What is God?

On Christmas Eve (or shortly after it had passed, to be precise), brooding in the dark mystery and majesty of the Midnight Mass of Christmas, I found myself, for whatever reason, recalling the fourth question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, drilled indelibly into my head a dozen years ago: 

Q. What is God?

A: God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

In that moment, surrounded by the darkness of the night and the brightness of the lights, inhaling the fragrance of frankincense, with songs of incarnation in the air and signs of incarnation on the altar, this definition struck me, for the first time, as perfectly ludicrous.  What worse way to define the God of the Bible could you possibly choose?  To start with the abstract and objectifying “What” instead of the concrete and personal “Who” was demeaning enough, but then to proceed to treat this living and active God, sharper than a two-edged sword, at once ineffable and loving Paternity, enfleshed Word, and life-giving Spirit, as a set of reified properties?  Perhaps it was no coincidence, I mused, that many of the Westminster Divines eschewed the observance of Christmas–only a group of Christians who ignored the holiday of the Incarnation could be so oblivious as to its message about God.  If I might be so bold, the event of Christmas would suggest something more like this:

Q: Who is God?

A: God is a spirit who became human flesh, the infinitely condescending, King in a manger, the Eternal born in the fulness of time, the Unchangeable subjected to the change of history, in His being with us and for us, His Wisdom that made us and remade us by its foolishness, His power to become impotent, His holiness displayed among sinners, His justice crucified by the unjust, His goodness to his murderers, His truth proclaimed by a lonely Galilean.


PS: Dang I’ve become a Barthian!  Must be something about the air here. 

PPS: I recognize of course that there is a place for metaphysical language about God, but I don’t think it should be the first thing we say about him, as it is in the WSC.

3 thoughts on “What is God?

  1. Ryan

    This reminds me a bit of Augustine's answer in Book I of the Confessions::"What, therefore, is my God? (Quid est ergo deus meus?)What, I ask, but the Lord God? "For who is Lord but the Lord himself, or who is God besides our God?" Most high, most excellent, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful and most just; most secret and most truly present; most beautiful and most strong; stable, yet not supported; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud, and they know it not; always working, ever at rest; gathering, yet needing nothing; sustaining, pervading, and protecting; creating, nourishing, and developing; seeking, and yet possessing all things. Thou dost love, but without passion; art jealous, yet free from care; dost repent without remorse; art angry, yet remainest serene. Thou changest thy ways, leaving thy plans unchanged; thou recoverest what thou hast never really lost." Some believes that because God is so much beyond our human comprehension, we can only speak about him in negative terms, i.e. infinite, unchangeable, not human, etc. I guess this is called Negative Theology, or something like that. However, I think that the Bible draws the opposite conclusion. God is so utterly incomprehensible, so infinite, that we cannot help but add name upon name to describe him. God is so limitless, that we must use everything in the vast ocean of the universe to talk about him, so we call him Rock, Eagle, King, Son, Tree of Life, Beginning, Ending, Shield, Yahweh, Jesus, Father, Spirit, Word, etc.I also thinks this fits better with the nature of language anyway. Language places boundaries and limits on objects, but not with a mathematical precision (of course, it can be made to do this). If it defined things exactly, then we wouldn't be able to speak about God. But language is loose enough to actually say stuff even about God.


  2. Perhaps even better would be to say "God is the Father, the almighty, creator of the world, and of all things visible and invisible.And our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died and burried, and who rose again on the third day, who ascended to the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead, is God from God, light from light, very God of very God, begotten of God, not made by God, of one substance with God.Similarly, the Holy Spirit, the Lord who gives life to the Church, who proceeds from the Father, and is worshiped with the Father and Son, Who overshadowed the Virgin Mary that Her Son would be Immanuel, and who Jesus Christ poured out on the Church forty days after he rose from the dead.":-)


  3. Ryan,I think traditional theology would value cataphatic theology (the sort that describes God as rock eagle etc.) but would say, as I take it you do, that that does not capture God. God fully exceeds each of those names of His.


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