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Mormonism and John 4:24

By John Finton

I. Introduction

       Mormon doctrine teaches that God is corporeal:

“God has a body that looks like yours . . .” (lds.org basic beliefs; also cf. D&C 130:22).

Evangelicals say that John 4:24 contradicts this teaching. If this were true it would prove that the Mormon teaching about God is aberrant (so it would seem). Thus Mormons have to harmonize this verse with their doctrine of God. In an effort to harmonize this verse with their doctrine, Mormons are quick to point out that the KJV translation of this verse is wrong since there is no indefinite article in Greek. “We LDS understand that the verse should be translated ‘God is Spirit’, not ‘God is a Spirit,’ for there is no indefinite article (a, an) in the Greek Language. The consensus among competent, experienced biblical scholars is that there should NOT be an indefinite article in John 4:24. . . . Bible scholar C. H. Dodd insists that ‘to translate [John 4:24] ‘God is a spirit’ is the most gross perversion of the meaning.’” (email from L. Ara Norwood, Feb. 7, 2008).

          However, that there is no indefinite article in the Greek is NOT the reason why competent, experienced biblical scholars believe that there should NOT be an indefinite article in John 4:24. For in the English language there are indefinite articles. Thus πνευμα can be translated “a spirit” or “spirit.” The general rule for translation is that an “a” may be inserted if there is no definite article and it makes better sense in English.

         There are two reasons for not inserting the indefinite article in John 4:24. Bible scholar C. H. Dodd (along with many other competent, experienced biblical scholars) basis his deleting the indefinite article on theological reasons: “‘A spirit’ implies one of a class of πνευματα, and, as we have seen, there is no trace in the Fourth Gospel of the vulgar conception of a multitude of πνευματα” (The Interpretation of the Forth Gospel, 225). Stated another way; “God is not one Spirit among many. This is a declaration of His invisible nature. He is not confined to one location. Worship of God can be done only through the One (Jesus) who expresses God’s invisible nature (1:18) and by virtue of the Holy Spirit who opens to a believer the new realm of the kingdom (cf. 3:3, 5; 7:38-39)” (Blum, “John” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 2, 286). The second reason will be presented below under “Priority of the Original Language.”

II. Statement of the Problem

         It is generally agreed upon that πνευμα ό θεός should NOT be translated “God is a spirit” (KJV, ASV). Neither should the sentence be translated “A spirit is God” since God is the subject in the sentence. The difference of opinion, however, is in defining how the word “spirit” is used in “God is Spirit,” and the phrase “in spirit and truth.” There are two different views.

III. Proposed Solutions

         There are two ways that Mormons side step this passage so as not to be confronted with the truth. Some Mormons point to the Joseph Smith Translation of John 4:24, their “Inspired Version of the Bible,” which states, “For unto such hath God promised his Spirit. And they who worship him, must worship in spirit and in truth.” This provides a convenient way to disregard the straight forward teaching of this verse. There is therefore no need for these Mormons to be alerted that the Bible contradicts their doctrine for Joseph Smith has “corrected” this particular verse.

         Other Mormons redefine the meaning of “spirit” and reinterpret John 4:24 in a way that harmonizes the verse with their doctrine. A few have even pointed to “Christian” resources to make their case. It would seem that Mormons would be hard pressed to find a “Christian” resource that could give credibility for a way of harmonizing this verse with their doctrine. Surprisingly, a few can be found. The two views are as follows:

         A. The Roman Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown (The Gospel According to John I-XII, Anchor Bible, 172) states:

          This is not an essential definition of God, but a definition of God’s dealing with men; it means that God is Spirit toward men because he gives the Spirit (xiv 16) which begets them anew. There are two other such descriptions in the Johannine writings: “God is light” (I John i 5), and “God is love” I John iv 8). These too refer to the God who acts; God gives the world His Son, the light of the world (iii 19, viii 12, ix 5) as a sign of His love (iii 16).

         Brown is espousing the Roman Catholic view as can be see from the notes on this verse in the Saint Joseph Edition of the New American Bible (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co, 1970, 108): “In Spirit and truth: This is not a reference to an interior worship within man’s spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of truth (Jn 14, 16f), the Spirit given by God which reveals truth and raises up men to worship God on the appropriate level. This idea presupposes the “begetting by Spirit” in Jn 3, 5.” [It also presupposes a different view of the Holy Spirit than that of Mormons. Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the trinity].

         Those also holding this view include Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Translated by G. R. Beasley- Murray, 190; and G. R. Beasley-Murray, “John” in Word Biblical Commentary, v.36, 62 (obviously influenced by Bultmann’s work).

         Two things should be noted concerning the “eminent” Raymond E. Brown (as well as Beasley-Murray and Bultmann): 1. Though he does not believe this verse is a definition of God’s nature, it is certain that, as a Roman Catholic, he holds that God is incorporeal. 2. He (they) writes from a theologically liberal perspective and not from a conservative, evangelical point of view.

         The major argument for this view is that it consistently interprets both usages of “spirit” in the same way. “If the first half of this verse is understood by you to mean that God is merely a spirit, then I would expect you to be consistent and understand the second half of the verse to mean that you must jettison your own physical body in order to worship God properly. What? You don’t interpret the latter half of the verse that way? Then, I have to ask, why do you interpret the first half of the verse in the way you do? Consistency, please” (email from L. Ara Norwood, Feb. 7, 2008).

 Thus paraphrasing John 4:24 according to this understanding it would say:

         “God deals with men by means of the Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him by means of the Spirit of truth” (cf. R. E. Brown, 180; Colin Brown, ed. The new International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 2, 878).

         Evangelical do not disagree with the above statement, but base this believe on other Scripture (Phil. 3:3). Unless a person has the indwelling of the Spirit, he does not even belong to God (Rom. 8:9; also cf. 1 Cor. 12:3).

         B. Concerning the sentence God is Spirit, John MacArthur (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, 1364) states:

This verse represents the classical statement on the nature of God as Spirit. The phrase means that God is invisible (Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 11:27) as opposed to the physical or material nature of man (1:18, 3:6). The word order of this phrase puts an emphasis on “Spirit,” and the statement is essentially emphatic. Man could never comprehend the invisible God unless He revealed Himself, as He did in Scripture and the incarnation.

         This is by far the majority view. A great many different resources were consulted, and for the most part none were found that said anything substantially different than the above explanation (the few exceptions being Brown, Bultmann, and Beasley-Murray). Time and space prevent me from listing every resource consulted in support of this view.

         MacArthur (Ibid.) continues the explanation on the phrase in spirit and truth as follows:

          The word spirit does not refer to the Holy Spirit, but to the human spirit. Jesus’ point here is that a person must worship not simply by external conformity to religious rituals and places (outwardly), but inwardly (“in spirit”) with the proper heart attitude. The reference to “truth” refers to worship of God consistent with revealed Scripture and centered on the “Word made flesh” who ultimately revealed His Father (14:6).

         Paraphrasing John 4:24 according to this understanding is as follows:

God’s essential nature is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him with the right heart attitude and the right truth.”

IV. Preferred Solution

         The preferred solution is view B. for the following reasons:

         A. In Spirit and Truth


                   1. Literal vs. Figure of Speech

         In both v. 23 and v. 24 the expression is έν πνεύματι καί άληθεία (in spirit and truth). R. E. Brown (I bid., 180) regards this phrase to be “almost” a Hendiadys interpreting it as “Spirit of truth.” It is not a good practice to base an interpretation on an “almost” figure of speech (it is like being almost pregnant). However, if it were considered a Hendiadys it would be interpreted as “in a truly spiritual manner” (cf. E. W. Bullinger, Figures of speech Used in the Bible, 665). Although it is possible to understand this as a Hendiadys, it is neither necessary nor preferable. The general rule is to interpret words in their natural sense unless such literal interpretation involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity. Therefore it is preferable to see two separate concepts being spoken of in this phrase taking all the words in a natural sense including the conjunction “and.” Thus the KJV translates “in spirit and in truth” and not “the Spirit of truth.” “Spirit refers back to the Jews and their worship in terms of letter (the Law) [or hypocritical worship], whereas truth is in contrast to the inadequate and false worship of the Samaritans” (“John” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, 1081).

                  2. Historical Setting (cf. MacArthur, The Ultimate Priority, 115-16).

         The Samaritan style of worship was done in ignorance (“You worship that which you do not know” v. 22). Their spiritual knowledge was limited because they rejected all of the Old Testament except the Pentateuch. Their religion was characterized by enthusiastic worship without proper information. They worshiped in spirit, but not in truth.

         The Jews had the opposite situation. They accepted all the books of the Old Testament. They had the truth but lacked the spirit. When the Pharisees prayed or gave alms or fasted, their hearts weren’t in it. Jesus called them hypocrites, phonies, and whitewashed tombs, full of dead men’s bones. In Mark 7:6, Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.’”

         There are several references in the Old Testament that indicate that an outward show of “religion” is not true worship apart from the spirit or heart (Is. 1:11-15; Jer. 6:20; Amos 5:21-23; Mal 1:10). These verses also declare that such worship is unacceptable to God.

         The worship that occurred on Mount Gerizim was enthusiastic heresy. The worship offered at Jerusalem was barren, lifeless orthodoxy. Jerusalem had the truth (“we worship what we know” v. 22) but not the spirit. Gerizim had the spirit but not the truth. Jesus rebuked both styles of worship.

                   3. Context

         Hendriksen brings out the context as follows:

          Jesus has been emphasizing two things:

         a. worship which is worth the name is not hampered by physical considerations; e.g., whether one prays at this place or at that place (4:21); and

         b. such worship operates in the realm of truth: clear and definite knowledge of God derived from his special revelation (4:22).

         In such a setting, it would seem to us, worshiping in spirit and truth can only mean

         a. rendering such homage to God that the entire heart enters into the act, and    b. doing this in full harmony with the truth of God as revealed in his Word. Such  worship, therefore, will not only be spiritually instead of physical, inward instead of outward, but it will also be directed to the true God as set forth in Scripture and as displayed in the work of redemption (“The Gospel of John” NTC, 167).

                   4. Cross-reference

         A. “in spirit” Romans 1:9 (cf. 12:1) presents an example of worshiping in spirit. Paul states, “For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit . . .” In the New Testament, this Greek word for “serve” always refers to religious service that often amounts to worship (Matt. 4:10; Luke 1:74; Heb. 9:9, 14; Rev. 7:15; 22:3). When the apostle states “whom I serve in my spirit,” he means “from the heart” that is, “with sincere devotion of the heart” (Hendriksen, “Romans” NTC, 50; et al).

         B. “in truth” Recognition and belief in the truth is essential to salvation (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:25):

         1. Knowing the truth will make you free (John 8:32).

         2. Sanctification is accomplished by the means of the truth (John 17:17).

         3. Those who do not follow the truth are living a lie (Rom. 1:25).

         4. Those who do not obey the truth, obey unrighteousness, and fall under the indignation and wrath of God (Rom. 2:8).

         5. The ones who do not receive “the love of the truth” are those who are deceived by Satan and are perishing (2 Cor. 4:3, 4; 2 Thess. 2:9-12).

         6. Those who “turn away their ears from the truth” follow after myths or fables, i.e. false ideologies and viewpoints that oppose sound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:3, 4).


         B. God is Spirit


1. Figure of Speech

         It is generally true that when the same word is used in the same sentence or context that it should carry the same meaning. Nevertheless, there are clear exceptions to this rule. Examples of this come from a figure of speech known as antanaclasis or word-clashing: repetition of the same word in the same sentence, with different meanings. Other names are also used for this figure, either synonymous, or referring to some special variation, or shade of meaning (ploce or word-folding, anaclasis, antistasis, dialogia, refractio). E. W. Bullinger, Figures of speech Used in the Bible, 286-93.


         In Matt. 8:22 (cf. Luke 9:60) Jesus said “. . . let the dead bury their dead,” meaning let the [spiritually] dead bury their [physically] dead. In Luke 9:24 “save” and “lose” are used in two different senses: “For whoever would save his life shall lose it; but whoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”

         John uses two different meanings of πνευμα in one and the same verse in 3:6: “. . . and that which is born of the Spirit (i.e. the Holy Spirit) is spirit (i.e. made spiritually alive—given a new spiritual birth).” In 3:8 there are two different meanings of πνευμα in one and the same verse: “The wind (τ?ο? π?ν?ε?υ?μ?α?) blows where it will, and the sound of it thou hears; but thou knows not whence it comes and whither it goes; so is every one who is born of the Spirit” (κ του πνεύματος). In 6:63 the same thing occurs: “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” Thus it is not out of place for John to use “spirit” in two different senses in 4:24.


                   2. Priority of the Original Language (Grammar)

         It might do well to point out that the definite article is often not translated into English. Greek does not use the article the same way English does. Greek uses it when we never would, (Greek has definite articles before proper nouns or names) and it omits it when English demands it. We do not usually put an article before God as in “the God.” Thus in John 4:24 πνευμα ό θεός (pneuma ho theos, “spirit the god”) the definite article is left out in the translation.

         In pneuma ho theos the definite article serves as the subject marker (i.e. θεός is “tagged” as the subject). Thus πνευμα “spirit” is the predicate nominative, but is place first in the Greek for emphasis. Based on the emphasis of the word order Shedd states “that the original (pneuma ho Theos) by its emphatic collocation of pneuma and the omission of the article therewith implies that God is spirit in the highest sense. He is not a spirit, but spirit itself, absolutely” (Dogmatic Theology, 1, 151-52).

         Grammarian Daniel B. Wallace concurs with this analysis:

         When the anarthrous PN [predicate nominative not preceded by the article] stands before the subject, it will either be qualitative or definite. This is due to the fact that (1) had the verb been present, it more than likely would have come after the PN, and (2) by placing the PN before the subject, an author is making the PN emphatic and if emphatic, then either qualitative or definite (since it is not normal to conceive of an indefinite PN being emphasized, though not entirely impossible).

         In John 4:24 Jesus says to the woman at the well πνευμα ό θεός. The anarthrous PN comes before the subject and there is no verb. Here πνευμα is qualitative—stressing the nature or essence of God (the KJV incorrectly renders this, “God is a spirit”). (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 270).

         Thus, the second reason for omitting the indefinite article is based on grammatical reasons. “Spirit” takes a qualitative sense. The only possible way I can think of to bring out the emphasis on “spirit” in the English is to use boldface. Thus πνευμα ό θεός (“spirit the god”) would be as follows: God [is] Spirit.


3. Context

         Concerning the email from L. Ara Norwood, Feb. 7, 2008 stating, “We latter-day saints do not interpret this verse to mean that God is merely a spirit. We understand that the verse couldn’t possibly refer to deity in all contexts as being only a spirit, since the God known as Christ has a resurrected body. . . .”

         Apparently the teaching of evangelical Christianity and Mormonism is so far apart concerning the doctrine of God, (including the trinity), and the incarnation of Jesus that such a statement makes sense to a Mormon. But to an evangelical it is utter nonsense. Such a statement demonstrates confusion in basic hermeneutics (principles of interpretation). For it is not proper to import scripture concerning Christ, His incarnation, and resurrection and thereby interpret the meaning of John 4:24. It definitely needs to be demonstrated how whatever scripture is in mind correlates. Unless it can be shown that the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, and John 4:24 represent a legitimate contextual cross-reference, that one should interpret the other, then the above statement is non-sequitur.

         John 4:24 is not speaking of Jesus Christ as “spirit,” it is speaking of God the Father. This should be obvious from the context. Three times in John 4, Jesus spoke of worshipping “the Father.” In John 4:21 we read, “worship the Father.” In the middle of verse 23, we read, “worship the Father.” And at the end of verse 23, “the Father seeks such to worship Him.” “Father” was Jesus’ favorite title for God. The gospels record about seventy times when Jesus spoke to God, and every time He called Him Father, except when He was on the cross, bearing the judgment for man’s sin. Then He said, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

         J. I. Packer (Knowing God, 109) commenting on “God is spirit,” states, “When our Lord said this, He was seeking to disabuse the Samaritan woman of the idea that there could be only one right place for worship, as if God were locally confined in some way. ‘Spirit contrasts with ‘flesh’; Christ’s point is that while man, being ‘flesh’, can only be present in one place at a time, God, being ‘spirit’, is not so limited. God is non-material, non-corporeal, and therefore non-localized. Thus (Christ continues) the true condition of acceptable worship is not that your feet should be standing in either Jerusalem or Samaria, or anywhere else for that matter, but that your heart should be receptive and responsive to His revelation.”


4. Logic (pure and simple)

         The deductive form of the syllogism is impeccable and the conclusion flows by irresistible logic from the premises. If the premises are true then the conclusion is absolutely certain. The following syllogism demonstrates pure and simple logic:

             First premise: God is Spirit (John 4:24)

         Second premise: A spirit does not have flesh and bones (Luke 24:39)

                Conclusion: God does not have flesh and bones (He does not have a body)

         There are other logical reasons why God does not have a body like ours (cf. Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1, 183ff):

                   A. If God had a body, consisting of distinct members as ours, he could not be infinite. All bodies are of a finite nature; every body is material, and every material thing is terminated. If God had a body, he must consist of parts, those parts would be bounded and limited, and whatsoever is limited is of a finite virtue, and therefore below an infinite nature. Reason therefore tells us, that the most excellent nature, as God is, cannot be of a corporeal condition; because of the limitation and other actions which belong to every body. God is infinite, “for the heavens of heavens cannot contain him” (2 Chron. 2:6).

                   B. If God had a body like a human body, and was compounded of body and soul, of substance and quality, he could not be the most perfect unity; he would be made up of distinct parts, and those of a distinct nature as the members of a human body are. Where there is the greatest unity, there must be the greatest simplicity; but God is one. As he is free from any change, so he is void of any multitude (Deut. 6:4): “The Lord our God is one Lord.”

                   C. If God had a body as we have, he would not be invisible. Paul reckons his invisibility along side other of his perfections (1 Tim. 1:17): “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible” (cf. 6:16; Col. 1:15). If he had a body, and hid it from our eyes, he might be said not to be seen, but could not be said to be invisible. When we say a thing is visible, we understand that it has such qualities which are the objects of the sense. God has no such qualities that fall under the perception of our sense. His works are visible to us, but not his Godhead (Rom. 1:20).

         Though God has manifested himself in a bodily shape (known as theophany, cf. Gen 18:1), yet the substance of God was not seen, no more than the substance of angels was seen in their apparitions to men. A body was formed to be made visible by them. Sometimes a representation is made to the inward sense and imagination, as to Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19) and Isaiah (6:1); but they saw not the essence of God, but some images and figures of him proportioned to their sense or imagination. The essence of God no man ever saw, nor can see (John 1:18; 1 Tim. 6:16).

                   D. If God were not pure Spirit, he could not be omnipresent. He fills heaven and earth (Jer. 23:24). The divine essence is at the same time in heaven and earth; but it is impossible for a body to be in two places at one and the same time. Since God is everywhere at the same time, he must be Spirit. Had he a body, he could not penetrate all things; he would be circumscribed in place. If he had a body by means of which to fill heaven and earth, there could be no body besides his own.

                   E. It may also be argued that if God were not pure Spirit, he could not be an independent being, nor could he be immutable and unchangeable. He could not be creator or the most perfect being.

         The statement “But an embodied spirit does have flesh and bones” (email from L. Ara Norwood, Feb. 7, 2008) may be applied to man but it does not apply to God the Father. Gordon B. Hinckley also represents the Mormon understanding of this kind of reasoning: “Jesus’ declaration that God is Spirit no more denies that he has a body than does the statement that I am a spirit while also having a body.”

         There are a couple of problems with this statement. First it is not correct to say that man is a spirit. It is correct to say that there is a spiritual (i.e., immaterial, or metaphysical) aspect of man (Gen. 2:7). But he is not a spirit, he is also flesh and blood. The body without the spirit is dead (James 2:26). Separation of the spirit from the body is a temporary state (known as the intermediate state) and is clearly incomplete or abnormal (2 Cor. 5:2-4). Second, there is no logic to the above statement. It does not follow that because man is body/spirit, that God is the same. Where is the logic in this statement?

                   5. Cross Reference: 1 John 1:5 and 4:8

         Rather than go into a long exegetical analysis of these two verses, suffice it to point out a more balanced statement by R. E. Brown (since he appears to be held in esteem by at least a couple of Mormons). Concerning the three Johannine descriptions of God (John 4:24, 1 John 1:5 and 4:8), he writes:

         There is a tendency of predicate nouns to be anarthrous with the possible exception of statements of identity, and so commentators have concluded that these are not statements of identity but at most descriptions of a quality of God (Plummer, Brooke), or existential statements about God’s activity towards human beings, e.g., the God who is love shows that love by giving His own Son (I John 4:8-10). Nevertheless, these formulas also touch upon the mystery of God’s own being. For instance, the Johannine Jesus speaks not only of God’s love for human beings but (logically) first of all of God’s love for him, the Son (John 3:35; 5:20; 10:17; 15:9), a love that is the model of God’s love for Jesus’ followers (17:23, 26). In 17:24 Jesus makes it clear that he is speaking of a preincarnational love that existed before creation in the relationship between God and His Word. Thus, in such “God is” formulas, while there is emphasis on God’s activity, that activity is internally related to what God is before creation (The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible, 194-95)

V. Conclusion

         The importance of a correct understanding of John 4:24 is seen in the one little phrase “must worship.” Jesus is not speaking of a desirable element in worship but that which is absolutely necessary. If we are not worshipping “in spirit,then our worship is unacceptable; “for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers”(v. 23). The same is true of worshipping God “in truth.” To worship God with a false view of who He is results in unacceptable worship to God. That the view presented above is the historic Judao-Christian view is seen in the words of Lenski (The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel, 325):


While the fact that God is spirit is not stated in so many words in the Old Testament, all that the Old Testament reveals regarding God is to this effect. Neither Jew are Samaritan would controvert the statement for one moment. The prohibitions to make images of God, the comparison of God with idols (for instance Isa. 40:13-26), Solomon’s reminder that he whom “the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain” does not dwell in a house, and many other statements show how fully God’s nature was understood. Even the naïve anthropomorphic and anthropopathic utterances are made and can be made with such naivete only on the absolute certainty of God’s infinite spirit nature. To urge these human expressions against this certainty is to hurl a pebble at a mountain, thinking thereby to knock it over.

© John Finton, 2008