation-Stopper”. Common Knowledge, 3, pp. 1‒6.
  27. Rorty R. (2003) “Religion in the Public Square: A Reconsideration”. Journal of Religious Ethics, 31 (1), pp. 141‒149.
  28. Swinburne R. (2016) The Coherence of Theism. Oxford.
  29. Vanier J., Hauervas S. (2015) Zhit’ mirno sredi nasiliia [Living Peacefully in the Violent World]. Kiev; Moscow (Russian translation).
  30. Waluchow W. J. (2003) The Dimensions of Ethics: An Introduction to Ethical Theory. Peterborough.
  31. Wilkens S. (ed.) (2017) Christian Ethics: Four Views. InterVarsity Press.

Information about the author

Stepanova Elena

Academic Degree: Doctor of Sciences* in Philosophy;
Academic Rank: Associate Professor;
Place of work: Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Sofia Kovalevskaya str. 16, Ekaterinburg, 620108 Russia;
Post: Principal Research Fellow;
ORCID: 0000-0002-2559-3573;
Email: stepanova.elena.a@gmail.com.

*According to ISCED 2011, a post-doctoral degree called Doctor of Sciences (D.Sc.) is given to reflect second advanced research qualifications or higher doctorates.