What is an anthropomorphism?Question: "What is an anthropomorphism?"
Answer: The word anthropomorphism comes from two Greek words, anthropos, meaning “man,” and morphe, meaning “form.” In theological terms, anthropomorphism is making God in some way into the form of man. Mostly, it is the process of assigning human characteristics to God. Human traits and actions such as talking, holding, reaching, feeling, hearing, and the like, all of which are chronicled throughout both the Old and New Testaments, are ascribed to the Creator. We read of God’s actions, emotions, and appearance in human terms, or at least in words we normally accept and associate with humans.
In several places in the Bible, God is described as having the physical attributes of man. He “sets [his] face” against evil (Leviticus 20:6); the Lord will make “His face” to shine on you (Numbers 6:25); He “stretched out his hand” (Exodus 7:5; Isaiah 23:11), and God scattered enemies with His strong arm (Psalm 89:10). He “stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth” (Psalm 113:6). He “keeps his eye” on the land (Deuteronomy 11:12), the “eyes of the Lord” are on the righteous (Psalm 34:15), and the earth is His “footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). Do all these verses mean that God literally has eyes, a face, hands and feet? Not necessarily. God is spirit, not flesh and blood, but because we are not spirit, these anthropomorphisms help us to understand God’s nature and actions.
Human emotions are also ascribed to God: He was “sorry” (Genesis 6:6), “jealous” (Exodus 20:5), “moved to pity” (Judges 2:18), and “grieved” over making Saul Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 15:35). We read that the Lord “changed His mind” (Exodus 32:14), “relented” (2 Samuel 24:16), and will “remember” when He sees a rainbow in the sky (Genesis 9:16). God is “angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11), and He “burned with anger” against Job’s friends (Job 32:5). Most precious to us is God’s love, in which He predestines us to salvation (Ephesians 1:4-5) and because of which He gave His only Son in order to save the world (John 3:16).
Anthropomorphisms can be helpful in enabling us to at least partially comprehend the incomprehensible, know the unknowable, and fathom the unfathomable. But God is God, and we are not, and all of our human expressions are intrinsically inadequate in explaining fully and properly the divine. But human words, emotions, features, and knowledge are all that our Creator provided us, so these are all that we can understand in this earthly world at this time.
Yet anthropomorphisms can be dangerous if we see them as sufficient to portray God in limited human traits and terms, which could unintentionally serve to diminish in our minds His incomparable and incomprehensible power, love, and mercy. Christians are advised to read God’s Word with the realization that He offers a small glimpse of His glory through the only means we can absorb. As much as anthropomorphisms help us picture our loving God, He reminds us in Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Recommended Resource: Knowing God by J.I. Packer
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What is an anthropomorphism?