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Language Limits and God

Updated: Feb 3


For thousands of years, Theologians have admitted the difficulty of properly referring to God. Since God is so ‘other’ our language will only approximate Him. Let’s examine one case in Scripture which uses human language to try and approximate something of God.

23 "Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen." (Exo 33:23 NAS)

If we were supposed to read this in a straightforward literal way, then we will be stuck saying that God has a literal-physical back/face/hand. However, this is clearly the wrong way of reading this for several reasons.

  1. In vs. 18 Moses asks to see the Lords’ Glory, not his face etc. Glory here would be signifying the weightiness of God’s being (which is non-physical).

  2. In vs. 19 God says he will make all his “goodness” pass before Moses. In vs. 18 it is glory, in 19 it is goodness.

  3. In vs. 20 God says that Moses cannot see His “face” and live. This clearly means the fullness of God, not his physical face (remember “glory” and “goodness” from before). “Face” is the human word to communicate entirety or closeness.

  4. In vs. 23 the account goes further to distinguish between kinds of God’s. This is done in the limited human words of “face” “back” and “hand.”

These are in no saying that God has a face, back, or hand.

We learn this definitively in the Gospel of John.

  • "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." (Joh 4:24 NAS)

  • Spirit means that God is non-physical. In fact, to say “A physical spirit” would be a contradiction in terms.

  • Moreover, when it says that the true worshipers will worship him in spirit and truth, it was written to overcome a ‘one location requirement’ for worship. In other words, even if Samaritans want to worship the true God, they do not have to do so in Jerusalem. Why? Because God is “spirit,” he is not ‘locationally bound.’

In the debate I argued that God was eternal. I will write another blog on this next week. However, God being eternal is connected to the idea that God is spirit and non-locationally bound. This of course means we have limited language possibilities of referring to a being that is not like us (we are bound to locations, he is not). Thus, the Bible is only using approximate or helpful language. Language to get a sense of what is going on with the interactions between humans and God. We must conclude that the physical and temporal language are not finally true about God, just approximately true in expression.


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