Our purpose in what follows is to help answer the following question: what do Christians mean when they confess that creation is good? This question is both timely and difficult. Admittedly, creation’s goodness is not always self-evident to us. Evils in this world are often more apparent to us than its goodness, especially in times of war, famine, and plague, but also in more common experiences of pain, avarice, and isolation. These challenges offer boisterous counter-testimony to any confession of creation as a gratuitous gift.
Commonly, they lead many to despair of or deny creation’s goodness, turning instead to nihilistic philosophies that revel in purposelessness or pragmatism. Responses to these errors often enough run into opposite delusions, mistaking creation for God. Confession instructed by Holy Scripture, on the other hand, may speak plainly of the many problems besetting the world and its inhabitants while nevertheless affirming its basic goodness as God’s creation. Scripture thereby expands our imagination to see the world as Scripture depicts it: good, damaged, but under the promise of transformation. In this series, we survey some basics of this confession by looking at (i) the Goodness of the Creator; (ii) the goodness of created being; (iii) the relative goodness of materiality; and (iv) finally, the goodness of creation’s end.
The Goodness of the Creator
Theological consideration of creation’s goodness depends on the prior confession of the Creator’s goodness, because errors about creatures are first and foremost errors about God (Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles 2.3). Traditionally, mistakes about creation’s goodness have often been resolved by more careful speculative attention to the character of God’s goodness. This is a difficult place to begin, however, because consideration of uncreated and created good is complicated by sin.
In our disorder, we are confused about what goods are and how they should be ranked, pursued, and enjoyed. These are failures of perception as much as desire, misinformed and misdirected away from truth and towards ideologies that serve the self (or the state, Volk, etc.). Often, we will simply desire the wrong things or, more subtly (like our first parents’ desire for knowledge of good and evil), we will pursue the right things out of season and in the wrong ways.Our confession of God’s goodness and its communication must be repentant and expectant, contrite over failures to discern goodness where we should have and hopeful that in his goodness, the Lord will instruct his church. Consequently, what goodness there is in us and in others we often manipulate for projects of vanity and idolatry, with fateful results. This is not something that simply happens “outside” the church, but within her walls. Hence, our confession of God’s goodness and its communication must be repentant and expectant, contrite over failures to discern goodness where we should have and hopeful that in his goodness, the Lord will instruct his church.
Thankfully, our failure is not the last word—nor, as we shall see, even the first. Christian teaching about creation’s goodness, and therefore the goodness of God, starts with Philip’s answer to Nathaniel, who asked if anything good could come from Nazareth: “Come and see” (John 1:46). In the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the only begotten Son of the Father, Jesus Christ, creation’s goodness is affirmed, preserved against disintegration, and transformed. Far from belittling the material conditions of our lives, God’s love joins these conditions to himself in the utmost intimacy: the Word was made flesh, and then remade flesh in himself by virtue of his resurrection. In his Son, Father has begun a “good work” in us and “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). The beginnings of this work are a “pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5), so our “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” approving what is pure and excellent in distinction from what is wicked and idolatrous (Phil 1:9–10; cf. Rom 1:28–32). In Christ, we are not something other than creatures, but new creatures created for good works (2 Cor 5:17; Eph 2:10). So it is that the Spirit of Christ awakens us to goodness in all its depths and intensities.
The history in which we discover and learn God’s goodness is therefore one in which we are being reconciled to God and redirected to his goodness. At war with sin’s tendency to burden created goods with desires they cannot bear, we are summoned to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). What does this mean, and what does it have to tell us about the Creator?
The Goodness of the Blessed Trinity
God’s goodness is the infinite desirability and communicativeness of his perfection, which is the fruitful life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Formally, the idea of ‘good’ depicts ‘being’ as something desirable. Often, the operative logic here is teleological: all beings desire their proper perfection; whatever perfects things is what actualizes them as the thing they are; this actualizing perfection is desirable and hence good. Moreover, whatever is desirable demands also to be shared in some respect, as the experience of delight and love demonstrates. Sharing good things is life-giving, making us hospitable, merciful, and generous. So it is that such virtues are also desirable goods, which share themselves by prompting us to strive for them.The beauty and desirability of the Trinity’s perfect life is manifest especially in the gospel. Because these goods are harder to take away, then goodness is perhaps especially radiant in those spiritual goods that cannot be lost. Indeed, Basil says, “Blessed is he . . . who shares in the goods that cannot be taken away.”Basil of Caesarea, On the Hexaemeron 10.3, in Saint Basil the Great: Exegetic Homilies, trans. Agnes Clare Way. Fathers of the Church 46 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1963). Hence, the formal idea of ‘goodness’ connotes desirability and communication. How does this formal notion help us understand God’s goodness?
First, the most fundamental quality of God’s goodness is its attractiveness. The beauty and desirability of the Trinity’s perfect life is manifest especially in the gospel, but manifest to the eyes of faith, which looks upon something strange and tortured at this point. To see the “King in his beauty” (Isa 33:17) is to behold one whose appearance is shameful and inglorious (Isa 52:14 lxx). The glory of Christ is seen in the ugliness of his cross, much as his power is seen in his weakness, and his wisdom in foolishness. The beauty and goodness of the gospel are therefore visible to the poor in spirit who need the “riches” of God’s goodness in his love, grace, mercy, kindness, and patience (Exod 33:19; 34:4–7; Rom 2:4). These riches are given to us in Christ, and it is the Spirit who makes Christ lovely to us. This awakening is to eternal goodness and beauty.Aquinas maintains that goodness and beauty are tightly related, but distinct all the same. Beauty pertains to integrity, proportion, and clarity, engaging our cognition, whereas goodness pertains to desirability and engages the will. See Summa theologiae I.5.4.ad 1; I.39.8.
Poured out thus into our hearts, the Spirit inflames our love for God who alone can satisfy our desires because only God’s goodness is inexhaustible and permanent. Fattened with abundance of material goods, we might fall into the lie that we have exhausted what is good, but there abides a Goodness more abundant still, which brings eternal joy (Ps 4:6–7; cf. Prov 30:8). God “satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things” (Ps 107:9); “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing” (Ps 34:10). This is one reason why the psalms constantly exhort us: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” (Pss 136:1; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1; etc.). In God’s presence, amidst his goodness, there is “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Ps 16:11). All other goods thus necessarily fade in comparison to God (Ps 16:2). In short, the Lord’s goodness is abundant and bountiful, so much so that it creates desire for itself, thereby nourishing the roots of all our desires.
Second, the bounty of God’s goodness, eliciting desire for itself, also speaks to its communicability. Scripture’s testimony to the goodness of God’s acts and the things he makes speaks to this communicative dimension of God’s goodness: “You are good and do good” (Ps 119:68). Christian theology critically appropriated the Neoplatonist idea that goodness is self-diffusive, fraught as the idea was with potential for error. Some thought that the self-diffusiveness of God’s goodness meant an eternal or a necessary creation.Christian theology critically appropriated the Neoplatonist idea that goodness is self-diffusive, fraught as the idea was with potential for error. Others would turn this metaphysical necessity into an argument against God: if good is self-communicative, then goodness is de facto dependent on its communication, so “God is God, only through that which is not God”—effectively, man is God.Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. Marian Evans. 3rd ed (London: Kegan Paul, et al, 1893), 229. Careful theologians like Aquinas recognized that goodness is communicative by virtue of its attractiveness; the good “diffuses” itself by drawing out desire and prompting action. Technically stated: efficient causality is subordinate to final causality. Yet without any creature to draw out and prompt, all the notion of goodness suggests is a sort of finality or desirability. Therefore, the concept of goodness’s self-diffusiveness does not itself necessitate creation. For more context, see Tyler Wittman, God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 55–65.
As always, however, concepts like the good as self-diffusive must conform to the Reality theology confesses. God’s goodness must “befit” him as the triune God he is. If we may speak of God’s own “desire” for his goodness, then it would demand an infinite and perfect communication that no finite reality could possibly shoulder. The revelation of the Trinity discloses this infinitely perfect communication of divine goodness—its intrinsic fruitfulness—from the Father to the Son, and through the Son to the Spirit.Aquinas, De potentia 9.9. Trinitarian theology is not thereby a product of philosophical speculation about goodness, but the space in which such reflection flourishes. Because God is Trinity, God’s goodness does not demand its diffusion into creatures.
With these qualities of God’s goodness in view, we may begin to understand the elements of our brief definition above. God’s infinite will possesses in his infinite goodness its only adequate object of desire, satisfaction, rest, and enjoyment. But this goodness has a trinitarian shape: because the Father possesses his goodness in perfect knowledge and love—and not some abstraction of goodness—then he possesses it as his infinite goodness communicated in his Word and Love. Possessing their common goodness thus, resting in and enjoying one another, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are blessed and the source of all rest, enjoyment, and beatitude. Thus, as beautiful and fruitful ad intra, the Trinity is desirable and communicative ad extra.
Creation and God’s Goodness
What, briefly, does the foregoing account of God’s goodness have to do with creation? Theologians early on agreed that somehow God’s goodness is the motive ground, as it were, for God’s creative activity. Gregory of Nazianzus expresses the essential thought with characteristic elegance, when reflecting on God’s creative act: “He was stirred by beholding his beloved beauty’s radiance.”Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmina 1.1.4, line 64: κίννυτο κάλλεος οἷο φίλην θηεύμενος αἴγλην (PG 37:420). Translation is mine; compare with On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus, trans. Peter Gilbert (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 51. Notably, Gregory does not leave this “splendor” anonymous, but continues to describe it as “the common, equally matchless brilliance of the thrice-shining divinity,” which “is manifest only to the divinity and to God’s own.”Nazianzen, Carmina 1.1.4, lines 65-66: Τρισσοφαοῦς Θεότητος ὁμὸν σέλας ἰσοφἐριστον; Ὡς μούνῃ Θεότητι, και ὧν Θεὸς, ἒστ᾽ἀρίδηλον (PG 37:421).
Despite its elegance, Gregory’s language already hints at the ways in which the idea of goodness as self-diffusive can suggest creation’s necessity. However, whatever “stirring” is envisaged needn’t be one that requires creation. On the contrary, God is not “enticed” to create by his goodness, beauty, or wisdom because God is perfectly at rest in the possession and enjoyment of his own goodness.Pace Hermann Spieckermann and Reinhard Feldmeier, God of the Living: A Biblical Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), 253f. There is nothing more beloved or beautiful than the “equally matchless brilliance of the thrice-shining divinity” as such. God’s goodness is exhausted in its essential intelligibility within the life of the blessed Trinity, needing no further communication to a reality outwith God’s own life. But such a communication there is. If that communication is not necessary, we must nevertheless say it is “fitting.” Creation is supremely in keeping with “his beloved beauty’s radiance,” but not necessary to that radiance.
Consistent with God’s goodness and beauty, then, creation is lovely. And like all lovely things, creation is nothing short of a miracle, an astonishment that evokes wonder, delight, and gratitude. That is where contemplation of creation’s goodness begins.