Is God perfect?
In an astounding article in The New York Times, Yoram Hazony argues not only that God is not perfect but also that the writers of the Old Testament also believed in an imperfect deity. Hazony is president of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.
Hazony’s extraordinary claims are worth examining in detail, so I’ll provide extensive excerpts from his article to provide context for my rebuttal.
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.
A God who is perfectly powerful can not also be perfectly good. 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.
Hazony makes two shockingly controversial claims in his opening paragraphs.
The first, his assertion that a perfectly powerful and perfectly good God is a “contradiction,” isn’t relevant to his article, so I’ll let it pass without much comment. A study of the philosophy of religion over the past few decades, however, will show that the question is not nearly as “unlikely” as Hazony seems to think.
The second claim is a supposed contradiction that appears to be based on a misunderstanding about the definition of “immutable.” Immutability does not mean, as Hazony seems to imply, inactivity, immobility, or idleness on the part of God, but rather that his nature is unchangeable. Unfortunately, such philosophical and semantic confusions form the basis of Hazony’s argument for an imperfect God.
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 claim that “the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible” did not believe God was immutable or all-knowing is directly contradicted by the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible. For example, in Malachai 3:6 we find, “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”
If we’re looking for a statement about God’s immutability, it is hard to find one better than God saying, “I the LORD do not change.” However, in the very next verse we also find, “Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.” In one verse we find God saying he does not change ,and yet in the next he appears to be saying that he will, if Israel acts, change his attitude toward them. Should we believe that Malachai is such a poor writer (and prophet) that he isn’t even aware that he is transcribing a contradiction?
Not at all. In verse six God is saying who he is does not change, while in verse seven he is saying he will relate differently to a people who are capable of changing. There is no contradiction here, or anywhere else in the Old Testament, between God’s immutable nature and the anthropomorphic figures of speech used to describe God’s apparent “change of mind.”
Other scriptures that reference God’s immutability are:
Numbers 23:19 – “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
1 Samuel 15:29 – “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”
Psalms 33:11 – “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.”
Psalms 102:25-27 – Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.”
Isaiah 46:10 “. . . declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose . . .'”
Similarly, the assertion that God is not all-knowing is also contradicted by Scripture. For example:
Job 37:16 – “Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge, . . . ”
Psalms 147:5 – “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.”
Psalm 139:4 – “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD”
Philosophers have spent many centuries trying to get God’s supposed perfections to fit together in a coherent conception, and then trying to get that to fit with the Bible. By now it’s reasonably clear that this can’t be done. In fact, part of the reason God-bashers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are so influential (apart from the fact they write so well) is their insistence that the doctrine of God’s perfections makes no sense, and that the idealized “being” it tells us about doesn’t resemble the biblical God at all.
Hazony claims that one of the reasons Dawkins and Harris are influential is because “their insistence that the doctrine of God’s perfections makes no sense.” While it may be true that the arguments of the New Atheists look plausible to the gullible and uninformed, they are not respected by knowledgeable theologians or philosophers of religion.
Indeed, Dawkins has developed quite a reputation for repeating erroneous claims even when it is repeatedly pointed out to him that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The perfections of God is a prime example.
An example of Dawkins’s misunderstanding, which Hazony seems to share, is the idea that for God to exist he must be metaphysically complex. In this view, there is a distinction between God and his attributes, that is, that God’s existence is separable from his attributes (such as immutability, omniscience, omnipotence, and so on). But this is not the view of classical theism.
The view of classical theism, shared by Jews (Maimonides), Christians (Aquinas, Calvin), Muslims (Avicenna), and Greeks (Plotinus) is the doctrine of divine simplicity. As the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy explains, divine simplicity means:
. . . God is radically unlike creatures in that he is devoid of any complexity or composition, whether physical or metaphysical. Besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter/form composition, potency/act composition, and existence/essence composition. There is also no real distinction between God as subject of his attributes and his attributes. God is thus in a sense requiring clarification identical to each of his attributes, which implies that each attribute is identical to every other one. God is omniscient, then, not in virtue of instantiating or exemplifying omniscience—which would imply a real distinction between God and the property of omniscience—but by being omniscience. And the same holds for each of the divine omni-attributes: God is what he has. As identical to each of his attributes, God is identical to his nature. And since his nature or essence is identical to his existence, God is identical to his existence.
To see why this is relevant to Hazony’s claim, we need to turn to the next section of his article.
So is that it, then? Have the atheists won? I don’t think so. But it does look like the time has come for some rethinking in the theist camp.
I’d start with this: Is it really necessary to say that God is a “perfect being,” or perfect at all, for that matter? As far as I can tell, the biblical authors avoid asserting any such thing. And with good reason. Normally, when we say that something is “perfect,” we mean it has attained the best possible balance among the principles involved in making it the kind of thing it is. For example, if we say that a bottle is perfect, we mean it can contain a significant quantity of liquid in its body; that its neck is long enough to be grasped comfortably and firmly; that the bore is wide enough to permit a rapid flow of liquid; and so on. Of course, you can always manufacture a bottle that will hold more liquid, but only by making the body too broad (so the bottle doesn’t handle well) or the neck too short (so it’s hard to hold). There’s an inevitable trade-off among the principles, and perfection lies in the balance among them. And this is so whether what’s being judged is a bottle or a horse, a wine or a gymnastics routine or natural human beauty.
The first thing that must be noted is that Hazony is once again making claims about the Old Testament that are directly contradicted by the Old Testament. For example, there are two word-groups in the Hebrew Bible that are translated “perfect” or “perfection”: tamam and calal. Here are a few instances where those terms are used:
Deuteronomy 32:4 – “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice.”
2 Samuel 22:31 – “This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true . . .” (which is repeated in Psalm 18:30)
Job 37:16 – “Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge, . . .”
Hazony says that “when we say that something is ‘perfect,’ we mean it has attained the best possible balance among the principles involved in making it the kind of thing it is.” While that may be true if we are talking about perfection in creation, that is not at all what is meant classical theists when they talk about God. Since the doctrine of divine simplicity means that God is not comprised of either material or metaphysical parts, it would be incoherent to claim that for God to be perfect his parts (attributes, essences) must be in “the best possible balance.”
Hazony’s claim may be relevant to certain forms of theism (such as theistic personalism), but it has no bearing on the understanding of God of classical theism.
Hazony also has an additional objection:
Yet the biblical accounts of our encounters with God emphasize that all human views of God are partial and fragmentary in just this way. Even Moses, the greatest of the prophets, is told that he can’t see God’s face, but can only catch a glimpse of God’s back as he passes by. At another point, God responds to Moses’ request to know his name (that is, his nature) by telling him “ehi’eh asher ehi’eh“—“I will be what I will be.” In most English-language Bibles this is translated “I am that I am,” following the Septuagint, which sought to bring the biblical text into line with the Greek tradition (descended from Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Plato’s “Timaeus”) of identifying God with perfect being. But in the Hebrew original, the text says almost exactly the opposite of this: The Hebrew “I will be what I will be” is in the imperfect tense, suggesting to us a God who is incomplete and changing. In their run-ins with God, human beings can glimpse a corner or an edge of something too immense to be encompassed, a “coming-into-being” as God approaches, and no more. 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.
Once again we can see how Hazony’s rejection of divine simplicity affects his understanding of God. If God is composed of different parts, then when humans get a “partial and fragmentary” view of him, we could not make a judgment about his perfection. But because God is identical to each of his attributes, we are able to see from any revelation the perfection of God. Indeed, as the biblical authors make clear, we can recognize his perfection by seeing that his works are perfect. (Deut. 32:4, 2 Sam. 22:31, Psalm 18:30)
Next we turn to his exegesis of Exodus 3:14. Even if we concede that “ehi’eh asher ehi’eh” should be translated as “I will be what I will be,” it is a curious interpretation of the grammar to say that this is “exactly the opposite” of “I am that I am.” (The exact opposite would be, “I am not that I am not.”) Saying “I am the person I have always been” and “I will be the person I have always been” mean exactly the same. God’s immutability is consistent with either translation.
It is also shocking to hear that the biblical authors would consider God’s perfection a “pagan conceit” considering that they are the ones we get the concept from. What Hazony is really asking us to do is to accept—like Christian open theists—a pagan conception of God. He thinks that the best we can do is “hope that God is faithful and just” (emphasis in original). This is, once again, completely contrary to the way the biblical authors portray God. Moses doesn’t just hope that God is faithful; he is absolutely certain about God’s character: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations . . .” (Deut. 7:9). We also find God’s justice and faithfulness praised in Psalms, Lamentations, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, 1 Kings, and so on. (On almost every claim Hazony makes about the Bible, the evidence supports the exact opposite conclusion.)
Hazony believes that since theism is rapidly losing ground across Europe and among Americans as well that we should reconsider the claims about God’s perfection. “Surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt,” he says. But such a false conception of God will cause great harm. What Hazony is offering is an idol, an imperfect god for a postmodern people, not the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What is needed is not a more plausible conception of God but the most plausible conception of God, which can only be found in Jesus.