Anthropomorphisms -- Their Impact to Systematic
(© 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
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."
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.
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....
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.
"Anthropomorphic metaphors have tended to be
depreciated, even denigrated, in the history of Judeo-Christian thought and OT
scholarship in particular."
The widely used
"Unger's Bible Dictionary" reveals this attitude when it says
"Traces of this [the anthropomorphic metaphor] are found in
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:
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
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.
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
-- in order to communicate things to us for which otherwise we
would have no frame of reference.
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
"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."
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?
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?
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,"
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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;
"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."
"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."
"The LORD trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth
violence his soul hateth."
"Neither shalt thou set thee up any image; which the LORD thy God
hateth." Cp. 12:31; Mal.
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,
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.
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.
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.
Bullinger, E.W., Figures of Speech Used in the Bible
(Grand Rapids: Baker Book
Fretheim, Terence E., The Suffering of God
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press,
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
Rice, Richard, God's Foreknowledge and Man's Free Will
(Minneapolis: Bethany House
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)
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.
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.
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
conclusion is that God love's His own integrity, hence the title of his
book: "The Integrity of God."