Just What Is God?
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1994
The connotation behind the title of this article is of utmost importance in understanding the biblical meaning of "God." Note that the title is not "Who Is God?" Instead of " Who," I am substituting the word "What." In reality, it is the world trying with their intellect to discover the "Who Is God" that causes people in our western world the most problems in comprehending the meaning of "God" in the Holy Scriptures. But let us for a moment forget the "Who" and concentrate on the "What Is God?"
The reason for this is clear. When we search the Holy Scriptures to identify a personality called "God," whom the Bible describes as a "Who" because He is consistently shown to be a person, then most of us in the western world often look for a unique personality who appears like a single human being and one who occupies space and exists within the environment that we call time. Or, in another way of viewing the issue, some people do not wish to acknowledge a personality as comprising the singular "God." They would rather view Him as a formless spiritual force or a non-describable power who has no apparent restrictions upon Him such as space and time. Such people normally prefer to use the pronoun "Who" or "It" as a figure of speech since many people ordinarily think of Him (and nowadays "Her") as a nondescript spiritual entity but one who is unique and singular and without peers or duplicates in the totality of the universe. In other words, "God" implies to most people in our western world a singular power without equal or without similar peers who can or will compete with Him (or It). The Bible, however, is different. It shows that the Godhead is headed by a personality whom Jesus called the Father He is actually the Father of a Family of divine persons, humans and other creatures.
Yes, indeed, but to understand "God" properly, we should not restrict our investigations to "Who Is God?" We should go further and ask: "What Is God?" We should try to determine what is that singular force or power in the universe whom the Bible calls the creator and the sustainer of all things on earth.
It is this concept of the singularity of God that has dominated the thinking of our western intellectuals within Christendom for the past 1669 years (since the time of the Nicean Council of the Catholic Church in A.D.325). t has even become a part of our intellectual nature to pride ourselves that we are monotheists and not polytheists whom we demurely consign to the ranks of being pagan. This monotheistic belief in its simplistic form is responsible for providing the western world with their basic belief that God is one and that in no way can He be considered as two, three or more individual deities. This is called in technical terms a belief in monotheism. So tenaciously have most western theologians and philosophers held to this monotheistic belief, that even if people want to give a divine status to Jesus (the firstborn Son of God) or to give a similar divine status to the Holy Spirit (which teaching is the essence of the doctrine of the Trinity arrived at in the fourth century and finalized in the fifth century), the theologians still maintain the singularity of the Godhead and that in some way the Spirit and Christ Jesus are simply a type of ramification or mirage of the one God that the belief in monotheism demands.
There are other intellectuals, however, who have preferred to what they call the "Jewish way" of looking at the Godhead and that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit could not be considered equal with the singular personage (or spirit being or spirit power) called "God." This "Jewish concept" does not exhaust the interpretations about the Godhead because there are people in the world (and even among Christians and Jews) who hold to various ramifications to these beliefs with all types of variant meanings which either impinge on the above beliefs or even depart drastically from them. And strange as it may seem, most of the people offering these numerous conceptions of the Godhead get their basic teachings from what they consider to be the doctrines of the Holy Bible, either the Old Testament alone or with a combination of teachings derived from the New Testament. By comparing these beliefs, the most benign appraisal that any common sense person can give from such interpretations is that the subject of the Godhead must be considered as wholly chaotic and unknowable.
The reason for this confusion and disordered state is because western theologians and intellectuals have been approaching the subject in the wrong way. They should have, at first, avoided the quest of finding out "Who" God really is, and they should have concentrated on "What" God is from the point of view of the Holy Scriptures. If people would adopt this means of investigating the issue, the proper tools can be made available for solving the problem and the matter would have been resolved centuries ago.
In this brief Doctrinal Report, I will provide a new method which will focus us onto a proper direction in which the investigation will lead to a satisfactory understanding of this important subject. This new approach will have the advantage of making common sense out of what has become the most misunderstood doctrine within the pages of the Holy Bible.
One should first de-personalize any concept that we have had that defines "God." Now hold on, I am fully aware that the Bible looks upon the Father and Christ Jesus as distinct personalities and that the very terms "Father" and "Brother" (Christ is our Elder Brother) certainly denote the fact that they are both personalities. Yet in spite of this fact, we should at first abandon this concept of defining "God" as a personality in order to arrive at the full meaning of the Godhead as shown within the pages of the Holy Scriptures. We should actually begin our search by asking "What is God?"
We should start at the very beginning of the Bible, the Book of Genesis. The first word used for what we in English call "God" is the Hebrew word Elohim (Genesis 1:1). This word is plural in Hebrew and (no matter what you have been taught over the years) the word is a plain and simple plural and if you wish to use the English word "God" as a translation of it, we must (to be grammatically harmonious and consistent) place the letter "s" on this word every time you meet with it in the Hebrew Scriptures! It makes no difference if some theologians object to its plural status, go ahead and place the "s" after every use of the word "God" in the Hebrew Scriptures if it is a translation of the word Elohim. It is grammatically correct to do this no matter what the scholars say. The word Elohim is a clear plural and should always be rendered that way in the English if one hopes to make sense out of what the Holy Scriptures are trying to teach us. Granted, the word Elohim most often takes a singular verb to modify it, but it still must be understood (grammatically) as a plural word.
This may seem like a contradiction, but it is not. There are many modern examples even in English which can show the legitimacy of this. Look at the following statement: "Since the end of the Cold War, the United States is the only world power left on earth--there are no others." This clause makes perfectly good sense to anyone reading it today. Of course, the United States is a "What." It is not a "Who." It is not a personality. It is an institution. It is a political power which is governed by human beings who are its citizens. And, it is a single power, not a multiplicity of states acting independently when it comes to foreign affairs.
In fact, we in the world today know of no other United States of America other than the USA. It is one state or government made up of many individual states of lesser power in the overall sense of dealing with foreign nations. This usage is similar to what the Jewish theologians call the Shema statement of their faith in the oneness of God as recorded in the Law of Moses. The Shema is the heart and core of Judaism and it defines the fervent declaration of their belief in the Unity and the Singularity of God. It is what Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 6:4,5. It reads:
"Hear, 0 Israel: The Lord [YHVH] our God [Elohim] is ONE Lord [YHVH]: And thou shalt love the Lord [YHVH] thy God [Elohim] with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might."
This statement is clear enough except in one major point. The English word "God" in the above two verses is not translated correctly because the Hebrew word Elohim is plural and if one wishes to retain the English word "God," one must put an "s" on it each time it is used. By stating this, I would normally be subjected to ridicule by those who read and use the Hebrew language because it is evident that in the great majority of cases Elohim (though plural in grammatical construction) is governed by singular verbs and must be understood in the singular. Yes, this is true, but still I state dogmatically that the only way to make sense out of the Hebrew in regard to understanding the Godhead is to put the letter "s" on the end of every word translated "God" in the English language if the Hebrew word is Elohim! Have I gone stark raving mad? No, because for the first time things begin to make sense when we do so. It is because we immediately recognize a major disharmony in such an English rendering because it is contrary to our basic understanding of grammar (the plurality of the noun does not usually agree with a singularity of a verb). It is this clanging disharmony in sound and usage that disturbs our concept of balance and agreement in using our English laws of language. This construction seems to show no rhyme or reason to our western ears in normal circumstances. I share anyone’s concern in regard to our English usage. But the Hebrew language is very different. To the early Hebrews there was a reasonable consistency and harmony in letting Elohim (plural) to be governed by singular verbs. Indeed, it is this grammatical feature of the Hebrew which provides us with a proper understanding of just "What" the Godhead really is, and by deduction, "Who" the Godhead is and are. There is not the slightest disharmony with using, in certain cases, a plural noun to be governed by a singular verb. The classic case involves the use of Elohim (a clear plural in Hebrew) with singular verbs. Now note this. Maintaining the plural with a singular verb de-personalizes the plural. It makes a "What" out of the word, not a "Who." In another way of saying it, it institutionalizes the plural.
Look once more at the Shema declaration found in Deuteronomy 6:4. If one puts an "s" on the end of the words translated "God" those words obviously become "Gods" (plural). There is no verb "is" in the original (note the italicized form in the KJV). Still, we are told (and correctly) that no singular verb is necessary because in the very text itself it says that Elohim (plural) is ONE. This is the cardinal point which emphasizes the singularity of Elohim. But how can a plural word have singular attributes which are characterized by the use of the Hebrew word "one" which governs the clause? I have not the slightest argument that the verb connecting Elohim with "one" should be the singular "is," but this rendering is not the issue in determining whether the Godhead is made up of a plurality of persons as the grammar on the surface suggests. The plural-noun/singular-verb connection makes a "What" (a "Thing") out of the plural. Indeed, even in English we have the United States (plural) most often governed by a singular verb, "The United States is committed to supply troops to the Middle East," is a perfectly good sentence that is not grammatically disharmonious to English speaking people. The same is the case with the Hebrew word Elohim which the English translators most often translate as "God" in the singular But we need to return to the original Hebrew manner of using Elohim, It should be translated as "Gods." This has the effect of "institutionalizing" its meaning. It could mean, simply, Deity. This makes it understood like our use of the United States as a single political state (as an institution) in all our foreign affairs with other nations. And so it is with Elohim. Elohim can be plural with a singular meaning, and that singularity even when augmented by the word "ONE" (echad) in Hebrew can show the plural aspect of "God" (that is, "Gods") and is easy to explain.
Once more look at our illustration of the United States of America. It is a single political state in the way foreigners look at us from their external point of view, but internally we are made up of 50 individual states when viewed in the domestic sense. Now, using the Shema statement as an example for illustration, one might say: "Hear, Oh World, the Political State called the United States is ONE state." All political scientists would recognize instantly the validity and propriety of such a sentence. It makes perfectly good sense to everyone. In the case of the United States, even the word "one" associated with it (to show it is a single political state) can embrace the plurality of the 50 separate states that make up the single state known as the United States, This usage is even reflected in the use of the word "ONE" (echad) in Hebrew in the Shema declaration. This is because the word "one" can carry the meaning of more than "one" (a single person). Note that when Adam was given Eve, they became "ONE flesh" (echad), but they represented two separate personalities (Genesis 2:24). But more than that, when the Lord (YHVH) went down from heaven to view the people of the earth building the Tower of Babel, he said: "Go to, let US go down, and there confound their language" (Genesis 11:7). He did this because all the people who lived in the world at the time had been rebellious to the Godhead. The Godhead then said: "Let US go down.... for the people is ONE [echad], and they have all ONE language" (verses 7,6). So, not only does ONE [echad] in Hebrew mean a singular person, but it can also refer to two people who are married being ONE flesh, and it can refer to ALL PEOPLE ON EARTH as being ONE [echad]. The people were ONE in purpose. They were united as ONE society. The Godhead is also represented as "ONE" in the same fashion. Just as all the 50 states in the United States of America represent ONE political state, so can the plural term Elohim (which is clearly plural) refer to ONE Godhead made up of many individuals who represent the ONE divine Family who are the only Deity.
There are some cardinal passages in Isaiah when Elohim (plural) is used which say on several occasions and in various ways "I am the Lord (YHVH), and there is none else." In the contexts of Isaiah, we find YHVH as Elohim distinguishing himself as "the Elohim of Israel" from the rest of the world (Isaiah 45:3; etc.). Within this contextual framework, YHVH states that there are no other "Elohim (Gods) besides me." He means no others who are representing Israel because in Micah 4:5 we read a well recognized fact that there were other Gods (angelic and cherubimic) who spiritually represented many Gentile nations on earth. Even the "Gods" of the heathen were still recognized as "Gods" (Deuteronomy 6:14 passim). But all of these heathen "Gods" were under the authority of the Elohim of Israel and they in no way were the creators or the universe of the universe. Elohim knew of no other "Gods" who could fill the supreme position of leadership and authority. That belonged exclusively with the Godhead of Israel. That divine Family alone created and controls the universe. The contexts in this regard are always within the teaching that the favored nation on earth is that of Israel and that the ruler and creator of the universe is their special Deity and Protector. And there are none others who protect Israel. It is just like a similar statement of power and authority that the single President of the United States today could say. He could state: "I am the President, and there is none else, there is no other United States of America other than the ONE in North America." And what is the motto of the United States? It is e pluribus unum "out of many there is one. Indeed, this very phrase could equally describe the Godhead. There is ONE head of ONE divine Family who is called the Father, but there are many who make up that ONE Family. It is ONE unified Family which is called the Deity (a de-personalized term), but the divine Family has many members.
There is one major difference in our analogy of the President of the United States being like the single head of the divine Family exercising power and authority on behalf of all the members of the Family. With the Godhead, the Father is a patriarch and He rules with absolute authority without having to get permission to rule from a legislative or judicial group of executives. In a word, the Father rules like a King. And though it is not popular to use the term nowadays, it could be said with certainty that the Father actually rules as a dictator. But better yet, He rules and directs as a Father, and we have the right to call Him "Abba Father" (Romans 8:15) which is nearly equivalent to our term of endearment "Papa" or "Dad." We are so close to the Father through Christ that we can actually use these terms of endearment without the slightest disrespect being shown. So, the Father is a great Patriarch and rules like a King over a divine Family of sons and daughters who look and act just like He does and who have a measure of His power and glory. This top role that the Father has is far more powerful than the President of the United States, though the analogy of rule in a Hebrew grammatical sense is very similar.
Indeed, in regard to the United States, the President often speaks for the whole of the United States collectively and there is no other President besides him when he does this. And so it is with the Elohim of Israel. He can speak in the first person and representing the whole divine Family as He does in several places in Isaiah (Isaiah 45:4,5). The Lord (YHVH) represents this collective group called the Family of God (which is really a Family of Divine Beings with a Father and a Firstborn Son at the head and of which you and I and all people who will have the Holy Spirit are a part of). We are destined to be members of that Family.
This is why it is important to find out "What" God is first, rather than "Who" He is. It is the same in the New Testament. The Greek word for Elohim is Theos. This word can easily (and correctly) be de-personalized by using the English word "Deity" as its translation. Note the different slant when this is done with John 1:1. It is helpfully instructive.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Deity, and the Word was Deity."
Jesus as Deity can even come in the name of the Father and using the name YHVH in the first person because He is the Father’s firstborn Son and His divine agent to accomplish His will on earth (e.g. Zechariah 14:3,4 which the New Testament applies to Jesus). Jesus is simply representing the divine Family. This is the Family that the Father of Jesus Christ (called YHVH) heads and controls, and Jesus Christ is our Elder Brother.
In the Shema it states emphatically that Elohim is ONE [echad]. But we should recognize that echad can mean two people or the word can embrace the whole of the human race, depending on the context in which it is used. In Greek the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:31 used the same term and said that as Adam and Eve became ONE flesh, and Christ has become ONE flesh with a single group of people whom he identified as the ekklesia (erroneously translated "church"). He said this group represents ONE BODY made up of many members (1 Corinthians 12:12-27, 30). "Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular" (verse 27). So, all of us are in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-14), and Christ is in the Father. We are in the Father too because Christ said "I and the Father are ONE" (John 10:30). This means in biblical theology that ONE can be TWO (the Father and Christ are unified in purpose). But it goes further than that because Christ said in his prayer to the Father that all people the Father has given to Christ are also to be ONE with him as he is ONE with the Father:
"Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be ONE as we are [ONE]" (John 17:11). And since we and Christ are ONE with the Father, then that word "ONE" includes all of us as being members of the divine Family. So, the word "ONE" in the Shema declaration, can mean a vast multitude of individuals who comprise the divine Family. Even Jesus said of humans: "Ye are gods" (John 10:34,3 5).
"Behold, what manner of love the Father bath bestowed on us, that we should be called the children of God [not "sons" here].... Now are we the children of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall he: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."
1 John 3:1,2
Indeed, the very reason Christ Jesus came into this world to die on the tree of crucifixion and to be raised again from the dead was in order to provide for all of us who make up the human race the position of being the very children of God the Father and to have Christ as our Elder Brother. Notice what Paul stated.
"We see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for EVERY MAN [for all humanity]. For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of ONE: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them BRETHREN."
We are all ONE in the Father and in Christ, but we are also "brethren" of Christ, To be called "brethren" means we are all of the same Family, and it is a divine Family who are made up of the very children of God the Father who in turn "ARE ALL OF QNE." And females make up as much a part of the divine Family as males. Paul said we are all "sons and daughters" (2 Corinthians 6:18). All mankind are destined to become the very children of God the Father through no works of their own, but through the works (the death and resurrection) of Jesus Christ. That is the very heart of the teaching of basic Christianity.
This can all be seen once it is realized that the word Elohim is distinctly plural though it represents an institution, a single unified divine Family of which the Father is the head, the firstborn Son is the Elder Brother of all, and all of us are in that divine Family as children of the Father and brethren of Christ Jesus. And that Family is ONE, just like the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 states that Elohim (plural) is ONE. God is not ONE person. God is ONE Family. This is why it is important to discover WHAT Elohim is at first before we find out who the ones are who compose the Godhead.
So, "Just What Is God?" It is the divine ONE Family to which all of us belong, and into which we will be born in an actual sense at our resurrections from the dead at the second advent of Christ. All of us have a glorious future awaiting us. We are all destined in Christ Jesus to partake of the Godhead our-selves for the rest of eternity.
Ernest L. Martin
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