Guide To ‘Anthropomorphic’ Language

Derek Ouellette —  September 7, 2011

God is beyond our finite comprehension. Just the other day I engaged in a discussion with a friend where we tried to conceive of what God’s existence must be like. In the end we could do nothing but affirm the words of G.K. Chesterton:

“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits”. (Orthodoxy)

That is certain truth. Still the fact remains that God created humans as dialogical beings as he is dialogical himself. Than God took the next step to engage in dialogue with us. Conversation can only be conversation if both partners understand one another. We are finite and so we can never fully grasp God. And so God sometimes uses analogical language to help us get a sense of who he is and how he operates. He is said to be our “King” and to have “eagles wings”. We are in a sense in a husband/wife relationship with him. Not in reality. But that is the closest relationship on earth that mirrors God’s relationship with us. The professional term here is “anthropomorphic”. A word that means to attribute to God certain human characteristics.

But how do we determine what language is anthropomorphic and which language is to be taken as literal truth? Some scholars figure that since God is infinite that all language used to talk about God in the scriptures must be anthropomorphic – especially language suggesting that God is not timeless or wholly impassible. But to me this assumption is unnecessary and incoherent. The reason is because God has engage in dialogue with humans and he has revealed himself in the scriptures and ultimately through Jesus and in every way that he has revealed himself to us, he has always revealed truth about himself. If God has shown in our conversation that he has emotions, then what truth is revealed about God if that fact where not true?

Greg Boyd offers some much ado hermeneutical principles about anthropomorphic language:

1. You  can recognize anthropomorphic language if something is said about God that is ridiculous if taken literally (e.g. God is our “husband” – Hosea 2:2)

2. You can recognize anthropomorphic language if the genre of the passage is poetic (e.g. God has protecting wings – Psalms 17:8).

3. Whenever anthropomorphic language is used about God, it is always speaking something truthfully about him (e.g. God’s “arms” speaks of his strength and “wings” speaks of his protection).

The point is that if these principles are applied it will safeguard against an unnecessary overuse or abuse of a literary technique (anthropomorphicism) and will foster more careful attention to Biblical passages that may or may not challenge our understanding of the nature of God. For example, it is clear if these principles are applied that there is actually nothing ridiculous when the Bible talks about God changing his mind, regretting decisions, thinking et cetera. And if the Bible tells us that God is surprised or disappointed (e.g. Jeremiah 3) when it is not truth, we learn nothing about God and the Scriptures would simply be misleading.

Boyd, God of the Possible, p.118.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Les

    Great post about anthropomorphism. I linked to your blog from Roger Olson’s blog and now find out that you also read Greg Boyd (who I think is very underrated as both a preacher and a scholar). I also find that you are (sssh….I have to look over my shoulder as I say this) an open theist evangelical like myself. I’ll be putting your blog on my “favorites” list.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Thanks Les, much appreciated.

    • Derek

      Hey Les,

      I really like your blog. It has an elegant look with relevant and well written articles.


      • Les

        Thanks back!

  • Morgan Guyton

    Divine freedom means that God is free to talk about Himself anthropomorphically and even “change His mind” whatever that actually looks like analogously for an infinite being who exists outside of creation.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Divine nature means that God is not free to depict himself in a deceitful manner (Hebrews 6:18). Anthropomorphic language always reveals truth about God. No truth is revealed about God by saying that he changed his mind if he did not. That would be a plan deceit. Thus Divine freedom has its limits. :)

      The only truth in revealing Himself as someone who changes his mind would be if he literally changes his mind (contrary Platonic assumptions about what makes a perfect deity that has infested the Christian psyche).

  • Morgan Guyton

    Hmm… The reason I can’t drop-kick Platonism out of my Christianity is because I don’t know how you explain the sacramental character of existence without an eternal/temporal duality. I feel like Christianity needed some Hellenism to develop its most important concept. I don’t think there’s any basis for talking about the sacramental if you reverse-Marcionize Christianity and go sola hebraica. You ever read Boersma’s Heavenly Participation? He argues pretty persuasively (to me) against the contemporary assault on Platonism in Christianity. He says the thing we need to ditch is nominalism, not Platonism, which I tend to agree with. I’m going to write a review of Heavenly Participation sometime soon.

    • Derek Ouellette

      My second paragraph follows from the first. :)

  • Anna

    Interesting post… I dont really know much about this topic and I never thought about this, but I like the way you thinking… :)