Anthropomorphism refers to the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object. In theology and religious studies, anthropomorphism specifically applies to the portrayal of God with human qualities or forms. The Bible contains numerous examples of anthropomorphic depictions of God. However, theologians have long debated the appropriateness and implications of anthropomorphizing the divine.
Anthropomorphic portrayals of God in the Old Testament
The Old Testament frequently speaks of God in very human terms. God is described as having human attributes like eyes, ears, arms, hands, feet, voice, breath, and more. For example:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Exodus 19:4 ESV)
This verse depicts God carrying the Israelites on eagle wings, like a parent bird carrying its young. Other examples include:
- “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” (Genesis 11:5 ESV)
- “You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted.” (Psalm 10:17 ESV)
- “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous.” (Psalm 34:15 ESV)
Anthropomorphism is especially prominent in poetic and prophetic sections, which use vivid metaphors to describe God’s attributes and actions. However, even historical narratives contain anthropomorphic descriptions.
Some of the most commonly used anthropomorphisms include:
- God sees, hears, smells, touches (Exodus 3:7-8)
- God has a mouth, voice, breath, nostrils, lips, tongue (Isaiah 30:27-28)
- God has hands, arms, right hand (Psalm 44:3)
- God has feet, walks (Genesis 3:8)
- God remembers, forgets (Psalm 13:1)
- God repents, changes His mind (Jeremiah 18:8-10)
At face value, it seems the Old Testament depicts God as having very human qualities and limitations. However, theologians have offered several explanations for this anthropomorphic language:
- It helps make an infinite, ineffable God understandable to finite humans
- It reflects human experience of God, not necessarily God’s full essence
- It reveals real aspects of God’s nature analogically
- It emphasizes God’s personal presence and concern for humanity
So in short, anthropomorphisms do not imply God is actually limited or physical as humans are. The descriptions are analogies to help us relate to God, not literal definitions of His full divine nature.
The New Testament continues anthropomorphic portrayals of God focused on the person of Jesus Christ. As the incarnate Son, Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). By taking on human attributes He makes God known to us.
Philippians 2:5-8 describes this incredible condescension from divine glory to human frailty:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The Gospels highlight many human attributes and experiences of Jesus:
- He had a human body that got tired, hungry, and died (John 4:6, Matthew 4:2, John 19:30)
- He had a human mind that grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52)
- He had human emotions like compassion, anger, sadness (Matthew 9:36, John 11:33)
Jesus as the God-man bridges the divide between God and humans. He makes God’s love tangible through human words and actions. Focusing only on Christ’s divinity or only on his humanity leads to incomplete, unorthodox views. Affirming the full humanity of Christ guards against docetic or gnostic heresies that deny His real incarnation.
The problem of literalizing anthropomorphisms
While anthropomorphism can be useful in revealing God to us, theologians warn about taking them too literally. We must remember that God remains infinite, eternal, and spirit (John 4:24). Literalizing anthropomorphic analogies has led to serious misconceptions throughout history, like:
- Visual portrayals of God as an old man
- Assuming God has imperfect human qualities like forgetfulness
- Thinking God is physically limited to a locale in space
- Believing God can be manipulated through physical acts
To avoid these errors, scholars suggest principles for interpreting divine anthropomorphisms:
- Focus on the theological meaning behind the metaphor, not just its literal sense
- Remember that all language about God is analogical, not exact
- Anthropomorphisms tell us about God by analogy to human attributes
- Let clearer Scripture passages interpret more obscure metaphors
- View human qualities ascribed to God as perfect virtues, without flaws
So in summary, the Bible uses anthropomorphism while retaining God’s transcendence. Human language cannot fully capture an infinite deity, but it can hint at God’s attributes and actions in ways we understand. Through Christ the anthropomorph, we truly know God’s character and heart without utterly domesticating divine mystery.
God’s transcendence over anthropomorphism
Even while using anthropomorphism, the Bible maintains God’s unique transcendence above His creation. Passages like Isaiah 40 make this clear:
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?…To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing. (Isaiah 40:12, 25-26 ESV)
God is so wholly other, no human quality can capture His limitless perfection. Even anthropomorphic analogies pale in comparison to the glory of God’s actual being.
The danger is not with biblical anthropomorphism itself, but with interpreting it in reductionistic ways that impose human limitations on God. C.S. Lewis provides this helpful caution:
Anthropomorphic imagery, by definition, limits God. The limitation, however, is in the image, not in God. We must not allow the symbol to rein in the reality; rather, the reality must forever flow out and infinitely beyond the symbol.
So in using anthropomorphic language, the Bible does not reduce God to human qualities. Instead it gives us glimpses of greater truths that exceed our comprehension. Anthropomorphism as a rhetorical technique serves a revelatory purpose in the context of God’s grand redemptive story. But the divine mystery always remains uncontainable.
The place of anthropomorphism in systematic theology
In systematic theology, anthropomorphism relates to the attributes of God and theological method. Theologians must discern which divine attributes are merely metaphorical anthropomorphisms and which reflect God’s true eternal nature.
For example, God’s mercy and compassion help reveal His heart for humanity. However, anthropomorphic descriptions of God changing His mind or regretting decisions are likely metaphors conveying deeper spiritual realities in terms we understand. Systematic theology aims to move beyond the literal sense to the full, intended meaning.
More broadly, anthropomorphic passages demonstrate that even though divine truth transcends human thought, Scripture uses natural language to teach us about supernatural realities. This reflects God’s wise accommodation to our level through incarnational revelation.
So anthropomorphism occupies an important middle ground between God’s ineffable transcendence and Scripture’s understandable, authoritative teachings for us. Systematic theology benefits from recognizing anthropomorphism’s contributions and limitations in how we know and speak about our infinite Creator.
Theological views on interpreting divine anthropomorphism
Throughout church history, scholars have proposed three main approaches for handling anthropomorphism in theology:
- Literal Correspondence: Some church fathers interpreted anthropomorphisms very literally as revealing God’s actual humanlike appearance. This approach has largely been rejected as imposing limiting conceptions on an eternal Spirit.
- Total Metaphor: Others like Thomas Aquinas viewed anthropomorphisms as only analogies conveying broader spiritual truths. They carried no real correspondence to God’s attributes.
- Literal Meaning, Analogical Correspondence: Reformers like John Calvin affirmed that anthropomorphisms do directly teach real spiritual truths about God’s attributes and actions. However, they are still analogies and must be interpreted in light of God’s infinite perfection revealed throughout Scripture.
This third view upholds both the definiteness and the analogical nature of biblical anthropomorphism. Human language cannot completely define God, but it can accurately reflect true things about Him. This fits with an evangelical high view of the Bible’s clarity and authority, while allowing for metaphorical, accommodated revelation.
Practical implications of divine anthropomorphism
So what practical impact does this anthropomorphic revelation have on Christian spirituality? Several key applications emerge:
- It highlights God’s personal nature. The living God actively sees, hears, speaks and interacts with humanity.
- It inspires worshipful wonder. God’s infinite greatness exceeds the bounds of human language or imagination.
- It motivates missions. God communicates Himself through natural human concepts so every people can know Him.
- It encourages bold prayer. We have access to a relatable God who welcomes our cries through Christ.
- It demands holiness. God is not casually indifferent to human decisions; He cares about the moral fabric of His creation.
- It provides assurance. The One who redeems us with everlasting love will never forget or abandon those He has called as His own.
Rather than distracting us into debating the mechanics of divine metaphors, biblical anthropomorphism focuses our hearts on knowing God’s character and walking in His ways.
In summary, anthropomorphic portrayals of God populate both the Old and New Testaments. This analogical language presents God in down-to-earth terms while upholding His supreme transcendence. These metaphors should be interpreted through the lens of God’s full revelation, not literalized in ways that limit Him. Anthropomorphism provides an earthly glimpse of our infinite Creator to deepen spiritual understanding and intimacy with Him through Christ. Handled with discernment, biblical anthropomorphism illuminates rather than obscures the glory of God.