Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics, behaviors, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities (e.g. animals, objects, even cartoon characters). The term “anthropomorphism” is a combination of two Greek words, “anthropos,” which means man, and “morphe,” which means form.
This term can also be understood theologically. God uses anthropomorphism in the Old Testament when He attributes human characteristics, behaviors, emotions, and intentions to Himself. God the Father is Spirit, so He does this to help us understand who He is and what He does. Of course, human characteristics, behaviors, emotions, and intentions are accurately applied to Jesus. In His incarnation, the second Person of the Trinity became human. But we must remember that in Jesus’ glorification we do not know what human characteristics He fully maintains because He is not constrained by human flesh or by man’s world.
Biblical Anthropomorphism Describing Physical Characteristics
The Old Testament speaks of God’s “face” (Ex 33:20, Num 6:25), His hand (Ex 3:20, 33:23, Ps 81:14), His arm (Ex 6:6, Ps 89:21), His foot (Isa 66:1), His eyes (Ps 32:8), etc. Does God have a face, hands, arms, feet, eyes, etc? The Bible says He does, but we must remember God’s face, hand, arms, etc. are not human and we should not limit our understanding of God by these words. We can agree, His face is more beautiful than any human face, His hands more gentle than any human touch, His arms stronger, His feet swifter and His eye brighter than we can know.
Anthropomorphism Describing Actions
The Bible records God the Father talking (Gen 1:3ff, Gen 17:3), touching (Dan 10:18), looking (Gen 9:16, Deut 11:12, Ps 34:15), stooping (Ps 113:6), smelling (Gen 8:21), hearing (Exo 2:24, Psa 66:19), walking (Gen 3:8), holding (Psa 18:35, Psa 139:10), fighting (Jer 21:5), guiding (Ps 32:8), etc. Does God speak, see, smell, touch, even taste, as we do? What about hearing and walking? Again, God is Spirit and while these human characteristics are used to describe God’s actions, we must not limit Him to human capabilities in His actions. His words are truer, His touch more gentle, His sight is clearer, His hearing keener, etc.
Anthropomorphism Describing Emotions
Human emotions are also used by God in His Word to help us understand His nature: sorrowing(Gen 6:6), remembering (Gen 9:16), pitying (Jud 2:18), relenting ( Ex 32:14), grieving (Gen 6:6), regretting (1 Sam 15:35), jealousy/zealousness (Exo 20:5), anger (Job 32:5, Ps 7:11), etc. We know God is emotional because the Bible applies these human emotions to Him. But again remember that we understand these characteristics constrained by human understanding. God is omnipotent so even His emotions would be different than man’s which are generated by man’s limited knowledge.
Created in His Image
In every human characteristic, action, and emotion we are like God, not God is like us. We are made in His image, but He is not in our image. We are finite. God is infinite. Our characteristics, behaviors, emotions, and intentions are constrained by our time and space dimensions, as well as our finite knowledge. God is outside of time and space and He is all knowing, all powerful, everywhere present, and all good. Therefore, just as human attributes applied to animals do not make them human, God’s use of applying human attributes to Himself does not make Him human. Again, God does this so we can understand Him, but we must never use them to limit Him.
We should always stand in awe of the magnificence and majesty of our God. He is greater than any human characteristic we can observe, bigger and more amazing than any knowledge of Him we can have, and far beyond anything our imaginations can fathom.
Several human emotions that we share with God should not be thought of as anthropomorphism (attribution of human characteristics to a non-human entity). Those emotions include mercy, grace, compassion, longsuffering, and more — especially LOVE! These are inherent to who God is. They are part of His very nature.
God is Love/God Loves
Love illustrates, most clearly, the differences in our human characteristics, actions, and emotions and those of God. We are fallen. God is perfect and holy. God loves fully with a steadfast love (Deut 7:9, Ps 86:15, Ps 136:26), a comforting love (Zeph 3:17), an abiding love (John 15:9), a compelling love (John 3:16, 12:32), a demonstrated love (Ro 5:8), a bestowed/lavished love (1 John 3:1), an unfailing love (Heb 13:5b). Read about God’s love: How Can I Understand the Love of God? Stand in awe of God’s great love for us, and rejoice in the magnitude of His great love:
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
God is outside of our time and space dimensions and far beyond anything our finite minds can fathom. Therefore, although anthropomorphism can be very helpful in comprehending our incomprehensible, infinite God, don’t use the attribution of human characteristics to create a false image of God the Father. Be very careful. (Read: Does God Eat?) God is not flesh and blood, as humans are. He is Spirit. And even Jesus, who in His incarnation was fully human, is now glorified and unconstrained by human characteristics.
Anthropomorphism will always fall short of fully revealing God to us. Magnify God above all human characteristics, human actions, and human emotions. Stand in awe of His incomparable and incomprehensible Person and works. Someday we will see Him in all His glory, with eyes, minds, and understandings that are unencumbered by human restraint.
Isa 55:8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.
1 John 3:2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
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