Early Christians Believed that God had a Body

While I was at BYU, I had the opportunity to take two classes from David L. Paulsen – one, an introduction to philosophy of religion, and the other, on the works of William James (taking that second class was due less to an interest in William James, and more to an interest in taking another class with Paulsen).

It was an opportunity, I think, that I did not fully appreciate at the time. I had, for example, a love-hate relationship with our “exams.” After a given unit, we would then write a position paper. In it, we’d argue in favor of our personal view (whatever it happened to be), and then respond to two or three strong objections to that view. I would invariably wait till the night before to start these papers, and I’m sure you can guess how that worked out for me.

(I did just fine on the papers themselves, and the exercise helped me to learn a great deal, but I am very jealous of my sleep….)

In any case, the man is brilliant, and a hero of mine.

That’s not to say that his works are the kind you just skim over during a warm Sunday afternoon when you’re looking for light entrainment. It’s some heavy stuff, often assuming a familiarity with philosophical vernacular. I have no doubt that it’s completely within reach of anyone interested in picking it up – you’ll just need to make sure you’re engaged, that your brain is turned on, and that you take your time.

For some lighter fare, try his BYU devotional speech “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil.” Given the audience, it’s a little easier to swallow.

Another fascinating piece of Paulsen’s (there are so many) is his “Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses” (published in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 83, No. 2 (April 1990), pp. 105 – 116).

Origen, looking as reluctant as I imagine he ever did.

In this paper, Paulsen argues that while some early Church Fathers may have adopted a Trinitarian view themselves, the belief in a corporeal – embodied – God was quite widespread. Origen and Augustine, in their engagements with the belief in a corporeal Christian God, become “reluctant witnesses” to the fact that it was, in their time, commonplace. The inference is that the commonplace nature of this belief was due to it’s veracity and divine authorship, having been taught be the earliest church leaders, the apostles.

Not insignificantly, this is the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This post serves as a basic outline to that essay. My hope is that it whets your appetite for more from Paulsen.

Thesis

“Christians for at least the first three centuries of the current era commonly (and perhaps generally) believed God to be corporeal. The belief was abandoned (and then only gradually) as Neoplatonism became more and more entrenched as the dominant world view of Christian thinker.”

The God of the Bible

Section Topic: The very earliest Christians widely believed God to be corporeal.

Adolph Harnack writes,

“God was naturally conceived and represented as corporeal by uncultured Christians, though not by these alone, as the later controversies prove (e.g., Orig[en] Contra Melito; see also Tertull[ian] De anima). In the case of the cultured, the idea of a corporeality of God may be traced back to Stoic influences; in the case of the uncultured, popular ideas cooperated with the sayings of the Old Testament literally understood, and the impression of the Apocalyptic image.”

Harnack also writes,

“In the second century. . . realistic eschatological ideas no doubt continued to foster in wide circles the popular idea that God had a form and a kind of corporeal existence.”

Harnack identifies three sources of this Christian belief in a corporeal deity:

  1. Popular religious ideas born of man’s natural conception of God as corporeal
  2. Stoic metaphysics
  3. Old Testament scriptures literally understood (Many Biblical passages indicate or imply that God is embodied, and only after accepting Neoplatonist philosophy are they given allegorical interpretation. For example, Genesis 1:26-27Genesis 5:1Genesis 9:6Genesis 32:30Exodus 33:11Exodus 33:23Exodus 34:10Acts 7:56, and Philippians 2:6.)

Origen

Section Topic: Origen supports the thesis in at least six ways.

First

In De principiis (On First Principles), Origen enumerates the doctrines that he says were delivered to the church by the apostles; significantly, the doctrine of divine incorporeality is not included.

Second

Origen clarifies first- and second-century word usage. Origen tells us:

  • Nowhere in the Bible is God defined as incorporeal. The Greek word asomatos (incorporeal) does not appear in the Bible.
  • When the term asomatos appears in non-Biblical Christian writings, it was meant to describe a material, corporeal body that was just much finer than those bodies perceivable by the senses.
  • John 4:24 – now used as a proof text in favor of incorporeality – was a text used at that time as proof in favor of corporeality.

Third

By the time Origen was writing, the issue of God’s corporeality was still unsettled by the Church. He writes,

“How God himself is to be understood… is a point which is not clearly indicated in our teachings.”

Fourth

Origen argues vehemently against those affirming God’s corporeality. A large part of his strategy is to show his fellow Christians, “by means of painstaking exegesis and allegorical interpretation,” that the scriptures do not disprove divine incorporeality.

Origen’s vehemence suggests that divine corporeality was a popular Christian understanding. In one instance he concludes that while “some of our people suppose that God should be understood as a man… the philosophers despise these stories as fabulous and formed in the likeness of poetic fictions” (emphasis added).

Fifth

Origen identifies Melito as among the prominent second-century Christians who taught that God was embodied. Melito was a prolific writer, completing up to 20 works in his time. Unfortunately, and perhaps due to his support of the doctrine of divine corporeality, most of his writings have been destroyed.

Sixth

Origen preserves the critique of Celsus, a non-Christian. Celsus criticized the Church around 178 for its’ inadequate teachings regarding the nature of God – that God was “corporeal by nature and has a body like the human form.”

St. Augustine

Section Topic: Augustine provides substantial evidence that a belief in a corporeal deity was common in some Christian groups as late as the fourth century.

For example, Augustine, who’s mother was a Christian, believed for many years that Christians believed God to be embodied (this was to him a stumbling block to his acceptance of the Christian faith). From his writings it is clear that through his youth and for many years after Augustine understood Christians to believe that God was corporeal.

The Demise of the God of the Bible

“Though replacement of the embodied God of the Bible with the incorporeal deity of Neoplatonist metaphysics occasioned great relief for St. Augustine, it was traumatic for others…. [One monk] was persuaded to give up his erroneous beliefs and devotional practices…. In great despair, prostrating himself on the ground and weeping, he cried out, ‘They have taken my God from me, and I have now none to behold, and whom to worship and address I know not.'”

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