What’s the Difference?
In addition to His Unity, the Belgic Confession of Faith affirms that God is both simple and spiritual – (Art. 1). At a first glance this may seem like theological redundancy, as if the Confession is merely saying the same thing twice. But this is not the case. Strictly speaking there are significant differences in what these descriptions involve, and therefore both are necessary for an overall understanding of what God is like. In this installment we will examine the first of these designations. However, in the interest of beginning with what might be more familiar territory, we will take them in reverse order.
The Meaning of God’s Spirituality
What exactly was Jesus emphasizing when he said to the Samaritan woman, “God is a Spirit” (Jn. 4:24)? Contextually speaking, there are several good reasons why he might have described God in such fundamental terms. One reason is that he wanted to convey the fact that true worship transcends all geographical considerations. This makes sense because the woman was obviously concerned with the ongoing debate between Jews and Samaritans as to where God is to be worshiped. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (v 20). If his statement was addressed to this question, then the spirituality of God means that He is immaterial and therefore not subject to the limitations which characterize matter. All dimensional and locational restriction is categorically inapplicable to Him. Because God is a Spirit, His presence in one place cannot exclude His presence in another.
Another reason for Jesus’ statement might be found in the nature of Samaritan religion itself. As a fundamental corrective to illegitimate worship, Jesus was concerned to show that true worship is intelligent worship. This explanation accounts better for the comments Jesus makes in verses 22 and 23 just before his declaration that “God is a Spirit” in verse 24.
Jesus told the woman,
Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
Without creating a false dichotomy, we might say that Jesus was killing two birds with one stone, so that in his description of God as a Spirit, he was offering something more than a mere metaphysical truism. While it is certainly important to remember that “a spirit hath not flesh and bones” (Lk. 24:39) so that “God hath not a body like men” (CC. Q&A 9), the absence of corporeity in God was probably not the primary point.
Without contradiction Reformed theologians have always taught that the spirituality of God (among other things) “implies that He is a rational Being.”1 Because spirituality is one of God’s communicable attributes2 God Himself must be “a conscious, intelligent, free, and moral Being,” which also means that He is “personal in the highest sense of the word.”3 In Reformed theology, true, spiritual worship simply cannot be void of personal understanding. If it is, then it’s not spiritual.
What then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. (1 Cor. 14:5)
But why? Because the Bible requires a “reasonable service” (λογικην λατρειαν) unto God – a service that proceeds from “the spirit of the mind” (Rom. 12:1-2). Therefore, as a rule without an exception, the order of events is fixed: an understanding of God precedes the worship of God. “God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding” (Ps. 47:7)!
Likewise for Jesus, worship is an act of the mind (spirit) and therefore it must be informed by divine revelation (truth). Anything short of these two elements cannot be called worship – no matter where it might be performed. In the words of one theologian, “Worship is an act of the understanding, applying itself to the knowledge of the excellency of God and actual thoughts of his majesty. We must worship God understandingly; else it is not a reasonable service. The nature of God and the law of God abhor a blind offering.”4
The fundamental problem with the Samaritans therefore was the nature of their worship. Although they received the five books of Moses, they rejected the prophets and (by extension) all that the prophets said in behalf of God. With the absence of continual prophetic revelation, the LORD’s ongoing communication – by which He corrected and chastened His wayward people – could have no preserving affect upon the Samaritan people. Therefore, beginning in the days when the king of Assyria filled Samaria with idolatrous inhabitants (2 Kin. 17:26-34) the Samaritans became a mixed people in race and religion. The outcome was generational confusion and compromise, so that by the time Jesus arrived, the Samaritan people no longer knew the God they supposedly worshiped.
The Importance of God’s Spirituality
The fact that God is a Spirit then, has important practical implications – and not just for the woman at the well. As Reformed Christians we need to consider our own history as well. In a very real way the Reformation was a recovery of spiritual and therefore intelligent worship. By the sixteenth Century the Roman Catholic system had become an extravagant and predominately aesthetic system of religious experience. Rome’s entire system was suited not to the understanding of men, but to their sensations instead. With all of its smells and bells, rites and relics, customs and costumes, the whole of the Latin mass was really one elaborate drama designed to make an emotional impression on the people. For the average Roman Catholic it was enough for him to see, smell, taste, and up until 1964, offer recitations in a foreign tongue. But God was in none of it. He was not in the props and pictures. He took no pleasure in gaudy procession or sacrificial pilgrimage. He did not then, and does not now “dwell in temples made by hands. Neither is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything” (Acts 17:24, 25).
Contrariwise, the spirituality of God means that we don’t have to see Him to know Him. We don’t need to sense Him to fellowship with Him. By faith in His Word we can commune with God most intimately, “for he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit” (1 Cor. 6:17). True spiritual worship therefore, consists in the intimate, intelligent, and immediate communication of sanctifying truth – from Spirit to spirit (Rom. 8:16)! As children of the Reformation we must never forget this.
1 Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics Vol. I, Lexham Press, pg 15
2 Job 32:8 says, “There is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty given them understanding.”
3 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans Publishing, pg 64
4 Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, Discourse IV On Spiritual Worship