Is God Only a Spirit?
by John A. Tvedtnes
In April 1843, the prophet Joseph Smith declared, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit.” (D&C 130:22) Critics of the restored Church, relying on post-biblical creeds defining the nature of the Godhead, counter by citing John 4:24, where Jesus said, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” Latter-day Saints respond by quoting D&C 93:33-35:
For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy. The elements are the tabernacle of God; yea, man is the tabernacle of God, even temples; and whatsoever temple is defiled, God shall destroy that temple.
If human beings, who began as spirit-children of God, can have a body, there is no reason why God cannot also have a body. Following his resurrection, Christ appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem and said, “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). Since Christ has a resurrected body, it would be wrong to say that the Godhead is spirit only. Moreover, since the scriptures teach–and the early Church fathers maintained1–that mortals can be deified, it stands to reason that God could well have a body.
In addition, the Bible informs us that mankind was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; cf. Genesis 5:3) and some of the prophets who saw God described him as being like a man in shape, seated on a throne (Exodus 24:10-11; 33:18-23; Isaiah 6:1; Ezekiel 1:26; Revelation 4:2; cf. Amos 9:1). The question of whether God has a physical body has been discussed in a number of theological journals and books, with no consensus among modern scholars.2
The early third-century Christian theologian Origen wrote that “the Jews indeed, but also some of our people, supposed that God should be understood as a man, that is, adorned with human members and human appearance. But the philosophers despise these stories as fabulous and formed in the likeness of poetic fictions” (Homilies on Genesis 3:1).3
Many critics of the Latter-day Saint view of God are not impressed by an appeal to modern scholarship or even the earliest Christian writers. To them, the Bible is the only real source of truth on divine matters and John 4, cited earlier, mentions only that God is a Spirit and says nothing of a body. How, then, can one approach the subject of a divinely-embodied God from a biblical point-of-view? To begin, we note the words that Jesus addressed to Nicodemus:
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (John 3:3-8)
This passage clearly says that “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” A similar concept can be found in the apostle John’s epistles and Peter’s first epistle. Peter, for example, admonished that “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently: Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Peter 1:22-23). John similarly wrote that “We are of God…Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God” (1 John 4:6-7). He added:
Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. (1 John 5:1-4)
John’s view is that we become spiritual by being “born of God.” “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9; see also 1 John 5:18). This spiritual rebirth is noted elsewhere in the Bible,4 in the Book of Mormon,5 and in other Latter-day Saint scriptures.6 Alma declared that “all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures” (Mosiah 27:25-26), having, in the process, received the Spirit of God (Alma 36:4-5, 24, 26; 38:6; cf. Alma 22:15). He also noted that part of this rebirth is the ability to “look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality” (Alma 5:15).
King Benjamin also contrasted “the natural man [who] is an enemy to God” with one who ” yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child,” evidently through spiritual rebirth (Mosiah 3:19). The apostle Paul also wrote of the natural man and those who receive the Spirit:
But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:10-16)
Paul also contrasted spiritual with carnal in chapter 8 of his epistle to the Romans, writing of those “who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:1), then declared
That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his . . . For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with [him], that we may be also glorified together. (Romans 8:4-9, 13-17)
Of particular importance in this current discussion is verse 9, “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.” By this reckoning, God, too, can be said to not be “in the flesh” because he follows spiritual principles. From these scriptural passages, it is clear that there is no valid reason to conclude that God does not have a physical body any more than we must conclude that those born of God no longer have a body.
1 Among the Christian Fathers of the second through fourth centuries A.D. who cited biblical evidence that humans are destined to become Gods are Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, Novation, Maximus the Confessor, Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, and the Persian Aphrahat of Syria.
2 See especially Ernst W. Benz, “Imagio Dei: Man in the Image of God,” in Truman G. Madsen, Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 201-19; Carl Griffin and David L. Paulsen, “St. Augustine and Early Christian Anthropomorphism,” Harvard Theological Review 95/1 (2002), 97-118; Jacob Neusner, “Conversations in Nauvoo on the Corporeality of God,” Brigham Young University Studies 36/1 (l996-97): 7-30; David L. Paulsen, Comparative Coherency of Mormon (finitistic) and Classical Theism, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1975; Paulsen, “Must God Be Incorporeal?” Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers 6/1 (January 1989): 76-87; Paulsen, “Early Christian Belief in a Corporeal Deity: Origen and Augustine as Reluctant Witnesses,” Harvard Theological Review 83/2 (1990): 105-116; Paulsen, “Reply to Kim Paffenroth’s Comment,” Harvard Theological Review 86/2 (1993): 235-239; Paulsen, “The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment: Restoration, Judeo-Christian, and Philosophical Perspectives,” Brigham Young University Studies 35/4 (l995-96): 7-94.
3 Ronald E. Heine, Origin Homilies on Genesis (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1982), 89.
4 John 1:12-13. Cf. the question in Job 25:4, “How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?”
5 Mosiah 27:24-28; Alma 5:14-15; 7:14; 22:15; 36:4-5, 23-26; 38:6.
6 D&C 5:16; Moses 6:59, 65.