Is God Perfectly Good? Part I

This response is rather lengthy so I have broken it into two parts. Part I follows.

This chapter will detail the argument for the following thesis, “The essence of God is neither love nor holiness, but rather the essence of God is perfection.” Geisler declares, “Another attribute of God is that of absolute moral perfection. God is morally impeccable: He is not simply an infinite Being; He is an infinitely perfect Being.”[1] The concept of the perfection of God is nothing new.

A Historical Examination

Justin Martyr

“And God, the Father of the universe, who is the perfect intelligence, is the truth.[2]

Neither is there straitness with God, nor anything that is not absolutely perfect.”[3] Justin Martyr saw nothing in God that was not perfect.

Clement of Alexandria

“And is it not the Saviour, who wishes the Gnostic to be perfect as ‘the heavenly Father [is perfect].’”[4]

Theophilus

For the sun is a type of God, and the moon of man. And as the sun far surpasses the moon in power and glory, so far does God surpass man. And as the sun remains ever full, never becoming less, so does God always abide perfect, being full of all power, and understanding, and wisdom, and immortality, and all good. But the moon wanes monthly, and in a manner dies, being a type of man; then it is born again, and is crescent, for a pattern of the future resurrection.[5]

Athenagoras

“I pass over those who lacerate with knives and scourges of bones, and shall not attempt to describe all the kinds of demons; for it is not the part of a god to incite to things against nature. . . But God being perfectly good, is eternally doing good.”[6] God’s perfection was a common position among the early church fathers. Whether one continues with more sources of the period or expands on the position, the early church fathers believed in God’s perfection.

Tertullian

Since you ought to be “perfect, as (is) your Father who is in the heavens.”[7] Tertullian, the historian of the church, agrees with the position of God’s perfection.

The Middle Ages and the Church Fathers

Augustine of Hippo

“For certainly He would not be the perfect worker He is, unless His knowledge were so perfect as to receive no addition from His finished works.”[8] Augustine declares, “In this we know that we are in Him, if in Him we are made perfect. Touching the very perfection of love of enemies, the Lord admonishing, saith, Be ye, therefore, perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”[9] Augustine saw God as perfect. Augustine was not only influential in his period but influenced others through even the current time.

Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm argues everything that exists, exists by relying on something else that already exists. Anselm asserts, “And yet thou art only one supreme good; thou art all-sufficient to thyself, and needest none; and thou art he whom all things need for their existence and well-being.”[10]

Anselm defines good by something that substance can produce. First, a robber is bad because he creates swift, strong, harm. Second, a horse is good because he is quick and vigorous. Third, something is beautiful because it promotes beauty. Therefore, anything that is good is good because of something it relies on and not of itself. Anselm states:

But if a horse, because he is strong and swift, is therefore good, how is it that a strong, swift robber is bad? Rather, then, just as a strong, swift robber is bad, because he is harmful, so a strong, swift horse is good, because he is useful. And, indeed, nothing is ordinarily regarded as good, except either for some utility—as, for instance, safety is called good, and those things which promote safety—or for some honorable character—as, for instance, beauty is reckoned to be good, and what promotes beauty.[11]

Therefore there can and must be something that is good unto itself, that substance Anselm refers to as the supremely good, “Great Thou art without quantity, and therefore infinite; good without quality, and therefore the truly and supremely good; and none is good but Thou and Thou alone.”[12] Just as there is only one supreme Deity, then there can be only one supreme good.

There are no examples in the universe of more than one perfect substance. There are not two fingerprints alike. There are no two DNA samples that are alike. There are no two planets in the universe that are alike. Therefore there can be one and only one perfect being.

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas, considered one of the most significant theologians of the Middle Ages, wrote extensively about God’s perfection. Geisler summarizes Aquinas’ five reasons for the existence of God:

We can argue: (1) from motion to an Unmoved Mover; (2) from effects to a First Cause; (3) from contingent being to a Necessary Being; (4) from degrees of perfection to a Most Perfect Being; and (5) from design in nature to a Designer of nature (ibid., 1a, 2, 3). Behind these arguments is the premise that all finite, changing beings need a cause outside themselves.[13]

Reason #4 speaks to the degrees of perfection until one reaches a Most Perfect Being. Aquinas refers to this as degrees of graduation. Different beings have reached various levels of perfection within their lives. Actualization occurs when someone obtains their highest level of perfection. Examples of these are Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, not to say they were perfect, but they had reached the closest to perfection as compared to other men. Aquinas states:

Now God is the first principle, not material, but in the order of efficient cause, which must be most perfect. For just as matter, as such, is merely potential, an agent, as such, is in the: state of actuality. Hence, the first active principle must needs be most actual, and therefore most perfect; for a thing is perfect in proportion to its state of actuality, because we call that perfect which lacks nothing of the mode of its perfection.[14]

Aquinas’ fourth reason to defend the existence of God relates to absolute graduation. Aquinas states, “Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.”[15] Aquinas strongly supported the perfection of God.

Current Era Reformation and Beyond

John Calvin

It must be acknowledged, therefore, that in each of the works of God, and more especially in the whole of them taken together, the divine perfections are delineated as in a picture, and the whole human race thereby invited and allured to acquire the knowledge of God, and, in consequence of this knowledge, true and complete felicity. Moreover, while his perfections are thus most vividly displayed, the only means of ascertaining their practical operation and tendency is to descend into ourselves, and consider how it is that the Lord there manifests his wisdom, power, and energy,—how he there displays his justice, goodness, and mercy.[16]

Rene Descartes

Descartes, both a philosopher and a mathematician, states, “For it is not a dictate of Reason that what we thus see or imagine is in reality existent; but it plainly tells us that all our ideas or notions contain in them some truth; for otherwise it could not be that God, who is wholly perfect and veracious, should have placed them in us.”[17]

Stephen Charnock

Charnock declares, “Since man knows he is an imperfect being, he must suppose the perfections he wants are seated in some other being which hath limited him, and upon -which he depends. Whatsoever we conceive of excellency or perfection, must be in God. For we can conceive no perfection but what God hath given us a power to conceive.”[18]

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

Leibniz was a philosopher, theologian, and mathematician. He announces:

The conception of God which is the most common and the most full of meaning is expressed well enough in the words: God is an absolutely perfect being. The implications, however, of these words fail to receive sufficient consideration. For instance, there are many different kinds of perfection, all of which God possesses, and each one of them pertains to Him in the highest degree.[19]

Leibniz continues his discourse on the perfection of God:

Whence it follows that God who possesses supreme and infinite wisdom acts in the most perfect manner not only metaphysically, but also from the moral standpoint. And with respect to ourselves it can be said that the more we are enlightened and informed in regard to the works of God the more will we be disposed to find them excellent and conforming entirely to that which we might desire.[20]

Karl Barth

Barth sets an entire volume[21] aside to discuss the perfections and perfection of God. Barth states, “God lives his perfect life in the abundance of many individual and distinct perfections. Each of these is perfect in itself and in combination with all the others. For whether it is a form of love in which God is free, or a form of freedom in which God loves, it is nothing else but God himself, His one, simple, distinctive being.”[22] Barth declares further, “But that is identical with a multitude of perfections, if the term is taken strictly, is something which is an attribute of God and God alone.”[23]

  1. I. Packer
  2. I. Packer theologian, author, and pastor declares:

The biblical judge is expected to love justice and fair play and to loathe all ill treatment of one person by another. An unjust judge, one who has no interest in seeing right triumph over wrong, is by biblical standards a monstrosity. The Bible leaves us in no doubt that God loves righteousness and hates iniquity, and that the ideal of a judge wholly identified with what is good and right is perfectly fulfilled in him.[24]

Goodness, in God as in human beings, means something admirable, attractive and praiseworthy. When the biblical writers call God good, they are thinking in general of all those moral qualities which prompt his people to call him perfect, and in particular of the generosity which moves them to call him merciful and gracious and to speak of his love. All the particular perfections that are mentioned here, and all that go with them— God’s truthfulness and trustworthiness, his unfailing justice and wisdom, his tenderness, forbearance and entire adequacy to all who penitently seek his help, his noble kindness in offering believers the exalted destiny of fellowship with him in holiness and love— these things together make up God’s goodness in the overall sense of the sum total of his revealed excellences.[25]

[1] Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 345.

[2] Justin Martyr, “Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. M. Dods, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), p. 294.

[3] Ibid., p. 300.

[4] Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), p. 546.

[5] Ibid., Theophilus of Antioch, p. 100.

[6] Ibid., Athenagoras, p. 143.

[7] Tertullian, “On the Apparel of Women,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. S. Thelwall, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), p. 19.

[8] Augustine of Hippo, “The City of God,” in St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dods, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), p. 216.

[9] Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), p. 465.

[10] Deane, p. 28.

[11] Ibid., p. 39–40.

[12] Saint Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Anselm’s Book of Meditations and Prayers (London, UK: Burns and Oates, 1872), p. 184.

[13] Geisler, “Thomas Aquinas,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p. 725.

[14] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.4.1.a1.

[15] Ibid., 1.2.A3.

[16] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1 & 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), p. I, v, 10.

[17] Rene Descartes, The Works of Rene Descartes trans. John Veitch (London, UK: M. Walter Dunne Publishing, 1901), Kindle Edition (Loc 5997).

[18] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Robert & Carver Brothers, 1874 Edition), Kindle Edition (Loc. 972).

[19] Leibniz, Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics Correspondence with Arnauld and Monadology, p. 3.

[20] Ibid., pp. 3–4.

[21] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. II/I trans. T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, Harold Knight, and J. L. M. Haire. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1957).

[22] Ibid., p. 322.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Packer, pp. 159-160.

[25] Ibid., pp. 182-183.

 

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