Sunday, June 08, 2008

Book Review: The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Chapter Three, The Incorporality of God

"The Third Principle teaches God's incorporeality - that God is without image and form. According to Maimonides, this Principle includes the assertion that God cannot be described as being in movement or at rest, for this would mean that he has form and physical dimensions. Although, as we shall see, the Bible and Talmud speak of a corporeal God, Maimonides' philosophical outlook forced him to insist on divine incorporeality."

To me at least, this chapter came as one of the bigger surprises. Dr. Shapiro compiles numerous citations showing mainstream Jewish belief in a corporeal God.

Those who held this view had ample Biblical support for their view. Besides anthropomorphisms, being created "in the image of God" seems to be on As a believer in Jesus, it is nice we can quote Jesus as saying "God is Spirit" (John 4:24) or Paul who described God as invisible.

Evidence for the corporeal belief comes from some outside sources, including Justin Martyr. But there is also evidence for incorporeal belief from rabbinic times. Hecateus of Abdera (4th century BCE), Strabo (1st century), Livy (1st century), and Tacitus report on Jewish beliefs about God's incorporeality.

Shaprio also discusses varying opinions from Jewish authorities (ones who did believe in incorporeality) whether those who deviated from this principle should be considered heretics. If the Torah lends credence to this belief, why should it be held against people if they believe falsely based on the Torah? This is another example of Maimonides giving precedence to philosophy over Scripture, although as believers in Jesus we believe Maimonides is correct on this point.

However, there is a way that Christian beliefs help clear up the tension in the Biblical data. John states that no one has seen God but that Jesus makes him known (John 1:18) and Paul declares that Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). This can helps us realize how God can remain unseen while manifesting Himself in ways some have seen.

Isaiah was criticized by Albo as Shapiro relates:
I have already quoted Isaiah 6:5, where we read that Isaiah saw God and feared that it would be his undoing. Instead of trying to explain Isaiah's vision -- 'I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up' -- in a philosophical manner, Albo claims that Isaiah, through his power of imagination.' Albo explains, 'The meaning is, I am affected by the power of imagination and my prophetic inspiration is not through a luminous glass like that of Moses, who heard a voice speaking to him without seeing any image before his eyes.' According to the Talmud, this utterance of Isaiah, which contradicted Moses' statement: 'For men shall not see Me and live' (Exod 33:20), was one of the reasons Manasseh slew him.

While we may not be exactly sure what Isaiah saw (the prophet may indeed be using figurative language), the New Testament helps us figure out the problem the Talmud wrestled with. A Trinitarian understanding shows us that God the Son reveals God the Father, who Paul describes as invisible and living in unapproachable light.

One of the more troubling aspects of Maimonides beliefs was that he believed all anthropmorphic descriptions of God must be understood figuratively. While we would agree that there is plenty of Biblical language which uses anthropomorphisms, not all texts can be explained away in this manner.

"...a corporeal God is a contradiction in terms, as it is impossible for a corporeal God to have the defining characteristics set down in the First and Second Principles. As note above, Maimonides also states that God, omnipotent though he is, is unable to assume corporeal form. In fact, Maimonides goes even further and states that one who believes in God corporeality is worse than some types of idolator."

One of the texts in this section I was very surprised not to see mentioned was Genesis 18. In this text, God appears to Abraham in human form. The text even refers to a location where the meeting occurs. Abraham even gives God food.

Again, the Christian conception helps explain the tensions in the biblical texts Maimonides cannot explain. There is a part of this principle which precludes the Christian conception of the incarnation, where God is still spirit but takes on human form.

We must always test our understandings and beliefs against Scripture. We must check our beliefs against all of Scripture, all of the biblical data.

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