We can't fathom God's goodness

August 11th, 2015

My son fell asleep in the stroller while our family was going for an evening walk.

After dinner, when bedtime came, his parents were tired, but he was not. As we were trying to get him and his sister to go to sleep, our son just stood up in his crib, jumping up and down, with a great big toddler grin on his face, giggling. This giggling and jumping was contagious. First it got my wife and daughter. Then it got me.

So instead of taking the dog outside for his after-dinner walk, I played some songs from the “Top Gun” soundtrack on my phone, and we had a family dance party.

The goodness that started from a little boy grinning and refusing to lie down culminated in four people dancing to 80s music in the kids' room.

Afterward, when finally walking the poor dog, I began to marvel at this. What an unexpected gift. Goodness just pounced into our midst and brought us to life.


Goodness. We cannot fathom the goodness of God: a goodness without limit, without end, like a sea with no bottom and no beaches. Yet we have to talk about the goodness of God. God, in his goodness, uses our non-comprehending praise to raise us up to share in the divine goodness. In fact, to some readers of the Bible goodness seems the most fundamental way of naming the reality of God.

Bonaventure, a virtuosic 13th century Franciscan theologian, was one of these. Some theologians have thought 'Being' the most basic name for God, while others, like Bonaventure, have thought 'Good'. There is biblical support for both positions. In Exodus 3:14, God famously tells Moses out of the burning bush that his name is "I AM WHO I AM", and this suggests to many a primacy of 'Being'. On the other hand, Jesus Christ tells the ruler in Luke 18:19, "No one is good except God alone." With biblical support for both 'Being' and 'Good,' what is the theologian to do? Which passage should have hermeneutical priority?

Bonaventure is capable of drawing the contrast humorously in a way that shows the dignity of the name 'Being' but the surpassing propriety of the name 'Good.' Adjudicating between the great Eastern theologians John of Damascus, or 'Damascene' (7th-8th century), and the 5th-6th century Syriac monk who wrote as Dionysius the Areopagite (of Acts 17:34 fame), Bonaventure writes:

“Damascene, therefore, following Moses, says that He who is is God's primary name; Dionysius, following Christ, says that the Good is God's primary name.” (The Soul's Journey into God 5.2).

Moses speaks truly, but Christ wins every time! Good one Bonnie!

Dionysius the Areopagite, for his part, is a major influence in the Christian theological tradition both East and West; as Bonaventure intimates, he's all about the Good. Dionysius begins one of his books, “The Heavenly Hierarchy,” which is all about the different kinds of angels and their work, with James 1:17:

"Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of Lights."

Dionysius continues:

"Further also, every procession of illuminating light, proceeding from the Father, whilst visiting us as a gift of goodness, restores us again gradually as an unifying power, and turns us to the oneness of our conducting Father, and to a deifying simplicity. For all things are from Him, and to Him, as said the Sacred Word."

God sends his light cascading down. To us it is pure goodness, and this goodness reunites us to God.

The goodness is so good that even Thomas Aquinas, who is a big fan of 'Being', can't resist coming to the Good party when he's ready to talk about how God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to save us. Aquinas asks whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate. Aquinas, like Bonaventure, will go for the authority of Dionysius in giving his answer. He writes:

"That is befitting which belongs to [a thing] by reason of its very nature; thus, it befits humankind to reason, since this belongs to him because he is of a rational nature. But the very nature of God is goodness, as is clear from Dionysius (Divine Names 1). Hence, what belongs to the essence of goodness befits God. But it belongs to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others, as is plain from Dionysius (Divine Names 4). Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly by His so joining created nature to Himself that one Person is made up of these three — the Word, a soul and flesh, as Augustine says (The Trinity 13). Hence it is manifest that it was fitting that God should become incarnate." (Summa Theologiae IIIa q 1 a 1).

Aquinas' logic, expanded for clarity, goes something like this: It is fitting for anything to do what is in accord with its own nature. For example, humans are rational in nature, hence it is fitting for humans to reason. The nature of God is goodness, so whatever belongs to the essence of goodness is fitting for God. And it is proper to the essence of goodness to communicate itself to others. Hence it is proper to God to communicate himself to others. And since God is not just any good thing but the highest good who is not a thing at all, it belongs to the essence of the highest good to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature — and this is what the incarnation does.

When the Word becomes flesh (Jn. 1:14), when the immaterial eternal God takes on a material body and a created human soul, what God is doing is communicating to humans the goodness that is the very essence of God. God loves to share his goodness with us. So, in Jesus Christ, God is uniting us to himself so that we can be "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4). No sin, no finitude, no distance or corruption or alienation will keep us apart, for love is stronger than the grave, and the goodness of God is inexhaustible. We have no idea how good God is.

We really cannot fathom God's goodness, God's mercy, God's tender compassion.


Growing up, I knew a handful of pastors who would say, "God is good," to which you were supposed to respond, "All the time." Then they'd say, "And all the time", and you'd say, "God is good." This quasi-liturgical call-and-response struck me as campy and I did not appreciate it much. I hadn't begun to fathom the depths of the goodness of God. I still haven't.

Clifton Stringer is a Ph.D. student in Historical Theology at Boston College and the author of "Christ the Lightgiver" in the Converge Bible Studies series.

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