My last post on God and morality brought up the issue of if and how God is moral. My main point was to reject the notion that God is moral in the sense that humans are moral. But I did mention that God is good, just not morally good. That is, he isn’t good because he lives up to some standard of goodness. I even rejected the notion that he is his own standard since that seems to be indistinguishable from being arbitrary. In thinking about this topic over the years it seems to me that many Christians believe that God is good because of something he did for them, such as Jesus dying on the cross, healing someone, providing in a time of need, etc. But is this really what makes God good? Would God still be good if he never saved anyone, didn’t heal, and didn’t provide? God’s goodness is not grounded in his actions, but in his perfect being.
What Does It Mean for God to Be Good?
The classical notion of God’s goodness is that God is good because his being is perfect and lacks nothing. This is seen in the thinking of theologians like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. Aquinas, following the thought of Augustine, thought that ‘being’ is basically synonymous with ‘goodness’. To be good is to have fullness of being. It may help to contrast this with evil. The traditional Christian view of evil is that it is a privation of good. In other words, something is evil if it lacks some good or is corrupted in some way. A standard example is an apple that has rotted. The apple itself is good but the rot is where the apple has been corrupted. That corrupted part of the apple should be good (i.e. not rotten) for it to be what an apple is supposed to be. Thus, the rot of the apple is said to be an evil. It should be fairly obvious that this notion of evil has to do with being or existence and not morality, for apples aren’t moral beings. In short, the apple is good insofar as it has the proper being of an apple and doesn’t lack any good or perfection.
Since God is perfect being as such, he is perfect goodness. He lacks nothing and is not corrupted in any way. He is simply perfect. He is infinite, unlimited being. Thus, he is infinite, unlimited goodness. He doesn’t have good, he is goodness as such. Again, this is not a moral goodness but a metaphysical goodness. (Here is a classic description of God’s perfection, goodness in general, and God’s goodness.)
So What Does This Mean?
God does not have to do anything to be good. He is pure infinite goodness just by existing. If he never did anything for his creatures, even make them, he would be just as good as he was without them. In other words, our existence doesn’t add any good to him. His actions towards us, even his actions that lead to our salvation, do not add any good to him. Since God is (qualitatively not quantitatively) good, nothing can add to it, since one can’t add to an infinite (again, think in terms of quality, not quantity). He is simply pure goodness, and we don’t contribute anything to that.
Our existence is the expression of his goodness, not the cause or contributor of it.
God does not need us in order for him to be good. Further, we should not think of his goodness as being grounded in what he does for us. Of course he is rich in mercy towards us, he loves us, and he is good to us. I am not denying this. But unlike man, his goodness is not measured by his actions. While man is good metaphysically because he has existence, man is also good (or not) in a moral sense. This latter sense is a fulfillment of good due to whether or not he does good things and measures up to what it means to be a good person.
A Right View of Worship
It is certainly not wrong to worship God or thank him for his blessings. We should. But our view of God’s goodness should not rise and fall with what he does to or for us. As I have said before, Christians tend to make God in the image of man. We often think that if things are going well and God is blessing us, then God is good. If not, he isn’t, or at least something is wrong. This is not a proper view of God or a proper foundation for worship (think of Job). While we should worship and thank God for his blessings, a right view of worship should be centered around the fact that God is infinite, perfect being and goodness. He does not have goodness like us. He is Goodness. He does not merit our worship and adoration. The fact that we are his creation means that he demands our worship and adoration. Let us be ever mindful that God is God. He is not like us. We are the creatures. He is the creator.
Dr. Brian Huffling
Dr. Brian Huffling’s research interests include: Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Theology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, and general issues in Apologetics and Biblical studies. See his personal blog here.