What is Anthropomorphism?

What is Anthropomorphism? March 28, 2011

LDS are often ardent defenders of biblical anthropomorphism, decrying not only the later theological tendency to abstract God in the Jewish and Christian traditions, but also to disparage the tendencies of biblical authors themselves who represent anti-anthropomorphic traditions. But, is biblical (and pre-biblical) anthropomorphism really something that we want to get behind, or do we mean something different by it?

The LDS anthropomorphic tradition is admittedly extreme in certain ways. We not only think that God is similar to human beings, but actually was one at some point in his history. We also depict God as engaged in a primordial battle, a very anthropomorphic thing to do, for human souls. When we say that we believe in an anthropomorphic deity, we tend to mean things like human form, perhaps some kinds of human emotions, like love and even grief, and of course a genealogical connection to human beings. This kind of anthropomorphism bears some similarities to ancient forms of anthropomorphic deities, including those in the biblical tradition, but is also quite different.

Biblical anthropomorphism generally depicted God as engaged in the full gamut of human emotions and behaviors. Of course, that means jealousy and anger, and not the righteous kind. This God changes his mind, and not just because he is persuaded, but because he decides that his creation is a mistake and needs to start over. He walks around in gardens and forms human beings out of dirt, and not in a symbolic way as our own anti-anthropomorphic tradition has presented the story. It also included things like seeing Yahweh as physically large.

It is not the case that there is a unified anthropomorphic view of God in the OT that gets subdued by later writers. Biblical writers themselves are wrestling with this heritage and working against it. The author P is one of the most notable examples, comparing Gen 1 to Gen 2-3 reveals a completely different conception of divine anthropomoprhism. Furthermore, anti-anthropomorphic tendencies in the OT stress many traits that LDS’s often uphold, including 1. God’s supreme power; 2. God’s ontological priority over rival deities; and 3. God’s consistency.

I am aware that the finite theology movement among LDS thinkers has sought to revive some of these aspects of divine anthropomophism as expressing some fundamental truths about divine-human relations, and have offered some important critiques of philosophical theology. This post is not meant as a critique of those intellectual moves. Rather, my concern is with uncritically embracing the anthropomorphism represented in biblical texts, and simultaneously rejecting the anti-anthropomorphic tendencies of biblical and post-biblical writers. They too had important critiques of much of the archaic depictions of deity that preceded them. This is especially necessary given the significant differences that LDS concepts of deity have from ancient ones with respect to divine origins.

Perhaps some of the problem with our thinking about biblical anthropomorphism has been an acceptance of the term “anthropomorphism” as the issue that is at stake. Really, the term is a misnomer for LDS theology, where God does not have the semblance of humanity, but God is literally a human being. Perhaps this language does not equip us with the adequate resources for addressing this issue, precisely because it already presumes that God and humans are different. Uncritical praising of biblical anthropomorphism is a rather rocky ground on which to build a theology. Perhaps it is the Chalcedonian language, or at least the language that was rejected at Chalcedon, that is more adequate: God is homoiousia with humans, not anthropomorphic.

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