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Is it good because God says it is or…

In the interests of keeping damned dirty philosophy out of The King's English... here's a little diversion on the topic of "Behold it was very good"...

There's a very ancient question in philosophy: Is a thing good because god says it is, or does god say it's good because it is good?

We probably want the answer to be the latter.

Instinctively we don't trust god (or the gods) and we don't want to cede to divinity the right to judge.  We'd rather be the arbiters and we'd rather there be a standard of good outside of god to which god just has to shrug his shoulders and say "Gotta admit, that's good."

Now within the terms of this thought experiment, that's interesting isn't it?  We'd probably rather trust an impersonal standard than a personal god.  There's a window onto our hearts.

But the reason the philosopher likes posing this question is because at this point she has you!  "Aha!" comes the gleeful riposte, "now you have something outside of god - something to which god is subject.  Gotcha!"

While this is a problem for the god of philosophy, it's not a problem for the God of the bible.  For all eternity there has been something alongside the Father - and not just one thing, because if that were the case then all of reality would fall into 'Father' and 'not-Father'.  If there were only two eternal Persons, the only sense of distinction that could exist would be between self and not-self.  Otherness would be tantamount to negation, or at leasty threat.

But no, in the living God there is true distinction and particularity because besides the Father there has always been His Son and His Spirit.  There not only can be things 'outside' the Father which move Him - He always has been most moved by His Son and effusive in the praise He showers upon Him.  This praise is intimately linked to the Spirit in Scripture (for instance, Isaiah 42:1).

Now Jesus both is good and is called good by the Father.  And neither truth is more foundational than the other - for the goodness of the Son and the loving praise of the Father are (here's a word for you!) equiprimordial - that is, equally old.  Equally ultimate.

When the Father creates a world through and for His Son, the very dynamic for creation is that eternal praise.  The world exists to be drawn into and under the Son - to share in this life of goodness and appreciation.

So the Father's approval of the world is not simply a divine imposition.  He is moved to make this acclamation - and moved by something 'out there'.  But the 'out there-ness' is not a brute fact.  The world is not good in and of itself.  There is none good but God alone!  The world is good as an expression of the Father's love for Christ, as a proclamation of Christ the Craftsman's glory, as an inheritance for the Beloved Son.

God loves the world for the sake of His Son.  And its goodness - in fact all goodness - is always related to its orientation towards Christ.

12 thoughts on “Is it good because God says it is or…

  1. Pingback: And Behold, it was very good | The King's English

  2. coldfusion

    "This is a problem for the god of philosophy, it’s not a problem for the God of the bible"

    This is just anti-intellectual anti-philosophy of religion nonsense. It is fairly common knowledge that it is a false dichotomy.

    The rest of your post doesn't feel like it is actually dealing with the logical problem posed.

    IMHO the good is not arbitrarily chosen by God, nor recognised by God, but he commands in line with his nature - being a fully authentic community/being.

  3. Heather

    God loves the world for the sake of His Son. And its goodness – in fact all goodness – is always related to its orientation towards Christ.

    Okay, so, I'm wondering whether there is any such creature as genuine "objectivity"?

    Maybe that's off-topic.

    I recently had a go-around with someone concerning whether "good deeds" can be considered good outside of giving God the credit for being the source of all goodness.

  4. Tim C

    @coldfusion - no false dichotomy at all; there is a profound difference between the God of philosophy (usually some kind of unitarian, monolithic substance) and the God of the Bible (triune, multi-personal, perichoretical). You seem to recognise this by calling God a fully authentic community/being but deny this distinction to Glen? Help me out here if I'm misreading you.

    @glen - I'm gonna be exploring the depths of this one for a while to come! :-)

  5. Hin-Tai

    Woah, crazy, I'm currently doing an essay on exactly this topic, and I came onto your blog for a break...!

    Very interesting take - in my essay I take the line similar to coldfusion, that God's will doesn't define goodness, but God's character does, and His will is just an expression of that...

    @Glen / coldfusion: I don't think there needs to be any conflict between either of your views: things are good ultimately because they reflect God's nature, and God's nature is three persons loving one another; so, God calls creation good because He is moved by its goodness, but ultimately its goodness comes from the fact that it is an expression of God's love for His Son, which is fundamentally [part of?] God's nature.

    Very interesting!

    Thinking through this reminds me of your post about Christ being eternally begotten _and_ begotten on Easter morning... it seems to tie in here, in that the nature of God isn't static substance but dynamic, personal interaction!

    p.s. relatedly, you might be intrigued/amused/exasperated to know that in one of my 'damned dirty' philosophy lectures the lecturer drew a related, similar conclusion on how a philosophical analysis of 'existence' shows that fundamentally, being and becoming are inextricably one, that being _is_ becoming, and this leads us towards the existence of a God who is both eternal being and eternal becoming! maybe philosophy of religion is slowly catching up in some quarters...

  6. coldfusion

    Tim C,

    I think that philosophy is 'thinking well' and that it is

    - a straw man
    - intellectually dishonest
    - culturally conservative (which we should see as unbiblical)
    - not answering the question

    to simply write off philosophy.

    Yes, some philosophy deals with God as an abstraction

    - some doesn't
    - what is wrong with sanctified abstraction?
    - what does theology use to bring conceptual clarity?

  7. coldfusion


    That's because in an essay you have to answer the question. And with an abstracted logical problem, you need an answer that actually bears upon that problem.

    There are a lot of assumptions in the move that a philosophical analysis of existence shows that being and becoming are inextricably one. The God that I believe in is not becoming anyone. He is completely and wholly beyond the 'is' or the 'to be is not to be'.

    Hope you get a good mark in your paper

  8. John B

    Hi coldfusion,

    "Philosophy is the handmaiden of theology", is a good recap of the historical view of the church towards the relationship between these two sciences.

    The starting point of theology is the self-revelation of God.

    God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds. (Hebrews 1:1, 2)

    Philosophy serves theology when it adopts this premise as its first principle.

    In modern times, especially, philosophy has inclined to go its own way—starting from its ideas about God, rather than His own self-revelation. Hence, the "handmaiden" becomes "damned dirty philosophy". The breach surely isn't irreparable, but it's pervasive these days.

    Although this post seems to take a dim view of philosophy, the very next one, "What kind of world do we live in?" may be much more agreeable to you. That post advocates the reading of Romans 1:18-20 that is so popular with Christian philosophers. This passage is cited in support of the assertion that, just as the Old and New Testaments are in complete continuity, the "testament" of nature stands in full continuity with the written testaments as well!

    "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"

    a.) damned and dirty

    b.) handmaiden

    c.) another testament

  9. Paul Blackham

    John B, yes I often talk of the two books of God's Word: the creation and the Bible. I have always loved Calvin's idea that the Bible is like a pair of spectacles that correct our vision so that we can read the book of nature as we should.



  10. Glen

    To Hin-Tai and others - Paul B has some great stuff on this question on his site:

    Go to the 'Frameworks' tab of the header and then in the sidebar click on "Frameworks 1/4/c" and afterwards, "Frameworks 1/4/d"

    When I have a moment I'll post them up on the blog in an easy-to-read format - if that's ok with you Paul??

  11. John B

    Hi Paul,

    All best wishes with your book! It sounds like an intriguing meditation on God's revelation in nature. And I like your demonstration of the idea that God's revelation, both in nature and the OT, is never contrary to the NT. Great stuff!

    I too, find Calvin to be an excellent guide to scriptural thinking. His "spectacles" are a great image for the illumination of our souls by the Sun of Righteousness who sends the Spirit who quickens us with the breathe of life. For Calvin, revelation is not progressive. All of our intellectual wisdom is first and above all submitted before the foolishness of the cross.

    There's much of Calvin in what you've said. But, your reading of Romans 1:18-20 is very different from Calvin's commentary on these verses.

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