God Is Spirit



MANY years ago, when I was a pastor in Cleveland, report came to me that one of the members of my flock, superintendent of my mission-school, and professor in a medical college, was teaching his Sunday School the most arrant materialism. I invited him to a brotherly conference, and asked him what was his conception of God. He gave me an answer that would have done credit, or discredit, to a Mormon or a Swedenborgian. God, he said, was a being in human form, but of vast dimensions, spread out in space, with body like our own,—man himself, in fact, being only a miniature god.

When I reminded him that God is spirit, he replied that spirit is only a form of matter, thin and subtle, but capable of thought. I did not succeed in convincing him of his error. Dealing in his profession solely with the body, he could think only in terms of materialism: matter, space and time, were all and in all. Our conference ended in an amicable arrangement that he should resign his place as superintendent, while he still listened to my pastoral teaching as a faithful member of the church.

In all probability few of our church members have done their thinking so logically, or have carried their thinking so far. Yet I am persuaded that very many are handicapped in their Christian progress by similar misconceptions of God; and I begin my statement of doctrine by pointing out that "God is spirit" (John 4:24), and that this implies, not only that God has no visible form, but that he is also absolutely independent of space and time.

Spirit and Form, Space, Time

My medical friend's misconception of God was due to his wrong beginning. Dealing in his profession only with the body, he had come to believe that man is only body, and that God, in whose image man was made, must also consist only of body. He should have reflected that man is essentially spirit, and that spirit is not itself body, but that it only uses the body.

And spirit is invisible. I can never see you, with any outward sight: I can only see the body which you inhabit. Your inmost self, your ego, reveals itself in the play of your features and in the sound of your voice; but the cause of these changes is hidden from me; in fact, some men put on looks so false and use words so misleading, that their real selves are quite the opposite of what they seem.

Though spirit expresses itself in form, it has no form; though it lives in space and time, it is not the creature of space and time, but is inde- I pendent of them. And since knowledge of ourselves is the only clue to our knowledge of t God, we conclude that spirit in God, like spirit in man, implies absence of all external form, and complete independence of space and time.

The Teaching of the Scriptures

This is the clear teaching of the Scriptures. "No man hath seen God at any time," says John's gospel (John 1:18) ; he is "the invisible God" (Col. 1:15) ; " whom no man hath seen, nor can see," says the apostle Paul (1 Tim. 6: 16). Apart from his manifestations, God's being would be unknown.

Only as we penetrate into the secrets of our own being, can we understand him; and even our philosophizing goes astray, unless corrected by God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. A part of that self-revelation is furnished us in the declaration of the book of Ecclesiastes that "God hath set eternity in our heart" (Eccl. 3:11 marg., and Miscellanies, 1:313-334), and in the statement of Paul that in Christ we are made "citizens of heaven" (Phil. 3:20, and Miscellanies, 2:159-174). As spirit in us S has no form, and is invisible, so God, as pure .-I spirit, has no body, never can be seen, yet is present everywhere and always.

There was once an atheist who tried to teach his daughter by writing on the blackboard: "God Is Nowhere." But the child read it more correctly: "god Is Now Here." The doctrine of omnipresence is simply this: The whole of God is present in every place and at every time.

Modern Thought and a Spiritual God

This conception of God as spirit antedates some of the conclusions to which modern science is drifting. Einstein's "relativity" is an assertion that time and space are simply relations of material being; they have no independent existence; without matter, they cease to be. Not only Science, but also Philosophy, now sees the world to be psychic.

But a psychic world demands a Psyche; a universe demands a Unifier; for "psychic" means " possessed by, or manifesting, a psyche, or a soul." The philosophy that holds to universal thought, feeling and will, while it ignores or denies any soul, source or standard of truth, beauty or goodness, is like the smile in Alice's "Wonderland," which remained, after the face to which it belonged had disappeared.

William James well characterized such philosophy as "rotten;" by which I understand him to mean, cut off from its source of life, and therefore decayed, corrupt, and offensive to God and man. If the universe is psychic, there must be a Psyche and a Unifier. That Psyche, that Unifier, must be a mighty Will, creating, upholding, energizing all material things; material things indeed are only the forms of his volition, while he, as spirit, is the invisible cause of all.

The Timeless God

This mighty Will, just yet benevolent, is according to Scripture "King of the ages" (1 Tim. 1:17, marg.), that is, Creator of space and time; not subject to space and time, but including them in his own being. With him, not only is "one day as a thousand years" (2 Pet. 3:8), but he lives in an everlasting Now, in which all history, past, present and future, is condensed (Miscellanies, 1:313-334).

As he is essentially Will, we are created wills, capable of a relatively independent action, while our bodies are products of his constant volition, and he "holdeth our soul in life" (Ps. 66:9), even when we use these bodies to sin against him (" Christ in Creation," 30-35).

God, Personal and Triune

God is not only spirit; he is also personal. When we apply the term personal to God, we must not put into it any unspiritual or materialistic meaning. God is a personal being, because an intelligent and loving Will is impossible without self-knowledge. The very word "consciousness" implies duality, a subject that knows, and an j3bject_thjit is known.

But this duality of self-knowledge sometimes becomes contrariety and insanity; a man can hate himself and run away from himself, as from an alien enemy. The prodigal son "came to himself" (L,k. 15:17), and so became normal. Duality can become fellowship. only through a third consciousness that the two are one; and this turns the duality into a trinity.

There are indeed instances even of a triple consciousness within the same human personality; and the case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which Robert Louis Stevenson has detailed to us, is not mere matter of a novelist's imagination. But no analogy suffices here. Three persons in one Personality constitute a union so unique that earthly analogies are only imperfect pointers toward its absolute perfection,— they simply suggest that there is nothing irrational, but rather the highest reason, in the conception that an eternal Word stands over against the eternal God, as his expression and counterpart; and that an eternal Spirit completes the self-knowledge and voluntary activity of Deity.

The personality of God, as intelligent and holy Will, implies the existence of three distinctions in his being, which are best described as three persons, and which we name Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is God unexpressed, and independent of space and time. The Son is his one and only medium of expression, his eternal object of knowledge and end in volition, his only word of communication to creatures. The H^h£^iritia.the-organ of^jWlaffiship; mjdsin^i^eJEriru^^ society pf communion and love, even without

Three persons are requisite, in one mighty Personality, to constitute that

"living Will that shall endure When all that seems shall suffer shock;"

and a trinitarian theology is necessary, if we are to believe in a living, loving, and selfsufficient God.

Christ, the Revealer of the Father

I have already intimated that the second person of the Trinity is called not only the Son, but also the Word of God. By this last designation it is implied that he who became flesh, and who is known as Christ, is God's means of expression, not only to himself, but to creatures. In truth, we may well say that Qod never thinks, speaks, or acts, except through Christ.

We know the significance of words, in our own intercourse with others. I meet a man casually in the street. As he brushes by me, a single profane word opens to me the depths of his evil heart. A little word of kindness and compassion, from a gentle woman to a child, tells me the whole story of a mother's love. But for those words, the spirit would have been hidden. The single word has expressed the inmost being.

"In the beginning was the Word," says the prologue to John's gospel. "And the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1, 2). In eternity past, as we may conceive it, Christ already existed as God's means of expression to himself, and as the object of his knowledge and love. It is still through his eternal Word, that God reveals himself in creation, providence, and redemption; and the whole physical universe is only the operation of Christ's will. This too is the assertion of Scripture, for John continues: "That which hath been made was life in him" (John 1:3, 4, margin).

"The Lamp Thereof is the Lamb"

Let me make this relation of Christ to the Father more plain, by citing the allusion to it in the book of Revelation. There it is said of the heavenly city, that "the glory of God doth lighten it, and the lamp thereof is the Lamb" (Rev. 21:23). God is light; but light diffused is never seen; we see by it, but we never see it; only as light i^cancmirated. is it ever seen. Christ, the Lamb, is the concentrated light of God; he is the Lamp, in which God's light is made visible; even in heaven, we shall never see the Father, except as he is expressed in Jesus Christ.

And so our Lord himself says to Philip: "He that hath seen me, hath seen the Father; how sayest thou: Show us the Father?" (John 14:9). And Paul sees "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God" only " in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6); while the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ as " the effulgence of God's glory and the very image of his substance" (Heb. 1:3).

All the light of God is concentrated in Jesus Christ, so that he is the only God with whom we have to do; he is God manifest in the flesh (1 Tim. 3: 16) ; in him is all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2: 9); in him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3).

Andrew Fuller once said that the doctrines of theology were "united together like chainshot, so that, whichever one enters the heart, the others must certainly follow." This is peculiarly true with regard to our view of Christ; and what I have said of him will determine and dominate my whole subsequent treatment of theology (Matt. 22:42).