Assigning Human Attributes to God
By: Pastor Josh Ryan
Today we have a special treat. A friend of mine from seminary (Southeastern University) wrote a very accurate and academic paper on anthropomorphism in relation to God. It is a very interesting read and thought provoking. He has given me full permission to use it here. I hope you enjoy it!
-Rev. Joe Kramer
If you would like the full paper, including footnotes, you can download it in PDF format by [CLICKING HERE]
Often humanity has pictured God the Father in the form of man when in reality He is without form and is spirit. Jesus is the only deity that is in the form of man. However, in scriptures through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the Old Testament and New Testament have described God as having the imagery of man, in the form of: feet, hands, and physical attributes. These images if not view properly allegorically limit the reality of God’s deity.
This paper will attempt to prove that all biblical references to God’s body or parts of his body, apart from the Incarnation, should be understood to be anthropomorphism. First, it will begin by looking at the reality that God is spirit and is not in the form of man. Second, this paper will look at God as omnipresent and how it relates to anthropomorphism. Third, it will look at the attribute of God being knowable. Fourth, it will look at the importance and implications of anthropomorphism and its history. This will be done by looking at how church theologians handled corporeality (God as a material embodied being) and developed concept of anthropomorphism. Finally, it will explore various examples of scripture where God is attributed in body parts as follows: does God have a body in creating man in the image of God in Genesis 1:27, does God has both hands and feet found in Exodus 24:9-11 and Ezek. 1:25-26; and is God a warrior Psalms 18:1-19.
God is Spirit
Jesus said in John 4:24, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship Him in the Spirit and in truth(NIV).” Here Jesus provides evidence and truth that God the Father is Spirit. It is imperitive to note that the Jewish culture viewed God as having a form. Also in Colossians 1:15Paul says, “The Son is the image of the invisible God,the firstborn over all creation(NIV).” Paul also mentions this in Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made,so that people are without excuse(NIV).”
Thus God is not in the form of any image; God is spirit and cannot be seen. Charles T. Grant says it well in his journal article, “Our Heavenly Father” he states, “God is invisible, and that is, He is incapable of being seen because He is spiritual and not material.” Grant continues to explain that this means God is not able to be seen by the eyes of man.
John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known(NIV).” With God being Spirit and Jesus being the only part of the trinity that is flesh Theologians have debated that it is impossible for God to have a physical body. God being spirit is one of the key arguments to view the images of God in scripture as anthropomorphism. If God is not an image and if he is so complex, then the images given in scripture as human man must be viewed as anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is the view that God portrays himself in human form in order not to define himself, but to reveal small aspects of His complex deity. This argument will be explored more in upcoming sections of the paper.
God is Omnipresent
God being Spirit also means that God is Omnipresent, Psalms 139:7 states, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence(NIV)?” Bruce G. Epperly, states it well in his journal “Process Theology and lived Omnipresence,” he states, “Simply put, the word “omnipresence” means that God is present everywhere and in all things.” Epperly further gives gives an example in the Bible with Abraham and Sarah. After they obey God and left there lives they found the same God was in the new land as well. In the same token, it is imperative to talk about God’s transcendence in line with His omnipresent, Epperly further states that, “Theology has struggled to understand God as both hidden and revealed in conscious experience.” Epperly implies that not only should we understand God as being always present we must also understand that God is also transcendent and beyond this universe. Kam Ming Wong, states this best in his journal, “Catholicity and Globality,” he states, “God is not bounded but encompasses everything that is. God is to be thought of as both in no place alone and yet in every place at the same time. This must not be taken to imply indefiniteness or indistinctness of God’s being.” Wong makes a good point in showing the complexity of God’s omnipresent because he shows how God encompasses everything and yet is not bound to any certain place which sounds like the definition of spirit.
George E. Meisinger, in his journal “Divine Emotion,” states, “Scriptures also says that God comes and goes, though He is omnipresent, being everywhere at ounce.” The attribute of omnipresent should imply that one should view the scriptures that put God in the form of man as anthropomorphism, in that God is everywhere and cannot be described as limited in one space, however one must understand the reality that our complex deity wants to know us as well which next section will talk about this.
In light of God being Spirit without form and or image and God being everywhere not enclosed into one space, often what happens is the ideology that God is a non relational God. This view is often described as God being an Apathetic God. Bruce G. Epperly describes well this view, he states, “According to the apophatic way, God is beyond any description. Eternal, changeless, and infinite, God is not a “being” but beyond all beings. This is the “God beyond God,” affirmed by Meister Eckhardt and Paul Tillich. This God cannot be experienced or described except in terms of mystery, infinity, and the deep and abiding experience of interdependence from which consciousness arises.”
Eckhardt and Tillich make a good point on the mystery of God however it is important to also note that the Bible from the very beginning of time when God created Adam and Eve, has always even in his complexity revealed himself to man. Theologians who express this ideology often lack the correct viewing of God, because of fear that one will replace God with ones one image.
Christopher J. Insole, in his article, “Anthropomorphism and the Apophatic God” States this fear well, he says, “When a theologian announces that the God whose death Nietzsche reported was a monster anyway, it is the anthropomorphic God. In the face of such an anthropomorphic construction, so transparently reflecting a particular self-serving-and-subverting God be God, or refusing to repeat the mistakes of seeing our own projected reflection at the bottom of the well.” Insole brings a good point that one should be careful not to make God into ones own image, yet God is still one who wants to be know. God has revealed himself in the form of a man in scriptures numerous times hints God’s will to know man, and when one approaches anthropomorphism with balance one is able to understand God in the way in which God wants man to know Him.
Paul makes this point as he proved the reality that God is relational. This happened when Paul was in Athens and saw a statue that stated, “To an unknown god.” Charles Grant says it well in his journal, “Our Heavenly Father,” on what Paul did in this moment, he states “His clear implication was that God is knowable, and we have argued that knowledge about Him comes to us via revelation.”  George E. Meisinger, in his journal “Divine Emotion,” further adds to the reality of God wanting to reveal himself to us, he states, “Scriptures also says that God comes and goes, though He is omnipresent, being everywhere at once.” Both Insole and Meisinger express well the reality that in God’s complexity He still wants to reveal Himself to us in terms that we can understand.
The reality that God is not only complex in that He is spirit, omnipresent and beyond description, God still wants us to know Him, therefore because God wants us to know Him this gives evidence that all images given in scripture are anthropomorphism. This now leads us to the next section of the paper on the technique and definition of anthropomorphism and the correct balance it implies. Anthropomorphism, an exegetical understanding of imagery will gives us the answer as to why God displays himself in Human form. We will then look at examples in the bible where this is apparent and explain how to make this a balance approach.
Anthropomorphism as stated by Goerge E. Meisinger, “Holds that the Bible ascribes to God human, Physical characteristics, which God does not in fact have. Anthropomorphism seeks to “humanize” God so that we may better understand what the Lord is Like.” Meisinger expression of anthropomorphism is a well balanced explanation for these descriptions in the Bible because it shows the important fact that these images were given as analogies to reveal a personal God who is complex and undefined by the human mind, yet relational to the extent for relationship.
Church History struggled with this concept in the 4th century. Robin M. Jensen, in his journal “Those who see God Received Life” expresses well the tension that mounted in the church between those who where corporeal(God having flesh) and those who are incorporeal (No Image of God) he states, “In forth-cerntury Egypt, a division controversy arose about whether God had a visible form that could be seen by mortal eyes.” Jensen further explains that there was a group of monks, the Socrates, who where anthropomorphizes, in that in creation God was in the form of man. The anti-image group influenced by Origen and Alexandria, argued that the body is evil and should not be subjected to God, both groups approached imagry with an imbalance no understanding analogy and anthropomorphism.
Augustine became part of this debate and helped further express the balance of anthropomorphism. Carl W. Griffin, in his journal article, “Augustine and the Corporeality of God,” gives a great definition of corporeal and the struggle in church history of this matter, he states, “It has been recognized by at least some scholars that many Christians, not only the simpliciores, believed God to be corporeal(material embodied) or anthropomorphic(humanlike in form), as some biblical narratives portray Him.”
Griffin, continues his paper showing how there was a tension on the subject of anthropomorphism in the fourth century his purpose for the paper was to prove to modern theologians who mistake to think it was not an issue. One such scholar was David Paulsen’s who claimed such thoughts he states, “It does not appear that anything in Augustine’s writings would allow us to speculate that Christianity in the fourth century taught that God was corporeal.” Griffin however, in this article gives vivid evidence of the struggle the church had at this time. The examples found in these writings help further give evidence that God should be viewed in scripture as anthropomorphism.
The opposing side of anthropomorphism was Ps. Clement, he states, “For it is not possible that there be beauty apart from form, nor can one be drawn to his love, or even think to see God, if he has not form.” Tertullian, states it another way, “How can he be nothing without whom no thing was made, so that on void should have wrought solid things, and one empty full things, and one incorporeal corporal things?” Both make good points but it must be mention as earlier God can not be in the form of image due to Him being spirit and omnipresent everywhere.
However, Augustine’s argument was that one should realize that the imagery in scripture should not be taken literally (being in the form of Man), but figuratively (allegorically) in that to do so would be taking away from God and His deity.
In the early life of Augustine when he was a young Christian he viewed God in a corporal sense, but admitted that the more he understood the attributes of God the more he hated the thought of putting limit on God when thought of Him in one’s own mind. Carl Griffin, quotes Augustine well, Augustine says “You who are most high and most near, most secret and most present, have no bodily members, some larger, others smaller, but are everywhere a whole never limited by space. You are certainly not our physical shape.” Here Augustine expresses the complexity of allegory in scripture when it comes to the imagery portrayed, later he calls those who imagine God in human form as mere babes in the faith, in that they do not have the capacity to understand the complexity of God and exegete the scriptures in the form of there context.
Augustine shaped the balance and the complexity of anthropomorphism in the forth century. God should not be confined to the image of imagination, yet in the complexity of God not being image one must realize God is willing to reveal himself to humanity in human terms.
C. Fred Smith, “Does Classical Theism Deny God’s Immanence, he further expresses the importance for modern theologians to approach the deity of God with balance, this is done by exploring the tension between open theism, believing in God immanence but not in His transcendent, and traditional theism, which believes in God’s transcendence and immanence, he states, “Traditionally, as have been shown here, theologians have help both the transcendence of God and His immanence. Some have tried to explain the two while others have been willing to live with the mystery.”
He further explains that if one who holds classical theism must be careful not to fall into the trap that pushes God’s transcendence to the place of lack of relationship and revelation with Him, just as the overemphasis of immanence can lead to a God of infinite to finite. Now that we understand the implications and applications of anthropomorphism that they should be view as allegory, this paper will explore examples in the Bible where this imagery is portrayed.
Examples of Anthropomorphism found in Scripture
Wilhelm Vischer, in his journal, Words and the Word,” expresses the reality of how much anthropomorphism is in the bible, he states, ‘The Bible is full of anthropomorphism. We read there of God’s mouth, out of which His word proceeds. He opens His eyes and sees the afflicted; He inclines his ears to hear their cry. He shows the light of his countenance and he conceals it.”  Scripture is full of imagery yet this paper has already established that God is spirit. This section of the paper will show examples of God in the bible that portray human imagery to his deity. In this section anthropomorphism will be shown in a balance way in which proves the reality that God is portrayed as anthropomorphism, yet allows one to take away the revealed truth that God wants an individual to understand about him. Anthropomorphism is not the reality that God can not be personal, it is God’s attempt to allow us to understand him. Wilhelm Vischer, says it well, “God so speaks with us that can and should understand him. When he says to use is not that His Godhead is incomprehensible. That is indeed true, but the wonder of revelation consists in the fact that he imparts to us the secret of His heart.”
God’s Body/Creation of Man
Genesis 1:26-27, says, “Then God said, “Let usmake mankind in our image,in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God createdmankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and femalehe created them (NIV).”
This passage has often been misunderstood to think of God as being at the scene of creation as the form of a man. Meaning the ideology of God having a body in that the original word image was thought to be interpreted as plastic or in graven image this assumption lead to the ideology of God being man. In Hosea 11:9 God says, “I am God and am not Man(NIV).” William Vischer, talks what the image meant in creation in his article “Words and the Word.” He states, “The proper understanding of the biblical revelation hangs upon the recognition that the sentence, “God created man in his image” is irreversible. As soon as it is turned around, revelation is inverted into human speculation, the truth into a lie, and human thoughts about God will take the place of the words that imparts God’s thoughts.”
Vischer’s point, is that the original understanding of image is not a confined image as portrayed by false God’s made by the hands of man. Although man has an image yet the image of man does not fully express the deity of God. Also the aspect that God is spirit as expressed earlier, further shows that God is not an image in the form of a man. A Humans mind cannot comprehend a deity that is infinite. Finite cannot comprehend infinite. However, infinite God can reveal to finite man aspects of His deity. This understanding is key to knowing that God’s descriptions of himself should not be used to form a human image of God in a finite mind a discipline of balance anthropomorphism.
Hands and Feet
There a many instances in scripture that portrays God as having both hands and feet. Exodus 24:9-11 portrays God as having both hands and feet, it says, “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. 11 But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank (NIV).”
Richard D. Patterson, in his article, “The Biblical Imagery of feet as a Vehicle for Truth,” explores the implications of reference to feet in Ancient Near East Time period in which this was written. He concludes that the above passage was an anthropomorphic text, he states, “Therefore what Moses and Aaron, and the seventy elders saw was an anthropomorphic manifestation of God, a theophany. It was “a glorious representation of God in His regal splendor, not in the essence of God Himself.”  Ezek. 43:7 has imagery of only the feet it states, “7 He said: “Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet. This is where I will live among the Israelites forever. The people of Israel will never again defile my holy name—neither they nor their kings—by their prostitution and the funeral offerings[a] for their kings at their death (NIV).
Patterson states, “Then Ezekial describes the temple as the place for the soles of God’s feet, he indicated that it will be the appointed place par excellence where God is to be worshiped.”  Psalms 99:5 also portrays the temple and city Jerusalem as the footstone of God. Naham 1:3 talk about how the Clouds are the dust of God’s feet. Patterson, states, “Naham’s statement that the clouds are the dust of God’s feet (Nah. 1:3) means he possesses and rules the natural world.”
In conclusion Patterson expresses the reality that although the imagry might seem to be whom God is in reality it is only a small expression reveal for man to understand him. He states, “In each case a meaning appropriate to the context is present. Moreover, each figure reflects the language and culture norm of the author and his audience and hence is readily understandably by those involved in the communicative experience.”
God as Warrior
Psalms 18:1-18 is another illustration of God depicted in human terms. Verses 1-3 David gives his reasons for being thankful to the Lord. Verses 4-5 the David expresses how if it was not for the intervention of the Lord he would be dead. Verse 6-18 are the examples David gives of God in human form, which should be viewed as anthropomorphism. Michael E. Travers, in his journal article, The use of Figures of speech in the Bible, expresses well what David was doing in this passage, he states, “Psalms 18:1-19 is rich with figures of speech and serves well as an illustration of how they work in context. David commented on two primary subjects his hopeless condition in the face of Saul’s attacks and the Lord’s rescue of him from what have been certain death apart from divine intervention.”
In verses 2-3 David described God as a rock, fortress and deliverer. Travers continues to argue that David did not actually mean that God was a literal Rock or a literal Fortress but that God was his protector in the times of need. He continues to express the background of God being known to Israel as a warrior on the nation’s behalf, he states, “In common image God based on His deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt in the Exodus, the “divine warrior” image presents God as a powerful warrior who fought on the side of Israelites. Based on the metonymy of the temple (v.6) which portrays the Lords majesty and power, the metaphor’s that depict God as a warrior indicate that he came to David’s rescue(v. 7-15).”
Gordan D. Kaufman, in his journal article “Is God Nonviolent,” ask the important question as to how we should view God in scriptures when he is portrayed as a warrior, he states, “Is God to be thought of as basically a great and powerful warrior, fighting battles against the evils in human life? Or should God be thought of primarily as forgiving and merciful, like a loving father caring for his prodigal children? Obviously both of these biblical images are drawn from common human experience.” Kaufman makes a good point that some of use might not understand certain patterns of experience than others. However, Travers argument is not that God is a bloody murderer but that God is being portrayed in scripture as a helper in times of need. David also was a warrior and the imagery used for God was in the context of who he was and the understanding God for David to know God. Kaufman, however does have a good point in relation to viewing this part of scripture with balance, he states, “But in our theological reflection, when we are seeking to think carefully and precisely about what we mean when we use the word “God,” we must move with great care in our employment of such metaphors or we will end up with the conception of God largely constructed in our own human image.”
Travers continues and gives example in the detailing of David’s descriptions of God as a warrior and concludes that God was not actually in the image of a warrior but worked in the life of David like a warrior. Examples of this are as follows, verse 7 describes God as rousing Himself actively to fight in defense for David, verse 9-14 David described God as a warrior coming down from heaven in the clouds, verse 11-12 describe God responding with thunder and lightning, and finally verse 14 describes God’s arrows as lightning rods.
Travers incite on this description of God are as follows, “The anthropomorphism of God’s “voice” announces His presence and Judgment. His “arrows,” which are lighting, are “scattered” As a warrior God has the arsenal of all creation at His disposal and directed against David’s enemies’.” This Psalm display the revelation of God’s deity as caring understanding and one who is willing to fight for those in need. Travers Concludes with a great statement on how one should view such imagery as such in reference to God, he states, “These figures of speech are clearly images, metaphors, anthropomorphisms, anthropopathism, metonymy, hyperbole.” Travers further explains that these where given to display God’s presence in a needy person and His help.
The imagery in scripture must be viewed anthropomorphically, in reference to God the father. This is the correct way to prevent one from taking scripture literally, which in turn will create a warped view of God. Instead, we must view it allegorically in a way in which God can show us who He is. Scriptures have expressed the reality that God is formless and without image, that he is everywhere and not confined, yet God is willing that humans might be able to know and have a relationship with Him. God is speaking to us in a language in which we can understand, although we will fully not understand God, humanity will know what God has revealed of Himself in the majesty of His great beauty. One must do with Holy humility with fear of overemphasis an image to the point of not truly understanding God. One is able if not careful to miss God all together especially when he is trying to speak to us figuratively.
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Charles T. Grant, “Our Heavenly Father” Emmaus Journal Volume EMJ11:2 221-28, (Winter 2002), 228.
 Bruce G. Epperly, “Process theology and lived omnipresence: an essay in practical theology,” Encounter 68, no. 3 (June 1, 2007): 19-31. 23.
 Bruce G. Epperly, 25
 Kam Ming Wong,”Catholicity and globality,” Theology Today 66, no. 4 (January 1, 2010): 459-475. 461
 George E. Meisinger, “Divine Emotion.” Chafer Theological Seminary Jounral Vol 4:2, 12-20. April 1998. 11.
 Bruce G. Epperly, 25
 Christopher J. Insole, “Anthropomorphism and the apophatic God,” Modern Theology 17, no. 4: 475-483. 2001. 476.
 Charles T. Grant, 227.
 George E. Meisinger, “Divine Emotion.” Chafer Theological Seminary Jounral Vol 4:2, 12-20. April 1998. 11.
 Ibid, 11.
 Robin M. Jensen, “Those who see God receive life: the icon, the idol, and the invisible God,” Worship 82, no. 1: 19-40. 2008, 19.
 Ibid. 19.
 Carl W. Griffin, “Augustine and the corporeality of God.” Harvard Theological Review 95, no. 1: 97-118. 2002, 97.
 Ibid. 97.
 Ibid, 100.
 Ibid, 101.
 Carl W. Griffin, 105.
 Fred C. Smith, “Does Classical Theism Deny God’s Immanence?” Bibliotheca Sacra Vol. 160:637, 24-33. (Jan 2003), 33.
 Wilhelm Vischer, “Words and the Word : the anthropomorphisms of the biblical revelaton,” Interpretation 3, no. 1: 3-18. 1949. 3.
 William Vischer, 13.
 Wilhelm Vischer, 13.
 Richard D. Patterson, “The Biblical Imagery of Feet as a Vehicle for Truth,” Bibliotheca Sacra Volume BSAC 163:649 29-44, (Jan 2006), 41.
 Ibid, 42.
 Ibid, 42.
 Ibid, 42.
Michael E. Travers, “The Use of Figures of Speech In the Bible,” Bibliotheca Sacra Volume BSAC 164:655 77-290, (July 2007) 287-288.
 Ibid, 288.
 Ibid, 289.
 Kaufman, Gordon D. “Is God nonviolent?.” Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 1: 18-24. 2003. 19.
 Gordan D. Kaufman, 19.
 Michael E. Travers, 290.