God is a Spirit

20170504_082315Our almost-two year old suddenly started saying the word “God”. All his words started off as sequences of a consonant followed by a vowel, before he started adding word-final consonants. It was a proud day when I ceased to be “ma” and became “mum”. But it didn’t seem right for him to wander around seeming to casually break the Third Commandment. So I racked my brains for a sensible thing to give him to say about God.

Naturally the first thing that came to mind was the wording of the Shorter Catechism. “What is God?” asks one of the early questions, with the reply, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable…”

So I told the boy, “God is a Spirit” and he now knows to say “God Spirit” [gɔd bi:t]. The answer continues, “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,” but I thought we could leave that bit until he’s slightly older.

But then I had a qualm about the usefulness of what I’d just done. Does this statement only refer to his immateriality? Is that the most useful concept to offer a child as a starting point for thinking about God? Maybe it was really both too basic and too complex? Don’t you just skip over these first few words to get to the meat of the definition in the bit he’s too young to start on yet?

Around the same time I started catching up with some new books that had recently arrived in the house. Among them was the five-volume set of Reformed Dogmatics by Geerhardus Vos, now translated from Dutch into English for the first time. These volumes consist of lectures Vos gave in systematic theology, structured in a question and answer format.

There on page 14 of the first volume was a section headed, “What does Scripture mean when it calls God Spirit?”

The Hebrew and Greek words that mean ‘spirit’ are both ‘wind’. From this starting point we discover the following:

  • Wind is that power among material powers that seems to be the most immaterial and invisible. We feel it but we do not see it. When God is called Spirit, it therefore means his immateriality.
  • Wind or breath is the mark of life and thus stands for life or in place of enlivening power. Thus it is the case that God’s spirituality also means his living activity. As Spirit God is distinguished from man, indeed all that is created, that is flesh, that is powerless and inert in itself. Spirit is thus what lives and moves of itself.
  • Wind as the spirit of life or the breath of life belongs with something else enlivened or activated by it. God can also in this sense be called Spirit insofar as he is the enlivener and source of life for the creature. That is so both in a natural sense as well as in a spiritual sense. That agrees with the fact that man can be called flesh in a twofold sense, both insofar as he naturally has no power of life in himself and insofar as he is spiritually dead and cut off from God. …
  • The spirituality of God implies that He is a rational being, with understanding, will, and power.

What else does God’s spirituality involve?

That God’s being also exists as personal. However, we should consider that God’s being may not be called personal in the abstract but only in his threefold existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In God personality is not one but three. There are not four but only three persons in the Godhead.

This was immensely reassuring to read. The statement, “God is a Spirit” encapsulates not only the idea that God is immaterial but also that he has life of himself, is the source of life for the creature, is rational, and exists as three persons. The statement is meaty in its own right, and the rest of the Shorter Catechism’s answer only builds on it. Clearly, a 22-month old isn’t going to grasp much of what even this basic statement references, but it provides him with a vocabulary now which he will be able to fill with increasing meaning over time.

I’ve since read further into volume 1 and dipped in and out of the other four volumes of Reformed Dogmatics, and I’m happy to report that there is much more to Geerhardus Vos than a pageful of unwitting encouragement in navigating the parenthood jungle.

In fact I was pleasantly surprised at how fresh Vos’s treatment of familiar doctrines was. He is also admirably clear (something I wouldn’t have expected from my previous few attempts to tackle his other writings) and concise. The question and answer format works as well as can be expected – there are the odd questions of the type “What belongs to the first category?” and “Where have we now arrived in our treatment?” which make sense only in their contexts – but largely the questions are used adeptly as tools for developing arguments and announcing new topics (e.g., “How does the work of the Holy Spirit relate to that of the Son?” “In what differing respects does the Holy Spirit carry out his distinguishing work?” “Which attributes are particularly ascribed to God the Holy Spirit as a result of this distinguishing work?” and, “What is the relationship of God’s decree to his reason and his will?”)

It might not be best to recommend these volumes to an absolute beginner as a very first introduction to systematic theology, but for anyone who has a basic familiarity with the doctrines of the Catechism or Confession, say from regular church attendance, these would be an excellent, non-threatening way to start sharpening up their theological understanding. The individual volumes are not hefty tomes, only a couple of hundred pages each. They are the only multi-volume systematic theology I know of that someone could sit down and read from cover to cover in the space of a couple of weeks, as a pleasurable experience. But each would work as a stand-alone book on the topic it covers. (Volume 1 is Theology Proper, covering the doctrine of God, God’s decrees, and creation and providence. Volume 2, Anthropology, covers human nature, sin, and the covenant of grace. Volume 3, Christology, is about Christ. Volume 4, Soteriology, covers the order of salvation, regeneration and effectual calling, conversion, faith, justification and sanctification. Volume 5, Ecclesiology, The Means of Grace, Eschatology, covers the doctrine of the church, the Word and sacraments, and the doctrine of the last things.) So pick your topic and dive in.