To say that the Lord is good is not a shocking claim we make. It is one of the most basic and fundamental presuppositions we hold. Even those who ask how a good God could allow suffering, for example, presuppose that the God of Scripture is good. But what do we mean when we say that the Lord is good?
Leaning heavily on the Psalter, church history favorites Aquinas, Augustine, and Barth, and on Trinitarian theology, Christopher R.J. Holmes has written a magnificent investigation of this question in The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (2018, IVP Academic). This is the fourth installment of the Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture, and like its predecessors, doesn’t fail to impress.
I believe this is the best of Holmes’ work so far. His writes with precision and care, but is always striving to be clear and to the point. He doesn’t trap himself into a lot of excursuses (though he does helpfully provide one involving Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and rabbit trails. His sentences are crisp and help pastors, academic, and lay-readers alike understand how critical the doctrine of God’s goodness is to our task in Christian theology.
One of Holmes’ key points is that the goodness of God is not just manifest in His works, but it is His being. The popular confession “God is good, all the time!” is right, but primarily should be aimed at His essence, which then spills over into His acts. In other words, God is good all the time because God, in His being, is pure goodness. It is not as if God commits himself to serving some superior notion of good – He is the good, and all human conception of good flows from His being.
Perhaps Holmes’ most reliable support is Thomas Aquinas. One of the natural implications of reading this book will help you come to appreciate Thomas’ systematic-theological work, especially in the oft-quoted Summa Theologica. It is a work many have likely not read in its entirety (including me), but Holmes has helped me grow in my appreciation of Aquinas. Particularly interesting to me was Aquinas’ conclusions about making a distinction between our human nature and our human will, and how these things relate to human sinfulness (Chapter Six). Thomas roots our sinfulness not in our natures, but in our wills. As Holmes summarizes, “What the nature wills is evil, not the nature itself…evil cannot be ascribed any ontological weight…we are good insofar as we exist (sin being an accident) but that our will is corrupt” (110-111). These kinds of distinctions are integral to Scriptural faithfulness and theological clarity.
How the book engages with particular Psalms is really helpful. While it is not a sweeping review of every Psalm, or seeking to categorize and sort all the Psalms, it does examine instances in the Psalms where we learn about the themes of goodness. Time and time again, the Psalms are concerned with the doctrines Holmes is discussing, and he often “backs up” his conclusions by using various Psalms as case studies.
The Lord is Good is very Trinitarian, devotional, and thorough. I really appreciated this depth of exploration into God’s goodness. I have learned a lot from it and would especially commend you to it. Of all of the volumes in the Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture series, I believe this one is the most reader-friendly. Holmes is a good, well-researched writer, and I look forward to hopefully further work on the divine attributes.