A Perfect God?

Yoram Hazony, at NYTimes, a Jerusalem Jewish thinker, weighs in on the idealism of the God of perfection:

How do you deal with those passages in the Bible? Does the Bible-as-Story/Narrative relieve any of this problem?

Is God perfect? You often hear philosophers describe “theism” as the belief in a perfect being — a being whose attributes are said to include being all-powerful, all-knowing, immutable, perfectly good, perfectly simple, and necessarily existent (among others). And today, something like this view is common among lay people as well.

There are two famous problems with this view of God. The first is that it appears to be impossible to make it coherent. For example, it seems unlikely that God can be both perfectly powerful and perfectly good if the world is filled (as it obviously is) with instances of terrible injustice. Similarly, it’s hard to see how God can wield his infinite power to instigate alteration and change in all things if he is flat-out immutable. And there are more such contradictions where these came from.

The second problem is that while this “theist” view of God is supposed to be a description of the God of the Bible, it’s hard to find any evidence that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”) thought of God in this way at all. The God of Hebrew Scripture is not depicted as immutable, but repeatedly changes his mind about things (for example, he regrets having made man). He is not all-knowing, since he’s repeatedly surprised by things (like the Israelites abandoning him for a statue of a cow). He is not perfectly powerful either, in that he famously cannot control Israel and get its people to do what he wants. And so on….

The ancient Israelites, in other words, discovered a more realisticGod than that descended from the tradition of Greek thought. But philosophers have tended to steer clear of such a view, no doubt out of fear that an imperfect God would not attract mankind’s allegiance. Instead, they have preferred to speak to us of a God consisting of a series of sweeping idealizations — idealizations whose relation to the world in which we actually live is scarcely imaginable. Today, with theism rapidly losing ground across Europe and among Americans as well, we could stand to reconsider this point. Surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.

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  • Steve

    Interesting post, but I’m not sure I fully understand what you are saying? Are you saying God is not perfect and what exactly do you mean by that? While there is not a direct statement in the Old Testament that says God is perfect, the idea is still present (Deut. 32:4, Job 36:4, Ps 19:7, and so on). Further, the New Testament does state that God is perfect in those direct terms (Matt 5:48, 1 Cor. 13:10 if you understand this as a refence to Christ, etc). Finally, perfection is the demand of man and the pursuit of the believer on the basis of God’s perfection (again Matt 5:48, Phil. 3:12). The only way tosay that God is not perfect is to use the term “perfect” in a way that is different from scripture. So I guess it depends on what you mean when you say the God is not perfect.

  • It seems to me that the first chapters of Genesis are actually intended to provide answers to the very accusations Hazony raises against God’s goodness and power.

    The creation and flood epics have at their heart the question “If God is good and all powerful, why doesn’t he destroy evil?” Humankind is created good to be God’s royal image bearer, but instead it rebels and becomes so infected with sin that the earth is filled with violence. A good God is deeply grieved by what humanity has become. I don’t think that shows weakness any more than a loving parent who is grieved by a rebellious child.

    The flood story shows what the logical response should be by a righteous God to human evil—universal judgment. The fact that a good God does not destroy evil is not because he’s impotent—it’s because he’s merciful.

    Our error seems to be in assuming that God somehow could wave a magic wand and make evil disappear. This simply isn’t an option, any more than God can make triangles with four sides. Sin isn’t a ghost that can be exorcised from an otherwise pure human heart. Sin is a decision to rebel and set yourself at enmity with God.

    The flood epic shows that God chooses to bear with corrupt humanity because the alternative is the death of every sinner on earth. The covenant with Noah to never send universal judgment again is a promise to redeem humanity from evil rather than to judge it for its sin. In embryonic form, it points toward the coming of Christ.

  • Sam

    I hesitate when people talk of a perfect God. The question that comes to mind is who defines what perfect means or what does being perfect look like. I prefer assuming God is perfect because he claims so and then i would read the narrative to see what that perfection looks like. So does perfect mean stamping out evil as soon as it happens, NO. That is not how the scriptures define God’s perfection. God’s perfection is defined also by his mercy and compassion and yes .. letting things be for a while.

  • AHH

    The point seems to be that our modern concepts of God’s “perfection” owe more than we realize to Greek and Enlightenment philosophy, and less than we might think to the Bible.
    Well sure, we humans are unfortunately proficient at constructing a “God of the philosophers”, and that point is worth thinking about.

    But I suspect Hazony’s notion of a “more realistic” God may be similarly influenced by human philosophy that cannot fully grasp God.

  • I’m not sure that the issue is really whether there’s any biblical support for a conception of God as all-powerful or immutable. It’s relatively easy to find OT passages in various types of literature that could be plausibly argued to support those concepts; and I think the early Greek fathers, for instance, would balk at the idea that their use of Greek philosophical concepts ignored the biblical material or subsumed the biblical material wrongfully. (This might be debated, but I think it is important to recognize how biblically-laden their work is and how biblical they believed they were being. Also it is doubtful whether such a nebulous oversimplification as “the Greek fathers” exists.) And there are modern theologians who would still argue for something like these concepts, such as Vanhoozer, whose theological project rests on first attending to God’s own self-disclosure in the biblical narrative and then allowing that to shape theologizing.

    I think the broader issue is one of *harmonization*, and this relates to the idea of biblical theology: What does it mean to say, as Hazony does, that “The God of Hebrew Scripture is ______”? There are processes upon hermeneutical processes implicit in that deceptively simple construction. His reading of those processes (which is disingenuously hidden from his readers beneath the simplicity of the sentence) leads him to a place of confidence that ideas such as immutability and omnipotence are foreign to the text. Others have come to different conclusions, and not without biblical warrant.

    It is not surprising that he oversimplifies matters, since he is writing for a broad, quasi-well-educated audience in the NY Times. (I say “quasi-well-educated” because a very well-educated person can nevertheless be not so educated when it comes to biblical scholarship.) But this is too reductionistic, and I would say the same about his treatment of the concept’s coherence with reference to the problems of evil and divine involvement in history (I’m not sure that anyone who argues for “flat-out immutability” thinks that renders God’s involvement in human time problematic).

    I don’t have a main point except that things are both more complex and less complex than he presents. More, in that he oversimplifies points he disagrees with and treats complex discussions as if they are simplistic problems for some idea of theism; less, because he does not seem to countenance the idea that biblical theology is able to hold some of these things in tension – i.e., yes, God is opposed to evil; yes, God is all-powerful; no, God does not immediately act to right all wrongs; yes, God might have good reasons for doing so; yes, the resurrection might give humanity a good reason to trust such a God despite the seeming incoherence of the present existence of suffering and injustice.

  • @ Steve – thanks for listing specific verses. Can anyone else list specific verses to support their case? If I’m not mistaken, the Greek word used for “perfect” can mean “mature” or “complete” and not necessarily “perfect” as we understand it today.

    I really enjoyed this post and article. I would have liked Hazony to list more examples of God changing. People usually list the “creating man” one and Ninevites in Jonah as examples and I think the latter is debatable. Maybe Moses turning back God’s wrath from the Israelites would be another.

    I think a lot of people have preconceived ideas of what God should be like. I’ve heard Sproul say that if God is not omnipotent then He’s not God. And I believe I heard blogger Tony Jones say that he wouldn’t follow God if He wasn’t omnipotent. But even if God’s not omnipotent or omniscient, He’s still the most powerful, wisest, being in the universe and if you ever have an encounter with His love it will wreck your world (in a good way).

  • Dave Leigh

    Isn’t it presumptuous to think we know what perfection is in relation to God? I have long held that the God of the philosophers is more a system of sterile logic than a personal being. The God of the Hebrews and of most Jewish writers since antiquity is a God who is much more “human” than system. Hence we who are full of inner conflict and contradictions are made in his image. Whereas the Western mind chafes at paradox and cannot tolerate contradiction, the Hebrews and Jews seemed to readily accept that truth might present many quandaries and mismatches to our finite minds. Much Judaic dialog over Mishnahic and Talmudic sayings pits one sage against another by freely setting forth their truth-sayings in juxtaposition to one another. The problem with the Philosopher’s God is that He/It must fit the Philosopher’s mind to form a delicately balanced mobile of non-conflicting ideas. That God is too small and quite removed from reality, especially as recorded in Scripture–so much so that Paul declared “where is the philosopher of this age?” and spoke of the wise becoming fools in the face of God’s self-revelation. The God of ancient and Hebraic Scripture (in both OT and NT) cannot be contained within or limited by the thin membranes of even the greatest human minds. And so I would say I agree with Hazony in principle, but my guess is that he and I might understand differently what perfection is when it comes to the Divine.

  • Patrick

    His first objection ignores the fact that part of creation is at war with this perfect God I worship and He tolerates freedom, which explains why evil persists until the restoration.

    His 2cd objection ignores both anthropomorphisms/pathisms and the fact God might just voluntarily incline Himself to not exercise His full capabilities at all times, maybe Jesus of Nazareth for an easy example. He might choose to, even as BC God, avoid exercising some of His potential abilities for His logic. That’s His option the author doesn’t consider.

  • Rain

    “The only way tosay that God is not perfect is to use the term ‘perfect’ in a way that is different from scripture.”

    That isn’t the only way to say God is not perfect. If there were no scripture at all, it is still possible to say God is not perfect. If the Bible were a billion verses of the same verse “God is perfect” over and over again, it is still a million miles away from actually showing God to be perfect. In fact it does absolutely nothing for the case at all. A minor point I’m sure, but one that gets conveniently glossed over quite frequently.