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Omnibenevolence is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "unlimited or infinite benevolence". It is sometimes held to be impossible for a deity to exhibit this property along with both omniscience and omnipotence, because of the problem of evil. It is a technical term used in the academic literature on the philosophy of religion, often in the context of the problem of evil and in theodical responses, and even in such context, the phrases "perfect goodness" or "moral perfection" are often preferred.

Etymology

Omnibenevolence appears to have a very casual usage among some Protestant Christian commentators. The earliest record for its use in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is in 1679. The Catholic Church does not appear to use the term omnibenevolent in the liturgy or Catechism.

Modern appearances of the term include George H. Smith, in June 1980, in his book Atheism: The Case Against God,[1] where he argued that divine qualities are inconsistent. However, the term is also used by authors who defend the coherence of divine attributes, including but not limited to, Jonathan Kvanvig in The Problem of Hell,[2] and Hoffman and Rosenkrantz in The Divine Attributes.[3]

Philosophical perspectives

The term is patterned on, and often accompanied by, the terms "omniscience" and "omnipotence", typically to refer to conceptions of an "all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful" deity. Philosophers and theologians more commonly use phrases like "perfectly good",[4] or simply the term "benevolence". The word "omnibenevolence" may be interpreted to mean perfectly just, all-loving, fully merciful, or any number of other qualities, depending on precisely how "good" is understood. As such, there is little agreement over how an "omnibenevolent" being would behave.

The notion of an omnibenevolent, infinitely compassionate deity, has raised certain atheistic objections, such as the problem of evil and the problem of hell. Responses to such problems are called theodicies and can be general, by arguing for the coherence of the divine such as Swinburne's Providence and the Problem of Evil, or they can address a specific problem, such as Charles Seymour's A Theodicy of Hell.

Religious perspectives

The acknowledgement of God's omnibenevolence is an essential foundation in traditional Christianity, and can be seen in Scriptures such as Psalms 18:30, "As for God, his way is perfect: the word of the Lord is tried: he is a buckler to all those that trust in him," and Ps.19:7, "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple." This understanding is evident in the following statement by the First Vatican Council:

The Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church believes and acknowledges that there is one true and living God, Creator and Lord of Heaven and earth, almighty, eternal, immeasurable, incomprehensible, infinite in will, understanding and every perfection. Since He is one, singular, completely simple and unchangeable spiritual substance, He must be declared to be in reality and in essence, distinct from the world, supremely happy in Himself and from Himself, and inexpressibly loftier than anything besides Himself which either exists or can be imagined.[5]

The philosophical justification stems from God's aseity: the non-contingent, independence and self-sustained mode of existence that theologians ascribe to God. For if He was not morally perfect, that is, if God was merely a great being but nevertheless of finite benevolence, then his existence would involve an element of contingency, because one could always conceive of a being of greater benevolence.[6]

In Islam, the second of the 99 Names of Allah is Al-Rahman, meaning "(all-) Merciful" or "Compassionate." This is not necessarily a precise equivalent to benevolence, however, as it is a fundamentally relational concept hinging on the relationship between the powerful God, who could harm his weak creatures, but, out of His mercy, does not do so, In and of itself, it does not carry with it any moral or normative ontological implications, (e.g. an external "Good" which God would desire for his creatures) but is simply descriptive of God's position within a value-neutral power relationship.

Theologians in the Wesleyan Christian tradition (see Thomas Jay Oord) argue that omnibenevolence is God's primary attribute. As such, God's other attributes should be understood in light of omnibenevolence.

Notes

  1. Smith, George H. (1980). Atheism: The Case Against God. Prometheus Books. ISBN 087975124X. 
  2. Kvanvig, Jonathan L. (1993). The Problem of Hell. Oxford University Press. pp. 4. ISBN 019508487X. 
  3. Hoffman, Joshua; Gary Rosenkrantz (2002). The Divine Attributes. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0631211543.  Used throughout the book.
  4. This phrase is used in many notable encyclopedia and dictionary entries, such as:
  5. "First Vatican Council". dailycatholic.org. http://www.dailycatholic.org/history/20ecume1.htm. Retrieved 2008-05-02. 
  6. "The infinity of God". Catholic Encyclopaedia. newadvent.org. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08004a.htm. Retrieved 2008-05-02. 

See also

Further reading

  • Basinger, David. "In what sense must God be omnibenevolent?" International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 14, No. 1 (March 1983), pp. 3-15.
  • Flemming, Arthur. "Omnibenevolence and evil." Ethics, Vol. 96, No. 2 (Jan. 1986) , pp. 261-281.
  • Wierenga, Edward. "Intrinsic maxima and omnibenevolence." International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 1984), pp. 41-50.
  • Smith, George H. "Atheism: The Case Against God'" (Skeptic's Bookshelf) Prometheus Books (June 1980).
  • Oppy, Graham. "Ontological Arguments and Belief in God" (Cambridge University Press) (1995), pp. 171-2.
  • Bruch, George Bosworth. Early Medieval Philosophy, King's Crown, 1951. pp. 73-77.

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