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§ 4. Spirituality of God.

A. The Meaning of the Word “Spirit.”

The fundamental principle of interpretation of all writings, sacred or profane, is that words are to be understood in their historical sense; that is, in the sense in which it can be historically proved that they were used by their authors and intended to be understood by those to whom they were addressed. The object of language is the communication of thought. Unless words are 377taken in the sense in which those who employ them know they will be understood, they fail of their design. The sacred writings being the words of God to man, we are bound to take them in the sense in which those to whom they were originally addressed must inevitably have taken them. What is the meaning of the word “spirit?” or rather, What is the usus loquendi of the Hebrew and Greek words to which our word “spirit” corresponds? In answering this question, we learn what our Lord meant when he said God is a Spirit. Originally the words רוּחַ and πνεῦμα meant the moving air, especially the breath, as in the phrase πνεῦμα βίου; then any invisible power; then the human soul. In saying, therefore, that God is a Spirit, our Lord authorizes us to believe that whatever is essential to the idea of a spirit, as learned from our own consciousness, is to be referred to God as determining his nature. On this subject consciousness teaches, and has taught all men, —

1. That the soul is a substance; that our thoughts and feelings have a common ground, of which they are the varying states or acts. Substance is that which has an objective existence, and has permanence and power. Even Kant says: “Wo Handlung, mithin Thätigkeit und Kraft ist, da ist auch Substanz,” where operation, and consequently activity and power are, there is substance.387387Werke, edit. Leipzig, 1838, vol. ii. p. 173. This is not only the common conviction of men, but it is admitted by the vast majority of philosophers. As before remarked, that there should be action without something acting, is as unthinkable as that there should be motion without something moving.

2. Consciousness teaches that the soul is an individual subsistence. This is included in the consciousness of the unity, identity, and permanence of the soul. It is not that we are conscious simply of certain states of the soul, from which we infer its substance and subsistence; but that such are the contents of the knowledge given to us in the consciousness of self. Des Cartes famous aphorism, Cogito ergo sum, is not a syllogism. It does not mean that existence is inferred from the consciousness of thought; but that the consciousness of thought involves the consciousness of existence. Des Cartes himself so understood the matter, for he says: “Cum advertimus nos esse res cogitantes, prima quædam notio est quæ ex nullo syllogismo concluditur; neque etiam cum quis dicit ‘Ego cogito, ergo sum, sive existo,’ existentiam ex cogitatione per syllogismum deducit, sed tanquam rem per se notam simplici mentis intuitu agnoscit.388388Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, Responsio ad Secundas Objectiones, III., edit. Amsterdam, 1685, p. 74. Mansel says: “Whatever may be the variety 378of the phenomena of consciousness, sensations by this or that organ, volitions, thoughts, imaginations, of all we are immediately conscious as affections of one and the same self. It is not by any after-effort of reflection that I combine together sight and hearing, thought and volition, into a factitious unity or compounded whole, in each case I am immediately conscious of myself seeing and hearing, willing and thinking. This self-personality, like all other simple and immediate presentations, is indefinable, but it is so because it is superior to definition.”389389Prolegomena Logica, Boston, 1860, p. 123. See also McCosh’s Intuitions of the Mind, p. 143. This individual subsistence is thus involved in the consciousness of self, because in self-consciousness we distinguish ourselves from all that is not ourselves.

3. As power of some kind belongs to every substance, the power which belongs to spirit, to the substance self, is that of thought, feeling, and volition. All this is given in the simplest form of consciousness. We are not more certain that we exist, than that we think, feel, and will. We know ourselves only as thus thinking, feeling, and willing, and we therefore are sure that these powers or faculties are the essential attributes of a spirit, and must belong to every spirit.

4. Consciousness also informs us of the unity or simplicity of the soul. It is not compounded of different elements. It is composed of substance and form. It is a simple substance endowed with certain attributes. It is incapable of separation or division.

5. In being conscious of our individual subsistence, we are conscious of personality. Every individual subsistence is not a person. But every individual subsistence which thinks and feels, and has the power of self-determination, is a person; and, therefore, the consciousness of our subsistence, and of the powers of thought and volition, is the consciousness of personality.

6. We are also conscious of being moral agents, susceptible of moral character, and the subjects of moral obligation.

7. It need not be added that every spirit must possess self-consciousness. This is involved in all that has been said. Without self-consciousness we should be a mere power in nature. This is the very ground of our being, and is necessarily involved in the idea of self as a real existence.

It is impossible, therefore, to overestimate the importance of the truth contained in the simple proposition, God is a Spirit. It is involved in that proposition that God is immaterial. None of the properties of matter can be predicated of Him. He is not extended or divisible, or compounded, or visible, or tangible. He has neither 379bulk nor form. The Bible everywhere recognizes as true the intuitive convictions of men. One of those convictions is that spirit is not matter, or matter spirit; that different and incompatible attributes cannot belong to the same substance. In revealing, therefore, to us that God is a Spirit, it reveals to us that no attribute of matter can be predicated of the divine essence. The realistic dualism which lies at the bottom of all human convictions, underlies also all the revelations of the Bible.

B. Consequences of the Spirituality of God.

If God be a spirit, it follows of necessity that He is a person — a self-conscious, intelligent, voluntary agent. As all this is involved in our consciousness of ourselves as spirit, it must all be true of God, or God is of a lower order of being than man.

It follows also that God is a simple Being, not only as not composed of different elements, but also as not admitting of the distinction between substance and accidents. Nothing can either be added to, or taken from God. In this view the simplicity, as well as the other attributes of God, are of a higher order than the corresponding attributes of our spiritual nature. The soul of man is a simple substance; but it is subject to change. It can gain and lose knowledge, holiness, and power. These are in this view accidents in our substance. But in God they are attributes, essential and immutable.

Finally, it follows from God’s being a spirit, that He is a moral as well as an intelligent Being. It is involved in the very nature of rational voluntary being, that it should be conformed to the rule of right, which in the case of God is his own infinite reason. These are primary truths, which are not to be sacrificed to any speculative objections. It is vain to tell us that an infinite spirit cannot be a person, because personality implies self-consciousness, and self-consciousness implies the distinction between the self and the not-self, and this is a limitation. It is equally vain to say that God cannot have moral excellence, because moral goodness implies conformity to law, and conformity to law again is inconsistent with the idea of an absolute Being. These are empty speculations; and even if incapable of a satisfactory solution, would afford no rational ground for rejecting the intuitive truths of reason and conscience. There are mysteries enough in our nature, and yet no sane muan denies his own personal existence and moral accountability. And he is worse than insane who is beguiled by such sophistries into renouncing his faith in God as a personal Spirit and a loving Father.


The Scriptures confirm these Views.

It need hardly be remarked that the Scriptures everywhere represent God as possessing all the above-mentioned attributes of a spirit. On this foundation all religion rests; all intercourse with God, all worship, all prayer, all confidence in God as preserver, benefactor, and redeemer. The God of the Bible is a person. He spoke to Adam. He revealed himself to Noah. He entered into covenant with Abraham. He conversed with Moses, as a friend with friend. He everywhere uses the personal pronouns. He says, “I am,” that “is my name.” I am the Lord your God. I am merciful and gracious. Call upon me, and I will answer you. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him. O thou that hearest prayer, to thee shall all flesh come. Our Lord has put into our lips words which reveal that God is a spirit, and all that being a spirit implies, when He teaches us to say: “Our Father who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” Everywhere the God of the Bible is contrasted within the gods of the heathen, as a God who sees, hears, and loves. These are not regulative, they are real truths. God does not mock us when He thus presents Himself to us as a personal Being within whom we can have intercourse, and who is everywhere present to help and save. “To human reason,” says Mansel, “the personal and the infinite stand out in apparently irreconcilable antagonism; and the recognition of the one in a religious system almost inevitably involves the sacrifice of the other.”390390Limits, p. 148. This cannot be so. According to the Bible, and according to the dictates of our own nature, of reason as well as of conscience, God is a spirit, and being a spirit is of necessity a person; a Being who can say I, and to whom we can say Thou.

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