You are hereAnthropomorphisms: God's (Supposed) Communication Breakdown
Anthropomorphisms: God's (Supposed) Communication Breakdown
by John McPherson
A few weeks ago, I submitted an article titled “The Nature of Divine Knowledge”, examining the various elements of God’s cognitive abilities and the sum total of information available to Him at any given moment in time (as we understand those terms). In response, various individuals (not unexpectedly) introduced the “anthropomorphic” argument to the discussion. I would like to examine and critique that hermeneutical means of handling Scripture in some detail in this article.A few weeks ago, I submitted an article titled “The Nature of Divine Knowledge”, examining the various elements of God’s cognitive abilities and the sum total of information available to Him at any given moment in time (as we understand those terms). In response, various individuals (not unexpectedly) introduced the “anthropomorphic” argument to the discussion. I would like to examine and critique that hermeneutical means of handling Scripture in some detail in this article.
The act of attributing human forms or qualities to entities that are not human. Specifically, anthropomorphism is the describing of gods or goddesses in human forms and possessing human characteristics such as jealousy, hatred, or love.
Mythologies of ancient peoples were almost entirely concerned with anthropomorphic gods. The Greek gods such as Zeus and Apollo often were depicted in anthropomorphic forms. The avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu possessed human forms and qualities.
Current religions hold that it is not logical to describe the Christian God, who is believed to be omnipotent and omnipresent, as human. However, it is extremely difficult for the average person to picture or discuss God or the gods without an anthropomorphic framework.
In art and literature, anthropomorphism frequently depicts deities in human or animal forms possessing the qualities of sentiment, speech and reasoning. (Funk&Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia, 1979, ii, 143)
As can be seen from the definition above, this literary and linguistic tool represents a means of “simplifying” the gods or God Himself, through “humanizing” certain traits and characteristics He possesses. Thus, when God states that He is a God of LOVE – perhaps He doesn’t really mean what we THINK He means at all!! To ascribe the HUMAN characteristic of “love” (as we think of it) to the “transcendent God” (supposedly infinite in every respect) would be futile since the “infinite God” cannot, ultimately, be defined according to some finite human characteristic or quality.
Here is how the Catholic Encyclopedia defines the argument for “anthropomorphism” and the interpretation of Scripture according to this principle.
A term used in its widest sense to signify the tendency of man to conceive the activities of the external world as the counterpart of his own. A philosophic system, which borrows its method from this tendency, is termed Philosophic Anthropomorphism. The word, however, has been more generally employed to designate the play of that impulse in religious thought. In this sense, Anthropomorphism is the ascription to the Supreme Being of the form, organs, operations, and general characteristics of human nature. This tendency is strongly manifested in primitive heathen religions, in all forms of polytheism, especially in the classic paganism of Greece and Rome. The charge of Anthropomorphism was urged against the Greeks by their own philosopher, Xenophanes of Colophon. The first Christian apologists upbraided the pagans for having represented God, who is spiritual, as a mere magnified man, subject to human vices and passions. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, abounds in anthropomorphic expressions. Almost all the activities of organic life are ascribed to the Almighty. He speaks, breathes, sees, hears; He walks in the garden; He sits in the heavens, and the earth is His footstool. It must, however, be noticed that in the Bible locutions of this kind ascribe human characteristics to God only in a vague, indefinite way. He is never positively declared to have a body or a nature the same as man's; and human defects and vices are never even figuratively attributed to Him. The metaphorical, symbolical character of this language is usually obvious. The all-seeing Eye signifies God’s omniscience; the everlasting Arms His omnipotence; His Sword the chastisement of sinners; when He is said to have repented of having made man, we have an extremely forcible expression conveying His abhorrence of sin. The justification of this language is found in the fact that truth can be conveyed to men only through the medium of human ideas and thoughts, and is to be expressed only in language suited to their comprehension. The limitations of our conceptual capacity oblige us to represent God to ourselves in ideas that have been originally drawn from our knowledge of self and the objective world. The Scriptures themselves amply warn us against the mistake of interpreting their figurative language in too literal a sense. They teach that God is spiritual, omniscient, invisible, omnipresent, ineffable. Insistence upon the literal interpretation of the metaphorical led to the error of the Anthropomorphites.
Never trust a Catholic source to accurately identify and differentiate between that which is false and that which is not. That’s a very important rule of thumb. In the article above, they treat the idea that God experiences “human-like” emotions and feelings as mere “anthropomorphisms” and, essentially, inaccurate expressions of His Person and Mind. Their justification for this argument is founded in the idea (note the bold-type statements, above) that human language and cognitive capacities do not permit any measure of real understanding of God and His Person. He, in His infinitude (and utter “transcendence”) is simply beyond human comprehension. In effect, God is so “other” that His whole effort to reveal Himself to man and attempts to have any real relationship with finite man were doomed to failure from the beginning, and God was foolish to ever think He could somehow interact with man on a personal, intimate level. In fact, it was foolhardy of God to even attempt to reveal Himself to man either orally or in written form. Although He created the human mind and linguistic abilities, it is ultimately impossible for Him to accurately reveal Himself to man in language any man can comprehend. The Bible is an inaccurate, fallible failure. THOSE are the true implications of the Catholic argument, as presented above. The article goes on as follows:
A few decades ago thinkers and writers of the Spencerian and other kindred schools seldom touched upon the doctrine of a personal God without designating it Anthropomorphism, and thereby, in their judgment, excluding it definitively from the world of philosophic thought. Though on the wane, the fashion has not yet entirely disappeared. The charge of Anthropomorphism can be urged against our way of thinking and speaking of God by those only who, despite the protestations of theologians and philosophers, persist in assuming that terms are used univocally of God and of creatures. When arguments are offered to sustain the imputation, they usually exhibit an incorrect view regarding the essential element of personality. The gist of the proof is that the Infinite is unlimited, while personality essentially involves limitation; therefore, to speak of an Infinite Person is to fall into an absurdity. What is truly essential in the concept of personality is, first, individual existence as opposed to indefiniteness and to identity with other beings; and next, possession, or intelligent control of self. To say that God is personal is to say that He is distinct from the Universe, and that He possesses Himself and His infinite activity, undetermined by any necessity from within or from without. This conception is perfectly compatible with that of infinity. When the agnostic would forbid us to think of God as personal, and would have us speak of Him as energy, force, etc., he merely substitutes lower and more imperfect conceptions for a higher one, without escaping from what he terms Anthropomorphism, since these concepts too are derived from experience. Besides, he offers violence to human nature when, as sometimes happens, he asks us to entertain for an impersonal Being, conceived under the mechanical types of force or energy, sentiments of reverence, obedience, and trust. These sentiments come into play only in the world of persons, and cannot be exercised towards a Being to whom we deny the attributes of personality.
Note that the Catholics teach that “personality” is predicated upon individuation and “autonomy” or “the intelligent control of self”. “Self-awareness” and independent cognition are two concepts essentially expressing the same idea. God must possess these characteristics in order to be thought of as a “person”. The Catholic Encyclopedia makes the following statements, above: “To say that God is personal is to say that He is distinct from the Universe and that He possesses Himself and His infinite activity, undetermined by any necessity from within or without. This conception is perfectly compatible with that of infinity.” In actual fact, of course – such a ‘conception’ is NOT “perfectly compatible with infinity”. Those statements are illogical and irrational. An “infinite god” CANNOT be distinct from the Universe He brought into being, because He must be found in every particle, molecule and atom of it. His thoughts and very Being must be in all things at all times. We ourselves, therefore, are God as are the trees, rocks and animals. We should worship everything, including ourselves. That is the very essence of pantheism, and here we find it at the heart of Catholic doctrine. We can thank Catholicism for introducing and popularizing the “anthromorphic” argument and means of discrediting God’s clear revelation of Himself and His attributes.
The Catholic Encyclopedia article concludes with the following:
Anthropomorphites - A sect of Christians that arose in the fourth century in Syria and extended into Scythia, sometimes called Audians, from their founder, Audius. Taking the text of Genesis, i, 27, literally, Audius held that God has a human form. The error was so gross, and, to use St. Jerome's expression (Epist. vi, Ad Pammachium), so absolutely senseless, that it showed no vitality. Towards the end of the century it appeared among some bodies of African Christians. The Fathers who wrote against it dismiss it almost contemptuously. In the time of Cyril of Alexandria, there were some anthropomorphites among the Egyptian monks. He composed a short refutation of their error, which he attributed to extreme ignorance. (Adv. Anthrop. in P.G., LXXVI.) Concerning the charges of anthropomorphism preferred against Melito, Tertullian, Origen, and Lactantius, see the respective articles. The error was revived in northern Italy during the tenth century, but was effectually suppressed by the bishops, notably by the learned Ratherius, Bishop of Verona.
Note how Catholic clerics have effectively withstood the Truth as it resurfaced time and again, historically suppressing it and denying it any foothold in the thinking and understanding of the common, lay person. Certainly, no Catholic “worth his salt” would ever ascribe to God any remotely human characteristic or quality, in a definitive sense. It is tragic to see Protestants (and even some Preterists) buying into the idea that there is any shred of accuracy or integrity in the Catholic “anthropomorphic” argument against God’s unequivocal, clear, precise and definite revelation of His own attributes and characteristics.
God makes statements concerning His own Nature and Person throughout the Scriptures that (if we are NOT to understand and interpret them literally) are utterly misleading and without value, when treated in a manner consistent with the “anthropomorphic” argument. Here is just a sampling of a few such statements:
“Therefore He also says in another Psalm: 'You will not allow Your Holy One to see corruption.' “ (Acts 13:35)
What does “Holy One” mean? In GOD’S understanding (as a supposedly “infinite, transcendent Being”), perhaps “Holy” means something totally other than what we have been led to believe it means here. For all we know, according to the anthropomorphists, this title referring to Christ Jesus is no more than a rough approximation of a character quality belonging to God that may or may not have any relationship to, or basis in, fact and reality (either His OR ours).
“The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!" “ (Rev. 4:8)
Again, these four “living creatures” in heaven, glorifying and praising God in these terms, may be using language that is misleading, because it involves terminology pertinent to the HUMAN condition and comprehensible in HUMAN terms. When God is referred to as “holy”, we immediately understand that He is both PERFECTLY SINLESS and FLAWLESS. There is an utter absence of evil in Him, for truly as the Scriptures themselves state, “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” (1John 1:5). But if THIS text is an “anthropomorphism”, then the Scriptures are truly robbed of all objective meaning (particularly where any statements pertinent to God and His Being are concerned), and we are left with a worthless, flawed “revelation” of God that actually reveals NOTHING about Him. "Darkness" and "light" MAY be metaphors for God's Being (representing divine goodness and purity vs. evil and corruption), but they could ALSO be literal expressions of God's fundamental reality and essence.
A term similar to “anthropomorphism” is “anthropopathism”. It is defined as follows: “The ascription of human feelings or passions to God, or to a polytheistic deity.” (Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary 1996,1998) . Essentially, the Scriptures are incapable of accurately communicating ANYTHING substantive in terms of God’s emotions, feelings, Mind or Will – because all such ideas and concepts must be couched in human language and terms, and because such terminology has its source in finite, human thinking – it falls short of the reality where the supposedly “infinite, transcendent God of the Bible” is concerned. R.B. Thieme takes this line of thinking to its logical outcome, demonstrating the extreme to which this reasoning leads:
“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.” (Thieme, Jr. R.B., The Integrity of God Houston: Berachah Tapes and Publications, 1979 pgs. 13,14).
It can readily be seen that anthropomorphists (and anthropopathists) find themselves in a deep epistemological quandary. God becomes essentially “unknowable” and unapproachable in their interpretive system, and the Scriptures are a flawed, imperfect, ineffective failure as an attempt on God’s part to communicate Himself and His Person to man.
Paul effectively invalidates the “anthropomorphic” argument in the following statements:
7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, 8 which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But as it is written: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him." 10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 11 For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. 13 These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. 16 For "who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?" But we have the mind of Christ.” (1Cor. 2:7-16)
As those who have been spiritually reborn by the Spirit of God – and have had the mind of Christ implanted and developed within us – we have both the capacity and, indeed, the OBLIGATION to comprehend God’s very Being in terms of His Personhood and the characteristics by which HE has defined it for those who are His.
God did NOT fail to communicate, CLEARLY, the essence and fundamentals of His Person to us. HE created the human mind and ability to communicate intelligently via language. He chose to communicate to man through both the written AND oral Word. He manifested Himself to us in CHRIST (who demonstrated distinctly HUMAN characteristics, emotions, etc.) and He - in His perfect wisdom and knowledge – SUCCEEDED in accurately conveying to man WHO He is and HOW He thinks. THAT is the God of the Bible and THAT is the God who I worship and serve. The “god” of anthropomorphists is both imperfect AND utterly unworthy of anyone’s worship and devotion. Such a “god” who is evidently utterly incapable of simple, effective, accurate, forthright communication is certainly incapable of either relationship OR any other benevolent activity on behalf of those who commit themselves to him.
Let us recommit ourselves to understanding and desiring deeper relationship with the wise, loving, holy, righteous, perfect God of the Bible - the God who clearly expressed who He was in very precise, humanly comprehensible terms. This, indeed, is the very same God who clearly expressed the reality that His knowledge is limited where man is concerned, and no “anthropomorphic” treatment of the relevant texts can justifiably devalue those statements in any legitimate way.
Serving the Truth,