How the Word of God gives us words for God
Hugh Binning (1627–1653) was a young minister who also taught philosophy at the University of Glasgow. He was a prolific author and popular preacher with a gift for clear teaching.
23 Feb, 2023

Every so often the suggestion is made that we should use gender-neutral language to refer to God. There is certainly a need for carefulness in how we speak about God, so that we don’t inadvertently make Him seem inaccessible or unavailable to specific groups of people. Yet this should not be driven by our perceptions of what might make God unappealing to sinful preferences, or by the demands of certain groups that God should fit the mould they want Him to fit. God has actually chosen to make Himself known to us in His Word – in human language. Yet human language fails almost before it starts to express the greatness of God. We must therefore confine ourselves to speaking about God in ways that He legitimises (in that He has used these terms Himself in the Scriptures) while constantly realising that even these words are not adequate. God is so great that He cannot be confined in any way – not the whole universe can contain Him – and certainly He cannot be reduced to the kind of creature whose identity changes in the eye of the beholder according to which are currently the preferred pronouns, as dictated by sinful imaginations or to suit self-serving human interests. Our job is not to conform God to our political agendas or passing ideological fixations, but to conform ourselves to Him. As the following updated extract from a textbook by Hugh Binning makes clear, we can only ever know and speak of God on His own terms.

“God is a Spirit, and they who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Something of the nature of God is pointed out to us here, as well as something of our duty towards Him. “God is a spirit,” is His nature; and “we must worship him,” is our duty, and “in spirit and in truth” is the right manner of doing our duty. If these three were rightly pondered, till they sink in to the depth of our spirits, they would make us real Christians.

We need to know accurately who God is

It is presupposed for all Christian worship and walking, to know what God is. This is indeed the primo cognitum of Christianity, the first principle of true religion, the very root out of which springs and grows up walking suitably with and worshipping appropriately a known God.

In too much of our religion we are like the people of Athens, who built an altar to an unknown God, and the Samaritans, who worshipped they knew not what. Such a worship, I don’t know what it is, when the God worshipped is not known!

True knowledge of God is not comprised of many notions and speculations about the divine nature, or high and strained conceptions of God. Some people speak of these mysteries in some unique way, using terms far removed from common understandings, which neither themselves nor others know what they mean. But this only shows that they are presumptuous, self-conceited, knowing nothing as they ought to know. There is a knowledge that puffs up – a knowledge that only makes people swells up, it doesn’t make them grow. It’s only a rumour, full of air, a vain and empty and frothy knowledge, that is neither good for edifying others, nor saving themselves. A knowledge that someone has, so as to ascend on the height of it, and measure himself by the degrees of it, is not the true knowledge of God. The true knowledge of God doesn’t know itself, doesn’t look back on itself, but looks straight towards God, His holiness and glory, and sees our baseness and misery. Therefore it constrains the soul to be ashamed of itself in such a glorious presence, and to make haste to worship, as Moses, Job and Isaiah did.

We cannot worship God without knowing accurately who He is

This definition of God, if we truly understood it, could not but transform our worship.

God is a spirit. Many people form in their own mind some likeness and image of God, who is invisible. They imagine to themselves some bodily shape. When they conceive of Him, they think He is some reverend and majestic person, sitting on a throne in heaven. But I beseech you, correct your mistakes about Him! There is outward idolatry as well as inward. There is idolatry in action, when people paint or engrave some similitude of God, and there also is idolatry in imagination, when the fancy runs on some image or likeness of God. The latter is too common among us. Indeed it comes to much the same thing, whether to form similitudes in our mind, or to engrave or paint them outwardly. The God whom many of us worship is not the living and true God, but a painted or graven idol. You do nothing more than fancy an idol to yourselves when you conceive of God under the likeness of any visible or tangible thing. Then whatever love, or fear, or reverence you have, it is all but mis-spent superstition, the love and fear of an idol.

God is beyond the reach of our senses

Know then that God is a spirit, and therefore He is like none of all the things you see, or hear, or smell, or taste, or touch. The heavens are glorious indeed, the light is full of glory, but God is not like that. If all your senses were to make an inquiry, and search for Him throughout the world, you would not find Him, even though He is near at hand to every one of us. Your eyes and ears and all your senses could travel the length of the earth and breadth of the sea, and would not find him, even as you might search all the corners of heaven before you could hear or see an angel. If you cut a person into pieces, and resolved him down into atoms of dust, yet you could not perceive a soul within him. Why? Because these are spirits, and so beyond the reach of your senses.

God is beyond the capacity of our language

If God is a spirit, then He is invisible, and dwells in light inaccessible, which no man hath seen or can see. Then our poor narrow minds, which are immersed (as it were) in bodies of clay, and receive all knowledge from the senses, cannot frame any suitable notion of His spiritual nature. We cannot even conceive what our own soul is, except when some tangible activity flows from it. The height that our knowledge of ourselves amounts to, is only the dark and confused conception that the soul is some inward principle of life and sense and reason. How then is it possible for us to conceive rightly of the divine nature, as it is in itself?

In a dark and general way, we guess at His majesty by the glorious emanations of His power and wisdom, and the rays of it which He displays in all the works of His hands. From all these concurring testimonies and evidences of His majesty we gather at best the notion of Him that He is the fountain of life, the self-independent being, the very life and light of men, who makes all things visible, and He Himself is invisible.

This is the reason why the Lord speaks to us in the Scripture of Himself in terms of His face, His right hand and arm, His throne, His sceptre, His back parts, His anger, His fury, His repentance, His grief and sorrow. None of these are properly in His spiritual, immortal and unchangeable nature. He speaks in this way because of our dullness and slowness in apprehending spiritual things. It is almost beyond the comprehension of the soul while in the body, because the soul is almost addicted to the senses of the body. The Lord therefore accommodates Himself to our terms and notions. Like a father babbles with his babbling children, He speaks to us in our own dialect, but at the same time He wants us to realise that He is not really like this, but infinitely removed in His own being from all these imperfections.

So when you hear these terms in Scripture, O beware that you do not conceive God to be such a one as yourselves! In these expressions so below His majesty, learn your own ignorance of His glorious majesty, and your dullness and incapacity, when the Holy One must come down as it were in some bodily appearance, before you can understand anything about Him.

God is most powerful

If God is a spirit, then He is most perfect, and most powerful. All imperfection, infirmity and weakness in the creature is founded in its material part of it. A body, when the soul and spirit is out of it, has no more virtue nor efficacy than so much clay, though when it had the presence of its spirit, it was active, agile, swift, strong and nimble. Consider then what a one the God of the spirits of all flesh must be – the very fountain-spirit, the self-existent spirit. When the soul of a human being – or even the spirit of a horse – has so much virtue as to stir up a lump of earth and enliven it to so many different kinds of activities, even though that soul and spirit did not and indeed could not make that piece of earth they dwell in – then what must be the power and virtue of Him who made all these things?

God is immense

If God is a spirit, then He is not circumscribed by any place; and if He is an infinite spirit, then He is everywhere. No place can include Him, and no object can exclude Him. He is within all things, yet not included or bounded within them, and He is outwith all things, yet not excluded from them. As you know, every object has its own bounds and limits circumscribed to it, and it shoots out all other objects out of the same space. But a spirit can pass through all of them, and never disturb them. A legion of spirits may be in one man, and have plenty space. How much more the maker of all spirits fills all in all! The thickness of the earth does not keep Him out, nor does the largeness of the heavens contain Him.

O, how narrow thoughts we have of His immense greatness! How often, I wonder, do you reflect on His immensity? God is near at hand to every one of us. Who among us think of a divine majesty nearer us than our very souls and consciences? For “in him we live and move and have our being.” How is it that we move, and do not think with wonder of the first mover, in whom we move? How is it that we live and persevere in being, without continually considering the fountain-being in whom we live and have our being? We go about all our business as if we were self-existent, and independent of anyone, never thinking of the all-present, quickening spirit, who activates us, moves us, speaks in us, makes us to walk, and eat and drink! Who of us believes this all-present God? We imagine that He is shut up in heaven, and takes no notice of what is going on below, but certainly, He is not so far from us.

God’s understanding is unsearchable

If God is a spirit, then, as He is incomprehensible and immense in being, so also there is no comprehension of His knowledge. He is an all-knowing spirit, an all-seeing spirit, as well as all-present. “There is no searching of his understanding” (Isa. 40:28, and Psalm 147:5). “Who hath directed his spirit, or being his counsellor hath taught him?” (Rom. 11:34; Isa. 40:1).

O that you would always set this God before you – or rather, set yourselves always in His presence, in whose sight you are always! How it would compose our hearts to reverence and fear in all our actions, if we really did believe that the judge of all the world is an eye-witness to our most unobserved and secret thoughts and doings! If any other human being was as privy to your thoughts as your own spirit and conscience, you would blush and be ashamed before him. If every one of us could open a window into one another’s spirits, I think this assembly would disperse as quickly as when Christ invited those who were without sin to cast a stone! We could not so much as look one upon another. O then, why are we so little apprehensive of the all-searching eye of God, who can even declare to us our thought before we think it? God “knows our down-sitting and up-rising, and understands our thoughts afar off, and is acquainted with all our ways” (Psalm 139). O, how we would ponder our path, and examine our words, and consider our thoughts beforehand, if we set ourselves in the view of a spirit who is within us and outside us, before us and behind us!



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