This blog is having an
existential crisis

While I tinker with a new design, I’m also pondering how, what, and why I write here. I don’t know how long that will take, but you’re welcome to email me and see how things are progressing.

Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


presentations
God and goodness: a new question from Victor Reppert

Continuing the discussion of God and goodness, Victor extends a request to Calvinists for clarification: “in virtue of what is the “God” of Scripture, as understood by Calvinists, thought of as good”? As always, I invite you to read the full article; but let me summarize:

If we reject the view that things are good simply because God has the power to say that they are, then in virtue of what do we say that they are good? To appeal to Scripture is to beg the question, because God wrote Scripture; so if he is in fact an omniscient fiend, then his saying that he is good is no guarantee that he is. If we reject the notion that God is good merely on the basis of his own fiat; and that we can know it based only on our own moral intuitions; then how can we know it? Since Victor has posed this question as a request rather than a refutation, let me respond in kind.

Continued from ‘God and goodness: a second reply to Victor Reppert’ «

Continuing the discussion of God and goodness, Victor extends a request to Calvinists for clarification: “in virtue of what is the “God” of Scripture, as understood by Calvinists, thought of as good”? As always, I invite you to read the full article; but let me summarize:

If we reject the view that things are good simply because God has the power to say that they are, then in virtue of what do we say that they are good? To appeal to Scripture is to beg the question, because God wrote Scripture; so if he is in fact an omniscient fiend, then his saying that he is good is no guarantee that he is. If we reject the notion that God is good merely on the basis of his own fiat; and that we can know it based only on our own moral intuitions; then how can we know it? Since Victor has posed this question as a request rather than a refutation, let me respond in kind:

Victor, although this question sounds suspiciously like the Euthyphro dilemma, it is a thought-provoking one which warrants an answer. I should note before I begin that I have not studied ethics in depth like some of the Triablogue chaps have, so what I am about to say is based on my own consideration of the topic, and not that of others. Still, there are three observations I think need to be made by way of answer: (I) regarding the scope of the question; (II) regarding the grounding for the category of goodness itself; and (III) regarding the epistemic difficulty of your question.

I. The scope of the question

The first thing which seems worth noting is that your question does not apply only to Calvinists. It applies to any Christian who wishes to give a sensible account of biblical ethics while maintaining a belief in the Bible as God’s word. If you consider my previous example of Deuteronomy 7:2, you’ll see that the question you’re asking applies as much within an Arminian, or any other purportedly biblical theological system, as within a Calvinist one. So, although I know you’re asking it as an exercise in clarification rather than refutation, if it were to be used as an internal critique, it would be as pressing upon you as it would be upon us. As Christians, we all need to have sat down and thought about biblical ethics; it’s not just the Calvinists who must have an answer here.

II. Ethical grounding

Secondly, the question defeats itself by calling into question its own grounding. As I observed in my first reply to you, the difficulty with your moral intuition argument was not that we cannot apply our moral categories to God, per se; but rather that you were equivocating between the categories themselves and the propositions we place into them. Our problem is not that we have no conception at all of what goodness means in relationship to God; rather, it is that we are fallible when it comes to determining whether some particular action on his part falls into that category. We are not in a position to determine what is good in God’s case, and what is not, through our intuitions about specific things; nor through analogy to human situations. We cannot define God’s goodness in this way, for the reasons I’ve already given. But that doesn’t mean that we have no way of knowing what goodness qua goodness is. That is to say, when we ask, “Is predestination good or not?” we are presupposing that we understand what goodness is as a category, even though we don’t kno whether predestination falls into it. We know by immediate intuition what that category is; just as we know what truth is, or intentionality, without having to give examples of true propositions or intentional states.

This is necessary, and to be expected. If goodness is something inherent in God, like reason, then it should be properly basic to our nature as creatures made in his image. We therefore understand what it is without requiring reference to any particular good thing. This doesn’t mean that we will always agree on what falls into the category of goodness, just as we won’t always agree on what falls within the realm of truth—but it does mean that we know what goodness is, as goodness. Therefore, to ask how we can know that God is good is to call into question the grounding for the very category we must assume to ask the question. If we ask, “how can we know God is good?” we implicitly contradict ourselves. If God were not good we could not ask about it to begin with, because goodness would have no grounding as a real category. For this reason, the notion of an omnipotent fiend actually makes no sense, since all unholy things are defined in terms of antithesis or lack or contradiction as regards their holy counterparts. We understand evil only in terms of good. Unrighteousness; injustice; etc. If there were an omnipotent fiend, goodness would not be goodness.

III. Epistemic grounding

Lastly, in the final evaluation, this question isn’t really an ethical one, but an epistemic one. How can we know (ignoring the ethical grounding problem) that God is good? We don’t need to assume a divine command theory of ethics in order to believe that something is good simply on the basis of God’s fiat. If we have taken Scripture as our epistemic authority, then we believe that (a) goodness is intrinsic to God and (b) whatever he does is therefore good also; even if it contradicts our deepest moral intuitions. The example given in your comment stream, of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac, is a good one. Abraham had every cause, one would think, to question God’s goodness in this circumstance. Like you, he could well have asked, “How can I know God is good if he has commanded this thing which goes against my deepest moral intuitions? Is it good simply because God has commanded it?” Yet Abraham trusted God. He did not trust his intuitions. Neither did Job when his family was destroyed. Why did they trust God? What was their basis? Well, it was faith.

It seems to me that it is incumbent upon Christians to trust God and his word. That is what defines us as Christians. Therefore, to say that trusting God and his word as regards whether or not he is good constitutes question-begging is really an incoherent objection. It is the objection of an unbeliever. It is the same objection leveled by atheists who say that taking Scripture as authoritative on the basis of its own self-attestation constitutes question-begging. They question the epistemic authority of God’s word; you question its ethical authority. But the ethical authority rests upon the epistemic authority. Since the Christian worldview is grounded in God’s word, it doesn’t make sense for a Christian to take issue with the circularity of his worldview being grounded in God’s word. That is the nature of Christianity as a faith. Our authority is God’s word; and we believe it because of the witness of his Spirit in our hearts.

Therefore, when you say—

The Omnipotent One does exist, and God is a reprobator. At first, as I discover this, I ask myself if I might be mistaken in thinking that this reprobating deity would not be good. However, depressingly for me, my intuitions don’t budge. It seems true all right that the Omnipotent One has predestined some to heaven and some to hell, but I find that I can’t worship Him.

—the only answer that can be given from a Christian perspective is that you are not a Christian. The internal testimony of the Spirit, enlightening the mind and causing us to believe God’s word because “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) is sufficient to compel one to recognize the rightness of God’s decree to reprobate some and elect others. Therefore, if you find after much scriptural study that you cannot accept the truth of God’s word, it would be manifest that you are a “natural person”, who “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). That would be an abject state of affairs indeed, however, and I pray that it is not so in your case.

Regards,
Bnonn

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