“God Has No Body” Part 2.4

Find Part 1 here.

In Part 2.1, I challenged three assumptions that are implicit in the argument: first, the fallacy of begging the question; second, the logical weight that John 4:24 is made to bear; and third, the trust in Biblical accuracy. In this response I pointed out the fallacy; argued that the logical weight on John 4:24 is indeed too much for a single scripture; and argued that it is possible that portions of the Bible, including John 4:24, are inaccurate.

In Part 2.2, I challenged the first premise. It claimed that John 4:24 said that “God is a spirit.” When looking at the original Greek, it is clear this phrase could be translated “God is spirit” (as the words “a” and “an” don’t exist in Greek, and this mirrors more closely other statements made by John), “God is life” (as “spirit” could be translated “life”), or “God is the breath of life” (as “spirit” could be translated “breath”).

In Part 2.3, I challenged the second premise. It claimed that the disembodied spirits the Savior referred to in Luke could be compared to the glorified state of God. I argued that this is a weak analogy, for there are vast enough differences between God and man that we cannot necessarily trust that what holds true of one will hold true of another. I exemplified this point by discussing what Paul meant by a “spiritual,” resurrected body, like the body of flesh and bone the Savior showed to his apostles.

The argument can be adjusted as follows:

  1. The Biblical verse John 4:24 has traditionally been translated “God is a spirit” in the KJV, but could also be translated in a number of other ways including “God is spirit” or “God is life.”
  2. The Biblical verse Luke 24:39 defines mortal spirit as incorporeal; yet any analogy which draws similarities between mortal spirits and God is weak because of the vast differences between God and his children.  Further, Biblical scripture makes it clear that resurrected bodies like the tangible body of Jesus Christ are called “spiritual bodies”
  3. Thus, those who are mortal spirits are incorporeal, but glorified spiritual bodies like those of Jesus Christ are corporeal (2)
  4. There is ambiguity concerning how the scripture should be understood (1), and we cannot assume that the scripture should be understood as “God is a spirit” even though it contains no language such as “God has a spirit”
  5. Thus, God may be incorporeal (3) (4)

The Fourth Premise

Originally, the fourth premise made a statement concerning how the scripture John 4:24 should be understood. From our discussions in Parts 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3, we have necessarily had to change that premise to a statement about the scripture’s ambiguity. In this section, I will argue that the meaning of the scripture can be reasonably understood in terms other than those which teach that God is incorporeal.

God is…

J. N. Sanders, in A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John (1968), says:

“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 John 1:5, “God is light,” or Deut. 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” (emphasis added).

Christopher Stead of the Cambridge Divinity School also 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” (emphasis added).

While we learn that God is both a consuming and a devouring fire in the Old Testament, in the writings of John alone we find three descriptions of God as abstract qualities. Because John 4:24 is one of those three instances, we can gain the most benefit in understanding the meaning of the passage by comparing it to the other two.

In Cherry Picking in the Orchard of God’s Word: John 4:24, Darryl Barksdale presents a formula that is evident in each of the three instances:

  1. Declaration of God’s attribute
  2. Description of God’s expectation in regard to our performance or behavior in reference to that attribute, and
  3. Declaration of our reward, if we succeed.

In other words, it follows the pattern: “God is x; whoever does x will receive y.” There is clearly no intent in defining, in totality, the nature of God.

For example, lets look at 1 John 4:16, where John says, “God is love.”

  1. God is love
  2. We are to “dwell in the love of God”
  3. If we do, God will dwell in us.  We will also be born of God and know him (1 John 4:7)

That wasn’t too hard. Let’s look at 1 John 1:5 now, where John says, “God is light.”

  1. God is light
  2. We are to “walk in the light, as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7)
  3. If we do, we will have fellowship with one another, and be cleansed from sin through Jesus Christ (1 John 1:7)

Now for the third scripture, John 4:24, where John says, “God is spirit.” I’ll even let you do most of the work!  (If you need a clue, re-read J. N. Sanders’ statement above).

  1. God is… (John 4:24)
  2. We are to worship… (John 4:24; also John 4:23)
  3. If we do, then we will know… and gain… (John 4:22)

This scripture, just like the other two written by John, fits the pattern. Clearly, it is not meant to describe what God only is.

Worship in Spirit

We learn from John 4:24 that God wants us to worship in spirit and truth. If God is an incorporeal spirit and we have to worship him in spirit, do we as mortals have to leave our bodies to worship him? Obviously the answer is no. Latter-day Saints believe that man is also spirit (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33-34Num. 16:22Rom. 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). 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” (Rom. 8:9).

Numerous Latter-day Saints have commented on this concept of worshiping in spirit. Le Grand Richards said the following:

“This should not be confusing, since we are all spirits, clothed with bodies of flesh and bones. John says we are to “worship him in spirit and in truth.” He would not, however, imply that our spirits should leave our bodies so that we can worship him “in spirit.” Paul declared: “But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:17.) We are spirits in the same sense that John had in mind when he said “God is a spirit.””

Lowell L. Bennion, an LDS scholar, said:

“In this verse, Jesus was not trying to describe the whole nature of God; he was emphasizing the role of spirit in God and man as part of a brief discourse on how to worship. He was trying to teach the Samaritan woman to worship “in spirit and in truth.”‘

Randy L. Bott, another LDS scholar, said:

“Does the fact that God has a body prevent him from also having a spirit? Of course not. A thorough search reveals that “man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93:33). Man certainly does not have to lay aside his body so that his spirit can communicate with God. Likewise, God’s ability to communicate with man’s spirit does not require that he not have a body. Physically, God can only be in one place at one time, so it would be restrictive if he were limited to a physical means of communication. The Savior, in teaching the woman at the well in Samaria, said, “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship” (John 4:22).”

The argument can be adjusted as follows:

  1. The Biblical verse John 4:24 has traditionally been translated “God is a spirit” in the KJV, but could also be translated in a number of other ways including “God is spirit” or “God is life.”
  2. The Biblical verse Luke 24:39 defines mortal spirit as incorporeal; yet any analogy which draws similarities between mortal spirits and God is weak because of the vast differences between God and his children.  Further, Biblical scripture makes it clear that resurrected bodies like the tangible body of Jesus Christ are called “spiritual bodies”
  3. Thus, those who are mortal spirits are incorporeal, but glorified spiritual bodies like those of Jesus Christ are corporeal (2)
  4. There is strong evidence that the scripture should be understood in terms of spirit being one aspect of a fuller character that does not prevent an incorporeal deity, and we cannot assume that the scripture should be understood as “God is a spirit” even though it contains no language such as “God has a spirit”
  5. Thus, God may be incorporeal (3) (4)

Continued at Part 2.5.

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