The meaning of Anthropomorphism in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
1. Definition of the Term
2. Old Testament 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 Psalms 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 Isaiah 55:8, we fully recognize that God's "thoughts are not" our "thoughts," nor God's "ways" our "ways."
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.
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