Question: What are the common objections to a belief in God's corporeality?

Table of Contents

Question: What are the common objections to a belief in God's corporeality?

Most other Christians interpret the Bible differently than we do on this point

Obviously, most other Christians interpret the Bible differently than we do on this point, and they put forward several standard objections to this kind of “anthropomorphism.” However, these objections do not hold up under close scrutiny. This will be shown for several common objections to the LDS doctrine, most of which can be found in a tract published by Catholic Answers, Inc., entitled, Does God Have a Body?[1]

Objection: “Being ‘in the image of God’ means humans have a rational soul.”

“And God said, Let us make man in our image [Hebrew tselem], after our likeness [Hebrew demuth]” (Genesis 1:26). This statement in the first chapter of the Bible seems pretty clear to Latter-day Saints. However, our fellow Christians will often say that this is to be interpreted figuratively, in the sense that humans have “rational souls,” which set us apart from the animals. However, just a few chapters later the author of Genesis repeats "God created man, in the likeness [Hebrew demuth] of God made he him" and then adds some interesting commentary about the birth of Adam's son Seth: "And Adam lived an hundred thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness [Hebrew demuth], after his image [Hebrew tselem]; and called his name Seth” (Genesis 5:1-3).

Adam was created in God’s image and likeness, and one of Adam’s sons had Adam’s image and likeness. Exactly the same words were used to describe both scenarios by the same prophetic author only one verse apart. Either Adam looked like God, or Seth was the only one of Adam’s sons who possessed a “rational soul.” If there is a good reason to interpret one passage in one way, and the other in another way, the critics must provide it. Only a prior commitment to refusing to see man in the form of God (or God in the form of a man) would lead one to interpret the terms differently.

Objection: “The Bible also says God has wings, etc. ”

Of course, it is true that the Biblical writers employed numerous metaphors when talking about God. However, just because some statements about God are metaphorical doesn’t mean that every statement is. When the Psalmist speaks of God covering us with His feathers, and giving refuge under His wings, the metaphor is completely clear. As Jesus said, “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37.) Exactly what is the metaphorical interpretation of God’s “back parts” that Moses saw? When Stephen reported his vision, the text gives no clue as to any metaphorical interpretation; he simply reported what he saw, as did the others.

Objection: John 4:24 says, “God is a Spirit."

See also: FAIR Wiki article God is a Spirit

There are several problems with this objection. First, Paul wrote, “But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:17). To say that God is “a spirit” is grammatically equivalent to the statement that a man joined to the Lord is “one spirit,” and yet, Christians obviously have bodies as well as spirits.

Second, there are no indefinite articles (“a” or “an”) in ancient Greek, so the passage can be translated “God is a Spirit” or “God is Spirit.” Most modern translations have chosen the latter, because John’s statement “God is Spirit” is parallel to two passages in his first epistle, “God is light” (1 Jn 1:5) and “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). In context, all of these passages seem to be referring to God’s activity toward men rather than to the nature of His “Being,” and of course we would never say that God is “a love” or “a light.”

Furthermore, Christopher Stead of the Cambridge Divinity School (another non-Mormon scholar) explains how such statements would have been interpreted within ancient Judaism:

By saying that God is spiritual, we do not mean that he has no body … but rather that he is the source of a mysterious life-giving power and energy that animates the human body, and himself possesses this energy in the fullest measure.[2]

It must always be remembered that the Bible was written by Hebrews, and the New Testament writers were all Jews. We saw at the beginning of this article that the Hebrews consistently pictured God in human form.

As another commentator noted:

That God is spirit is not meant as a definition of God's being—though this is how the Stoics [a branch of Greek philosophy] would have understood it. It is a metaphor of his mode of operation, as life-giving power, and it is no more to be taken literally than 1 Jn 1:5, "God is light," or Deuteronomy 4:24, "Your God is a devouring fire." It is only those who have received this power through Christ who can offer God a real worship.[3]

Finally, Latter-day Saints do not believe that “spirit” is incorporeal (i.e. “without substance”), and neither did the earliest Christians. The great Protestant historian, Adolf von Harnack, wrote,

God was naturally conceived and represented as corporeal by uncultured Christians, though not by these alone, as the later controversies prove.[4]

For instance, the great Christian writer, Tertullian (ca. 200 A.D.) wrote,

For who will deny that God is a body, although ‘God is a Spirit?’ For Spirit has a bodily substance of its own kind, in its own form.[5]

Why did Christians start believing otherwise? J.W.C. Wand, a historian and former Anglican bishop of London, writes that one of the Greek philosophical schools (Neoplatonism), which was popular in the days of the Roman Empire, exerted a particular influence in this respect. (See below for more information about the influence of the Greek philosophers.):

It is easy to see what influence this school of thought [Neoplatonism] must have had upon Christian leaders. It was from it that they learnt what was involved in a metaphysical sense by calling God a Spirit. They were also helped to free themselves from their primitive eschatology and to get rid of that crude anthropomorphism which made even Tertullian believe that God had a material body.[6]

Objection: Christians have always believed that God is an unchangeable, simple, immaterial spirit essence.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Origen (circa A.D. 225) wrote,

For it is also to be a subject of investigation how God himself is to be understood—whether as corporeal, and formed according to some shape, or of a different nature from bodies—a point which is not clearly indicated in our teaching.[7]

Origen (who did not believe in corporeality) nevertheless admitted there was considerable confusion among Christians of that era about this very question, but why?

Origen gives us another clue in a sermon on the book of Genesis:

The Jews indeed, but also some of our people, supposed that God should be understood as a man, that is, adorned with human members and human appearance. But the philosophers despise these stories as fabulous and formed in the likeness of poetic fictions.[8]

The Jews, and Christians who followed the standard Jewish interpretations, believed that God had a body in human form. Why did Origen reject this? Simply because the philosophers thought it was silly. For instance, the Middle Platonist philosopher Plutarch wrote the following:

Socrates and Plato held that (God is) the One, the single self-existent nature, the monadic, the real Being, the good: and all this variety of names points immediately to mind. God therefore is mind, a separate species, that is to say what is purely immaterial and unconnected with anything passible [i.e. changeable].[9]

Another Greek philosopher, Empedocles (ca. 444 B.C.) claimed that God

does not possess a head and limbs similar to those of humans…[He is] a spirit, a holy and inexpressible one.[10]

Greek converts to Christianity wanted to make their faith more appealing to people in their own culture, and so they adopted a definition of God from the Greek philosophers, whose thought was widely respected at the time. The temptation is always there to make one’s faith more popular by “modernizing” it, but the Apostle Paul had warned against exactly this kind of thing. “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8). What was the “philosophy” current in Paul’s day? Greek philosophy. Similarly, Father Jean Daniélou, a Catholic historian and later a Cardinal, wrote that,

If we now examine the forms of thought and philosophical systems current at the time when Christianity first made its appearance in the world, it is clear that they were by no means ready to assimilate this Christian conception: on the contrary, they were wholly antagonistic thereto.[11]

However, within a few generations that had all changed, and philosophy ruled Christian theology.[12] Latter-day Saints understand this process as one consequence of the Great Apostasy.

Objection: John 1:18 says, “No man has seen God at any time.”

See also: FAIR Wiki article: No_man_has_seen_God

Some mainstream Christians object that the passages in the Bible that describe God’s human form must be taken figuratively, because Jesus said, “No man has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). Similarly, God told Moses, “there shall no man see me, and live” (Exodus 33:20). Of course, God said that to Moses right before he told him that He would pass by so Moses could see His “back parts,” but not his face (Exodus 33:21-23), and God was angry at the time, so it may have been a special circumstance. Still, this presents an odd problem, considering the number of times the Bible reports that people did see God. Samuel Meier, Associate Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Semitics at Ohio State University, writes of this problem:

A deity’s physical manifestation is seen by human beings. The appearance of gods and their involvement with humans are common motifs in ancient Near Eastern and classical mythology. That similar phenomena are found in the Bible seems problematic at first, for a persistent tradition in the Hebrew Bible affirmed that death comes to any human who sees God (Genesis 16:13; Genesis 32:30; Genesis 24:10-11; Genesis 33:20; Deuteronomy 5:24-26; Deuteronomy 18:16; Judges 6:22-23; Judges 13:22; cf Exodus 20:19; Isaiah 6:5). In most of these contexts, however, the narration undermines this sentiment by depicting the pleasant surprise of those who survive. The text presents this perspective as a misperception to which human beings subscribe, for no humans in the Bible ever die simply because they have seen God. On the contrary, throughout the Bible God wants to communicate intimately with humans. The problem of how God can adequately show himself to humankind without harm is a conundrum that is never really resolved in the Bible.[13]

Latter-day Saints can harmonize these passages with those that describe visions of the Father by referring to Moses’ vision of God, as described in the Pearl of Great Price. “And he saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence … [Moses said] For behold, I could not look upon God, except his glory should come upon me, and I were transfigured before him” (Moses 1:2,14). An identical solution is offered by Peter in an early (second or third century) Jewish Christian work called the Clementine Homilies:

For I maintain that the eyes of mortals cannot see the incorporeal form of the Father or Son, because it is illumined by exceeding great light … For he who sees God cannot live. For the excess of light dissolves the flesh of him who sees; unless by the secret power of God the flesh be changed into the nature of light, so that it can see light.[14]

In the same document, another conversation between Peter and Simon Magus is reported:

And Simon said: ‘I should like to know, Peter, if you really believe that the shape of man has been moulded after the shape of God.’ And Peter said: ‘I am really quite certain, Simon, that this is the case … It is the shape of the just God.[14]

The point of these passages is not that no one has or will have a vision of God’s person, but rather that men cannot see God as He is. We must be changed and protected by the grace of God to withstand His presence, and even then we cannot fully comprehend His majesty. However, this will not always be the case. As John further wrote, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn:3).


Notes

  1. "Does God Have a Body?," Catholic Answers tract, 1996. Since this article was first written, the title of the tract was changed to “God Has No Body."
  2. Christopher Stead, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 98.
  3. J. N. Sanders, A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, , edited and completed by B. A. Mastin, (New York, Harper & Row, 1968), 147–148.
  4. Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, tr. Neil Buchanan (New York: Dover, 1961), 1:180 n.1.
  5. Tertullian, "Against Praxeas," in 7 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)3:602. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  6. J.W.C.Wand, A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500 (London: Methuen & Co., 1937), 140.
  7. Origen, "On First Principles," in Preface, 9 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)4:6. ANF ToC off-site This volume Direct jump off-site
  8. Origen, "Homilies on Genesis," in 3:1 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)?:??. ANF ToC off-site This volume[citation needed]
  9. Plutarch, quoted in Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, 14:16. off-site Direct jump off-site
  10. Empedocles, in Karl Jaspers, The Great Philosophers (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981), 3:51.
  11. Jean Daniélou, The Lord of History: Reflections on the Inner Meaning of History, translated by N. Abercrombie (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1958), 1.
  12. For more information on this topic, see Barry R. Bickmore, "The Doctrine of God and the Nature of Man," in Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Redding, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999).
  13. Samuel A. Meier, “Theophany,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 740. The citations of Genesis 24:10-11 and Genesis 32:20 should be to Exodus 24:10-11 and Exodus 33:20.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Clementine Homilies, 17:16. off-site In Ante-Nicean Fathers 8:223–347. off-site Direct jump off-site