What is Anthropomorphism?

LDS are often ardent defenders of biblical anthropomorphism, decrying not only the later theological tendency to abstract God in the Jewish and Christian traditions, but also to disparage the tendencies of biblical authors themselves who represent anti-anthropomorphic traditions. But, is biblical (and pre-biblical) anthropomorphism really something that we want to get behind, or do we mean something different by it?

The LDS anthropomorphic tradition is admittedly extreme in certain ways. We not only think that God is similar to human beings, but actually was one at some point in his history. We also depict God as engaged in a primordial battle, a very anthropomorphic thing to do, for human souls. When we say that we believe in an anthropomorphic deity, we tend to mean things like human form, perhaps some kinds of human emotions, like love and even grief, and of course a genealogical connection to human beings. This kind of anthropomorphism bears some similarities to ancient forms of anthropomorphic deities, including those in the biblical tradition, but is also quite different.

Biblical anthropomorphism generally depicted God as engaged in the full gamut of human emotions and behaviors. Of course, that means jealousy and anger, and not the righteous kind. This God changes his mind, and not just because he is persuaded, but because he decides that his creation is a mistake and needs to start over. He walks around in gardens and forms human beings out of dirt, and not in a symbolic way as our own anti-anthropomorphic tradition has presented the story. It also included things like seeing Yahweh as physically large.

It is not the case that there is a unified anthropomorphic view of God in the OT that gets subdued by later writers. Biblical writers themselves are wrestling with this heritage and working against it. The author P is one of the most notable examples, comparing Gen 1 to Gen 2-3 reveals a completely different conception of divine anthropomoprhism. Furthermore, anti-anthropomorphic tendencies in the OT stress many traits that LDS’s often uphold, including 1. God’s supreme power; 2. God’s ontological priority over rival deities; and 3. God’s consistency.

I am aware that the finite theology movement among LDS thinkers has sought to revive some of these aspects of divine anthropomophism as expressing some fundamental truths about divine-human relations, and have offered some important critiques of philosophical theology. This post is not meant as a critique of those intellectual moves. Rather, my concern is with uncritically embracing the anthropomorphism represented in biblical texts, and simultaneously rejecting the anti-anthropomorphic tendencies of biblical and post-biblical writers. They too had important critiques of much of the archaic depictions of deity that preceded them. This is especially necessary given the significant differences that LDS concepts of deity have from ancient ones with respect to divine origins.

Perhaps some of the problem with our thinking about biblical anthropomorphism has been an acceptance of the term “anthropomorphism” as the issue that is at stake. Really, the term is a misnomer for LDS theology, where God does not have the semblance of humanity, but God is literally a human being. Perhaps this language does not equip us with the adequate resources for addressing this issue, precisely because it already presumes that God and humans are different. Uncritical praising of biblical anthropomorphism is a rather rocky ground on which to build a theology. Perhaps it is the Chalcedonian language, or at least the language that was rejected at Chalcedon, that is more adequate: God is homoiousia with humans, not anthropomorphic.

6 Replies to “What is Anthropomorphism?”

  1. I actually found this post quite helpful, TT! 🙂
    I agree that there are some ancient ideas regarding anthropomorphism that we, as LDS, wouldn’t generally accept today (e.g., the point that you mention — the ancient idea that God was very large, which seems to be a very common ancient concept of deity).
    I also agree that there is a problem with accepting “anthropomorphism” as one coherent, harmonious idea that existed anciently, and that this is even a word that we, as LDS, should prefer to use for our concept of the nature of God. Your use of the term homoiousia for our understanding of God’s relationship to humans is much more fitting. God does not simply appear to have human-like qualities, he is of a similar substance to us.
    I do hold that the Deuteronomists, for one, were working against many of the characteristics of God held in ancient Israel that we would agree with — the theophanic appearance of God in his temple, and even the idea that God had an identifiable form (that humans could see). For the Deuteronomists, you can hear God’s voice, but you can’t see him. However, I do agree with you that we have the tendency to embrace what is said in the biblical text and end up supporting many of the Deuteronomists points that were polemical against these older ideas about God (e.g. Elijah and the “still, small voice” passage, which is clearly a statement against the older storm theophany motifs).
    To conclude, I believe you are right to warn us about the dangers of accepting “anthropomorphism” as some kind of homogeneous package of correct beliefs that directly match up with ours. As you might expect, I do see many interesting and important parallels between some of these more ancient beliefs and our own, but there are important differences, too, that I would not be so willing to accept.

  2. I do look with fondness and a little envy on passages about a huge god. The sheer terror and amazement at seeing a skyscraping Jesus (as in the Gospel of Peter) must be thrilling. I wish there was place for a little wiggle room in our LDS anthropomorphic/homoiousian theology for literary imagery such as found in many of these biblical and extrabiblical texts.

  3. Thanks David! I appreciate that. I think we are basically on the same page here.

    aliquis, the giant Jesus is pretty awesome.

  4. So, all my life I’ve been hearing that God is ontologically different, in a unique class of his own, with no peers.

    I’ve also been hearing that it’s demeaning to ascribe any human characteristic to God. God is just not anything a man can define.

    I actually agree with the latter. By defining God we assign boundaries for God. Although I believe in a Father-God, who is in some literal sense my Father, I also think that when I talk about God’s love, I can only put a human label on something that is actually totally out of my reach–let’s say quantitatively different, in an infinite sort of way–as a mortal.

    This almost goes into esoterica, but I think that the process and whatever that leads to exaltation so purifies human emotions and character, that although ontologically ever the same, by nature in a totally different realm.

  5. So I go completely against the whole Christian tradition by saying that.

    The Christian tradition holds that God is a Spirit, and is does not now have nor ever has had any human-like characters or forms. Christ’s divinity is just a “figurative” thing–or then his physicality is just a reflection of the human-like qualities we ascribe to a benevolent God. It is actually demeaning to God to say that we are literally in the image of God.

  6. I think the two natures has long been a tricky issue for traditional Christian theologians. It’s not much of an issue for Mormons.

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