Doctrine of God (part 11)

May 02, 2010     Time: 00:33:38


I. B. 5. c. God as Personal Being 1. Intro . . . I. B. 5. c. 2. a. Analysis. Visit for a study outline.

1. Attributes of God
Lecture 11

Personal: Incorporeality

We are going to turn to a discussion of God’s attributes as a personal being. Many people that I have talked to have no trouble at all conceiving of God as an infinite being, but they resist vigorously the idea that God can be personal as well. They seem to think that personhood is incompatible with infinity. If God is infinite, then he can’t really be a personal being as well. But this is quite unjustified. God possesses all of the attributes essential to personhood (which are the same attributes that we possess), such as intellect, self-consciousness, and will. But he possesses these to an infinite degree. In this sense, these attributes are communicable to us – though God has them infinitely, we also share these attributes. That is different from attributes like, for example, God’s necessity or self-existence, which we do not share.

These attributes are communicable to us because we are made in God’s image and are, therefore, personal. If you remember our diagram [see the outline], we made a differentiation between God as infinite and then man as finite, yet both God and man are personal. Insofar as God is infinite, man is utterly unlike God; but insofar as God is a personal being, man is like God in virtue of being personal. With respect to personhood, there is a chasm that separates man from the rest of creation, such as animals, plants, and inorganic material; but man finds himself on the same side of the divide as God insofar as he is a personal being made in the image of God.

We want to look at those attributes that God has in virtue of his being a personal being. The first of these is incorporeality, which is the property of being without a body. Let’s look first at some of the scriptural data concerning this attribute.

Scriptural Data

First, the Scripture teaches that God is spirit. In John 4:24, Jesus is speaking and he says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” So God is not a physical being. In contrast to material or physical reality, God is spirit.

Secondly, the Scripture teaches that God is omnipresent. Here I would simply refer you back to those passages that we looked at when we studied the omnipresence of God, his attribute of his being everywhere present. God is not a locally confined, physical object. He is not something that exists at a place in space. This fits right in with his incorporeality, his being spirit. So all of those verses that go to show God’s omnipresence would be relevant here.

Thirdly, God is indiscernible to the five senses. 1 Timothy 6:16 speaks of God being inaccessible to the five senses: “who alone has immortality, and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.” You cannot see God; you cannot discern him with your five senses. Also, if you turn to 1 Timothy 1:17: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” God is invisible; you can’t see him nor (it is implied) can the other senses discern God because he is not a physical object.1

Fourthly, images of God are forbidden. This is one of the central teachings of the Old Testament. Look, for example, at Exodus 20:4-5a, the first commandment:

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. . . .

So we are not to make any sort of pictorial, or physical, representation of God. To do so would be to misrepresent God, since God is not a physical object. Also Deuteronomy 4:15b-16: “Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female.” We are not to portray God as being some sort of a man in the sky with a long white beard. To do so denigrates God and does not capture what he is really like. We are to make no images of God.

Fifthly, on the other hand, however, in the Scripture God is described in bodily terms. Look in Psalms 18:6-10 for an example of this:

In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. He bowed the heavens, and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub, and flew; he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.

There God is described in bodily terms – it refers to the ears and the feet and the nostrils of God. Although we have been told that God is not a physical object but is spirit, still we have these descriptions of him in bodily terms.

Finally, the last point is that the Scripture also includes visions of God in corporeal terms. Exodus 33:20-23 is one of the most famous of these – Moses’ vision of God. This is where Moses asks to see God’s face, and God says to him,

“You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Here a vision of God is described in corporeal terms.

So we have mixed data concerning the incorporeality of God. The question is, how do we make sense of this?2


Question: On the first Bible verse that you used, John 4:24: What does that mean, that we are to “worship in spirit,” or is that off the subject?

Answer: That is off the subject, but what Jesus is speaking of there would probably be not simply going through proforma, physical rituals. He didn’t think that the Samaritans, for example, had the right worship of God (he was talking to the Samaritan woman), but he thought the Jews did. He is talking about worshiping God in a true way, in a properly spiritual disposition. But that is not the main point here, which is that God is not a physical being.

Question: Couldn’t God just let people see him with a human form even if he doesn’t really have one?

Answer: I will say something more about this when we get to our systematic summary, but I think you are on the right track in saying that these are not actually visions of God himself, the way he actually is.

Question: Are you going to comment on what you believe with iconography, icons and images?

Answer: I was not going to; but I have to say that there I have deep reservations about the use of imagery in Eastern Orthodox worship of God. I understand the theory of the icons, I have friends who are Greek Orthodox, and understand how the icon itself is not worshiped; it is merely a “window,” so to speak, to the transcendent, through which you look to see God. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that if we take these commands that we read in Deuteronomy and Exodus seriously, these images are inappropriate, especially images of the Trinity. And, moreover, I think that they are spiritually damaging to the laity, who do not understand this and who tend to pray to these physical objects. I think we have this sadly, too, in Roman Catholic churches where you have imagery, statues, and so forth. I take a fairly strong line in saying that the use of these sorts of images are inappropriate and can be very misleading to lay people. I can appreciate the art of Michelangelo. I love to see the beauty of the art. But how damaging has it been to Christianity, this image of God as an old man with a long, white beard! It has been so destructive to the proper concept of God. People view God as a sort of Santa Claus in the sky who is “keeping a list, checking it twice, and is going to find out if you are naughty or nice.” That does not exalt God. J. I. Packer makes this point very well in his book Knowing God, where he says that the problem with images is that nothing can capture the true glory and magnificence of God, so any image is going to leave aspects of God’s being and nature unrepresented. Therefore, it will ultimately diminish who God is and our concept of him.

Question: We talk about God being spirit, and I wanted to go over exactly what a “spirit being” is. I struggle with the concept that it is immaterial but it has power. Can you expand on that?

Answer: I will say something more about that when we get to the systematic summary. What does it mean to say that God is spirit? Clearly, it does mean that he is not a physical being. But as the question indicates, to say that he is spirit does not mean he is some kind of wraith, or an ethereal and impotent entity. On the contrary, the Spirit of God in the Old Testament and in the New Testament is the power of God – surging, dynamic, and creative. So we shouldn’t think that incorporeality implies some kind of impotence.3

[Q & A: A comment in which the audience member just provides his own interpretation to the passages of Scripture that Dr. Craig mentioned earlier regarding “the face” or “the hand” of God. Dr. Craig answers that this is jumping ahead and that this is the kind of direction he is going to go next.]

Systematic Summary

What we want to say, in affirming God’s incorporeality, is that God is not of the order of matter. He is not a material being or object. Rather he is of the order of mind. Just as we are a union of mind and body, God is a pure mind without a body. By a mind, I obviously don’t mean a brain – a brain is a physical organ that sits in your skull. By a mind, I mean a self-conscious, mental entity. It is not physical.

Let me give you an illustration from Sir John Eccles, who won the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine. He wrote a book, The Self and Its Brain, with Sir Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science. I heard Eccles lecture once when I was in Germany in Dusseldorf at the World Congress of Philosophy. He compared the relationship of the mind to the brain with that of the connection between a pianist and a piano. He said that just as the pianist uses the piano as an instrument to make music, so the mind uses the brain as an instrument to think. If the piano is damaged or out of tune, the musician, though he knows the music, will not be able to produce beautiful music because the instrument is damaged. Similarly, if the brain is damaged, then the mind or the soul will not be able to think clearly or may not even be conscious because its instrument of thought is impaired.4 Eccles believes that the brain serves to store information and that the mind then scans the brain for this information and uses it as a tool for thought. What Eccles’ analogy suggests is that God is like a pure mind without a body; he doesn’t need a body as an instrument for thought. Rather God is a self-consciousness without a body.

The qualification one would make here is that God is an infinite self-consciousness. We have seen that God is omniscient, that he knows all things. So this is an infinite intelligence – an infinite mind – without a body. That is what it means to say that God is spirit.

This infinite, unembodied mind created the universe – he created space and time, matter and energy. He created man in his image as his representative here on this planet. Man, as the image of God, therefore bears the same sort of properties of God as being a personal being. Man also has a spiritual or mental element to his being that enables him to know God and to be in communion with him. We are not just physical bodies. Rather we are body-soul composites. We have a soul or a mind which is distinct from the body but intimately united with the body during this lifetime. This enables us to be in communion with God as person to person.

How, then, should we understand the bodily descriptions of God in the Scriptures? I would say, in contrast to the Mormon view, which takes them literally and is very naive – which would lead to a self-contradictory portrait of God –, that these bodily descriptions of God are clearly metaphorical. Why do I say this? There are two reasons.

1. They serve a clear literary purpose in the text. For example, in the New Bible Dictionary article on “Face,” it tells us that “the face” of a person became synonymous in Hebrew with his presence. So to speak of someone’s face is to speak of the presence of that person. It also says that, metaphorically, determination could be shown by “setting one’s face” – denoting unswerving purpose. So to say, “He set his face” didn’t mean he went and put on makeup! It meant he was determined in his purpose. Determined opposition was made, it says, 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 “His face fell.” When we say that someone’s face fell, we don’t mean that literally. It means that he was disappointed or in some way saddened. But we don’t mean that literally his face somehow slid off of his head!

These bodily descriptions serve a clear literary purpose. The “arm of the Lord” speaks of God’s power. His “ear being open to prayer” speaks of God’s attentiveness. The “eyes of the Lord” watching over all the Earth speak of his omniscience and his awareness of everything that is happening. When you read these in their context, it is very clear that these serve a clear literary purpose.

2. If you were to take them literally, then they would be inconsistent because God is described in inconsistent ways. God would turn out to be a winged, fire-breathing monster, if you take all of these descriptions of God as literal.

It is very clear that these bodily descriptions of God, contrary to the way Mormons understand them, are meant to be taken as metaphors for other various attributes of God.5

Finally, what about the visions of God, like the one described in Exodus 33 – Moses’ vision? What I would like to suggest is that these visions of God are not literal, visual sightings. These are not caused by photons bouncing off of an object, impinging on the retina, and stimulating the optic nerve so that you see the object. You do not see God in the way that you see a physical object like a chair or a table. This isn’t caused by photons’ bouncing off the object and then hitting your eyes. Rather these are mental images which are caused by God.

They are different from a hallucination. In a hallucination, like seeing a mirage, for example, this is manufactured by your own brain. It is a mental image that you yourself concoct, either through mental illness or some sort of stimulus or something of that sort. But a vision of God is something that God causes you to project, to see a mental image of. This is not to be taken as some sort of a literal, physical object that you see out there. These visions should not be thought of as actual seeings of God as he is. Rather these are mental projections caused by God. They serve the purpose of showing forth, for example, God’s holiness, or God’s glory. The point regarding Moses in Exodus 33 is that no one could fully discern God’s terrible holiness and live. You would be annihilated; but God gives to Moses a diminished grasp of his glory and holiness that Moses can bear to appreciate.

That would be how I would understand the incorporeality of God. God is an infinite mind without a body, and the scriptural passages that describe God or portray God in bodily terms are not literal but metaphors that serve a literary purpose.


Question: Are you using “mind” and “soul” as synonymous, and, if so, is spirit the same thing?

Answer: I am using them as synonymous, and I am not distinguishing between soul and spirit here. Sometimes people do want to distinguish between soul and spirit. I would tend to think the distinction would be a functional one – that you are alive in virtue of your soul, and “spirit” would speak of you in relation to God. But I do not think that there is any need to say that we are actually composed of three distinct parts – a soul, a spirit, and a body. Rather I think dualism is enough – we are composed of body and soul, and the soul in functioning toward God is sometimes referred to as spirit. It has to do more with its functioning than the way we are constituted.

Question: Where Abraham is visited by the two angels and God – is that supposed to be a Christophany? Because that wasn’t a hallucination, would that be a projected image?

Answer: It could be. But there it may be suggested that God actually assumes a sort of corporeal representation of himself as one of the men with these angels. It is hard to know because we just are not given an explanation of that. Some have said it is the preincarnate Christ, but I think that is probably reading back into the narrative from the New Testament. An ancient Jew would have read that and said this is just the presence of the Lord that was there and was somehow manifested in a corporeal form. But we shouldn’t think that we are actually seeing God. It would be more as if God would make a kind of image or something that would represent him there.

Question: You used 1 Timothy 6:16, about the unapproachable light. Would that light be the light formed in Genesis 1:3?

Answer: I had not connected them in that way before.6 The light that is spoken of in Genesis is the light of creation. But this light in which God is said to dwell is meant to be a kind of expression of the way God himself is. Again, I would take it to be metaphorical. God isn’t literally photons or radiation. Light and darkness are often used in Scripture as spiritual metaphors to express God in contrast to evil, pure goodness in contrast to evil, holiness versus wickedness. So the “light” and “dark” expressions I take to be metaphorical. God isn’t literally light beams that could be reflected off of a mirror.

Question: The Old Testament mentions several times about God’s dwelling place, in the Holy of Holies. Can you talk about that?

Answer: It does seem that in the Old Testament God’s presence was specially manifested in the Holy of Holies just as, in our world today, God’s presence is especially manifested in his people, in his church. We are indwelt with the Holy Spirit of God. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, correlated to the way God indwelt the physical temple. But we shouldn’t think, as we said when we looked at omnipresence, that God was confined in any way to the temple. Solomon himself recognized that. It would just be a particular manifestation of his glory there.

Question: [initially goes into an interpretation of his own, unrelated to the subject or question]. . . You said God is personal but to an infinite degree. Are you saying that the church, through Christ, is personal and there is no end to it?

Answer: I was not thinking of duration; I was thinking of God’s omniscience. This is a person that possesses infinite intelligence and infinite power. Therefore, he is not like a finite person. He has these similar attributes that we do as persons, like intellect and will and self-consciousness, but in God’s case they are all unlimited, whereas in our case they are finite and limited.7


1 5:05

2 9:46

3 15:34

4 20:01

5 24:57

6 30:00

7 Total Running Time: 33:38