Review: The Lord is Good

The Lord is Good

The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Christopher R. J. Holmes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores what we mean when we say God is good, contending that God is essentially good, that this is why the Psalms focus so much on the goodness of God, and how Thomas Aquinas may prove quite helpful in our reading of Psalms and understanding of God.

You are good and do good;
    teach me your statutes.

-Psalm 119:68, ESV

This verse serves as the kernal or core of the argument of this book. The author’s contention is that God is goodness, and that this attribute, among all the others, is pre-eminent in the Psalms. Futhermore, because God is essentially good, his acts are simply an extension of his being, particularly all that God has done in creation. Because God is good, we exist. Furthermore, while there are some qualities that are particular to persons of the Trinity, goodness is common to the persons of the Triune God as one undivided essence. Consequently, particularly as creatures fallen away from God’s original goodness and restored through Christ, we cry out “teach me your statutes” that we might understand how to live into the goodness of God.

Holmes begins this argument with a discussion of the simplicity of God–that God is his attributes. These qualities do not exist apart from God but because God is these qualities. However Holmes argues for a particular understanding that goes back to Thomas Aquinas, rather than Karl Barth, whose theology serves as a reference point for much contemporary theology. His approach that is compatibilist rather than dialectic, where God is known by what God does. Holmes would argue for a much more seamless connection between who God is, what God does, and who we are and are becoming (if I understand this distinction correctly).

In subsequent chapters, Holmes explores how saying “you are good” is to describe a “pure act of being that is God.” He argues for the unity of God’s essence as good as prior to the Trinity. For God to “do good” is a reflection of the God’s being as pure act. God’s goodness is generative and results in a good creation.

The chapter on evil is striking as Holmes make the argument that evil is not a “something” but a “nothing,” a corruption of good. We recognize our need for help, leading to our cry to “teach me your statutes,” that mirror the goodness of their source. He explores how the incarnation of the Son uniquely communicates the goodness of God to us. He then concludes with an exploration of how the goodness of God leads to our perfection.

It is frustrating to try to summarize such a rich work in a few paragraphs. This is a work to be read slowly and savored. Sometimes a single sentence would stop me dead in my tracks, moving me to reflection and then to praise. One example was this: “God loves us by willing good to us, so much so that he conserves and perfects us in the good he is.” Another, from his chapter on creation: “Creation is radically contingent and has no other reason for being than God’s great goodness.” The effect was not simply intellectual illumination, but a response of turning to praise for yet another facet of God’s infinite goodness.

The challenge of this work, is that there is so many sentences of this character, really one after the other, in this work. It is rare that I have encountered writing of such precision, depth and elegance. It brings to mind the summer I spent reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion for its combination of intellectual rigor and devotional warmth. Like Calvin, Holmes is a pastor-theologian and brings to his readers both the carefulness of a scholar and the passion to lead us to more deeply love the good and beautiful God. Unlike so many books that are “chop steak” theology, this is filet mignon, to be eaten in small slices savoring each bite, each chew, for the rich and juicy fare that it is.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Prayers Before Reading

All of life is spiritual. As a person of faith, I make no divisions between sacred and secular, material and spiritual. That’s one of the reasons that I and many others give some kind of prayer of thanks before eating. Norman Wirzba, a writer on sustainable agriculture and good eating has written, “Food is God’s love made edible.” Food is literally the substance of physical life–what I eat becomes part of who I am. For Christians, one of our most profound practices, variously called the Eucharist, the Lord’s supper, or communion, is basically a meal in which we are reminded of Christ as our spiritual food, our life.

Why then do I rarely or never pray before reading? Maybe I think that because I’m “good” at this I don’t need to. Maybe I don’t think it is that important. Yet books nourish my soul, make me laugh, cause me to think, give me perspective. Why then shouldn’t I give thanks for them, ask for understanding as I read (particularly challenging texts), and for discernment and perspective as to how to respond to what I read? It seems to me that if the first sentence I wrote is true, then books and reading are spiritual and just as worthy of God’s attention as my food.

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Below is a prayer attributed to one of the greatest scholars of the church, Thomas Aquinas.  While I might not use exactly these words, the thought are ones that might serve as a good guide for a prayer before reading:

Thomas Aquinas Prayer Before Study

Ineffable Creator,
Who, from the treasures of Your wisdom,
has established three hierarchies of angels,
has arrayed them in marvelous order
above the fiery heavens,
and has marshaled the regions
of the universe with such artful skill,

You are proclaimed
the true font of light and wisdom,
and the primal origin
raised high beyond all things.

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
into the darkened places of our minds;
disperse from our souls
the twofold darkness
into which we were born:
sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants.
Refine our speech
and pour forth upon our lips
the goodness of Your blessing.

Grant to us
keenness of mind,
capacity to remember,
skill in learning,
subtlety to interpret,
and eloquence in speech.

May You
guide the beginning of our work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to completion.
You Who are true God and true Man,
Who live and reign, world without end.

Amen

I’d love to know what you think of this and how you connect your reading to your spirituality.