Theology Proper

The Absolute Goodness of God by A. A. Hodge

The Absolute Goodness of God

67. What distinctions are signified by the terms benevolence, complacency, mercy, and grace?

The infinite goodness of God is a glorious perfection which pre-eminently characterizes his nature, and which he, in an infinitely wise, righteous, and sovereign manner, exercises towards his creatures in various modes according to their relations and conditions.

Benevolence is the goodness of God viewed generically. It embraces all his creatures, except the judicially condemned on account of sin, and provides for their welfare.

The love of complacency is that approving affection with which God regards his own infinite perfections, and every image and reflection of them in his creatures, especially in the sanctified subjects of the new creation.

Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Rewritten and Enlarged (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1878), 158.

God’s mercy, of which the more passive forms are pity and compassion, is the divine goodness exercised with respect to the miseries of his creatures, feeling for them, and making provision for their relief, and in the case of impenitent sinners, leading to long-suffering patience.

The grace of God is his goodness seeking to communicate his favors, and, above all, the fellowship of his own life and blessedness to his moral creatures,—who, as creatures, must be destitute of all merit,—and pre-eminently his electing love, securing at infinite cost the blessedness of its objects, who, as sinful creatures, were positively ill deserving.

68. State a false definition of divine benevolence often given, and state how it is rightly defined

The infinite Benevolence of God is often defined as that attribute in virtue of which he communicates to all his creatures the greatest possible amount of happiness, i.e., as great as they are capable of receiving, or as great as is consistent with the attainment of the greatest amount of happiness on the aggregate in the moral universe.

But this supposes that God is limited by something out of himself, that he could not have secured more happiness for his creatures than he has actually done. It also makes happiness paramount in the view of God to excellence.

Benevolence should, on the other hand, be defined as that attribute in virtue of which God produces all the happiness in the universe, which is consistent with the end he had in view in its creation. These ends stand in this order. 1. The manifestation of his own glory. 2. The highest moral excellence of his creatures. 3. Their highest blessedness in himself.—Dr. Charles Hodge’s Lectures.

69. What are the sources of our knowledge of the fact that God is benevolent?

1st. Reason. Benevolence is an essential element of moral perfection. God is infinitely perfect, and therefore infinitely benevolent.

2d. Experience and observation. The wisdom of God in designing, and the power of God in executing, in the several spheres of creation, providence, and revealed religion, have evidently been constantly determined by benevolent intentions.

3d. The direct assertions of Scripture.—Ps. 145:8, 9; 1 John 4:8.

70. How may it be proved that God is gracious and willing to forgive sin?

Neither reason nor conscience can ever raise a presumption on this subject. It is the evident duty of fellow-creatures mutually to forgive injuries, but we have nothing to do with forgiving sin as sin.

It appears plain that there can be no moral principle making it essential for a sovereign ruler to forgive sin as trangression of law. All that reason or conscience can assure us of in that regard is, that sin can not be forgiven without an atonement. The gracious affection which should prompt such a ruler to provide an atonement, must, from its essential nature, be perfectly free and sovereign, and therefore it can be known only so far as it is graciously revealed. The gospel is, therefore, good news confirmed by signs and wonders.—Ex. 34:6, 7; Eph. 1:7–9.

71. What are the different theories or assumptions on which it has been attempted to reconcile the existence of sin with the goodness of God?

1st. It has been argued by some that free agency is essential to a moral system, and that absolute independence of will is essential to free agency. That to control the wills of free agents is no more an object of power than the working of contradictions; and consequently God, although omnipotent, could not prevent sin in a moral system without violating its nature.—See Dr. N. W. Taylor’s “Concio ad Clerum,” 1828.

2d. Others have argued that sin was permitted by God in infinite wisdom as the necessary means to the largest possible measure of happiness in the universe as a whole.

On both of these we remark—

1st. That the first theory above cited is founded on a false view of the conditions of human liberty and responsibility (see below, Chapter XV.); and, further, that it grossly limits the power of God by representing him as desiring and attempting what he can not effect, and that it makes him dependent upon his creatures.

2d. With reference to the second theory it should be remembered that God’s own glory, and not the greatest good of the universe, is the great end of God in creation and providence.

3d. The permission of sin, in its relation both to the righteousness and goodness of God, is an insolvable mystery, and all attempts to solve it only darken counsel with words without knowledge. It is, however, the privilege of our faith to know, though not of our philosophy to comprehend, that it is assuredly a most wise, righteous, and merciful permission; and that it shall redound to the glory of God and to the good of his chosen.

72. How can the attributes of goodness and justice be shown to be consistent?

Goodness and justice are the several aspects of one unchangeable, infinitely wise, and sovereign moral perfection. God is not sometimes merciful and sometimes just, nor so far merciful and so far just, but he is eternally infinitely merciful and just. Relatively to the creature this infinite perfection of nature presents different aspects, as is determined by the judgment which infinite wisdom delivers in each individual case.

Even in our experience these attributes of our moral nature are found not to be inconsistent in principle, though our want both of wisdom and knowledge, a sense of our own unworthiness, and a mere physical sympathy, often sadly distract our judgments as well as our hearts in adjusting these principles to the individual cases of life.

Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Rewritten and Enlarged (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1878), 158–161.