In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Divine Command Theory

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • History
  • Formulating the Theory
  • Supervenience
  • Prior Obligations

Philosophy Divine Command Theory
Matthew Flannagan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0437


A divine command theory of morality contends that actions are morally required if and only if and because God commands those actions. An action is morally permissible if and only if and because God permits that action. An action is morally wrong if and only if and because God prohibits that action. The word “because” here refers to an immediate and direct dependence relationship. Defenders include John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Piere d’Ailly, Jean Gerson, Gabriel Biel, Francisco Suarez, Descartes, Samuel Pufendorf, John Locke, George Berkeley, John Gay, William Paley, and John Austin. In the early twentieth century, most philosophers believed a line of argument pressed in Plato’s dialogue: the Euthyphro discredited divine command theories. However, they underwent a revival in the 20th-century analytic philosophy of religion due to the seminal works of Philip Quinn and Robert Adams. Their theories will be discussed in this article (see Formulating the Theory). The viability of divine command theories remains at the forefront of discussions about the relationship between religion and morality. This work will focus mainly on the development and debate around divine command theories in contemporary analytic philosophy, though some historical references will be discussed.


Most writing on divine command ethics is occasional and polemical. Critics contend that divine command theories have implausible implications. Defenders either deny that divine command theories have these implications, or they argue these implications are plausible upon reflection. Wainwright 2005 provides a good overview of the literature tracing the development of Adams’s and Quinn’s theories, subsequent revisions, and critical responses. Flannagan and Copan 2014 also reviews the debate. Evans 2013 is a book-length defense of divine command ethics that examines the various arguments made in the literature. Wielenberg 2005 has critical chapters on divine command theories offering critical responses to Adams. Baggett and Walls 2011 is a good book-length discussion of divine command theories.

  • Baggett, David, and Jerry Walls. Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199751808.001.0001

    A semipopular book-length defense of divine command theory that accessibly discusses all the major issues in the debate.

  • Evans, C. S. God and Moral Obligation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199696680.001.0001

    A book-length defense of a divine command theory, arguing that this theory is compatible with natural law and virtue theories. Also gives an up-to-date overview of the main objections to divine command theories, responds to them, and discusses the advantages such approaches have over rivals.

  • Flannagan, Matthew, and Paul Copan. Did God Really Command Genocide: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

    Chapters 11–14 explain and clarify Adams’s, Craig’s, and Alston’s theory that the property of moral wrongness is identical to the property of being commanded by God, followed by a review and critique of the objections to this theory.

  • Wainwright, William J. Religion and Morality. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2005.

    Chapters 5–8 have a good overview of Quinn’s and Adams’s initial theories, including their development and a review and critique of the responses to their theories.

  • Wielenberg, Erik. Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    A book-length defense of the claim that morality does not depend upon God. Has good discussions of divine command theories.

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