Find Part 1 here.
Perhaps the foremost argument used by those who claim that God is incorporeal is an appeal to the scripture John 4:24, which states in part that “God is a Spirit” (KJV). This argument often also appeals to Luke 24:39, where the Savior describes spirit as incorporeal. The formal argument goes something like this:
- The Biblical verse John 4:24 says “God is a spirit” (KJV)
- The Biblical verse Luke 24:39 defines spirit as incorporeal
- Thus, those who are spirits are incorporeal (2)
- The scripture should be understood as “God is a spirit,” as it contains no language such as “God has a spirit”
- Thus, God is incorporeal (3) (4)
Before challenging any of the above premises, I wish to challenge three assumptions that are foundational to this argument: first, the fallacy of begging the question which is so important to this argument’s reasoning; second, the assumption that it is appropriate to use this short phrase of scripture to prove something as important as the nature of God; and third, the assumption that the Bible is infallible. While challenging these assumptions may not invalidate the conclusion of the argument, it will certainly show that this argument is not as strong as most Christians assume.
Begging the Question
First, this argument commits the fallacy of begging the question. The manner in which this argument commits this fallacy is explained by Larry E. Dahl:
“Unfortunately many have wrested the Bible into a game of “Trivial Pursuit.” In spite of the preponderance of passages describing God in anthropomorphic terms, one brief verse in John, “God is a Spirit,” is seized upon to prove the contrary… Unable either rationally or scripturally to explain how God can be absolutely one supreme being of immaterial essence, and yet be absolutely three distinct persons (one having a corporeal body of flesh and bone), the theologians resolved the dilemma by begging the question and declaring the doctrine an incomprehensible mystery” (emphasis added).
Begging the question involves circular reasoning. In this case, it goes like this:
- “We cannot know what God is really like through our finite understanding.”
- “Because he is an incomprehensible mystery!”
Being unable to understand God because he is an incomprehensible mystery, and then claiming God is an incomprehensible mystery because we cannot understand him, is circular reasoning.
When we fail to even attempt to reconcile this scripture with the numerous anthropomorphic references in the Bible, and instead chalk it up to one great mystery, we stand in error. Certainly God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8), but this is not a case where we are meant to be left in the dark. Jesus himself said,
“And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3, emphasis added).
Clearly, if God’s nature is an incomprehensible mystery, we cannot know him.
Obscure and Strained
Second, to settle a question as important as this by one part of one verse in a 66 book document is unquestionably extreme. This argument, though, claims that such extremism is acceptable. Joseph Fielding McConkie, the son of Bruce R. McConkie, said,
“Those advocating questionable doctrines or practices will virtually always seek to give them credibility through the use of proof texts from scripture. Two characteristics are common to such efforts. First, the texts will be obscure, in sharp contrast to the principles of salvation that are taught repeatedly throughout the scriptures. Second, they will be strained; the burden they are being forced to bear will not be natural to them. That is to say, they will not be justified by the context from which they are taken.
“Let me cite [this illustration]. Sectarian creeds declare God to be “without body, parts, or passions.” The text that bears the weight of that declaration is John 4:24, which states, “God is a spirit.” The difficulty here is… an assertion of such importance, one that is announcing the very nature of God, ought not rest on a single scriptural text. The burden is simply too great for a four-word sentence to carry. That has to be particularly true when the sentence is being given an interpretation that puts it at odds with hosts of other scriptural texts that describe the bodily appearance of God to prophets and others….” (emphasis added).
Our understanding of the great gospel truths should not be left to obscure passages out of reach of all but the best scriptorians. In this case, using John 4:24 is overreaching for such an important concept.
An Imperfect Book
Thirdly, the Bible is not a perfect document. Blatant internal contradictions within the Biblical text show that even minor errors remain today. The earliest manuscripts of the Bible still in existence date at least hundreds of years after they were originally composed (and far longer for Old Testament documents). There are books referenced in the Bible that make it clear that they were important anciently, but we don’t have them today. And the writers, translators, publishers, and readers of this sacred text are all human. We are naturally imperfect, and so errors happen naturally.
Latter-day Saints believe that the text of John 4:24 is mistranslated. Joseph Smith translated this text as “For unto such hath God promised his Spirit” (John 4:24 JST). Bruce R. McConkie said:
“The fact is that John 4:24 is mistranslated. It is part of a passage in which Jesus is teaching that the Father seeks true worshipers who will worship him in spirit and in truth. “For unto such,” he says, “hath God promised his Spirit.”
This point, I realize, may not be very academically strong. There is little evidence that this specific scripture is mistranslated. Still, it is clear that the Bible is not inerrant, which leaves this possibility open. Regardless, this point (while worth noting) is not vital to the denial of the argument as a whole.
The denial of these three assumptions greatly weakens the argument before we even start to look at the formal premises.
Continued at Part 2.2.