Recognizing and Interpreting Anthropomorphic Language

Article ID: JAP332 | By: Ron Rhodes

This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 33, number 02 (2010). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org


The term “anthropomorphism,” in its restricted sense, refers to the representation of God with the forms of humanity (such as an arm or hand). “Anthropopathism” refers to the representation of God with the feelings of humanity. “Anthropopraxism” refers to the representation of God with the activities of humanity. As professor Edwin M. Yamauchi notes, however, the term anthropomorphism is used in a more general sense to include all these aspects, and it is in this general sense that I use the term in this article.1

We find multiple examples of anthropomorphism in Scripture. For example, God is described as having an arm (Job 40:9), a back (Exod. 33:21-23), breath (Job 33:4), ears (2 Sam. 22:7), eyes (Ps. 34:15), a face (Exod. 33:11), feet (Gen. 3:8), fingers (Deut. 9:10), hair (Dan. 7:9), a hand (Ps. 95:4-5), a head (Dan. 7:9), a heart (2 Chron. 7:16), lips (Ps. 89:34), a mouth (Deut. 8:3), nostrils (2 Sam. 22:9, 16), shoulders (Deut. 33:12), a tongue (Isa. 30:27), and a voice (Exod. 3:4). Moreover, God is said to give birth (Deut. 32:18), hear (Num. 11:18), laugh (Ps. 37:13), see (Ps. 10:11), sit (Ps. 29:10), smell (Gen. 8:21), stand (Amos 7:7), walk (Gen. 3:8), and watch (Gen. 31:49). As well, God is said to experience joy (Isa. 65:19), grief (Judg. 10:16), anger (Deut. 1:37), hatred (Ps. 5:5-6), and love (Jer. 31:3). Relational terms are also used of God, including Shepherd (Ps. 23:1), Judge (Gen. 18:25), Bridegroom (Mark 2:19-20), and Husband (Isa. 54:5).

A number of strange-sometimes heretical-doctrines have emerged among some religious groups as a result of misunderstanding anthropomorphic language. For example, Mormons conclude that God is a physical being because, among other reasons, Moses spoke with God “face to face” (Exod. 33:112).3 Word-Faith leader Kenneth Copeland says God has human dimensions, standing around six-feet-two-inches and weighing a couple of hundred pounds, simply because God “measured the waters in the hollow of His hand” (Isa. 40:12).4 Clearly, misinterpreting anthropomorphic language can lead one far astray doctrinally. My goal in this brief article is to offer three primary insights on how to recognize and then interpret such language when used of God. In so doing, I will follow some of the fundamentals of hermeneutics.

What Does the Text Say? First, we set a foundational theological parameter in understanding anthropomorphisms by interpreting Scripture by Scripture. Martin Luther expressed this principle with the words, Scriptura sui ipsius interpres-Latin for “Scripture is its own expositor.” The Westminster Confession of Faith affirmed, “When there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture…it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”5 Addressing anthropomorphisms specifically, theologian Wayne Grudem urged, “It should caution us not to take any one of these [anthropomorphic] descriptions by itself and isolate it from its immediate context or from the rest of what Scripture says about God.”6

Following this rule alone effectively prevents one from making the Mormon and Word-Faith errors cited above. For example, by consulting other Scriptures, we quickly see that there is no literal similarity of form between God and His creatures. Numbers 23:19 flatly asserts that “God is not a man.” This same truth is repeated in Job 9:32. Such verses make it clear that when God is described in human terms, such as having a “face” or an “arm,” they are not to be interpreted in a literal fashion.

Further, Scripture reveals that God is Spirit (John 4:24), and a spirit does not have flesh and bones (Luke 24:39). Hence, it is wrong to think of God as a physical being or as having physical parts.7

Still further, because God is a spirit, He is invisible. He cannot be seen. First Timothy 1:17 refers to God as “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God.” Colossians 1:15 speaks of “the invisible God.” As well, warnings against making images and likenesses of God point to the noncorporeal nature of God (see Deut. 4:12; 5:6-9, 22-28).

Clearly, then, interpreting Scripture by Scripture sets a hermeneutic parameter regarding how anthropomorphisms should not be interpreted. We would not know what is not literally true of God unless we first know what is literally true. For example, if it were not literally true that God is Pure Spirit and Infinite, then we would not be able to say that certain things attributed to God elsewhere in the Bible are not literally true, such as God having a material face or hand or arm. This parameter establishes in no uncertain terms that anthropomorphisms are metaphors.

“It’s Like This….” Anthropomorphisms, like other figures of speech, communicate truth by analogy. As Grudem put it, “If God is going to teach us about things we do not know by direct experience…he has to teach us in terms of what we do know.”8

For example, when Scripture says, “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him” (Ps. 103:13), we learn something about God by analogy. Because we understand something of how human fathers show compassion to their children, we can by analogy understand something of God’s compassion toward His children. Such analogies are legitimate, for Scripture reveals that human beings are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).

Theologians tell us that the analogical language used of God in Scripture is midway between univocal and equivocal language.9 Univocal terms are unambiguous; they always have one meaning: Shaquille O’Neal is a tall basketball player, just as the Empire State Building in New York City is a tall building. Equivocal terms are ambiguous, for they can have more than one meaning: The word “trunk” might refer to the front of an elephant, the back of a car, or the bottom of a tree. In analogical usage, we begin with a univocal element (e.g., a human parent loves his child just as the heavenly Father loves His spiritual children), but we perceive that while there are similarities, there are differences as well: human love has limits, whereas divine love is unconditional and limitless. Nevertheless, by analogy, one effectively illustrates the other. That is, we learn something of divine love by first understanding what it means for a parent to love a child. Human love and divine love are different in degree, but not different in kind, and hence the analogy between the two is quite effective.

God, in His infinite wisdom-and as our Creator-knows just which analogies will best help us to understand true aspects of His nature and His relationship with His creation. As theologian Millard Erickson put it, “This analogical knowledge is possible because God selects the components he uses. Unlike humans, God is knowledgeable of both sides of the analogy…God…knowing all things completely, therefore knows which elements of human knowledge and experience are sufficiently similar to the divine truth that they can be used to help construct a meaningful analogy.”10

Read Between the Lines. Since anthropomorphisms are metaphors that communicate truth analogically, one must begin by seeking to understand the purpose or idea usually associated with the human expression-for example, a hand and an arm normally engage in some kind of action, often in behalf of others. At the same time, it is wise to watch for possible textual clues in Scripture that enable one to infer what is being metaphorically communicated about God by the analogy. What I mean by “textual clue” is illustrated in Psalm 136 where we read of God’s “strong hand and an outstretched arm” (v. 12). The textual clue is found in verse 11, which speaks of God’s deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians. God’s strong hand and outstretched arm point to His mighty power and His active involvement in demonstrating that power on behalf of Israel. Likewise, in Exodus 15:8 where we read of God’s “nostrils,” the textual clue relates to God’s opening up the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape from the Egyptians (see vv. 4-7). The “blast” of God’s “nostrils” is obviously a graphic metaphorical expression indicating that God was the direct causal agent of the sea opening up. In Deuteronomy 9:10, which refers to God’s “fingers,” the textual clue relates to inscriptions on the two tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments, thus indicating that God is the One who accomplished the inscription. In Exodus 33:11, which refers to Moses speaking to God “face to face,” the textual clue is “just as a man speaks to his friend.” In other words, Moses spoke with God intimately. In none of these verses is there even the slightest hint that God actually has a physical hand, arm, nostrils, fingers, or a face. All of the terms are analogical metaphors.

These three interpretive principles enable us to perceive God’s intended meaning of the anthropomorphisms in Scripture, especially as related to the historical milieu of the time. The ancients considered God to be very much alive and active in human affairs. To the men and women in biblical times, God was real. They knew Him as a person. He was personally active in their midst. The clearest, most succinct way they could express their view of God and their interaction with Him was in the language of human personality and activity-not in cold metaphysical, theological jargon. As scholar Ludwig Köhler put it, “The purpose of anthropomorphisms is to make God accessible to man….They represent God as person. They avoid the error of presenting God as a careless and soulless abstract Idea of a fixed Principle….Through the anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament God stands before man as the personal and living God.”11-Ron Rhodes


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Ron Rhodes, Th.D., is president of Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries and adjunct professor of theology at Dallas Theological Seminary and Veritas Evangelical Seminary. He is an award-winning author of numerous books and articles.


NOTES

1. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Anthropomorphism in Ancient Religions,” Bibliotheca Sacra 125 (January-March 1968): 29-44.

2. All Bible quotations are from the NASB.

3. LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1978), 16.

4. Kenneth Copeland, “Spirit, Soul and Body I,” 1985, Audiotape #01-0601, Side 1.

5. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:9.

6. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 159.

7. This does not contradict the Incarnation, in which Jesus (as eternal God) took on a human nature (Phil. 2:6-8).

8. Grudem, 159.

9. See Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 204.

10. Erickson, 204.

11. Ludwig Köhler, Anthropomorphisms and Their Meaning from Old Testament Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957), 25.