Hey guys, so when it comes to the nature of God, Latter-day Saint scripture teaches that “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.”
This causes a lot of non-Latter-day Saint Christians some heartburn, because doesn’t John 4:24 teach that “God is a spirit?” It’s a totally fair question, let’s talk about it.
So before we get into this, it’s important that you understand what Latter-day Saints mean when they talk about a spirit being, because different faiths have different ideas about what “spirit” is. Coincidentally, we have an episode on this topic, so check that out if you haven’t yet.
Alright, so: John 4:24 says: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” Many Christians read this verse as implying that because God is a spirit he therefore cannot have a body. This is not an assumption Latter-day Saints make. We believe that unembodied spirits exist, but we also believe that embodied spirits exist. We believe that God is an embodied spirit. His spirit is clothed in an immortal, perfected, incorruptible, glorified body of flesh and bones. Let’s take Jesus Christ as a case study:
Before his mortal birth, we believe Christ was an unembodied spirit being. During His mortal life, he was an embodied spirit being (with a mortal body). For the three days after His death, he was a disembodied spirit being. And after His resurrection, he was again an embodied spirit being (this time with an immortal body). The common factor through this whole process is His spirit. It’s the same spirit through and through. Similarly, we believe God the Father is a spirit.
Just as God is spirit, Daniel Peterson pointed out that “every human being, too, is spiritual in his or her essential nature. For most Christians, humans are not exhaustively defined by their bodies. I am not my body; I have a body.”
And indeed, similar to John 4:24’s assertion that “God is a spirit,” Latter-day Saint scripture even makes the simple statement, “For man is spirit.” Of course, this does not negate the fact that we also have physical bodies. It’s simply an acknowledgment of that eternal identity that predates a physical body.
Now, all of that said, some people also simply take a non-literal approach to John 4:24, which you can also do if that makes the most sense to you.
In many Bible translations, like the NIV, the ESV, the ISV, the NASB, and the NRSV, this verse does not say “God is a Spirit” but rather, “God is spirit.” The English article “a” doesn’t exist in the original Greek, so both versions are acceptable translations. This rendering brings to mind other scriptures of similar structure that are clearly not meant to be literal descriptions of God’s being, but rather are acknowledging some of God’s attributes. For example, just earlier in this very chapter, we read that “God is love.” A few chapters back we read that “God is light.” Is God literally love? Is He literally made of photons? Probably not. These are just ways to describe His loving nature, or His desire to reveal truth to those in darkness.
So if you take this route, “God is spirit” is simply an acknowledgment of God’s spirituality, not a literal and exclusive description of his being. In the previous chapter, John 3, we see a fairly clear example of this kind of interpretation as Christ talks about baptism. He says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Thus, newly baptized believers who are “born of the Spirit” are described here as “spirits.” Does this imply that after baptism we shed our physical bodies? Of course not. The theologian Albert Barnes wrote that they are “spirit” in the sense that they become “‘like’ the spirit, that is, holy, pure.” Applying this interpretation to John 4:24 you could read it as, “God is spirit in that He is holy and pure: and they that worship him must worship him in holiness and purity.”
The late non-Latter-day Saint Cambridge scholar Joseph Sanders offered another non-literalist interpretation: “That God is spirit is not meant as a definition of God’s being. … It is a metaphor of his mode of operation, as life-giving power, and it is no more to be taken literally than John 1:5, ‘God is light,’ or Deut. 4:24, ‘Your God is a devouring fire.’”
And for what it’s worth, this debacle over whether God is a corporeal, material being, or an incorporeal, immaterial being was a hotly debated subject in the early centuries of the Church. In fact, for a time John 4:24 was used as evidence that God did have some kind of material body. The idea being that the Greek word translated as “spirit” can also mean “air” or “breath,” which is a material substance. Origen, who is known as the most important theologian of the early Greek church, staunchly believed that God was incorporeal and immaterial, and actually defends his views by arguing that John 4:24 isn’t meant to be interpreted literally.
“Origen argues that if scriptural passages that describe God as spirit, light, fire, and so forth were literally understood, they would erroneously suggest that God is corporeal. Consequently, he advocated a metaphorical interpretation.”
And despite his immaterialist views, he does note that “how God himself is to be conceived, whether as corporeal and fashioned in some shape, or as a being of a different nature from bodies,” is “a point which is not clearly set forth in the teaching.”
Anyway, you get the point. Some Latter-day Saints go for a more literal interpretation, some a more figurative one. I think there’s logic to either approach, so go with whatever makes the most sense to you. And if what makes the most sense to you is that God is literally and exclusively an unembodied immaterial spirit, that’s fine, too, and we’re happy to agree to disagree. Check out the resources in the description for more info on this subject, and have a great day!
- From the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: http://bit.ly/3qnAjd6
- From the Church’s website: http://bit.ly/3kHzBWS
- “God, Body of, Corporeal Nature,” in Topical Guide: http://bit.ly/3t4jPIm
- From Jeff Lindsay on this subject: http://bit.ly/3sGcyhK
- “Early Christian Belief in an Embodied God,” by David L. Paulsen: https://bit.ly/3uS9zVn
- If you prefer the same information from a non-Latter-day Saint publication, here is Paulsen’s article (with what appear to be only minor edits) in The Harvard Theological Review: https://bit.ly/2OGYcyY
- Source for that Origen quote (see pg. 7): http://bit.ly/2OLjDPC
- Some additional info on this subject: http://bit.ly/38vduOs