Q: #426. What is an anthropomorphism?
By: Steve Shirley
A: The word "anthropomorphism" comes from two Greek words: "anthropos" and "morphe." Strong's defines "anthropos" as "a human being: - man," and "morphe" as "shape; fig. nature: form." The word "anthropos" is used 559 times for "man" in the New Testament, but the word "morphe" is used only 3 times for "form" (Phil 2:6-7)(Mk 16:12). Historically, the definition of this word has been: "to assign human form or characteristics to non-humans ." In addition, we have another word called "anthropopathism" (Gr. "pathos" = "suffer"), which is "to assign human emotions or feelings to non-humans." Today, however, "human emotions or feelings" are generally incorporated into the word "anthropomorphism." For examples of this, think of Pinocchio, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny; non-humans given human characteristics and emotions.
From a Biblical standpoint, an "anthropomorphism" would be defined as: "assigning to God human form, human characteristics, or human emotions," which really don't apply to God at all. We see examples of this literary device all through the Bible. However, before we get to these examples, let me explain why we should not literally apply them to God.
The Bible says that God is by nature "spirit" (Jn 4:24) and "invisible" (Col 1:15)(1 Tim 6:16)(1 Tim 1:17)(Heb 11:27). God is not "flesh and blood" (Mt 16:17), nor "flesh and bone" (Lk 24:39) (meaning He does not have a body). He is not a man (Hos 11:9)(Job 9:32)(Num 23:19)(1 Sam 15:29). Any attempts to assign the limitations of man to God ultimately diminishes His omniscience (1 Jn 3:20)(Isa 42:9)(Ezek 11:5), omnipresence (1 Kin 8:27)(Ps 139:7-8)(Jer 23:23-24)(2 Chr 16:9), and omnipotence (Lk 1:37)(Mt 19:26)(Jer 32:27) in some way. He cannot be confined by a body, nor can His emotions be viewed in the same ways ours are (which are often connected with sin in some way).
So, why does the Bible make it sound like God has: a face (Ex 33:11)(Mt 18:10)(Num 6:25), hands (Jn 10:29)(Ex 3:20)(Ex 7:5), eyes (2 Chr 16:9)(1 Pet 3:12)(Deut 11:12), ears (Ps 34:15)(2 Kin 19:16)(2 Sam 22:7), mouth (Isa 58:14)(Ps 33:6)(Deut 8:3), arms (Job 40:9)(Ps 89:10)(Deut 5:15), and heart (Hos 11:8)(1 Sam 2:35)(Acts 13:22)? Or, why does it say God gets angry (Ex 4:14)(Ps 7:11)(Jer 7:20), is jealous (Ex 20:5)(Deut 4:24)(Deut 32:16,21)(Ps 78:58), is grieved (KJV = repented)(Judg 10:16)(Gen 6:6)(1 Sam 15:35), feels pleasure (Heb 10:38)(Rev 4:11)(Ps 147:11), hates (Mal 1:3)(Hos 9:15)(Ps 5:5), loves (Jn 3:16)(Rom 5:8)(1 Jn 4:8), etc...?
These are simply literary devices used by God to help our finite human minds understand Him a little better. Using an old saying, it is to help us "comprehend to incomprehensible, know the unknowable, fathom the unfathomable." Our minds simply cannot grasp the things of God. Therefore, when we read these things about God, we MUST filter them through His omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.
For example, if God is "spirit," He cannot have a body. If God had a body, could He be omnipresent (everywhere at once)? If God is not man, but yet appears to have emotions, His emotions must differ from ours. And, I believe it quite likely that our finite minds cannot even fathom them. Our emotions are often self-centered and self-gratifying. God's are not. Our emotions are often based on a change in feelings. God's are not. Our emotions go up and down. God's do not. We cannot fathom how God's love is unchangeable towards us, even when we fail Him, because our love for others so often changes based on circumstances. God's jealousy is not like ours (I explain this here). God's anger is not like ours (I explain this here).
In addition to this, if we filter God's emotions through His omniscience, since God already knows everything that will happen, and everything we will do, why would His emotions change? God is not surprised. God does not change (Mal 3:6)(Jas 1:17)(Heb 13:8), nor does He change His mind (Num 23:19)(1 Sam 15:29)(Heb 7:21).
Therefore, when we see verses that assign human form, characteristics, or emotions to God, and we filter them through God's omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, we can know that we have an "anthropomorphism" or "anthropopathism;" a literary device which is not to be taken literally, but figuratively.
A failure to do this results in all sorts of theological error. Mormons have given their god a body (and say we can become gods ourselves). A well-known charismatic teacher has taught God that "is about 6'2" tall, weighs a couple hundred pounds, and has a hand span of 9". We have "open theism," which concludes that God doesn't know the future.
These things often come about because people want a god they can see; something physical, tangible. A god they can understand. A god that makes sense. There is a phrase for this: "making a god in our own image." The Israelites did this with their "golden calf" (Ex ch.32). Pagan cultures in the Bible, and throughout history made idols. The Bible tells us in (Rom 1:18-20)(Rom 2:12-16) that God has placed in each man's heart and conscience the knowledge of His existence. We ALL know God exists. But, we want more ("blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" - Jn 20:29). Therefore, we fail to "rightly divide the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15)."
Friends, we MUST be content with the fact that we cannot truly know all there is to know about God. Our finite minds cannot handle it. We must not put God in a box, confined by the limitations of man. We must not make a "god" of things God created (Rom 1:25), including God's greatest creation: man.
(Isa 55:8-9) For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. (9) For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.