The goodness of God

In the article linked from my last post, about animal suffering and therefore, by extension, about “natural evil” and theodicy in general, one sentence might have given careful readers pause for thought:

It is debatable whether Aquinas understood God’s goodness to entail that He perfectly meets a certain set of moral obligations.

The author footnotes Brian Davies’s book The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, in which this idea is explored in depth. I think such an understanding actually follows naturally from the way that Aquinas (as the article points out) sees the “goodness” of God as more or less synonymous with his very existence. If God is “pure act”, as Thomism implies, then all God’s qualities are essential parts of that “being”, and therefore cannot be obligations, any more than my having two legs is an “obligation”. The idea of God as “a moral being” is actually incompatible with that – but so too would his being an “immoral being”. The language is simply analogically inappropriate to God, rather like trying to discuss if God is cuddly or not.

To be moral is to comply with, or at least to be obligated to, some standard external to, and higher than, oneself. This is recognisable from the word’s etymology, from Latin mores, customs. This assumes morals arising in a social setting – that there is some set of customs amongst men to which good people comply and others ought to.

One can see how, in later religious reflection, the concept could then be raised above human society and its ways (understood as more or less corrupt in its customs through sin), to a standard imposed by God, and specifically by his divinely appointed Law (if you like, the customs he urges upon mankind). But that does not mean, of itself, that they are customs amongst some “community of gods” to which God himself is obliged to submit. Indeed, I would argue that they cannot be if he is the Creator of all things, and deems them all “good” as he does in Genesis.

An oak tree does not have free will, but does have “customs” that God imprints upon it through creation: it will grow from an acorn, have a particular growth habit and typical leaves, and so on. Though we don’t habitually do so nowadays, this could justly be called “the law of the oak” just as more basic principles of nature, like gravity, are called “laws” – both are properties of God-given natures, and therefore in some way (as Aquinas teaches) inevitably reflect some aspect of God’s own being/goodness.

A daffodil, say, though also a flowering plant, has quite a diffent law from the oak involving bulbs, spring, yellow trumpets and so on – yet still reflecting, in its special way, the goodness of God’s being. The same, obviously, is true in a greater way for the differences between a daffodil and a cow, whose law is to eat grass peacefully (and, incidentally, to be potentially poisoned by both daffodils and acorns). The law of the lion, equally God-given, is to eat the cow that isn’t quick enough to escape, but not even to have a go at acorns or daffodils.

Now humans are obviously subject to the same type of “given” laws as all these, and like them our natural “law” is unique. We walk upright, have opposable thumbs, speech and … well, presumably you know all the rest from experience, unless you’re a daffodil or a cow. But in his wisdom, God has made a significant part of our nature, which we call “morality”, something we acquire by free choice, in practice largely from the mores of our society.

The Genesis story of Adam, however, implies that this “optional”, perhaps essentially spiritual, knowledge was intended to be learned first at the feet of God, in some way modeled by the way he showed himself to the man and woman and taught them in the garden, a process tragically interrupted by their stealing moral wisdom (so-called) apart from God, from the forbidden tree in the midst of the garden.

We may suppose, nevertheless, that the external standard of the Mosaic Law, summarised in the Ten Words, reflects what they would have internalised into their very nature had they remained in the garden (just as God’s law is internalised progressively through the new covenant of eternal life in Christ). But this Law, though still a Law derived from the goodness, or being, of God, is equally specific to man (and not to lions, cows, daffodils or oaks). It is a God-given law for a lion to kill and eat its step-children, or a spider its mate. For a human it would be murder.

Another analogy might be the “three laws of robotics” proposed, in fiction, by Isaac Asimov and still regarded seriously, I believe, in the field of AI. Bear in mind that, being the product of science -fiction, they assumed robots to be conscious and self-aware and not mere Turing-machines. The laws state:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Now, these laws are legitimately imposed on the machine by its maker, but do not thereby limit the behaviour of the latter. A robot would be quite wrong to conclude from the first law that humans ought not to have the death penalty among themseleves, nor from the second that humans should all obey each other, nor from the third that it was wrong for a human to destroy a robot. A man is not a robot, as Brian Aldiss (recently deceased) explored in another classic science fiction tale. The most that could be derived by a robot-anthropologist are some general principles behind the laws: that human life is considered very valuable, that discipline plays some role in the human worldview, and that property, or at least robot property, has some value to man that overrides creaturely autonomy.

The “species specificity” of appropriate behaviour follows in the distinction between God and man too. God is no more a man than he is a lion or a daffodil. This is clear from the fact that none of the Ten Commandments could, even in principle, reflect God’s own “customs”. God could not worship gods before himself when he knows there are none (1). He could not be guilty of idolatry, as an Israelite would, when he made an image of himself of dust and called it “Adam”(2). He could not misuse his own name (3), and nor could he violate the sabbath since he lives in timeless eternity and is, within himself, the True Sabbath rest (4). He has no parents to dishonour (5). As the Author of all life he has the right to end it as he sees fit, so how could he commit murder? (6). There are no goddesses with whom he might even want to commit adultery, as Zeus did in his polytheistic universe (7). Owning “the cattle on a thousand hills” because he made all things, when “the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away” it cannot constitute theft (8). Neither can the God who owns all things covet anything (10). And to what judge, beyond himself, could God bear false testimony? (9)

From what we have seen so far, although there ought to be nothing in God that ultimately contradicts the Law he gives us, we would expect there to be (if I may improperly use the term for now) a specific and unique “Law” appropriate to being God – and actually, it would have to be one that somehow encompasses all the laws he gives to his creatures great and small as he creates them from the abundance of his goodness. But such a “law” cannot be called “moral” (or such “morality” cannot be called a “Law”), since it is not an obligation to anything, but is simply what God is: “I am what I am”.

The only concept that one can really use for this is that of “arbitrariness”. To us, that word usually implies deciding on a whim, but in its origin it has the sense of the highest court possible and its authority.

In the art world, the Wildenstein Institute in Paris has been appointed the final arbiter on the genuineness of works by Monet. If you disagree with their decision, you will nevertheless fail to get your Monet accepted by the art world. In the same way if parties to a contract can’t agree, they appoint an arbitrator, and his decision should be beyond criticism – there is no higher authority.

Now, if God is the final arbiter of the fundamental qualities behind morality – truth, justice, righteousness, love – then there is no higher standard than himself by which his own actions may be judged. And he is the final arbiter of these things, simply because he is their only source, and they constitute (with his other attributes) his essence. God’s actions, then, are in the highest sense “arbitrary” – for he is the final arbiter of all morality. It is simply meaningless to say what God ought to do, or to criticise what he has done or promises to do. In this case, man and his morality are not the measure of all things – except to those men living in the spirit of Adam after he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, believing that they are God’s judges rather than the reverse.

The Puritan Richard Baxter saw this well. In Catholick Theologie (1675) he wrote:

All that God doth and commandeth is arbitrary: his Wisdom indeed, and his Will concur: but his Ends are within himself, and his Will is the End of his Will, so far as it may be said to have an end. Arbitrariness and self-willedness is God’s perfection, which is man’s Sin and Usurpation.

There is often raised what is supposed to be a philosophical and theological conundrum: “Does God do things because are right, or are they right simply because God does them?” Frequently in mind is the Muslim stress on the freedom of God to do whatever he pleases, whatever uncertainty that causes for people. I wouldn’t want to second guess Muslim theology, but that dilemma is false in classical Christianity.

God’s goodness is not contingent (and therefore is not open to the possibility of falsification by some other standard), any more than his existence is contingent as “the necessary being”. God’s judgements simply are justice, and his loving is love, just as all possible knowledge derives from his knowledge, which is knowledge itself (contra the Open Theists and other Socinians who speak of God’s delight and surprise at the spontaneous products of evolution!).

There is simply nothing alternative to God from which goodness, or any other attribute of his existence, could arise – there is only the possibility, given free will, that something might detract from it, such as the corrupt moral sense of fallen humans who presume to judge their judge on the basis of morality.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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