Primer on Divine Goodness (Part 2: Philosophical Reflection)

God is goodIn my last post, I considered the teachings of Scripture concerning the character of God. The Bible is clear that God himself is good, the source of all good things, and good to all that He has made. In light of that discussion, let us define divine goodness as following:

 Divine goodness = (df) God is wholly and essentially good

To say that God is wholly good means that there is no defect or blemish in His character, intentions, or actions. He is completely and thoroughly good. Further, as an essentially good being, goodness is so firmly entrenched in God, that it is impossible for Him to do wrong or be wicked (as some put it, God is impeccable). Even more amazingly, he cannot be tempted to do evil (see James 1:13, “God cannot be tempted by evil.”) The claim that there are certain things that God can’t do should not surprise us. The traditional doctrine of divine omnipotence allows that there are many things a supremely perfect being can’t do. And arguably if God could perform evil acts, God would be less perfect or less worship worthy than if he could not. Still, there are problems with this conception of divine goodness.

Consider the claim that God’s actions are without defect or blemish. One historically important way of understanding this claim is to say that God always acts according to universal moral principles, satisfying without fail duties such as truth-telling and promise keeping, and engaging in acts of supererogation. Call this the ‘duty model’ of divine goodness. On this model, God, like us, has duties, but unlike us, God satisfies them perfectly.[1]

The problem is this. Many theists favor a libertarian analysis of divine action. But, on the duty model, an essentially good being necessarily acts in accordance with moral principles. But then it is not the case that God exemplifies the kind of (libertarian) freedom required for duties to arise at all. Thus, either the duty model of divine goodness, libertarian (divine) freedom, or the essential goodness of God must be rejected, or so it seems.

The philosopher Thomas Morris argues the duty model, a kind of libertarian (divine freedom), and God’s essential goodness can all be coherently held together by noting the distinction between being bound by moral duty and acting in accordance with moral duty.[2] Human beings are under obligation to the moral law, but God, because of His distinctive nature, is not bound by it, rather He is the source of the moral law. Nevertheless, God will act in accordance with those principles that would express duties for us. Thus, while God does not literally have duties, we can still have well grounded expectations that God will act in accordance with those duties, given his essential goodness.

But, is such an act morally significant, since God, of necessity, must act according to moral duties? Morris argues that such acts are significantly free as follows. Consider God’s act of making a promise to give Abraham a son. God was free to make the promise or not to make the promise. Further, once made, while God must act in accordance with the promise, given the “open texture” of the promise, God could have fulfilled it in a number of different ways. Thus, God is significantly free. All God’s freedom requires is that He be able to do alternatives to what He does; it does not require that these alternatives be evil.[3] As C.S. Lewis puts it:

Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it. The freedom of God consists in the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them—that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and his own omnipotence the air in which they all flower.[4]

There are many more objections that could (and should) be considered when considering the doctrine of divine goodness including the problem of evil (considered here and here), the problem of divine hiddenness (considered here and here and here), the charge that the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster (considered here), and the problem of hell.

Still, I think we can conclude the following. God is not merely good, or good for us, in the way that broccoli and brussel sprouts are good for us. God’s goodness is more complex, more textured and teethed. And to understand it requires us to accept the fact, from the start, that man is not the centre of things.

This picture of God’s goodness reminds me of the much-quoted Lewis line about Aslan: he is good, but he is not safe. God’s goodness is not a sentimental quality without teeth. Instead it is an awe-inspiring quality. It’s a goodness that can see us through the toughest of times. It is a goodness that has our best in mind, even when we suffer. It is a goodness that pursues us and longs to make us whole, it is a goodness that (ultimately) shares of itself and takes our pain and makes it His on the cross. And because God is good, we can find hope in times of darkness, and comfort in times of suffering.

[1] This, of course, is only a partial model of divine goodness, focusing on God’s actions only, and not his character or intentions.

[2] Thomas Morris, “Duty and Divine Goodness,” in Anselmian Explorations (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), Chapt. 2.

[3] Morris seems to endorse something like the following principle, offered by Edward Wierenga:

SMF: If a person P is morally good in performing an action x in a world W1 at a time t then there is a world W2 such that (i) W1 and W2 share an initial segment up to t, and (ii) in W2 P does not cause Ps performing x at t.

See Edward Wierenga, The Nature of God (Ithaca, NY; Cornell University Press, 1989), 211.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 26-27.

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