Saturday, May 09, 2009

Neotheism and anthropomorphism

Traditionally, Christian theologians regard certain Biblical descriptions of God as anthropomorphic. Neotheism (or open theism) treats this appeal as special pleading–at least when it’s applied to neotheistic prooftexts.

Now it’s true that a philosophical theologian can begin with an essentially philosophical model of God, and then reinterpret Biblical descriptions accordingly. However, the identification of anthropomorphic usage in Scripture is by no means the result of superimposing an extrascriptural view of God onto Scripture. To the contrary, anthropomorphic usage is an idiomatic feature of Scriptural usage. So this is not a category which is generated by the relation between Scripture and extrascriptural concerns. While that’s a possible source of anthropomorphic interpretations, the operating category is intrinsic to Scriptural usage–as I’ll be documenting shortly.

Moreover, anthropomorphic language isn’t limited to God-talk. Furthermore, anthropomorphic language isn’t restricted to the ascription of human properties to superhuman or subhuman entities. In reference to God-talk, anthropomorphic language is just a special case of a universal phenomenon. So, once again, it’s not as if this was concocted by theologians to save appearances.

Anthropomorphic usage is a special type of metaphorical usage, which is–in turn–a special type of analogical usage. In every analogy there is an element of disanalogy. An analogy is a controlled comparison. The trick is to isolate the analogous element from the incidental features which accompany the picturesque metaphor.

In picture language, you have to draw a picture: otherwise, it wouldn’t be picture language. Hang together. Form a coherent image. But that doesn’t mean every picturesque detail is significant.

The anthropomorphic depictions of God in Scripture are meaningful. But we must take care in how we pinpoint the meaning. It we made no allowance for anthropomorphic usage, the God of Scripture would be a metamorphic being–by turns humanoid, bestial, or inanimate. Not only does that go far beyond orthodox theism, but far beyond open theism or even Mormonism.

Open theism arbitrarily demarcates the literal from the anthropomorphic. If anything, open theism is guilty of special pleading.

To illustrate my points, I’ll quote some passages from a classic treatment of anthropomorphic usage in Scripture.

“But in a broader sense anthropomorphism is commonly used to cover any attribution of human characteristics to that which is not human…Problems of theological language look very different as soon as we recognize that anthropomorphism is not confined to religion,” G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of Scripture (Eerdmans 1996), 172.

“In all languages a considerable portion of the word stock of daily speech is supplied by the metaphorical usage of words which literally connote parts of the human body: the eye of the needle, a tongue of land, the mouth of a river, the neck of a bottle, the shoulder of a road, the belly of a ship, the foot of a mountain,” ibid. 172-73.

“Such idiomatic phrases occur also in Hebrew and Greek, but with variations: where we say ‘face of the land,’ Hebrew says ‘eye of the land’ (Exod 10:5); where we say ‘tongue of land,’ Hebrew says ‘tongue of sea’ (Isa 11:15); and for ‘edge of the sword,’ Hebrew uses ‘mouth of the sword’ (Num 21:24),” ibid. 173n3.

“Only captious pedantry or childish humor will find it necessary to remark that the eye of a needle cannot see or a tongue of land speak. In fable, myth and strip cartoon animals are portrayed acting as though they were human beings (cf. Dan 8:3ff.; 2 Esdr. 11:1ff.; Rev 5:6ff.). By what might seem to be a converse process, the names of animals may be applied to a description of character to human beings–lion (2 Tim 4:17), fox (Lk 13:32), pig (2 Pet 2:22), snake (Gen 3:1; Mt 10:16); but, since the animals in question rarely possess the assumed qualities, this may be more plausibly understood as another example of the projection of human characteristics on to animals. The personification of the inanimate (e.g. Gen 37:9; Isa 10:15) and of the abstract (e.g. Wisd. 18:14ff.; Prov 8:1ff.) belong in this category, as does the personification of Nature [Ps 77:16; 96:11-12], commonly but misleadingly called ‘the pathetic fallacy’,” ibid 173.

“Thus anthropomorphism in all its variety is the commonest source of metaphor, and in it we can observe both the cognitive and the expressive aspects of language at work. The human body, senses and personality are the objects with which we have the most direct, first-hand acquaintance, and the cognitive principle of proceeding from the known to the unknown makes it natural for human beings to see the rest of the world in the light of that experience. But the continuing popularity of such usage is undoubtedly due to its vividness and the power of its appeal to the imagination,” ibid. 173-74.

“The same two principles govern the usage of anthropomorphic imagery in reference to God…The only choice open to us, therefore, is whether we derive our metaphors from the human realm or from the non-human, and it is important to note that the biblical writers use both kinds. There are frequent images drawn from inanimate nature. God is a sun (Ps 84:11; cf. Rev 1:16), his voice like a mighty torrent (Ezk 43:2; cf. Rev 1:16) or like thunder (Ps 29:3; cf. Rev 14:2), his spirit like the wind (Jn 3:8), his justice like the deep ocean (Ps 36:6)…He is a rock (Deut 32:15), a spring (Jer 2:13), a devouring fire (Deut 4:24). Somewhat less frequently we find animal imagery. God descends on Israel like a lion, panther, leopard or bear (Hos 5:14; 17:7-8; Lam 3:10), but also carries them on eagle’s wings (Exod 19:6) or protects them like nestlings (Ps 17:8; Lk 13:34),” ibid. 174.

“For all that, by far the greater proportion of the biblical language which refers to God is anthropomorphic. At the simplest level God is said to have head, face, eyes, eyelids, ears, nostrils, mouth, voice, arm, hand, palm, fingers, foot, heart, bosom, bowels…Here as always we must remember that vividness of expression is not the same as literality. There are explicit denials that God has a body of flesh (Isa 31:3), even though he is envisaged as having one,” ibid. 174-75.

“Far more important is the terminology of divine actions and attitudes, of which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to provide a complete catalogue. God sees and hears, speaks and answers, calls and whistles, punishes and rewards, wounds and heals, opposes and supports, fights, preserves and rescues, guides and guards, makes and unmakes, plans and fulfills, appoints and sends. He displays love, pity, patience, generosity, justice, mercy, jealousy, anger, regret, hatred, pleasure and score. He is potter, builder, farmer, shepherd, hero, warrior, doctor, judge, king, husband and father. Whatever may have been the case with their hearers or readers, the biblical writers at least were alert to the possible abuses of such language and at pains to guard against them. God is not like mankind, subject to vacillation and weakness (1 Sam 15:29; Isa 55:8; Hos 11:9; Mal 3:6),” ibid. 175.

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