Mormonism and the nature of God/God is a Spirit

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Biblical statements that "God is a Spirit"?

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Question: Does the Mormon doctrine that God has a physical body contradict the Bible's statement in John 4:24 that "God is a Spirit"?

Deuteronomy 4:28 says that our God can see, eat and smell

Some Christians object to the LDS position that God has a physical body by quoting John 4:24:

God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. (Italics in KJV original).

Adopting a critical reading of this verse leads to some strange conclusions if we are consistent. Deuteronomy 4:28 says that our God can see, eat and smell. Can an unembodied spirit do that? Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29 say that God is a consuming fire, 1 Jn 1:5 says God is light, and 1 Jn 4:4,16 says that God is love. Is He just those things? Clearly not, and the LDS conclude that neither is He just a spirit.

Note that in the KJV cited above, the word “is” is italicized. This is because the King James translators have inserted it on their own—it is not present in the Greek text from which the translation was made.

Secondly, the reader should be aware that the indefinite article (“a”, as in "a dog" or "a spirit") does not exist in Greek. Thus, the addition of the word "a" in English occurs at the discretion of the translators.[1]

This leaves two Greek words: theos pneuma [θεος πνεμα]—“God spirit”. The JST resolves this translational issue by saying “for unto such hath God promised his spirit”. The word pneuma, which is translated spirit, also means ‘life’ or ‘breath’. The King James Version of Revelation 13:15 renders ‘pneuma’ as life. Thus "God is life," or "God is the breath of life" are potential alternative translations of this verse.

Also, if God is a spirit and we have to worship him in spirit, do mortals have to leave our bodies to worship him?

Latter-day Saints believe that man is also spirit and is, like God, housed in a physical body

Thus, the Latter-day Saints believe that man is also spirit (DC 93:33-34; Numbers 16:22; Romans 8:16) and is, like God, housed in a physical body. We were, after all, created in the "image" of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

It is interesting that in 1 Corinthians 2:11, Paul wrote about "the spirit of man and the Spirit of God." Elsewhere he spoke of the resurrection of the body and then noted that it is a "spiritual" body (1 Corinthians 15:44-46), though, rising from the grave, it is obviously composed of flesh and bones, as Jesus made clear when he appeared to the apostles after his resurrection ({s||Luke|24|37-39}}).

Paul also told the saints in Rome, "But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you" (Romans 8:9).

One Commentary insists:

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.[2]


Question: Is the doctrine that God the Father and Jesus Christ have physical bodies not Biblical?

The absence of God's body is thus only present in John 4:24 if one approaches it with that preconception

In John 4:24 Jesus says:

24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

It is sometimes claimed that this verse proves that God is non-corporeal: i.e., a spirit, and nothing but a spirit.

However, there is no indefinite article in Greek (the indefinite article in English is "a," as in "a spirit." The New International Version (NIV) translation of the same verse reads:

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth.

One non-LDS work noted of this verse:

That God is spirit is not meant as a definition of God's being—though this is how the Stoics 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 I John i. 5, "God is light", or Deut. iv. 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]

The absence of God's body is thus only present in this scripture if one approaches it with that preconception. There is nothing which requires such a reading, and much that does not.

Even the presumption that spirit means being immaterial is not scriptural, and is the product of later thinking: "in Scripture...there is no indication that by spirit and soul were meant any such principles as form or immateriality."[4]


Question: How would a statement that "God is a spirit" be interpreted in ancient Judasism?

The statement that "God is a spirit" does not mean that he has no body - it means that he is the source of life-giving power and energy

Christopher Stead of the Cambridge Divinity School (another non-Mormon scholar) explains how a statement that God is spirit 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. [5]

It may be that Joseph Smith, by revelation, had something like this in mind when he wrote that the Father is "a personage of spirit."


Mormons have "picked up" discarded beliefs of early Christians

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[6]

Perhaps the most complicating factor for creedal dialogue with Latterday Saints is that Mormons, unlike other restorationists, were not content to flunder in suspicion of the way the early Church absorbed Greek metaphysics. Instead, Mormons put the Platonization of Christianity at the heart of their critique of the ossifiation and corruption of Christianity. Something went terribly wrong after the age of the Apostles, they argue, and that something has to do with the theological turn toward a metaphysics of immaterialism. Far from ignoring early church history, then, Mormons are committed to an interrogation of the relationship of theology to philosophy that objects to nearly every development that led to the ecumenical creeds. They do not just raise objections, however. It is as if, as they follow the road orthodox theologians took to the creeds, Mormons pause to pick up the detritus that was jettisoned along the way. Thy recycle these discarded beliefs into a shining, novel creation of their own. [7]:86

Mormonism does not use the Nicene Creed, and invokes earlier Christian ideas that were overshadowed by Plato

Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:[6]

Bluntly put, Mormons do not play by the rules of the Nicene Creed. Their theological arguments can look like a form of cheating when, in reality, they are trying to change the way the game is played. Mormonism is like an alternative reality come to life—a counterfactual history of post-Nicene developments of pre-Nicene theology, the ultimate “what if ” theological parlor game.

What if Tertullian had been more successful in his explication of the materiality of the soul? What if the monks of Egypt had won their battle in defense of anthropomorphism? What if Augustine had not read the books of the Platonists? Mormonism invites creedal Christians into a world where everything is slightly but significantly skewed from what they are used to [7]:85

Further reading

Sub-articles


Lecture of Faith 5 teaches the Father is "a personage of spirit"


Brief Summary: Lectures on Faith, which used to be part of the Doctrine and Covenants, teach that God is a spirit. Joseph Smith's later teachings contradict this. More generally, some argue that Joseph Smith taught an essentially "trinitarian" view of the Godhead until the mid 1830s, thus proving the Joseph was "making it up" as he went along. (Click here for full article)
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To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995), 271.
  2. 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.
  3. Joseph Newbould Sanders, A Commentary on the Gospel according to John, ed. B. A. Mastin (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 148–149. ISBN 9780913573556. (emphasis in original)
  4. Harry A. Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 2:95. ISBN 9780674021143.
  5. Christopher Stead, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 98.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Webb is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is a graduate of Wabash College and earned his PhD at the University of Chicago before returning to his alma mater to teach. Born in 1961 he grew up at Englewood Christian Church, an evangelical church. He joined the Disciples of Christ during He was briefly a Lutheran, and on Easter Sunday, 2007, he officially came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church."
  7. 7.0 7.1 Stephen H. Webb, "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints (reprint from his book Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012)," Brigham Young University Studies 50 no. 3 (2011).


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