What is good?
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Once in a philosophy class discussion in college I mentioned how goodness is defined by God himself. It is a interesting thing to consider. Any goodness in ourselves is simply derived from his goodness and is but an imperfect reflection of what is truly good. This is important to grasp and it is true because we are created beings. This means we came, as whole selves, from something or someone else. This came up for me this week as I read about Aquinas, and because of a question someone asked me- something like, ‘Is Tamar righteous based on Ruth 4:11-12?’ The answer is essentially the same: whatever righteousness Tamar has is simply derivative.
Let’s take a step back, and think through a few things. The first is to consider who was and is Jesus Christ? The answer is quite simply implied in his question: Jesus is God because Jesus is good. And so if we want to come to know what God’s goodness is, we only need to look at Christ. His work, his word, and his attitude can only be described as good.
The problem here arises when we limit Christ only to goodness. I saw a headline this past week by the infamous Bart Ehrman, something like, ‘Christians believe in hell, but Jesus didn’t.’ I’m sure his argument is winsomely laid out, but usually, people who deny that Jesus taught about hell are limiting Jesus to a certain attribute of God. Perhaps that attribute is love or goodness or being forgiving. Whatever the case may be, this is all backwards. God himself defines what these things are, and they are only a partial view of his whole self. This is similarly true with God’s works. The language that we use to describe salvation does not fully tell the story but each of the works are unique. We shouldn’t blend adoption fully into justification into salvation, although they all relate. Both God’s attributes and his works are incomparably glorious yet so intricately related that we can’t fully grasp them. It is like a man on a space station who can only see a part of the whole earth. It is wonderful, and awe-inspiring, but it isn’t the whole. I am sure that even the perspective of the astronaut has a bearing what he sees. One time he comes at the world from the south pole- it is one degree of glory, and then from the east and then from the west. Each perspective in its own way relates to the other, but they are each unique. Funny enough I think in maybe 6th grade, our teacher gave us a map of an island. We couldn’t figure out where it was on the earth. Eventually after we did all this map work putting in the mountains and what have you, we discovered that it was the south island of New Zealand…upside down.
Now isn’t this how we are tempted to view God’s attributes and actions? As a 2-D map upside down-and it can’t be any other way? We imagine God’s goodness looks like how we want goodness to be, and his righteousness, etc. But that is all starting from the wrong place. This is often the error of an oppressed people: deliverance is central and justice is the essential attribute. And we could say an opposite error and probably more egregious error sits with those in wealth: our comfort is central (we think) to God’s actions, and joy the essential attribute. Of course, a person has to assess himself. From what I have heard, Tunisian Christians of today are oppressed and have one error, and Persian Christians of the 4th century fell into a different ditch.
Regardless of where we sit, we must actually begin with God and his revealing of himself. This is why at our regular gatherings the word of God is central. It is not because we worship this book, but we only know who it is we worship through this book. As much as we have our sights set on the promised land, that isn’t our goal alone, and as Alec Motyer put so well commenting on Psalm 131, ‘The key to redemption is the key to life. And the end of our pilgrimage rest is not in Zion’s city but in Zion’s God.’ God himself is our goal.
So goodness is best defined by God’s acts of goodness, and his mercy is displayed in his covenant keeping forbearance. And perhaps the most glorious thing of it all is that all this goodness and justice and mercy and deliverance reveals to us not an extraordinarily complicated God per-se, but the one true God who in his simplicity is just this: one essence, three persons. As Etienne Gilson summarized, ‘So we attribute to God several names, such as good, intelligent or wise; and these names are not synonymous, since each of them designates our distinct concept of a distinct, created being. Nevertheless, this multiplicity of names designates a simple object…’ And this object is none other than God himself, whose act of creation was also the beginning of his glorious self-revelation. And all this should draw us to humbly and joyously praise him. Let us cultivate a proper thirst for God as the one who is worthy.