Michael Wiltshire, our guest blogger for this series, will introduce “Get With This or Get With That” with the timeless issue of God’s Goodness Vs. God’s Greatness.
God: Great vs. Good
God is great, God is good: let us thank him for our food. Amen. As a kid, this little prayer was one of the quickest ways to get “saying grace” out of the way before a meal. I think most Christians have used it at some point to close-in on the time between them and their dinner. The idea of God being both great and good is a familiar one to most Christians as various hymns and prayers are constructed around it throughout church history. But have we missed an important distinction in our theology of God’s love and glory?
In his book, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, theologian Roger Olsen describes the church’s theological consensus on the matter by explaining, “Our God is both glorious beyond our understanding and perfectly good beyond any creaturely goodness.” God’s greatnessis often attached to terms like sovereign, transcendent, and self-glorifying, while his goodness is communicated with words like self-sacrificial, compassionate, and loving. Christians have sought to do justice in focusing on both descriptions of God by letting their theological framework be built in a way which can contain both sides. Their tendency to hastily join them together often ignores a critical distinction which must be made in order to truly understand and experience God’s greatness and goodness for what they really are.
In most cases, by lumping God’s greatness and goodness together, theologians and their followings have unnecessarily overemphasized one side over the other—and then sometimes tend to outright deny the other side altogether. When Luther saw a weakening of God’s greatness from the Catholic Church, he began to preach of a hidden God who is totally free of creation and may damn any man or women without reason. For Karl Barth, God was known as “he who loves in freedom” (Church Dogmatics2/1) which would summarize his belief that God’s greatness and goodness are not at all in conflict with each other if we abandon all thoughts of projection. Maybe more recent evidence of the church’s failure to see this needed distinction is the evangelical uproar over Love Wins by Rob Bell—a book which in many ways suggests that part of God’s divine greatness eventually may mean that his goodness will win every human soul.
Here is our problematic struggle with making sense of a God both Great and Good: If a person begins and ends their theology with one aspect of God, they easily distort the other—and eventually even the one they began with—leading to a theological caricature of God. If one begins their theology with “God is great” they often envision God’s goodness to only be a manifestation of his greatnessand vice versa. An outstanding example of this may be philosophical theism—a system of thought which popular Calvinist theologian Loraine Boettner (among Calvin and others) uses to assert that God purposefully predetermined every single event that would happen—including all acts of sin and evil—and continues to guide those events in order to maintain the fullest extent of his greatness. To many, such a God cannot truly be good whatsoever—and his greatness, in this light, becomes distorted as well. Panentheism, on the other hand—which sees God in totally interdependent on the world—is another danger if the pendulum swings too far the in the opposite direction.
So how does one keep from overemphasizing one aspect of God? Again, there is a critical distinction to be made. God is equally Great and Good—but we cannot let those terms become fused to the point where they are totally interdependent on each other. In my opinion,we must begin to construct theology which allows both aspects to operate simultaneously and harmoniously. This then requires letting God’s greatness and goodness remain in their paradoxical framework. And while such a paradox may seem like sloppy theology to some, it is important to remember that speculation outside of what God has clearly revealed to us often may better lead to mysticism than poorly developed doctrine. We must also see God as capable of self-limitation, if he chooses to do so. At the end of the day, our monotheism still requires distinction.