Could God Have Rights and Duties?

Wolterstorff presents a compelling case in Divine Discourse for the thesis that God has both rights and duties. This, to me anyway, was not the most intuitive of ideas, but prima facie it appears to make sense. Wolterstorff goes through some fairly technical argumentation, but the points he presents cash out roughly like this:

(1) Consider the picture of God presented in the Bible as entering into covenant with man. If God had no duties, no obligations, then the idea of a meaningful covenant falls apart, since the very idea of a covenant implies duty on both sides. God promises. God covenants. These are duty-terms if ever there were any. If these terms mean anything, they have to include the idea that God has obligations with regard to that which he promises and covenants.

(2) Consider the idea of God as being loving. Wolterstorff points out that there are ‘character-required’ actions – that is, actions that are required if a person of a certain character is going to act ‘in character’. Note that this doesn’t imply a norm from without that constrains the person.For God to act as a loving God means that some actions are required if he is in fact to act as a loving God (Wolterstorff’s specific thesis holds that a loving character entails being rights-honoring) . Perhaps we could translate this a bit more metaphysically and say that certain actions are required if one is to act in accordance with their nature – though I would be cautious in attempting such a translation. At any rate, this is another case of duty and obligation.

(3) Consider the idea of God commanding (Wolterstorff is coming from the perspective of divine command theory but the point applies whether or not one holds to it). The received wisdom says that God can’t or won’t obligate himself by issuing commands or divine legislation, but it is easy to see why this isn’t a necessary truth: surely it’s conceivable for a king to give an order to command which applies to his entire kingdom as well as the king himself. There’s nothing incoherent there.  Similarly, there’s nothing incoherent about the idea of God giving a command by which he is bound.

(4) As for divine rights, here I think an interesting example can be found in Calvin’s commentary on the ninth chapter of Genesis:

For the greater confirmation of the above doctrines God declares, that he is not thus solicitous respecting human life rashly, and for no purpose. Men are indeed unworthy of God’s care, if respect be had only to themselves. but since they bear the image of God engraven on them, He deems himself violated in their person. Thus, although they have nothing of their own by which they obtain the favor of God, he looks upon his own gifts in them, and is thereby excited to love and to care for them. This doctrine, however is to be carefully observed that no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself.

If Calvin is correct here, then if it is possible to wound God, then God has a right to our not wounding him. Our obligation, in other words, is to treat the other person in such a way as to not violate the person and so not violate God. God’s rights are a result of his love for the person. Wolterstorff points out that God loves each person with love as attachment – to wrong that which you are attached to is to wrong you. To treat people unjustly is to treat unjustly that to which God is attached: ‘On account of God’s attachment to human beings, one wrongs God by injuring a human being.’ (Justice in Love, p. 154)

4 thoughts on “Could God Have Rights and Duties?

  1. Rod Lampard November 13, 2016 / 7:25 pm

    I like the emphasis on Covenant here. The notion that God acted, acts and will continue to do so.What you’ve pointed out above, is, in a round about way, equivalent to saying that, God’s commitment to humanity, empowers humanity for commitment. Both to God and to one another.

    I’ve drawn some of this out of Barth’s thought on ‘the basis of the Divine claim’, where he talks about the ‘imperative of obedience’, how Jesus is the Gospel, and how the ‘law is completely enclosed in the Gospel’ (557) in the latter part of 2/2.

    One could even line up the above, with the statement from Barth, ‘it is a matter of the obedience of the One who is received and accepted by God in free grace…this is obedience of the free man to the free God = real obedience” (561).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. PeterJ November 15, 2016 / 11:37 am

    I feel that Wolterstorff is profoundly naive and that his ideas on God are childish. But each to his own.


    • Joshua November 19, 2016 / 8:26 pm

      ‘out of the mouths of babes…’


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