So, I’m essentially done with my major research on both Thomas Aquinas and Kongzi (Confucius), and today I started into my research on Jonathan Edwards. One of the interesting questions that you run into, especially when approaching ethic from a Reformed perspective, is whether non-Christians can be good in any meaningful sense of the word. This is because ‘good’ both by Augustine and by many Reformed theologians is defined as ‘God and God alone.’ That is to say that any action that does not both stem from God’s will and return to God’s glory is a wicked action (i.e. God is the formal, but not necessarily the efficient, and final cause of the action). Thus, the argument goes, God is good, and those who are beneficiaries of his grace are capable of doing that which is truly good because he alters their wicked natures to be able to know him and know his will so that they might be able to choose to act on it. This can be compared to bringing home flowers that you intend to give to your secretary the next day, only to find out that they are your wife’s favorite flower and she had been pining for flowers all day. Though bringing home the flowers might be similar to something that would please your wife, the fact that they are for your secretary and not your wife kind of destroys any pleasure that she might take in them. Similarly, the same action can be pleasing to God when done because of an intention to please him, but displeasing to God because it is done for some other reason.

The argument has been raised that this concept of ‘good’ makes it impossible for non-Christians to every do anything that can actually be described as good. Thus, this raises the question of whether non-Christians can be or do good in any meaningful sense of the word. Now, because of the way the ideas interrelate either a yes or a no answer has significant impact. If the answer is yes, non-Christians can be and/or do good, then we are forced to question whether we are even using the same definition of good, and if we are, how they can do good. If the answer is no, then we must deal with the seemingly elitist result that only Christians can be good in any meaningful sense of the word.

So, your challenge this week is a little bit specific: I want you to assume a Reformed perspective and then answer the question ‘Can non-Christians be/do good in any meaningful sense of the word?’ Once you’ve done this, the actual challenge begins. You are to write a story of 1000 words that presents and defends your conception of the impact that your answer to the question has at a practical level. Have fun!

4 thoughts on “Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

  1. If “good” is defined as that which pleases God and non-Christians are unable to please God by definition … . i would argue that we need to strongly consider our definition of “Christian”. “You shall know one another by your love” argues that we are way to narrow by defining “Christian” by our theology.

    1. Wayne, would you mind expanding on this point? I’m not entirely sure what you mean when you say that we define ‘Christian’ too narrowly. The common Reformed definition of ‘a Christian’ would be one that has repented of his sins and been justified by the blood of Christ, and is in the process of being sanctified. Some Reformed theologians will hold to a theory that argues that only certain people can become Christians (i.e. God only allows specific people to recognize their sin and their need for redemption), but other Reformed theologians will argue for a universal possibility of salvation, but not for a universal actuality of salvation (i.e. God works in everyone to allow anyone to recognize their sin and repent, but not everyone accepts this work of the spirit and responds to it accordingly).

  2. I guess I am talking more of the ‘Church’ definition of Christian, one who has come forward in public and ‘accepted Christ’. I think that is the more commonly understood definition, especially among those ourside the Church or only tangentially involved (left after being raised in the Church). We see the external and respond to that, God sees us completely and knows us all throughly and judges us in His reality. Both of your definitions above allow for God’s definition rather than the Church’s definition. However, both of them also beg the question of good. As long as God defines good, man without God cannot reach that level of accomplishment.

    1. I agree. That was actually Augustine’s point. While men see the external show, God sees the truth. However, the church will contain both Christians and non-Christians because we live in an imperfect world, and as humans we have no way to separate the two. Further, as long as we allow God to define what is good and what is not, then man is faced with a standard he cannot attain, and is forced to realize his need for Christ. However, once we start defining good and evil for ourselves we have put ourselves in a place where 1) we are able to believe that we don’t need Christ, and 2) we are able to believe that we can judge God.
      Dietrich Bonhoeffer actually connected this tendency of man to create his own definition of good and evil with the original sin of Adam, arguing that the immediate result of pride and the tasting of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not so much an expansion of man’s ‘knowledge’ but an expansion of his belief in his own knowledge.

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