On William Lane Craig’s defense of the Canaanite genocide (Part 3)
In the second installment of this series I argued that we have excellent reasons to believe that genocide is a moral atrocity and that God, being morally perfect, would not command people to commit a moral atrocity. In addition, I developed an analogy between genocide and rape by noting that Christians would widely accept that God, being morally perfect, would never command a person to engage in an act of rape because rape is a moral atrocity. Given that the rape of an individual cannot plausibly be considered to be categorically worse morally than the slaughter of an entire non-combatant civilian population (including children, infants, the elderly and infirm), this moral intuition about rape reinforces the conclusion that as surely as God wouldn’t command rape, so he wouldn’t command genocide. And this in turn places a sizeable evidential burden on the shoulders of the apologist who hopes to argue that God did in fact command genocide in the past. (As we will see in a later part to this series, things become even more difficult for the apologist when we move from the abstract and theoretical discussion of “commanding genocide” to the concrete and practical identity of the divine command with specific genocides in history.)
So Craig has his work cut out for him in defending the claim that God’s divine command is to be identified with particular genocides in history. How does he aim to make the connection? At this point we will now turn to consider Craig’s defense of biblical accounts of genocide in his Reasonable Faith podcast. We begin at 2:24 in the podcast when Craig explains the divine command for genocide as exceptional:
“This is not a general command given by God as to how Israel is to prosecute its wars. These are highly singular commands given to Israel during the conquest of the land of Canaan….”
Craig then notes how these genocidal commands must be counterbalanced with the abundant scriptural depictions of God as merciful and loving. At 3:59 he observes,
“I think it’s just dishonest when people like Richard Dawkins portray Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, as this moral monster. These highly singular commands need to be read against the background of the whole of the Old Testament which includes the great moral law that is given by God which is head and shoulders above other ancient near eastern moral and legal codes …. It’s against the backdrop of the prophets which explain God’s compassion for the poor and the oppressed and the orphans and widows. Against God’s commands to Jonah even to go to the city of Nineveh, a non-Jewish city… It is a story which is highly singular and highly unusual….”
It seems to me that Craig is aiming to make an argument here. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to attempt to summarize that argument in four steps:
(1) If an agent generally appears to be merciful and loving then exceptions in which that agent appears to be other than merciful and loving cannot plausibly be taken as defeaters to the mercy and lovingkindness of the agent.
(2) In scripture God generally appears to be merciful and loving.
(3) In scripture God exceptionally appears to be unmerciful and unloving (e.g. when he commands genocide).
(4) Therefore, the exceptional cases in scripture when God appears to be unmerciful and unloving (e.g. when he commands genocide) cannot plausibly be taken as defeaters to the mercy and lovingkindness of God.
Perhaps that is not exactly what Craig is arguing, but it certainly seems to be close. So what then should we think of this argument?
Many a biblical skeptic will probably take aim at (2) by charging that it is by no means obvious that the “general” depiction of God in scripture is as merciful and loving.
In contrast to those biblical skeptics, I won’t be disputing (2), for I do think it is correct. However, one is liable to misunderstand the way in which one discerns that (2) is correct. Its truth is not established simply by placing all references to Yahweh in scripture into one of three categories — (a) evidence for mercy and lovingkindness; (b) evidence against mercy and lovingkindness; (c) evidence that underdetermines mercy and lovingkindness — and seeing whether the (a) list is longer than the (b) list.
So how does one establish the truth of (2)? In my view, this judgment is rooted in the hermeneutical guidance of control texts which serve as the interpretive basis for other texts (as the old hermeneutical saying goes: “Scripture interprets scripture”). As a Christian my control texts are rooted first and foremost in God as revealed in Jesus Christ (John 14:8-9). Thus, the depiction of God as revealed in Christ becomes the controlling framework for engaging other texts. And that means that however I interpret depictions of God that seem to be unmerciful and unloving, they cannot be interpreted in a way that undermines the incarnational revelation of God as merciful and loving.
My complaint is rather to be lodged with (1). The problem, in short, is that (1) is false as it stands because it does not specify what kind of exceptions we’re talking about. And there are in fact two kinds of exceptions which we can call moderate exceptions and radical exceptions. While moderate exceptions do not undermine the general witness, radical exceptions are so extreme that even one radical exception would be sufficient to undermine the general observation of the agent’s character.
Consider your friend Dave. You think “Dave is a stand-up guy.” Then you discover that Dave has some income that he didn’t declare on his taxes. Granted you haven’t heard his explanation, but whatever reason he has for doing it you’re not willing to retract your general observation that Dave is a stand-up guy. This constitutes a moderate exception.
Later you’re watching the TV show “America’s Most Wanted” when you see a story featuring Dave. According to the narrator, Dave sold worthless swamp land to retirees in Florida, thereby bilking hundreds of people out of millions of dollars. A stand-up guy? Not anymore. This is a radical exception, and a radical exception falsifies the norm.
If we were to apply Craig’s reasoning to Dave’s case, one could argue that the general evidence of Dave as a stand-up guy is of greater evidential force than the singular exception in which he bilked the elderly out of millions of dollars. But clearly that isn’t right. You could deny that Dave really engaged in this action, but if you are going to believe he did, you can’t explain away his actions by pointing simply to the general evidence you have that he is a stand-up guy.
If bilking the elderly is a radical exception to a stand-up character, surely commanding genocide is as well. Consequently, whatever else the apologist might say about the Canaanite genocide, they cannot defend it by appealing to general patterns of God’s mercy and lovingkindness. And so Craig’s first point must be judged a failure.