One of those surprisingly effective childhood questions is, “Does God have a body?” You think it’s simple enough to answer, “No, sweetheart, God does not have a body,” but then she pulls out Exodus 33. “Didn’t Moses see His back?” Her parents are smiling at the back of her head with an affectionate “ain’t she the darndest thing” look, but you know that they too would like an answer.
Sometimes there is confusion about what a “body” is. When we are reflecting on the essence of God, any notion of physicality is equivalent. That is to say, a “body” could be anything material. The term “form” also refers to physicality, so the question may be a bit redundant – but I believe it is clear enough.
One slippery answer might be, “Yes… Jesus Christ, the incarnate God.” Jesus is the image of the invisible God – but that’s not the question we are asking. We want to know whether or not the eternal God has a form. We are inquiring of the divine substance.
What Moses Saw (Exodus 33)
To keep this study from going off-the-rails too fast, I’ll primarily comment on Exodus 33.
And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”vv.17-23
In this passage, God refers to His face, hand, and back. What do these refer to, if not physical body parts? These statements are non-literal references to God’s glory. This is what Moses asked to see (v.18), and what He received (34:6-7). Moses was not asking for, nor God referring to, a vision of physicality. Moses wanted to see the unmediated glory of God, but God told Him to be satisfied with His Word and a mediated glimpse of His glory. We are to receive this same vision in Christ, Who mediates the glory of God as the incarnate Word of God. So, Moses may have seen God’s “back,” but he did not see God’s form (i.e. God as He is, with no type of manifestation and/or mediation).
Williamson agrees, “v.20, face. His full, unmediated glory…. no mortal being has ever seen God” (NIV Zondervan Study Bible, 179; see also Matthew Henry, Commentary Vol. I, 423, Revell). Keil-Delitzsch describe such a manifestation as “a form which rendered the invisible being of God visible to the human eye, i.e. a manifestation of the divine glory in a certain form, and not the direct or essential glory of Jehovah” (Commentary on the Old Testament Vol. I, 236). Stuart comments:
Here God helped Moses to understand that his theophany, however extraordinary and impressive, would nevertheless be limited, in accordance to what he had just explained in vv.19-20. Moses would receive some sense of the glory of God departing, moving away from him (“you will see my back”) so that he would realize he had actually perceived something of God’s true, visible manifestation of himself (even if not of his full essence)…. In the Hebrew idiom, however, to see only the back and not to see the face means, in effect, ‘to see nothing” or ‘to see virtually nothing.'” and again: “The descriptions ‘cover you with my hand’ and ‘remove my hand’ do not mean that God is a very large human-shaped being with a giant but human sort of hand capable of sheltering a person’s entire body; rather, these are the kinds of necessary anthropomorphisms without which little of God can be described…. It was a way of saying to Moses not that God has a huge hand but that he would personally protect Moses from what otherwise would kill him.Exodus, 709-710
Help From John
This interpretation is congruent with what we learn about the substance of God in the New Testament. Consider the writings of John. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). “…not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father” (6:46). “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). If God has a physical form, then these texts are either mistaken or misleading, because Moses saw God’s “back.”
What is the alternative, then? If God does not have a physical form, then… what is He? John once more assists us: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
On this verse, Kostenberger writes, “‘God is spirit’ means that God is not made of any physical matter and does not have a material body but has a more wonderful kind of existence that is everywhere present (hence worship is not confined to one place, v.21), is not perceived by the bodily sense (cf. 3:6, 8), and yet is so powerful that he brought the universe into existence (cf. 1:1-3, 10; 17:5)” (ESV Study Bible, 2028-29). Carson also provides helpful clarification: “‘Spirit’ characterizes what God is like in the same way that flesh, location, and corporeality characterize what humans and their world are like. God is invisible, divine as opposed to human (3:6), life-giving, and unknowable to humans unless he chooses to reveal himself (1:18). he is not confined to one space, so people can worship him anywhere” (NIV Zondervan Study Bible, 2156).
“The non-corporeality of God is clearly stated and the personality of God also” (Robertson, Word Pictures Vol. V, 67). “God is non-corporeal, and therefore needs no temple” (Dods, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 728). “God is spirit, for he is an infinite and eternal mind, an intelligent being, incorporeal, immaterial, invisible, and incorruptible… If God were not a spirit, he could not be perfect, nor infinite, nor eternal, nor independent, nor the Father of spirits” (Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary Vol. V, 907, Revell).
The Big Picture
This last quote from Henry picks-up on a common theme among these commentators. God’s spirituality is related to several other of His characteristics, such as His invisibility, His omnipresence, and His eternality. If God had a physical form, then He could not be invisible. If God had a physical form, then He could not be equally present everywhere at once. If God had a physical form, then He could not be eternal, because matter did not come into existence until Genesis 1 (Hebrews 11:3). This last thought is quite absurd, isn’t it? God created all matter, and so if God is made of matter, then did God create Himself?
This also relates to the simplicity and immutability of God. If God is material, then He is comprised of parts, and therefore is not One, or even immutable because He cannot be omnipresent or eternal. The problems seem to stack upon one another.
Here is a sample of theologians who agree with this systematic interpretation:
We know very well that God is a Spirit (John 4:24), and “a spirit hath not flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39) – so when Scripture speaks of God as having body parts, we naturally read such expressions as figures of speech. Almost no one would claim that the biblical tropes ascribing physical features to God are meant to be interpreted literally.Phil Johnson, God Without Mood Swings, 2000
It is this conviction that lies behind the teaching of Christian theology that God is “simple,” that is, free from composition. God is identical with each of his attributes; he is what he possesses. In God “to be” is the same as to be wise, to be good, or to be powerful. All God’s attributes are identical with his essence. In all his attributes he is pure being, absolute reality…. Nowhere is a body assigned to [God]. Although the Old Testament also at no point explicitly states God is Spirit, yet this view is basic to its entire description of God. He is self-existent, eternal, omnipresent, incomparable, invisible, “unpicturable” since he is without form. He relates to humanity as “spirit” to “flesh,” and it is by his Spirit that he is present in his creation and creates and sustains all things. In the New Testament this is more apparent…. Despite efforts by theosophists, pantheists, Socinians, and certain philosophers to ascribe a body to God, the Christian church and Christian theology have steadfastly maintained God’s spirituality. The term “spirit” is used to mean that God is a unique substance, distinct form the universe, immaterial, imperceptible to the human senses, without composition or extension…. God’s spirituality is unlike any “spiritual” reality of the creation; it is unique.Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 175, 196
God’s spirituality and invisibility describe his perfect lack of material in the divine essence, so that his essence cannot be perceived by the physical senses…. In Scripture, God’s “face” is an anthropomorphism for God’s external mediation of his presence. God’s “face” is not his essence.MacArthur and Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine, 179-180
Christ’s statement “God is a Spirit” teaches us that God is not a material substance. He is incorporeal: he has no physical body…. The apostle Paul similarly appealed to God’s spirituality when addressing the idolatrous worship of Greek paganism. He said, “We ought not to think that the Godhead (‘divine being,’ ESV) is like nto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device” (Acts 17:29). God is not made of physical stuff that men can shape to their own purposes…. Bodies have dimensions, but God’s being is infinite, for “the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain him” (2 Chron. 2:6)…. Some object that God must hve a body, for he appeared to people like a man or a glorified man. The Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, teaches that God the Father is a deified man. Joseph Smith wrote, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s.” Smith added, “He was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ Himself did.” Lorenzo Snow said, “As man now is, God once was: as God now is, man may be.” God thus supposedly created man in his own image in a very literal and physical sense (Genesis 1:26). though Mormonism started in the nineteenth century, this notion is an ancient error, being taught by some Socinians, and before them by the followers of a fourth-century monk named Audaeus. Recently, biblical scholar Terence Fretheim and theologian Clark Pinnock have suggested that the God of the Bible might be embodied, or at least has some form like a man. They proposed this as part of the revisionist agenda of open theism, though not all open theists have received it. In reply, we observe that this doctrine contradicts the teaching of Jesus Christ…. God’s visible appearances to men (theophanies) do not teach that God has a body any more than the visible manifestations of angels prove that angels have physical bodies (cf. Ps. 104:4; Heb. 1:7). Theophanies are not views of God’s essence, but signs of his special presence…. Man-like theophanies anticipated the incarnation of God the Son as a human being – not in divine flesh, but as a divine person having taken human flesh into union with himself…. Human beings are indeed created in God’s image, but that refers to the mental and moral likeness of their souls to God, not their physical bodies (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Their bodies actually share many characteristics with the animals that do not bear God’s image, but God’s image in human beings makes them superior to the animals and qualifies them to rule over all other creatures (Gen. 1:26-28; 9:3-6)…. God is spirit; he has no form or body.Beeke and Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, 608-613
We should not think of God as having size or dimensions, even infinite ones… We should not think of God’s existence as spirit as meaning that God is infinitely large, for example, for it is not part of God but all of God that is in every point of space (see Ps. 139:7-10). Nor should we think that God’s existence as spirit means that God is infinitely small, for no place in the universe can surround him or contain him (see 1 Kings 8:27). Thus, God’s being cannot be rightly thought of in terms of space, however we may understand his existence as “spirit.” We also find that God forbids his people to think of his very being as similar to anything else in the physical creation (Ex. 20:4-6)…. God does not have a physical body, nor is he made of any kind of matter like much of the rest of creation. Furthermore, God is not merely energy or thought or one other element of creation. He is also not like vapor or steam or air or space, all of which are created things: God’s being is not like any of these. God’s being is not even exactly like our own spirits, for these are created things that apparently are able to exist only in one place in one time…. God’s spirituality means that God exists as a being that is not made of any matter, has no parts or dimensions, is unable to be perceived by our bodily senses, and is more excellent than any other kind of existence.Grudem, Systematic Theology, 187-188
There is a very ancient prevalent and persistent mode of thought which pervades a great deal of our literature in the present day, which tends to compound God with the world, and to identify him with the laws of nature, the order and beauty of creation. IN one way or another he is considered as sustaining to the phenomena of nature the relation of soul to body, or of whole to parts, or of permanent substance to transient modes. Now all the arguments that establish the being of a God agree with the Scriptures in setting him forth as a personal spirit distinct from the world…. We deny that the properties of matter, such as bodily parts and passions, belong to him. We make this denial, because there is no evidence that he does possess any such properties, and, because, from the very nature of matter and its affections, it is inconsistent with those infinite and absolute perfections which are of his essence, such as simplicity, unchangeableness, unity, omnipresence, etc.Hodge, Commentary on the Confession of Faith, 72-74
These modern theologians are not historical outliers. The Westminster Confession of Faith reads:
There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal most just and terrible in his judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.2.1.
As early as we have records of Christian theology, we have records of denying the physicality of God’s essence.
Our God has no introduction in time. He alone is without beginning, and is himself the beginning of all things. God is a spirit, not attending upon matter, but the maker of material spirits and of the appearances which are in matter. he is invisible, being himself the Father of both sensible and invisible things.Tatian the Syrian, Address to the Greeks 4, AD 170
I have sufficiently demonstrated that we are not atheists, since we acknowledge one God, unbegotten, eternal, invisible, incapable of being acted upon, incomprehensible, unbounded, who is known only by understanding and reason, who is encompassed by light and beauty and spirit and indescribable power, by whom all things, through his Word, have been produced and set in order and are kept in existence.Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians 10, AD 177
Far removed is the Father of all from those things which operate among men, the affections and passions. He is simple, not composed of parts, without structure, altogether like and equal to himself alone. He is all mind, all spirit, all thought, all intelligence, all reason. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2:13:3, AD 189)Athanasius, Letter on the Council of Nicaea 11, AD 350
God, however, being without parts, is Father of the Son without division and without being acted upon. For neither is there an effluence from that which is incorporeal, nor is there anything flowering into him from without, as in the case of men. Being simple in nature, he is Father of one only Son.
God is of a simple nature, not conjoined nor composite. Nothing can be added to him. He has in his nature only what is divine, filling up everything, never himself confused with anything, penetrating everything, never himself being penetrated, everywhere complete, and present at the same time in heaven, on earth, and in the farthest reaches of the sea, incomprehensible to the sight.Ambrose of Milan, The Faith 1:16:106, AD 379
But there is neither nor ever shall be such a dogma in the Church of God that would prove the simple and incomposite [God] to be not only manifold and variegated, but even constructed form opposites.Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius 1:1:222, AD 382
In created and changeable things what is not said according to substance can only be said according to accident…. In God, however, certainly there is nothing that is said according to accident, because in him there is nothing that is changeable.Augustine, The Trinity 5:5:6, AD 408
What might we conclude from this survey? Simply that God does not have a physical form. God’s substance and essence do not consist, in any shape or manner, of matter. God has appropriated creation as a medium for revealing Himself to us, but this does not mean He has a physical body or a form.