A Typical Question about “Good” (Listening to the Saints – Aquinas)

Is something good because God says so?

Or does God say something good because it is?

This is a common question asked by all sorts of people.  I have had discussions about it on campus with students and driving in the car with friends.

If you say the second one is true then you are saying that God adheres to alaw that is above or greater than God.  This is a problem, because if God submits to some law then we should actually call this law “God”.

But if you say the first one, well, then murder and rape are not really bad.  If God just arbitrarily commanded certain things to be good or bad, then God could have chosen the opposite.  God could have commanded murder and rape to be good.   One of the problems here is that you cannot trust God.  Rather than loving or doing good, God just kind of does whatever God wants whether it is good or bad.  (If you listen to some Christians talk about how God can do whatever God wants, and other such rhetoric, I think this is a view many Christians hold, sadly).

Enter Thomas Aquinas, the Christian philosopher and theologian who lived in the 1200s.  He is probably the most influential person for Roman Catholicism.  I have been reading his Summa Theologica in bits and pieces for a few months now.  Aquinas speaks on the good:

“To be good belongs pre-eminently to God” (1, Q.6, Art.1)

“God is the supreme good simply, and not only as existing in any genus or order of things. For good is attributed to God, as was said in the preceding article, inasmuch as all desired perfections flow from Him as from the first cause” (1, Q.6, Art. 2)

According to Aquinas, God = good.  God could not say something evil is good; the good could not be other than what it is.  Yet God does not submit to a law above himself.  Rather, God’s nature is in accord with the good.

Thus, when Jesus (from a Christian perspective, our clearest image of who God is) says to forgive a person who harms you and to show love to your enemies, it is not as if the ideas of “love” and “forgiveness” are part of a higher moral law above God.  It is also not that God could have just as easily been in favor of “hate” and “holding a grudge”.  Rather, love and forgiveness are intimate to  who God is.

I think this is a helpful concept to grasp when Christians have discussions about God and morality and ethics among ourselves or when we attempt to state what we think to others.  In a few days I am going to think through what this means for us on a practical, day to day, level.

The last thing to say is I realize there are Biblical challenges in this, namely that in the Old Testament God commands things, such as the destruction of the Canaanites, which do not seem to be very good or loving.  At first glance it appears that sometimes God commands murder and other times God commands forgiveness.  That is a whole other question that deserves full treatment…another day.

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