No “Mere” Anthropomorphism

damascusOne of the perennial problems for a theology that is trying to speak of God on the basis of God’s word is wrestling with the sense of the Bible’s anthropomorphic language. The Biblical authors have no problem speaking of God in very human terms, attributing to God emotions, activities, and even body parts, in ways that seem somewhat inappropriate if taken as straightforward descriptions of the transcendent and infinite Creator of material and temporal reality.

John of Damascus broaches the question and quickly forwards a classic solution in On the Orthodox Faith, Book 1, chapter 11, stating:

Since we find many terms used symbolically in the Scriptures concerning God which are more applicable to that which has body, we should recognise that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life. So then all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, but have a higher meaning: for the Deity is simple and formless.

The Damascene is very clear, then, that while many Biblical idioms seem to imply that God has a body, these are symbolic representations which God has taken to himself in order to reveal himself in ways that are more suited to our finite understanding. God is simple, without composition and bodily shape. As Jesus testifies in John, “God is spirit” (John 4:24).

But the question remains, if this language is symbolic, what is it symbolic of? The point of noticing that language is symbolic, or not straightforward, or “literal”, is not to deny it has cognitive content, or real revelatory value. It is only to point out that it is revealing and referring in a unique, accommodated way.

Thankfully, John goes on to explain just what he means through several examples that I think are worth quoting at length:

Hence by God’s eyes and eyelids and sight we are to understand His power of overseeing all things and His knowledge, that nothing can escape: for in the case of us this sense makes our knowledge more complete and more full of certainty.

By God’s ears and hearing is meant His readiness to be propitiated and to receive our petitions: for it is this sense that renders us also kind to suppliants, inclining our ear to them more graciously.

God’s mouth and speech are His means of indicating His will; for it is by the mouth and speech that we make clear the thoughts that are in the heart: God’s food and drink are our concurrence to His will, for we, too, satisfy the necessities of our natural appetite through the sense of taste.

And God’s sense of smell is His appreciation of our thoughts of and good will towards Him, for it is through this sense that we appreciate sweet fragrance.

And God’s countenance is the demonstration and manifestation of Himself through His works, for our manifestation is through the countenance.

And God’s hands mean the effectual nature of His energy, for it is with our own hands that we accomplish our most useful and valuable work.

And His right hand is His aid in prosperity, for it is the right hand that we also use when making anything of beautiful shape or of great value, or where much strength is required. His handling is His power of accurate discrimination and exaction, even in the minutest and most secret details, for those whom we have handled cannot conceal from us aught within themselves.

His feet and walk are His advent and presence, either for the purpose of bringing succour to the needy, or vengeance against enemies, or to perform any other action, for it is by using our feet that we come to arrive at any place.

His oath is the unchangeableness of His counsel, for it is by oath that we confirm our compacts with one another.

His anger and fury are His hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat.

His forgetfulness and sleep and slumbering are His delay in taking vengeance on His enemies and the postponement of the accustomed help to His own.

This passage is illuminating for a variety to reasons.

First, I must stress again that John is not denying that these accommodated terms have any content to them. Many modern critics like to attack more classical approaches to predication, accommodation, and analogical language for God as robbing us of knowledge of God. For if this language is “merely” anthropomorphic or anthropopathic, then it’s not really God’s self-communication.

But John is not saying they are mere anthropomorphisms, as if the choice were anthropomorphic language or truly revelatory language. No, in each case, the Biblical idiom is communicating truth about God’s ways and works with us by way of the accommodated language. In God’s hands, anthropomorphisms *are* revelation. Nor are the meanings provided bizarre, foreign to the idiom itself, or very difficult to grasp once we have had our attention drawn to them. The point, though, is that if we don’t eventually recognize these are accommodations, we will end up thinking about God in ways that he has explicitly forbidden us from doing elsewhere in Scripture.

Second, and this follows from the last point, John’s little interpretive cheat-sheet is meant as an aid for reading and understanding Scripture. Theology is not meant correct the text, but is an aid meant to return us to the text, able to read it more competently, with less confusion and difficulty. Instead of getting caught up on how big God’s hands are, we can marvel at his works of power. Instead of wondering about God’s sense of smell, we can read the text in order to discern how we may please him. Instead of worrying about reconciling God’s immutability and impassibility with portraits of God which depict him “getting angry”, we should read Scripture and understand what sort of evil he has eternally set himself in opposition to and flee it.

Finally, John even has an answer to the contemporary charge that this approach to the Biblical language is insufficiently “Christocentric.” The idea here is that if Jesus is God, the fullest revelation of God, then we shouldn’t worry about “Greek” axioms like impassibility and so forth. Jesus shows us what God is like and so if Jesus experiences these things, then we should be fine attributing these qualities straightforwardly to God. To do otherwise is to subject God to Greek abstraction, or not to sufficiently evangelize our metaphysics.

Reading the Damascene, we see there is more than one way to be Christocentric. For John, to be properly Christocentric, one must be Chalcedonian:

And to put it shortly, all the statements made about God that imply body have some hidden meaning and teach us what is above us by means of something familiar to ourselves, with the exception of any statement concerning the bodily sojourn of the God-Word. For He for our safety took upon Himself the whole nature of man, the thinking spirit, the body, and all the properties of human nature, even the natural and blameless passions.

Note, then, there is one place where descriptions which were anthropomorphic, symbolic language become straightforward description: the life of Jesus, the Godman. Or, as John puts it, in “the bodily sojourn of the God-Word.”

But the Damascene does not want us to miss that while Jesus is the Eternal Word who reveals the divine character and power, he is revealing them under the conditions of human fleshly existence. The glory of the incarnation is that the Son makes what is ours his own—body and soul—even though such things are foreign to the divine life. Jesus does not come to reveal a God who is already embodied, already in anguish and pain, but one who freely adopted these things for us and for our salvation.

And it is just so that John of Damascus’s understanding is Christocentric, but properly Chalcedonian, the union of the divine and human natures occurring unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably. (This, by the way, leads later on to the very careful and necessary discussions on the communication of idioms.)

More could be said, but it’s worth reflecting on the fact that John’s Chalcedonian Christocentrism is not without a certain historic depth. One might look at this and begin to suspect one of the reasons for the anthropomorphic language in the Old Testament, alongside declarations of his absoluteness, would be to prepare Israel for the reality of God become flesh. The God who for our sake has always adopted a human language which falls far short of his glory, adopts human life for our sake in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Progressive God-Talk, Reformed Theological Method, The Doctrine of Analogy, and God’s Grace in our Knowledge

(Warning: this is a mildly dense one. If you haven’t had coffee yet, you might want to grab some, then come back. Also, it might seem dry at first, but there’s a punch-line you don’t want to miss.)

Progressive God-Talk

A few days ago, progressive author and blogger, Tony Jones threw down a challenge to his fellow progressive bloggers to start actually saying something substantive about God, “Not about Jesus, not about the Bible, but about God”, because they seem to  “have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.”

I don’t have a lot to say on the subject of liberal God-talk at this point, except that its been interesting to watch as it unfolds (or the way it doesn’t.) My hope is that more liberal/progressives do post substantive pieces of theology so that a real discussion of the nature and character of God can ensue.

One thing I do have something to say about is the topic of Reformed God-talk, and the attitude that those of us who engage in theology out of the Reformed tradition should take towards the conversation that’s happening right now amongst the progressives. To do that, though, I’m gonna call in a little help.

Reformed Theological Method (Or how Reformedish people go about thinking about God)

A while back I read a great article by Michael Horton on the Reformed theological method in conversation with Open Theism that will be helpful to our conversation. In it he deals with the common charge made that the Reformed scholastics were too dependent on “Hellenistic” thought or Greek speculative, systematizing which distorted the true, “dynamic”, biblical portrait of God. Leaving aside the problem that many who lodge this charge are guilty of the genetic fallacy, Horton shows that, in fact, “Contrary to popular caricature, Reformed scholasticism championed an anti-speculative and anti-rationalistic theological method based on the Creator-creature distinction.” He quotes Francis Turretin as representative of the tradition when he says,

But when God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded simply as God in himself . . . , but as revealed . . . Nor is he to be considered exclusively under the relation of deity (according to the opinion of Thomas Aquinas and many Scholastics after him, for in this manner the knowledge of
him could not be saving but deadly to sinners), but as he is our God  (i.e.,covenanted in Christ as he has revealed himself to us in his word) . . .

Thus although theology treats of the same things with metaphysics, physics and ethics, yet the mode of considering them is far different. It treats of God not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature; but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation . . . For theology treats of God and his infinite perfections, not as knowing them in an infinite but in a finite manner; nor absolutely as much as they can be known in themselves, but as much as he has been pleased to reveal them.

So, theology treats, not of God in general, but of God as he has given himself to us in Christ and in the history of Israel as attested to in the Scriptures. This straight from the mouth of Turretin, the Reformed Aquinas and the grand-daddy of all post-Reformation dogmaticians.

Horton then outlines then expands on 4 important distinctions that flow from the Creator/creature distinction that give Reformed theology its particular shape (transcendence and immanence, hidden/revealed , eternal decree/temporal execution, and archetypal/ectypal knowledge). We don’t have space to go into all of them here, but the final one, the archetypal/ectypal knowledge distinction is important for us. This distinction teaches that God’s knowledge is archetypal and primary, while our knowledge is ectypal and dependent on God’s. Horton writes that:

“It is the epistemological corollary of the ontological Creator-creature distinction. Although it had been a category in medieval system, Protestant dogmatics gave particular attention to this distinction and made it essential to their method. Just as God is not merely greater in degree (“supreme being”), but in a class by himself (“life in himself,” John 5:26), his knowledge of himself and everything else is not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from that of creatures…affirmation of this distinction is essential if we are to maintain with Scripture that no one has ever known the mind of the Lord (Rom 11:34, where the context is predestination), that his thoughts are far above our thoughts (Isa 55:8), and that he is “above” and we are “below” (Eccl 5:2)—if, in other words, we are to truly affirm the Creator-creature distinction.”

So, the idea is that because there is a radical gap in reality between God and ourselves–he is necessary, infinite, transcendent, etc. and we are contingent, finite, bound–there is also a radical gap in our knowledge. In the same way that God’s reality is at a higher level than ours and sustains ours, the same is true of our knowledge. It’s not just that we know less stuff, but that we know the stuff we do in a lesser way than God does.  This is not to say that we don’t have true knowledge, any more than to say that we are not real, simply because we’re not on the same ontological playing field as God, but that our knowledge is at a lower level than God does and is.

The Doctrine of Analogy (“God is…”)

With this distinction in hand, our discussion brings us to the doctrine of analogy, which has a long history both in Catholic and Protestant theology. I’d explain it, but here’s Horton again:

“All of this leads us, finally, to the doctrine of analogy. When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God’s own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically or equivocally. If we say that the predicate “gracious” means exactly the same thing, whether in God or in a creature, we are using “gracious” univocally. At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using that predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally. If, however, God is said to be “gracious” in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical. For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a “person,” do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are? When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male? Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in an univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical. Human language cannot transcend its finitude, so when God reveals himself in human language, he draws on human analogies to lead us by the hand to himself. It is correct description, but not univocal description.”

This is a useful doctrine for many reasons, but as Horton points out, it both acknowledges human finitude unlike rationalistic, univocal approaches to God-talk, as well as gives a place for real knowledge of God unlike modern, skeptical, equivocal approaches God.

Calvin’s Lisp, or God’s Grace in our Knowledge

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, aside from the fact that it’s just important for theology as a discipline, it’s important for our own theology as a part of life. It’s very easy for theology types to get really puffed up when it comes to their “knowledge” of God and his ways. Paul had to administer many a 1st Century beat-down over this in the church in Corinth. (cf. 1 Cor 1-4) What all of this points to is that this should not be so for Christians, especially for those who claim to be Reformed. Listen to Horton again:

“Thus, Calvin and the Reformed do not use analogy as a fall-back strategy when they find something that does not fit their system. Rather, it is the warp and woof of their covenantal approach, a necessary implication of the Creator-creature relationship as they understand it. All of God’s self-revelation is analogical, not just some of it. This is why Calvin speaks, for instance, of God’s “lisping” or speaking “baby-talk” in his condescending mercy. Just as God comes down to us in the incarnation in order to save us who could not ascend to him, he meets us in Scripture by descending to our weakness. Thus, not only is God’s transcendence affirmed, but his radical immanence as well. Transcendence and immanence become inextricably bound up with the divine drama of redemption. Revelation no less than redemption is an act of condescension and grace.”

All of our knowledge of God is had by God’s grace. It’s not just that we find out about a gracious God when we hear the Gospel, but that our hearing the Gospel at all is an act of grace! Our very knowledge of God is God’s kindness, God’s condescension to take up our feeble language and use it in powerful ways to speak to us of his great love. For the Reformed, it should be grace all the way down to your epistemology.

This is why it makes no sense at all for us to boast, or pride ourselves as better than others because of our ability to say and believe true things of God or on our theological systems and tradition. These are good things; they’re great. They’re a rich resource. They can be a great blessing. They can be all of these things, but the one thing they cannot be, must not be, is a source of arrogance or pride. Instead  every truth we utter or find in one of our dogmatics should be a reminder of God’s grace, not our own awesomeness.

So, if you’re cruising around the blogosphere, or just in life, reading people or hearing people talk about God in what you find to be silly fumbling, or inadequate ways, your first instinct should not be to look on condescendingly or pridefully, but remember God’s condescension that made your knowledge possible. When you get that point, maybe, just maybe you can engage in a loving, humble conversation about God and his truth with those whom you disagree.