Biblical Anthropomorphism

Yesterday, I argued that God in the Bible regretted going too far in his wrath. Whenever one reads something in the Bible that affirms this point, there are always Jewish and Christian apologists who will try to explain the passage away. “The passage does not really mean that God regretted his actions,” they would say. “After all, if it meant that, then the passage would contradict what we know about God. God can do no wrong, and God regretting his actions implies that God did something wrong. The passage is an anthropomorphism. You see, we humans are unable to understand God, since we are limited. So the Bible often presents God as someone who possesses human features, including body parts and emotions. God doesn’t really have these things, mind you, but the Bible is trying to make God more comprehensible to our puny, inadequate minds.”

I have problems with this approach. For one, it seems to argue that the Bible is full of white lies. Second, why would the biblical authors go to the trouble of presenting God in a certain way if they did not expect us to accept their portrayal? Third, even if the Bible contains anthropomorphisms that we are to reject, what are people of faith supposed to do with the anthropomorphic portrayals? Do they point to any truth about God? These are questions that I wish traditionalists would answer. Instead, my impression is that they toss out the term “anthropomorphism” to avoid difficult questions.

One blog that I have started to read is Jacob Stein’s Jewish Philosopher. I like it because the author is not afraid to be controversial. In his post, Why is God Invisible?, he managed to spark a debate about anthropomorphism. While Stein defends the concept of God’s incorporeality, some of his readers refer to biblical passages in which God has a body. And they have a point. After all, God showed Moses something physical in Exodus 33:23. When Moses asked to see God, God could have replied, “I don’t have a body to show you, Moses, for I am spirit,” but God didn’t say that. He showed Moses his back.

The side that says God is incorporeal and without passion certainly has prooftexts to back itself up. A good source for this is the Westminster Confession. I like the way that the Westminster Confession defends its doctrines with Scripture. On the subject of God, the Confession refers to Deuteronomy 4:15-15, John 4:24, and Luke 24:39 to support God’s incorporeality, and Acts 14:11, 15 to argue that God is without passion. Deuteronomy 4:15-16 is not necessarily a good prooftext, since the point of that passage is that God didn’t show the Israelites a form, not that he lacks one altogether. But John 4:24 says that God is spirit, and Luke 24:39 says that a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones, so I can see how the Confession might conclude from these verses that God doesn’t have a body. And Acts 14:11, 15 contrasts humans who have passions with gods who lack them. So, at least by New Testament times, there may have been a belief that God is incorporeal and without passion. The first century Jewish philosopher Philo engages this topic, so it was on the radar screen of the first century C.E.

But, even before then, there is a view in Scripture that God does not change in the same way that humans do. I Samuel 15:29 says, “And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.” Malachi 3:6 has, “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” Do we see here the notion that God is a perfect being who makes the right decision the first time around, meaning that he doesn’t need to change his mind? Possibly so.

So the traditionalists who appeal to anthropomorphism may not only be trying to reconcile the Bible with Plato’s static deity (not that they’d acknowledge that as their explicit goal in the first place). Perhaps they also want to reconcile the Bible with itself–to present the Bible as a harmonious document with a consistent message about God. Unfortunately, the result is that they do not take certain passages as seriously as they should.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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