A Common Dialog: Is God a substance?

The ‘divine riddle’ of classic Trinitarians is ‘three substances; one essence’ to which many Modalists (many not knowing exactly what that particular name implies) rebut that God is not a substance, as substance is an element, and God is a Spirit.

God is a substance, but not the human-minded elemental substance of material. Is this blasphemy for an Economist to state such things? Let us briefly examine the issue with reason.

Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; (Hebrews 1:3 KJV)

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1 KJVA)

In the Greek, both of these words read υποστασις, hupostasis. In the Latin, it is translated as substantiae from which we derive our English word, substance. In no meaning of this word can we derive something ‘elemental’ as many would have us believe that the Trinitarians intend.

First, it would be erroneous for us to say that God is not a substance – as we would argue with the writer of Hebrews. What first must be learned is what is mean by ’substance’.

From TDNT (Kittel) –

The noun occurs some 20 times in the LXX (Septuagint) for 12 Hebrew terms, and the verb hyphístēmi occurs somewhat more often in the sense “to endure.” The meaning of hypóstasis seems to be “movable property” in Dt. 11:6, “immovable property” in Job 22:20, “basis of power” in Ezek. 26:11, “reality” that gives a firm guarantee in Ruth 1:12; Ps. 39:7, “life plan” in Ps. 139:15, “plan” in Jer. 23:22, and “counsel” in Ezek. 19:5; Dt. 1:12. LXX usage thus conforms to Greek. hypóstasis is the underlying reality behind things, often as a plan or purpose, or as that which, enclosed in God, endures.

It is primarily a word which means ‘foundation’, and it is this sense what we must understand the substance of God – not in that it can be divided to create ‘one-third’ Gods, but in that the substance of God is the very being of God. (Can you really divide faith?)

It is a matter of historical fact that the translators of the King James Version of the Scriptures were, to the last man, Trinitarian. This theological presence permeated every inch of their translation abilities. The use of ‘person’ in Hebrews 1.3 is not a statement of pure translation, but a theological statement aimed at directing readers, at least in subconscious thought, to the Trinity in which all members are ascribed Personhood. Note, however, that the only ‘Person’ in the ‘Godhead’ that is given a substance (hupostasis) is indeed God, and just as Paul told us in Colossians 1.15, Christ is the image of God.

At no time in Scripture is the Substance of God divided, or made distinct within itself, except during the Incarnation, when Christ entered Time, leaving Eternity behind. The issue with the Trinitarians is that they, a general concept, see this as ontological instead of economic. It was not until Tertullian in the 3rd century that the idea of the Son being ‘begotten from eternity’ arose in the Church – and it was not until the fourth century that they idea of hypostaseis (multiple persons) was applied to the Godhead by the Arians (This view was fought to the dying breath by Marcellus of Ancrya who considered it a heresy to have a ‘plural number’ in the Godhead.). Before Tertullian, as a whole, men such as Ignatius and Theophilus, both of Antioch, and Irenaeus (It is thought that Tertullian’s unnamed opponent in his theological works was Irenaeus) consistently referred to God as the One Person, and saw no lasting distinction in the ‘Godhead.’ For them, as Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch, disciple of Peter and John, and friend of Polycarp the Bishop of Smyrna, there was only ‘our God, Jesus Christ.’ (Ignatius, Ephesians 18.2)

But God is a spirit

In the King James Version, we read that God is a spirit (John 4.24), but in the Greek, it is πνευμα ο θεος, which literally reads, ‘God is spirit.’ Compare this with 1st John 1.5 and 4.8 in which God is light (ο θεος φως εστιν) and God is love (ο θεος αγαπη εστιν). The grammar is the same – God is (subject). Indeed, God is spirit, the pneuma, which denotes His non-corporeality, and in itself, spirit is the substance of God.

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