By David Baggett and Tom Morris
Yoram Hazony, author of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, recently wrote a provocative opinion article for the New York Times in which he summarized his skepticism toward the idea of a perfect God. Hazony suggests that there are two compelling reasons why the God of classical theism should be rejected: first, reconciling the existence of evil with God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence is too great a challenge. Second, he says, such a picture fails to match the Old Testament portrayal of God.
Hazony insists that the problem of evil shows that God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful, for if he were we would not find the injustices in the world we do. He chalks up affirmation of such perfections more to the influence of Greek philosophy than to biblical thought. Regarding the God of the Old Testament, he writes:
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.
Consider the standard perfections of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. Hazony says forthrightly that the problem of evil renders reconciliation of omnipotence and omnibenevolence either highly unlikely or flatly impossible.
Hazony’s claims are predicated on an unrefined conception of omnipotence. Talk of perfection only makes sense in terms of achieving the right balance of properties, not by maximizing a thing’s constituent principles simultaneously. To speak of a “perfect bottle,” for example, is colloquial at best, confused at worst; how many drops of liquid are contained in the “perfect bottle” admits of no objective answer. God has as much power, knowledge, and goodness as are mutually compatible and compossible.
If God sovereignly chooses to confer on human beings libertarian freedom, that means that some logically possible worlds are not feasible ones, but it hardly shows that God is not omnipotent. Hazony also errs in taking the great “I am” declaration of God to be an indication of God’s incompleteness and changeability, rather than, as seems the more straightforward meaning, God’s uncreatedness and ontological independence.
One reason Hazony makes these claims is that he wishes to emphasize the need for tentativeness and provisionality in theology, and remind us that our knowledge of God remains fragmentary and partial. In Hazony’s view, “The belief that any human mind can grasp enough of God to begin recognizing perfections in him would have struck the biblical authors as a pagan conceit.”
According to the Hebrew Bible, Hazony insists, God represents the embodiment of life’s experiences and vicissitudes, from hardship to joy; although God is ultimately faithful and just, these aren’t perfections or qualities that obtain necessarily. “On the contrary, it is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel’s faith.”
He concludes by arguing that his view is one that ought to appeal to people of faith 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.”
Is theism really losing ground, or are certain religious institutions? And what does it even mean to speak of the Hebraic depiction of God as more realistic than the idea of God as altogether perfect? It is certainly more anthropomorphic, or to put it more precisely, anthropopathic; portraying God as if he had human passions. But does that make it more “realistic”? And why does the fact that lines of Scripture do not read like a philosophical text compromise the philosophical work of evincing such a conception, or render the effort utterly artificial, or invalid?
The claim that a perfect God is a Greek convention incorporated into theology is an allegation that overlooks the role of what theologians refer to as “general revelation.” The Greeks had no corner on the market of reason. Plenty of Greeks—Euthyphro, for example—believed in all sorts of rather morally deficient gods. Indeed, we could return the favor and suggest that it’s actually Hazony’s conception of God which is more influenced by Greek ideas in this regard than by Scripture.
The fact remains, though, that in the New Testament itself we find ample indications of a morally perfect and perfectly loving God. This happy convergence of the a priori deliverances of reason and the a posteriori deliverances of Scripture should come as no surprise since one would expect resonance between the outcomes of special and general revelation. Nothing less than this view of God can answer our deepest hopes.
David Baggett is professor of philosophy at Liberty University and co-author, with Jerry Walls, of Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. Tom Morris taught philosophy for fifteen years at Notre Dame and writes for various outlets .
Yoram Hazony, “ An Imperfect God ,” New York Times , November 25, 2012
Originally posted at First Things
Photo: "greek god" by Giovanni. CC license.