Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Exegetical Carelessness Of John Loftus

John Loftus has written an article arguing that the ancient Jews believed that God had a body. He suggests that Christians should hold the same belief. Steve Hays has already written a response, which I saw just as I was finishing my response. I'll add the following to Steve's comments.

John Loftus writes:

"The gods of surrounding cultures had human and physical characteristics. There is no reason to suppose the Hebrews thought differently about their God from what we read in the OT....The burden of proof is upon the Christian to show why they don’t think of God in a human form. Mormons today take these statements literally and believe God has the shape of a human being, so if modern people like Mormons think this way, then it’s even more likely that ancient Hebrews did."

Commenting on 2 Samuel 22, Loftus writes:

"Can you picture this? Sounds like Zeus to me, and he was envisioned in a physical body."

As I explained to Loftus in a recent thread here, 2 Samuel 22 is a passage about past events in David's life. It's a passage that uses highly poetic language, and nothing like Loftus' literal interpretation of the passage is mentioned in 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, and other portions of the Bible that give us accounts of David's life. In other words, 2 Samuel 22 is evidence against Loftus' line of reasoning, not evidence for it.

Loftus is also ignoring other information he's been given. As we've explained to him in previous threads, another way we can demonstrate the non-literal nature of the passages he's citing is by comparing passages that describe the same object, yet use differing images. For example, one passage in Job will refer to the earth having pillars, and another will refer to the earth hanging on nothing. The Biblical authors will sometimes refer to God being in a particular place, yet the ancient Jews knew that even the entire universe couldn't contain God (1 Kings 8:27, 2 Chronicles 2:6, Isaiah 66:1). Isaiah 66:1 refers to the earth as God's footstool. If He had physical feet large enough to need a footstool of that size, then how can He be referred to as walking in one location on earth in other passages? How could God appear to Moses or anybody else without everybody on earth seeing Him, if He was as large as a John Loftus reading of Isaiah 66 would suggest? How was such a large physical body ever able to get inside a tent, temple, and other such objects?

We've also explained to Loftus that some of the views he's ascribing to the Biblical authors would have easily been falsified. It's unlikely that the Biblical authors held such views. For example, passages like Exodus 15:6 refer to God saving people or doing other things with His arm. Yet, like 2 Samuel 22, these passages are referring to historical events. The people who were there would have known that there wasn't any physical arm that came down from the heavens, and the accounts of these events in other passages don't mention any physical arm.

Loftus is misleadingly selective in the passages he cites. He cites passages about hands, eyes, etc., but what about other passages that use non-human imagery? 2 Samuel 22, a passage Loftus keeps citing, begins with references to God as a rock (2 Samuel 22:2-3). The passage goes on to refer to God with human imagery, but why does Loftus ignore the rock references while mentioning the human references? Apparently, when Loftus reads 2 Samuel 22:29 he thinks that the ancient Jews must have viewed God as a lighting device. We can only imagine what "by my God I can leap over a wall" (2 Samuel 22:30) means in John Loftus' mind. What about the wings of God mentioned in Psalm 17:8, 36:7, etc.? Since passages like the ones in these Psalms refer to people resting under God's wings, should we conclude that the authors thought that they had literally rested under physical wings on a physical body of God? Does Isaiah 40:31 prove that the author thought that people who trust in God will grow physical wings?

Loftus tells us that the ancient Jews might have held beliefs like those of the Mormons, but even the Mormons don't interpret scripture as literally as John Loftus suggests we should. On the issue of whether God has a physical body, where Mormonism has supported Loftus' argument to some extent, why should we think that the Mormons are a reflection of what the ancient Jews probably believed? If the large majority of interpreters of scripture have disagreed with the Mormon view, including interpreters who lived much closer to Biblical times, why should we look to the Mormons while rejecting the conclusions of a much larger and earlier group of people?

In a previous thread, I cited Athenagoras and Theophilus of Antioch as examples of people who lived close to Biblical times, yet didn't interpret the Bible as John Loftus suggests we should. Why does he ignore such sources while repeatedly mentioning the Mormons, a nineteenth century group? On this issue of whether God had a body, we have many sources who predate the Mormons and who contradict the Mormon claim: Aristides (Apology, 1), Tatian (Address To The Greeks, 4), Athenagoras (A Plea For The Christians, 10), etc. And though Loftus often tells us that the ancient Jews must have held beliefs similar to those of other cultures, we know that the ancient Jews were different in some ways, and they wanted to be different. Besides, "Many Gentiles also recognized that the supreme god was a spirit" (Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], p. 618).

If Loftus wants to argue that only Jews of the Old Testament era thought God the Father had a body, but that Jews of the New Testament era held a different view, then why does the New Testament continue to use the sort of language that Loftus cites from the Old Testament? Peter refers to Jesus being at God's right hand (Acts 2:33), John refers to the Father sitting on a throne (Revelation 5:13), etc. We know that the early Christians didn't think that the Father had a body, yet we also know that they refer to the Father with the sort of language John Loftus is citing.

God is a spirit (John 4:24), and a spirit doesn't have flesh and bones (Luke 24:39). God is invisible (Colossians 1:15, 1 Timothy 1:17). As John tells us in the opening of his gospel, the Word became flesh. Philippians 2 describes the taking on of human form as something that distinguishes God the Son from God the Father. God could take on a human body or be associated with physical objects in some way, but nothing in scripture (Old Testament or New Testament) suggests that God was limited to a body or always had a body. If Loftus wants to argue that scripture refers to God sometimes having a physical body, such as in the incarnation, or sometimes being associated with a physical object, then he would be making an observation that nobody disputes. But why would he present such an undisputed observation as an argument against what Christians believe? He's obviously arguing for more than that, but citing poetic passages like 2 Samuel 22 won't get him there.


  1. You're a little slow on this. You said within 2 hours you'd respond. Almost had ya's.

  2. John, I haven't made any commitment to respond to everything you write, much less respond within two hours, nor did I make any commitment about this response in particular. But we do often answer your claims shortly after they're posted. Steve made a comment along those lines in a previous post ( ), and you seem to have misinterpreted that comment, much as you frequently misinterpret the Bible.

  3. The Biblical authors will sometimes refer to God being in a particular place, yet the ancient Jews knew that even the entire universe couldn't contain God (1 Kings 8:27, 2 Chronicles 2:6, Isaiah 66:1).

    Of course, what we have in the Bible is an evolving understanding of the nature God, so we have these "contradictions." You grab on to the final view of God reflected in the Bible, especially the NT, and say that this is what they believed all along. It's called, from YOUR perspective a progressive view of revelation. Liberals simply say that Christian understandings about God continue to evolve past the canonical texts.

  4. John Loftus wrote:

    "Of course, what we have in the Bible is an evolving understanding of the nature God, so we have these 'contradictions.' You grab on to the final view of God reflected in the Bible, especially the NT, and say that this is what they believed all along."

    We haven't just "grabbed on to the final view". I gave you examples of the implausibility of your position from the book of Job, which some scholars consider the oldest book of the Bible. I also cited an example from Exodus 15, another of the oldest books of the canon, in which a reference to the arm of God surely wouldn't have been meant to refer to a physical arm. I've also cited evidence against your position from 2 Samuel, Isaiah, and other books written hundreds of years before the New Testament era.

    Besides, the later Old Testament books and the New Testament use the same sort of language you're citing from the older Old Testament books. And you asked what justification a Christian would have for concluding that God the Father doesn't have a body. Why would you ask for such justification if you knew that the later Old Testament and the New Testament would offer such justification for a Christian?

    In your article, you made some references to the New Testament. For example:

    "What did early Christians think about heaven (remember, Jesus supposedly bodily ascended to sit at the right hand of God on a throne and to rule in a heavenly city, with mansions [John 14:1-4])? We must step back in time before the rise of modern astronomy to see the universe as they did." ( )

    So, while you do sometimes refer to "the ancient Hebrews", you also sometimes refer to the New Testament. Your article lists New Testament passages, like Luke 1:51, in its sections about the body parts of God.

    And when you do discuss the pre-Christian Jews, you sometimes cite 2 Samuel, Isaiah, and other later books of the Old Testament, not just the earliest Old Testament books. Yet, now you want us to believe that you only had the earliest Old Testament books in mind. I don't believe you.

    You cite Genesis 3 as if that passage proves that the earliest Jews thought of God as having a body. How could you possibly draw such a conclusion from that passage? Christians have acknowledged that God sometimes takes on a body in some Old Testament passages, and Christ took on a body in the incarnation. If a passage in Genesis or elsewhere would refer to God taking on some physical form, how could you possibly know that the author of the document in question must have believed that God always had that physical form? You're assuming things you can't prove. If God only sometimes takes on a body, then there's no contradiction of Christian doctrine involved.

    In addition to the bodily manifestations we read about in Genesis, we also see references to other physical objects, such as fire and a cloud. Why do you single out the references to body parts?