God is Good (part 1)

So God is sovereign, he is infinite, all powerful, knows everything and is in control. But that still doesn’t answer the question ‘what is God like?’  This all powerful God could be a sort of gentle giant or a mean ogre. In fact, for many people, the description of an all-powerful God is likely to suggest the latter.  A God who is in control becomes a controlling deity. A God who knows everything is complicit in evil, manipulating or interfering. Either that or God is big, powerful and infinite but distant, disengaged and impersonal. In summary, God may be great, but we still haven’t answered the question, “Is God good?”

And so we come to some more attributes that describe God and tell us something about His goodness.  In this section, we will return to the wonderful truth that God is love. Then we will go on to see that God is good because He is wise, holy, righteous and just. These things all reflect his goodness.  But first of all, a little conundrum.

How do we know what goodness is?

Or in other words, is God good because he matches up to some given criteria of goodness? If so, is God really good? Surely this would mean that there is a standard which God has to conform to, but who or what sets that standard?

Or if God is sovereign, doesn’t that mean that He gets to decide what goodness is? But if God sets the standard for goodness, then doesn’t that make the concept as a moral ideal meaningless? It becomes an arbitrary quality. This is sometimes referred to as the Euthyphro problem, as John Frame explains:

“So Plato, In Euthyphro, poses the question of whether piety is what the gods say it is, or whether the gods command piety because of its intrinsic nature, apart from their own wishes. In Plato’s mind, the former makes the nature of piety arbitrary, one that could be changed on the whim of a god.  But the second alternative, which Plato certainly prefers, means that piety is independent of the will of the gods, something to which the gods’ opinions are subject.  So either piety is arbitrary or the gods are subject to something higher than themselves.”[1]

As Frame argues, the problem comes from failing to see the attributes of God as personal. They become abstract and separate from him as a person.  In Greek thinking, and in the end in much of polytheism, personal gods were limited and finite. They were not the true divine power. True divinity, true otherness was impersonal and distant. In the end, even the gods were subject to abstract concepts such as fate.

Frame puts it this way:

“In my view, the problem arises from the inability of Plato and other philosophers to see goodness as something personal. Many of them never seem to question the view that goodness, truth, etc., are impersonal.  They reason that since goodness is an abstract entity, it cannot be identical with a person.”[2]

He acknowledges that “A form of circularity here is unavoidable”[3] because:

“There is always a kind of circularity when we are dealing with an ultimate standard. If one’s standard of truth is human reasons, one can argue for that standard only by a rational argument, an argument that presupposes the truth of its conclusion.”[4]

This is something that our contemporary world struggles with. We don’t like the idea of an ultimate standard or authority.  So many times I am told when I make a statement “but that is just your opinion.”  But if I treat everything subjectively, then what I say is that I and I only will provide the standard of truth. I will choose to believe what I choose to believe.  So in other words, as we discovered when we looked at how we can know truth, there is always an ultimate authority. There is always a final standard, whether external (I believe an expert, tradition or peer) or internal (I follow my own heart). So, to some extent, there will always be some circularity at some point.

Now as Frame explains, we can either have a narrow circularity (“it is so because it is so”) or a wide circularity which takes into account the reality of our experience and shows that the truth claim is proved in the heat of life. So with regards to goodness,

“The biblical writers never say that God is good because he is good. That would be narrow circularity.  Rather they describe and praise God’s might acts of deliverance, his kindness in providence, and his grace in salvation. These are big, bold obvious evidences of goodness.”[5]

In other words, the objective statement and the subjective experience will normally match up. Remember, this was how we responded to Scripture. We trust God’s Word to be true because it is God’s true and reliable word and it claims to be true. It is the final authority and so it is not subject to another authority testing its truthfulness. However, that truth has been proven time and time again as we have been able to rely on it.

It’s the same with goodness. I know what goodness looks like because the good God defines it both by what he says and what he is like.  I live the reality of that goodness and prove it in my experience of life. I see the way that God provides for my needs, I see beauty, I find joy, peace and comfort in his world and specifically in my relationship to Him. So the subjective and the objective tally up. I guess I could try to say that joy, laughter, love, food etc. are really bad things and that bullying, the mindless infliction of pain, lying, manipulation, theft etc. are really good, but that just sounds and is ridiculous and I don’t really need to argue that one out!

So let’s go on to see some of those characteristics which shout out God’s infinite goodness.

[1]Frame, The Doctrine of God, 405.

[2] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 406.

[3] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 407.

[4] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 407.

[5] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 408.