A Reflection on Anthropomorphic Language

Currently, amidst the Reformed discussion concerning God’s simplicity and immutability, there has been repeated references to the anthropomorphic language of Scripture. It is commonly understood that language attributing human emotions or physical features to God is not meant to be understood “literally.” A typical example is Deuteronomy 26:8, “And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.” God does not have physical body parts, so such language is immediately classified as anthropomorphic and seldom given a second thought. The same goes for a passage that attributes emotion to God, such as Genesis 6:6, “And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Certain theologians claim that God cannot experience emotion in any way, because that would suggest that he undergoes change or is affected by creation. This, it is claimed, would compromise the Creator-creature distinction by making God somehow dependent on the world he has made. In such cases, the anthropomorphic language of Scripture has become a sort of throwaway, a means of dismissing semantic possibilities that do not accord with particular historical or confessional understandings of God. My aim here is not to address the concerns of the current debate directly, but to raise a question that may reorient us to God’s divine purposes in using human language.

Is the way in which many theologians treat anthropomorphic language, as a tool that God uses to convey something that cannot be taken “literally” (whatever that means), a helpful way of processing this language? To me, the approach seems to assume a fairly shallow view of the nature of language and God’s purposes for it. More specifically, it misses the worship we should give to God in response to reading it. Let me explain this after examining the concept of anthropomorphic language itself.

Anthropomorphic language is often treated as a unique instance in which God speaks to us in covenantal condescension. He comes down to our level and communicates something in terms that we can readily understand. This seems relatively simple, but there is a lot of mystery and complexity here that goes overlooked.

First, consider the fact that all language is anthropomorphic. All human language with reference to God is an occasion wherein the infinite is related to the finite. In revealing himself to us, God always speaks anthropomorphically. Human language is just as much a part of being human as is having body parts or emotions. There is a profound sense in which, from the very outset of Scripture, God speaks anthropomorphically. He uses human language to express something of his infinite love, wisdom, and divine intentionality.

Second, labeling language as anthropomorphic does nothing to explain such language. It appears to explain it, but the question that I do not see being asked is this, “Why did God choose to use this language?” Surely, if God wanted to speak to us in a more literal manner, he could have done so. God is the author of Scripture, and it is he who chose to reveal himself in this way. Why? Why use poetic and metaphorical language—of arms and hands and emotions—rather than language that is plainer? In other words, what is God’s intention for using this language?

Some, no doubt, would say that his intention is to communicate on our level. But that answer needs to be more developed. If by “communicate on our level,” we mean, “say something that is not really true about God,” then that should give us pause. Is that God’s intention—to dish up dialogue that, in the end, is semantically vapid? Does God present his children with linguistic ornaments just so they can dismember them and see what lies behind? I think that is a shallow way to read Scripture. It leaves out the richness of divine-human communication.

Third, is “anthropomorphic” even a valid category for language? This is related to the first point, but introduces a distinct problem: we assume that human language is merely human. And so we must move, as it were, from the merely human language to what it might say about God. But God himself is the giver of language and is everywhere reflected in it. What’s more, Jesus used language in conversing with the Father (John 17). If Jesus is one person with both a human and divine nature, must we not also say that his divine nature was engaged in speaking with the heavenly Father? And if so, does that not mean that language cannot be merely human? God is profoundly involved with human language. And because everything that God has created reflects him, we simply cannot say that language is merely human. Language has divine origins. In that sense, all language is really theomorphic. Our use of language reflects the God who communicates with himself in three persons and who has blessed his creatures with an ability that analogously reflects what he, as the original communicative being, does. So, using the phrase “anthropomorphic” actually gets the whole thing backwards: it assumes that our language is the original and that God has fit himself to it, when in reality God’s communication is the original, and he has endowed us with the ability to communicate as a gift that is derived from and reflective of his loving communion.

It seems that I am raising a lot of questions without offering many answers. So, let me get to the real point. This “anthropomorphic” language in Scripture seems to be expressing something very different about God’s intention for human language. To me, it seems to express the awe-inspiring truth that the creator of heaven and earth has condescended, has come down, and has spoken to us. In so doing, God brings us to marvel. He is not afraid to condescend in human language, to take on syllables and syntax, to enter the world of words, for that world is ultimately a reflection of his own communicative nature. Nor is God, in an even more profound sense, afraid to take on flesh. The Incarnation is the climax of God’s revelation, of God’s speech to us, for there he not only utters words to us; he utters the Word, his eternal Son, in the power of the eternal Spirit. How could God do such a thing?

It is here that God draws our attention to the response we should have to his revelation, be it literal, metaphorical, anthropomorphic, or incarnational: worship. We worship God for the greatness of his mysterious grace in speaking to us—not because he condescended in human language and life, but because language and life themselves have divine roots. They are gifts. Why would God give such gifts to us? I do not know. I cannot know. But I can worship him for such gifts because they reveal the inexhaustible truth of salvation, of what God has come down to do for sinners.

I believe that the whole debate over anthropomorphic language is missing something quite basic to the nature of God, something that goes well beyond our ability to articulate his nature and essence: God speaks. Creation, redemption, salvation—he speaks all of it. I hear it, and I want to worship because God has come so far, to a creature who is so low, to do something so incomprehensible.

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