Herman Bavnick Anthromorphism

Accommodation and Anthropomorphism

Accordingly, [as stated above] the names by which we call and address God are not arbitrary: they were not conceived by us at our own pleasure. It is God himself who deliberately and freely, both in nature and in grace, reveals himself, who gives us the right to name him on the basis of his self-revelation, and who in his Word has made his own names known to us on that same basis. Now all these names without distinction are characterized by the fact that they have been derived from revelation. Not a single one of them describes God’s being as such. The revealed name is the foundation of all the names by which we address him. And inasmuch as the revelation of God in nature and in Scripture is specifically addressed to humanity, it is a human language in which God speaks to us of himself. For that reason the words he employs are human words; for the same reason he manifests himself in human forms. From this it follows that Scripture does not just contain a few scattered anthropomorphisms but is anthropomorphic through and through. From the first page to the last it witnesses to God’s coming to, and searching for, humanity. The whole revelation of God is concentrated in the Logos, who became “flesh” and is, as it were, one single act of self-humanization, the incarnation of God. If God were to speak to us in a divine language, not a creature would understand him. But what spells out his grace is the fact that from the moment of creation God stoops down to his creatures, speaking and appearing to them in human fashion. This is why all the names by which God calls himself and allows us to call him are derived from earthly and human relations. In Scripture, accordingly, he is called El, the strong One; El Shaddai, the mighty One; yhwh, the One who is there; he is called Father, Son, Spirit, good, merciful, gracious, just, holy (etc.); all of them are expressions that first of all apply to creatures and are then transferred to God by way of eminence. Even the so-called incommunicable attributes of God, such as immutability, independence, simplicity, eternity, and omnipresence, are presented in Scripture in forms and expressions derived from the finite world and are therefore stated negatively. Eternity cannot be defined except as a negation of time. Scripture never even attempts to describe these perfections of God positively in terms of their own essence and apart from any relation to the finite.

But anthropomorphism in Scripture is even much more extensive. All that pertains to humans and even to creatures in general is also attributed to God, especially “human faculties, body parts, sensations, affections, actions, things pertaining to and connected with humanity.” God is said to have a soul (Lev. 26:11) and a Spirit (Gen. 1:2; Matt. 12:28; etc.). Though there is never any reference to God’s body, in Christ God also assumed a real body (John 1:14; Col. 1:18), and the church is called the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22). Yet all the physical organs are attributed to God. There is mention of his face (Exod. 33:20, 23; Isa. 63:9; Ps. 16:11; Matt. 18:10; Rev. 22:4), his eyes (Ps. 11:4; Heb. 4:13), his eyelids (Ps. 11:4), the apple of his eye (Deut. 32:10; Ps. 17:8; Zech. 2:8), his ears (Ps. 55:3), his nose (Deut. 33:10), his mouth (Deut. 8:3); his lips (Job 11:5), his tongue (Isa. 30:27), his neck (Jer. 18:17), his arm (Exod. 15:16), his hand (Num. 11:23), his right hand (Exod. 15:12); his finger (Exod. 8:19), his heart (Gen. 6:6), his intestines (Isa. 63:15; Jer. 31:20; Luke 1:78); his bosom (Ps. 74:11; John 1:18), his feet (Isa. 66:1).

Every human emotion, furthermore, is also present in God: rejoicing (Isa. 62:5; 65:19); sorrow (Ps. 78:40; Isa. 63:10); grief (Ps. 95:10); provocation (Jer. 7:18–19); fear (Deut. 32:27); love in all its variations such as mercy, compassion, grace, long-suffering, and so on; also zeal and jealousy (Deut. 32:21); repentance (Gen. 6:6); hatred (Deut. 16:22); wrath (Ps. 2:5); and vengeance (Deut. 32:35).

All human actions, moreover, are attributed to God: investigating (Gen. 18:21), searching minds (Ps. 7:9), knowing (Gen. 3:5), intending (Gen. 50:20), forgetting (1 Sam. 1:11), remembering (Gen. 8:1; Exod. 2:24), speaking (Gen. 2:16), calling (Rom. 4:17), commanding (Isa. 5:6), rebuking (Ps. 18:15; 104:7), answering (Ps. 3:4), witnessing (Mal. 2:14), resting (Gen. 2:2), working (John 5:17), seeing (Gen. 1:10), hearing (Exod. 2:24), smelling (Gen. 8:21), testing (Ps. 11:4–5), sitting (Ps. 9:7), arising (Ps. 68:1), going (Exod. 34:9), coming (Exod. 25:22), walking (Lev. 26:12), going down (Gen. 11:5), meeting (Exod. 3:18), visiting (Gen. 21:1), passing (Exod. 12:13), abandoning (Judg. 6:13), writing (Exod. 34:1), sealing (John 6:27), engraving (Isa. 49:16), striking (Isa. 11:4), chastising (Deut. 8:5), working (John 5:17), binding up (Ps. 147:3), healing (Ps. 103:3; Deut. 32:39), killing and making alive (Deut. 32:39), wiping away (Isa. 25:8), wiping out (2 Kings 21:13), washing (Ps. 51:2), cleansing (Ps. 51:2), anointing (Ps. 2:2), adorning (Ezek. 16:11), clothing (Ps. 132:16), crowning (Ps. 8:5), girding (Ps. 18:32), destroying (Gen. 6:7; Lev. 26:31), killing (Gen. 38:7), inflicting (Gen. 12:17), judging (Ps. 58:11), condemning (Job 10:2), and so forth.

In addition, God is also very frequently described with names that denote a certain occupation, office, position, or relationship among people. He is a bridegroom (Isa. 61:10), a man (Isa. 54:5–6), a father (Deut. 32:6), a judge, king, a lawgiver (Isa. 33:22), a warrior (Exod. 15:3), a mighty hero (Ps. 78:65–66; Zeph. 3:17), an architect and builder (Heb. 11:10), a gardener (John 15:1), a shepherd (Ps. 23:1), a physician (Exod. 15:26), and so on. In connection with these occupational descriptions there is mention of his seat, throne, footstool, rod, scepter, weapons, bow, arrow, shield, chariot, banner, book, seal, treasure, inheritance, and so on. Then, to express what God means to his own, all sorts of expressions are even derived from the organic and inorganic creation. He is compared to a lion (Isa. 31:4), an eagle (Deut. 32:11), a lamb (Isa. 53:7), a hen (Matt. 23:37), the sun (Ps. 84:11), the morning star (Rev. 22:16), a light (Ps. 27:1), a lamp (Rev. 21:23), a fire (Heb. 12:29), a spring or fountain (Ps. 36:9; Jer. 2:13), food, bread, drink, water, ointment (Isa. 55:1; John 4:10: 6:35, 55), a rock (Deut. 32:4), a refuge (Ps. 119:114), a tower (Prov. 18:10), a stronghold (Ps. 9:9), a shadow (Ps. 91:1; 121:5), a shield (Ps. 84:11), a road (John 14:6), a temple (Rev. 21:22), and so on.2

[179] The entire creation, all of nature with all its [diverse] kingdoms, but especially the human world, is mined in Scripture for the description of the knowledge of God. Almost no limit is set to the use of anthropomorphic language. All creatures, animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, furnish names with which to somewhat bring home to us the greatness of God. Although nameless within himself, in his revelation God possesses many names. “All things can be said of God,” writes Augustine, “but nothing can be said worthily of him. Nothing is more widespread than this poverty [of expression]. You are looking for a fitting name for him? You will not find it. You try to speak of him in some way? You find that he is everything.” And to clarify why so many names can be applied to God, Augustine uses a striking illustration. Our body, he says, has many needs: light and air, food and drink, shelter and clothing, and so on. Now all these things are very different and exist side by side in the various parts of creation. Now also our spirit has many and various needs, but what provides for these needs is not multiform but always the one selfsame divine being.

On earth, a fountain is one thing, light another. When you are thirsty, you look for a fountain, and to get to the fountain you look for light; and if there is no daylight, you light a lamp to get to the fountain. But he is both a fountain and a light: to the thirsty he is a fountain, to the blind a light. Let [your] eyes be opened to see the light; let the lips of [your] heart be opened to drink of the fountain. That which you drink, you see and hear. God becomes everything to you, for he is the whole of the things you love. If you attend to visible things, well, God is neither bread nor is he water, nor light, nor a garment, nor a house. For all these things are visible, individual, and separate. What bread is, water is not; what a garment is, a house is not; and what these things are, God is not, for they are visible things. God is all of these things to you: if you are hungry, he is bread to you; if you are thirsty, he is water to you; if you live in darkness, he is light to you, for he remains incorruptible. If you are naked, he is a garment of immortality to you when this corruptible shall put on incorruption and this mortal shall put on immortality.3

Pseudo-Dionysius, thinking along the same lines, states that God is both “nameless and yet has the names of everything that is.” He is both “all that exists” and “nothing of all that exists.”4 In Thomas we read: “God, being himself simply and universally perfect, has preexisting in himself the perfections of all his creatures.”5 Bonaventure says it even better:

In order that we may be able to extol and glorify God, and in order that we may advance to the knowledge of God, we must transfer to the divine that which pertains to the creature. Now the ground or purpose of this transference is twofold. In the first place, it is necessary with a view to the glory of God; in the second place, with a view to the guidance of our intellect. God’s glory requires this transference. For, since God is greatly to be praised, lest he should ever lack praise because of the scarcity of words, Holy Scripture has taught us that the names of creatures—indefinite in number—should be transferred to God, in order that just as every creature glorifies God, so also every name that is ascribed to creatures might glorify him, and in order that he who is so glorious that not one single name can do justice to him—for he surpasses, as it were, every name—might be glorified by all the names. This transference is also necessary with a view to the guidance of our intellect. For, since we arrive at knowledge of the Creator through the creature, and especially in view of the fact that nearly all creatures possess certain noble characteristics that furnish a source for our understanding of God—for example, the lion possesses fortitude; the lamb, meekness; the rock, solidity; the serpent, prudence, and so on—hence it is fitting that many names be transferred to God.6

Calvin concurs with this when he writes: “There is not an atom of the world in which one cannot discern at least some bright sparks of his glory.” God is immanent in the whole of creation. The pure of heart see God everywhere. Everything is brimful of God. “I confess, of course, that it can be said reverently—provided it proceeds from a reverent mind—that nature is God.”7

But not all creatures are of equal rank: there is a hierarchy in the realm of creatures. The position and rank that creatures occupy is determined by their kinship with God. All creatures express some aspect of God’s being, but of all of them human beings are at the top. They alone have the honor of being called “image, son, child of God.” They alone are called God’s offspring. Most of the names of God, particularly the most sublime ones, derive from the existence of humans. However, humans should never be detached from the realm of nature; neither may any creature or any part of the universe ever be put on a par with, or in opposition to, God. Nothing exists outside of or apart from God. This truth, it must be said, has over and over been violated: Plato’s dualism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism—they all put a limit to God’s revelation and posited a material substance hostile to God over against him. And in all sorts of ways these dualisms have for centuries impacted theology. The same dualistic principle is at work when in modern times, under the influence of Kant and Jacobi, the revelation of God is restricted to the sphere of religion and ethics, when only the religious and ethical content of Scripture is recognized, when the seat of religion is found only in the heart or the conscience, in the emotions or the will. In this way nature with its elements and forces, human life in society and politics, the arts and sciences, are assigned a place outside the sphere of God’s revelation. They are considered neutral areas existing apart from God. Then, of course, a proper appreciation of the Old Testament and a very large part of the New Testament is no longer possible. Nature and the world no longer have anything to say to believers. Revelation, which comes to us in the Word of God, loses all influence in public life. Religion, now confined to the inner recesses of the heart and the privacy of one’s home, forfeits all claim to respect. Dogmatics, specifically the doctrine of God, shrinks by the day, and theology is no longer able to maintain its place. Theology is no longer able to speak of God because it no longer speaks from him and through him. It no longer has any names with which to name God. God becomes the great Unknown; the world first becomes a domain without God (ἀθεος), then a domain that is anti-God (ἀντιθεος).