What does it mean to be happy?
That question gets us to the heart of Christian ethics, the goal of human life, and the entire meaning of reality.
William Mattison, in The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology says, ‘All classical treatments of ethics begin with reflection on happiness. And what do we find at the start of the Sermon [on the Mount]?… a miniature treatment of happiness.’1 Jonathan Pennington makes the same point: ‘Whether it be Stoicism, Epicureanism, Aristotelianism, or hedonism, philosophers in the Greco-Roman tradition were consciously and explicitly driven to answer the question of what makes people truly happy’.2
Christian ethics builds on this insight and shows how ourhappiness, our beatitude, is intimately connected to God’s beatitude.
Petrus van Mastricht explains that divine beatitude is a ‘derivative’ attribute. The foundation of God’s beatitude is his goodness and perfection,3 but what distinguishes beatitude from goodness is that blessedness is enjoyment of the good.
Mastricht builds on and corrects Aristotle: ‘the true good (as even Aristotle judges, although not carefully enough) is that which all desire. More correctly, it is what on account of the perfection of its nature is desirable and deserves to be desired, and is communicative of itself’.4
Because he has all things from himself, God is ‘good by his own goodness’.5 He is ‘truly good and most highly good and alone good in his own way’.6 In contrast, creatures do not have their goodness from themselves, but from God, our creator: ‘all creatures are good by means of his goodness, namely, through participation, by mere favor (Ps 144:2)’.7 Our goodness is a gift of the good God, given to us purely because he is good. So any goodness we have, we have only in relation to him. ‘For from him and through him and to him are all things’ (Rom 11:36).
God’s blessedness is his enjoyment of his goodness. It is that ‘whereby he rejoices in and enjoys himself, his perfections, and all things, and communicates himself to his own that they might have fruition of joy.’8 God is so good, so blessed, so joyful that his joy freely and graciously overflows to creatures.
Mastricht uses Greek etymology to make his point:
In the Greek [blessedness] is μακαρισμός, as if from μέγα χαίρων, ‘rejoicing much or greatly’, or from the phrase μάλιστα χαίρειν, ‘to rejoice most vigorously’…it is nothing other than the absence of all evil and the possession and enjoyment of God in the highest good.9
In a biblical idiom, ‘God is light and in him there is no darkness at all’ (1 Jn 1:5).
So, God just is beatitude, eternally enjoying his own goodness and perfection. And because he is good, his life is not self-revolving—he communicates a share of his goodness to his creatures. Therefore, human beatitude is possible. Mastricht spells out the pastoral implications of this at the end of his treatments of divine goodness and divine beatitude. In this, he follows his usual order in the Theoretical-Practical theology, where he treats each doctrine in four stages: first, he shows its exegetical foundation, secondly he expounds its doctrinal content, thirdly he engages in elenctic or polemical clarifications, and finally he draws out practical implications.
In brief outline, because God is beatitude:
1. It is foolish to seek blessedness outside of God.10
2. We are drawn to seek blessedness in God.11
3. True blessedness is found in union and communion with the God of infinite goodness.
Consider these verses from the Psalms:
There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!” (Psalm 4:6)
I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.” (Psalm 16:2)
Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8)
4. Our objective blessedness is found in God’s goodness, and not in any created good.
5. And our subjective, or formal blessedness is also found there—namely ‘in the possession, union, communion, enjoyment, and delight in the highest and infinite good’.12
6. And this is what consoles us in adversity13—the sheer delightfulness of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Those are simply the headlines of where and how our happiness is to be found. For more detail, as the Lord Jesus spells it out for us in the Beatitudes, why not join our online study hours this Autumn? Over the course of five weeks, we’ll examine a Christian ethics of beatitude by considering what beatitude is according to the Bible, and with the help of Augustine, Aquinas, and various Reformed theologians. Then we’ll explore the riches and beauty of the Beatitudes for preaching and pastoring and life, and how the Lord Jesus leads us to our true happiness in God.
You can find more information about how to sign up here.
1 William C. Mattison, The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology: A Virtue Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 16-17.
2 Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 31.
3 Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, Vol. 2: Faith in the Triune God, trans. Todd M. Rester (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019),1.2.23 (hereafter cited as TPT). On divine goodness see TPT 1.2.16. (Hereafter cited as TPT.)
4 TPT 1.2.16.VI.
5 TPT 1.2.16.VIII.
6 TPT 1.2.16.III.
7 TPT 1.2.16.VIII.
8 TPT 1.2.23.I.
9 TPT 1.2.23.V.
10 TPT 1.2.23.XIII.
11 TPT 1.2.23.XIV.
12 TPT 1.2.16.XXI.
13 TPT 1.2.23.XV.