Consider these passages from the New Testament:
(1) St Paul, Romans 13.1–7 (written c. 56 AD):In essence, these admonitions to Christians are:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.”
(2) Titus 3:1:
“Remind them (viz., believing Christians) to be subject to the rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work …”
(3) 1 Peter, 2.13–15, 17:
“For the sake of the Lord, submit to every human institution, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority, or to the governors sent by the emperor to punish evildoers and to praise those doing good … Honour the emperor.”
(1) Christians should be subject to their respective governments;Christians think that St Paul had direct visions and revelations from God and Jesus (e.g., 2 Corinthians 12.1–10), so that for the conservative Christian the passage in Romans must count as orders from god.
(2) These governments have in fact have been brought about by God’s will: “for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”
(3) Christians should pay taxes.
For the conservative Christian, then, virtually all extreme forms of libertarianism seem to be ruled out. For example, the extreme Rothbardian might claim that the state is evil, but how can something be evil if it is ultimately instituted by god and he commands you to submit to it?
Of course, the idea that one should submit to government just because the Bible says so is a terrible – and in many ways a horrific – argument, e.g., does this mean that victims of the Nazis in Germany were required to submit to Nazi government? Was the Nazi government actually brought about by God’s will? What about the Soviet Union?
But such moral paradoxes present no problem for the secular person who rejects all forms of religion and belief in god (I happen to be such a person).
They do present the believing Christian with the ethical problems.
Paradoxically, for liberal libertarian Christians of course, the passages above are not a problem. They can claim to be Christians without thinking that all of the Bible is divinely inspired or the literal word of god.
But that then raises the question of what moral theory do Christians really support?
The most crude answer is divine command theory. But that theory faces difficulties so severe that it quickly falls apart. Indeed, historically divine command theory had little support from Christian philosophers.
In short, the problem with divine command theory is this: is something good solely because god orders it, or because it is good by some other objective criteria?
If one really thinks that, say, any action is good simply, solely and only because god has ordered it, this means that morality is ultimately nothing but the arbitrary whim of good. Morality has no objective basis and could in theory be subjectively determined by god.
For example, if god orders mass murder, as he supposedly does in Deuteronomy 2:33–36 and 3:1–11, then mass murder is moral, because god has ordered it. There are Christian philosophers who have seriously taken that position: William of Ockham argued that, yes, anything god orders, even if it appears to be evil, it is actually good and morally obligatory. That is an appalling conclusion, which concedes that we have (in theory) no ultimate moral standard except the subjective whims of god.
If the Christian concedes that an action is good, not because god has ordered it, but because it is good for some independent objective standard or objective criteria, one has conceded that god is not omnipotent (in the conventional sense of that word), for it follows logically that god’s actions and orders are severely limited by some external objective moral principles or standard. Morality ultimately cannot come from god.
There are sly tricks to get around the dilemma. One is to argue that, well, god is inherently good, or god and goodness are identical, so that he, as an omnibenevolent being, can never in actuality do or order anything evil.
But that does not solve the dilemma, for logically this concedes that there could be no god and yet it would in theory be possible for a universe to have objective moral principles or an objective moral standard to guide right action. If one wants to argue that a perfectly good being exists (like an imaginary god), you have not answered the question: what is the standard for perfect goodness anyway? That standard is logically independent of the notion of an omnipotent and omniscient divine being.
All that has occurred is that we are taken right back to the question: if an act is not good merely because god orders it, then there must be some other standard for determining its rightness or wrongness.
The solution most Christian philosophers found is to reject divine command theory and simply take over and develop the pagan Greek and Roman ethical theory of natural law (which goes back to Plato and the ancient Stoics). But natural law theory has difficulties almost as bad as divine command theory. It requires the belief in a “divine order” in the universe and a divinely-created human nature that makes us conform to “natural law.” In other words, it just begs the question by assuming the existence of some divine agency and order in the universe.
Furthermore, the very idea of a “divine order” just raises the question of what standard of morality determines it, and once rationalist European philosophers like Grotius tried to defend natural law theory by removing God and the previous supernatural justification for it, they simply destroyed the only convincing explanation for belief in natural law (Tawney 1998: xxv-xxvi).
At that point a Christian libertarian might retreat to Rothbard’s natural rights ethics, but that system has a flawed basis and no convincing justification.
Other solutions were like that of Kant: Kantian ethics was in fact partly an attempt to create an objectivist ethics that could defend Christian morality, but by basing morality on moral principles derived from human reason, not from god per se.
So ultimately the most sophisticated Christian philosophers accept that morality does not come from the Bible or directly from god, but that it can be determined by human reason.
Although I am completely secular and do not believe in god, I suppose that liberal (non-fundamentalist) Christians could solve their moral conundrum.
Perhaps they might argue as follows.
If one is a sincere liberal Christian, then one might argue that, after all, morality can be independent of god in the sense that it is rationally possible for a moral system to exist even if (hypothetically) god did not.
That is to say, for a perfectly moral being to exist like god, he must follow a moral code that is not just subjective, but objective. Therefore there must be an independent, objective standard of morality. And god must obey it. So god is not really omnipotent in the crude sense of that term: his action is limited by the need to be logically consistent.
But what is the moral code? One solution is deontological ethics (like the system of Kant) and other choice is teleological/consequentialist ethics.
That is, one moral code might be some form of consequentalism. Mill once argued (perhaps insincerely) that god was a utilitarian. But some Christian philosophers do seriously argue that a god would be the perfect consequentialist: he could foresee all consequences of all hypothetical actions into the unbound future, and determine the morally right actions, suggesting these actions by general moral principles, although human beings can only ever have an imperfect grasp of what is perfectly right, because of lack of knowledge and the extreme difficulty of predicting the future.
Tawney, R. H. 1998. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Transaction, New Brunswick, N.J. and London.