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God: A Strict Biblical Definition

John on January 28, 2006 at 2:07 am

Note: The following is my entry for the most recent God or Not blog Carnival:

I have to begin by quoting the Evangelical Atheist who said recently:

[T]he word god is meaningless. It is a hollow semantic echo of an idea that has no real definition. For this reason, debating the existence of gods in general is an exercise in futility. One must limit oneself to debating the existence of a specific god or set of gods or the possibility of any given attribute or set of attributes.

In other words, to take the topic of this carnival too literally is to set an impossible task. On this at least we can agree. With that stipulation, we can attempt to explore the question by narrowing our efforts to the God of the Bible.

First, we need to define definition. The American Heritage Dictionary lists three definitions for the word. The second reads:

The act or process of stating a precise meaning or significance; formulation of a meaning.

In other words, this sort of definition is an equivalence, i.e. A=B.

In looking for this sort of equivalence statement we quickly find that the Bible is not very forthcoming. There are many statements about what God says or what God does, but few that simply say “God is.” As if to highlight the impossiblity of such a task, there are several instances (Deut. 7:9, Deut 10:17, Joshua 2:11 and Dan. 2:47) where the writer says “God is God.”

There are only five possible exceptions I could find where there appears to be a statement of equivalence which might count as a definition of God. They are:

  1. God is one. (Deut. 6:4, Romans 3:30, Galatians 3:20, James 2:19)
  2. God is holy. (Psalm 99:9)
  3. God is spirit. (John 4:24)
  4. God is light. (1 John 1:5)
  5. God is love. (1 John 4:8, 1 John 4:16)

So do these four define God? Let’s look at each one.

God is One

Of the four, the first is clearly the most important. I say this not only because it is repeated the most times, but because Deut 6:4 is known to Jews as the Shema. The Shema is the most frequently spoken verse in the Torah. In fact, repeating it is an obligation.

In light of the Christian doctrine of the trinity, this may seem like an easy target of opportunity for the atheist. However, that would be a case of reading the scripture too literally. As Aquinas put it:

“[O]ne” the principle of number belongs to the “genus” of mathematics, which are material in being, and abstracted from matter only in idea.

In other words, the numerical reading does not apply. And in any case, neither the New Testament nor the Old can support a numerical reading. The meaning here bespeaks primacy, singularity and unity. As Aquinas said (sounding a bit like Yoda in this translation):

Therefore, in the very same way God is God, and He is this God. Impossible is it therefore that many Gods should exist…Hence also the ancient philosophers, constrained as it were by truth, when they asserted an infinite principle, asserted likewise that there was only one such principle.

Finally, we must note that in the Greek, the words actually are arranged to say “God (is) one Lord.” One is used as an adjective. In other words, it is a descriptor and not a true equivalence as it first appears in English. Take out the adjective and you are right back to “God is God” above.

God is Holy

Looking into the Greek we again find that the word holy in Psalm 99:9 is an adjective, meaning sacred or set apart. So saying God is holy is similar to saying God is merciful. It is a quality, not an equivalence.

God is Spirit

Finally, we come to what appears to be a true equivalence statement. God is not “spritual” he is spirit. Spirit is a noun (pneuma in Greek from which we get pneumatic). One definition of pneuma is wind.

If this is a definition of God (as I believe it is) what does it tell us? Like wind, God is invisible and yet sensual. One can not see or grasp God, but one can see His effects and experience Him directly, “in the garden” as it were.

God is Light

The Greek word for light is phos. Like pneuma, phos is a noun so this would appear to be a genuine equivalence statement. In the context of 1 John 1:5, the meaning is clearly that God is pure. We might even say that this is just a different way of saying that God is holy, only here it is made emphatic.

The nature of light of course is that it banishes darkness, darkness being merely the absence of light. This defines God as having an absolute nature. God is all light and thus can not help but dispel darkness. This is consistent with statements throughout the Bible, such as when God tells Moses no man can see Him and live.

God is Love

The Greek word here is agape. Agape is a noun, so once again we have a real equivalence which constitutes a kind of definition: God is agape.

Conclusion

To sum up, we have several statements that God is God, including the Shema. As I suggest above, I believe this goes to oneness or primacy of God. There is nothing in creation to compare to Him who created all. We see this idea when Moses asks God his name and God replies “I am that I am.”

But beyond God’s oneness, we do find that even if we restrict ourselves to the strictest meaning of definition, i.e. equivalence we find these three statements:

  1. God is spirit.
  2. God is light.
  3. God is love.

I think the picture this paints is very descriptive. It tells us that God is active and can be both seen indirectly and experienced directly. It tells us God is holy in a way that necessarily dispels anything which is not equally perfect, i.e. “God is a consuming fire.” And it tells us that despite his perfect nature, God has a character of love and kindness.

Finally, I think even if only on a symbolic level (i.e. from a skeptic’s viewpoint) one can see how the Gospel represents the clash between God’s perfect goodness (God is light) and his loving nature (God is love). Then again, it is not something one can “see” directly but its effects can be observed and it can be experienced (God is spirit).

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Category: Religion & Faith |

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