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A review of David L. Paulsen's paper "The Doctrine of Divine Embodiment: Restoration, Judeo-Christian, and Philosophical Perspectives (Part II - Early Christian Belief in an Embodied God)" published in BYU Studies, Volume 35, Number 4 -1996.


Reviewer: David C. Coles

Click here for his home page.


Paulsen's first sentence throws down the gauntlet: "Ample evidence, especially that from early Christian immaterialists, shows that biblical peoples, Jews, and early Christians understood God to be an embodied person." In fact, "… not only did the very earliest Christians believe God to be embodied in humanlike form, but this belief continued to be widely held by Christians for at least the first four centuries after the death of Jesus Christ. The belief was gradually abandoned as Platonism became more and more entrenched as the dominant metaphysical world view of Christian thinkers."

Before Paulsen proceeds to present his evidence, he warns us that some of the evidence is "indirect and circumstantial" because it comes from the writings of immaterialist innovators who are writing in opposition to the older doctrine. Since they oppose the teaching, they are unlikely to be making it up. Paulsen feels this makes their witness more persuasive, and this reviewer agrees.

And then he starts trotting out the evidence. For starters, Adolph Harnack, who says of the earliest Christians:

"God was naturally conceived and represented as corporeal by uncultured Christians, though not by these alone, as the later controversies prove (e.g., Orig. contra Melito; see also Tertull. De anima*). In the case of the cultured, the idea of a corporeality of God may be traced back to Stoic influences; in the case of the uncultured, popular ideas co-operated with the sayings of the Old Testament literally understood, and the impression of the Apocalyptic images." and "In the second century... realistic eschatological ideas no doubt continued to foster in wide circles the popular idea that God had a form and a kind of corporeal existence."

(* Paulsen discusses these specific cases in his paper, as you will see below. - DC)

Paulsen believes that the Old Testament was a much more powerful influence for this doctrine than Stoicism because "many biblical passages straightforwardly describe God as embodied. For instance, Genesis 1:26 records that God made man "in our own image, after our likeness." Even more explicit are the many references to God’s body parts, such as "I [Jacob] have seen God face to face" (Gen. 32:30); "they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet" (Ex. 24:10); "the Lord spake unto Moses face to face" (Ex. 33:11); and "I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen" (Ex. 33:23). God also appears embodied in New Testament accounts of divine appearances. For instance, Acts 7:56 tells of Stephen seeing God and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God. It is hard to imagine a being with a face, feet, hands, and back parts but without a body."

The Old Testament connection led straight through Judaism as early Christians embraced "the understanding of God within the first-century Jewish communities out of which Christianity first emerged." And what was that understanding? "Those early Jewish (and subsequently Christian) categories, based as they were upon a literal reading of the Hebrew scriptures, were unabashedly anthropomorphic." says Paulsen. Then he presents more evidence:

For instance, James Drummond admits that even as the Jews advanced theologically to a higher conception of God, "we can hardly doubt that the mass of the people would be satisfied with [the scriptures’] literal meaning, and that their idea of God was the purest anthropomorphism." Similarly, George Foot Moore claims that Palestinian Judaism was "innocent...of an ‘abstract’ or ‘transcendent’- or any other sort of a philosophical-idea of God." Indeed, he asserts, "the philosophical horror of ‘anthropomorphisms’ which Philo...entertained was unknown to the Palestinian schools. They endeavored to think of God worthily and to speak of him reverently; but their criterion was the Scripture and the instinct of piety, not an alien metaphysics."

Drummond and Moore are not the only scholars who see things this way:

Thoroughly influencing the basic concepts of formative Judaism was, indeed, the understanding of God’s "incarnation," which Jacob Neusner describes "as a commonplace for Judaisms from the formation of Scripture forward." By incarnation, Neusner means "the representation of God in the flesh, as corporeal, consubstantial in emotion and virtue with human beings, and sharing in the modes and means of action carried out by mortals, ... doing deeds that women and men do in the way in which they do them."

Moving from scholars to sources, Paulsen says, "The writings of Origen (about a.d. 185-253) provide substantial evidence that Christians in the second and third centuries continued to widely believe in God’s embodiment-despite the efforts of Platonists both within and without the church to persuade them otherwise." The evidence?

Origen explicitly acknowledged that when he wrote (around the middle of the third century a.d.), the issue of divine embodiment had yet to be settled in the Church: "How God himself is to be understood,-whether as corporeal, and formed according to some shape, or of a different nature from bodies"- is "a point which is not clearly indicated in our teachings." He thus proposed to make the issue a matter of rational and scriptural investigation …

Logically there must have been two fairly significant schools of thought on the question. And in fact Origen's own words indicate that this is so:

Origen acknowledged that "the Jews indeed, but also some of our people supposed that God should be understood as a man, that is, adorned with human members and human appearance," because in many scriptural passages God is described as speaking to men. But since, as Origen maintained, "the philosophers despise these stories as fabulous and formed in the likeness of poetic fictions," he attempted to show how God can speak to men without the physical ability to perform the function of speaking …

Paulsen then examines the reasons why Origen felt philosophically constrained to embrace immaterialism over scriptural literalism:

Origen’s criticism of his fellow-Christians’ belief in divine embodiment was no doubt connected with his Platonistic low estimation of matter and the body. He considered it "most clearly impious" to "represent God himself as made of flesh and in human form." His choice, as a young man, to castrate himself testified of his contempt for the body, although it seems he later judged this action rash. Origen believed that the body was a humiliation-a punishment for the fall from the presence of God. Nonetheless, it served as a means of training whereby we may return to God’s presence. Thus, in Origen’s view, the body had an instrumental value, but the spiritual life after the body’s death was much to be preferred…

With this understanding of Origen's philosophical underpinnings, his opposition to materialism becomes easy to understand. But Paulsen's purpose is not to argue the merits of materialism, but simply to answer the question as to whether or not early Christians believed in it. Since Origen opposed in writing early Christians who believed exactly that, Paulsen's case is firmly established:

Origen specifically included Melito as among the prominent second-century Christians who taught that God is embodied. Not much is known about Melito’s life. ... Though he apparently spent some of his earlier life in Syria, he was made bishop of Sardis in Lydia in about 168 or 169. … Mellito was a prolific writer, authoring some eighteen to twenty works. Of these, only five or six are definitely known to us, and these are mostly in fragments. … Origen’s testimony, recorded about fifty years after Melito’s death, explicitly identified Melito as among the Christians who taught that God has a humanlike body.

But what if Origen was wrong, and Melito believed no such thing? If that were the case Paulsen's (or Origen's) evidence would lose it's value. But such is not, in fact, the case here:

Origen’s testimony is further corroborated by Gennadius who, writing in about a.d. 425, affirmed that Melito was responsible for a sect of Christians who followed him in the belief that the body of man is made in the image of God. Further, since the doctrine of divine incorporeality eventually became entrenched as Christian orthodoxy, the fact that Melito taught God’s corporeality could help to explain the otherwise mysterious disappearance of this work and other writings.

Melito was (by far) not the only one Origen wrote against. He wrote against Celsus, "a second-century middle-Platonist and non-Christian" who "wrote a comprehensive critique of Christianity (about a.d. 178) entitled Alethes Logos (True Doctrine), which … attempted to demonstrate the inadequacy of Christian doctrine, especially the doctrine of God, on the basis of assumptions drawn from Platonist philosophical theology." This is a fascinatingly ironic situation in which Origen responds to a philosophical attack against early Christian materialism by repudiating, not the philosophical attack, but the ancient doctrine itself. Paulsen notes:

According to Origen, Celsus argued "at length" against what he understood to be the Christian belief that God "is corporeal by nature and has a body like the human form." In his discussion of Celsus - wishing to give to the idea of divine corporeality as little credibility as possible - Origen did not spell out Celsus’s sustained anticorporeality arguments, explaining that if Celsus invents out of his own head ideas which he heard from nobody, or, to grant that he heard them from somebody, notions which he derived from some simple and naïve folk who do not know the meaning of the Bible, there is no need for us to concern ourselves with unnecessary argument. Interestingly, in responding to Celsus-a fellow Platonist whose objections to divine corporeality he shared-Origen feigned ignorance of any Christians actually teaching the doctrine. But as already shown above, Origen elsewhere reckoned the learned bishop Melito among the Christian teachers of the doctrine, and throughout his writings he engaged in sustained polemics against his fellow Christians who believed the doctrine. Thus, it seems clear from the evidence in Origen’s own writings that Celsus was neither misinformed nor did he misrepresent second-century Christians’ belief that God is embodied. >From Origen’s testimony, it is clear that this belief continued to be widely held in the third century as well.

Were Melito, his "sect" and Celsus' "simple and naïve folk" (this is Origen's description, Celsus seemed to think he was talking to regular rank-and-file Christians) the only early Christians who believed in materialism and divine embodiment? By no means. According to Paulsen, "Tertullian stoutly maintained his belief that God is embodied and passionately resisted attempts by immaterialists to platonize Christian doctrine. Tertullian not only believed in an embodied God, but he wrote profusely on this and related doctrines. Moreover, he claimed to express the views of the churches of his day, which were derived from the original apostolic churches. He articulated in rich detail a unified corporealist understanding of Christianity." Here's a bit from

Paulsen on who Tertullian was:

Tertullian was a lawyer who converted to Christianity in about 197. According to Jerome, Tertullian became an ordained priest. He was born in Carthage and apparently spent most of his life there, though he had more than a passing acquaintance with Rome. Tertullian was well educated in literature as well as law; his writings show an impressive familiarity with the philosophical and literary classics of his time. He was a genius with language and wrote prolifically and fluently in both Greek and Latin. Many have considered him the father of ecclesiastical Latin-though this claim is disputed. … His genius with language allowed him to craft brilliant polemical theological treatises, which contributed profoundly to the clarification of Christian doctrine …

Recognizing the fading of the Holy Spirit from much of the Christianity of his day, and also noting the efforts of innovators to incorporate neoplatonism into the ancient doctrine of divine embodiment, Tertullian looked for Christian movements which preserved these elements. He embraced the Christian Montanist (or New Prophecy) movement. Paulsen cites the scholar Timothy Barnes, who wrote:

Since Christianity was a revealed religion, [Tertullian] was unwilling to believe that revelation had ceased in the Apostolic age. Inexorably, therefore, he was led on to espouse the Montanist cause. The issues were simple in his eyes. Recognition of the Paraclete, whom God has promised to send (Jn 14.16), severed him from the ‘psychici.’ The Paraclete, the ‘deductor omnis veritatis’ (Jn 16.13), gave necessary counsel to every Christian. Its promptings preserved doctrinal orthodoxy from the assaults of heresy.

Paulsen writes of Tertullian that he …

... sought to preserve original Christian doctrine, as founded on revelation, against the encroachments of Platonistic immaterialism. His understanding of Christianity included at least six points that support divine embodiment. He argued that (1) God, like all that is, is embodied, (2) beings of spirit may take on solid bodily form, (3) Christ in the Incarnation specifically took on flesh that was unqualifiedly human, (4) human flesh is a sacred and glorious substance, (5) the same fleshy body that falls in human death rises in the Resurrection, and (6) Christ’s resurrected body is an everlasting and crucial attribute of the Godhead. These complementary points form part of Tertullian’s unified explication of his corporealist Christian faith.

Paulsen examines each of the points in some detail with extensive quotes from Tertullian followed by analysis. Finally he concludes:

Tertullian’s defense of God as materially embodied, of the Resurrection of the flesh, and of the soul as humanlike in form is part of a larger effort to preserve what he understood to be pristine Christian doctrine and to defend it against attempts by late second-century and early third-century Christian Platonists to recast it within an immaterialistic, metaphysical framework. … Moreover, his own doctrine "has its origins in the tradition of the apostles" and the churches they organized, being "in no respect different from theirs." Tertullian thus implied that from the beginnings of Christianity to his day, there had been a unified body of Christians who, faithful to the apostolic tradition, affirmed that God is embodied.

Between the witnesses of Tertullian and Origen (or rather Melito and Celsus through Origen) the evidence supporting the contention that early Christians believed in an embodied deity seems to this reviewer to be overwhelming. But Origen was not the only philosopher/Christian to oppose the ancient materialism. We find (actually Paulsen finds) another case in none other than St. Augustine.

Augustine [Paulsen is speaking here] was born at Thagaste in North Africa in 354. His mother, Monica, was a Christian. During his youth and early adulthood, Augustine apparently understood that Christians believed God to be embodied; by his own admission, it was this very doctrine that for many years constituted an insurmountable stumbling block to his acceptance of the Christian faith.

Then he sets out the evidence in the form of many lengthy quotes, only a few highlights of which I will cite below. All these are from Augustine's writings, and are but a smattering of what is available in this vein.

… I thought it outrageous to believe that you had the shape of a human body and were limited within the dimensions of limbs like our own....

I learned that your spiritual children... do not understand the words God made man in his own image to mean that you are limited by the shape of a human body,...

Your Catholic Church... I had learnt [sic]... did not teach the doctrines which I so sternly denounced. This bewildered me, but I was on the road to conversion and I was glad.... [I] had no liking for childish absurdities and there was nothing in the sound doctrine which she taught to show that you, the Creator of all things, were confined within a measure of space which, however high, however wide it might be, was yet strictly determined by the form of a human body.

Paulsen's conclusion? "From these passages, it is evident that in his youth and probably until his early thirties, Augustine understood Christians to believe that God is embodied." According to Paulsen, Augustine even, "identified two Christian communities, contemporary with himself, who explicitly taught that God is embodied in humanlike form."

Was he right? A contemporary of Augustine's says that he was. The story is a fascinating, even chilling, account of the death of a doctrine under the weight of ecclesiastical authority. We quote Paulsen at some length, as the story bears repeating:

John Cassian, a Christian monk who spent about fifteen years (about a.d. 385-400) in the Egyptian monastic communities, corroborated Augustine’s testimony with respect to Egyptian anthropomorphism. Although Cassian was an Origenist and an incorporealist, he nonetheless made it clear that for late fourth-century Christian monks in Egypt, anthropomorphism was the long-established norm and incorporealism was the innovation.

Cassian records that Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, sent a letter in 399 to the Egyptian churches to set the dates of Lent and Easter. In that letter, Theophilus included a condemnation of anthropomorphism, which was received very bitterly by almost every sort of monk throughout all Egypt.... Indeed, the majority of the older men among the brethren asserted that in fact the bishop was to be condemned as someone corrupted by the most serious heresy, someone opposing the ideas of holy Scripture, someone who denied that almighty God was of human shape-and this despite the clear scriptural evidence that Adam was created in His image.

Even the monks in Scete, "who were far ahead of all the Egyptian monks in perfection and knowledge," and all the priests except Paphnutius-an Origenist in charge of Cassian’s church-denounced the bishop’s letter. Those in charge of the three other churches in the desert refused to allow the letter to be read or publicly presented at their assemblies.

Cassian chronicled the particular struggles of one monk, Serapion, in accepting the view that God is not embodied. According to Cassian, Serapion had long lived a life of austerity and monastic discipline that, coupled with his age, had brought him into the front ranks of the monks. Despite the persistent efforts of Paphnutis to dissuade him, Serapion had held fast to his belief that God is embodied. The concept [of a nonembodied God] seemed new-fangled to him. It was something unknown to his predecessors and not taught by them.

By chance a deacon named Photinus came along. He was a very well-versed man.... [I]n order to add strength to the doctrine contained in the bishop’s letter he brought Photinus into a gathering of all the brethren. He asked him how the Catholic churches of the East interpreted the words in Genesis, "Let us make man in our own image and likeness" (Gn. 1.26).

Photinus explained how all the leaders of the churches were unanimous in teaching that the image and likeness of God should be understood not in an earthly, literal sense but spiritually. He himself demonstrated the truth of this in a lengthy discourse and with abundant scriptural evidence....

At last the old man was moved by the many very powerful arguments of this extremely learned man....We stood up to bless the Lord and to pour out our prayers of thanks to Him. And then amid these prayers the old man became confused, for he sensed that the human image of God which he used to draw before him as he prayed was now gone from his heart. Suddenly he gave way to the bitterest, most abundant tears and sobs. He threw himself on the ground and... cried out: "Ah the misfortune! They’ve taken my God away from me. I have no one to hold on to, and I don’t know whom to adore or to address."

According to Owen Chadwick, Cassian’s description of Sarapion’s capitulation greatly understated the resoluteness of Egyptian resistance to Theophilus’s decree proscribing anthropomorphism. Chadwick writes:

Were Cassian the sole authority, the impression would be left that, despite the fierce opposition of great numbers, the decrees of Theophilus were ultimately accepted by the Egyptians. We hear nothing in Cassian of the riots in Alexandria, of the bishop’s submission, of the expulsion of Origenism.

Except in Cassian’s community in Scete, where Paphnutius succeeded in bringing round his congregation to the Origenist viewpoint, a violent agitation arose. A band of monks repaired to Alexandria and caused riots. Theophilus had courage. He went out to meet the approaching band, and, as soon as he could make himself heard, "When I see you," he said, "I see the face of God." "Then," said the leaders, "if you really believe that, condemn the works of Origen." Theophilus, whom Palladius nicknamed "Mr. Facing-both-ways," consented on the spot to condemn the Origenists.... He sent letters to his suffragans ordering the expulsion of the Origenist monks from the monasteries and the desert. There appears from this moment a drift out of Egypt by some members of the now condemned Origenist party.

Paulsen finally concludes, "On the basis of the evidence detailed above, it seems clear that Christians, from the very inception of the faith up until at least the early part of the fifth century, widely believed God to be an embodied being. This belief continued despite the fact that it was challenged by both Christian and non-Christian Platonists from at least the time of the second century. As Platonism became entrenched as the dominant Christian world view, the idea of an embodied God gradually faded into obscurity."

Has David Paulsen made the case that "Ample evidence, especially that from early Christian immaterialists, shows that biblical peoples, Jews, and early Christians understood God to be an embodied person" or are his conclusions stretched and twisted beyond the sense of the texts he cites? Does the evidence say what he says it does, clearly enough and in sufficient quantity to support his thesis?

Well, if a scholar of the stature of Adolph Harnack draws the same conclusion from contra Melito and Tertullian's writings that Paulsen does, we can be fairy confident Paulsen is not reading into the sources what is not there. Remember that Harnack concluded, "God was naturally conceived and represented as corporeal by uncultured Christians, though not by these alone …" Drummond, Moore and Neusner draw similar conclusions because that's what the evidence honestly appears to be saying. A perusal of Paulsen's excellent handling of Jewish rabbinical materials, included in his paper, supports the same conclusion based on the idea that Judaism was the "cradle" [Paulsen] of the earliest forms of Christianity. I have not discussed these rabbinical sources here because of space and time constraints (they deserve to be quoted in toto, so I recommend reading Paulsen's article for yourself. It's available in Folio's Infobase Library CD-ROM set.)

Thanks to Origen (I'm sure he'd be chagrined) we know about Melito and have a reasonable explanation for the virtual annihilation of his substantial corpus of work. Thanks to Gennadius we know that Melito was not just a voice in the wilderness, but that he had a notable following. We know Celsus understood the second century Christians to be materialist believers in an embodied deity. Again Paulsen is not arguing the reasonability to this doctrine (though he does elsewhere in this paper - an examination well worth reading) he's merely documenting it's existence.

Regarding Augustine, Paulsen's case for concluding that, "… it is evident that in his youth and probably until his early thirties, Augustine understood Christians to believe that God is embodied." seems solidly supported to this reviewer. Paulsen writes:

Eventually, Augustine’s career as a teacher of rhetoric took him from his native Africa to Italy, first to Rome and then to Milan. There, under the influence of Bishop Ambrose, he became acquainted with Latin translations of Platonist writings and with the possibility of God’s being a "purely spiritual being" in the sense of being totally immaterial, invisible, and incorporeal. This view of God dissolved his long-standing aversion to Christian doctrine and was a major factor in his conversion in 386. The following year, at age thirty-two, he was finally baptized a Christian. In his newly found Platonic understanding of God, he exulted:

I learned that your spiritual children... do not understand the words God made man in his own image to mean that you are limited by the shape of a human body,...

Which raises an interesting question: Was Augustine converted to the teaching of Jesus Christ and the Apostles, or to a Platonist innovator's perversion of it? Paulsen's substantial (pun) evidence would lead us to believe that Jesus and the Twelve were solid (pun) materialists. Did Bishop Ambrose in fact teach St. Augustine incorrect doctrine?

Having accomplished what he set out to do, Paulsen moves in Part III of his paper to, "Philosophical Arguments Regarding Divine Embodiment" moving thereby from historical to philosophical mode. (Part I of Paulsen's paper discusses the "Restoration of the Doctrine of Divine Embodiment" in the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints through the Prophet Joseph Smith.) These sections of Paulsen's excellent paper are outside the scope of this review, and, while highly recommended, will not be discussed here.

The phrases "Primitive Christianlty" and "crass materialism" and "crude anthropomorphism" remain with us today. They may be the distant echos of a mighty, centuries-long battle between revelation and common sense that took place over a thousand years ago.

Common sense won. We are lucky, we are told, that we don't hold to the simplistic, primitive, anthropomorphic religion of the prophets and apostles. Evidently 'gimme that old time religion' hits a brick wall about the time of the Nicene Creed and may go to no older religious teaching than that. But the earliest Christians believed in an embodied Deity, and they were taught of God by Jesus and His Apostles. So if Jesus believed it ….