Should we define the divine in anthropomorphic ways?

Moses Striking the Rock, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved October 17, 2017]. Original source: Wikimedia.

I was once asked, "Should we define the divine in anthropomorphic ways?" What are the advantages of defining the divine anthropomorphically? What are the risks of defining the divine anthropomorphically?

Any response we would come up with would be predicated on one's worldview and understanding of the divine. Anyone seeking to "define" God, in the real sense of the word, will be sadly frustrated.

To consider the words of Jordan B. Peterson may be helpful, "The absence of specific depiction, appropriate to inexplicable circumstance, does not alleviate the necessity of appropriate action -- even though the nature of that action cannot yet be specified. Meaning that the nature of the unknown, as such, must become represented, to design action patterns, which are broadly suited for response to what cannot yet (and cannot eternally) be predicted or controlled" (Maps of Meaning, 1999, 149).

After all, "defining" against "describing" (or the comparison of "defining" as "describing") the divine would be a whole other discussion with its question to answer.

For centuries the Abrahamic Religions have been careful not to create/mould/carve God in graven images, lest they think they have defined Him, controlled Him, and then have worshiped something which is false, something made up from the mind and hands of man (Exodus 20:4; Leviticus 26:1, Deuteronomy 5:8; Psalm 97:7). Even speaking the name of God was forbidden, in fear of disrespect.

Some of the consequences of the Reformation emphasis on biblical authority included an impact on references to nature, man’s relationship to God, one another, the visual arts, and music. They centered around the fact that there was an infinite-personal God who had spoken clearly to people through his Word, the Bible. That through the Bible mankind knows true things and real things about God himself. God had content. Although the Bible does not give us an extended amount of information about the cosmos, it does provide us with the truth about nature, its purpose and reason for its form, giving meaning to all particulars. From which gave meaning and dignity to humans. Equality of peoples and their vocations were established in this view. The emphasis on biblical authority and its understanding of the fall of man, it answered the unasked question of why God seemed out of touch with creation and why humanity seemed to be the climax of creation yet seemed too cruel. The Bible also sets forth how mankind might become reconciled to God, and that was by race only through the finished work of Christ himself. With having answers pertaining human's relationship with God, mankind, and nature, the practical, everyday questions are answered about the use of art. Music and painting were used to promote, strength and enrich biblical truths and the Christian within the Church as well as outside of it within the surrounding culture. Art was only destroyed for its attached purpose or representations that were anti-Christ.

Although we can not come to complete knowledge, for the Christian the divine is personable and, therefore, can be known. To seek to describe the divine from our experiences and the reality that the divine has created is a practice that can be seen as an act of worship, because the practice relies on the functions given to us by the divine (tasks which come from being made in the image of God [who is both creative, logical, transcendent, etc.]). For the Muslim, the divine is not personable and cannot be known nor should we seek to describe the divine (for doing so would be blasphemous).

Given all of this, I do not think that we can "define" God, in the true sense of the word. For this post, I will answer our question by re-molding the question to "Should we describe the divine in anthropomorphic ways?"

From a Biblical worldview, anthropomorphic descriptions of deity are appropriate for the following reasons (these reasons are predicated on the understanding that all Scripture is divinely inspired and authoritative):

  1. Prophets, psalmists, and historians all used anthropomorphic descriptions of God.

  2. It would appear that God allows this by our limited ability to comprehend the divine (Isaiah 55:8) fully.

  3. Jesus is the fullest expression of the image in which we are made, the most comprehensive manifestation of the Godhead, and He came in human form (Hebrews 1:1-3).

  4. We might also respond the following question: What is the better alternative?

I encourage all to go to the Book of Psalms. God is described in anthropomorphic ways by the psalmists. Use the Psalms as devotional material. Use the Psalms within a liturgical calendar.

The psalms contribute to our knowledge of God in the way that they describe His actions. In fact, the only knowledge that we have of God’s nature is given to us through His actions; it is actions which are essential in defining God's character. The psalms tells of the creation of the stars in "commanding terms" which “may also suggest [God’s] authority over creation,” the crafting of the world in terms of God's wisdom and understanding which may give us “an ethical connection between God’s steadfast love ( ) and his creation” along with “the application of his faithfulness (‘ ) in history” (Hassell Bullock, Encountering the Psalms, 2004, 127-128). Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen spoke of the Psalms as biblical descriptions of God which “are as much a confession of faith as statements based on observation. They point to the future trustworthiness and reliability of God. At the same time, these expressions are highly relational…” (Kärkkäinen, Doctrine of God, 2004, 26).

Some of the historical events recorded in the psalms include the story of Jacob (Psalms 105:16-22), the Sojourn in Egypt (vv. 23-27), the plague (vv. 28-36), the exodus (vv. 37-38, 43), the wilderness (vv. 39-42), and the conquest (v. 44).

A poetic telling of the exodus helps to construct a narrative of how “God has acted on his people’s behalf in a continuous chain of awesome events” (Bullock, 2004, 132) which establishes that he is deserving of high praise. It is not something that a prose telling of the exodus can accomplish.

The psalms celebrate God’s creative works and thus contribute to our knowledge. In his book The Nature and Character of God, W.A. Pratney comments how Psalm 16 shows God’s “presence is the ‘fullness of joy’ and at His right hand are ‘pleasures forevermore’… God is ‘overflowing;’ He is what saints of the past… call to ‘plenipotent’ the utter and original fullness of creativity” (W.A. Pratney, The Nature, and Character of God, 1988, 55). The psalms relay knowledge of God’s creativeness in such creativity themselves by the use of anthropomorphism.

By its use of anthropomorphism, I believe the psalms details for us “a divine measure of love” in which God is shown to share Himself with His creation through history. As our prompt this week stated, only Israel believed that God could be known because he acted in history. Bullock alludes to the psalmist retrospectively looking for and portraying seismological events in which “each new generation” could “be present at the Lord’s mighty manifestation of himself on [Mount Sinai]” (Bullock, 2001, 108). Not only do the Psalms use “characteristic phrases of the Pentateuchal narratives describing the Lord’s relationship to Israel" at specific points in history, but they admonish Israel to learn from the past rather than to repeat history’s errors (Bullock, 2001, 111). It is the Psalms use of narratives and history which more accurately describe God’s responsibility concerning us and our obligation to Him.

Use the Psalms as devotional material. Use the Psalms within a liturgical calendar.

Praise God. Our experiences can reflect God's eternal power and divine nature, by which we could attempt describe Him in our worship of Him, and Him alone.


Works Cited:

Bullock, C. Hassell. Encountering the Psalms: A literary and theological introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001.

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.

Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of meaning: the architecture of belief. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999.

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