December 29, 2022

What Does It Mean That God Is “Without Parts”?

Nathan W. Bingham & Sinclair Ferguson
What Does It Mean That God Is “Without Parts”?

The Westminster Confession of Faith says that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” Today, Sinclair Ferguson discusses what this statement means from a theological and pastoral perspective.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: We’re recording live from Ligonier’s 2022 National Conference, and I’m joined by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, one of Ligonier’s teaching fellows. Dr. Ferguson, what does it mean in the Westminster Confession of Faith when it says that God is without parts?

DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Well, this comes from a statement, I think, in chapter two of the Westminster Confession, section one, that God is a pure spirit and that He is “without body, parts, or passions.” Maybe the best way to explain this is that the background to that statement lies in an older theological tradition that used Latin terms, and they spoke about God as being simplex, or simple. Not in the sense we usually use the word simple, as somebody who is kind of naive, but in contrast with the word complex. So, when we speak about the simplicity of God, we mean that He’s not made up of parts as we are.

So, we are actually complex beings. We are made of body and spirit. We’re actually complex beings in another sense as well, in that our lives are complicated by our sinfulness. So Nathan W. Bingham is kind to his guests. Nathan W. Bingham is generous to his guests. But sometimes Nathan W. Bingham can be just a little bit nasty, but he’s still Nathan W. Bingham. So you could lose some of your qualities, either physical or emotional, spiritual, and still be the same person. You are a complex being. You are made up of parts. If you lost a hand, you would still be Nathan W. Bingham.

And what the Westminster divines were seeing in Scripture was that when God reveals who He is, He says, “I am who I am,” meaning, “I’m not made up of parts. I am not the kind of being who, if I cease to be loving, I’m still God. I am always all I am. I am My attributes.” So in distinction from us, there is our individual person and there are our attributes. We can lose those attributes, physical or spiritual, emotional, and still be that person. And what the Westminster divines are emphasizing is that we need to learn to understand that God actually is His attributes. Not only so, but unlike ourselves, who have all these complex attributes, actually all of God’s attributes are one and the same reality. And it’s because of our finitude that we describe Him as loving, as gracious, as righteous, as holy.

But in Him, if one can think about maybe something that seems so small and yet is incredibly heavy, and you think, “How can there be so much weight?” then I think you catch a sense of this intensity, this density of being in God, so that He always is all that He is all of the time. And I think one of the things—and, of course, it’s been discussed by theologians and philosophers, it might seem very remote—but one of the things that I think is practically significant about it is that we are complex not only in the basic sense of having bits and pieces and parts, but we are actually very complex, complicated people. And our greatest need is that the gospel should simplify us, that the gospel should uncomplicate us. And when we come to have fellowship with this God who is without parts, without passions, without body, simply is who He is all of the time, then I think one of the effects of that is that the better we come to know Him, the simpler our lives become, because we are taken up with the knowledge of Him.

And we still live in this very complicated world, but I think we become much more like Paul, as he writes in Philippians 3, “I’m doing only one thing.” And sometimes I like to think whimsically, since I think Timothy is there when Paul is writing his letters to the Philippians, “Come on, Paul, you’re never doing only one thing. You’re doing a thousand things all of the time.” And I think of Paul saying, “No, Timothy, I’m not doing a thousand different things. I’m doing one thing in a thousand different ways.” And I think as the character of God, as we’re taken up with this, instead of it seeming to be a very strange theological statement, it becomes a very practical and pastoral help to us to live our Christian lives—that I am complicated and complex, and He will simplify me and make me still as a creature yet more and more like Himself. So, I think there’s a theological and a pastoral side to what the Westminster divines were saying when they spoke about God being without parts.