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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 p