Updated: Jul 3, 2020
A.W. Tozer, the prolific pastor of the mid-20th century, famously wrote, "What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us" (13). As Christians, we are commanded to love God with all of our hearts, souls, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). But do we know God? Who is God? What is God?
The question, What is the nature of God?, is one of the central questions of theology. It is also one of the central themes of the Bible. The people of Israel seek God in covenant relationship with Him. Christians do the same, understanding that God has revealed Himself definitively in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (Colossians 1:15). What does the Bible reveal concerning the nature of God? According to the statements from the survey, which I'll examine in this and the next post, Christians are somewhat confused about the nature of God.
All of the response choices for each statement are based on a five-point Likert scale, in which the choices are: Strongly Disagree, Somewhat Disagree, Not Sure, Somewhat Agree, and Strongly Agree. For each statement, I'll examine the answers of the respondents, the truth of the statement, and the importance of the statement for the Christian worldview.
In this post, I'll examine the statement in the survey concerning God's perfection: "God is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake."
God is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake.
In the survey, 71% agreed with the statement above (either Somewhat or Strongly). Only 18% disagreed, with 11% answering "Not Sure." Interestingly, in this case, evangelicals more strongly agreed with the statement, 96% agreeing and only 3% disagreeing. This could represent a wider trend in the data, where evangelicals tend to answer in a more orthodox way (i.e., in a way more consistent with biblical Christianity) than other faiths, such as those in the Mainline and Black Protestant categories. I've heard that this is true of the survey, and it would be interesting to analyze each statement for that. It is also more difficult to establish whether that result would be meaningful, since, necessarily, each category includes a number of respondents less than the total, which was 3,000. Breaking that down is above my pay grade; philosophy doesn't include classes in statistics. But I digress. So the broad majority of professing Christians tend to agree that God is a perfect being and cannot make a mistake. Many might wonder about that 18%. I imagine that even people who are not Christians would see this statement and think, "Of course that's true." In fact, it seems pretty basic. How could God be God if He made a mistake?
There is, however, some ambiguity with this statement. I can think of at least two interpretations of this statement that would take us in two different directions. First, one could understand this statement morally. In other words, one could interpret it to mean that God is morally perfect, all-good or omnibenevolent, and therefore cannot sin. By "make a mistake," the statement would mean that God cannot do anything morally wrong by nature. Second, one could understand the statement in terms of God's perfection in His nature. There is no flaw in God, no sense in which He is lacking in anything that He is. This sense of perfection would be similar to the ancients' belief that circles were perfect. I doubt that most would interpret the statement in the second sense, and I don't interpret it in this way. Some could have, though, and, because of that, disagreed with the statement. This is a smaller version of a broader problem in the survey that will become clearer as we continue. Some of the statements can easily be misinterpreted because of a lack of clarity.
Anyway, it is generally understood that if God exists, He is morally perfect. Scripture abounds with example after example of God's moral perfection and inability to sin. To be clear, you won't necessarily find a verse in the Bible that plainly says, "God is morally perfect." That would be nice, but the Bible wasn't written by modern American theologians. A bunch Holy Spirit-inspired prophets, kings, apostles, and peasants wrote the Bible, with the last book, Revelation, being written almost 2,000 years ago. If we're to understand the Bible and derive our view of God and the Christian worldview from it, we must understand it as the audience to whom the particular books were written understood it. In other words, we have to shed our modern lens and read the Bible on its own terms. This process is called biblical hermeneutics, or the art of biblical interpretation.
So what are some of these examples? It's easy to see that if God is morally perfect, then there can be no sin or corruption in Him. We haven't covered what sin is, but suffice it to say for now that this means that God, both in His character and actions, can neither be or do anything evil. God's character, the moral quality of His person, is perfectly good. God isn't just loving; He is all-loving. Any description of the good character of a person is simply derived from the infinite goodness of God. For example, Galatians 5:22-23 says (NASB):
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law."
This fruit, what the Spirit causes to grow in every Christian that pursues His walk with the Lord, is a reflection of the infinite goodness of God. Nothing in existence that is good is separate from God. In fact, God is every good thing's source. Think about that. Every thing in this list grows in the one who has faith in Christ, is already present ad infinatum in God. He is the fullness and paradigm of love, joy, peace, patience, and so on. And if actions are produced from one's character or heart (Matthew 15:19), then God's actions can never be evil, since His character contains no evil. Psalm 18:30 describes God's way as perfect (ESV):
"This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him."
Other passages are indirect in their affirmation that God is morally perfect. For example, it stands to reason that if I do something evil, and God is morally perfect, then I have fallen short of His moral perfection. Compared to the yardstick of God's moral perfection, I don't (and can't) compare. Romans 3:23 states (ESV):
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
This verse equates doing something morally wrong (i.e., sinning) with falling short of God's glory. James 2:10 is sobering and very clear (NASB):
"For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all."
I'm getting a little ahead of myself. We'll be covering sin in more detail later in this series. But perhaps now you can see the utter perfection of God. In God is absolute moral perfection. Deuteronomy 32:4 puts it very well (ESV):
"'The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.'"
Here we see both ends covered: God's moral perfection and His lack of sin because of it.
Now what does it mean to say that God is morally perfect? Whenever you hear someone say, "X is good," or, "X is bad," you should ask, "By what standard?" To claim that some act is morally good or bad is to assume that some standard, by which I can tell the difference objectively, exists. So what's the standard? As an illustration, let's say that you were to ask me if the length of your sandwich was equal to one foot (let's assume that we're at Subway). The problem in this illustration is that I don't know what a foot is as a standard of measurement. If you were to ask me if your sandwich was too long or too short, I would have no clue, since I have no standard by which to know if your sandwich is too long or too short. I would need a ruler, which would be the standard to compare to.
In the same way, without some moral "ruler," how do you know if someone's actions (say, lying) is good or bad? What is the standard? We could rightfully ask this question of God. How do we know that He is morally perfect? Is it by some standard? Or is it because He said so?
A significant amount of confusion for people results from this puzzle. The problem goes back more than 2,000 years with the famous Euthyphro dilemma. The Euthyphro dilemma claims that there are two options for the theist who believes that good exists. For whatever is morally good, these are the two options:
It is good because God commands it.
God commands it because it is good.
Let's look at these options. In (1), the good seems arbitrary. God happened to command us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He could have commanded us to eat them instead. If (1) is true, then hatred is no better than love, objectively. God just happened to choose love over hatred. This seems wrong, since there is an intuition in our moral reasoning that understands many moral truths, at least, to be true, no matter the circumstances. This is why we can say that even if everyone in the world thought that murder was good, murder would still be evil. Why would God be different, in this case?
Maybe (2) is a better option. This option preserves our intuition that moral truths are necessary, or that they are true, no matter the circumstances. But the trade-off is not good, since now God is under that standard! The problem with (2) is that God commands the good because He has to. There's a standard above Him that compels Him to say that love is good. That doesn't seem right either, since theists and even atheists intuit rightly that if God exists, God must be ultimate and above anything and everything else. That He is under a law seems to lower Him, which is unconscionable.
How does the theist escape the dilemma? Dilemmas collapse as long as a third viable option can be introduced. If there are three option instead of two, then the force of having two unacceptable options goes away. So what's the third option? Here it is:
God commands it because He is the good.
How is this option different from the other two? Remember that, in (1), God is the ultimate authority, but morality is arbitrary. In (2), morality is not arbitrary, but God is not the ultimate authority. With this third option, God is the ultimate authority, and morality is not arbitrary. How so? Let's return to the example of the ruler. In (1), God just defines what a ruler is arbitrarily. In (2), the ruler just is what it is, and God points to this objective fact about the world. In the third option, God is the ruler. In other words, God commands what He does because He is the standard. His nature defines what good is, and any deprivation of or deviation from His infinite perfection is not good. Therefore, God's ultimate authority remains, and, since His nature cannot change or be different from what it is, moral truths remain what they are, no matter the circumstances. Love is good because God is love (1 John 4:8).
This realization was revolutionary to my understanding of God. Unfortunately, I won't be able to cover the entirety of God's nature in this series. The questions concerning God's nature in the survey are limited, and if I devoted myself to exhaustively discussing God's nature in this blog, the blog would just be about God's nature. There would be nothing else to talk about. That being said, one thing to know about God's nature is that His properties or characteristics are not to be thought of as unrelated parts. Rather, His properties simply describe what is, at bottom, an undivided whole. God is never divided and always unified in His nature. Because of this, we can expect that His properties are interrelated. His properties affect one another.
For example, think of God's faithfulness. Scripture beautifully expresses the faithfulness of God in His devotion to His covenant people. For example, Christians are told to persevere in the faith because of God's faithfulness in Hebrews 10:23 (NASB):
"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful."
God's faithfulness is a factor of His moral character. When a husband is faithful to his wife, he keeps his vows to her in the context of their marriage without wavering in them. If he were to have an affair (i.e., be unfaithful), this would be a moral failing in his duty as a husband. In the same way, God fulfills all of His promises and continues to bless and be with those who are in Christ. If you are Christian, you can hold on to this truth, knowing that God will never leave you nor forsake you.
How is God's moral perfection related to His faithfulness? When we understand the sense in which God is morally perfect, in that He is the standard of moral good, we realize that God's goodness is grounded in what He is, or His nature. The good is what God is. God is morally perfect in the same sense that a circle is round. If a circle were to "become" a square, it would be absurd to say that the circle now has four sides and corners. Rather, the circle has ceased to exist, and now a square exists. In the same way, a God that is less than morally perfect is not God.
In philosophical terms, we describe God's perfect moral character as a necessary property. This means that moral perfection is necessary to God's nature; God wouldn't be God if He weren't morally perfect, in the same way that roundness is necessary to the nature of a circle. As I indicated at the beginning of the post, this seems intuitive. God isn't morally perfect one day and evil the next. In that case, then we should expect that His perfect moral character is changeless. The changelessness, or immutability, of God is derived from the idea that His nature must be what it is and could not be any different.
In the beginning of Romans 3, Paul reflects on the fact that not all Jews believed in the promises of God and obeyed Him. In verse 3, he asks (NASB), "What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?" God had made specific promises to the Jews, culminating in the promise of a coming Messiah, yet the Jews had instead rejected and killed Jesus the Messiah. As a result, they did not receive the promises of God. Does this nullify the faithfulness of God? From an understanding of God's perfect moral character, we learn that nothing can nullify the faithfulness of God. The question itself is absurd. God is faithful because He is the good. His unchangeable moral character forbids it.
So if God makes a promise to you as a follower of Christ, can you trust in Him? The answer is yes. Not only yes, but the answer could not possibly be no. If God tells you that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:13), then you can be sure, absolutely confident, that this is true.
God's nature is whole and unified. He is one. Once we come to understand God's nature, we can trust in Him. And worship Him in awe.
You might wonder why we're engaging in both Scripture and philosophy in order to understand God's nature better. Some might argue that we should only use Scripture to come know about God and know God. As Christians, we understand that Scripture is the basis for our understanding of God and His actions in history. Anything which contradicts Scripture should be rejected. This, however, doesn't entail that we can't look to other fields, such as history, archaeology, science, and philosophy, to help us understand Scripture. Scripture tells us that God is the ultimate authority over everything, that He is morally perfect, and that He cannot sin. Logic and systematic theology help us to understand what Scripture clearly tells us. So there's nothing illegitimate about incorporating the insights of these other fields to understand Scripture.
In a holistic apologetic, we should consider that the Christian worldview is also holistic. That is, the Christian worldview incorporates knowledge from all of the fields of human inquiry. If the God of the Bible exists and has revealed Himself decisively in the person and work of Jesus Christ, then we should expect that all truth ultimately points back to Him. All truth is God's truth. Therefore, we use the insights of various fields to tell us about God's truth.
Understanding something about the nature of God will give us a firm foundation on which to understand the rest of the essential pieces of the Christian worldview. I hope that, especially just after Easter, these posts about God will fill you with awe about who He is. We serve an awesome God; no, the greatest being there was, is, and ever could be. He is worthy of our praise for eternity. I was happy to write this blog because it filled me with awe for my God.
Hopefully, this post has edified and interested you. If so, next week, we'll continue our discussion about God with the survey statement: "There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit." If you find yourself continuing to come back to the blog, please consider subscribing to it, so that you will get notified of each new post. With a subscription, you can also comment below and start a discussion! Also, please consider sharing these posts on social media, since that is the easiest way to ensure that more people will find their way to this content. As we get the word out, my prayer is that the blog will continue to bolster and advance the Kingdom of God. Finally, if you have any questions or comments about the blog, then you can send me a message from the bottom of the homepage. I look forward to receiving messages from you. Thank you for reading!
If you want to check out the content of the survey in detail, see The State of Theology. "Key Findings." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018. https://thestateoftheology.com/. and The State of Theology. "Data Explorer." The State of Theology. Ligonier Ministries, 2018.https://thestateoftheology.com/data-explorer?AGE=30&MF=14®ION=30&EDUCATION=62&INCOME=254&MARITAL=126ÐNICITY=62&RELTRAD=62&ATTENDANCE=254.
Tozer, A.W. The Knowledge of the Holy. In A.W. Tozer: Three Spiritual Classics in One Volume, 9-214. Chicago: Moody Publishers.