Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Getting Granular with “Good”

Yesterday I suggested that when God used the word “good” to describe his creative works, what is primarily in view is that each new thing God initiated was supremely suited to its conceived purpose, divinely calibrated to be absolutely appropriate to its intended use.

The end product was “good” in the sense that while it may be possible, for instance, to imagine other ways in which God might have constructed a goat — with three heads, five eyes and eight legs, perhaps — one would be hard-pressed to explain why the extra heads, limbs or eyeballs make the new form preferable to the original.

Mere innovation is not necessarily improvement.

Monsters and Marvels

Maybe this is why beasts that inhabit our mythology and fantasy tend toward the monstrous rather than the marvelous. Unable to conceive of greater symmetry, beauty or efficiency in that which already exists, those who attempt to imagine new creatures for us are compelled to resort to asymmetry, distortion and grotesquery: more heads, more teeth, snakes for hair. Lacking the divine wisdom that went into the originals, they are like children playing with Lego, mixing and matching bits to see what might look cool. But they are not really “creating” anything.

In any case, mine is not an unusual take on the specific meaning of “good” in Genesis 1. From John Calvin’s commentary (emphasis mine):
“Moses has not affixed to the work of this [second] day the note that God saw that it was good: perhaps because there was no advantage from it till the terrestrial waters were gathered into their proper place, which was done on the next day, and therefore it is there twice repeated.”
Calvin’s suggestion is certainly plausible, but my point is that he too saw “goodness” in terms of the accomplishment of God’s greater purpose. Moving the waters here or there only mattered because of what God in his wisdom had determined that movement would make possible.

Goodness and Perfection

Of course, to say that something is “good” is not to say that it is perfect. I don’t see the latter claim in Genesis, though some creationists make it. Jim Cole argues the point here, but I’m not certain it matters much unless you are caught up in the more speculative minutiae of the creation/evolution controversy.

Both terms require further clarification. Unless we are speaking of “good” or “perfect” in the moral sense, the obvious questions are always “Good for what?” and “Perfect in what way?” A screwdriver is good for turning a screw (though not for eating cake), a power screwdriver is very good, and somewhere out there in an engineer’s imagination there may be a device that turns a screw with such supreme speed, efficiency and infallibility that we might feel inclined to declare it perfect.

Scripture recognizes this limitation in its use of the word “perfect”, which is usually in a moral context, and almost always relative rather than absolute (Job and Noah are referred to as “perfect”, though they manifestly were not). As to created beings, expressions like “perfect in beauty” are applied allegorically to Satan at least, but here we are talking about mere aesthetics, not “perfection” in the sense some creationists speak of it.

As I read them, the claims to “goodness” made in Genesis are not about conformity to some kind of abstract ideal, but about the relative utility of each step in God’s creative process to the accomplishment of his ultimate purposes and goals. What God has created serves his intentions well. That much I think we can affirm.

Abstract and Concrete

Furthermore, we can only talk about “perfection” when we are spitballing in the abstract. The moment we try to concretize our thinking and make perfection workable, we run into trouble. An example: What would a “perfect” fish look like exactly? Would it be gigantic or tiny? If gigantic, would smaller fish be less perfect? If tiny, would larger exemplars of the species equally fail to achieve fishy perfection? Perhaps, then, all fish should be one size. Hmm. Would a perfect fish live forever? That could create complications. Would it produce offspring with 100% efficiency and no failures, and if it did, what would that do to the biosphere and how would it cope?

You see the problem, surely: we cannot reasonably consider the individual units of creation apart from the way they interact with one another. What God pronounces “good” are his larger movements of creation in their totality, and what he pronounced “very good” is “everything that he had made” as a whole.

In any case, no claim to perfection is made in scripture for creation generally. Scripture does not use the word “perfect” to describe it. If we are going to introduce “perfect” as a description of the Edenic state, we are going to have to spell out very carefully what we mean and do not mean by it, because we are no longer using the same language God did. Those who insist on calling creation “perfect” rarely do that.

Let’s stick with “good” then.

Before the Foundation

One more fairly important point: It is idle to speak of the goodness of creation apart from the redemptive purposes of God. While we may hypothesize all we like about what the world might have been like if Adam had not introduced sin into the picture, that sort of whimsy is absent from scripture. In fact, we are repeatedly told that the plan of salvation was conceived in the mind of God from before the foundation of the world:
“He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”

“… everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.”
That the “foundation of the world” refers to the events we are discussing is evident from the statement in Hebrews that “his works were finished from the foundation of the world,” speaking of the seventh day of creation. The Bible confirms repeatedly that God’s plan of salvation preceded all that, and therefore most definitely preceded the fall of man, rather than coming as a reaction to it.

The Goodness of Creation

This being the case, no discussion of the “goodness” of creation can be had apart from the recognition that everything God created, he created with the inevitability of the Fall squarely before him. Unless we are prepared to posit an extra-biblical scenario in which the creation was radically reshaped after the Fall in ways far, far beyond those described in Genesis 3 — recreated, really — we need to recognize that God’s original designs took into account the coming Fall and all its consequences. Creation was designed to be sufficiently robust to function essentially as-was in the new, sad state of affairs.

Thus the “goodness” of a fish is not just that it is a formidable contributor of nutrients to the ecosystem, but that in a fallen world, it can be eaten by man, and even served to the hungry disciples by the Lord himself on a beach by the Sea of Tiberius one wonderful morning after the resurrection. The original design of the fish took into account both the fallen and unfallen condition of things. It was both efficient and tasty.

Likewise, no matter what wonderful things any particular animal contributes to earth’s ecosystem, its “goodness” cannot reasonably be contemplated apart from its potential edibility, its suitability for sacrifice and the fact that its skin may be used as a covering for sinful men and women. All that was built into it by a God who knew the design of the tabernacle would include a covering of rams’ skins and goatskins, and who knew that even if a glorious day is coming when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, many days must pass first during which he will not.

Hard on the lamb, sure, but a God who had in view first and foremost the redemption of the world had to take all these variables into account.

Idylls and Ultimate Purposes

Thus when God says that his creation is “good”, I don’t think it is so much a comment on its idyllic qualities (though it was indeed idyllic at the time) as it is an assessment of its suitability as a stage for the grand drama of the redemptive work of Christ and the reconciliation of all things to God. Creation was only a backdrop for the marvelous plan by which he would bring “many sons to glory” and into the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Any explanation of “good” in Genesis 1 that leaves that out falls short, I think.

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