Monday, 1 December 2014

The implications of denying that God the Father has a body

For Mormons, God the Father has a body. This is often depicted as absurd by the Classical theology of mainstream Christians; despite that a common sense reading of the Bible would suggest God the Father does have a body - like his Son Jesus Christ.

(And, of course, countless millions of simple but devout Christians always have believed that God the Father has a body.)

An insistence that God is a spiritual being without a body has many implications - or perhaps it is clearer to say that a God without body goes-with a whole constellation of theological ideas; and this is precisely the constellation which the Restored Gospel inverts.

So the fact of God having a body is part of a strikingly different set of interlocking perspectives in Mormonism.


If Man has a body and God the Father does not, if Man is incarnate and God a spirit, this implies (not logically, but it does suggest) that the body is a disadvantage. The idea fits into a scheme whereby spirit is good and body is bad - a drag.

Since Man is incarnated in mortal earthly life with a body, then this suggests mortal life is a punishment - or at least a penance - but certainly an incarnate mortal life cannot be presented as an unalloyed spiritual advance or opportunity.

Even resurrection will have a double edged quality if it means we are forever trapped in a body. Christ has a resurrected body - but Christ is also a simultaneous God-Man in some mysterious sense, and part of a Trinity which is likewise impossible to understand in a common sense fashion; so the human situation remains obscure.


There has always been a tension, or perhaps it is rather a confusion, in mainstream Christianity and Classical theology about why resurrection is a good thing - because so many implications suggests that a purely spiritual existence is better than life with a body.

From Classical theology it is hard to understand why the body should be retained, since the body is seen in essentially a negative way - as dragging the spirit down, causing temptations and pains...

Why should we want or need a body for the rest of eternity?


But if it is accepted that God the Father, as well as his Son Jesus Christ, have bodies and we are in their image - so they both have bodies of the kind we have; then the body is straightforwardly and common-sensically an enhancement.

To be incarnated into mortal life is therefore a positive thing, a step in spiritual progression, or divination - it is a theosis, bringing us closer in our nature to God.

Thus our incarnate mortal life can be seen as a positive thing, a step in the right direction - of being more like God, rather than a punishment.

(Whereas if a body is bad, this depicts a God who is limiting us, rather than enhancing us.)

And to be resurrected - with a purified spirit in a perfected body - is therefore a positive thing, because it is better to have a body than not to have a body - and this applies to eternity as it does to our present life on earth.


The implications go even further, because the Mormon schema implies a God that works linearly in the world and in time - it fits with theosis conceptualised as a necessarily step-wise process.

(Because if God could simply make us incarnate and provide us with the experience of earthly life instantaneously, 'by waving a wand' as it were - then presumably He would. The fact that He did not, and had us incarnated and living mortal lives, implies that this is necessary - or at least optimal - for our spiritual development. Which implies that God is working inside time and inside constraints of the universe.)

So altogether Mormonism makes (or restores to) Christianity the explanatory model of relationship at the focus. For Mormonism the love of God and love by God which is at the heart of Christianity is the love between persons - persons of the same kind although  widely differing degree.

The primary explanatory model of Mormonism is human relationship; so God's love for us is not a special abstract thing called Agape but rather the same-kind of love that we have for each other and for Him, but taken to a vastly greater degree and purity.


Therefore, an insistence that God the Father has no body can be seen to have been a key factor in enforcing the highly abstracted and philosophical nature of mainstream Christianity; whereas a simple acceptance that God has a body fits with a simple and lucid Christian faith in which everything is what it seems, by common-sense criteria; and where the core of the faith does not have to be redefined as a philosophical abstraction, nor set out-with common sense and any possible explanation, as paradoxical formulae and utterly incomprehensible mysteries.



Anonymous said...

I think its just a limit in our ability to comprehend, reality that doesn't include duration and the mutability that we connect with bodies. CS Lewis in the final chapter of 'Perelandra: Voyage to Venus' of explaining unfallen life as preparation for the real beginning; and NT Wright within orthodox theology does a good job of reminding - God means to rule from within this universe, with his little flock co-rulers. So this implies a body of some kind. Don't think Athens and Jerusalem sunder these ideas, though Mormonism seems like it sunders Christianity essentially.

Bruce Charlton said...


(Why don't you use a pseudonym? There are millions of indistinguishable 'Anon's on the internet?)

Certainly, the denial of God's body does not stop anybody being a real and strong Christian - but it does make things a lot more difficult - and raises unnecessary stumbling blocks for the faith of the simple, who are told that their 'anthropomorphic' picture of God is wrong - and indeed wicked if persisted-with.

What do you mean by 'sunder' in the last sentence? Could you provide a synonym to clarify your meaning, or explain in more words?

Nicholas Fulford said...

The abstract notion is frameless and unbounded. It elicits a sense of awe that a limited or embodied God does not. In theory - if not always in practice - it avoids the tendency towards anthropomorphism / idolatry.

It is akin to the difference between infinity and any very large number. No matter how large a number one selects it is as nothing compared to infinity because infinity has no bound. It is really a difference of type, and classical monotheist theology holds that God has that same difference of type from anything else.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - well said.

Adam G. said...

Well put, Bruce C. That's a measured and appropriate take.

Ultimately, if you are a Christian who sees the incarnation as the central point of Christianity, the Father having a body shouldn't be a shocking thing to you.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - Agreed. But there was nearly 2000 years during which high status theologians and church leaders were been very emphatic that this was NOT the case - and it is interesting to understand why this denial was regarded as so important.

George said...

I don't get it. Why do incarnate beings higher beings have spirit children who need to be incarnated by lower incarnate beings?

Bruce Charlton said...

@George - These are the family relationships which bind us in to networks of love. It is by being children of God that we enter relationship with Him (and Mother in Heaven) - this makes us siblings in a divine family; then by being born to a human father and mother we are related in overlapping human families (which are intended to persist eternally). I think this corresponds to the two great commandments - ...thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

George said...

Thanks Bruce. The teaching of the transcendent nature of families, relationships, and love is beautiful.

The actual process still seems an ultimate mystery to me though. Is it that God choses to produce only spirit children and not give birth to fully incarnate children so that they can chose whether or not to be incarnate? It just seems, from this-worldly-experience, an exalted being with a perfected body would produce, by default, children with perfected bodies, not disencarnate spirits. That said, I'm probably just misunderstanding something.

Bruce Charlton said...

@George - My belief is that we had an eternal existence as unaware essences, before we became spiritual children of God and were gifted with awareness. But the fact that we had a prior independent identity is what enables genuine free will/ agency.

In other words, when God created us, and we were 'born' from Heavenly parents, he did not create us from nothing, but from an already existing essence (which was either male or female).

The above level of detail and pluralism of origin is accepted as an LDS doctrine - within revelations and implied by reason - but not canonical and not compulsory, and is perhaps not the usual belief among Mormons.

Leo said...

"the difference between infinity and any very large number"

I more or less understand the difference between a finite number and an infinite number. But numbers are abstractions not persons.

The question is, what is an "infinite being" or an "infinite person?" My answer can only be that whatever it means, it is what God is. He is our example of an infinite being. The Old and New Testaments as well as the unique LDS scriptures testify of a God with a body, with the resurrection of Jesus with a physical body being central to the Christian faith.