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Biblical Anthropomorphism

excerpts from E. L. Cherbonnier, “The Logic of Biblical Anthropomorphism,” in Harvard Theological Review IV (1962): 187-206.

187:     “By anthropomorphism I mean any theology that conceives of God in terms of those characteristics which are distinctly human ….”

“The prophets do not charge the pagan deities with being anthropomorphic, but with being insufficiently anthropomorphic.  At their best, they are counterfeit persons.  At their worst, they are frankly impersonal.”

“It is sometimes held that this biblical anthropomorphism is only a manner of speaking, a mere symbol for the hidden, ‘wholly other’ God …. Modern scholarship, however, by restoring these passages to their context and so recovering their original meaning, reverses such an interpretation.”

188:     “… philosophers have charged that to conceive God as personal must, by definition, be wishful thinking.  The fallacy in such a claim is two-fold.  In the first place …. to disparage the position solely on the basis of the person’s motives is to argue ad hominem.  (i.e., just because one wants to believe a thing is no sign that it is false.)  The second fallacy is the assumption that only those who believe in a personal God are liable to project themselves into their beliefs …. Any belief may be the result of wishful thinking…. Its validity can be neither established nor refuted on merely psychological grounds.”

190:     Are “the terms most commonly applied to God … logically compatible with the biblical God?”  “The analysis will show that they are NOT … most of the commonly accepted divine attributes apply to a very different God, the God of mystical philosophy, whether Oriental or Occidental, known variously as Brahma, the One, the ‘Ground of Being,’ the Void, the Unconditioned.”

191:     “Of all the traditional attributes of God, perhaps none is more familiar than the term ‘infinite’.”  The only occurrence of the word in the Bible, Ps. 147:5, means “simply that God’s wisdom is inexhaustible, not that He is himself ‘the Infinite’.”

Etymologically, ‘infinite’ means ‘unlimited.’ … A thing is limited the moment any characteristic is attributed to it …. any positive statement about God automatically restricts him,” hence “In the via negative of medieval theology, no less than the neti, neti of the Upanishads, the mystic confines himself to saying what God is not.  This is his homage to ‘the Infinite’.”  On the other hand, the prophet “does NOT ask, “Can God be described?”  But rather, “What can He do?  Is He free to act, to accomplish his purposes?  If not, then He is no God at all.  If so, then He must be anthropomorphic.  The gods of Canaan and Babylon were at least good imitations.  The prophets do NOT charge them with being anthropomorphic, but with fraud.”

192:     Take the popular passage, Is. 24:5-9.  “The intent of such passages is to distinguish Yahweh from idols by precisely these anthropomorphic activities.” i.e., they do NOT speak, see, hear, smell (Ps. 115:5-6), whereas God does.  “They cannot even do the things a man can do, whereas Yahweh does these things par excellence.”  He is the pre-eminently anthropomorphic God; he does things, whereas “The ineffable ‘Ground of Being’ is a God in chains …. Only if God is a definite, determinate personality can He take intelligible, purposive action.  Only an anthropomorphic God can be omnipotent.”

193:     “For the mystic, God can only be unlimited if He is the sole existent being.  If there were two ‘gods,’ then the second would, by its very existence, ‘condition’ the first …. Carried to its conclusion, this logic forbids not only a second ‘god’ but the existence of anything else at all.”  This leads straight to pantheism, “For if God is the sole reality, then the universe has no separate existence, but is rather the insubstantial manifestation of the ‘divine ground.’  In the words of Hindu mysticism, there is ‘one God, hidden in all things, all-pervading, the Inner Soul of all things’….”

194:     “It is precisely this conception of unity which the Bible opposes.  When the prophet cried, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one God,’ he was NOT referring to ‘the one without a second.’  He was calling attention to God’s constancy of purpose, his integrity of character.  Precisely because God is anthropomorphic, with an unmistakable personal identity, He could not be represented by a bull or a ball or a solar disc.  To worship Him under any other name than his own is to mistake his identity…. It is therefore misleading for a Christian to speak of the ‘scandal of particularity.’  ‘Particularity’ is only a ‘scandal’ within the mystical world-view, where God is the ‘Infinite All.’  In the biblical world-view, on the contrary, ‘ particular’ – a particular Person.”

“…. it is the mystic who limits God.  By insisting that God must be unrelated to anything else (that is, ‘absolute’), he puts Him in quarantine.  The mystic finds himself in the embarrassing position of prescribing what God may and may not do.  In fact, by denying that God is anthropomorphic, he denies Him the power to act at all.”

195:     “An anthropomorphic God is unknowable, not because he confounds human categories, but because he can refuse to disclose himself.  No man by searching can find out God.  Conversely, when God chooses to make himself known, He does so in the categories of everyday experience.  A good example is … Is. 55:8-9 (where) … the prophet is in the act of proclaiming the ways and thoughts of God without recourse to paradox, mystic symbolism, or a technical vocabulary…. Where God is anthropomorphic, there is mystery, not because He does violence to human reason, but because He holds the initiative.  Whereas inanimate objects can be known at the initiative of the inquirer, the knowledge of God is like the knowledge of another person.  The initiative rests with Him… no amount of prying can succeed in making his acquaintance: ‘They will seek me diligently, but will not find me’ (Prov. 1:28) …. The mystery of an anthropomorphic God is guaranteed, not because He overturns all human categories, but because He can confound all human expectation.”  (Acts 13:41). [Nibley: see Abr. 2:12]

197:     “Not only does anthropomorphism preserve the mystery of God, it also preserves the rationality of man.  For the mystic, the divine truth always fractures and contorts the language of everyday speech.  It must be expressed in esoteric enigmas and paradoxes.  Hence the rubric that no finite statement applies unequivocally to God.  Every ‘yes’ must be accompanied by a balancing ‘no’ …. It was not so in Israel.

198:     Where God is anthropomorphic, there is but a single universe or discourse, capable of conveying things divine as well as things human.  Consequently, when God does choose to make himself known, he does so unambiguously.  No matter how unexpected, his words are perfectly intelligible.  (Is. 45:19).  If rational intelligibility is a desideratum, the God of Israel has the better of the argument.”

199:    “The biblical God, on the contrary (vs. the metaphysical God), is invisible simply as a matter of tactics.  De facto, men seldom do see Him.  Upon occasion, however, he does show himself (Ex. 33:23; 24:10; Is. 6:1)…. That is, God retains the freedom to show himself or to withhold his face at will…. In the meantime, we may well think twice before assuming that just because He has not shown himself to us, He is invisible ‘by nature’.”

200:     “When he (the prophet) describes God as changeless, he means something that could only characterize a living person.  He mans trustworthy, of steadfast character.  When men are fickle, God is faithful to his covenant…. In this sense, God is changeless par excellence– but only because He is the living, active God.”

201:     “The God of the Bible is neither transcendent nor immanent in the mystical sense.  Being anthropomorphic, He is quite compatible with spatio-temporal existence…. The biblical God can be wherever He wants to be.  If He is ‘immanent,’ it is only in the sense that He takes an active role in his creation, and particularly in human history, guiding the destiny of nations in ways they little suspect.”

202:     “The doctrine of creation does not, as is sometimes held, fix a great gulf between two realms of being, the divine and human.  On the contrary, the existence which God bestows upon Adam does not differ in kind from his own.  It is therefore misleading to speak of ‘discontinuity’ between the Creator and his creation.  Opposition between men and God there surely is, but it is volitional, not metaphysical…. both parties share a single logical context, a common world of thought and action…. Because the Bible does apply a common language to both men and God, it knows nothing of the familiar (and mystical) contract between ‘God-as-revealed’ and ‘God-as-He-is-in-Himself’.”

203:     Conclusion: “The customary attributes of God do NOT apply to the Biblical God (at least, not in their plain meaning), but to the God of mystical theosophy.”

204:     The mystic God “even when declared to be unknowable, is, in the last analysis, subject to human manipulation, even manufacture…. It makes God the captive of human preconceptions…”

205:     Anthropomorphism, by placing man and God in the same universe of discourse, may be the only conception of God which invites rational scrutiny.  If so, it enters the philosophical arena with an impressive advantage.”

206:     “To be created… is to be the recipient of an inconceivable blessing.  It is to share the same kind of existence which God himself enjoys.  To learn this is like learning that one has won the sweepstakes.  It made the Israelite cry, “Hallelujah!”

Edited and reformatted by

Gary P. Gillum, 14 April 2004

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