See also: I do not know what God is
Recently I had a student ask a well thought question. He wanted to know why a body is essential for our growth. “Why do we even need a body? Can’t we learn what the Lord wants us to learn without a physical body?” This question has deep philosophical roots, going back in time to early Christianity. Theologians of long ago grappled with this issue. As Latter-day Saints, our doctrine of the body is rooted in our understanding of the nature of God and our relationship to Him.
God has a body
The God of the Old Testament appeared to the prophets as a man. Jesus, after his resurrection from the dead, appeared to his disciples as a man. “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39). After the disciples felt the prints of the nails in his hands and feet, as if to further validate what they were witnessing, Jesus ate food in their presence (Luke 24:41-45). We see this same pattern in the Book of Mormon, where the resurrected God of the Old Testament shows his body to those that believe in him. They each have a moment to “thrust their hands into his side, and feel the prints of the nails in his hands and feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come” (3 Nephi 11:15).
From the perspective of a Latter-day Saint, the fact that God the Father and Jesus Christ have bodies of flesh and bone is a well documented affirmation (see D&C 130:22-23). This truth is tied into the very framework of the Plan of Salvation. Part of why we came to earth to have this mortal experience was to learn to have our spirits master our physical bodies. God the Father and His Son have literal physical glorified bodies of flesh and bone. We believe that they offer to us all that they have and are; that they desire for us to partake of their glory and live the kind of lives that they live.
How God lost his body
The saints of the early Christian church worshiped a God who has a body, or was corporeal (another term used by scholars is anthropomorphic). One evidence of this reality comes to us from the argument of Celsus, an anti-Christian pagan philosopher of the second century (around 178 A.D.):
The Christians say that God has hands, a mouth, and a voice; they are always proclaiming that “God said this” or “God spoke.” “The heavens declare the works of his hands,” they say. I can only comment that such a God is no god at all, for God has neither hands, mouth, nor voice, nor any characteristics of which we know. And they say that God made man in his own image, failing to realize that God is not at all like a man, nor vice versa; God resembles no form known to us. They say that God has form, namely the form of the Logos, who became flesh in Jesus Christ. But we know that God is without shape, without color. They say that God moved above the waters he created- be we know that it is contrary to the nature of God to move. Their absurd doctrines even contain reference to God walking about in the garden he created for man; and they speak of him being angry, jealous, moved to repentance, sorry, sleepy- in short, as being in every respect more a man than a God. They have not read Plato, who teaches us in the Republic that God (the Good) does not even participate in being. 1
This is the real issue. The problem with these ignorant Christians of the early church is that they have been reading their scriptures and not the writings of Plato! If they had, they would understand that God does not have a body or passions. The God of the philosophers is “underivable,” “unnamable”; he “cannot be reached by reason.”
Greek philosophical thought was centered in the idea that God is something that is not embodied, something like unto an Unmoving Mover, an “it” that penetrates all space and matter, everywhere present yet impossible to truly define. Aristotle derived the concept of the Unmoving Mover, the ultimate being who neither changes nor moves, but causes all else to change and move. Since, to Aristotle, matter implied the possibility of change, and since change was viewed as an imperfection, this Unmoving Mover had to be Pure Actuality, or in other words, pure Form without Matter. An analogy that seminary students would relate with would be Yoda’s description of the Force in the Star Wars trilogy. The Force is very similar to the Greek concept of God.
To combat the negative image the early church had, and to fight against some of the false philosophies of their day, the defenders of the church in the second century (oftentimes called “Apologists” = those who defend ideas) used popular philosophies of their time to defend Christianity to their critics and the rulers of the Roman world. The Apologists were diligently engaged at the time in combating the very apostasy into which they fell- as they fought false doctrines of their day, they used Greek philosophies to defend their position, and found that they were sinking into false beliefs as they fought them.
Philosopher-Theologians and the Loss of God’s Body
From the criticism delivered by Celsus, we can conclude that many of the early Christians believed in the corporeal nature of God. They believed that he was a very personal being, involved in their lives. This was the case for the Christians for the much of the first three centuries. The God of the early Christians was the God of the scriptures, and their trust was in the language of the prophets. 2 “It is only after divine corporeality is rejected on philosophical (Neoplatonist) grounds,” states David L. Paulsen, “that these passages (those indicating God’s corporeality) are given figurative or allegorical interpretations.” 3 Paulsen supports his case by looking at what he calls two reluctant witnesses, Origen, one of the most influential of the early church writers, and Augustine, the man who did more than any other to shape Catholic theology.
Origen was a Hellenistic Christian philosopher born about 185 A.D. He was among the first Christian to promote the belief in a God without a body. The fact that he spent considerable energy to prove that God did not have a body could make the case that the general membership of the church needed to be converted to such a viewpoint. Origen admitted that there is no place in the Bible in which God is explicitly described as being incorporeal. Origen used John 4:24 as a proof text of God being a formless entity: “God is a spirit”. Origen acknowledged that the issue of God’s corporeality had not been settled in the church. Origen admitted that when the scriptures were used as a source in understanding God, that a belief in a corporeal God was in line with scriptural texts. The problem for Origen was that an embodied God does not jive with Platonist philosophy. His efforts were simply to show that the scriptures were not intended to be read literally, but that references to God were to be understood metaphorically. The scriptures, read literally, were of “little use.” 4
God did not need a mouth to speak to his creations. He could simply inspire the heart of the saint with the sound of his voice. When we have done something that is unjust, he need only communicate a feeling of anger to us. No body parts are needed. Significantly, it is Origen whom we should thank for preserving the writings of his fellow Platonist, Celsus.
Regarding the second writer under consideration here, David Paulsen states: “In his Confessions, St. Augustine provides substantial evidence that belief in a corporeal deity was still commonly held at least in some Christian quarters as late as the fourth century.” 5 Born of a Christian mother in North Africa in 354, Augustine grew up with the understanding that the Christian God was an embodied being. This doctrine was a stumbling block for him because it did not fit with Greek philosophy. Augustine was embarrassed by the Christian belief in an embodied God and readily embraced the arguments of those who argued against it.
Eventually his career as a teacher of rhetoric took him to Italy, first to Rome and then to Milan, where, under the tutelage of Bishop Ambrose, he became acquainted with Latin translations of Platonist writings and learned of the possibility of God’s being a totally immaterial, invisible, and incorporeal being. With the possibility of having his long-standing stumbling block removed, he converted to the Christian faith in 386 and was baptized the following year at the age of thirty-two. Now firmly founded on a Neoplatonic reinterpretations of Christian doctrine, he could write:
But when I understood withal that “man, created by Thee, after Thine own image,” was not so understood by Thy spiritual sons… as though they believed and conceived of Thee as bounded by human shape… with joy I blushed at having so many years barked not against the Catholic faith, but against the fictions of carnal imaginations… For Thou, Most High, and most near; most secret, and most present; Who hast not limbs some larger, some smaller, but art wholly everywhere and nowhere in space, art not of such corporeal shape… Thy Catholic Church… I now discovered… not to teach that for which I had grievously censured her. So I was confounded, and converted; and I joyed, O my God, that the One Only Church… had no taste for infantine conceits; not, in her sound doctrine, maintained any tenet which should confine Thee, the Creator of all, in space, however great and large, yet bounded everywhere by the limits of a human form.” 6
The scriptures become allegories
As time passed, all traces of an anthropomorphic God were suppressed through an allegorical interpretation of the scriptures. As Bickmore illustrates, there is great danger in interpreting the scriptures incorrectly:
“Consider the danger in this type of arbitrary exegesis. In practice, one can throw out any doctrines that are inconvenient or out of date and replace them with whatever philosophies are in vogue. In fact, Augustine took it as his rule to do just that. ‘Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative.’ Who is to judge whether a doctrine is “sound”? For Augustine, that which was philosophically absurd could not be taken literally.” 7
Early Christianity adopted the practice of allegorical interpretation from the Greek schools of philosophy of their times. Most educated Greeks did not take the stories of their gods literally. The stories of the Greek gods were an integral segment of Greek tradition, therefore the Greeks could not abandon these stories of the gods. To do so would bring considerable loss to their way of life. To retain the stories of the gods, yet not take them literally, the Greeks interpreted their stories as allegories that teach higher moral truths. According to Edwin Hatch, this method of interpretation of the stories of the Greek gods became standard in the Hellenistic world. 8
Aristides, an early Christian apologist, spoke of how the Greeks interpreted their legends of the gods allegorically. We can see in this rebuke a warning to the Christians of the second century, as scriptural passages referring to God’s physical form were interpreted allegorically. “For if the stories about them be mythical, the gods are nothing more than mere names… and if the stories are allegorical, they are myths and nothing more.” 9
Latter-day Saints declare scriptures relating to God’s body to be read literally
A related reason The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is excluded from the Christian category by some is because we believe, as did the ancient prophets and apostles, in an embodied—but certainly glorified—God. To those who criticize this scripturally based belief, I ask at least rhetorically: If the idea of an embodied God is repugnant, why are the central doctrines and singularly most distinguishing characteristics of all Christianity the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the physical Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ? If having a body is not only not needed but not desirable by Deity, why did the Redeemer of mankind redeem His body, redeeming it from the grasp of death and the grave, guaranteeing it would never again be separated from His spirit in time or eternity? Any who dismiss the concept of an embodied God dismiss both the mortal and the resurrected Christ. No one claiming to be a true Christian will want to do that.
Now, to anyone within the sound of my voice who has wondered regarding our Christianity, I bear this witness. I testify that Jesus Christ is the literal, living Son of our literal, living God. This Jesus is our Savior and Redeemer who, under the guidance of the Father, was the Creator of heaven and earth and all things that in them are… I testify that He had power over death because He was divine but that He willingly subjected Himself to death for our sake because for a period of time He was also mortal. I declare that in His willing submission to death He took upon Himself the sins of the world, paying an infinite price for every sorrow and sickness, every heartache and unhappiness from Adam to the end of the world. In doing so He conquered both the grave physically and hell spiritually and set the human family free. I bear witness that He was literally resurrected from the tomb and, after ascending to His Father to complete the process of that Resurrection, He appeared, repeatedly, to hundreds of disciples in the Old World and in the New. I know He is the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah who will one day come again in final glory, to reign on earth as Lord of lords and King of kings. I know that there is no other name given under heaven whereby a man can be saved and that only by relying wholly upon His merits, mercy, and everlasting grace can we gain eternal life.
My additional testimony regarding this resplendent doctrine is that in preparation for His millennial latter-day reign, Jesus has already come, more than once, in embodied majestic glory. In the spring of 1820, a 14-year-old boy, confused by many of these very doctrines that still confuse much of Christendom, went into a grove of trees to pray. In answer to that earnest prayer offered at such a tender age, the Father and the Son appeared as embodied, glorified beings to the boy prophet Joseph Smith. That day marked the beginning of the return of the true, New Testament gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and the restoration of other prophetic truths offered from Adam down to the present day. 10
1. Celsus, On True Doctrine, p. 103.
2. Harnack, History of Dogma 1:180 n.1.
3. Harvard Theological Review 83 (1900): 105-116.
4. Origen, quoted in McLintock, John, and Strong, James, eds. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. 7:430. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1877.
5. Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses. This was published in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (April 1990), p. 114.
6. Augustine, quoted in Paulsen, Early Christian Belief, p. 115.
7. Barry Robert Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity, FAIR, 1999, p. 96.
8. Edwin Hatch, The influence of Greek Ideas and Usages Upon the Christian Church, p. 65.
9. Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church, p. 97 see also Leighton Pullan, The History of Early Christianity, p. 172.
10. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent, Ensign, October 2007. See an edited video of his message here.
11. It is of worth to note that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes called “The Mormons” are noticed by many mainstream Christian groups for teaching that The Father and the Son both have physical bodies. To me it is hard to deny that The Son has a body if one simply reads the testimony of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Father having a body, now that can be a bit more complex. The Bible is a complicated book, with differing views on God, many of which evolved over time. My belief that the Father has a body comes from modern day revelation, although there is evidence from scripture and many of the Apostolic Fathers’ teachings that they believed the Father has a body. I will write more on this in upcoming posts. On a website Catholic.com, we can read the following:
Certain groups, notably the Mormons, have committed the error of saying that God the Father has a body, and have thus become anthropomorphites, people who say that God has a human form…
Anthropomorphites argue that man is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27) and point to verses that refer to the strong right arm of God, the eyes of God, and so forth.
In doing this, they profoundly misunderstand Scripture. First, the image of God we bear involves our rational soul that separates us from animals (the function that the image plays in Genesis 1 is to separate humans from the animals God has just created). Second, talk in the Bible about God’s strong right arm, his eyes, and such is metaphorical language concerning God’s power and knowledge. This can be seen by the fact that the Bible also speaks of God as having feathers and wings; yet even the anthropomorphites would not go this far (cf. Ps. 91:4—”He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”).
Anthropomorphites maintain their doctrine in defiance of verses, such as John 4:24, where Jesus teaches us: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” This means God has no body, because a spirit is, by nature, an incorporeal being. As Jesus tells us elsewhere, “a spirit has not flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39).
There is a big difference between being a spirit and having a spirit. Jesus says that the Father is a spirit, not that the Father has a spirit; this means that he lacks a body entirely.
The Church Fathers, of course, agreed, and loudly declared the fact that God is an unchangeable, immaterial spirit who has an entirely simple (“incomposite”) nature—that is, a nature containing no parts. Since all bodies extend through space and thus can be divided into parts, it is clear that God cannot have a body.
“What of Christ’s body?” you may ask. It is true that Jesus, who is God, assumed an earthly body when he was born of the Blessed Virgin, and that this body, now glorified, continues to exist. But since the Lord only took on human flesh in these “last days,” and since God has always existed, without beginning or end, we must still conclude that having a body is not part of God’s unchangeable nature: he exists in eternity as pure spirit, even though he chose for the Son to also take on a human nature in addition to his bodiless, timeless, divine nature.
Tatian the Syrian
“Our God has no introduction in time. He alone is without beginning, and is himself the beginning of all things. God is a spirit, not attending upon matter, but the maker of material spirits and of the appearances which are in matter. He is invisible, being himself the Father of both sensible and invisible things” (Address to the Greeks 4 [A.D. 170]).
“I have sufficiently demonstrated that we are not atheists, since we acknowledge one God, unbegotten, eternal, invisible, incapable of being acted upon, incomprehensible, unbounded, who is known only by understanding and reason, who is encompassed by light and beauty and spirit and indescribable power, by whom all things, through his Word, have been produced and set in order and are kept in existence” (Plea for the Christians 10 [A.D. 177]).
“Far removed is the Father of all from those things which operate among men, the affections and passions. He is simple, not composed of parts, without structure, altogether like and equal to himself alone. He is all mind, all spirit, all thought, all intelligence, all reason . . . all light, all fountain of every good, and this is the manner in which the religious and the pious are accustomed to speak of God” (Against Heresies 2:13:3 [A.D. 189]).
Clement of Alexandria
“The first substance is everything which subsists by itself, as a stone is called a substance. The second is a substance capable of increase, as a plant grows and decays. The third is animated and sentient substance, as animal, horse. The fourth is animate, sentient, rational substance, as man. Wherefore each one of us is made as consisting of all, having an immaterial soul and a mind, which is the image of God” (Fragment from On Providence [A.D. 200]).
“Being is in God. God is divine being, eternal and without beginning, incorporeal and illimitable, and the cause of what exists. Being is that which wholly subsists. Nature is the truth of things, or the inner reality of them. According to others, it is the production of what has come to existence; and according to others, again, it is the providence of God, causing the being, and the manner of being, in the things which are produced” (ibid.).
“What is God? ‘God,’ as the Lord says, ‘is a spirit.’ Now spirit is properly substance, incorporeal, and uncircumscribed. And that is incorporeal which does not consist of a body, or whose existence is not according to breadth, length, and depth. And that is uncircumscribed which has no place, which is wholly in all, and in each entire, and the same in itself” (ibid.).
“No one can rightly express him wholly. For on account of his greatness he is ranked as the All, and is the Father of the universe. Nor are any parts to be predicated of him. For the One is indivisible; wherefore also it is infinite, not considered with reference to inscrutability, but with reference to its being without dimensions, and not having a limit. And therefore it is without form” (Miscellanies 5:12 [A.D. 208]).
“Since our mind is in itself unable to behold God as he is, it knows the Father of the universe from the beauty of his works and from the elegance of his creatures. God, therefore, is not to be thought of as being either a body or as existing in a body, but as a simple intellectual being, admitting within himself no addition of any kind” (Fundamental Doctrines 1:1:6 [A.D. 225]).
“John says in the gospel, ‘No one has at any time seen God,’ clearly declaring to all who are able to understand, that there is no nature to which God is visible, not as if he were indeed visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because he is by nature impossible to be seen” (ibid. 1:1:8).
“God, however, being without parts, is Father of the Son without division and without being acted upon. For neither is there an effluence from that which is incorporeal, nor is there anything flowering into him from without, as in the case of men. Being simple in nature, he is Father of one only Son” (Letter on the Council of Nicaea 11 [A.D. 350]).
Didymus the Blind
“God is simple and of an incomposite and spiritual nature, having neither ears nor organs of speech. A solitary essence and illimitable, he is composed of no numbers and parts” (The Holy Spirit 35 [A.D. 362]).
Hilary of Poitiers
“First it must be remembered that God is incorporeal. He does not consist of certain parts and distinct members, making up one body. For we read in the gospel that God is a spirit: invisible, therefore, and an eternal nature, immeasurable and self-sufficient. It is also written that a spirit does not have flesh and bones. For of these the members of a body consist, and of these the substance of God has no need. God, however, who is everywhere and in all things, is all-hearing, all-seeing, all-doing, and all-assisting” (Commentary on the Psalms129:3 [A.D. 365]).
Basil the Great
“The operations of God are various, but his essence is simple” (Letters234:1 [A.D. 367]).
Ambrose of Milan
“God is of a simple nature, not conjoined nor composite. Nothing can be added to him. He has in his nature only what is divine, filling up everything, never himself confused with anything, penetrating everything, never himself being penetrated, everywhere complete, and present at the same time in heaven, on earth, and in the farthest reaches of the sea, incomprehensible to the sight” (The Faith 1:16:106 [A.D. 379]).
Evagrius of Pontus
“To those who accuse us of a doctrine of three gods, let it be stated that we confess one God, not in number but in nature. For all that is said to be one numerically is not one absolutely, nor is it simple in nature. It is universally confessed, however, that God is simple and not composite” (Dogmatic Letter on the Trinity 8:2 [A.D. 381]).
Gregory of Nyssa
“But there is neither nor ever shall be such a dogma in the Church of God that would prove the simple and incomposite [God] to be not only manifold and variegated, but even constructed from opposites. The simplicity of the dogmas of the truth proposes God as he is” (Against Eunomius1:1:222 [A.D. 382]).
“[Paul] knows [God] in part. But he says, ‘in part,’ not because he knows God’s essence while something else of his essence he does not know; for God is simple. Rather, he says ‘in part’ because he knows that God exists, but what God is in his essence he does not know” (Against the Anomoians 1:5 [A.D. 386]).
“Why does John say, ‘No one has ever seen God’ [John 1:18]? So that you might learn that he is speaking about the perfect comprehension of God and about the precise knowledge of him. For that all those incidents [where people saw a vision of God] were condescensions and that none of those persons saw the pure essence of God is clear enough from the differences of what each did see. For God is simple and non-composite and without shape; but they all saw different shapes” (ibid., 4:3).
“In created and changeable things what is not said according to substance can only be said according to accident. . . . In God, however, certainly there is nothing that is said according to accident, because in him there is nothing that is changeable, but neither is everything that is said of him according to substance” (The Trinity5:5:6 [A.D. 408]).
Cyril of Alexandria
“We are not by nature simple; but the divine nature, perfectly simple and incomposite, has in itself the abundance of all perfection and is in need of nothing” (Dialogues on the Trinity 1 [A.D. 420]).
“The nature of the Godhead, which is simple and not composite, is never to be divided into two” (Treasury of the Holy Trinity 11 [A.D. 424]).
“When the divine Scripture presents sayings about God and remarks on corporeal parts, do not let the mind of those hearing it harbor thoughts of tangible things, but from those tangible things as if from things said figuratively let it ascend to the beauty of things intellectual, and rather than figures and quantity and circumscriptions and shapes and everything else that pertains to bodies, let it think on God, although he is above all understanding. We were speaking of him in a human way, for there is no other way in which we could think about the things that are above us” (Commentary on the Psalms11:3 [A.D. 429]).