The Doctrine of God (part 5)

June 03, 2007     Time: 00:18:19

[Opening prayer]

We’ve looked at the biblical data concerning God’s incorporeality. We saw that God is a spirit. We saw that God is omnipresent. We saw that he is indiscernible to the five senses. We saw that images of God are forbidden in the Bible. Nevertheless, we also saw there are passages where God is described in bodily terms and other passages in which people have visions of God in bodily form. How are we to make sense of all of this?

I think that we want to say, by way of systematic summary, first and foremost that God is not of the order of matter. God is not a material being. Rather, God is of the order of mind. By “a mind” I don’t mean the brain. The brain is a physical organ that sits in your skull. By a mind I mean a soul or a self. To give an illustration, the great Nobel Prize winning neurologist Sir John Eccles wrote a book with Carl Popper – one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century – entitled The Self and Its Brain. Eccles thought of the self as this immaterial entity – a person – which uses the brain as a physical organism for thought. Eccles compared the relationship between the soul (or the mind) and the brain to the relationship between a musician and a piano. The musician can produce music by playing on the piano; the instrument (the piano) produces the music but not on its own. It is only at the instigation of the agent – the musician – who plays the piano. Eccles said in exactly the same way the self (or the mind, or the soul) uses the brain to think. It uses it as an instrument for thinking just as a musician uses a piano as an instrument to play music.

Just as we are minds which are conjoined to a physical body, God is a mind without a body. He is self-consciousness without a body. But not being finite he is infinite mind. God is an infinite mind without a body. He is infinite self-consciousness. This infinite self-consciousness – this infinite mind – created the universe out of nothing. He created human beings in his image. That is to say, human beings also have this spiritual component to their makeup. They are embodied minds. Because man has this spiritual component we, unlike the rest of creation, can have a personal relationship with our creator as one person to another, as a finite person to an infinite person who God is. I think that is the primary way in which we need to think of God – as this infinite, unembodied mind or self-consciousness.

Then what do we say about these bodily descriptions of God that we find in the Bible? I think what we want to say is that these bodily descriptions of God are clearly metaphorical in nature. They are not meant to be taken literally. Rather, they serve a clear literary purpose in their context.[1] For example, this is what the New Bible Dictionary has to say about the word “face.” It says,

The Hebrew word for ‘face’ is used in many English senses. The face of a person became synonymous with his presence. Metaphorically determination could be shown by ‘setting one’s face.’ Determined opposition was made by ‘withstanding someone to his face.’ Intimacy and understanding were conveyed by the phrase ‘face to face.’ This phrase has of course passed into English as has also the expression ‘his face fell.’

Clearly these are metaphorical expressions. When you say somebody’s face fell you don’t mean it fell off onto the floor. You meant he was depressed or he became sullen or something of that sort. So these Hebrews usages for the word “face” are very similar to the way we use “face” in English – he withstood him to his face or he knew God face to face. It serves a metaphorical purpose.

Unger’s Bible Dictionary says this with respect to the same word. “Applied to God, ‘face’ denotes his presence in such phrases as ‘seeing the face of the Lord,’ ‘the face of the Lord is set against them that do evil,’ ‘their cry came before the face of the Lord.’ It is evidently all one with God’s manifested presence.” So when it speaks of the face of the Lord, this is a metaphor for the presence of God. It serves a literary function; it is not meant to be taken literally.

Similarly, when the Scriptures says “the arm of the Lord was with Israel.” It means God’s strength or his power was with them. It doesn’t mean they were carrying around this big limb, this big appendage, that was God’s arm. These are literary metaphors that have a clear purpose in their context.

In fact, if you took them literally they would be inconsistent. God would turn out to be a winged, fire-breathing monster as we saw from the passages we read last time about him riding cherubim and smoke coming out of his nostrils and so forth. Clearly, that is not correct. So these bodily descriptions are literary metaphors that have a clear literary purpose in their context.

What about the visions of God where Moses, for example, or Isaiah see these visions of God? Visions are mental projections caused by God. A vision is not something that is out there in the external world. Visions are mental projections from the brain of the person who sees them. That is why other people don’t see them around you – because they are not really out there. They are mental projections. The difference between a hallucination and a vision would be a hallucination would be a delusion that is the product of biochemical causes. You are dying of thirst or something and so you project a vision of water or you had too much to drink and so you see pink elephants and you project a vision of that. Those would be hallucinations. The visions of God that Moses and others see are not hallucinations, they are not self-induced or biochemically induced reactions of the brain. Rather, these are mental visions that are caused by God and therefore God causes people to see this image. But it isn’t a literal seeing of God’s body because God doesn’t have a body. So God causes them to see these mental visions or projections. In so doing, they are meant to reveal in some way God’s glory or holiness. That is why God says to Moses, “You cannot see my face and live.” No one can live to see the full glory of God and not be annihilated. But he says to Moses, “I will let you see my back.” That is a way of saying, “I will let you see a diminished vision of my glory – one that you can stand to bear and still live.” So God reveals himself in these visions in a diminished way that allows human beings to have some glimpse of his glory and holiness, but they aren’t literal seeings of God’s body because God doesn’t have a body.[2]

Question: [inaudible – asks about Genesis 18 when men appeared and they actually ate with Abraham.]

Answer: Right. I didn’t say anything about that. I think there you would say that angels, for example, in the Old Testament and in the New Testament have the ability to take on corporeal form and appear. It may well be that God has either in the form of the angel of the Lord taken on corporeal form here or has in some way taken on a kind of pre-incarnate form like Christ to reveal himself to Abraham. But, again, it wouldn’t be God’s proper form in the sense that properly speaking God doesn’t have a physical form. It would just be some sort of a temporary disguise if you will.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I don’t think that we should think of those as literal. Those pictures in the book of Revelation are either visions that John has or they are portraits that John is painting, like the lamb full of eyes without and within and so forth. I don’t think that these are meant to be literal sorts of things that are going to be up there that we will see. Certainly it doesn’t mean that God has a literal body that sits on a throne. These would be, again, these sort of visionary seeings. That is the way that John presents this. John presents this as a vision of what he sees but not as literal actual objects that are there.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: No, actually it is not. Let’s turn to that passage. Philippians 2. The word “morphe” actually is used in Greek literature outside the New Testament to indicate immaterial realities. In Plato, for example, the idea of The Forms are sort of like ideas which are characterized by being non-physical, abstract realities. So when he says that he existed in the form of God, I think what he means there is what is explained in the next phrase – he didn’t regard equality with God a thing to be clutched onto or held onto but he gave it up and took the form of a bond servant. It is a different role, if you will, a different character. But he is not thinking there that God has some kind of physical shape. It is not form in that sense of form.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The visible image, right? Christ is the image of the invisible God.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: There he is talking about the incarnate Christ.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I tried to address that by saying that we are persons just as God is a person. We are minds with bodies; God is a mind without a body. It is in that sense that we are created in his image and therefore able to know God in a way that other animals and creatures cannot. So you are quite right that we are made in the image of God. That is right. But don’t think of that in terms of a physical image, that God has arms and legs and things of that sort. Because, as I said, the Scripture is very clear that God is spirit and is omnipresent and doesn’t have any kind of a human form. So this image, as I said, means that we are selves or souls that are connected with bodies whereas God is an unembodied soul or self.[3]

It makes sense to me anyway!

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: There were different ways that God could manifest his presence. It could be the Shekinah Glory, it could be the pillar of smoke and fire, it could be to Abraham in the form of a human person, it could be in a vision like to John in Revelation. So God can manifest his presence in all sorts of ways, but we shouldn’t think that what one is seeing is actually the body of God or something like that because he doesn’t have a body.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: The Christian view of immortality is not that we will become unembodied souls and go to some ethereal heaven. It is that we will have resurrection bodies that will inhabit a physical space-time universe of some sort. Jesus’ resurrection body is the forerunner and exemplar of our own resurrection bodies that we will have someday. So we, as human beings, to be fully human need to have a physical body. That is part of what it means to be human – to be a body and a soul. In that respect, we are different than God. God doesn’t have a body. That enables him to be omnipresent, to create the material universe, and all of space and time, and the rest of it. But you are right about drawing our attention to the fact that we, as human beings, are incomplete without our bodies and therefore the hope of immortality takes the form of the resurrection of the body.[4]

[1] 5:07

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:08

[4] Total Running Time: 18:10 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)