Anthropomorphism

Literally “in the form of man,” it is usually applied to God either (1) in the strict sense that God or the gods (e.g., the Olympian gods of Greek mythology) has or have a body like man's, or (2) that God's mental or spiritual qualities can only be understood in terms of those of man. The term may also be applied to the natural world, both inorganic (e.g., force, conceived as an extension of feeling in our muscles) and organic (e.g., the mental life of animals). The charge that theism is anthropomorphic in sense (1) above is often leveled against Christianity. It is urged (e.g., by Winwoode Reade in the Martyrdom of Man, 1872) that God is infinitely greater than man and cannot therefore be conceived in human terms. But this does not follow. If, whether directly or indirectly, God created man, then God must at least be familiar with the qualities inherent in man. Man can only think with his mind, the tool given him for thought, and this limits his conception of God to an anthropomorphic one. Man can and does know God intuitively, but if he reasons about God he must do so in anthropomorphic terms such as those used in the Bible.


ANTHROPOMORPHISM an’ thrə pə mor’ fism. A figure of speech whereby the deity is referred to in terms of human bodily parts or human passions. To speak of God’s hands, eyes, anger, or even love is to speak anthropomorphically.

It may be helpful to distinguish two types of anthropomorphisms: those which picture God in bodily form and those which refer to God as possessed of those various aspects of personality as man knows it in himself. In a sense, it can be argued that those of the first type only are true anthropomorphisms. They speak as if God possessed bodily form, which, of course, He does not. The second type of anthropomorphism which refers to features of personality in God may be called factual description and not a figure of speech at all. It is the Christian teaching that God, the living and true God, is actually possessed of these personal characteristics which men recognize in themselves as attributes of personality.

Bodily anthropomorphisms.

There are numerous instances of bodily anthropomorphisms in both the OT and NT. Some of these are of a majestic nature for all their bodily representations. Some are much more ordinary. There are a few examples commonly referred to, which should be noted.

The creation of man (Gen 2:7) is a case in point. God formed man of dust and breathed into his nostrils. Adam and Eve “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (3:8). This particular case may be doubted. The word “cool” is the word rûaḥ, regularly tr. “wind” or “spirit,” never “cool.” The word for “walk” is a general word meaning “go.” The picture may just as well be that the voice of the Lord was going throughout the garden borne along upon the wind and that the representation of God is wholly immaterial.

When men made the tower of Babel, God “came down to see” (11:5). Likewise God resolved to “go down to see” the sin of Sodom (18:21). Such anthropomorphisms are to be distinguished from the appearance of God in human form to Abraham as he sat at his tent door in Mamre. The divine appearance in human form is called a theophany and is not a figure of speech.

Exodus 24:10 speaks of the feet of God. The commandments were written with the finger of God (Exod 31:18). Moses sees God’s “back” but not His “face” (33:23). Actually, this last instance is questionable. The Heb. word here is not the regular word for “back” but can mean “after effects.” That is, Moses saw the glory, but not the essence of God.


There has been a tendency to apologize for these figures of speech and assume that they betray a low concept of deity. It is alleged also that the “J” narrative of the Pentateuch, as separated out by critical scholars, is characterized by such anthropomorphisms, whereas other narratives like “E” or “P” represent God as more distant and speaking only through the medium of angels. This division into documents is highly subjective, however, and is an example of circular reasoning. Most anthropomorphisms are placed in “J” and this is the reason it has several notable examples. The alleged “P” document also has anthropomorphisms, e.g. God’s “resting (Gen 2:2). The LXX tr. occasionally removes the anthropomorphisms of the Heb. text in the interests of a more transcendent picture of the Deity.

It should be admitted on all sides, however, that the OT does not anywhere represent God as actually possessed of a bodily form. The whole denunciation of idolatry rests upon the uniform teaching of the spiritual nature of God. The Psalms refer repeatedly to the eyes of God, but Psalm 94:9 remarks that the God who made the eye is not limited to lesser faculties than the creatures He made. The picture of God in the OT is an altogether worthy one portraying an exalted Being who, though He is pictured as having hands, yet reaches out to uphold His children even in the uttermost part of the sea (Ps 139:9, 10). The Israelites never thought of their God as six ft. tall with any limitations of body or flesh. The references to bodily activities of God are clearly figures of speech.

Anthropomorphisms of personality.

The Bible repeatedly speaks of God as living, active, speaking, loving, thinking, judging. There have been many philosophers who insist that this is only a way of speaking of the infinite one. God Himself, being the Absolute, does not, they say, have the limitations of personality. Indeed, it is said, God cannot be known or defined in His essence. Man can have no factual knowledge of Him; he can have only a direct awareness, an experience, a divine-human encounter. God in Himself cannot be known, so the theory goes, nor can He be defined in human terms.

This is an old view newly reemphasized in that type of theology called neo-orthodoxy. Some Gr. skeptics argued that man pictures God like himself and thereby deceives himself. They said that if a triangle could talk, it would say “God is a triangle.” There is more truth in this charge than at first appears. The obvious point is that if a triangle could talk, it would not be a mere triangle. It would be a threesided figure possessed of intelligence, rationality, and self-expression. In short, to talk like this is the essence of human personality. Human personality may rightly claim that God is akin to man, because He has revealed that men are created in His own image. The fact of the image of God in man is what makes religion possible, and indeed is the only solid basis for finding meaning in life. If man is made in the image of God in personal characteristics, then it is no mere figure of speech or mythologizing description to say that God is love. Hodge in a significant treatment of these problems declares “We know that He is a Spirit, that He has intelligence, moral excellence, and power to an infinite degree. We know that He can love, pity, and pardon; that He can hear and answer prayer. We know God in the same sense and just as certainly as we know our father or mother. And no man can take this knowledge from us or persuade us that it is not knowledge, but a mere irrational belief.” (C. Hodge, Systematic Theology [1872], I, 360.) C. S. Lewis has a most helpful discussion of the same matters. He tells of a girl he knew who was brought up to believe that God was a perfect “substance.” On examination it developed that “her mental concept of God was ‘a vast tapioca pudding’! Such is the bleak alternative for those who deny personality in God” (C. S. Lewis, Miracles [1947], pp. 75-82).

The Bible everywhere assumes and repeatedly teaches that God is a living, infinite Person, and the description it gives of His love, pity, justice, and pardon are not really anthropomorphisms, but are sober descriptions of the living and true God.

Bibliography

C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, I (1872), 360; H. B. Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (1902), 327; C. S. Lewis, Miracles, a Preliminary Study (1947), 75-82; R. H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (1948), 174; A. B. Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (1963), 185, 314-317.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

an-thro-po-mor’-fiz’-m:

1. Definition of the Term

2. nodetitle Anthropomorphisms

3. In What Senses an Anthropomorphic Element Is Necessary

4. Anthropomorphism and the Exigencies of Human Thinking

5. Anthropomorphism and Theism

6. Symbolic Forms of Thought

7. Philosophic Pantheism

8. Anthropomorphism and Personalized or Mediated Knowledge

9. From Greek Polytheism to Modern Ethical Monotheism

10. Greek Thought

11. Anthropomorphism of Israel

12. Twofold Nature of the Anthropomorphic Difficulty

13. Need of Rising Higher

14. God in Christ the True Solution

1. Definition of the Term:

By this term is meant, conformably with its etymological signification, i.e. as being in the form or likeness of man, the attribution to God of human form, parts or passions, and the taking of Scripture passages which speak of God as having hands, or eyes, or ears, in a literal sense. This anthropomorphic procedure called forth Divine rebuke so early as Ps 50:21: "Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself."

2. Old Testament Anthropomorphisms:

Fear of the charge of anthropomorphism has had a strangely deterrent effect upon many minds, but very needlessly so. Even that rich storehouse of apparently crude anthropomorphisms, the Old Testament, when it ascribes to Deity physical characters, mental and moral attributes, like those of man, merely means to make the Divine nature and operations intelligible, not to transfer to Him the defects and limitations of human character and life.

3. In What Senses an Anthropomorphic Element Is Necessity:

In all really theistic forms of religion, there is an anthropomorphic element present, for they all presuppose the psychological truth of a certain essential likeness between God and man. Nor, perfect as we may our theistic idea or conception of Deity, can we, in the realm of spirit, ever wholly eliminate the anthropomorphic element involved in this assumption, without which religion itself were not. It is of the essence of the religious consciousness to recognize the analogy subsisting between God’s relations to man, and man’s relations to his fellow. We are warned off from speaking of "the Divine will" or "the Divine purpose," as too anthropomorphic--savoring too much of simple humanity and human psychology--and are bidden speak only of "the Divine immanence" or "the Divine ground of our being."

4. Anthropomorphism and the Exigencies of Human Thinking:

But these speculative objections really spring from a shallow interpretation of the primary facts of human consciousness, which, in the deepest realm of inner experience, claims the indefeasible right to speak of the Divine nature in human terms, as may best be possible to our being. The proper duty or function of philosophy is to take due account of such direct and primary facts of our nature: the basal facts of our being cannot be altered to suit her convenience.

5. Anthropomorphism and Theism:

If we were to interpret the impalpable and omni-present Energy, from which all things proceed, in terms of force, then, as Flake said, "there is scarcely less anthropomorphism lurking in the phrase `Infinite Power,’ than in the phrase `Infinite Person.’" Besides which, the soul of man could never be content with the former phrase, for the soul wants more than dynamics. But if we have ascribed to God certain attributes in keeping with the properties of the one Protean force behind all nature-manifestations, it has been to help purge our conception of God of objectionable anthropomorphic elements. The exigencies of human thinking require us to symbolize the nature of Deity in some psychical way whereby He shall have for us some real meaning; hence those quasi-personal or anthropomorphic forms of expression, which inhere in the most perfected conceptions of Deity, as well as in the crude ideas of unreflective spiritism. And if all anthropomorphism could be dissipated by us, we should in the process have demolished theism--a serious enough issue for religion.

6. Symbolic Forms of Thought:

Even speech has been declared to be a sensuous symbol, which makes knowledge of God impossible. To such an extent have the hyper-critical objections to anthropomorphism been pressed. Symbol of the Divine, speech may, in this sense, be; but it is a symbol whereby we can mark, distinguish or discern the super-sensible. Thus our abstract conceptions are by no means sensuous, however the language may originally have set out from a sensuous significance. Hence, it would be a mistake to suppose that our knowledge of God must remain anthropomorphic in content, and cannot think the Absolute Being or Essence save in symbolic form. It is a developmental law of religion--as of spirit in general--that the spiritual grows always more clearly differentiated from the symbolic and sensuous. The fact that our knowledge of God is susceptible of advance does not make the idea of God a merely relative one. God’s likeness to man, in respect of the attributes and elements essential to personal spirit, must be presupposed as a fundamental reality of the universe. In this way or sense, therefore, any true idea of God must necessarily be anthropomorphic.

7. Philosophic Pantheism:

We cannot prove in any direct manner--either psychological or historical--that man was really made in God’s image. But there is no manner of doubt that, on the other hand, man has always made God in his (man’s) own image. Man can do no otherwise. Because he has purged his conceptions of Deity after human pattern, and no longer cares much to speak of God as a jealous or repentant or punitive Deity, as the case may be, it yet by no means follows that "the will of God" and "the love of God" have ceased to be of vital interest or primary importance for the religious consciousness. All man’s constructive powers--intellectual, aesthetical, ethical, and spiritual--combine in evolving such an ideal, and believing in it as the personal Absolute, the Ideal-Real in the world of reality. Even in the forms of philosophic pantheism, the factors which play in man’s personal life have not ceased to project themselves into the pantheistic conceptions of the cosmic processes or the being of the world.

8. Anthropomorphism and Personalized or Mediated Knowledge:

But man’s making of God in his (man’s) own image takes place just because God has made man in His own image. For the God, whom man makes for himself, is, before all things, real--no mere construction of his intellect, no figure or figment of his imagination, but the prius of all things, the Primal, Originative Reality. Thus we see that any inadequacy springing out of the anthropomorphic character of our religious knowledge or conceptions is not at all so serious as might at first sight be supposed, since it is due merely to the necessarily personalized or mediated character of all our knowledge whatsoever. For all our experience is human experience, and, in that sense, anthropomorphic. Only the most pitiful timidity will be scared by the word "anthropomorphism," which need not have the least deterrent effect upon our minds, since, in the territory of spirit, our conceptions are purged of anthropomorphic taint or hue, the purer our human consciousness becomes.

9. From Greek Polytheism to Modern Ethical Monotheism.

To say, as we have done, that all knowledge is anthropomorphic, is but to recognize its partial, fallible, progressive or developmental character. It is precisely because this is true of our knowledge of God that our improved and perfected conceptions of God are the most significant feature in the religious progress of humanity. Only in course of the long religious march, wherein thought has shot up through the superincumbent weight of Greek polytheism into monotheism, and emerged at last into the severely ethical monotheism of our time, has religion been gradually stripped of its more crude anthropomorphic vestments. It cannot too clearly be understood that the religious ideal, which man has formed in the conception of the Absolute Personality, is one which is rooted in the realm of actuality. Not otherwise than as a metaphysical unity can God be known by us--intelligible only in the light of our own self- conscious experience.

10. Greek Thought:

It is a mere modern--and rather unillumined--abuse of the term anthropomorphic which tries to affix it, as a term of reproach, to every hypothetical endeavor to frame a conception of God. In the days of the Greeks, it was only the ascription to the gods of human or bodily form that led Xenophanes to complain of anthropomorphism. This Xenophanes naturally took to be an illegitimate endeavor to raise one particular kind of being--one form of the finite--into the place of the Infinite. Hence he declared, "There is one God, greatest of all gods and men, who is like to mortal creatures neither in form nor in mind."

11. Anthropomorphism of Israel:

But the progressive anthropomorphism of Greece is seen less in the humanizing of the gods than in the claim that "men are mortal gods," the idea being, as Aristotle said, that men become gods by transcendent merit. In this exaltation of the nature of man, the anthropomorphism of Greece is in complete contrast with the anthropomorphism of Israel, which was prone to fashion its Deity, not after the likeness of anything in the heavens above, but after something in the earth beneath. Certain professors of science have been mainly responsible for the recent and reprehensible use of the term, so familiar to us, for which we owe them no particular gratitude.

12. Twofold Nature of the Anthropomorphic Difficulty:

The anthropomorphic difficulty is a twofold one. Religion, as we have just shown, must remain anthropomorphic in the sense that we cannot get rid of imputing to the universe the forms of our own mind or life, since religion is rooted in our human experience. As we have already hinted, however, religion is in no worse case in that respect than science. For nothing is more idle than the pretension that science is less anthropomorphic than religion--or philosophy either--as if science were not, equally with these, an outcome and manifestation of human thinking! It is surely most obvious that the scientist, in any knowledge of reality he may gain, can, no more than the religionist--or the metaphysician--jump off his own shadow, or make escape from the toils of his own nature and powers. For knowledge of any sort--whether religious or scientific or philosophical--a certain true anthropomorphism is necessary, for it is of the essence of rationality. Nature, of which science professes a knowledge, is really a man- made image, like unto its human maker. Say what science will, this is the objectively real of science--a cognition which, critically viewed, is only subjectively valid. There is no other way by which science can know the being of the world than after the human pattern. It is, however, a serious issue that this human element or factor has often unduly penetrated the realm of the Divine, subordinating it and dragging it down to human aims and conceptions.

13. Need of Rising Higher:

Hence arises the second aspect of the anthropomorphic difficulty, which is, the need of freeing religion from anthropomorphic tendency, since it can be no satisfactory revealer of truth, so long as its more or less unrefined anthropomorphism contracts or subjugates reality to the conditions of a particular kind of being. It is perfectly clear that religion, whose every aim is to raise man beyond the limitations of his natural being, can never realize its end, so long as it remains wholly within the human sphere, instead of being something universal, transcendent, and independent. This is precisely why religion comes to give man’s life the spiritual uplift whereby it rises to a new center of gravity--a true center of immediacy--in the universe, rises, indeed, beyond time and its own finitude to a participation in the universal and transcendent life of the Eternal. It does so without feeling need to yield to the anthropomorphic tendency in our time to attribute a necessity in God for an object to love, as if His egoistic perfection were not capable of realizing love’s infinite ideal in itself, and without dependence upon such object.

14. God in Christ the True Solution:

We affirm that God in Christ, in revealing the fact of the likeness of man being eternal in God, disclosed the true anthropomorphism of our knowledge of God--it is with respect to the essential attributes and elements of personal spirit. It is easy to see how the early ascriptions to God of the form and members of the human body, and other non-essential accompaniments of personality, arose. The scriptural representations as to God’s hand, eye, and ear, were declared by Calvin to be but adaptations to the slow spiritual progress of men--an infantile mode of talk, as Calvin puts it, like that of nurses to children. But we have got finely clear of essential anthropomorphism, if, with Isa 55:8, we fully recognize that God’s "thoughts are not" our "thoughts," nor God’s "ways" our "ways." LITERATURE.

E. Caird, Evolution of Religion, 1893; J. Martineau, A Study of Religion, 1889; J. Fiske, The Idea of God, 1901; J. Orr, God’s Image in Man, 1905; D. B. Purinton, Christian Theism, 1889; J. Lindsay, Recent Advances in Theistic Philosophy of Religion, 1897; Studies in European Philosophy, 1909.