God is a Spiritual Being. But What Does that Even Mean?

sinai

Israel never saw God’s form at Sinai, only smoke, fire, and lightning.

Q-4: What is God?

A: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

-Westminster Shorter Catechism

I don’t think most of us give thought to the fact that God is a Spirit (John 4:24). I know I hadn’t much until I was forced to think through some of the metaphysics of spiritual beings in my class on medieval philosophy in college (Angels, Humans, and Evil, I think it was called). In any case, we discussed the differences between angels and humans (at least according to Aquinas) and one of the main ones was that angels are pure spirits, intelligences with no bodies. So what does it mean for God to be spiritual?

Thomas Watson, in his sermon commenting on this question in Body of Practical Divinity states:

By a spirit I mean, God is an immaterial substance, of a pure, subtile, unmixed essence, not compounded of body and soul, without all extension of parts.

God being spirit means that God is not material, not bodily, not made up of parts you can pull apart and put back together. Sounds simple enough.

Angels and Souls are Spiritual, though, too? Some Clarifications

Still, if this is what it means for God to be spiritual, then that raises the question that occurred to me in college. If God is an immaterial substance, and angels are immaterial substances, what distinguishes them? Is God just bigger? Do they run into each others? What’s the difference? Watson, again, anticipates the question:

The angels are spirits. We must distinguish spirits. The angels are created, God is a Spirit uncreated. The angels are finite, and capable of being annihilated; the same power which made them is able to reduce them to their first nothing; but God is an infinite Spirit. The angels are confined spirits, they cannot be duobus locis simul, but are confined to a place; but God is an immense Spirit, and in all places at once. The angels, though spirits, are but ministering spirits (Heb 1:14). Though they are spirits, they are servants. God is a super-excellent Spirit, the Father of spirits (Heb 12:2).

So, apparently, there are a few. First, and most important is that God is Creator and angels are created. For that reason, God infinite, without boundaries or limits to his power, location, or anything else. Angels are still created beings, finite in knowledge, power, and yes, even location. They are upheld in their existence by God at every moment and could wink out of existence should he decide to remove his hand. In Christian theology, you always have to reckon with the Creator/creature distinction. Mess with that, and just about everything else falls out of place.

Okay, well, what about human souls? Sure, humans are soul + body, but what if I’m feeling extra dualist today and I want to play up the spirituality of the soul? What distinguishes human spirits from God’s Spirit, especially since humans are God’s Image. Apparently heretics like Osiander and Servetus actually thought the soul was the essence of God communicated to human beings. Watson says that’s silly. We’re made in his “image and likeness.” God’s essence is incommunicable, but “When it is said the soul is a spirit, it means that God has made it intelligible, and stamped upon it his likeness, not his essence.”

But what about this whole “partakers of the divine nature” business in 2 Peter 1:4? Well, here Watson gives a standard Reformed response:

We are made partakers of the divine nature, not by identity or union with the divine essence, but by a transformation into the divine likeness.

Okay, that’s clear enough so far. But say I know my Old Testament pretty well. Do you know how often we read about people seeing God walking around, using his hands, sitting on a throne, and all kinds of corporeal, physical stuff? Well, yes, I do. And so does Watson. In response to that charge made by a party named the “Anthropomorphites” who believe that God has a physical body, he gives their exegesis and hermeneutics a little tune-up.

First, he lays out the clearer statements of Scripture about the nature of bodies and spirits according to Jesus and the rest of Scripture:

It is contrary to the nature of a spirit to have a corporeal substance. ‘Handle me, and see me: for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’ (Luke 24:49)…Now that God is a Spirit, and is not capable of bodily shape or substance, is clear, for a body is visible, but God is invisible; therefore he is a Spirit. ‘Whom no man has seen, nor can see’ (I Tim 6:16.), not by an eye of sense. A body is terminated, can be but in one place at once, but God is everywhere, in all places at once; therefore he is a Spirit (Psa 139:9, 8.). God’s centre is everywhere, and his circumference is nowhere. A body being compounded of integral parts may be dissolved; quicquid divisibile est corruptibile: but the Godhead is not capable of dissolution, he can have no end from whom all things have their beginning. So that it clearly appears that God is a Spirit, which adds to the perfection of his nature.

If this is true, then what are we to do with the language of Scripture?

Bodily members are ascribed to God, not properly, but metaphorically, and in a borrowed sense. By the right hand of the Lord is meant his power; by the eyes of the Lord is meant his wisdom.

This is an example of allowing Scripture to clarify Scripture, using the direct statements on the nature of bodies and so forth, to then set the parameters for how we read other texts. On this reading, Scripture gives a clear directive to read these passages as communicating truth, but figuratively, not literally. Again, that seems simple enough.

But Why Does it Matter?

Okay, with all that said, who cares? Why is the “spirituality” of God an important point to understand? It doesn’t immediately seem to be emphasized in Scripture, even if it seems to be taught. Of what use is it for us to know and dwell on this reality?

Well, for starters, that’s one of those things that makes the Incarnation all that more amazing. The God who is immaterial, unbounded, and so forth, deigns, in Christ, to assume or add to himself a body, which is not natural to him. That’s just part of the glory of the Gospel–God becomes what is not God in order to reconcile us to himself.

But Watson presses beyond this to draw out a number of implications I can only briefly touch on.

First, Watson says that if God is spiritual, that means he’s impassible–not capable of being harmed, overcome, or anything human foes might think to do to him. What are you going to do? Chuck a spear at him? His essence is beyond all harm. That is grounds for worship and comfort.

Second, if God is Spirit, then Watson thinks that should put image-worship or veneration to bed. God is Spirit and no likeness of him can be made suitable to his perfection.

 ‘To whom then will ye liken God, or what likeness will ye compare unto him?’ (Isa 40:18)How can you paint the Deity? Can we make an image of that which we never saw? Ye saw no similitude. God is a Spirit.

How are we to worship and conceive of him, then? Here Watson gives a Christologically-focused answer:

We must conceive of him spiritually. In his attributes; his holiness, justice, and goodness, which are the beams by which his divine nature shines forth. We must conceive of him as he is in Christ. ‘Christ is the image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15). Set the eyes of your faith on Christ as God-man. In Christ we see some sparklings of the divine glory; in him there is the exact resemblance of all his Father’s excellencies. The wisdom, love, and holiness of God the Father, shine forth in Christ.‘He that has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:4).

Third, “If God be a Spirit, it shows us, that the more spiritual we grow, the more we grow like to God.” To turn your eyes to God and your desires to the heavens away from mere earthly concerns is to grow in the likeness of God.

Fourth, God’s being a Spirit means that our worship ought to spiritual too. For Watson that means a number of things. (1) Worship is without ceremonies, as the OT ceremonies have been abrogated, so why return to the shadows with man-made replacements? (2) It is to worship him with faith in the blood of the Messiah, with zeal, with prayer, with true consecration, without the vain pretenses of outward shows.

Fifth, this should move us to ask for the Spirit that we may become more spiritual:

The essence of God is incommunicable; but not the motions, the presence and influences of his Spirit. When the sun shines in a room, not the body of the sun is there, but the light, heat, and influence of the sun.

Sixth, Watson reminds us that if God is Spiritual, shouldn’t we expect his blessings to be spiritual?

This may comfort a Christian in all his labours and sufferings; he lays out himself for God, and has little or no reward here; but remember, God, who is a Spirit, will give spiritual rewards, a sight of his face in heaven, white robes, a weight of glory. Be not then weary of God’s service; think of the spiritual reward, a crown of glory which fadeth not away

We neglect the spiritual nature of God to our own detriment. We miss out on part of the glory of Jesus in the gospel, the nature of true worship, and so much more.

Watson’s meditations remind us, once again, that everything about God is worthy of worship. Nothing we learn about Father, Son, and Spirit can fail to contribute to our love of God or his glory if we think it through with care and prayer.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

2 thoughts on “God is a Spiritual Being. But What Does that Even Mean?

  1. I think I smell some Hellenistic bias going on in Watson’s theologizing- that God’s being an interminable spirit adds to the excellence of His perfection, for instance. His exegesis of the passage gives him ammo but it’s because he conflates KJV’s “spirit” with the more colloquial “ghost.” Seems to me if you don’t begin with some of these assumptions you mightgive more weight to texts like Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7 as indicative of the Son’s destiny to assume flesh which in turn makes you wonder about a simple abrogation of OT ceremonies. Didn’t Jesus attend all the festivals to reveal himself as their realest, deepest down content? What do you think, Derek?

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