UnApologetic

Christian Theology and Apologetics

Attributes of God: Incorporeality Part 1

Traditional Christianity affirms that God is an immaterial, nonphysical reality. This is to say that God is formless or “without body.”[1] Christianity has historically opposed material conceptions of God and instead posited that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are lacking any material structure or composition, that is apart from the incarnation of Christ. Among the attributes of God, incorporeality is a negative attribute, unlike the others, which ascribe God to possess something. Incorporeality states there is something God does not have—a body.

Arguments for God’s incorporeality

Scriptural data on God’s incorporeality is readily available. In John 4:24 Christ says,

“God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Thus, God is a spirit and has no form. God being incorporeal cannot be perceived with any of the five senses. For instance, God cannot be seen with the eyes: In 1 Timothy 6:16, Paul says God dwells in unapproachable light and no man has seen or can see him. Paul also mentions that God is invisible (Col. 1:15). Similarly, John says no one has seen God at any time (John 1:18).[2]

God forbid the creation of any imagery meant to display any likeness of him (Ex. 20:4-5). In Deuteronomy 4:15 God says, “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire.” Thus, God is not to be characterized in any type of imagery. The reason for this is simple; it will be a mischaracterization as God has no body, and it will diminish his great-making properties.

In addition to the Scriptural data, there are philosophical arguments for divine incorporeality. For instance, if material things are subject to corruption and God is incorruptible, then God is not material.[3] Additionally, if God is omnipresent and God is material, it would follow that everything material is God. And if everything material is God, and humans do evil, then it follows that God did evil, which is not a great-making property. Aside from the Scriptural data, on the merit of these arguments alone, the Christian theist would want to affirm the incorporeality of God.

Arguments against God’s incorporeality

As early as the second century some Christians posited that God was corporeal in nature, which is to say, he is material. For instance, Tertullian (A.D.150-225) remarks:

“Having discussed with Hermogenes the single point of the origin of the soul, so far as his assumption led me, that the soul consisted rather in an adaptation of matter than of the inspiration”4[4]

At a later point, Augustine mentioned this “raving” from Tertullian:

“In that he believes God to be truly incorporeal, I congratulate him that herein, at all events, he has kept himself uninfluenced by the ravings of Tertullian. For he insisted, that as the soul is corporeal, so likewise is God.”[5]

In giving advice, Augustine also mentions the incorporeality of the soul and God:

 

“But leave outside thy garment and thyself, descend into thyself, go to thy secret place, thy mind, and there see, if thou canst, what I wish to say. For if thou art far from thyself, how canst thou come near to God? I was speaking of God, and thou believedst that thou wouldst understand. I am speaking of the soul, I am speaking of thyself: understand this, there I will try thee. For I do not travel very far for examples, when I mean to give thee some similitude to thy God from thy own mind; because surely not in the body, but in that same mind, was man made after the image of God. Let us seek God in His own similitude; let us recognize the Creator in His own image. There within, if we can, let us find this that we speak of,—how the Father shows to the Son, and how the Son sees what the Father shows, before anything is made by the Father through the Son.”[6]

 

Thus, this argument over the corporeality of God is not a new one, though it was largely defeated early on. Charles Taliaferro states, “A major objection to theism from the mid-twentieth century onward among English-speaking philosophers of religion has been that it makes no sense to posit an incorporeal God.”[7] They claim that it is a category error to attribute intelligence and personal agency to a thing, which has no physical body. However, it must be said that this conclusion comes from a presupposition of naturalism. And as many have aptly demonstrated, if naturalism is true, then personal agency is impossible. Thus, it isn’t a category mistake to attribute agency to an incorporeal being, rather agency requires immateriality, for without it everything is determined by prior material causes.

In addition to philosophical arguments there are Scriptures that seem to point to God having a material body: What are we to make of them? In Exodus Moses asked to see God’s glory to which God responds:

“‘I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.’ But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!’ Then the Lord said, ‘Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.'”

 

In light of such a passage, what is the incorporealist’s response? Passages such as the one above and any other passage (besides Christ) that mention God as having hands, feet, eyes, etc. should be seen as metaphorical anthropomorphisms. That is to say, these passages are not to be taken literally; they are heuristic devices found within various genres of Scripture—especially poetry—which assist the reader in understanding an abstract truth. For instance, God’s eyes speak of his knowledge; his hands speak of his action or power; his face speaks of his presence, and so on.

In light of the above challenges, thus far, we have not met a deal breaker for God’s incorporeality. That being said, there are more challenges, namely the Incarnation of Christ, which will be dealt with in my next post.

[1] Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[2] There are many other references to God’s incorporeality in Scripture (Ex 33:20; Rom 1:20; 1 Tim 1:17; 1 Jn 4:12).

[3] Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro, eds. A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Malden, Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 273.

[4] Tertullian, “A Treatise on the Soul,” in Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 181.

[5] Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Soul and Its Origin,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 334.

[6] Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. John Gibb and James Innes, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 155.

 

[7] A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, 274.

Advertisements

Single Post Navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: