I know… it’s not a term thrown around a lot, but you do hear it a lot in the field of theology. And quite frankly, I’m uncomfortable with it. Here’s why: it keeps God in the abstract.
Taking “Anthropomorphism” Out of My Vocabulary
The following are two standard definitions:
A Handbook of Theological Terms (Harvey) defines Anthropomorphism as:
The attribution of human characteristics, activities, or emotions to God. Philosophical theologians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have traditionally argued that in so far as such language is used it is to be considered analogical or symbolical or metaphorical.
The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Grenz, Guretzki, Fee-Nordling) puts it this way:
A figure of speech used by writers of Scripture in which human physical characteristics are attributed to God for the sake of illustrating an important point. For example, Scripture sometimes speaks of the “face” or “arm” of God, even though God is revealed to be Spirit and not limited in time and space by the constraints of a physical body. Anthropomorphism essentially helps to make an otherwise abstract truth about God more concrete.
So for example as we read Exodus 33:21-23 we can identify several ‘anthropomorphisms.’
And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
My hand, my back, my face. Hmmmm. As advocates of this theological term would say these descriptions should be recognized as mere figures of speech. They illustrate an important point. But, what point? That He relates with mankind? I just don’t find that acceptable. There’s too much being said here, too much detail in this passage to claim that this is just illustration of God’s interaction with Moses. If God doesn’t have a back what was Moses looking at? If He doesn’t have a hand what was covering the cleft? If He doesn’t have a face then what’s the big deal? Why the language?
Now I understand that God is a spirit and this term is employed to solve the problem of seeing God as a man. He is not a man and He doesn’t have a physical body. But, if we are created in his image doesn’t that seem to indicate He has an image? And to say we have features similar to what He has is not to say He is limited by them in the same way we are. The way I see it, we’ve made too much of this concept of ‘anthropomorphisms.’ In an attempt to protect God’s unlimited nature we have reduced Him total abstraction, an amorphous deity (John 5:37). No wonder our ideas of the afterlife are these ethereal notions of an airy, cloud-like existence. As I remember it Randy Alcorn did a great job of dispelling this misguided tendency in his book entitled, Heaven. If Heaven has shape, then why can’t God? (also see Num. 12:8)
I see no problem in accepting the belief that our image was fashioned after God’s image… and that He indeed has an image. Sure, there remains some real differences (we are limited, He is not), but in my view, there are more fundamental similarities than we would have ever ventured to believe.