I believe that the Almighty Triune God, Creator of all that exists, naturally does all his works for his own glory. For him to do otherwise would be an unimaginable and impossible idolatry. This is why we are enjoined to do everything we do for God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31). I take this to be a confession common to Christians in all communions. Perhaps, however, Reformed theology has been particularly prone to emphasize the glory of God as God’s own goal, and so as our chief end (Westminster Catechism). Not surprisingly then, Arminians commonly charge Calvinism with incoherence, because God’s ordaining of the fall, and his choosing not to redeem the entire human race, appears to them to be the portrait of a God who is evil. Surely, it seems to them, if God could have saved everyone, it would have glorified God more to do so, than to leave some of them to the eternal consequences of their sin.
As a Calvinist, I have felt the force of that Arminian concern. I too have wondered why it would not have been more glorifying to God to save everyone, in an abundant manifestation of his grace, than to reveal his justice in the case of some sinners. Although no specific instances come to mind now, I am aware of having heard or read Calvinist references to God doing what most glorifies himself, and I suspect that I have even spoken in those terms myself. Should we do so?
I gather that the apostle Paul had often encountered a question about God’s justice in his condemnation of the wicked, whom God had not chosen to redeem – cf. Rom 9:19: “You will say to me then . . .”. I also sense that Paul himself struggled to understand it. In Romans 9:22-24, he states his response in the form of an inquiry, as a speculation, rather than as an assertive declaration. He asks:
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (emphasis mine).
I have observed that Paul’s questions indicate to me a speculative approach to the issue, on his part but, since this is inspired Scripture, I assume that his ponderings have instructive value for us. I note also the importance to Paul of the manifestation of “the riches” of God’s glory, which is a theme that comes out very frequently in Paul’s writings. In that regard, however, Paul focuses on God’s mercy to those whom God has “prepared beforehand for glory.” He does not speak specifically here of God as glorifying himself, in “desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power,” having “endured with much patience the objects of wrath.” What we can say with certainty, though, is that God never does anything which detracts from his glory. All his works are worth of praise, as manifestations of his unsurpassed excellence.
What I want to suggest now is that we have no grounds to say that, in this instance, or in any of God’s works, he has done what is most for his glory. That would entail the validity of the concept of a “best possible world,” a world which God, being all wise and all good, would therefore have chosen to create. But the concept of a “best possible world” is incoherent, I think that I first heard this contention from Richard Swinburne but I have heard it echoed by others since then. The problem with the concept is that it calls for a quantification of goods which is impossible to establish. I recall Swinburne using the population of the world as an example. People are valuable, so one might assume that more people are a greater good. But that can quickly be seen to be nonsense. With apologies to Leibnitz, we should accept the fact that there is no “best possible world.”
John Feinberg has spoken to this matter very helpfully. He notes that the future world is obviously better than this one, that God could have created that world immediately, and that “the fact that he didn’t suggests to some that something is wrong with him” (No One Like Him, 794). Feinberg acknowledges the significance of the objection but rightly observes that it “contains a confusion” (795).
“The confusion centers around what a modified rationalist theology is required to do to solve its logical problem of evil. Modified rationalists don’t claim that there is a best world, but they do claim that there is more than one good possible world. Moreover, modifed rationalism does not demand that God create the best world or even a better world than some other good world. It only requires God to create a good possible world. The task for a modified rationalist, then, is to look at the world God did create and explain why it is good in spite of the evil in it” (Feinberg, 795 [emphasis mine]).
I suggest that this is precisely what the apostle Paul did for the Romans, and for us. He explained what is good about this world which God created, in which God chose to show the glory of his mercy by electing many to glory, while also showing his just wrath and making known his power, in the condemnation of those to whom God was gracious in many ways, but not in the gift of salvation. But Paul made no attempt to demonstrate, even speculatively, that this is the best possible world God could have created.
If God had been obligated to maximize his glory, and if God would be more glorified by creating than by not doing so, then creation itself would have been necessary to God, not a free act of his will, as Scripture asserts it to have been. Furthermore, if there were a “best possible world,” the creation of which would glorify God more than any other possible world, then God was not free in creating this particular world. Since there is no such thing as a “best possible world,” and since God therefore had no obligation to create it, God, who alone is intrinsically good, and who must glorify himself as the only true and living God, need not have created the world which would glorify himself more than any other possible world. And we are under no obligation to demonstrate how this particular world is better than any other world God could have created. We should not, and need not, speak in such terms.