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Mormonism and the nature of God/Corporeality of God
Mormonism and the belief in the corporeality of God
Summary: Some Christians object to the Mormon belief that God has a physical body and human form by quoting scripture which says that "God is not a man" (e.g. Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29, Hosea 11:9). Some have also asked how God can be material and do things like float and move through walls.
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: Why do the Latter-day Saints believe God has a body?
- Question: What are the common objections to a belief in God's corporeality?
- Question: Does the doctrine that God has a physical body contradict the Bible?
- Question: If only God the Father had a physical body at the time Adam was created, why did He say 'Let us make man in OUR image'?
- Question: Since Mormons believe that God possesses a physical body, does that mean that He cannot be omnipresent?
- Question: Is the doctrine that God the Father and Jesus Christ have physical bodies not Biblical?
- Non-LDS Christian view of Joseph Smith's theology of divine embodiment
- Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: The "sameness of Jesus" and humanity
- Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: Mormonism an exciting mirror for other Christians
- Mormonism does not use the Nicene Creed, and invokes earlier Christian ideas that were overshadowed by Plato
- Mormons have "picked up" discarded beliefs of early Christians
- Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: Revelation versus "historical guesswork" about Jesus
- Mormons are not Arians
- "Smith would have held his own in debating with" Neo-Platonists, Gnostics, and early Christian theologians
- LDS doctrine rejects Neo-Plantonic accretions, but this does not make them automatically false
- Augustine's views about matter are perhaps less coherent than Joseph Smith's
- Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: Creedal Christians can learn from LDS views about Jesus Christ and creation
Question: Why do the Latter-day Saints believe God has a body?
Latter-day Saints believe God has a body in human form simply because our scriptures and our prophets unanimously testify on this point
One thing that sets Latter-day Saints apart from nearly all of the rest of Christianity is the doctrine that God the Father possesses a body in human form. In fact, many of our Christian brothers and sisters see this belief as positively strange, and some even question our claim to the title “Christian” because of it.
“The Father has a body of flesh and bones, as tangible as man’s; the Son also” (DC 130:22).
In other words, if we want to know what kind of being God is, who better to believe than those who have actually seen Him? There are multiple Biblical examples, such as:
- the prophet Ezekiel, who described his vision of God by saying he saw “high above all, upon the throne, a form in human likeness” (Ezekiel 1:26, New English Bible.).
- Stephen, whose last words were, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56.).
- John, who saw God sitting on the throne in heaven (Revelation 4:2).
- Moses was not allowed to see God’s face in one vision (God was angry at the Israelites at the time), but God said he would “cover thee with my hand while I pass by; and I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:22-23).
- Moses did see God previously, however: “the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
- Jacob “wrestled a man” one night in the wilderness, and after this encounter “Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [Hebrew for “the face of God”]: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:24-32).
Some of these references may refer to visions of God the Son, but some of them, like Stephen’s and John’s, certainly refer to the person of the Father.
Edmond LaB. Cherbonnier of Trinity College (a non-Mormon scholar) summarizes this phenomenon as follows:
In short, to use the forbidden word, the biblical God is clearly anthropomorphic (i.e. “in the form of man”)—not apologetically so, but proudly, even militantly.
Christopher Stead (another non-Mormon scholar) of the Cambridge Divinity School agrees that
The Hebrews…pictured the God whom they worshipped as having a body and mind like our own, though transcending humanity in the splendour of his appearance, in his power, his wisdom, and the constancy of his care for his creatures.
The LDS doctrine of God’s embodiment rests primarily on eyewitness testimony. We believe God has a body in human form because everyone who has seen Him has described Him in this way.
Question: What are the common objections to a belief in God's corporeality?
Most other Christians interpret the Bible differently than we do on this point
Obviously, most other Christians interpret the Bible differently than we do on this point, and they put forward several standard objections to this kind of “anthropomorphism.” However, these objections do not hold up under close scrutiny. This will be shown for several common objections to the LDS doctrine, most of which can be found in a tract published by Catholic Answers, Inc., entitled, Does God Have a Body?
Objection: “Being ‘in the image of God’ means humans have a rational soul.”
“And God said, Let us make man in our image [Hebrew tselem], after our likeness [Hebrew demuth]” (Genesis 1:26). This statement in the first chapter of the Bible seems pretty clear to Latter-day Saints. However, our fellow Christians will often say that this is to be interpreted figuratively, in the sense that humans have “rational souls,” which set us apart from the animals. However, just a few chapters later the author of Genesis repeats "God created man, in the likeness [Hebrew demuth] of God made he him" and then adds some interesting commentary about the birth of Adam's son Seth: "And Adam lived an hundred thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness [Hebrew demuth], after his image [Hebrew tselem]; and called his name Seth” (Genesis 5:1-3).
Adam was created in God’s image and likeness, and one of Adam’s sons had Adam’s image and likeness. Exactly the same words were used to describe both scenarios by the same prophetic author only one verse apart. Either Adam looked like God, or Seth was the only one of Adam’s sons who possessed a “rational soul.” If there is a good reason to interpret one passage in one way, and the other in another way, the critics must provide it. Only a prior commitment to refusing to see man in the form of God (or God in the form of a man) would lead one to interpret the terms differently.
Objection: “The Bible also says God has wings, etc. ”
Of course, it is true that the Biblical writers employed numerous metaphors when talking about God. However, just because some statements about God are metaphorical doesn’t mean that every statement is. When the Psalmist speaks of God covering us with His feathers, and giving refuge under His wings, the metaphor is completely clear. As Jesus said, “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37.) Exactly what is the metaphorical interpretation of God’s “back parts” that Moses saw? When Stephen reported his vision, the text gives no clue as to any metaphorical interpretation; he simply reported what he saw, as did the others.
Objection: John 4:24 says, “God is a Spirit."
See also: FAIR Wiki article God is a Spirit
There are several problems with this objection. First, Paul wrote, “But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:17). To say that God is “a spirit” is grammatically equivalent to the statement that a man joined to the Lord is “one spirit,” and yet, Christians obviously have bodies as well as spirits.
Second, there are no indefinite articles (“a” or “an”) in ancient Greek, so the passage can be translated “God is a Spirit” or “God is Spirit.” Most modern translations have chosen the latter, because John’s statement “God is Spirit” is parallel to two passages in his first epistle, “God is light” (1 Jn 1:5) and “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). In context, all of these passages seem to be referring to God’s activity toward men rather than to the nature of His “Being,” and of course we would never say that God is “a love” or “a light.”
Furthermore, Christopher Stead of the Cambridge Divinity School (another non-Mormon scholar) 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.
It must always be remembered that the Bible was written by Hebrews, and the New Testament writers were all Jews. We saw at the beginning of this article that the Hebrews consistently pictured God in human form.
As another commentator noted:
- 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 Jn 1:5, "God is light," or Deuteronomy 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.
Finally, Latter-day Saints do not believe that “spirit” is incorporeal (i.e. “without substance”), and neither did the earliest Christians. The great Protestant historian, Adolf von Harnack, wrote,
- God was naturally conceived and represented as corporeal by uncultured Christians, though not by these alone, as the later controversies prove.
For instance, the great Christian writer, Tertullian (ca. 200 A.D.) wrote,
- For who will deny that God is a body, although ‘God is a Spirit?’ For Spirit has a bodily substance of its own kind, in its own form.
Why did Christians start believing otherwise? J.W.C. Wand, a historian and former Anglican bishop of London, writes that one of the Greek philosophical schools (Neoplatonism), which was popular in the days of the Roman Empire, exerted a particular influence in this respect. (See below for more information about the influence of the Greek philosophers.):
- It is easy to see what influence this school of thought [Neoplatonism] must have had upon Christian leaders. It was from it that they learnt what was involved in a metaphysical sense by calling God a Spirit. They were also helped to free themselves from their primitive eschatology and to get rid of that crude anthropomorphism which made even Tertullian believe that God had a material body.
Objection: Christians have always believed that God is an unchangeable, simple, immaterial spirit essence.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Origen (circa A.D. 225) wrote,
- For it is also to be a subject of investigation how God himself is to be understood—whether as corporeal, and formed according to some shape, or of a different nature from bodies—a point which is not clearly indicated in our teaching.
Origen (who did not believe in corporeality) nevertheless admitted there was considerable confusion among Christians of that era about this very question, but why?
Origen gives us another clue in a sermon on the book of Genesis:
- 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.
The Jews, and Christians who followed the standard Jewish interpretations, believed that God had a body in human form. Why did Origen reject this? Simply because the philosophers thought it was silly. For instance, the Middle Platonist philosopher Plutarch wrote the following:
- Socrates and Plato held that (God is) the One, the single self-existent nature, the monadic, the real Being, the good: and all this variety of names points immediately to mind. God therefore is mind, a separate species, that is to say what is purely immaterial and unconnected with anything passible [i.e. changeable].
Another Greek philosopher, Empedocles (ca. 444 B.C.) claimed that God
- does not possess a head and limbs similar to those of humans…[He is] a spirit, a holy and inexpressible one.
Greek converts to Christianity wanted to make their faith more appealing to people in their own culture, and so they adopted a definition of God from the Greek philosophers, whose thought was widely respected at the time. The temptation is always there to make one’s faith more popular by “modernizing” it, but the Apostle Paul had warned against exactly this kind of thing. “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8). What was the “philosophy” current in Paul’s day? Greek philosophy. Similarly, Father Jean Daniélou, a Catholic historian and later a Cardinal, wrote that,
- If we now examine the forms of thought and philosophical systems current at the time when Christianity first made its appearance in the world, it is clear that they were by no means ready to assimilate this Christian conception: on the contrary, they were wholly antagonistic thereto.
Objection: John 1:18 says, “No man has seen God at any time.”
See also: FAIR Wiki article: No_man_has_seen_God
Some mainstream Christians object that the passages in the Bible that describe God’s human form must be taken figuratively, because Jesus said, “No man has seen God at any time” (John 1:18). Similarly, God told Moses, “there shall no man see me, and live” (Exodus 33:20). Of course, God said that to Moses right before he told him that He would pass by so Moses could see His “back parts,” but not his face (Exodus 33:21-23), and God was angry at the time, so it may have been a special circumstance. Still, this presents an odd problem, considering the number of times the Bible reports that people did see God. Samuel Meier, Associate Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Semitics at Ohio State University, writes of this problem:
- A deity’s physical manifestation is seen by human beings. The appearance of gods and their involvement with humans are common motifs in ancient Near Eastern and classical mythology. That similar phenomena are found in the Bible seems problematic at first, for a persistent tradition in the Hebrew Bible affirmed that death comes to any human who sees God (Genesis 16:13; Genesis 32:30; Genesis 24:10-11; Genesis 33:20; Deuteronomy 5:24-26; Deuteronomy 18:16; Judges 6:22-23; Judges 13:22; cf Exodus 20:19; Isaiah 6:5). In most of these contexts, however, the narration undermines this sentiment by depicting the pleasant surprise of those who survive. The text presents this perspective as a misperception to which human beings subscribe, for no humans in the Bible ever die simply because they have seen God. On the contrary, throughout the Bible God wants to communicate intimately with humans. The problem of how God can adequately show himself to humankind without harm is a conundrum that is never really resolved in the Bible.
Latter-day Saints can harmonize these passages with those that describe visions of the Father by referring to Moses’ vision of God, as described in the Pearl of Great Price. “And he saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence … [Moses said] For behold, I could not look upon God, except his glory should come upon me, and I were transfigured before him” (Moses 1:2,14). An identical solution is offered by Peter in an early (second or third century) Jewish Christian work called the Clementine Homilies:
- For I maintain that the eyes of mortals cannot see the incorporeal form of the Father or Son, because it is illumined by exceeding great light … For he who sees God cannot live. For the excess of light dissolves the flesh of him who sees; unless by the secret power of God the flesh be changed into the nature of light, so that it can see light.
In the same document, another conversation between Peter and Simon Magus is reported:
- And Simon said: ‘I should like to know, Peter, if you really believe that the shape of man has been moulded after the shape of God.’ And Peter said: ‘I am really quite certain, Simon, that this is the case … It is the shape of the just God.
The point of these passages is not that no one has or will have a vision of God’s person, but rather that men cannot see God as He is. We must be changed and protected by the grace of God to withstand His presence, and even then we cannot fully comprehend His majesty. However, this will not always be the case. As John further wrote, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn:3).
Question: Does the doctrine that God has a physical body contradict the Bible?
It is incorrect to imply that God cannot be in human form, since a fundamental doctrine of Christianity is that Jesus is God, made flesh
These scriptures read (emphasis added):
- "God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man [i.e., a human being], that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?" - Numbers 23:19
- "And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent." - 1 Samuel 15:29
- I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim: for I am God, and not man; the Holy One in the midst of thee: and I will not enter into the city. - Hosea 11:9
The first passage, in Numbers, not only says that "God is not a man", but it also says that God is not "the son of man." If a Christian were to claim from this passage that God is not a man, they would have to consistently claim that God is also not a "son of man." This of course contradicts many New Testament statements about Jesus (who is God) to the contrary. Though there are many examples, one should suffice. Jesus says, "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Matthew 12:40 Therefore, we know that the passage from Numbers is not suggesting that God is fundamentally not a "son of man", but rather that God is not a "son of man" in the sense that God doesn't have need for repentance. The next logical step requires us to conclude that the passage is not suggesting that God is fundamentally "not a man", but that God is not a man in the sense that God does not lie.
These verses say nothing about the nature or form of God—they merely assert that God is not like man in certain ways
God will not lie or change his declared course, unlike humans. As the NET translation of 1 Samuel says, "The Preeminent One of Israel does not go back on his word or change his mind, for he is not a human being who changes his mind.”
It is incorrect to imply that God cannot be in human form—the fundamental doctrine of Christianity is that Jesus is God, made flesh. One would have to assume that these verses also apply to Jesus, when they clearly do not. Jesus may be in human form, but he will not sin, or change his mind from doing his father's will.
Question: If only God the Father had a physical body at the time Adam was created, why did He say 'Let us make man in OUR image'?
The pre-mortal Christ told the Brother of Jared that the "body of the spirit" has the same appearance as the body of the flesh
The Book of Mormon teaches that the appearance of the spirit is the same as that of the body. Consider the vision in which the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ is talking to the brother of Jared:
15 And never have I showed myself unto man whom I have created, for never has man believed in me as thou hast. Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created in the beginning after mine own image.
16 Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh.
Therefore, the "body of the spirit" has the same appearance as the body of the flesh.
Question: Since Mormons believe that God possesses a physical body, does that mean that He cannot be omnipresent?
God is omnipresent, just not personally
Brigham Young stated,
Some would have us believe that God is present everywhere. It is not so. He is no more everywhere present in person than the Father and Son are one in person. The Bible teaches that doctrine precisely as it is.
Orson Pratt clarifies the concept of God's omnipresence:
He is omnipresent. Not personally; this would be impossible, for a person can only be in one place at the same instant, whether he be an immortal or a mortal personage; whether he be high, exalted, and filled with all power, wisdom, glory, and greatness, or poor, ignorant, and humble. So far as the materials are concerned, a personage can only occupy one place at the same moment. That is a self-evident truth, one that cannot be controverted. When we speak, therefore, of God being omnipresent we do not mean that His person is omnipresent, we mean that His wisdom, power, glory, greatness, goodness, and all the characteristics of His eternal attributes are manifested and spread abroad throughout all the creations that He has made. He is there by His influence—by His power and wisdom—by His outstretched arm; He, by His authority, occupies the immensity of space. But when we come to His glorious personage, that has a dwelling place—a particular location; but where this location is, is not revealed. Suffice it to say that God is not confined in His personal character to one location. He goes and comes; He visits the various departments of His dominions, gives them counsel and instruction, and presides over them according to His own will and pleasure. (Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 14:234.)
Question: Is the doctrine that God the Father and Jesus Christ have physical bodies not Biblical?
The absence of God's body is thus only present in John 4:24 if one approaches it with that preconception
In John 4:24 Jesus says:
24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
It is sometimes claimed that this verse proves that God is non-corporeal: i.e., a spirit, and nothing but a spirit.
However, there is no indefinite article in Greek (the indefinite article in English is "a," as in "a spirit." The New International Version (NIV) translation of the same verse reads:
God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth.
One non-LDS work noted of this verse:
That God is spirit is not meant as a definition of God's being—though this is how the Stoics 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 I John i. 5, "God is light", or Deut. iv. 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.
The absence of God's body is thus only present in this scripture if one approaches it with that preconception. There is nothing which requires such a reading, and much that does not.
Even the presumption that spirit means being immaterial is not scriptural, and is the product of later thinking: "in Scripture...there is no indication that by spirit and soul were meant any such principles as form or immateriality."
Question: How is it possible for messengers from heaven to move through walls, ceilings, and so forth?
Introduction to Question
At the 2019 FairMormon Conference held in Provo, UT, Elder Craig Christensen of the Presidency of the Seventy shared one of his questions about the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
An audience member asked Elder Christensen what doctrinal/historical questions he has had and how he as subsequently resolved them. Elder Christensen responded:
You know I’ve kind of played into that a little bit in that I always go back to what I know and not what I don’t know. And so, when I get a question that I can’t respond to, rather than being too obsessed by it, I go back, well I know this and I know this and I know this. Now I have a lot of questions. I’ll give you one that will not be answered in this life. I have anxiously waited to ask Moroni how he did this. How does a resurrected being get through the roof of a house to appear at the room? How does that work? I’m kind of a mind that it has to do with light and a pillar of light as he appeared. But I don’t know. They have substance. They have matter, and I’m not sure how that works. So, there are a lot of curiosity questions. But the deeply doctrinal questions that really matter are really rooted in the Plan of Salvation, rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, when I get a question that comes to me, I say, “How does this affect my standing before God in my future in the Plan of Salvation?" That didn’t answer your question. I punt it back to you.
This is perhaps one of the most unique questions that has been asked to the author’s knowledge.
This article will explore this question more in light of physics and what we know from the scriptures.
Response to Question
Moving at or near the Speed of Light
It is possible for these messengers to be able to move and act as they do with a combination of what we know about anti-matter and about physics and the theory of relativity. First, one may need some background on what Einstein’s theory of relativity is. This video explains it simply.
As explained in the video, the faster someone is traveling, the slower they are moving through time. Since God is in control of the elements and can command them at his will to move and combine as he directs, is it possible that he can command the matter that makes up his body to move at or near the speed of light so that he could perhaps open doors or windows or move through buildings at incredible speeds without the recipients of heavenly messages noticing that that is what he did? Certainly! He can use this same mechanism to make it appear like he or another heavenly messenger is floating. All they’d have to do is accelerate at places near or at the speed of light and make it appear like he is floating, extending a hand, speaking, etc.
Another possibility is that God can use antimatter to create any sensation by acting directly on the cerebral cortex. A person who can conjure as much anti-matter as he/she liked could literally do anything that is possible to be done by physical laws. A person could act directly on the cortex by stimulating areas of these cerebral cortices with small amounts of antimatter. Of course, this brings up a question. If God can create all this antimatter from a difference and make us think that we’re having a vision of him or another being, are visions all then just “in the head” as it were? Not necessarily. God could use anti-matter in connection with his moving at the speed of light to make it seem like, for instance, windows and doors never open to let a material person enter a building or room.
More likely than not is that God uses some combination of these two mechanisms to effectuate appearances of heavenly messengers that can be seen, that can be seen floating in the air, heard, etc. We really don’t know. What we do know is that there are possible mechanisms for God to use that can make these visions happen; and that is what is most important.
Non-LDS Christian view of Joseph Smith's theology of divine embodiment
Does God have a body? Obviously the issue cannot be settled by quoting a couple Bible verses and declaring victory. Ought we to interpret the testimony of the prophets at face value, as the ancient Jews and Jewish Christians would have? Or should we rather accept the definition of God which Christians have borrowed from the Greek philosophers?
Latter-day Saints are inclined to accept the prophets’ witness, since LDS doctrine holds that all may receive revelation from God on such matters for themselves.
Clearly, though the Biblical writers and early Christians believed that God had a body. This belief changed only gradually as Greek philosophy made its influence felt.
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: The "sameness of Jesus" and humanity
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
Mormonism can be a controversial topic for many non-Mormon Christians, but I have come to the conclusion that no theology has ever managed to capture the essential sameness of Jesus with us in a more striking manner. :83
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: Mormonism an exciting mirror for other Christians
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
Of all the branches of Christianity, Mormonism is the most imaginative, and, if nothing else, its intellectual audacity should make it the most exciting conversational partner for traditional Christians for the twenty-first century. Studying Mormonism is like looking into a mirror that, upon closer inspection, turns into a maze. Keep exploring and the maze leads to multiple exits, each of which opens onto hauntingly familiar rooms that comprise unexpected additions to the mansion of faith. :85
Mormonism does not use the Nicene Creed, and invokes earlier Christian ideas that were overshadowed by Plato
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
Bluntly put, Mormons do not play by the rules of the Nicene Creed. Their theological arguments can look like a form of cheating when, in reality, they are trying to change the way the game is played. Mormonism is like an alternative reality come to life—a counterfactual history of post-Nicene developments of pre-Nicene theology, the ultimate “what if ” theological parlor game.What if Tertullian had been more successful in his explication of the materiality of the soul? What if the monks of Egypt had won their battle in defense of anthropomorphism? What if Augustine had not read the books of the Platonists? Mormonism invites creedal Christians into a world where everything is slightly but significantly skewed from what they are used to :85
Mormons have "picked up" discarded beliefs of early Christians
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
Perhaps the most complicating factor for creedal dialogue with Latter-day Saints is that Mormons, unlike other restorationists, were not content to flounder in suspicion of the way the early Church absorbed Greek metaphysics. Instead, Mormons put the Platonization of Christianity at the heart of their critique of the ossification and corruption of Christianity. Something went terribly wrong after the age of the Apostles, they argue, and that something has to do with the theological turn toward a metaphysics of immaterialism. Far from ignoring early church history, then, Mormons are committed to an interrogation of the relationship of theology to philosophy that objects to nearly every development that led to the ecumenical creeds. They do not just raise objections, however. It is as if, as they follow the road orthodox theologians took to the creeds, Mormons pause to pick up the detritus that was jettisoned along the way. They recycle these discarded beliefs into a shining, novel creation of their own. :86
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: Revelation versus "historical guesswork" about Jesus
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
Still, too much theology today is beholden to historical guesswork that keeps Jesus bound by the written page. Seen in this light, Mormonism unleashes a squall of fresh air on the question of who Jesus Christ really is. :YYYY
Mormons are not Arians
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
By now it should be clear how narrow-minded the charge is that Mormonism is a modern version of Arianism....For me, Mormonism raises the hypothetical question of what would have happened if the best theological minds had dedicated themselves to explicating all of the implications of the heavenly flesh position....we cannot simply turn back the clock to try to find a place and time where we can locate Mormonism in order to make it look familiar. Comparing Joseph Smith to Arius, who denied the Son’s equality with the Father, or, better, Eutyches, an early defender of Heavenly Flesh Christology, is not an unproductive thought experiment, but it misses the point that Mormonism demands a rethinking of classical theism from the ground up and thus a retelling of the Christian story from the Gospels forward—and the ground upon which it erects its speculations is as earthy as it can be. :89
"Smith would have held his own in debating with" Neo-Platonists, Gnostics, and early Christian theologians
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
[I]t would be a mistake to think of Mormonism as simply rejecting the Greek heritage of metaphysics. Paulsen has done more than any Mormon thinker to demonstrate how Smith’s idea of divine embodiment would have been in the theological mainstream prior to Origen and Augustine. In fact, [David] Paulsen, who is also a professor at Brigham Young University, has done morethan any theologian of any denomination to rediscover the metaphysical depths of anthropomorphism in early Christian theology, and his work has been extremely helpful for my own project. Paulsen shows how the Mormon version of the restoration of the Church requires a strong reading of the history of metaphysics. Joseph Smith spoke plainly, but that should not disguise the revolutionary nature of his claims. I have discussed emerging ideas of matter in the context of the Neo-Platonists, the Gnostics, and the early theologians, and Smith would have held his own in debating with all three groups. Smith had the imagination of the Gnostics in his multilayered portrait of the divinities that populate the cosmos. Nonetheless, he would have agreed with the Neo-Platonists and the Christians that the Gnostics erred in identifying matter with evil. He would have liked the Platonic concept of pre-existent souls as well as Plato’s portrait of the Demiurge as being not absolutely different from the world. Indeed, his sense of the rhythmic and cyclical movement of spirits from a refined to an embodied state and back again would have led him to express great interest in the circular framework of Plotinus, but Smith would not have accepted the elitism and intellectualism built into Neo-Platonic thought. He would have sympathized with Christians who struggled to identify nature’s inherent goodness, but he would not have shared their solution in attributing infinity to God. Smith absorbed and revised so many Christian traditions, but negative theology has virtually no room in his thought. In the debates over infinity, Smith, ever the concrete thinker, would have affirmed an actual, as opposed to a potential infinity in order to defend his vision of the afterlife as an eternal progression through space and time. His cosmos was big enough for both the eternity of the divine and the infinity of matter, but his materialism left no room for one entity that is both eternal and infinite. In sum, he would have de-Augustinized theology in order to baptize Greek philosophy anew. :91
LDS doctrine rejects Neo-Plantonic accretions, but this does not make them automatically false
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
Mormon arguments deserve to be examined on their own grounds for internal consistency and biblical adequacy. Not being Platonic is not equivalent to not being rational. :92
Augustine's views about matter are perhaps less coherent than Joseph Smith's
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
Augustine’s position is actually not as sound as it first appears. If God makes the world out of himself, does it necessarily have all the attributes of the divine? Does it necessarily follow that matter is a substance that equals God’s own power? The problem with Augustine’s position (and the whole of classical theism on this issue) is that he can imagine no middle ground between creating and shaping. From the perspective of classical theism, if God does not create matter out of nothing, then God merely shapes (or adds form to) the matter that is already there, and that means that God is neither infinite nor omnipotent. If matter is too close to God, then God must not have complete mastery over it. Likewise, if matter comes from God, then God must be tainted by it, which means that God shares in its corruptibility. Either way, God would not be God, or at least, God would not be infinite. But what if there is a middle ground? What if matter is one of God’s perfections without the world being divine? If the perfection of matter is already an expression of who God is (indeed, if it is the substance of the Father’s relation to the Son), then matter can come from God without compromising God’s nature. Moreover, God would be neither master nor victim of matter’s nature, since God’s relation to matter would be nothing more than a reiteration of the Father’s relation to the Son.:92–93
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb: Creedal Christians can learn from LDS views about Jesus Christ and creation
Non-LDS Christian Stephen H. Webb wrote:
[In LDS doctrine] Matter as we know it has a beginning, an origin, in Christ, but matter as it can be, in its perfected form, is eternally an attribute of the divine. In this way, the eternity of matter can be conceived without falling into the trap of pantheism, and this possibility, I am convinced, is precisely what Joseph Smith saw, even if he did not put it into these words or this theological context.
Th Mormon Church stakes its whole theology on the coherence of the idea that God formed the world from a material substance that is not totally unlike his own divine nature. That makes Mormonism either a religious oddity in Western history or an utterly crucial metaphysical correction to our understanding of the role and value of matter in God’s creation of the world. At the very least, Mormonism presents a prod to theological thought at the precise time when materiality is more central to public awareness than ever before. Our relationship to the material world, whether it goes by the name of environmentalism, ecology, sustainability, or evolution has never been so urgently pressed before us as today. To respond to this urgency, we need not only an ethic but also a metaphysics of matter.We cannot know how to treat matter unless we know what it is, and the nature of matter has to include but ultimately go beyond the specificities of science. We need to know what matter is for, where it comes from, and to what extent it is identical to what we are. These are the central questions of our time, and creedal Christians can answer them only in a self-critical and mutually beneficial dialogue with Latter-day Saints—and that dialogue has to begin with an assessment of the life and thought of Joseph Smith. :94–95
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Edmond LaB. Cherbonnier, "In Defense of Anthropomorphism," in Truman G. Madsen (editor), Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian parallels : papers delivered at the Religious Studies Center symposium, Brigham Young University, March 10-11, 1978 (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center , Brigham Young University and Bookcraft, 1978), 162, compare G.E. Wright, God Who Acts (London: SCM Press, 1952), 49–50. ISBN 0884943585.
- Christopher Stead, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 120.
- "Does God Have a Body?," Catholic Answers tract, 1996. Since this article was first written, the title of the tract was changed to “God Has No Body."
- Christopher Stead, Philosophy in Christian Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 98.
- J. N. Sanders, A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, , edited and completed by B. A. Mastin, (New York, Harper & Row, 1968), 147–148.
- Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, tr. Neil Buchanan (New York: Dover, 1961), 1:180 n.1.
- Tertullian, "Against Praxeas," in 7 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)3:602. ANF ToC off-site This volume
- J.W.C.Wand, A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500 (London: Methuen & Co., 1937), 140.
- Origen, "On First Principles," in Preface, 9 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)4:6. ANF ToC off-site This volume Direct jump off-site
- Origen, "Homilies on Genesis," in 3:1 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)?:??. ANF ToC off-site This volume
- Plutarch, quoted in Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, 14:16. off-site Direct jump off-site
- Empedocles, in Karl Jaspers, The Great Philosophers (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981), 3:51.
- Jean Daniélou, The Lord of History: Reflections on the Inner Meaning of History, translated by N. Abercrombie (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1958), 1.
- For more information on this topic, see Barry R. Bickmore, "The Doctrine of God and the Nature of Man," in Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Redding, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999).
- Samuel A. Meier, “Theophany,” in Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 740. The citations of Genesis 24:10-11 and Genesis 32:20 should be to Exodus 24:10-11 and Exodus 33:20.
- Clementine Homilies, 17:16. off-site In Ante-Nicean Fathers 8:223–347. off-site Direct jump off-site
- Joseph Newbould Sanders, A Commentary on the Gospel according to John, ed. B. A. Mastin (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 148–149. ISBN 9780913573556. (emphasis in original)
- Harry A. Wolfson, Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), 2:95. ISBN 9780674021143.
- Elder Craig C. Christensen, “Foundations of our Faith,” (presentation, FairMormon Conference, Provo, UT, September 2019).
- "Webb is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is a graduate of Wabash College and earned his PhD at the University of Chicago before returning to his alma mater to teach. Born in 1961 he grew up at Englewood Christian Church, an evangelical church. He joined the Disciples of Christ during He was briefly a Lutheran, and on Easter Sunday, 2007, he officially came into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church."
- Stephen H. Webb, "Godbodied: The Matter of the Latter-day Saints (reprint from his book Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford University Press, 2012)," Brigham Young University Studies 50 no. 3 (2011). Cite error: Invalid
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