Seidensticker Folly #33: Clueless Re Biblical Anthropopathism

Seidensticker Folly #33: Clueless Re Biblical Anthropopathism July 24, 2019

Atheist and anti-theist Bob Seidensticker, who was “raised Presbyterian”, runs the influential Cross Examined blog. He asked me there, on 8-11-18“I’ve got 1000+ posts here attacking your worldview. You just going to let that stand? Or could you present a helpful new perspective that I’ve ignored on one or two of those posts?” He also made a general statement on 6-22-17“Christians’ arguments are easy to refute . . . I’ve heard the good stuff, and it’s not very good.” He added in the combox“If I’ve misunderstood the Christian position or Christian arguments, point that out. Show me where I’ve mischaracterized them.” 

Such confusion would indeed be predictable, seeing that Bob himself admitted (2-13-16): “My study of the Bible has been haphazard, and I jump around based on whatever I’m researching at the moment.” I’m always one to oblige people’s wishes if I am able, so I decided to do a series of posts in reply. It’s also been said, “be careful what you wish for.”  If Bob responds to this post, and makes me aware of it, his reply will be added to the end along with my counter-reply. If you don’t see that, rest assured that he either hasn’t replied, or didn’t inform me that he did. But don’t hold your breath.

Bob (for the record) virtually begged and pleaded with me to dialogue with him in May 2018, via email. But by 10-3-18, following massive, childish name-calling attacks against me,  encouraged by Bob on his blog (just prior to his banning me from it), his opinion was as follows: “Dave Armstrong . . . made it clear that a thoughtful intellectual conversation wasn’t his goal. . . . [I] have no interest in what he’s writing about.”

And on 10-25-18, utterly oblivious to the ludicrous irony of his making the statement, Bob wrote in a combox on his blog: “The problem, it seems to me, is when someone gets these clues, like you, but ignores them. I suppose the act of ignoring could be deliberate or just out of apathy, but someone who’s not a little bit driven to investigate cognitive dissonance will just stay a Christian, fat ‘n sassy and ignorant.” Again, Bob mocks some Christian in his combox on 10-27-18“You can’t explain it to us, you can’t defend it, you can’t even defend it to yourself. Defend your position or shut up about it. It’s clear you have nothing.” And again on the same day“If you can’t answer the question, man up and say so.” And on 10-26-18“you refuse to defend it, after being asked over and over again.” And againYou’re the one playing games, equivocating, and being unable to answer the challenges.” Bob’s cowardly hypocrisy knows no bounds. He still hasn’t yet uttered one peep in reply to — now — 32 of my critiques of his atrocious reasoning.

Bob’s words will be in blue. To find these posts, word-search “Seidensticker” on my atheist page or search “Seidensticker Folly #” in my sidebar search (near the top).

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In his article, Top 10 Most Common Atheist Arguments—Do They Fail? (2 of 4) (7-19-19; update of a post dated 6-29-15), Bible-Basher Bob pontificated:

We typically give Christians a pass when they list God’s properties—it’s their religion, so why not? But the Bible gives some very human limitations on God.

  • God changed his mind: “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:10–14). He dithered about whether Balaam (the one with the talking donkey) should go on his trip or not (Numbers 22).
  • God doesn’t know everything: “I will go down [to Sodom] and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me” (Genesis 18:21). . . . 
  • God regrets.
  • God lies.

I shall deal with the last two false accusations in papers devoted to each (my next two). Bible-Basher Bob links to involved papers in both instances. I shall dismantle those, and indeed, they are based on the same profound and inexcusable dunce-level ignorance (of the same type) that I am presently critiquing.

This is truly garden variety atheist playbook / boilerplate stuff: complete (I kid you not) with the classic “Can God make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it?” I find it hilariously funny, from my perspective as an apologist, because it is an ongoing silliness that the anti-theist atheist (Bible-Basher Bob being an absolutely classic and quintessential example) prides himself or herself as so intellectually superior to us poor ignorant Christians, who are so stupid and idiotic, and who supposedly believe the most ridiculous things.

But the last laugh turns out to be on him. He is abominably ignorant about rather humdrum, common aspects of biblical scholarship. I hate to upset Bob’s little “ignorance is bliss” fantasy-bubble (it’s like the spank when a baby is born), but (sorry!), here I come with the pin . . .  

When we are faced with alleged biblical contradictions of God changing His mind (a violation of His immutability) or acting as if He is limited in knowledge (which would contradict omniscience), it is a question of biblical anthropopathism. I’ve written about and explained this aspect, and it is nothing new, either. It was widely written about by the Church fathers, prior to the 7th  century and almost back to the beginning of Christianity. For example, Origen (c. 185 – c. 254):

And now, if, on account of those expressions which occur in the Old Testament, as when God is said to be angry or to repent, or when any other human affection or passion is described, (our opponents) think that they are furnished with grounds for refuting us, who maintain that God is altogether impassible, and is to be regarded as wholly free from all affections of that kind, we have to show them that similar statements are found even in the parables of the Gospel; as when it is said, that he who planted a vineyard, and let it out to husbandmen, who slew the servants that were sent to them, and at last put to death even the son, is said in anger to have taken away the vineyard from them, and to have delivered over the wicked husbandmen to destruction, and to have handed over the vineyard to others, who would yield him the fruit in its season. And so also with regard to those citizens who, when the head of the household had set out to receive for himself a kingdom, sent messengers after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us; for the head of the household having obtained the kingdom, returned, and in anger commanded them to be put to death before him, and burned their city with fire. But when we read either in the Old Testament or in the New of the anger of God, we do not take such expressions literally, but seek in them a spiritual meaning, that we may think of God as He deserves to be thought of. And on these points, when expounding the verse in the second Psalm, Then shall He speak to them in His anger, and trouble them in His fury, we showed, to the best of our poor ability, how such an expression ought to be understood. (De Principiis, 2, 4, 4; ANF, vol. 4)

But as, in what follows, Celsus, not understanding that the language of Scripture regarding God is adapted to an anthropopathic point of view, ridicules those passages which speak of words of anger addressed to the ungodly, and of threatenings directed against sinners, we have to say that, as we ourselves, when talking with very young children, do not aim at exerting our own power of eloquence, but, adapting ourselves to the weakness of our charge, both say and do those things which may appear to us useful for the correction and improvement of the children as children, so the word of God appears to have dealt with the history, making the capacity of the hearers, and the benefit which they were to receive, the standard of the appropriateness of its announcements (regarding Him). And, generally, with regard to such a style of speaking about God, we find in the book of Deuteronomy the following: “The Lord thy God bare with your manners, as a man would bear with the manners of his son.” It is, as it were, assuming the manners of a man in order to secure the advantage of men that the Scripture makes use of such expressions; for it would not have been suitable to the condition of the multitude, that what God had to say to them should be spoken by Him in a manner more befitting the majesty of His own person. And yet he who is anxious to attain a true understanding of holy Scripture, will discover the spiritual truths which are spoken by it to those who are called “spiritual,” by comparing the meaning of what is addressed to those of weaker mind with what is announced to such as are of acuter understanding, both meanings being frequently found in the same passage by him who is capable of comprehending it. (Contra Celsus, 4, 71; in ANF, Vol. 4)

I gave a fairly short explanation in my own paper on the topic:

God “condescends” to the limited understanding of human beings, by expressing many truths about himself analogically (as compared to human actions and emotions) so that we can understand Him at all. Otherwise, we would not be able to comprehend a Being so startlingly different and distinct from us and greater than we are. Thus, the passages (in this framework) that say He doesn’t and cannot change are to be interpreted literally, while the ones stating the opposite are to be interpreted figuratively or metaphorically or anthropopathically. 

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (“Anthropomorphism”) provides a more in-depth definition:

1. Definition of the Term:

By this term is meant, conformably with its etymological signification, i.e. as being in the form or likeness of man, the attribution to God of human form, parts or passions, and the taking of Scripture passages which speak of God as having hands, or eyes, or ears, in a literal sense. This anthropomorphic procedure called forth Divine rebuke so early as Psalms 50:21:

“Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself.”

[RSV: “you thought that I was one like yourself.”]

2. Old Testament Anthropomorphisms:

Fear of the charge of anthropomorphism has had a strangely deterrent effect upon many minds, but very needlessly so. Even that rich storehouse of apparently crude anthropomorphisms, the Old Testament, when it ascribes to Deity physical characters, mental and moral attributes, like those of man, merely means to make the Divine nature and operations intelligible, not to transfer to Him the defects and limitations of human character and life.

3. In What Senses an Anthropomorphic Element Is Necessity:

In all really theistic forms of religion, there is an anthropomorphic element present, for they all presuppose the psychological truth of a certain essential likeness between God and man. Nor, perfect as we may our theistic idea or conception of Deity, can we, in the realm of spirit, ever wholly eliminate the anthropomorphic element involved in this assumption, without which religion itself were not. It is of the essence of the religious consciousness to recognize the analogy subsisting between God’s relations to man, and man’s relations to his fellow.

The Bible repeatedly teaches that God is omniscient:

God alone is omniscient

1 Chronicles 28:9 [RSV] …the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every plan and thought.… (cf. 1 Ki 8:39; 2 Chr 6:30; Ps 44:21; Is 66:18; Ezek 11:5; Mt 6:8; Lk 16:15; Acts 1:24; Rom 8:27; Heb 4:13)

Psalm 147:5 Great is our LORD, and abundant in power;  his understanding is beyond measure. (cf. Job 36:4; 37:16; Is 40:28; 46:10; 48:3; Acts 15:18)

Romans 11:33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

1 John 3:20 …God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

Jesus is omniscient

John 16:30 Now we know that you know all things,… (cf. 21:17)

Colossians 2:3 in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Revelation 2:23 …I am he who searches mind and heart…. (cf. 1 Chr 28:9)

Omniscience is also implied (though not proven) in many passages that describe Jesus’ extraordinary knowledge; these are consistent with omniscience (Mt 9:4; 12:25; Mk 2:8; 14:13-15; Lk 5:22; 6:8; 9:47; 22:10-13; Jn 2:24-25; 4:17-19, 29; 6:64; 13:11).

Additionally, there are many other verses illustrating that Jesus knew the future perfectly, which is consistent with, and suggestive of omniscience, though not a proof (Mt 12:40; 13:1; 16:21; 17:9, 11-12, 22-23; 20:18-19; 21:39; 24:2; 26:2, 12, 21, 31-34, 54; Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34; 14:9, 18, 27-30, 42, 49; Lk 9:22, 44; 11:30; 12:50; 17:25; 18:31-33; 22:15, 21-22, 32, 34, 37; Jn 2:19; 3:14; 10:11, 15, 17-18; 12:32-34; 13:18-21; 14:19; 15:13; 16:20; 18:4, 11; 21:18-19).

God is also immutable (cannot change). St. Thomas Aquinas refers to anthropopathism and metaphorical attribution of human qualities to God:

Objection 3. Further, to approach and to recede signify movement. But these are said of God in Scripture, “Draw nigh to God and He will draw nigh to you” (James 4:8). Therefore God is mutable.

[ . . . ]

Reply to Objection 3. These things are said of God in Scripture metaphorically. For as the sun is said to enter a house, or to go out, according as its rays reach the house, so God is said to approach to us, or to recede from us, when we receive the influx of His goodness, or decline from Him.

As so often, atheists (many of them, alas, former fundamentalists or otherwise relatively theologically uneducated in their past Christian lives) interpret Scripture with a wooden literalism, that massively and relentlessly fails to take into account the rich storehouse of literary genres and expressions (including many figurative, hyperbolic, analogical or otherwise non-literal ones) in the thinking of ancient near eastern / Hebrew culture. This leads them into making many foolish arguments, that — far from revealing ancient Hebrew, biblical, or Christian ignorance –, spectacularly and ironically displays their own.

This is one such example. And in the previous 32 installments where I have refuted Bob’s contentions, I showed repeatedly how he neglects of ignores this aspect. It’s embarrassing to have to point out such basic things, but it is what it is. I delved into this aspect at great length in one of my “contra-Bob” papers in particular: Seidensticker Folly #25: Jesus’ Alleged Mustard Seed Error. Excerpts:

Bible scholar E. W. Bullinger catalogued “over 200 distinct figures [in the Bible], several of them with from 30 to 40 varieties.” That is a a statement from the Introduction to his 1104-page tome, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (London: 1898). I have this work in my own library (hardcover). It’s also available for free, online.  . . .

Bible scholar Kyle Butt, in an article on biblical hyperbole, compares the biblical usage of this type of figurative language to the same kind of application today:

We who use the English language are quite familiar with the use of hyperbole, even though we may not be as familiar with the term itself. When a teenager explains to her parent that “everybody” is going to be at the party, does she mean that literally the world’s population of 6.6 billion people will be there? Of course she does not. She is intentionally exaggerating to make a point. When a teacher explains to his class that “everybody” knows who the first president of the United States was, does the teacher believe all toddlers can correctly answer the question? No. Once again, the teacher is simply using a well-understood figure of speech to convey a point.

In a similar way, the Bible uses hyperbole on numerous occasions. Take John 4:39 as an example. In this passage, a Samaritan woman spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did” (emp. added). Had Jesus really told that woman everything that she had ever done in her life? No, she was using hyperbole to make her point.

In that article, I was only dealing with hyperbole (or, exaggeration): which is but one (though very common) Hebrew non-literal “technique.” The point is that there are many instances where biblical language is not literal, and was never intended to be. The culture at the time understood that, just as we do, today: per the analogies provided in the previous cited paragraph. But somehow many atheists and other biblical skeptics forget all this when they approach the Bible, and all of a sudden everything is interpreted literally. Thus, the Bible (so they think) “obviously” contains many glaring contradictions.

Bob, oblivious to all these explanations, responded to a Christian in the combox of this paper of his, who pointed out to him that sound explanations do exist: “These verses all have bull&%*$ explanations. To see this, explain them yourself and see how convincing they are.” That’s the level he’s at. He knows everything about the Bible, and apparently feels that he can learn nothing. Like I made note of above: I hate to bust his bubble, but folks have to visit [biblical] reality at some point. We can’t all dwell in a mere fantasy land like children often do. Bob will have to realize and acknowledge his own massive ignorance and prejudice (per Socrates’ sage advice) in order to truly learn about the Bible and Christianity.

As it is, his anti-Bible and anti-Christian arguments are relentlessly stupid and ignorant, and one tires of having to explain elementary things relating to literary genre over and over. I hate to be so crass and blunt, but I mean this literally (not figuratively!), and I sure know what I’m talking about, having now directly refuted his nonsense 33 times. Atheists like Bible-Basher Bob are, in effect, trying to do trigonometry or calculus, when they haven’t even gotten their basic arithmetic and times tables mastered.

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Photo credit: [PublicDomainPictures.NetCC0 Public Domain]

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