When God wanted to reveal Himself in the most unmistakable way imaginable, He spoke with language that our minds can understand. Today, Barry Cooper explains why our Creator often uses human traits and characteristics to describe Himself in His Word.
Yesterday, as my daughter was walking past a boat in dry dock, she said: “Hello boat! I hope you have a nice rest!” Which was a strange thing for a twenty-year-old to say.
Sorry, that was just a hilarious joke; she’s actually not yet three years old. But even my daughter, at only three years of age, understands that a boat doesn’t really need to “rest” like we do and is not a “person” she can actually have a conversation with. What she was doing was anthropomorphizing the boat—giving it human characteristics in order to relate to it.
We love to do this with our pets, of course, and it happens all the time in books and movies: bugs address each other in English, toys have vibrant inner lives, and anthropomorphized cars have eyes rather than headlights. Mickey Mouse would be a prime example of anthropomorphism, and we embrace it, knowing full well that mice do not wear shorts, know how to operate a steamboat, or oversee corporations with a net worth of more than $120 billion. Or if mice do do that, they are significantly overachieving.
I mention this because there are anthropomorphisms all over Scripture, particularly where Scripture talks about God. And it’s vital to understand this; otherwise we’ll badly misunderstand what God is actually like.
We know that God is “spirit,” meaning that God doesn’t have a physical body as we do. And yet God Himself speaks of redeeming His people “with outstretched arm.” Scripture also speaks of God’s “hand,” His “face,” His “eyes,” His “ears”—and even refers to His feet.
Scripture also anthropomorphizes God when it talks about Him “remembering” Rachel or “relenting” from bringing judgment when Moses implores Him to do so.
How can an all-knowing God “remember” Rachel if it was impossible for Him to forget her in the first place? And how can an all-knowing God “change his mind” about bringing judgment, as if Moses had presented some new information to Him He didn’t already know? Similarly, why would an all-seeing God have to ask “Where are you?” as He does of Adam in Genesis chapter 1?
The answer to these questions is that God is relating to His people by describing Himself with anthropomorphic language. He does so because, knowing the limitations of our minds and imaginations, He nevertheless wants us to know Him, so He speaks in terms which are intuitive and natural to us.
So, when we speak of God using anthropomorphic language, we need to beware of “downgrading” Him by doing so. We’d be making a mistake if we concluded from this kind of language that God is merely a man, except maybe bigger and more powerful.
But at the same time, if we tried to avoid that kind of mistake by getting rid of anthropomorphic language altogether, we’d still be vulnerable to thinking of Him in unhelpful ways. Yes, we could abandon all “man-like” descriptions of God and insist on speaking of God only as “spirit.” But in doing so, we become vulnerable to thinking of God as being somehow wispy or impersonal or bland.
So yes, anthropomorphic language falls short of fully capturing the overwhelming reality of who actually God is. But actually, any kind of language falls short of fully capturing any experience, let alone experience of the triune God.
And that’s why, when God wanted to reveal Himself to us in the most unmistakable way imaginable, He did much more than simply use language we could understand.
The word anthropomorphism comes from the Greek anthrō, meaning “human,” and morphē, meaning “form”: human form. Both those words appear in Philippians chapter 2, verses 6 and 7, which describe—if I can put it this way—the ultimate anthropomorphism. It says:
Though [Christ] was in the form [morphē] of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form [morphē] of a servant, being born in the likeness of men [anthrōpos].
In other words, in Christ, God takes on human form so that we can relate to Him. Anthropomorphisms are an attempt to accommodate the limitations of human understanding. We struggle to comprehend what God is like. So God, in His kindness and grace, reveals Himself to us in a way we can begin to grasp.
When Jesus’ disciple Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father,” Jesus said to him:
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
In that sense, Jesus Christ is the ultimate, and perfect, anthropomorphism.