(an throh puh mahr fihss m) is the process of applying human characteristics to a god, an animal, or an inanimate object. The English word is derived from combining two Greek words—anthropos, which means “man” or “mankind,” and morphe, which means “form” or “shape.” Thus, anthropomorphism is giving human form to something not inherently human. In biblical studies the term focuses on those human characteristics applied to God.
The Biblical Tension Biblical faith emerged in a world where deities often were portrayed in human and/or animal form and were worshiped as physical images. Persons in primitive religions first sought spiritual reality in their daily experiences. Rocks, trees, the sun, the earth, or other natural objects were the focus for their sense of mystery and awe. Later religious thought centered in human experience, and mankind began to personify its gods in graven or molten images.
Basically, idolatry is an attempt to comprehend the mystery and represent the presence of a god. Idolaters express their religious longings by projecting their ideals onto their gods. An idol thus represents a human conception of god. It becomes an object of worship. Its physical image is drawn from human experience and frequently reflects human form and characteristics. Its moral character attempts to describe the mysterious powers that lie beyond human understanding.
Idolatry usurps God's sovereignty, majesty, and ultimate mystery. Prohibitions against idolatry are at the heart of Israel's covenant and revealed law (Exodus 20:1-6). Living in the midst of worshipers of Baal, Ashera, Astarte, and many other deities, Israel struggled against idolatry throughout its history. The highest expressions of its faith affirmed that God is Spirit—holy, eternal, and transcendent. His ways are past finding out (see
Despite its prohibitions against idolatry, Israel's faith did not flee from every attempt to personify God. Unlike some philosophical religions, biblical faith does not reduce God to mere abstractions. Instead, God is affirmed as active in daily life. Though eternal and transcendent, He also is personal and present. He reveals Himself through historical actions and relationships with His people.
Actions and Relationships Anthropomorphism grows naturally in a faith that views God as active and relational. Israel received God's revelation and expressed its faith in this personal God who had chosen them. Its religious expressions also were drawn from life (and especially from personal relationships); but the form of God was preserved in mystery, and His character was revealed rather than conceived.
Thus anthropomorphic imagery thrives in the Bible. In the typically concrete fashion of the Hebrew mind, the inspired writers of the Old Testament speak of God's eyes, ears, hands, and feet; but they meticulously avoid letting the descriptions become too tangible and concrete. God's movement among humanity is described as walking; His acceptance of sacrifice is through smell; His awareness of human plight is through sight; His feelings are represented in terms of human emotion. He rules as king, tends as shepherd, loves as father. This picturesque language is metaphor, but it is more. It is faith affirming the reality, uniqueness, and sovereignty of God.
The Image of God Behind the anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament lies another foundational concept. Genesis speaks of mankind—both male and female—being created in God's “image” and “likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27;
Genesis 9:6). Here is the reverse of anthropomorphism. Rather than creating an image of God out of personal experience or imagination, mankind is an image of God. While the degree to which this image is physical or spiritual is subject to debate, certain truths are clear. Mankind resembles God in a manner similar to Seth's resembling Adam (Genesis 5:3). God's image in mankind also conveys a sanctity and a dignity that establishes mankind on a higher plane than the animals (Genesis 9:1-6; see
Psalms 8:1). In the ability to act, to establish relationships, to exercise authority, and to represent God, mankind reflects the image of God.
In some ways, then, anthropomorphic presentations of God and theomorphic (in the form or image of theos, “God”) presentations of mankind are reciprocal. What we are intended to be is most fully reflected in what He is (see
1 John 3:2). What He is can be understood more fully in the familiar and concrete images of daily life and experience. Jesus' teachings certainly underscore this mutual relationship. His parables especially speak of God in anthropomorphic terms.
The Incarnation While the Old Testament concept of the image of God is reflected in the New Testament (see
1 Corinthians 11:7;
James 3:9), the idea is transformed in light of the incarnation. In a sense, the ultimate anthropomorphism is seen in the eternal Word of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:14). The uniqueness of God's revelation in Christ so overshadows the earlier concept that some New Testament writers present the image of God in terms of the perfect image revealed in Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4;
Hebrews 1:3; compare
John 14:9). The image of God in mankind is so eclipsed by the revelation in Christ that one must “put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Colossians 3:10; see
Ephesians 4:24). The message of this incarnation is a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others (1 Corinthians 1:23), but it is God's wisdom revealing His way of salvation. Christ Jesus took the form (morphe) of a slave (Philippians 2:7). Through His sacrifice on the cross He revealed a God of grace whose love knows no boundaries. In Him the mystery of God is revealed and the hiddenness of God removed so that no clearer representation of God is possible and none other needed.