Chapter Ten: “Don’t Biblical Anthropomorphisms Legitimize Making Images of God?”

We know that the New Testament reveals God anthropomorphically: the Incarnation is the perfect and complete anthropomorphism. Now that God has revealed Himself in the form of a man does this not justify using forms of a man to represent God?

We might assume that God gave the second commandment in the Old Testament because He had not yet revealed Himself anthropomorphically. But we may not be aware that the Old Testament very extensively also reveals God anthropomorphically.

The Old Testament often attributes human organs and characteristics (anthropomorphisms) to God. This did not justify making images of those shapes and giving those images the name of God.

The amazing thing is the way the entire Bible uses (in both the Old and New Testaments) such anthropomorphisms to represent God, and yet maintains such a clear distinction between them and any images that might be made of them to represent God or the aspect of God which they represent.

The Bible Uses So Many Anthropomorphisms

The Bible uses so many anthropomorphisms in such a natural way to refer to God that it would be easy to conclude that God is a man—or a rock or a chicken. Obviously, we must accept the anthropomorphisms if we accept the Bible seriously as an inspired book. If relative frequency of mention indicates relative importance, the anthropomorphic concepts of God are very important. They serve a very important place in God’s revelation of Himself to man.

Following are some of the anthropomorphic references to God in the Bible. These references in the first list are based on the analogy of the human body. The references are not exhaustive but serve as examples. (The following lists of anthropomorphisms are based on material provided by Herman Bavinck in The Doctrine of God.)

Human Body Anthropomorphisms
countenance Ex. 33:20, 23

Ps. 16:11

Ps. 4:6
face Matt. 18:10
eye Ps. 32:8
eyes Ps. 11:4
eyelids Ps. 11:4
ear Ps. 55:1
nose Dt. 8:3
mouth Dt. 8:3
lips Job 11:5
tongue Isa. 30:27
neck Jer. 18:17
arms Ex. 15:16
hand Num. 11:23
right hand Ex. 15:16
finger Ex. 8:19
heart Gen. 6:6
bosom Ps. 74:11
foot Isa. 66:1
Human Emotions Ascribed to God Also Are Plentiful in The Bible.

We might notice the unusual phrase “the sounding of his bowels” referring to the “yearning of his heart” (Isa. 63:15; Jer. 31:20). Other human emotions referred to God include the following:
joy Isa. 62:5
love (many references)
rejoicing Isa. 65:19
grief Gen. 6:6

Ps. 78:40

Isa. 63:10
anger Jer. 7:18, 19
fear Dt. 32:27
jealousy Ex. 20:5

Dt. 32:21
hatred Isa. 16:2
wrath Ps. 2:5
vengeance Dt. 32:35
Human Actions Which The Bible Attributes to God Involve Such Actions As:
knowing Gen. 18:21
trying (testing) Ps. 7:9
thinking Gen. 50:20
forgetting 1 Sam. 1:11
remembering Gen. 8:11

Ex. 2:24
speaking Gen. 2:16
calling Rom. 4:17
commanding Isa 5:6
rebuking Ps. 18:15

Ps. 104:17
answering Ps. 3:4
witnessing Mal. 2:14
resting Gen. 2:2
working Jn. 5:17
seeing Gen. 1:10
hearing Ex. 2:24
smelling Gen. 8:21
tasting Ps. 11:4, 5
sitting Ps. 9:7
rising Ps. 68:1
going Ex. 34:9
coming Ex. 25:22
walking Lev. 26:12
descending Gen. 11:5
meeting Ex. 3:18
visiting Gen. 21:1
passing Ex. 12:13
writing Ex. 34:1
sealing Jn. 6:27
engraving Isa. 49:16
chastening Dt. 8:5
punishing Job 5:17
binding up wounds Ps. 147:3
& healing Dt. 32:39
forgiving Ps. 103:3
killing Dt. 32:39
wiping away tears Isa. 25:8
washing Ps. 41:2
anointing Ps. 2:6
cleaning Ps. 51:2
decking with ornaments Ezek. 16:11
clothing (with) Ps. 132:16
crowning Ps. 8:5
girding with strength Ps. 18:32
destroying Gen.6:7
laying waste (making a waste) Lev. 26:31
plaguing Gen. 6:7
judging Ps. 58:11
condemning Job 10:2
God speaks of His having a spirit (Gen. 1:2), and He speaks of His soul. There is no mention in the Bible of His having a body, except in Christ (John 1:14), and there are references to the church being the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22; Col. 2:17).

God is Often Called by Certain Names That Indicate He Holds Various Offices, Professions, or Relationships as a Man Among Men.
bridegroom Isa. 61:10
husband Isa. 54:5
father Dt. 32:6
judge Isa. 33:22
king Isa. 33:22
lawgiver Isa. 33:22
man of war Ex. 15:3
hero Ps. 78:65

Zeph. 3:17
builder(architect) and maker Heb. 11:10
farmer Jn. 15:1
shepherd Ps. 23:1
physician Ex. 15:26
The Bible speaks of God using and possessing such tools and objects, furniture, weapons, and wealth as a man might be expected to use. These include:
Furthermore, in Addition to Being Like a Man Among Men, the Bible Compares God to Organic and Inorganic Material from the Created Universe.

These terms, such as in the following list, are used to show what God is to His people.

Here, the figure of a man to represent God is clearly inappropriate. The image of God becomes an animal or sun or star or some other natural object.
lion Isa. 31:4
eagle Dt. 32:11
lamb Isa. 53:7
hen Mt. 23:37
sun Ps. 84:11
morning star Rev. 22:16
light Ps. 27:1
torch Rev. 21:23
fire Heb. 12:29
fountain Ps. 36:9

Jer. 2:13
food, bread, water, drink, ointment Isa. 55:1

Jn. 4:10

Jn. 6:35, 55
rock Dt. 32:4
hiding place Ps. 119:114
tower Prov. 18:10
refuge Ps. 9:9
shadow Ps. 91:1;

Ps. 121:5
shield Ps. 84:11
way Jn. 14:6
temple Rev. 21:22
Conclusions: Anthropomorphisms Do Not Change God’s Unpictureable Nature

The Bible so amazingly and so remarkably develops the revelation of God to man through anthropomorphisms that to look only at the evidence that He is revealed anthropomorphically would be very convincing evidence that God is monistically united with the universe, possibly in a pantheistic way.

But the remarkable thing is that these anthropomorphisms do not negate or set aside the other theme, previously surveyed in this study, that shows how God vigorously opposed permitting anyone to make an image of any such anthropomorphic form to represent Him. Both truths stand securely side by side in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. On one hand, it is clear that God has spoken anthropomorphically: a way (the only way) that we can understand. But on the other hand, it is also clear that the Bible never allows us to make an image of any of those anthropomorphisms.

Bibliographic References & Notes

Augustine, “De Viv. Dei,” x 13: quoted by G. A. Chadwick, “The Book of Exodus,” in The Expositor’s Bible, p. 373.

We need not be surprised that God, invisible as He is, appeared visibly to the patriarchs. For, as the sound which communicates the thought conceived in the silence of the mind is not the thought itself, so the form by which God, invisible in His own nature, became visible, was not God Himself. Nevertheless, it was He, Himself who was seen under that form, as the thought itself is heard in the sound of the voice; and the patriarchs recognized that, although the bodily form was not God, they saw the invisible God. For though Moses was conversing with God, yet he said, “If I have found grace in Thy sight, show me Thyself.”

Bavinck, Herman. The Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), pp. 87-88.

Calvin said that when the Bible uses anthropomorphisms God is talking “baby-talk” to accommodate His language to man’s limited infantile ability to understand. Calvin cites Isa. 55:8 as the test of getting clear of improper use of anthropomorphisms.

Chadwick, G. A. “The Book of Exodus,” The Expositors Bible, p. 374.

“Anthropomorphism is a heresy, although the Incarnation is the crowning doctrine of the faith.”

Hume, David, “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” Knowledge and Value (Harcourt & Brace). David Hume showed what can happen when people absolutize anthropomorphic concepts of God. Hume attacked analogical arguments for God, and he identified analogy with anthropomorphic concepts of God. He argues that anthropomorphisms lead to:
(1) idea of many gods,

(2) idea of male and female gods,

(3) idea that God must be perfectly anthropomorphic: “to be corporeal, and to have eyes, a nose, mouth, ears, etc.” Hume concludes: From the moment the attributes of the Deity are supposed finite, all these have place. And 1 cannot, for my part, think that so wild and unsettled a system of theology is, in any respect, preferable to none at all.”
(Note that the lord rebuked such anthropomorphisms (Ps. 50:21): “Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself:”

Avoiding the use of anthropomorphic images to represent God helps the world avoid the skepticism of David Hume.)

Miskotte, When the Gods Are Silent (London: Collins, 1967). p. 162.

Lists many different anthropomorphisms for God in the Bible, including a fire, a lion, a bear, a moth, a house, a fortress, a farmer, a husband.