Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Recognizing Our Limitations

An anthropomorphism is the attribution of human motivation, characteristics or behavior to that which is not human; in The American Heritage Dictionary, an inanimate object, an animal or some natural phenomenon.

The Bible is full of such figures of speech. One psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God ... day to day pours out speech.” Another records, “The mountains skipped like rams.”

Conscious and Subconscious Translation

Because most of us have read poetry, we have little difficulty with this concept when we encounter it either in secular literature or in Holy Writ. Most of us do a little conscious or subconscious translation in the back of our heads when we read these verses and conclude that they mean to say, in the first instance, that the glory of God is so patently evident in creation that it may as well have been expressed in words. You cannot possibly miss the glory of God in creation unless there is something very wrong with your heart, as Paul will go on to affirm in the first chapter of Romans. In the second case, we conclude that the presence of the Lord among his people was so powerful as to transform the natural world around the Israelites and cause it to behave in ways it otherwise would not. So the stars did not actually talk, the mountains did not actually do a little dance, and the writers of scripture are not claiming they did.

For some this process of unpacking less-familiar figures of speech in order to discern their meaning is more instantaneous than others, but we all get there eventually. Where we start to disagree about intended meaning is when the writers of scripture use anthropomorphisms about God. It is unwise to draw sweeping theological conclusions from a figure of speech, but that is often what happens when we fail to recognize anthropomorphisms for what they are.

When God ‘Repents’

A frequently cited example is that of God “repenting”, as he does in the King James translation of Genesis 6:6. Now we know God does not literally “repent” of anything in the same sense that human beings do. The scriptures state this plainly: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.” Nevertheless, failing to recognize the use of anthropomorphism by the writer of Genesis, some literal-minded folks insist that repenting means that God failed to foresee the results of his actions, making him not only not omniscient, but defective at planning.

We know these to be false theological conclusions, but it’s sometimes difficult to make that point to people who keep repeating, “But it says ... it says ...” The fact is, it is impossible for human language to give full expression to thought processes infinitely more complex than our own. Even attempting to be extremely precise about how God thinks becomes for us such an exercise in technical language that if the writers of scripture were to replace every anthropomorphism they use with a fully-developed theological explanation, the consequent spate of “theo-splaining” would overwhelm the narrative and distract us from the lessons the passage was intended to convey.

In fact, sorrow and regret are also components of human repentance and acceptable synonyms for the Hebrew nacham (“repented”). The word has such a broad range of meanings even when used with respect to human beings that some modern translations simply replace “repent” with “regret” and eliminate the problem altogether. It is quite possible for a thing to be both regrettable and necessary, even preferable to the alternative.

Nitpicking and Fussiness

None of this nitpicking is necessary, however, if we simply recognize a figure of speech for what it is and don’t try to make it say more than it was intended to. We should not expect excessive theological fussiness from a historical passage. We will not get it.

Another anthropomorphic passage is found in Psalm 102, which I discussed at length in yesterday’s post. Verse 25 of that psalm reads:
“Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.”
The first problem is that spirits do not have hands, and God is spirit, as the Lord Jesus himself declared. He should know. An eternal spirit may indeed take physical form and use his hands as a human being might, but this is not what happened in creation, as both Testaments tell us. In Genesis 1 we read repeatedly the words, “And God said”. God spoke, and “it came to be”, as the psalmist asserts. The book of Hebrews says this: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God.”

So then, Psalm 102:25 is not technically fastidious in the way that some readers might like, but then it is not intended to be. The writer has simply used a very common figure of speech to tell us in five words rather than fifty that the level of care used in the original creative process was as precise as a series of choices made by a fine craftsman.

The Real Questions Raised

Observing the use of anthropomorphism in scripture is actually kind of liberating. In the poetic, historical and prophetic passages of scripture, it frees us up to ask ourselves questions like “In what ways were God’s emotions about the human race similar to human repentance?” or “In what sense was God’s creative process like ours?” rather than becoming sidetracked by errant theology that is corrected elsewhere in scripture plainly and unambiguously. The answers to such questions about God will never be “exactly like us”. We are made in the image of God, but we are not gods, and cannot possibly imagine that we are capable of perfectly understanding or expressing the Divine mind, purposes or process. The sooner we recognize the limitations of our own understanding, the more comfortable we will become with the way the writers of scripture express truth.

The alternative is contradiction and confusion, both of which are unnecessary.

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