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God and 'the Good' by Paul Blackham

From Paul's brilliant Frameworks papers.  Check them all out here:

Let’s begin with the question in the form that Socrates asked it in Plato’s Euthyphro.

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

Forgetting these pagan gods, we ask of the One Living God, do the Father, Son and Holy Spirit love goodness because it is intrinsically good… or is it that whatever they love is defined as good because they love it?

Do they define goodness or justice or truth or mercy or love… or are they defined by universal concepts of goodness, justice, truth, mercy and love?

Many people, at first, think that the Trinity love goodness because it is good.  However, where did that definition of goodness come from if even the Father, Son and Holy Spirit follow it?  It sounds as if there is a definition of goodness that ‘exists’ before and above the Living God! All qualities or ‘universals’ would then exist prior to [in a logical sense] the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We would need to first determine these ‘universals’ if we were going to get an accurate idea of the Trinity.

If we thought about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in this way, then we would have to find out which of these universals apply to the Divine Three.  We would build up a ‘jigsaw’ picture of God by finding out which of all these ‘universals’ fit the Living God.  God would then seem to be a collection of qualities or attributes.

This is not a solution that seems to do justice to the utter freedom and sovereignty and glory of the Trinity as revealed in the Bible.
Robert Reymond says that this makes God look like a pincushion full of pins.  God would be a sort of cosmic bag full of eternal qualities!

How can the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be defined by these other things?

How can anything stand over or define the Living God?

How can the Living God be described as a collection of attributes? So, what of the other option?  What if we say that goodness, justice, truth, mercy and love have no eternal reality other than the Living God?  Great theologians like Augustine and philosophers like Aquinas have pursued this option.

Under this view, goodness, justice, truth, mercy and love are not ‘real’ but merely the labels that our minds give to things.  None of these things really exist, but exist only as ‘names’ in our minds.  They are intellectual terms rather than universal realities.

God not merely defines these things, but is the very definition of them.  The Living God is goodness, justice, truth, mercy, love etc.  Whatever we mean by these ‘names’ is simply what God is.  We see the way that the Living God speaks and behaves and we use many names to describe this.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not have codes of justice, mercy, truth and love that they need to follow.  The Trinity simply are what they are… and we can give expression to the life of the Trinity by using all these different names to describe their simple life.

We give the many names of goodness, mercy, truth, love etc. to the one simple being that is God.

All creatures are made up of lots of different things, defined by different qualities and ideas.  The Trinity is the definition of everything. From this perspective then, the Trinity is simple: not composed of parts.

However, there are still a couple of problems.

First, someone might say, “wait just a minute!  The Trinity is composed of three parts: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit!”

The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three ‘things’ that happen to be joined together.  They are not three ‘beings’ that are added together to form the Living God.

We must never think of the Father as having one kind of life and the Son having another kind of life and the Spirit as having yet another kind of life.

The Trinity shares the same life.

The Trinity is not an alliance of three different lives.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit live the same life.

We cannot conceive of the Father on His own, any more than we can conceive of the Son or the Spirit alone.  The Trinity is the One God, the one life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

If we were to say that the Trinity is not composed of different parts, we would not be rejecting the Three Persons.  The idea of “Divine simplicity” is an attempt to reject the idea that there are concepts or realities that are more basic [components] than the Three Persons.

The Father, Son and Holy Spirit define the life of the Living God… and nothing else.  There are no prior components beneath them or above them.  When we study their life we are studying the absolutely basic and final reality, the reality that defines everything else.

The second problem of simplicity involves our knowledge of the one life of the Trinity.

Of course, all these are just human speculations and ham-fisted attempts at thinking big thoughts, but if we go with it for the moment… If the life of the LivingGod is the definition of everything, all the attributes of God are the same thing – the life of the Trinity.  What to us are different things are all just one thing within the divine life.

So, within the Trinity beauty is the same as goodness, which is the same as truth, which is the same as power, which is the same as justice etc.  To us these seem to be different things because in our minds we conceive of them with different names, but within the life of the Trinity they don’t exist as different things.  The life of the Trinity is pure and simple, without parts.

So, how can we talk about the love of the Trinity as distinct from the justice of the Trinity?  How can we define the power of the Trinity as distinct from the holiness of the Trinity?

To us the justice of God is distinct from the love of God, yet the simplicity of the Trinity means that they cannot be distinguished within the divine life.  If knowledge means the same as love, and power means the same as holiness within the Trinity, then we can’t really say anything meaningful at all about the life of the Trinity.

If this human idea of “divine simplicity” were true then we can speak only about the effects of the Trinity upon us, but we cannot speak about the actual life of the Trinity.

If mercy, truth, goodness, power and holiness are merely intellectual labels, then our thinking about the Trinity is something that exists only in our minds rather than ‘out there’: these thoughts are not descriptions of the real, eternal life of the Trinity, but simply an idea in our minds.

“If in God eternity is identical with knowledge, knowledge with power… we are using words without meaning when we attribute any perfection to God. We must, therefore, either give up the attempt to determine the divine attributes from our speculative idea of an infinite essence, or renounce all knowledge of God, and all faith in the revelation of Himself, which He has made in the constitution of our nature, in the external world, and in his Word. Knowledge is no more identical with power in God than it is in us.”

Louis Berkhof has similar reservations about this nominalist position.

It is commonly said in theology that God’s attributes are God himself, as he has revealed himself to us… It was further asserted by the Scholastics that the whole essence of God is identical with each one of the attributes, so that God’s knowing is God, God’s willing is God, and so on. Some of them even went so far as to say that each attribute is identical with every other attribute, and that there are no logical distinctions in God. This is a very dangerous extreme. While it may be said that there is an interpenetration of the attributes in God, and that they form a harmonious whole, we are moving in the direction of Pantheism, when we rule out distinctions in God, and say that his self-existence is his infinity, his knowing is his willing, his love is his righteousness, and vice versa.

How can this be resolved?  Are we stuck between two human traditions of philosophy?  You will have noticed, I’m sure, that in all these thoughts and speculations, Jesus of Nazareth has played no part whatsoever.  If we were to begin with Jesus… if our system of thought were to really begin with Him… then might it be possible to find new possibilities, new answers?

The Realist can define the life of God by appealing to the universal categories… but the cost is that the universals become more basic than God.  The Nominalist can define the life of God… but only as it is in our minds; not as the life of God objectively is. What we need is an eternal expression of the life of God.

What we need is an eternal, divine mind that comprehends that eternal life of the Trinity.

What we need is a mind that has eternally ‘named’ and ‘labelled’ the divine life so that we can be given that way of thinking from within the Trinity.

What we need is a Divine Mind or Logos that could give to the creation His own way of thinking.

What we need is a Divine Image who could express the life of the Trinity.

We are, of course, thinking of God the Son, who is the perfect expression of the Divine Life.

Hebrews 1:3 “The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being…”

The life of the Trinity has already been expressed in the Eternal Son.  The Living God is not a lonely, unexpressed life, but a vital fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Before there ever was a creation, the Father eternally begot the Son.  The Son is the Word of the Father, the perfect expression of the divine life.  He is the Logos, the logic, the rational articulation of the Divine Life.  He is the ordered, expressed, comprehended expression of the life of the Trinity.

John 1:1-2 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.”

The great Jonathan Edwards described the Divine Son as we have tried to do here. Jonathan Edwards is very helpful when he describes the Trinity in this way.

It’s common when speaking of the Divine happiness to say that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of Himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving, and rejoicing in, His own essence and perfections, and accordingly it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of Himself, as it were an exact image and representation of Himself ever before Him and in actual view, and from hence arises a most pure and perfect act or energy in the Godhead, which is the Divine love, complacence and joy…

So, Edwards argues that the eternal Trinity gained great joy from have a clear and eternal and perfect representation of that divine life.  In everlasting ages, the Trinity was able to have a detailed and clear analysis of the kind of life that they lived together. In fact, Edwards goes on to suggest that this expression of the divine life is not just a mere idea but is actually one of the Three Divine Persons.

Therefore as God with perfect clearness, fullness and strength, understands Himself, views His own essence (in which there is no distinction of substance and act but which is wholly substance and wholly act), that idea which God hath of Himself is absolutely Himself... Hereby there is another person begotten, there is another Infinite Eternal Almighty and most holy and the same God, the very same Divine nature. And this Person is the second person in the Trinity, the Only Begotten and dearly Beloved Son of God; He is the eternal, necessary, perfect, substantial and personal idea which God hath of Himself; and that it is so seems to me to be abundantly confirmed by the Word of God.

Now, let’s catch our breath for a moment.

Edwards was a man drinking deeply from the Scriptures and clearly wants to take Jesus very, very seriously.  However, does all this thought really come from the Bible?  Does the Bible really suggest that Jesus is the eternal image and expression of the incomprehensible life of God?

Nothing can more agree with the account the Scripture gives us of the Son of God, His being in the form of God and His express and perfect image and representation: (2 Cor 4:4) "Lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ Who is the image of God should shine unto them" (Phil 2:6). "Who being in the form of God" (Col 1:15). "Who is the image of the invisible God" (Heb 1:3). "Who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person."

Those verses are certainly pretty powerful, but how does this view of Jesus fit into the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures?  When we study Moses, do we find the same view of Christ within the Trinity?  Edwards takes us deep into the study of Exodus 33 for this.

Christ is called the face of God (Exo 33:14): the word [A.V. presence] in the original signifies face, looks, form or appearance. Now what can be so properly and fitly called so with respect to God as God's own perfect idea of Himself whereby He has every moment a view of His own essence: this idea is that "face of God" which God sees as a man sees his own face in a looking glass. 'Tis of such form or appearance whereby God eternally appears to Himself. The root that the original word comes from signifies to look upon or behold: now what is that which God looks upon or beholds in so eminent a manner as He doth on His own idea or that perfect image of Himself which He has in view? This is what is eminently in God's presence and is therefore called the angel of God's presence or face (Isa 63:9).

We can give Jonathan Edwards perhaps just one more paragraph before we must gather our thoughts together about all this.  In the next quotation from Edwards he looks at this understanding of Jesus from the perspective of Jesus as the eternal Wisdom of God.

But that the Son of God is God's own eternal and perfect idea is a thing we have yet much more expressly revealed in God's Word. First, in that Christ is called "the wisdom of God." If we are taught in the Scripture that Christ is the same with God's wisdom or knowledge, then it teaches us that He is the same with God's perfect and eternal idea. They are the same as we have already observed and I suppose none will deny. But Christ is said to be the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24, Luke 11:49, compare with Matt 23:34); and how much doth Christ speak in Proverbs under the name of Wisdom especially in the 8th chapter.

Edwards has been of great service to us here.  If we take the Biblical titles of Jesus seriously then we can see that He is nothing less than the eternal expression of the fullness of the divine life.  We do not need to wait for the creation to happen for “minds” to analyse and understand the divine life.  Such an analysis and expression is already accomplished by Jesus the Eternal Son.

Now, our fear might be that such an infinite and glorious Logos must be utterly beyond our own thinking and living. Surely as mere creatures we could never think like this Eternal Son thinks. Surely our limited and created life must shut us out from the Word’s thinking and living. Surely, as creatures we can have no contact with such a Logos. John wants to reassure us, if we have such fears, as he goes on.

John 1:3-4 “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.”

This Eternal, Divine Logos is the One through whom all things were made.  His ‘logic’ is written into the very fabric of the universe.  The universe is not a distraction from the life of the Trinity, but a manifestation of that life through the Son.  The life of the Divine Logos is “the light of men.”  Our lives are always illuminated by Him.

Although we cannot exhaustively comprehend the life of the Trinity, yet we can truly know the divine life because we have been created through the Logos and He still ‘shines’ upon us.  He is [John 1:9] the “True Light that gives light to every man.”

Those that despair of human minds knowing anything of the inner life of the Trinity must take refuge in the Divine Logos, in Jesus of Nazareth.

So, we are not to think of the Trinity as composed of pre-existing realities [goodness, truth, mercy etc], as the Realists.  Neither are we to think of these attributes as existing only in our own minds, leaving the life of God hidden, as the Nominalists.

Rather, we are to begin from the Eternal Son as the Logos of God, the perfect expression of the Divine Life.  We are to come to His revelation in Scripture with confidence, knowing that He has created us to understand Himself and that He continues to shine upon us as we study His word. .

6 thoughts on “God and 'the Good' by Paul Blackham

  1. Hin-Tai

    This is a very valuable personal and devotional reminder - I've had my head stuck in a lot of philosophy recently. Thank you!

    Am I right in thinking that, essentially, you're saying:

    'God is not defined by 'the good'; nor does God define everything that is 'the good' by his partless, simple, ineffable being; instead, God is defined by His Son!'

    If so, that's a great foundation indeed!

    That said, I'm not convinced that you've dealt with some of philosophical issues (though equally I'm not convinced that you haven't). But I think they're of far less importance than the main point above, which I really appreciate!


    So, let me try to re-cast Euthyphro to get at what I'm trying to say. When we say Jesus is perfectly loving, and we say being perfectly loving is good, what is the relation here? Is 'being perfectly loving' good, just because it's characteristic of Jesus? Or does Jesus have it because the property is fundamentally what's good?

    I'm instinctively averse to the property-realist latter, for the same reasons you talked about above. So if we deny realism, then we're left with saying something like, 'Jesus doesn't _have_ the 'property' of being perfectly loving, but He simply _is_ perfectly loving, and that is the end of any (and all) explanation; Jesus is supreme over all.'

    _But_, then, it seems like I've drifted back towards divine simplicity, by identifying Jesus with His lovingness! I'm quite persuaded by your criticisms of the nominalist implications of divine simplicity; but then again, on the metaphysical level, I can't currently see any alternatives between realism-that-trumps-God and some sort of divine simplicity....

    ...which makes me want to think again about some of your criticisms against divine simplicity. Instead of thinking that God's simplicity puts a great gulf between the life and nature of God, and our knowledge of Him, is there not a case for thinking it's the other way round? That is, because God is in some sense _identical_ to His love and truth and justice and holiness, when we think and appreciate and marvel and describe God with such terms, we're thinking and appreciating and marvelling and describing the very nature of God Himself?

    Put another way - mercy, truth, goodness etc. are not mere intellectual labels: they are God Himself! As I type that anti-Platonic alarm bells are ringing loudly in my head, but maybe, that fact is _in itself_ due to my Platonism - I still fundamentally conceive of things like 'mercy' as static stoic properties, when really, divine simplicity should lead us to think of mercy in terms of the Triune God's nature/life!

    So, in summary, what I'm trying to say:
    1. we should definitely deny property realism
    2. but, to me, that seems to leave us with divine simplicity...
    3. but hopefully, if this is the case, divine simplicity - or maybe some modified form - could perhaps escape your important objections?

    Thanks :)

  2. Paul Blackham

    If you go for a form of divine simplicity, modified or not, can you describe any difference between the love of God and the justice of God?

    But, when you say "Put another way – mercy, truth, goodness etc. are not mere intellectual labels: they are God Himself!" it sounds as if you are going back to the realist position but defining the universals as divine. That will still sound a bit like a composite divine nature.

    If we acknowledge that the life of the Trinity is not composite but simple, then we also need to acknowledge that the simple life of the Trinity is "labelled" or "comprehended" or "defined" by the mind of Jesus. The labels are not independent of the mind of Christ. Though there are no such 'things' as love or justice, yet the Eternal Logos gives expression to the simple divine life in and through words and concepts of His choosing.

    In one sense we can say that love and justice and mercy and truth are mere intellectual labels... but they are the intellectual labels that the Logos Himself eternally uses of the divine life.

    Jesus gives a divine expression to the divine nature. If we want to know what love is, then we see how He defines and expresses that.

    Perhaps the best way to say this is that the divine nature is eternally refracted through Jesus into a comprehensive, perfect expression.

    Instead of trying to find a definition of 'love' that we then try to apply to the Trinity, perhaps we need to be much more concrete and particular. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? [1 John 3:16-17]

    Can we know what any of these things are other than in their expression in Jesus? Once these concepts are removed from His concrete expression of them they become abstract and therefore either mere human labels or attempts at universals.

    I just don't see a way of resolving these questions other than remaining constantly and completely fixed on Jesus.

    Whether you can write your essays in that way is a different question...

  3. Hin-Tai

    Hi Paul, thanks for the reply!

    Either I didn't express myself very well, or I'm misreading you in your reply a bit, but it seems to me that I agree with everything you just said! Though I guess that's preferable to being perfectly understood and completely in disagreement!

    To 'I just don’t see a way of resolving these questions other than remaining constantly and completely fixed on Jesus' I say a hearty amen. I definitely wasn't wanting to define universals as divine - I (think I) was pretty much trying to express what you just did.

    'Can we know what any of these things are other than in their expression in Jesus? Once these concepts are removed from His concrete expression of them they become abstract and therefore either mere human labels or attempts at universals.'

    To answer your question, I think you're completely right, we can't separate love and justice from Jesus - and that's what attracts me towards divine simplicity (notwithstanding its issues like distinguishing love and justice).

    Maybe I don't quite get divine simplicity, or I'm using the wrong words. And please forgive me if I'm misreading you. But I think I definitely agree with you!

    A final bit of thinking out loud - 'can you describe any difference between the love of God and the justice of God' - is there perhaps an argument in thinking everything - God's holiness, wisdom, justice, power, sovereignty, faithfulness.. .- comes down to God's 'holy love', seen fully at the cross? Might they all be different labels for different nuances and applications of His vast holy love?

  4. Kirstin

    Interesting... I find Edward's trinitarian theology non-intuitive, even if he does have a lot of verses to quote in support. His view of the Holy Spirit as the love between the Father and the Son, especially, seems to undervalue the Holy Spirit's personhood to me. Maybe if I think about it more I'll find that I agree, but I noticed you didn't mention that part of his ideas. Is it something you'd go with, or not?

  5. Pingback: The Sermon of Creation – Paul Blackham « Christ the Truth

  6. Dom

    This is why a report in the OT and NT church must be brought by two witnesses. In a way there can be no objective reality on the judgement of just one person – even if that person be God (John 8). If God were just one person then in eternity he either had other “attributes” more basic than himself that he was under and defined him or he just was who was with no one and nothing else beside him to validate his character. Yet, in the trinity we see the Father eternally witnessing to Himself in His Son, who is Faithful and True, in the fellowship of the a second person/witness further validating and beautifying his testimony to the divine goodness of the Father.

    I can see what Hin-Tai is saying about God’s holy love as “God is love”. This seems to support the nominalist view that merges all of God’s particular “attributes” into a universal amalgamation. But it isn’t as though God’s justice is the same as his wisdom but that justice is an aspect of God’s love just as God’s wisdom is an aspect of God’s love. It has been expressed by some that God’s wrath isn’t an equal counterpart to God’s love but a relatively new expression of his love against his creatures who reject God’s love, ultimately in the giving of His Son. In Jesus we see the love of God but we also see the power, wisdom, mercy, righteousness and justice of God all in his act of love. In the death of Jesus we see the light of God’s love refracted into the various colours of his divine nature.

    My last thought is that God is “named” imperfectly by mankind. The divine nature is perfectly reflected in the face of the unblemished image of God. But the divine nature is also reflected in fallen humanity as we are made in the image of God. Now, we are broken images and so instead of truly representing God, we by nature deform the beautiful light of God into ugliness. We can’t know God by ourselves. We need to look to Jesus.

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