Anthropomorphisms -- Their Impact to Systematic Theology  

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( Jeffrey S. Bowman, all rights reserved, use by permission only)



This essay will attempt to examine the definition, the theories regarding, and the impact of Anthropomorphisms to Systematic Theology especially in the areas of Revelation, and our understanding of GOD.  Revelation: How are we to understand their inspiration?  How are we to interpret them?  God: Their impact on our understanding of His attributes.

DEFINITIONS and DISTINCTIONS of the TERM

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an anthropomorphism is an "ascription of human form and attributes to the Deity." [1]   In a very strict way anthropomorphism was used to describe those who taught that God had a form or body like man's.  There is another similar term called ANTHROPOPATHY.  The Oxford English Dictionary says; "Anthropopathy: Ascription of human feelings and passions to the Deity." [2]   In some writings anthropomorphism is also used to describe the metaphors that imply human likeness, characteristics, and emotions.  Thus in many cases, and in this essay, anthropomorphism and anthropopathy are used interchangeably.

In his large work "Figures of Speech used in the Bible,"  E.W. Bullinger provides a more thorough discussion of anthropomorphism:

            Anthropopatheia.  Greek, anthropopatheia, from anthropos, man, and pathos, affections and feelings, etc.  This figure is used of the ascription of human passions, actions, or attributes to God.

 

            The Hebrews had a name for this figure, and called it DERECH BENAI ADAM, the way of the sons of man.

            The Greeks had another name for it: SYNCATABASIS, from syn, together with, kata, down, and bainein, to go: a going down together with: i.e. God, by using this figure, condescends to the ignorance and infirmity of man.

 

            Hence, the Latin name for it was CONDESCENSIO, condescension. [3]

Benjamin Keach says:

            Anthropopatheia is a metaphor by which things properly belonging to creatures, especially man, are by a certain  similitude attributed to God and divine things.  It is likewise called condescension, because God in His holy word descends as it were, so low as our capacities, expressing His heavenly mysteries after the manner of men.... [4]

Finally A.A. Hodge states:

            Anthropomorphism (anthropos, man; morphe, form) is a phrase employed to designate any view of God's nature which conceives of him as possessing or exercising any attributes common to him with mankind. [5]

"Anthropomorphic metaphors have tended to be depreciated, even denigrated, in the history of Judeo-Christian thought and OT scholarship in particular." [6]   The widely used "Unger's Bible Dictionary" reveals this attitude when it says "Traces of this [the anthropomorphic metaphor] are found in Scripture." [7]   Indeed, the Bible abounds with anthropomorphic metaphors rather than mere "traces."  As we investigate the impact of anthropomorphic metaphors to various areas of theology we shall see further evidence of this denigration.

TYPES OF ANTHROPOMORPHISMS

Fundamentally we are dealing with two types of anthropomorphisms: material and immaterial.  This is to say that when we break down all the human metaphors used in conjunction with God we observe that there are those that consist of a physical or material characteristic (i.e. hand, face, etc.) and those that consist of a mental or immaterial characteristic (i.e. love, jealousy, anger, etc.).  Here is a list (not to be understood as exhaustive) of these two types:

Material

Face:

"Their angels do always behold the face of my Father" (Matt. 18:10); also Psalm 9:3; 17:2; 31:20

Eyes:

"His eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men" (Ps. 11:4); also 2 Chr. 16:9; Zech. 2:8

Ears:

"Incline thine ear unto me and save me" (Ps. 71:2); also Psalm 10:17; 31:2

Nostrils:

"With the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together" (Ex. 15:8); also Job 4:9

Mouth (Lips and Tongue):

"With him (Moses) will I speak mouth to mouth" (Num 12:8); also Deut. 8:3; Job 11:5

Voice:

"Jehovah shall cause the glory of His voice to be heard" (Isa. 30:30)

Arms:

"Hast thou an arm like God" (Ex. 15:16); also Deut. 11:2; Isa. 51:9; 62:8

Hand:

"Neither shall any pluck them out of my hand" (John 10:28); also Ps. 8:6; Acts 4:28; Acts 4:30

Finger:

"Two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God" (Ex. 31:18); also Ps. 8:3; Lk. 11:20

Heart:

"A man after his own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14); also Gen. 6:6; 8:21

Imaterial

Rejoicing:

"The Lord shall rejoice in his works" (Ps. 104:31); also Isa. 62:5; Jer. 32:41

Sorrow and Grief:

"It grieved him at his heart (Gen. 6:6); also Judges 10:16; Ps. 78:40; Isa. 63:10

Love:

"For whom the LORD loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth" (Prov. 3:12)

Repentance:

"It repented Jehovah that he had made man on the earth" (Gen. 6:6); Ex. 32:12,14; 2 Sam.24:16; Ps. 106:45

Anger, Hatred and Vengeance:

"God is jealous and Jehovah revengeth; the Lord revengeth and is furious: the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries and he reserveth wrath for his enemies" (Nah. 1:2); also Ex. 15:7; Ps. 5:5; Isa. 1:14

Comfort:

"And I will be comforted" (Ezek. 5:13); also Isa. 57:6

Jealousy:

"For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God" (Ex. 20:5); also Num 25:11; Deut. 32:16

Zeal:

"The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this" (Isa. 9:7)

Displeasure:

"I am very sore displeased with the heathen that are at ease: for I was but a little displeased, and they helped forward the affliction" (Zech. 1:15)

Pity:

"Then will Jehovah...pity his people" (Joel 2:18)

 

From this list it can be observed that there are numerous anthropomorphic usages and I cannot stress enough that this is just a sampling of them (I'd suggest the reader use a computerized Bible and search for more).  These alone tell us one thing: metaphors matter.  We must ascertain from the anthropomorphic metaphors the proper impact they have to systematic theology.

IMPACT TO REVELATION

How are we to understand anthropomorphic metaphors in the area of Revelation and its sub-topics, inspiration and interpretation?  It is commonly taught that passages having anthropomorphic characteristics are to be understood as containing language of accommodation.  The language of scripture is accommodated to our ideas of things. 

Bernard Ramm, in his classic book, "Protestant Biblical Interpretation" states:

            Holy Scripture is the truth of God accommodated to the human mind so that the human mind can assimilate it....Through such accommodation the truth of God can get through to man and be a meaningful revelation.  Stated another way, revelation must have an anthropomorphic character. [8]

Contemporary writer R.B. Thieme agrees:

            For the sake of clarity, therefore, when describing the character and function of infinite God, the Bible often resorts to language of accommodation.  In other words, to make certain that His thoughts, policies, decisions, and actions are lucidly explained, God takes into account our inherent limitations and basic ignorance.  He graciously describes  Himself as having human feelings, human passions, human thoughts, human anatomy -- even human sins [9] -- in order to communicate things to us for which otherwise we would have no frame of reference. [10]

Thus according to Ramm and Thieme, anthropomorphisms are to be understood as God communicating to man in man's language.  However, what are we to understand by the anthropomorphism?  Are we to understand that in inspiration, God put things in human terms so that we would understand, yet the attribute communicated by the anthropomorphism isn't what God is like?  It seems that this is what some scholars mean.  Thieme states; "Of course, God possesses none of these characteristics..." [11]   Bullinger also; "Human affections and feelings are attributed to God: not that He has such feelings; but, in infinite condescension, He is thus spoken of in order to enable us to comprehend Him." [12]

I shall comment later about the implications this proposal has concerning God's attributes.  But regarding inspiration we have the following obstacle confronting us if we accept this proposal: Anthropomorphisms do not really aid us in our understanding of God if, in seeking to accommodate, God presents Himself in a manner that He is not.  Shouldn't He have known that this would be the case (i.e. that we would figure out that the anthropomorphism does not describe an attribute of God) and simply told us about Himself without confusing metaphors? [13]   Besides, if He isn't what the metaphor teaches, then who is He and where do we find the evidence to substantiate what He is? [14]   The veracity of God presented by inspiration demands that we let anthropomorphic metaphors teach us about God.  Truly, "God cannot be captured by any of them," [15] but we must reinvestigate what God wanted to communicate to us when He is said to: rejoice; have sorrow or grief; receive comfort; display anger and hatred; be jealous; and repent.  It was the God given, cognitive abilities of language and thinking that were the channels God used to communicate revelation to man.  Therefore, words must mean what they say or else they are meaningless.

Fretheim has observed:

            It is ironic that OT interpretation should have problems with these concrete ways of depicting God.  To understand this language in a purely figurative sense would mean that it is thought finally to stand over against the concreteness and realism commonly said to be characteristic of OT thought.  A figurative interpretation buys abstraction at the expense of concreteness.  A further irony can be noted in the fact that anthropomorphic metaphors predominate in Israelite talk about the deity in a way that is not the case elsewhere in the ancient Near East (cf. the use of animal-human hybrids).  This preponderant tendency is thus a point of distinctiveness in the OT understanding of God, which many would try to explain away. [16]

Thus the impact of anthropomorphisms to God's revelation is significant.  If we view these metaphors as divinely inspired data, given to us by God Himself to communicate to us His person, then we must examine them to see what they teach us about God.  If we say that they really don't mean what they metaphorically express, then God is liable of mis-communication and we become exposed to the potential of idolatry -- creating God according to our own image. 

IMPACT TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF GOD'S ATTRIBUTES

If we take the anthropomorphic metaphors for what they express then we will discover a profound impact upon our understanding of God's attributes.  However, this must be done while guarding against two extremes: over simplification and denigration.

Oversimplification results when a metaphor is taken in an exaggerated sense.  An example would be picturing the "hand of God" as some massive five fingered object.  It is not that simple.  Another would be understanding God's jealousy in a weak, almost sinful way.  Over-simplification occurs primarily with the material type of anthropomorphisms.

Denigration occurs when the interpretation of the "hand of God" fails to acknowledge the God can and does work in a situation (cp.  Josh. 4:24;  "That all the people of the earth might know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty: that ye might fear the LORD your God for ever.").  Another very common example of denigration is the treatment of the repent passages.  The Hebrew word for repent (NACHAM) is used some 35 times in reference to God.  Yet when most commentators deal with God's repentance they decline (and even forbid) any notion that the metaphor may have bearing upon our understanding of the future and God's knowledge of that future.  

Denigration occurs primarily with the immaterial anthropomorphisms.  And in some writings the issue is closed and no room is left for fresh discussion on the matter.  Yet it is inescapable, anthropomorphisms challenge us in many ways and the sailing between the two extremes of over simplification and denigration calls for a brave new theological approach.

Since the doctrine of God's attributes is large, and the scope of this essay is limited, I will confine my discussion of anthropomorphisms to a specific attribute:  God's love.  Here is a listing (with selected quotes) of many verses (KJV) that mention God's (or the LORD's) love:

Deut. 7:8:  "But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt."   Cp. 1 Kings 10:9; 2 Sam. 12:24; Isa. 48:14; Deut.  23:5; 2 Chr. 9:8; Ps. 87:2

Ps. 37:28:  "For the LORD loveth judgment, and forsaketh not his saints; they are preserved for ever: but the seed of the wicked shall be cut off."  Cp. Ps. 11:7

Ps. 146:8:  "The LORD openeth the eyes of the blind: the LORD raiseth them that are bowed down: the LORD loveth the righteous."  Cp. Isa. 61:8; 2 Chr. 2:11;

Prov. 3:12  "For whom the LORD loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth."

2 Cor. 9:7  "Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver."

John 3:16  "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."  1 John 4:16

1 John 4:8  "He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love."  Cp. 4:11; 2 Cor. 13:11

The love of God is not often viewed as an anthropomorphism, yet it clearly is.  This becomes apparent when we compare these verses with those that talk about God "hating." 

Ps. 11:5  "The LORD trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth."

Deut. 16:22  "Neither shalt thou set thee up any image; which the LORD thy God hateth."  Cp. 12:31; Mal. 2:16

Both love and hate are found in a very theological passage; Rom. 9:13:

            "As it is written, Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated."

God is said to love and to hate, both of which are human emotions.  How are we to understand these anthropomorphisms?  Furthermore, the scripture also states that "God is LOVE."  That is to say that God describes Himself via an anthropomorphism, AGAPE.

Those who accept the idea that anthropomorphisms are "language of accommodation" and that they do not apply to the attributes of God are faced with a problem.  On one hand they accept the thought that God loves, yet on the other they reject the idea that God hates (or can be jealous, have sorrow or grief, or even change His plan).  This type of theological dualism is not being Biblically or theologically consistent.  R.B. Thieme acknowledges this problem of inconsistencies and because of his denigration of anthropomorphisms concludes that God does not "love the world."  Observe what he says:

            God does not love Satan.  God does not love the world.  God does not love fallen man.  All we can offer Him are sin and human good, but both are equally objectionable to His absolute righteousness (Isa. 64:6; Tit. 3:5).  What the righteousness of God rejects, the justice of God condemns.  Therefore, God can no more love us than He can be angry, jealous, impatient, or changeable.  "Love," in John 3:16 is simply an anthropopathism. [17]

This may be an extreme example, but I feel it is a logical conclusion if the anthropomorphisms are denigrated and thought to be incompatible with the "true" essence of God.  We must face the challenge that anthropomorphisms, and specifically the immaterial anthropomorphisms present to us: How can we accept the fact that God can love; yet deny the equally conspicuous impressions that the other immaterial anthropomorphic metaphors present?

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

Scholars throughout the centuries have wrestled with the impact of anthropomorphisms to Systematic Theology and have come to conclusions that I find inadequate.  They have tended to accept the ideas conveyed by material anthropomorphisms but have denigrated the immaterial anthropomorphisms.  Most [18] deal with them inconsistently: accepting the ideas presented in the anthropomorphism of God's love while slighting the impact of the rest.

By way of definition, an anthropomorphism is God communicating to man in language drawn from the human sphere.  The Bible is full of anthropomorphic metaphors and these metaphors matter.  God intended for this communication to disclose truth about Himself, truth that impacts the readers as to who and what He is like.

In the start of this essay, I quoted Fretheim as saying; "Anthropomorphic metaphors have tended to be depreciated, even denigrated, in the history of Judeo-Christian thought and OT scholarship in particular."  I have attempted to show that this has indeed been the case.  Yet the anthropomorphic metaphors are perhaps one of the largest resources (untapped) that we posses conveying God's person and nature.

To aid us in our understanding the anthropomorphic metaphors, God's love provides us with a clear motif as to how the immaterial anthropomorphisms can be rightly understood.  The problem seems to be in our reluctance in honestly allowing them to impact our Systematic Theology.

There is an abundance of material to study.  I believe that we must come to grips with what God has revealed about Himself in the anthropomorphisms.  Such a study may be intimidating to our current understanding of God.  If that is so, we must face such  intimidation with boldness, knowing that He understands and delights in our pursuit of a clearer awareness of Him.

            But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD.  (Jer. 9:24)

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bullinger, E.W., Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1971.)

Fretheim, Terence E., The Suffering of God (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1987.)

Haley, John W., An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Andover:  Warren F. Draper, 1875.)

Hodge, A.A., Outlines of Theology (London:  Banner of Truth Trust, 1972.)

Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968.)

Horne, Thomas Hartwell, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (London:  Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1846.)

Keach, Benjamin, Tropologia; A Key to Open Scripture Metaphors (Ireland:  Bonmahon Industrial Printing School, 1856.)

Nichols, James and Bagnall, W.R., The Writings of James Arminius (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1977.)

Orr, James, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939.)

Ramm, Bernard, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1975.)

Rice, Richard, God's Foreknowledge and Man's Free Will (Minneapolis:  Bethany House Publishers, 1985.)

Thieme, Jr., R.B., The Integrity of God (Houston:  Berachah Tapes and Publications, 1979.)

Thiessen, Henry Clarence, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975.)

Unger, Merrill F., Unger's Bible Dictionary (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1971.)

Weston, Henry G., An Outline of Systematic Theology (Philadelphia:  American Baptist Publication Society, 1895.)

The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary (Glasgow:  Oxford University Press, (1977)



Footnotes

     [1] The Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary (Glasgow:  Oxford University Press, (1977)

     [2] Loc. cit.

     [3] Bullinger, E.W., Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1971.) p. 871.

     [4] Keach, Benjamin, Tropologia; A Key to Open Scripture Metaphors (Ireland:  Bonmahon Industrial Printing School, 1856.) p. 40.

     [5] Hodge, A.A., Outlines of Theology (London:  Banner of Truth Trust, 1972.) p. 131.

     [6] Fretheim, Terence E., The Suffering of God (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1987.) p. 6.

     [7] Unger, Merrill F., Unger's Bible Dictionary (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1971.) p. 68.

 

     [8] Ramm, Bernard, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1975.) p. 99.

     [9] I think that Thieme has overstepped the boundary of scripture with this idea that God is pictured sometimes as sinning.  I have not observed this in any of the anthropomorphic metaphors.  Thieme does not substantiate this idea.

     [10] Thieme, Jr., R.B., The Integrity of God (Houston:  Berachah Tapes and Publications, 1979.) p. 3.

     [11] Ibid. p. 3.

     [12] Loc. cit. p. 882.

     [13] Yet I suggest that it is impossible for God to  communicate with us without anthropomorphisms because we have been created in His image and likeness.  As Fretheim has observed, "The `image of God' gives us permission to reverse the process and, by looking at the human, learn what God is like." Loc. cit. p. 11.  By accepting  the common idea that God really isn't what the metaphor communicates also deceptively separates man from his Creator.  The incarnation of God the Son is perhaps the greatest example of God dealing with us in an "anthropomorphic" way.  We have a high priest who can be touched with our weakness because He humbled himself, left heavens glory and dwelt among us.  He became weak in order that we could be made strong.

     [14] It is my observation that theology is often derived from tradition instead of the Scriptures.  Often the image or belief we form about God comes from our own background and religious upbringing.

     [15] Fretheim, p. 8.

     [16] Fretheim, p. 6.

     [17] Loc. Cit. pp. 13, 14.

     [18] R.B. Thieme being the one exception to this that I am aware of presently.  At least Thieme is consistent with his premise that anthropomorphisms do not mean what they imply.  Thus God does not and cannot love the world in the way that has been taught for centuries.  Thieme's conclusion is that God love's His own integrity, hence the title of his book: "The Integrity of God."