Let’s take a look at Jerry Shepherd’s response to my article “Rape, moral perception, and biblicism.”
Jerry divides his response into two points. Let’s start, reasonably enough, with the first:
(1) I could pretty well sum up my response this way. For the most part, your critique of my reply misses the mark, because you are holding me responsible for answering a question that you did not ask. You did not ask me how I know whether or not rape is wrong. Rather, your statement and ensuing question was:
“It seems quite clear that on your view it is possible that God could command acts of devotional divine rape in the future. Will you concede that on your view God could possibly command acts of devotional divine rape just like he could command devotional genocide? If not, why not?”
And that was the question I attempted to answer. Indeed, if you had asked me how I know rape is wrong, I might very well have replied along the lines you yourself have suggested – moral intuition, natural law. Remember my fourth point – “You and I discussed earlier the whole issue of apparently universal moral sensitivities and natural law. I wouldn’t at all deny the force of these arguments. Abraham himself appeals to them in Genesis 18.” So it is illegitimate to say, based on the question that you actually asked, that my moral epistemology is false.
This is a perplexing response. Jerry claims not to see how one’s knowledge of whether rape is necessarily wrong is essentially connected to the question of whether God could command rape. As best I can surmise, he is backtracking hastily from the ethical biblicism in which he framed his initial response.
So for the record, let me explain why these two questions are essentially linked. If I ask you whether you think God could possibly command an act of devotional rape, and you believe that you know rape is necessarily wrong because of the natural law, then you simply answer “No, God could not possibly command an act of devotional rape because I know rape is necessarily wrong because of the natural law.” That’s it. Period.
But Jerry didn’t proceed in that manner. Instead, he sought to address the question of whether God could possibly command an act of devotional rape by hunting for biblical precedents. This would suggest to any reasonable person that Jerry believed this is the way you come to know if rape could possibly be moral.
Now let’s turn to Jerry’s second point.
(2) What you were attempting to drive at was this: Human beings know that rape is wrong. Therefore we also know that God could not command rape. In the same way, human beings know that genocide is wrong. Therefore we also know that God could not command genocide. I was attempting to address this analogical formulation. The only way I could do so was through appeal to Scriptural data. I find many several instances of genocide there, both commanded by God, and performed by God. I find no instances of rape there, either commanded by God, or performed by God. [As a side note, and for the purpose of presenting a more complete picture, I need to add that several times in Deuteronomy and the prophets, rape is referred to as a punishment that God will bring on his own people for their rebellion against him, as well as on other nations for the atrocities they have committed. But these rapes are never to be committed by the Israelites themselves.]
For me, this is where one of the tests of what it means to be a faithful theologian comes into play. I think genocide is wrong. I think rape is wrong. But I see in the biblical text a God who both commanded and performed genocidal acts. A God whom neither Jesus nor the Apostles disavowed. And indeed, on at least a few occasions, these genocidal acts are even celebrated in the NT. I do not, in seeking to be an obedient theologian, have the right to resort to sophistry in an attempt to explain them away. My attitude toward what God has done has to be doxology.
The confession that Christ is Lord has to mean something. And for me, one of the things it means is calling him Lord even when I don’t understand his ways, and, yes, even upon occasion, when my moral sensitivities are taken aback. But if I only call him Lord when he agrees with me, then I might as well just drop the pretenses and start conducting my worship services in front of my mirror.
Are there any things you don’t like about God, but worship him just the same anyway? I hope there are.
Let me try to piece together Jerry’s moral epistemology based on what he’s said here. As best I can see, he begins by conceding that natural law provides a fallible source of moral knowledge such that our innate attraction to certain actions and aversion to others provides a useful guide for what is moral and what is immoral.
Among the actions to which properly functioning human beings have the strongest innate aversions are the following:
(1) the killing and mutilation of a healthy infant as a devotional sacrifice to a deity
(2) the rape of a child as a devotional sacrifice to a deity
So properly functioning human beings would have very powerful moral intuitions that God, the one who is by definition that being than which none greater can be conceived (a definition which includes moral perfection) would never command (1) or (2).
And Jerry agrees, prima facie.
But then he reads accounts in the Bible of God commanding (1). And Jerry concludes from this that God did in fact command (1) and thus that our moral intuitions about (1) must be incorrect.
Of course, what Jerry assumes, but never argues, is that if a biblical text describes God as commanding (1), then we are obliged to believe that God did in fact command (1), and thus that our moral intuition of (1) is incorrect.
But Jerry does have to argue this. He has already granted prima facie normative value to the deliverances of natural law. So he cannot simply assume that if a biblical text describes God as commanding (1) that a Christian is necessarily obliged to accept that God did in fact command (1) and thereby surrender their belief in the immorality of (1).
Jerry’s prioritization in moral epistemology has some other serious consequences as well.
To begin with, Jerry cannot accept (2) with the strongest degree of conviction. This is because he has already rejected (1), another deliverance of the natural law.
It is really important that we understand this point so let me develop it with an illustration. Let’s say that you hire a sherpa to take you into the Himalayas. The first day the sherpa mistakenly leads you off the trail to K2 and you have to spend much of the day backtracking as a result of his ineptitude. After that fiasco, how much trust will you place in the sherpa on day 2?
That’s Jerry’s dilemma. He has already rejected one of the most secure, indubitable deliverances of the natural law. Since (2) is another one of those secure, indubitable deliverances of the natural law, he cannot place the same trust any longer in (2). Practically speaking, this means that Jerry has a defeater to the claim that God could never command (2). At best, Jerry can say that God has not yet commanded (2). But he cannot say that God could never command (2).
This works with respect to the past as well. Let’s say that a heretofore unknown expanded version of Deuteronomy was discovered in the form of an ancient scroll. It is decided that the scroll provides the earliest form of Deuteronomy. Discussions begin about whether to include this expanded version of the book in our Bibles. The only problem is that the expanded text includes a passage where God is described as commanding rape. On Jerry’s view the literal interpretation of this passage would not present any obstacle to its inclusion within the canon.
Since the status of (2) as a deliverance of the natural law is prima facie no stronger (or weaker) than (1) (both are prima facie morally abhorrent), and Jerry believes our moral intuition is wrong about (1), he has to be open to the fact that our intuition could be wrong about (2) as well. And that means that on Jerry’s view God might have in fact commanded (2) in the past and he might command (2) in the future.