John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 2, “What is a Divine Command?” Section 2.1.2: Precepts

The first of five scholastic distinctions when it comes to forms of God’s revealed will was precepts, which, in a broad sense, tell people to do something. Precepts can include warning, admonishment, and exhortation. For present purposes we can focus on just one kind of precept: commands that generate obligation. Roman Catholic theology teaches that a precept is universal and necessary for all to obey under threat of eternal damnation for disobedience. Hare prefers to say divine commands that generate obligation can be singular, and although they contain internal references to God’s authority and some kind of divine condemnation or chastening for disobedience, this is not necessarily eternal damnation.

Let’s start with some examples of speech acts using imperatives that are precepts in the broad sense, but not commands that generate obligation. 2 Thess. 3:15 says, “Count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” Brothers don’t have authority over each other simply as brothers. This is true also of warning, which is another way to translate the same text. Someone can warn me of a danger without having any authority over me. In some cases of admonishing and warning, there is authority presupposed, and in some cases not. The same is true with exhorting. It is false that all uses of the imperative to tell someone to do something (precepts in the broad sense) have internal reference to the authority of the speaker. Consider Psalm 84:8: “O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob.” These are imperatives used for the “precative” speech act of entreating. We obviously do not have authority over God.

When God admonishes or warns or exhorts, it might seem that there must be an internal reference to God’s authority in the meaning of the speech acts, but this is not the case. Consider the remarkable passage (Deut. 29-30) in which Moses gives his last address to the people of Israel, including the divine exhortations that the author calls “the words of the covenant,” which culminate in the prescription, “Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). Is this prescription a command? Hare thinks the passages suggests not. God is, properly speaking, exhorting them; setting before them two options, and urging one of the two. The relation in which they hear the command and obey is the goal they will obtain through this choice.

To explain this further, we need to see more clearly the relation between command and covenant. Deut. 28-31 is a form of covenant that is reciprocal, in the sense that it involves both God’s promise of life and the people’s required obedience, and it mentions punishment by God for disobedience. Not all divine covenants are like that. The covenant after the flood is self-imposed by the deity; the covenant with Noah and his sons is also a covenant with every living creature, and doesn’t seem conditional on the living creatures endorsing it somehow; the covenant with David seems to be promissory rather than reciprocal. In the case of the words of the covenant in Deuteronomy, the commands (in chapter 12-26) precede the promise of life, but that doesn’t mean that obedience to them precedes the making of the covenant. As Scotus says, to love God requires us to repeat in our wills God’s will for our willing, and such a repetition is obedience. In the same way, entering the covenant is entering into a relation that is expressed, on our side, by obedience. God becomes our God and we become God’s people. If this is right, it means that the divine commands that have internal reference by the meaning of the speech act to God’s authority may be within a covenant, but they also may not be. Covenants with a particular people are not the only way that God’s commands generate obligation.

There are other imperative sentences, ascribed to Jesus, that are not commands generating obligation. Jesus says in Matt. 11:28 “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Surely this is more like an invitation than a command. The same is true of much of the biblical language of “call,” which belongs to counsel rather than command. The connection between command and call is important; as Hare puts it, following Barth, the call is the point starting from which we are obedient. The command is to lead a life worthy of the calling (Ephesians 4:1), but the calling itself is not exactly a command; it is, when answered, the context of the command. Hare proposes that we say that “command” (in the narrow sense) has internal reference to authority as part of the meaning of the speech act, with some kind of condemnation envisaged for failure. When God calls and invites, the speech act is not itself, by its meaning, tied to authority or condemnation for failure (though Hare isn’t denying that the God who calls and invites us is also authoritative).

To make the discussion less abstract, Hare wants to give an “inner prompting” concrete example of a prescription. He notes, first, that Evans makes a list of nine ways God can communicate prescriptions to us: scripture, natural law, the magisterium of an ecclesiastical body, specific commands of God to an individual, examining our natural inclinations, listening to our conscience, teaching from other humans as God’s requirements, teaching from other humans who do not recognize them as God’s requirements, and human social requirements such as legal obligations, family obligations, and obligations of other socially defined roles.

The example Hare gives is of a graduate student who feels prompted late at night to go visit a nearby friend. Suppose he does, and his friend is horribly depressed and desperately needs encouragement. Why take the voice or prompting as a divine voice prior to obeying it? Hare offers some pointers: the voice didn’t present itself as a construction of his own imagination. He recognized the voice as one he had followed in the past, and it had told him the truth. The voice was unshakeable, silencing objections. Following it yielded peace. Afterwards, he had the additional reason that he discovered the voice was telling him to do something unexpected that turned out to be good. None of this, of course, is a final demonstration of the claim that it was God’s command; mental hospitals are full of people who could say these sorts of things about inner voices. But this is at least a brief account of the phenomenology involved.