One 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