Monday, August 16, 2010

Two Rival Understandings of God's Goodness

Preparing to lead a Sunday school forum on biblical responses to the problem of suffering, I came across some interesting stuff in John Beversluis' C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. I'm citing below from the first edition of Beversluis' book published in 1985 (you can read a review of the revised edition published in 2007 here). The excerpt comes from the chapter in which Beversluis argues that a fundamental shift in Lewis' theology of God's goodness takes place between The Problem of Pain (1940) and A Grief Observed (1961). I'm not a Lewis scholar, nor am I particularly invested in whether or not Beversluis is right about the shift in Lewis' theology. But what Beversluis has to say about the differences between a Platonic and an Ockhamistic conception of God's goodness is quite interesting.



According to the Ockhamist, the very attempt to solve the Problem of Evil ... is mistaken in principle. Suffering is a problem (and hence an obstacle to belief in God) only for those who think that their own judgments, based on ordinary moral standards, are legitimate. This the Ockhamist denies. Instead of wondering whether suffering is compatible with a God who is good in Platonic terms, the Ockhamist insists that God is not subject to ordinary moral standards. To expect the God of Christianity to take our moral preferences seriously is to mistake him for some other God, and to demand a justification for his conduct is an act of impiety.

Although there are in the Bible isolated examples of people, such as Job, who question God's goodness on the basis of ordinary moral standards, they are exceptions to the general rule that God is to be obeyed no matter how flagrantly his commands may violate the precepts of ordinary morality. Think, for example, of the command that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, that Elijah slay the prophets of Baal, that Joshua's army annihilate the inhabitants of Canaan right down to the last woman and child, that the she-bears tear into pieces and devour the boys who had called Elisha "baldhead," that Samuel lie to Saul about anointing David king of Israel, that the Israelites despoil the Egyptians as the exodus took place, and that Annanias and Sapphira be struck dead for lying to Simon Peter. Think of Uzzah being done away with for trying to prevent the Ark of the Covenant from falling, or of Moses being forbidden to enter the promised land simply because he had angrily beaten a rock with his staff. All these apparently immoral and capricious commands are ascribed to a God who is said to be good. But good in what sense? Surely not in the Platonic sense.

This Ockhamistic conception of God's goodness is the view held by the vast majority of orthodox religious believers, most of whom have either never heard of the Platonic alternative, or who have heard of it but reject it as foreign to the biblical view. Orthodox Christians unhesitatingly affirm that obedience to God is absolute and unconditional. He is to be obeyed because he is God, not because we have judged him good by some human standard.

Theologians have long insisted that the most fundamental property of the biblical God is not goodness but holiness. To say that God is holy is not an extravagant way of saying that he is good. Holy does not mean "very very good." The root meaning of the Hebrew term for holiness is "set apart" or "other." In the Old Testament, to say that God is holy is to say that he dwells in light unapproachable. There is none like him. He answers to no one. Creatures were called into being at his command and they are obliged to acknowledge his radical authority over them. To acknowledge that God is holy is to acknowledge that one is a person of unclean lips, that one has no claim on him. This root meaning is preserved in the New Testament, in which believers are called saints and said to be holy in a derivative sense: not because they are good but because they have been set apart as a peculiar people who are in the world but not of it. In the Bible God and man do not share a common moral world. There is a radical discontinuity between them. In response to his doings, we are not to "hotly criticize" his behavior and produce our moral standards; we are to be still and know that he is God and that his ways are not our ways. One cannot be a Christian without coming to terms with this doctrine. There is no way around it. One must bow the head and bend the knee. This recognition of the ultimacy and nonaccountability of God is precisely the rock of offense on which a consistently Platonic approach founders and is finally broken. Given this conception of God's goodness, evil is not a problem.

Consistently held, Ockhamism undercuts another belief that many Christians may be considerably less eager to abandon, one of the most firmly entrenched lingering vestiges of Platonism - the belief that one day all will be made plain. Ockhamism provides no basis for thinking that on the last day God will gather the saints around him and let them in on what he has been up to, reveal his "plan," after which they will see that all was for the best. On the contrary, God will explain nothing for the very good reason that there is nothing to explain. If we are Ockhamists, we already know what he is up to: he is allowing suffering to exist. For God to take the Platonists' questions seriously and say, "Yes, I see your point," would be for him to acknowledge that the issues they raise are legitimate and that the burden is on him to come up with a face-saving answer. To acknowledge this, however, would be to surrender his status as the Creator of the world who possesses absolute prerogatives. St. Paul was very firm about this: "Hath not the potter power over the clay? May the clay say to the potter, 'Why has Thou made me thus?' God forbid" (Romans 9:21-22). For us to question God is an affront to his holiness. For God to meet men as equals, as if he and they were both reasonable parties engaged in some cooperative enterprise, would violate the Creator-creature relationship. Those who refuse to accept what God has done unless they find it plausible, convincing, and "justified" are refusing to acknowledge what that relationship defines them to be - creatures. It is to reenact the Fall. Imagine Adam asking, "But look here, that command about the tree was arbitrary. What's so bad about picking fruit apart from your prohibition?" But that is just the point. The prohibition made it wrong. For God to feel called upon to "justify" his prohibitions on independent moral grounds is unthinkable. This is often true even in human relationships. When the private asks the sergeant "But apart from you command, why do we have to stand here at attention in the blazing sun?" the sergeant is not reduced to groping for good reasons. Similarly, when the private obeys the sergeant, it is not because he agrees that it would indeed be nice for the entire platoon to be found standing straight and tall, but simply because he has been commanded to do so by someone with legitimate authority over him. Good soldiers do not raise searching questions about their orders; they obey them.

Just as the sergeant does not countenance the private's questions, neither, according to the Ockhamist, does God countenance ours. He is to be obeyed not because he is invariably right but because he is God. If you disagree with him, you are in the wrong by definition. Hence, all those who scrutinize God's commands on moral grounds have simply not come to terms with their creaturely status. God is not flattered by being called good only after being subjected to rigorous cross-examination and acquitted.

According to the Ockhamist view, then, we cannot ask separate questions about what God commands and whether he is good in commanding it. If there is any "lesson" in the book of Job, that is it. Job demands answers from God, fails to get them, and toward the end no longer seems to mind. Either the story is hopelessly confused or the point is that his questions are illegitimate. Heaven does not solve Job's problems ... by showing him "subtle reconciliations" of his apparently contradictory notions. In the Bible the answer to the Problem of Evil is God's assertion of himself as God. His ways are not temporarily obscured by a regrettable lack of clarity that will one day be dispelled; they are shrouded in an unfathomable mystery that cannot be solved by the acquisition of further facts. Although it sounds decidedly odd, it is nevertheless entirely accurate to say that, according to the Ockhamist view, redeemed souls have forgotten about their moral scruples and are prepared to declare without reservation that "The Lord, He is God." The worship and adoration of the hosts of heaven is elicited by the fact that God is their Creator and Redeemer, not by the assurance that he has finally explained himself to their complete satisfaction (and presumably great relief).

~ John Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion
(William B. Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 152-155; emphasis in text.

33 comments:

George said...

well printed that off to read while munching on home made burgers for dinner Bryan and not sure which I enjoyed more, but I know your post will take a few more readings (not to mention a search for 'Ockhamist'). It does sort of put things into context and indeed simplifies things a whole lot. It takes away a lot of questioning when one holds to this view.

George said...

How does the Ochamist perceive prayer?

Bryan Owen said...

Good question, George. Perhaps others with intimate familiarity with William of Ockham's writings can provide a better answer than I can. In the meantime, you may find it profitable to read up on William of Ockham and divine command theory.

You might also find a piece I posted a while back on Richard Mouw's book The God Who Commands interesting.

In the meantime, here's an interesting summary of Ockham's divine command theory from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Many people think God commands human beings to be kind because kindness is good and that God himself is always kind because his actions are always in conformity with goodness.

Although this was and still is the most common way of conceiving of the relationship between God and morality, Ockham disagrees. In his view, God does not conform to an independently existing standard of goodness; rather, God himself is the standard of goodness. This means it is not the case that God commands us to be kind because kindness is good. Rather, kindness is good because God commands it. Ockham was a divine command theorist: God’s will establishes right and wrong.

Divine command theory has always been unpopular because it carries one very unintuitive implication: if whatever God commands becomes right, and God can command whatever he wants, then God could command us always to be unkind and never to be kind, and then it would be right for us to be unkind and wrong for us to be kind. Kindness would be bad and unkindness would be good! How could this be?

In Ockham’s view, God always has commanded and always will command kindness. Nevertheless, it is possible for him to command otherwise. This possibility is a straightforward requirement of divine omnipotence: God can do anything that does not involve a contradiction. Of course, plenty of philosophers, such as Thomas Aquinas, insist that it is impossible for God to command us to be unkind simply because then God’s will would contradict his nature. For Ockham, however, this is the wrong way to conceive of God’s nature. The most important thing to understand about God’s nature, in Ockham’s view, is that it is maximally free. There are no constraints, external or internal, to what God can will. All of theology stands or falls with this thesis in Ockham’s view.

Ockham grants that it is hard to imagine a world in which God reverses his commands. Yet this is the price of preserving divine freedom. He writes,

"I reply that hatred, theft, adultery, and the like may involve evil according to the common law, in so far as they are done by someone who is obligated by a divine command to perform the opposite act. As far as everything absolute in these actions is concerned, however, God can perform them without involving any evil. And they can even be performed meritoriously by someone on earth if they should fall under a divine command, just as now the opposite of these, in fact, fall under a divine command." [Opera Theologica V, p. 352]

One advantage of this approach is that it enables Ockham to make sense of some instances in the Old Testament where it looks as though God is commanding such things as murder (as in the case of Abraham sacrificing Isaac) and deception (as in the case of the Israelites despoiling the Egyptians). But biblical exegesis is not Ockham’s motive. His motive is to cast God as a paradigm of metaphysical freedom, so that he can make sense of human nature as made in his image.

BillyD said...

I don't buy it. A god who is omnipotent but not good is simply not God. The Orthodox are right on this one: God is the one who is good, and loves mankind. Omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence make for God; Omnipotence, omniscience, and hatefulness would, conversely, simply make for Hitler writ large (very large, indeed).

It also raises a serious question. If goodness isn't a hallmark of God - if he *could* do or command evil, like blowing oneself up in a jerusalem restaurant, for example - then we have no real answer to people like the Taliban, or Hamas, or Fred Phelps. After all, maybe they have correctly latched on to God's will, whereas all this "God is love" stuff is bull.

(Wait, "God is love." How is that not saying that goodness isn't a characteristic of God?)

No, for me God being evil (from a human point of view) is one of those things like his making a rock so big he couldn't lift it. It's impossible. (I don't think can't divide by zero, either.) And if it were true that God were not good, I hope I would have the intestinal fortitude to go down fighting such a cosmic tyrant.

BillyD said...

"Hence, all those who scrutinize God's commands on moral grounds have simply not come to terms with their creaturely status. "

Or are taking their status as being created in the image of God seriously.

BillyD said...

"Good soldiers do not raise searching questions about their orders; they obey them."

I thought Nuremberg gave the lie to that.

(Sorry about the multiple posts).

Bryan Owen said...

All good points, BillyD, that get at the heart of a debate between those who regard the divine will (understood for Ockham in terms of an absolute conception of omnipotence and liberty) as the ultimate norm of morality vs. those for whom God's essence (understood in terms of the Simplicity Doctrine) is the ultimate norm.

Does God command X because X is good, or is X good because God commands it? That's the question getting kicked around in the background.

BillyD said...

I thought of a related but separate danger, or maybe it's the implication of the previous danger I cited. There's a school of thought in Judaism that says the performance of the mitzvot trumps morality. It's not the prevalent view, as far as I know, but it's become more important with the emergence of Jews from minority religious status into the realm of statehood. It doesn't matter if the implementation of Torah law (goes its reasoning) conflicts with notions of justice, or honor, or respect; if it does, then simply ignore those notions and carry on, no matter who gets hurt.

The danger here is not so much that we won't have an answer for the Taliban, but that we will become colleagues of theirs. It can lead us to do horrible things in God's Name because we aren't willing to do the moral thing, opting instead for "God's will" (very much in scare quotes).

Ockham's stance probably made more sense in medieval times, when in a very real sense might did make right on the political scene and in everyday life. It's less persuasive in an era in which we've abandoned blind obedience as the default position.

A. D. Hunt said...

I may have missed it but does the author indicate to what he feels Lewis shifted? Did he turn more 'Ockhamist' or 'Platonist?' I've mostly detected Platonism in Lewis so I'd be curious as to his theory.

Todd Granger said...

BillyD, aren't you confusing obedience to God with obedience to human beings?

And how does the truth that God is love negate the Ockhamist position? If you somehow make God's being love dependent on independent notions of "goodness", how is that not creating an idol? Should not our notion of what "love" means be entirely dependent on that pithy statement from John's epistle?

As Bonhoeffer points out brilliantly in his little biblical study, Creation and Fall, the primeval fall is humanity's seeking their own notion of morality - our own notions of good and evil, if you will - independent of that which God is for us. In other words, we want to set up ourselves as gods (cf. Genesis 3).

Possible problems with answering the Taliban, Hamas, Fred Phelps? Perhaps - but I notice the conspicuous absence of any appeal to Jesus as the image of God among these folks (yes, even amongst Phelps' devotees). The answer as to how to determine what goodness God calls us to in Jesus is that this must be done not by the individual, but by the community we know as the Church. Has the Church failed at this task from time to time? Yes, most assuredly we have. But I don't see that those with independent, platonic notions of goodness have done any better - and perhaps have done worse, because at least an Ockhamist position has to run up against the fairly explicit realities of the biblical witness.

Bryan Owen said...

A.D.,

Beversluis basically argues that Lewis' A Grief Observed (written in the wake of the devastating loss of his wife) signals a shift from a Platonic to a more Ockhamistic perspective. He writes:

"A Grief Observed is a harrowing book not just because it deals with suffering, death, and a tottering faith, but because it reveals that Lewis' faith was rediscovered at the enormous cost of leaving unanswered and unanswerable the very questions that had proven fatal to his earlier faith. Having insisted that God's goodness must be understood in terms of ordinary moral standards and having registered his protest on precisely these grounds in Parts I and II, in Parts III and IV he lays these standards aside and embraces the opposite view. The shift from the hypothesis of the Cosmic Sadist to that of the Great Iconoclast is at bottom a shift from the Platonic view that God says things are good because they are good to the Ockhamist view that things are good simply because God says they are.

"The shift occurs the moment Lewis begins to suspect that the hypothesis of the Cosmic Sadist is too anthropomorphic. According to such a view, God is like the man who tortures his cats, and that is unbearable. Lewis recoils from this view and assures himself (and his readers) that when he called God a sadist and an imbecile, it was 'more a yell than a thought.' After that, we hear no more about the Cosmic Sadist - but in recoiling from that hypothesis, Lewis also recoils from his own Platonism, for it is that view that had prompted him to see God as a sadist in the first place. He saw that if you followed the logic of Platonism to its conclusion, God turns out to be much more evil than anyone would have supposed. In no longer taking the sadist idea seriously, Lewis can no longer take Platonism seriously either." (pp. 150-151).

Allison Elaine said...

What about Genesis 18:22? Abraham challenges the Lord, who is about to "sweep away the righteous with the wicked."

Abraham says, "Far be it from you to do such a thing — to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"

Perhaps the Lord was waiting for someone to say "far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" when he commanded the death of so many Canaanites, including women and children.

On the other hand, I recall a priest describing his interview with the bishop when called to a parish. The priest said that he had served in Vietnam; that God was good to him and he came home. The bishop replied, "do you think God wasn't good to those who died?"

I've never before heard of the Platonist versus Ochamist positions. Can you describe the Platonist for us?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, Allison.

As I mentioned earlier, the question getting kicked around in the background of all of this is as follows:

"Does God command X because X is good, or is X good because God commands it?"

As I understand it, the Platonist answer is that God commands X because X is good. By contrast, the Ockhamist says that X is good because God commands it. IOW, it is God's will - and God's will alone - that makes X good. There are no standards of good and bad, right or wrong, just or unjust, independent of God's will.

I think that the 17th Century English philosopher Ralph Cudworth represents a 'Platonic' contrast to the Ockhamist position. Cudworth's work is a polemic against those who hold that "there is nothing absolutely, intrinsically and naturally good and evil, just and unjust antecedently to any positive command or prohibition of God; but that the arbitrary will and pleasure of God (that is, an omnipotent being devoid of all essential and natural justice), by its commands and prohibitions, is the first and only rule and measure thereof" [A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (abridged) in Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant: An Anthology, Vol. I, edited by J.B. Schneewind (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 277-278.]

At stake for Cudworth is not only that good and evil, just and unjust, are eternal and immutable, but by extension that God is by nature good and just, and not an arbitrary tyrant whose command could make even evil actions good and obligatory.

The central issue Cudworth raises may be asked as follows: What is the grounding of morality? Is morality grounded in nature, and therefore eternal and immutable? Or is morality grounded in convention (the expression of will), and therefore subject to change?

I note that, for the Ockhamist position (and for the die-hard Calvinist who espouses a divine command theory of ethics), Cudworth's insistence on the eternal and immutable character of morality establishes a reality not only independent of God, but a reality to which God Himself is accountable. IOW, God is no longer sovereign; eternal and immutable morality is sovereign. God is subordinated to the eternal, immutable character of morality, thereby rendering Him less than true God.

And the debate goes on and on ...

BillyD said...

"And how does the truth that God is love negate the Ockhamist position? If you somehow make God's being love dependent on independent notions of "goodness", how is that not creating an idol? Should not our notion of what "love" means be entirely dependent on that pithy statement from John's epistle?"

In saying "God is love," John is saying something about God, not about love. I would think that 1 Corinthians 13 gives us a much better definition of love. Or Jesus' words about "No greater love" in John 15.

"Possible problems with answering the Taliban, Hamas, Fred Phelps? Perhaps - but I notice the conspicuous absence of any appeal to Jesus as the image of God among these folks (yes, even amongst Phelps' devotees)."

I'm sorry, but that's a cop-out. You can't disown Phelps and all the others who worship a hateful version of God from the Church.

"The answer as to how to determine what goodness God calls us to in Jesus is that this must be done not by the individual, but by the community we know as the Church. Has the Church failed at this task from time to time? Yes, most assuredly we have."

I think you're far too kind with regards the Church's track record on staying the moral course.

BillyD said...

"Perhaps the Lord was waiting for someone to say "far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" when he commanded the death of so many Canaanites, including women and children."

Well put. I think that it's clearly the moral (!) thing to challenge God at times - to wrestle with him, as it were.

The Underground Pewster said...

Thanks for posting this Bryan.

deck said...

There is a point that I see being missed in a number of conversations in the Anglican blogosphere. This discussion brings it up again. When Mankind Fell, he ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It would therefore fall that God had already created boundaries between what is Good and what is Evil by that point in Creation for there to be knowledge of both. I can agree that what God commands is Good because He is God. However, for there to be Knowledge of Good and Evil, those two things must have boundaries which are in the Nature of God if Mankind is too understand this Knowledge.

BillyD said...

If God could choose to be (by human terms) evil - let's say that somehow it was revealed tomorrow that he created some people expressly for the purpose of damnation, regardless of their actions - it would fly in the face of the nature of God as found in the Gospel.

"Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"

If God is not good and is absolutely free to follow any course at all, including ones that are cruel, what kind of abusive Father would that make him? I think God choosing to do evil is right up there with his squaring the circle or making a rock so heavy he can't lift it - its a nonsensical proposition.

Bryan Owen said...

Well said, BillyD!

BillyD said...

I'm sorry for posting so much, Father - this'll be the last on this subject (I hope):

If the rule of lex orandi, lex credendi holds true, what does it mean for Anglicans who regularly assert that "the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting" (Jubliate), pray that "we may put our whole trust and confidence in [his] mercy" (Great Litany), that "Almighty and most merciful Father, of [his] bountiful goodness [will] keep us from all things that may hurt us" (Collect, Proper 2), who pray to a "Lord whose property is always to have mercy" (Humble Access)? The prayer book is chock-full of references to goodness and mercy as attributes of God, not just hypothetically contingent courses of action that he takes when he might as easily and blamelessly choose to torture use instead.

If God isn't good, how could we put our trust in him at all? Unless we take the goodness of God as a given, we simply can't believe revelations like, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," or that God doesn't desire the death of the sinner, but that he should live - if the goodness (from a human point of view) of God isn't assumed, we would have to admit the possibility that he is deceiving us.

Finally, to the charge of idolatry that Tood suggested: I wouldn't say that I'm in danger of setting up an idol so much as that I would be denying an impostor god. If the controlling Power of the Universe is not good - if it does not have our welfare at heart, and can easily choose what we call maliciousness - then it simply is not God. In that case, there would be no God, although there might be a god (for lack of a better term), and the proper thing to do would be to deny it worship regardless of consequences. To believe otherwise would be to subscribe to the idea that Might Makes Right, only on a cosmic scale.

Here endeth the lesson. :-)

Bryan Owen said...

No need for apologies, BillyD. I think you've raised a number of important points in your comments on this posting, and I appreciate your enthusiasm for the topic. How one answers the question in the background ("Does God command X because X is good, or is X good because God commands X?") has momentous implications for what it means for God to be God, what God's intentions are (or could be) towards the world, and for what it means to be in relationship with God.

And I think you're quite right to point out how the Prayer Book (and, by extension, Anglicanism more broadly) comes down on this question. Regardless of whether or not Beversluis is correct about the shift between The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, I don't think it's an accident that, as an Anglican, C. S. Lewis held the more Platonic understanding on this matter as opposed to the Ockhamist perspective.

Todd Granger said...

Why this presumption that God is arbitrary if we ground his goodness in himself, rather than in some platonic "goodness" to which God must conform?

God is not arbitrary because he is faithful in and toward himself (as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), not because he conforms to some goodness external to himself.

I stick by my charge of idolatry, or at least of idolatry-skirting, when we make God conform to a platonic ideal. God has our welfare at heart, but what that means conforms to what we know of God's faithfulness towards his people - in creation, in the calling of Israel, in Jesus Christ and the creation of the new humanity in Christ, not to a platonic notion of "goodness".

Hence, no "Might Makes Right" on a cosmic scale.

And when faithfulness is the criterion by which we read the acts of God, rather than his conformity to an external notion of goodness that must perforce exist prior to God, then those ringing phrases which BryanD has drawn from the Prayer Book may not only be read as endorsements of Platonism.

The biblical narrative is concerned with God's goodness as an expression of his faithfulness, not with God's goodness as the expression of a preconceived ideal.

BillyD said...

If God is not good, we have no reason to believe that he IS faithful. All we know is that - according to him - he has been faithful in the past. If he is "above morality" (which I still think is an absurd idea - being amoral makes one a sociopath, not superior) there's no reason to suppose that he will continue to be faithful. Indeed, he could decide not to keep his promises, and do so blamelessly, if he is not good.

Todd, I saw on the internet that you had left the Episcopal Church. What body do you belong to now?

And, finally, Luke 18:19. ;-)

Todd Granger said...

If God is not good, we have no reason to believe that he IS faithful.

Why? We have the biblical witness of his acts of faithfulness towards his people - why do we need some preconceived notion of goodness projected onto God to be able to understand that witness?

Is the sovereign God to be subjected to a human construct of morality? I would suggest rather that morality cannot rightly be abstracted away from the biblical narrative of God's faithfulness. It is ludicrous to reject as sociopathic the belief that God's goodness is revealed in his faithfulness rather than in his conformity to abstracted morality or to platonic "goodness". To refer to your previous examples, do the actions of Fred Phelps and his ilk, of the Taliban, of Hamas suicide bombers measure up to the standard of God's faithfulness in Jesus Christ? I think that we're capable of rendering condemnatory judgment on their actions without recourse to platonic notions of goodness or of a morality to which even God is subjected.

And of course Luke 18:19 - but that verse is manifestly patient of an understanding that God doesn't conform to a platonic notion of goodness.

I think the problem with this entire discussion - Ockhamist vs Platonist (or neo-Platonist) - is that it is conducted along philosophical lines that are largely foreign to biblical thought and that are wrongly superimposed onto the biblical themes of God's faithfulness, holiness and righteousness, and yes, goodness.

And I have to say, BryanD, you seem hell-bent on associating my position with all that is wicked and hideous.

BillyD said...

"why do we need some preconceived notion of goodness projected onto God to be able to understand that witness?"

I had written a comment as a postscript to the comment you replied to, but that seems to be have gone astray. In it I said I wanted to point out that I DON'T think that God is held accountable to an exterior standard of goodness. Rather, that what we know of goodness we know through God and is a dim reflection of the Divine Nature. But it IS a reflection of his nature, and not simply an attitude he adopts when he could just as easily (and blamelessly, from a human point of view) decide to hate Creation.

"And I have to say, BryanD, you seem hell-bent on associating my position with all that is wicked and hideous."

A. My name is not Bryan.
B. Without putting too fine a point on it, it's because I believe your position (not you) is wicked and hideous. I do not recognize the Ockhamist god as consistent with the character of God as known through Jesus Christ.
C. Don't get too upset about it - unless you meant the charge of idolatry as a compliment to me. Really, when you come down to it, I'm simply making the same accusation of you. I just think your idol is potentially cruel and monstrous, while you think my idol is weak and wimpy. ;-)

And really, what religious body do you belong to now? It really does have bearing on the discussion. For example, if you've joined the PCA, you're not going to find me citing the many references to God as being good that are found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

BillyD said...

And isn't "faithfulness" an aspect of "goodness"? How can you claim that God is faithful while rejecting that he is, really, good?

Todd Granger said...

My response of yesterday appears to have gone astray.

BillyD, my apologies for the misnomer. Inattentiveness and inexactness of memory are to blame - no disrespect was intended (nor, I presume, was any disrespect intended when you wrote my name as "Tood" some comments back).

I DON'T think that God is held accountable to an exterior standard of goodness. Rather, that what we know of goodness we know through God and is a dim reflection of the Divine Nature. But it IS a reflection of his nature, and not simply an attitude he adopts when he could just as easily (and blamelessly, from a human point of view) decide to hate Creation.

If this be your position, then I have no quarrel with you. And if this be your position, I unreservedly withdraw the accusation of idolatry (which god isn't weak or wimpy, simply nonexistent).

This is precisely the point that I was trying to make, although in an apparently inarticulate manner: that God is not subject to some external referent. Insofar as he defends God's sovereignty over abstracted notions like goodness Ockham is right, and the Platonists are wrong. But if Ockham can rightly be read in the direction of denying God's own faithfulness to himself and his nature as God (and I don't know whether or not he can), such that his nature becomes capricious and arbitrary, then Ockham too is wrong. As I wrote in a previous comment, at least implicitly distancing myself from the Ockhamist-Platonist argument, I think that the problem is that neither the Ockhamist nor the Platonist argument is built on presuppositions, ideas and language that are firmly grounded in the biblical narrative; hence, the argument about God's either conforming or not conforming to an abstracted sense of goodness can be carried on without reference to God's faithfulness as demonstrated in the biblical narrative.

Todd Granger said...

(long comment cont'd)

I would rather say that goodness is a demonstration of faithfulness, but however we understand the relationship between the two, it is clear that both ultimately arise from God's love (not an abstract concept, but God's character as demonstrated in Jesus Christ).

And I don't reject the truth that God is good. I would truly be interested to know exactly what I wrote that can clearly be read in that direction (hence my bristling at your accusations of hideousness and wickedness, as you no doubt bristled at mine of idolatry). If I emphasized faithfulness, I didn't deny goodness. What I denied - and do so emphatically still - is the imposition of an abstracted "goodness" onto God.

As to ecclesiastical affilation: I remain an Anglican, now in an extra-mural Anglican body.

BillyD said...

Todd, I am relieved that we're not at loggerheads after all.

It's quite possible that I was doing my own eisegesis on your comments. The question of whether something is good because God commands it or if God commands it because it is good is one that occasionally exercises me quite a bit, and maybe I was projecting my theological nightmares on your comments.

I really am concerned with the power of people to do horrible things once they're convinced that God told them to do them. History and the newspaper are full of stories about the levels of depravity that people are capable of when they follow Ockham's advice (as explained by Beverluis) to shut up, ignore their conscience, and do what they're told. I'm probably angry with Ockham (or at least a Beverluis-mediated Ockham), not anything you've written.

Bryan Owen said...

I don't mean to impede the flow of the comments, but I do want to say that this is an excellent and passionate discussion, Todd and BillyD.

I share your concerns, BillyD, and for precisely that reason, I recommend a reading of Richard Mouw's The God Who Commands. I posted a piece about Mouw's book a couple of years ago here. I recommend it, not because I've become an Ockhamist or a Calvinist, but because Mouw does a very good job of laying out a "softer," more reasonable approach to embracing a divine command understanding of theological ethics than the crazy place we could end up if divine voluntarism gets taken out of a properly understood biblical context.

Todd Granger said...

I really am concerned with the power of people to do horrible things once they're convinced that God told them to do them.

It might bear pointing out that Ockhamists aren't the only people guilty of this.

There is, of course, a dark side to the notion of giving (individual) conscience authority over what one perceives God has told him: the possibility that sinful self-will, self-aggrandizement, or just plain misunderstanding are masquerading as or are clouding conscience. And then there is the cultural influence on conscience - whether one is a radical Wahabist terrorist, a beyond-fundamentalist hatemongering preacher, or a bourgeois, NPR-listening, comfortably liberal American. A tricky thing, conscience.

Hence my comments some time back about the importance of community (i.e., the Church catholic) in discerning whether or not something is God's will. True, the Church doesn't have a perfect track record on this (no society of those simul justus et peccatus could), but it's a damn sight better than that of individual human beings.

And, as Bryan points out, the "properly understood biblical context" is key.

BillyD said...

"It might bear pointing out that Ockhamists aren't the only people guilty of this."

Of course not. There are lots of people who think that God (or the Revolution, or Science, or Philosophy) is telling them to do things that they know are wrong, but which they go along with because of the weight of authority.

Bryan - thanks for the tip. I'll check it out.

Robert F said...

But Ockham's doctrine of God reduces God to simply the most powerful will, who should be obeyed because he has authority based on his power. This is the kind of thing the deconstuctionists love, because they apply their hermeneutics of suspicion to it and ask, is this really what God commands, or is it what some human author has cloaked in the command of God so that the human author could prevail in asserting his will? The nature of God is love, not power. Jesus Christ is the living Lord of love, not power, and his Incarnation shows us that most clearly. This is what makes the Trinity different from all those Greek and Roman gods who were the archetypes for Nietzche when he posited the supremacy of the will to power.