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The prophet Isaiah solves the Euthyphro dilemma

July 7, 2014

This morning I heard a fascinating Bible Study by Os Guinness (who is also the great, great, great grandson of the famous Guinness brewer) on Isaiah 6. The study was made particularly fascinating by his comments on verse 3, ‘Holy Holy Holy is the Lord Almighty’.

Guinness said that holiness wasn’t unique to the Jewish religion, the concept of holiness was present in other religions. But what was different was that the other religions lacked anything ethical in their ‘holiness’ code.. Hence pagan gods of the Ancient Middle East were ‘holy’ as were the temple prostitutes. Holiness was divorced from ethics. Guinness claimed that, for example, in the Code of Hammurabi holiness flowed from god.

Yet the God of the Old Testament was very different because holiness was an expression of God’s character. There was no divorce between holiness and ethics because the people were commanded to follow Yahweh i.e. be holy because I am holy.

In many ways Guinness is proposing a solution to the Euthyphro dilemma. The Euthyphro dilemma is usually posed as: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”

With respect to holiness it could be cast as: ‘Is something holy because it is holy, or is it holy because it it commanded by God.’ In other ANE religions the answer was clearly the second, it was holy because holiness was something was declared holy regardless of the ethical qualities of that particular object, hence a prostitute could be ‘holy’ because it was so decreed by the gods.

Yet Isaiah’s perspective here demonstrates that the Euthyphro dilemma is a false one. Something is holy because it is an expression of God himself and this is how we should live.

One Comment
  1. Looks like I’ve missed some fun posts here lately, Rob (been busy). Still have to catch up on things.
    FWIW, you haven’t demonstrated at all that Isaiah’s perspective demonstrates that Euthyphro is a false dilemma. You’re actually arguing for one side of the Euthyphro fork, ie., the side that states that holiness comes from God and therefore it is His ‘decision’ about what holiness (or goodness) actually is. Using language like “it is an expression of His nature” doesn’t escape the dilemma at all. Both contemporary and ancient philosophers have already demonstrated this. Cheers.

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