Ark of the Covenant - Bible History Online
Bible History

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia


A    B    C    D    E    F    G    H    I    J    K    L    M    N    O    P    Q    R    S    T    U    V    W    X    Y    Z   

GOD, 1

god ('Elohim, 'El, [`Elyon], Shadday, Yahweh; Theos):
1. The Idea in Experience and in Thought
2. Definition of the Idea
3. The Knowledge of God
4. Ethnic Ideas of God
(1) Animism
(2) Fetishism
(3) Idolatry
(4) Polytheism
(5) Henotheism
(6) Pantheism
(7) Deism
(8) Semitic Monolatry
(9) Monotheism
1. The Course of Its Development
2. Forms of Its Manifestation
(1) The Face or Countenance of God
(2) The Voice and Word of God
(3) The Glory of God
(4) The Angel of God
(5) The Spirit of God
(6) The Name of God
(7) Occasional Forms
3. The Names of God
(1) Generic
(2) Attributive
(3) Yahweh
4. Pre-prophetic Conceptions of God
(1) Yahweh Alone Is the God of Israel
(a) His Early Worship
(b) Popular Religion
(c) Polytheistic Tendencies
(i) Coordination
(ii) Assimilation
(iii) Disintegration
(d) No Hebrew Goddesses
(e) Human Sacrifices
(2) Nature and Character of Yahweh
(a) A God of War
(b) His Relation to Nature
(3) Most Distinctive Characteristics of Yahweh
(a) Personality
(b) Law and Judgment
5. The Idea of God in the Prophetic Period
(1) Righteousness
(2) Holiness
(3) Universality
(4) Unity
(5) Creator and Lord
(6) Compassion and Love
6. The Idea of God in Post-exilic Judaism
(1) New Conditions
(2) Divine Attributes
(3) Surviving Limitations
(a) Disappearing Anthropomorphism
(b) Localization
(c) Favoritism
(d) Ceremonial Legalism
(4) Tendencies to Abstractness
(a) Transcendence
(b) Skepticism
(c) Immanence
(5) Logos, Memra', and Angels
1. Dependence on the Old Testament
2. Gentile Influence
3. Absence of Theistic Proofs
4. Fatherhood of God
(1) In the Teaching of Jesus Christ
(a) Its Relation to Himself
(b) To Believers
(c) To All Men
(2) In Apostolic Teaching
(a) Father of Jesus Christ
(b) Our Father
(c) Universal Father
5. God Is King
(1) The Kingdom of God
(2) Its King
(a) God
(b) Christ
(c) Their Relation
(3) Apostolic Teaching
6. Moral Attributes
(1) Personality
(2) Love
(3) Righteousness and Holiness
7. Metaphysical Attributes
8. The Unity of God
(1) The Divinity of Christ
(2) The Holy Spirit
(3) The Church's Problem

I. Introduction to the General Idea.
1. The Idea in Experience and in Thought:
Religion gives the idea of God, theology construes and organizes its content, and philosophy establishes its relation to the whole of man's experience. The logical order of treating it might appear to be, first, to establish its truth by philosophical proofs; secondly, to develop its content into theological propositions; and finally, to observe its development and action in religion. Such has been the more usual order of treatment. But the actual history of the idea has been quite the reverse. Men had the idea of God, and it had proved a creative factor in history, long before reflection upon it issued in its systematic expression as a doctrine. Moreover, men had enunciated the doctrine before they attempted or even felt any need to define its relation to reality. And the logic of history is the truer philosophy. To arrive at the truth of any idea, man must begin with some portion of experience, define its content, relate it to the whole of experience, and so determine its degree of reality.
Religion is as universal as man, and every religion involves some idea of God. Of the various philosophical ideas of God, each has its counterpart and antecedent in some actual religion. Pantheism is the philosophy of the religious consciousness of India. Deism had prevailed for centuries as an actual attitude of men to God, in China, in Judaism and in Islam, before it found expression as a rational theory in the philosophy of the 18th century Theism is but the attempt to define in general terms the Christian conception of God, and of His relation to the world. If pluralism claims a place among the systems of philosophy, it can appeal to the religious consciousness of that large portion of mankind that has hitherto adhered to polytheism.
But all religions do not issue in speculative reconstructions of their content. It is true in a sense that all religion is an unconscious philosophy, because it is the reaction of the whole mind, including the intellect, upon the world of its experience, and, therefore, every idea of God involves some kind of an explanation of the world. But conscious reflection upon their own content emerges only in a few of the more highly developed religions. Brahmanism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity are the only religions that have produced great systems of thought, exhibiting their content in a speculative and rational form. The religions of Greece and Rome were unable to survive the reflective period. They produced no theology which could ally itself to a philosophy, and Greek philosophy was from the beginning to a great extent the denial and supersession of Greek religion.
Biblical literature nearly all represents the spontaneous experience of religion, and contains comparatively little reflection upon that experience. In the Old Testament it is only in Second Isaiah, in the Wisdom literature and in a few Psalms that the human mind may be seen turning back upon itself to ask the meaning of its practical feelings and beliefs. Even here nothing appears of the nature of a philosophy of Theism or of religion, no theology, no organic definition and no ideal reconstruction of the idea of God. It never occurred to any Old Testament writer to offer a proof of the existence of God, or that anyone should need it. Their concern was to bring men to a right relation with God, and they propounded right views of God only in so far as it was necessary for their practical purpose. Even the fool who "hath said in his heart, There is no God" (Ps 14:1; 53:1), and the wicked nations "that forget God" (Ps 9:17) are no theoretical atheists, but wicked and corrupt men, who, in conduct and life, neglect or reject the presence of God.
The New Testament contains more theology, more reflection upon the inward content of the idea of God, and upon its cosmic significance; but here also, no system appears, no coherent and rounded-off doctrine, still less any philosophical construction of the idea on the basis of experience as a whole. The task of exhibiting the Biblical idea of God is, therefore, not that of setting together a number of texts, or of writing the history of a theology, but rather of interpreting the central factor in the life of the Hebrew and Christian communities.
2. Definition of the Idea:
Logically and historically the Biblical idea stands related to a number of other ideas. Attempts have been made to find a definition of so general a nature as to comprehend them all. The older theologians assumed the Christian standpoint, and put into their definitions the conclusions of Christian doctrine and philosophy. Thus, Melanchthon: "God is a spiritual essence, intelligent, eternal, true, good, pure, just, merciful, most free and of infinite power and wisdom." Thomasius more briefly defines God as "the absolute personality." These definitions take no account of the existence of lower religions and ideas of God, nor do they convey much of the concreteness and nearness of God revealed in Christ. A similar recent definition, put forward, however, avowedly of the Christian conception, is that of Professor W. N. Clarke: "God is the personal Spirit, perfectly good, who in holy love creates, sustains and orders all" (Outline of Christian Theology, 66). The rise of comparative religion has shown that "while all religions involve a conscious relation to a being called God, the Divine Being is in different religions conceived in the most different ways; as one and as many, as natural and as spiritual, as like to and manifested in almost every object in the heavens above or earth beneath, in mountains and trees, in animals and men; or, on the contrary, as being incapable of being represented by any finite image whatsoever; and, again, as the God of a family, of a nation, or of humanity" (E. Caird, Evolution of Religion, I, 62). Attempts have therefore been made to find a new kind of definition, such as would include under one category all the ideas of God possessed by the human race. A typical instance of this kind of definition is that of Professor W. Adams Brown: "A god in the religious sense is an unseen being, real or supposed, to whom an individual or a social group is united by voluntary ties of reverence and service" (Christian Theology in Outline, 30). Many similar definitions are given: "A supersensible being or beings" (Lotze, Asia Minor Fairbairn); "a higher power" (Allan Menzies); "spiritual beings" (E.B. Tylor); "a power not ourselves making for righteousness" (Matthew Arnold). This class of definition suffers from a twofold defect. It says too much to include the ideas of the lower religions, and too little to suggest those of the higher. It is not all gods that are "unseen" or "supersensible," or "making for righteousness," but all these qualities may be shared by other beings than gods, and they do not connote that which is essential in the higher ideas of God. Dr. E. Caird, looking for a definition in a germinative principle of the genesis of religion, defines God "as the unity which is presupposed in the difference of the self and not-self, and within which they act and re-act on each other" (op. cit., I, 40, 64). This principle admittedly finds its full realization only in the highest religion, and it may be doubted whether it does justice to the transcendent personality and the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In the lower religions it appears only in fragmentary forms, and it can only be detected in them at all after it has been revealed in the absolute religion. Although this definition may be neither adequate nor true, its method recognizes that there can be only one true idea and definition of God, and yet that all other ideas are more or less true elements of it and approximations to it. The Biblical idea does not stand alone like an island in mid-ocean, but is rather the center of light which radiates out in other religions with varying degrees of purity.
It is not the purpose of this article to deal with the problem of the philosophy of religion, but to give an account of the idea of God at certain stages of its development, and within a limited area of thought. The absence of a final definition will present no practical difficulty, because the denotation of the term God is clear enough; it includes everything that is or has been an object of worship; it is its connotation that remains a problem for speculation.
3. The Knowledge of God:
A third class of definition demands some attention, because it raises a new question, that of the knowledge or truth of any idea whatsoever. Herbert Spencer's definition may be taken as representative: God is the unknown and unknowable cause of the universe, "an inscrutable power manifested to us through all phenomena" (First Principles, V, 31). This means that there can be no definition of the idea of God, because we can have no idea of Him, no knowledge "in the strict sense of knowing." For the present purpose it might suffice for an answer that ideas of God actually exist; that they can be defined and are more definable, because fuller and more complex, the higher they rise in the scale of religions; that they can be gathered from the folklore and traditions of the lower races, and from the sacred books and creeds of the higher religions. But Spencer's view means that, in so far as the ideas are definable, they are not true. The more we define, the more fictitious becomes our subject-matter. While nothing is more certain than that God exists, His being is to human thought utterly mysterious and inscrutable. The variety of ideas might seem to support this view. But variety of ideas has been held of every subject that is known, as witness the progress of science. The variety proves nothing.
And the complete abstraction of thought from existence cannot be maintained. Spencer himself does not succeed in doing it. He says a great many things about the "unknowable" which implies an extensive knowledge of Him. The traditional proofs of the "existence" of God have misled the Agnostics. But existence is meaningless except for thought, and a noumenon or first cause that lies hidden in impenetrable mystery behind phenomena cannot be conceived even as a fiction. Spencer's idea of the Infinite and Absolute are contradictory and unthinkable. An Infinite that stood outside all that is known would not be infinite, and an Absolute out of all relation could not even be imagined. If there is any truth at all in the idea of the Absolute, it must be true to human experience and thought; and the true Infinite must include within itself every possible and actual perfection. In truth, every idea of God that has lived in religion refutes Agnosticism, because they all qualify and interpret experience, and the only question is as to the degree of their adequacy and truth.
A brief enumeration of the leading ideas of God that have lived in religion will serve to place the Biblical idea in its true perspective.
4. Ethnic Ideas of God:
(1) Animism:
Animism is the name of a theory which explains the lowest (and perhaps the earliest) forms of religion, and also the principle of all religion, as the belief in the universal presence of spiritual beings which "are held to affect or control the events of the material world, and man's life here and hereafter; and, it being considered that they hold intercourse with men, and receive pleasure or displeasure from human actions, the belief in their existence leads naturally, and, it might almost be said, inevitably, sooner or later, to active reverence and propitiation" (E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, I, 426-27). According to this view, the world is full of disembodied spirits, regarded as similar to man's soul, and any or all of these may be treated as gods.
(2) Fetishism:
Fetishism is sometimes used in a general sense for "the view that the fruits of the earth and things in general are divine, or animated by powerful spirits" (J.G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, 234); or it may be used in a more particular sense of the belief that spirits "take up their abode, either temporarily or permanently, in some object, ..... and this object, as endowed with higher power, is then worshipped" (Tiele, Outlines of the History of Religion, 9).
(3) Idolatry:
Idolatry is a term of still more definite significance. It means that the object is at least selected, as being the permanent habitation or symbol of the deity; and, generally, it is marked by some degree of human workmanship, designed to enable it the more adequately to represent the deity. It is not to be supposed that men ever worship mere "stocks and stones," but they address their worship to objects, whether fetishes or idols, as being the abodes or images of their god. It is a natural and common idea that the spirit has a form similar to the visible object in which it dwells. Paul reflected the heathen idea accurately when he said, "We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man" (Acts 17:29).
(4) Polytheism:
The belief in many gods, and the worship of them, is an attitude of soul compatible with Animism, Fetishism, and Idolatry, or it may be independent of them all. The term Polytheism is more usually employed to designate the worship of a limited number of well-defined deities, whether regarded as pure disembodied spirits, or as residing in the greater objects of Nature, such as planets or mountains, or as symbolized by images "graven by art and device of man." In ancient Greece or modern India the great gods are well defined, named and numerable, and it is clearly understood that, though they may be symbolized by images, they dwell apart in a spiritual realm above the rest of the world.
(5) Henotheism:
There is, however, a tendency, both in individuals and in communities, even where many gods are believed to exist, to set one god above the others, and consequently to confine worship to that god alone. "The monotheistic tendency exists among all peoples, after they have reached a certain level of culture. There is a difference in the degree in which this tendency is emphasized, but whether we turn to Babylonia, Egypt, India, China, or Greece, there are distinct traces of a trend toward concentrating the varied manifestations of Divine powers in a single source" (Jastrow, The Study of Religion, 76). This attitude of mind has been called Henotheism or Monolatry--the worship of one God combined with the belief in the existence of many. This tendency may be governed by metaphysical, or by ethical and personal motives, either by the monistic demands of reason, or by personal attachment to one political or moral rule.
(6) Pantheism:
Where the former principle predominates, Polytheism merges into Pantheism, as is the case in India, where Brahma is not only the supreme, but the sole, being, and all other gods are but forms of his manifestation. But, in India, the vanquished gods have had a very complete revenge upon their vanquisher, for Brahma has become so abstract and remote that worship is mainly given to the other gods, who are forms of his manifestation. Monolatry has been reversed, and modern Hinduism were better described as the belief in one God accompanied by the worship of many.
(7) Deism:
The monistic tendency, by a less thorough application of it, may take the opposite turn toward Deism, and yet produce similar religious conditions. The Supreme Being, who is the ultimate reality and power of the universe, may be conceived in so vague and abstract a manner, may be so remote from the world, that it becomes a practical necessity to interpose between Him and men a number of subordinate and nearer beings as objects of worship. In ancient Greece, Necessity, in China, Tien or Heaven, were the Supreme Beings; but a multiplicity of lower gods were the actual objects of worship. The angels of Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Islam and the saints of Romanism illustrate the same tendency. Pantheism and Deism, though they have had considerable vogue as philosophical theories, have proved unstable and impossible as religions, for they have invariably reverted to some kind of polytheism and idolatry, which seems to indicate that they are false processes of the monistic tendency.
(8) Semitic Monolatry:
The monistic tendency of reason may enlist in its aid many minor causes, such as tribal isolation or national aggrandizement. It is held that many Sere tribes were monolatrists for either or both of these reasons; but the exigencies of intertribal relations in war and commerce soon neutralized their effects, and merged the tribal gods into a territorial pantheon.
(9) Monotheism:
Monotheism, ethical and personal: One further principle may combine with Monism so as to bring about a stable Monotheism, that is the conception of God as standing in moral relations with man. Whenever man reflects upon conduct as moral, he recognizes that there can be only one moral standard and authority, and when God is identified with that moral authority, He inevitably comes to be recognized as supreme and unique. The belief in the existence of other beings called gods may survive for a while; but they are divested of all the attributes of deity when they are seen to be inferior or opposed to the God who rules in conscience. Not only are they not worshipped, but their worship by others comes to be regarded as immoral and wicked. The ethical factor in the monistic conception of God safeguards it from diverging into Pantheism or Deism and thus reverting into Polytheism. For the ethical idea of God necessarily involves His personality, His transcendence as distinct from the world and above it, and also His intimate and permanent relation with man. If He rules in conscience, He can neither be merged in dead nature or abstract being, nor be removed beyond the heavens and the angel host. A thoroughly moralized conception of God emerges first in the Old Testament where it is the prevailing type of thought.
Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'god, 1'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". - ISBE; 1915.

Copyright Information
© International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE)

ISBE Bible Encyclopedia Home
Bible History Online Home


Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE)
Online Bible (KJV)
Naves Topical Bible
Smith's Bible Dictionary
Easton's Bible Dictionary
Schaff's Bible Dictionary
Fausset's Bible Dictionary
Matthew Henry Bible Commentary
Hitchcock's Bible Dictionary

Related Bible History