A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Stephanie Juliot
Christopher R. J. Holmes’s The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter is an investigation into the divine attribute of goodness which takes its cues from medieval and classical church tradition as well as the Psalter. The most recent addition to the Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture series, this work is an evangelical contribution to the discipline of systematic theology, “seeking fresh understanding of Christian doctrine through creatively faithful engagement with Scripture in dialogue with catholic tradition(s).”
Rev. Dr. Holmes is associate professor of systematic theology at the University of Otago in New Zealand and an ordained minister of the Anglican church. His areas of research include Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, and Christian doctrine, especially theology proper. Holmes is a prolific author, having penned Revisiting the Doctrine of the Divine Attributes: In Dialogue with Karl Barth, Eberhard Jüngel, and Wolf Krötke (2007), Ethics in the Presence of Christ (2012), and The Holy Spirit (2015) to name a few.
Holmes argues in this work that the primary assertion of the Psalms about God is that he is good, and this priority of goodness extends to the rest of Scripture. This claim, along with the subtitle “Seeking the God of the Psalter,” might lead the reader to expect exegesis of the Psalms and biblical theology to drive the argument. However, such work functions largely as an unspoken foundation for the argument rather than the building materials for each chapter. Yet the Psalms are by no means absent—Holmes shows his work to be faithful to the Psalter’s testimony through consistent reference to relevant passages and the development of “test cases” at the end of several chapters. In step with the purpose of the series, the reader can expect echoes from classic theologians at every turn; Aquinas predominantly, Augustine and others secondarily. The book is organized topically, beginning with foundational principles for discussion about God’s goodness and then moving outward to apply the attribute of goodness to various Christian doctrines.
After a brief introduction presenting his thesis and previewing each chapter, Holmes asserts in the first chapter that God’s attributes are convertible with his essence, meaning that to speak about God’s goodness is to speak about his being. Holmes emphasizes that God’s goodness is not dependent upon anything outside himself and introduces the idea that a holy life is a prerequisite for reception of God’s goodness.
The second chapter addresses several “first principles” for understanding the assertion, “you are good.” Holmes raises the need for analogical discourse in theology proper, describes the transcendence and omnipresence of God as apprehended by engagement of our affections and expressed through speech, and asserts the biblical precedence of God’s person over what God does by appealing to Psalm 135:3-5.
In chapter three, Holmes adopts Aquinas’s “double perspective” to talk about goodness first as an essential designation for God and only then as a constitution of each member of the Trinity. This is important because we cannot understand the three divine persons without expounding what is common to each, and because Christians can only participate in what is essential to God (not in the unique roles of the divine relations).
Chapter four makes the point that God’s will is identical to his being—his goodness—and what God does with relationship to his creation is a matter of his will, so that there is nothing God does that is not good. Consequently, God’s acts cannot be uncoupled from his essence, their source. In a brief excursus, Holmes pushes against Bonhoeffer’s tendency to talk about God only with reference to his works without giving due time to reflect on who God is apart from the world he created.
Holmes turns to the doctrine of creation in the fifth chapter and asserts that the goodness of God is the basic principle for understanding creation. The reason God created the world is because he wills to share his goodness with other things. Talking about God in causal terms, Holmes directs the reader’s attention to the nature psalms to demonstrate how it is right for the caused to sing the praises of the uncaused.
If all that God does is good, then how do we make sense of evil in the world? This is the question answered by chapter six, wherein Holmes argues that evil is not something in itself, but a lack of goodness—a nothing, an absurdity, a parasite—that can only be understood with respect to God. The Psalms teach us that lament is the appropriate response to evil and that calling on God in this way reorients our hearts to the good.
The seventh chapter asserts that God reveals and teaches his goodness through the law, instructing and preserving his people in the good. The law teaches the goodness of its source, such that the psalmist cries “teach me your statutes!” (Ps 119:68). The law points to Jesus Christ because it teaches the good but cannot unite us to the good.
This raises the question of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the good, which Holmes addresses in chapter eight. He explains that the Christ does not cease to be good on Good Friday because his one person is good in essence; he makes atonement in his one person, remaining himself even as he suffers, bears sin, and dies. Briefly turning to the Holy Spirit, Holmes asserts that his role is to communicate goodness to believers such that we are able to love.
The final chapter unfolds the idea that God’s goodness is perfective. It explains that happiness is perfect goodness, frames discipleship as a pilgrimage toward perfect communion with God, and asserts that eternal joy is found in attaining God’s likeness. The world to come will be perfectly good because God’s people will see him as he is through what he has made.
In his conclusion, Holmes makes explicit the conviction that has undergirded his work throughout: theology’s task, in concert with Scripture and God’s people, is to ascribe goodness to the Lord. In light of this, Holmes calls for a turn toward theology that gives devotion, experience, and confessional expression a seat at the table. Following the course set by Psalm 34:8, Holmes emphasizes throughout that reflection on God’s goodness is not merely a cerebral matter; experience is upstream of explanation. Furthermore, a “heart on high” is a prerequisite of experience, since a corrupt heart cannot have clear sight of the supreme good. Purity of heart, experience of God’s goodness, and the task of ascription are therefore acts of grace.
Another point to which Holmes returns again and again is that Christian reflection on God and worship of the same must not be limited to what God does in relation to his people, as if his character were dependent upon the creatures he has made. Scripture, especially the Psalter, models praise for God on account of who he is in essence, independently of his actions, then moves to praise him for what he has done as a result of his character. This point is characteristic of Holmes’s posture towards Scripture throughout his work: he avoids forcing the biblical witness into philosophical categories that do not do justice to its richness and nuance but seeks to construct a theology that is consistent with the voices of the psalmists and the testimony of the whole Bible.
It is exciting to see a series of evangelical theology that faithfully engages both classical church tradition and Scripture and refreshing to read a book of doctrine that draws the reader to prayer and praise. Holmes rejects the evangelical tendency to begin theological discourse with the Reformation, while remaining fiercely committed to the primacy of Scripture in theology. The end product is a well-written, doxological work that ascribes goodness to the Lord from every angle.
Because Holmes seeks to make a contribution to systematic theology, this book is dense and technical throughout. Those without background in systematics may find themselves disoriented by theological language or frustrated by the abstract nature of the argument. However, for scholars and theological students interested in the attributes of God, and for theologically trained ministers who seek a sturdy foundation from which to build a practical theology of God’s unchanging goodness in a turbulent world, The Lord is Good is highly recommended.
Stephanie Juliot is a M.Div. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.