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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q. 2. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

The compilers of the Catechism have taken our Lord's words to the woman of Samaria as the basis of their answer to the loftiest of all questions, and they have filled up the definition with an enumeration of the divine atttibutes carefully collected out of Holy Scripture, altogether constructing a statement on this great subject of which Dr. Hodge says that it is "probably the best definition ever penned by man." The tradition that connected this Answer with a prayer of George Gillespie's in the Westminster Assembly, is now discredited by our best authorities.

God—"The old Saxon word God is identical with good. God is the good One, personified goodness. There is in that derivation not a mere play upon words,—there is a deep truth" (Frederick Robertson). But Webster says: "As this word and good are written exactly alike in Anglo-Saxon, it has been inferred that God was named from His goodness. But this is probably an idea too remote from the rude conceptions of men in early ages. With the exception of the word Jehovah [see Q. 44], the name of the Supreme Being appears usually to have reference to His supremacy or power, and to be equivalent to lord or ruler. In the present case there is some evidence that this is the sense of this word; for in Persian Godd signifies lord, master, prince, or ruler." And Skeat, our latest and best authority on etymological questions, says: "God, the Supreme Being. . . . The name is of unknown origin; quite distinct and separate from good, with which it has often been conjectnrally connected." (Cf. also Max Muller's Lectures, s.v.)

God is a Spirit, or better, both in grammar and theology, "God is Spirit." "God is pure Spirit, perhaps better not ‘a Spirit,' since it is His essence, not His personality, which is here spoken of" (Alford). Compare the two other definitions found in I John—" God is light," and "God is love"— with which this present definition must, in Westcott's words, he "compared and combined."

This word Spirit,—" the profoundest word in human language" (Stier),— as employed in Scripture and theology, like so much of their vocabulary, bears a figurative or metaphorical sense. The growth of the word is something like this. It first means air, the air that is the atmosphere of the earth, and the breath of all its living creatures. From this it is a short and easy step to become expressive of the life of man, and the life of his soul, as in the cry: "Into Thine hand I commit my spirit." And from that highest earthly use the word has been taken up and consecrated to describe for us the manner of God's own life. "God is Spirit." And this single expression at once does this great service for us, that it removes God's nature far from all association with material and corporal organization. For, as our Lord said: "A spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have." God, then, is Spirit, such and such as the Scripture and the Catechism teach us concerning Him. "RESOLVED upon the question, Hath God any body, or is He to be seen with bodily eyes ?—A. God is a Spirit, invisible, without body or bodily parts, not like a man or any other creature ORDERED—Q. Since you say God cannot be seen, how do you know that there is a God ?—A. I am sure there is a God, because the things that are in the word could neither have their being nor their preservation, nor be ordered as they are, without God" (Minutes of Session of Westminster Assembly, 754, Sept. 22, 1646, Tuesday morning).

infinite—Without limit or boundary. We cannot cross a line and say, "Now here God is not; here is a limit which He has not passed, and cannot pass." "Trismegistus sayd God was a circle, whose center is everywhere, but His circumference is noe where." This word is used here, as always in Scripture, in a theological and religious, rather than a philosophical and speculative way. This attribute of God is set forth in Scripture and in the Catechism less for the satisfaction of the intellect than for the exercise of the affections, imaginations, and consciences of men. And thus the Scriptures bring the awful doctrine of the divine infinitude to bear on us in the most affecting and practical way. "Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saitb the Lord." And this attribute, rightly and religiously reflected on, will always awaken adoration and godly fear after this manner: "0 Lord, Thou hast searched me and known me. . . . Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid Thine hand upon me. Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit, or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend into heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me: it is high, I cannot attain unto it." In this way those for whom the Catechism is designed may be profitably and impressively taught what the greatest minds cannot comprehend. "Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes."

eternal—As we associate infinitude with unbounded space, so we are compelled to think of eternity as unbeginning and unending time. "8ut as the substance of God alone is infinite, and hath no kind of limitation, so likewise His continuance is from everlasting to everlasting, and knoweth neither beginning nor end. . . . Out of this we gather that only God hath true immortality or eternity, that is to say, continuance wherein there groweth no difference by addition of hereafter unto now; whereas the noblest and perfectest of all beings besides have continually through continuance the time of former continuance lengthened. So that they could not heretofore be said to have continued so long as now, neither now so long as hereafter" (Hooker). The divine name THE ETERNAL, is connected with the great name JEHOVAH, I AM, He who Is, He who alone truly and eternally Is, the Self-existing, the Everlasting. "The Hebrews attached a higher and more solemn meaning to eternal existence than to creative energy. In Revelation 1:8, God is called the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, He who was and is and is to come, three epithets signifying eternity, which are followed by one only,— the Almighty, indicating power." (See Appendix to Ewald, History of Israel, ii) The Arabic version of Exodus 3:14 has "The Eternal who never passeth away," where the English has "I AM THAT I AM." "In my solitary and retired imagination I remember that I am not alone, and therefore forget not to contemplate Him and His attributes, who is ever with me, especially those two mighty ones, His wisdom and eternity. With the one I recreate, and with the other I confound my understanding. In eternity there is no distinction of tenses; for to His eternity, which is indivisible and all together, the last trump is already sounded, the reprobate is in the flame, and the blessed in Abraham's bosom" (Religio Medici). On the profound theological and religious significance of the prophet's words "inhabiteth eternity," see Goodwin, Of the Creatures, Book 1. chap. 3. unchangeable—This also is spoken of only as it bears on our faith and trust. He is "the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." And when it is said that He changes, and repents, and takes back for good or evil that which He has spoken, all that again is but a fuller application of the principle of condescension on which all divine revelations are made; God speaking to man in ways that man can understand.

in his being—The foregoing words—infinite, eternal, and unchangeable— characterize and describe the being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth of God. He is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in each and all of these attributes. Being expresses reality of existence as contrasted with non-existence. Thus Jehovah, I AM, signifies BEING; originality, eternity, unchangeableness, and fruitfulness of being. The I AM thus becomes known as the Eternal (see Ewald, ii. 440). "The true name of Being is proper to God only; the creatures are in themselves but shadows and appearances of beings. God alone is" (Goodwin).

wisdom—"Knowing all things, most wise" (Larger Catechism). When spoken of as an attribute of man, wisdom, while comprehending certain intellectual qualities, gives much more prominence to the moral. Taking its rise necessarily in the mind, wisdom attains its fulness only in the depth and purity of the heart. (See Sir Henry Taylor, Of Wisdom.) There cannot, indeed, be wisdom where there is no knowledge; but there may be great stores of learning and knowledge where there is a total absence of wisdom. Knowledge often puffeth up; wisdom always buildeth up. And it is wisdom in its purest and noblest human sense that is here applied to God. In the Old Testament, especially in the later and what are called the sapiential books, the Divine Wisdom attains a prominence, and vividness, and distinction among the other attributes of God that prepare the way for the advent of that Divine Person who is afterwards announced as the Wisdom and the Word of God. But here again the gracious, the religious, and the practical aspects of the truth govern and subordinate the philosophical and speculative ideas. See Cowper's paraphrase of Prov. 8:22-36:

"Ere God had built the mountains."

power—Infinite in power. Hence God is often in Scripture spoken of as the Almighty, or the Omnipotent. "The word Almighty conveys three ideas—that God is omnipotent, His dominion universal, and His essence infinite." "God's power is limited only by the workings of His will. He doth not work all things that He might work. ‘Unto Thee,' saith Christ, ‘all things are possible.' God doth not show Himself omnipotent by doing all He can do, but everything that He doth do He showeth an almighty power in it" (Goodwin).

holiness—"This word is nothing but Middle English hool (now spelt whole). The original sense is perfect or excellent" (Skeat). Holiness, therefore, etymologically, as well as theologically and religiously, is inward health or spiritual wholesomeness. "It is instructive to note how the Psalmist dwells upon the holy name of God, as if His holiness were dearest to him, or perhaps because the holiness or wholeness of God was to his mind the grandest motive for rendering to Him the homage of his nature in its wholeness. Babes may praise the divine goodness, but fathers in grace magnify His holiness" (Spurgeon). "Holiness is intellectual beauty. Divine holiness is the most perfect and the measure of all other. . . . The divine holiness is the most perfect pulchritude, ‘the ineffable and immortal pulchritude, that cannot be declared by words or seen with eyes,'—they are a heathen's expression concerning it. This may therefore be styled a transcendental attribute, that, as it were, runs through the rest, and casts a glory upon every one. It is an attribute of attributes. Those are fit predications, holy power, holy truth, holy love. And so it is the very lustre and glory of His other perfections, He is ‘glorious in holiness'" (Howe).

justice—Integrity and uprightness as of a true judge with whom is no respect of persons. The Scriptures reveal the divine law as the foundation of all God's dealings with men. Whatever else in God is manifested to man, His justice is never set aside or forgotten. Even in justifying the ungodly, the justice of God is magnified. "Nothing is more precisely according to the truth of things than divine justice; it weighs things in an even balance; it views and estimates things no otherwise than they are truly in their own natures" (Jonathan Edwards). And the greatest teacher of morals outside the Hebrew dispensation, taught that "injustice every virtue is summarily comprehended."

"Not even-star nor morning-star so fair."

See Hooker, .Sermon 3; Howe's Living Temple, 2.7; Owen's Dissertation on Divine Justice; Jonathan Edwards' Diary.

goodness—"Goodness is the genus that comprehends mercy, grace, long. suffering, kindness, truth, etc. in it; these are branihes from that as the root" (Goodwin on Exodus 33:19). "From the beginning of the world till now, all effluxes which have come from God have been nothing but emanations of His goodness, clothed in variety of circumstances. He made man with no other design than that man should be happy, and by receiving derivations from His fountain of mercy, might reflect glory to Him. . . . And grace is the treasure of the divine goodness, the great and admirable efflux of the eternal beneficence, ‘the riches of His goodness,' which whosoever despises, despises himself and the great interests of his own felicity ; he shall die in his impenitence, and perish in his folly" (Jeremy Taylor).

"But Thou hast promised from us two a race To fill the earth, who shall with us extol Thy goodness infinite, both when we wake And when we seek, as now, thy gift of sleep."—MILTON.

"‘For He is good.' Is not this the Old Testament version of ‘God is love'?" (A. A. Bonar).

and truth. It is clear that truth as an attribute of God must mean something far nobler than fact or information, a common use of the word in the ordinary speech of mankind. Neither is truth to be taken here merely as opposed to error, falsehood, and deceit. When our Lord, addressing His Father, said, "Thy word is truth," He had something far greater in His mind than merely that God's word is true and trustworthy. Truth in the text and in our Lord's Prayer embraces the whole revelation of God that has been at any time, or in any manner, made to man; all that it is God's glory to reveal, and man's blessedness to believe and enjoy. Truth, the highest and surest truth, is that God is true, and that Jesus Christ is His Truth. "I am the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life." "Truth is grace clad with a promise and put forth in exercise" (Bengel).

"Now there are other spirits besides God: and these are angels and the souls of men. But the difference betwixt God and them lies here, that God is an infinite, eternal, and unchangeable Spirit, and they are not so. The attributes of God, as perfections of His divine nature, are of two sorts, incommunicable and communicable. His incommunicable attributes, whereof there is no vestige in the creation, are His infinity, eternity, and unchangeableness. His communicable attributes again, whereof there are some scanthings in the creatures, are His being, wisdom, rower, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. The difference between these perfections as they are in God and as they are in His creatures, lies here, that they are all infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in God, but in His creatures not so" (Boston).

With this Question we are entering on the doctrinal division of the Catechism. Now it was the teaching of our Lord in His conversation with the woman of Samaria, that all acceptable and profitable worship most rest on the fundamental doctrine so fully set forth in this Answer. Our Lord puts the profoundest of all doctrines just where the Catechism, following His example, puts it, as one of the first principles of faith and worship. And there is not one word in the statement before us that will not sensibly assist an intelligent and devout mind in the worship of God. Rightly used, the Creeds and Catechisms of the Church are really devotional guides. The doctrines of Revelation are coals of heavenly fire on the altar of the religious heart. "The formula, which embodies a dogma for the theologian, readily suggests an object for the worshipper. . . Theology may stand as a substantive science without the life of religion but religion cannot maintain its ground without theology" (Newman).


1. Explain the metaphor with which this Answer opens, and trace its growth in Cruden. Webster supplies examples of fifteen senses the word bears in English.

2. It is a commentator's note on Jeremiah 23:24, The Immense God: derive and explain.

3. God is a most pure Spirit, without body, parts, or passions (Confession, II.1). Reconcile this with those passages of Scripture that speak of God's hands and feet; His eyes, ears, countenance, and head; His love, jealousy, sorrow, pity, and repentance. Give the proper theological name for this scriptural manner of speech; and connect the whole subject with the incarnation.

4. Give the leading Scripture passages that illustrate the etymological identity of health and holiness; also the passages that illustrate the identity of disease and sin.

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