Figurative Descriptions of God

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py3ak

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This topic has come up in several discussions on the PB this year: I think for a lot of us it's a little out of the way, so I thought having a resource thread on the topic might be a good idea. I'll give a little initial explanation, and then we can all post good quotes on the matter as we come across them. If you have any questions about this you can ask on here, but I would really like to keep this thread a helpful general resource, so if you want to argue some point please start a spin-off thread.

Scripture sometimes describes God in terms appropriate to humans physically, which is anthropomorphism (Deuteronomy 5:15) or mentally, which is anthropopathism (Judges 10:16). Such passages are usually interpreted figuratively, as describing God in terms that belong to humanity: thus God's power can be described as His outstretched arm, and renewed activity on behalf of His people can be described as Him remembering (Genesis 8:1). (I should also point out for the sake of clarity that this use of anthropomorphism takes it as a particular kind of metaphor: the word is sometimes used in different ways as well.)

Why not just take them literally? Is it just that it offends our sensibilities to think of God forgetting? The rationale for seeing this figure in the Bible is that Scripture itself forces us to adopt this procedure. Consider the following verses:

Psalm 78:65
Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine.​

Psalm 121:4
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.​

Here we have awaking from sleep and not sleeping both predicated of God. They can't both be true, at the same time, and in the same way: that would be contradictory. So we interpret God waking up as being a description of a change in His actions, similar to the change in actions of a man who wakes up, while understanding that God never sleeps.

Why not the other way around? Because only one way makes sense: if we take the descriptions of God as sleeping, forgetting, etc., as figurative, we can understand the statements which say that He does none of them; but if we turn it around, we can make sense of neither. Negating a figure doesn't actually convey any information at all: however, when a positive comparison is made between some aspect of man and God it makes sense to qualify that comparison by denying the imperfection in the analogy. This causes us to raise our mind above unworthy conceptions of God, while retaining the positive data from the figure. And so we can see that God's actions changed, while not thinking that He actually fell asleep.

This is also what we must do in the times when repentance is attributed to God, since it is also denied that God repents ([KJV]Genesis 6:5-7[/KJV]; [KJV]Numbers 23:19[/KJV]; [KJV]1 Samuel 15:10,11,28,29,35[/KJV]). We can see that His treatment of men changes, while there is no change in His will.

The logical next step is to extend the principle. So when we see that things of a certain kind are attributed to God only in a figurative way (because those things are also said not to belong to God, which can't be figurative), the result is that we understand that all the things in that category are attributed to God only figuratively. Scripture itself has led us to conclude that God isn't grieved as we understand grief, but that His procedure changes in much the same way as ours does when we are grieved.
 

py3ak

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Augustine and Aquinas

Here are short quotes from before the Reformation that set out the matter pretty well.

Augustine, City of God, Book 17, Chapter 5
But where God says, “Who will do all that is in mine heart and in my soul,” we must not think that God has a soul, for He is the Author of souls; but this is said of God tropically, not properly, just as He is said to have hands and feet, and other corporal members. And, lest it should be supposed from such language that man in the form of this flesh is made in the image of God, wings also are ascribed to Him, which man has not at all; and it is said to God, “Hide me under the shadow of Thy wings,” that men may understand that such things are said of that ineffable nature not in proper but in figurative words.

Augustine, City of God, Book 17, Chapter 7
But that division with which God threatened the kingdom and people in the person of Saul, who represented them, is shown to be eternal and unchangeable by this which is added, “And He will not be changed, neither will He repent: for He is not as a man, that He should repent; who threatens and does not persist,” — that is, a man threatens and does not persist, but not God, who does not repent like man. For when we read that He repents, a change of circumstance is meant, flowing from the divine immutable foreknowledge. Therefore, when God is said not to repent, it is to be understood that He does not change.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Q.19, Art. 7, RO 1 (referencing Genesis 6:7)
These words of the Lord are to be understood metaphorically, and according to the likeness of our nature. For when we repent, we destroy what we have made; although we may even do so without change of will; as, when a man wills to make a thing at the same intending to destroy it later. Therefore God is said to have repented, by way of comparison with our mode of acting, in so far as by the deluge He destroyed from the face of the earth man whom He had made.
 

Prufrock

Arbitrary Moderation
Ruben has provided some pre-Reformation quotes; what follows are Reformation era quotes. Perhaps later some explanation of the Post-Reformation period of orthodoxy can be provided.

This first quote from Vermigli demonstrates what he understood to be the commonly held teaching of the day:
So when it is said that God waxed angry, it is not so to be understood as though God were troubled with affects; for that belongeth unto men: but according to the common and received exposition of these places, we understand it that God behaved himself like unto men that be angry. ... Wherefore, God, either to repent, or to be angry, is nothing else, but that he doth those things which men repenting or being angry are wont to do. (Loci Communes, Part. 1, ch. 12, p.109)
Also, to confirm Ruben's explanation above as to why one must be understood figuratively, here is Vermigli several chapters later:
The interpreters labor earnestly to understand how repentance by happen unto God. For God saith, "I am God, and am not changed." And in the first of Samuel, "The triumpher of Israel is not changed." And Balaam in the book of Numbers saith, "God is not as man, that he should be changed: neither as the the sonne of man that he should be a liar." Yet in Genesis, he saith, "It repenteth me that I have made man." Forasmuch as these places seem to be repugnant, they must be accorded together..

Which he reconciles by the distinction between the secret and revealed will of God:
But in my judgment, we shall more easily understand what this phrase of God's repenting betokeneth, if we remember that his secret will is one, and his revealed will another: for the secret will of God is steadfast and immutable. Therefore, insomuch as it is said, "God is not changed," that ought to be referred to his secret will. God decreed from the beginning that Saul should be king. That is his eternal and stable will, and without the which nothing is done. But he does not always reveal the same full and wholly; it is enough that he sheweth some part thereof through the law and the prophets. That will may be changed; not that there can any mutation happen unto God, but because that may be changed, which men thought would have continued forever. (ibid., Part 1, ch. 18, p.206-208)

Authors from this period could be multiplied; so for brevity's sake, here is Calvin on Gen. 6:6:
The repentance which is here ascried to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sake, he should, in a certain sense, transfrom himself. That repentance cannot take place is God, easily appears from this single consideration, that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen. The same reasoning and remark applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose; but because it could not otherwise be known how great is God's hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accomodates himself to our capacity.
 

py3ak

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Calvin

Thanks for the Vermigli, Paul. I found the quotations of him in Muller's PRRD on this topic to be very helpful.

Calvin addresses this issue multiple times, and always comes up with the same conclusion. Here is a sampling.

John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 6:6
The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sakes he should, in a certain sense, transform himself. That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single considerations that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen. The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity. Wherefore, there is no need for us to involve ourselves in thorny and difficult questions, when it is obvious to what end these words of repentance and grief are applied; namely, to teach us, that from the time when man was so greatly corrupted, God would not reckon him among his creatures; as if he would say, ‘This is not my workmanship; this is not that man who was formed in my image, and whom I had adorned with such excellent gifts: I do not deign now to acknowledge this degenerate and defiled creature as mine.’ Similar to this is what he says, in the second place, concerning grief; that God was so offended by the atrocious wickedness of men, as if they had wounded his heart with mortal grief: There is here, therefore, an unexpressed antithesis between that upright nature which had been created by God, and that corruption which sprung from sin. Meanwhile, unless we wish to provoke God, and to put him to grief, let us learn to abhor and to flee from sin. Moreover, this paternal goodness and tenderness ought, in no slight degree, to subdue in us the love of sin; since God, in order more effectually to pierce our hearts, clothes himself with our affections. This figure, which represents God as transferring to himself what is peculiar to human nature, is called anthropopatheia.

John Calvin, Harmony of the Law, v.1 - On Exodus 2:24
How far remembrance is possible with God, we must learn from its contrary. God is said to forget when he does not really and openly appear, and stretch forth his hand to help; therefore, when we say he “remembers,” we mark our apprehension of his aid; and both expressions have relation to effect. In the same way he is said “to behold,” and its opposite, “to turn his back,” because we then perceive that he beholds us when he actually succours us.

John Calvin, Commentary on Malachi 3:6
Here the Prophet more clearly reproves and checks the impious waywardness of the people; for God, after having said that he would come and send a Redeemer, though not such as would satisfy the Jews, now claims to himself what justly belongs to him, and says that he changes not, because he is God. Under the name Jehovah, God reasons from his own nature; for he sets himself, as we have observed in our last lecture, in opposition to mortals; nor is it a wonder that God here disclaims all inconsistency, since the impostor Balaam was constrained to celebrate God’s immutable constancy —
“For he is not God,” he says, “who changes,” or varies, “like man.”
(Numbers 23:19.)
We now then understand the force of the words, I am Jehovah. But he adds as an explanation, I change not, or, I am not changed; for if we do not take the verb actively, the meaning is the same, — that God continues in his purpose, and is not turned here and there like men who repent of a purpose they have formed, because what they had not thought of comes to their mind, or because they wish undone what they have performed, and seek new ways by which they may retrace their steps. God denies that anything of this kind can take place in him, for he is Jehovah, and changes not, or is not changed.

I realized I should have added an explanation, that though the comments on Malachi 3:6 don't speak of anthropopathisms as such, yet Calvin understands that in saying that God does not change Malachi uses an argument from God's nature. Metaphorical expressions in Scripture can never be pressed so to be taken as teaching something unworthy of God.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.13,1
The doctrine of Scripture concerning the immensity and the spirituality of the essence of God, should have the effect not only of dissipating the wild dreams of the vulgar, but also of refuting the subtleties of a profane philosophy. One of the ancients thought he spake shrewdly when he said that everything we see and everything we do not see is God, (Senec. Praef. lib. 1 Quaest. Nat.) In this way he fancied that the Divinity was transfused into every separate portion of the world. But although God, in order to keep us within the bounds of soberness, treats sparingly of his essence, still, by the two attributes which I have mentioned, he at once suppresses all gross imaginations, and checks the audacity of the human mind. His immensity surely ought to deter us from measuring him by our sense, while his spiritual nature forbids us to indulge in carnal or earthly speculation concerning him. With the same view he frequently represents heaven as his dwelling-place. It is true, indeed, that as he is incomprehensible, he fills the earth also, but knowing that our minds are heavy and grovel on the earth, he raises us above the worlds that he may shake off our sluggishness and inactivity. And here we have a refutation of the error of the Manichees, who, by adopting two first principles, made the devil almost the equal of God. This, assuredly, was both to destroy his unity and restrict his immensity. Their attempt to pervert certain passages of Scripture proved their shameful ignorance, as the very nature of the error did their monstrous infatuation. The Anthropomorphites also, who dreamed of a corporeal God, because mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet, are often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.
 
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py3ak

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Trapp

Here's a short, very stylish statement about the matter.

John Trapp, A Clavis to the Bible (On Genesis 6:6)
These things are spoken of God, anthropopathos, after the manner of men; but must be taken and understood theoprepos, as it beseemeth God. When Repentance is attributed to God (saith Mr. Perkins) it noteth only the alteration of things and actions done by him, and no change of his purpose and secret decree, which is immutable. God's repentance (saith another learned Divine [Gataker-RZ]) is not a change of his will, but of his work: Repentance with man, is the changing of his will: Repentance with God, is the willing of a change: Mutatio rei, non Dei; effectus, non affectus; facti, non consilii.
 

Michael Doyle

Puritan Board Junior
Hardly a scholar on the matter, nonetheless here was some impressionable material I had just read.


Herman Bavinck
Reformed Dogmatics
Volume II God and Creation
Chapter 3 section 179:
The entire creation, all of nature with all its [diverse] kingdoms, but especially the human world, is mined in scripture for the description of the knowledge of God. Almost no limit is set to the use of anthropomorphic language. All creatures, animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, furnish names with which to somewhat bring home to us the greatness of God. Although nameless within Himself, in His revelation God posses many names. "All things can be said of God," writes Augustine, "but nothing can be said worthily of Him. Nothings is more widespread than this poverty [of expression].
 

py3ak

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Turretin

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (the numbers refer to Topic, Question, and Paragraph - transliterations have been omitted)

III.10,VII
The three difference of time are applied to God when he is called "the one who is, and was and is to come" (Rev. 1:4). This is not formally, but eminently and after the manner of men, to describe (if possible) in this manner the eternity of God. This is not done dividedly as if they might be predicated of him successively, but undividedly because the eternity of God embraces all time at once. Hence the past is affirmed without the negation of the present and the future, and the present is asserted, but without the negation of the past and the future. "Although," says Augustine, "that immutable and ineffable nature does not admit of he was or will be, but only of he is, yet on account of the mutability of time, with which our mortality and mutability is concerned, we may say without error, he is, was, and will be. He was in the past ages, he is in the present, he will be in the future. He was because he never was not; he will be because he will never cease to be; he is because he always is" (Tractate 99, On the Gospel of John).

III. 11, XI
Repentance is attributed to God after the manner of men but must be understood after the manner of God: not with respect to his counsel, but to the event; not in reference to his will, but to the thing willed; not to affection and internal grief, but to the effect and external work because he does what a penitent man usually does. If repentance concerning the creation of man (which he could not undo) is ascribed to God (Genesis 6:6,7), it must be understood not pathetically, but energetically. Although he could not by a non-creation undo what he had done, yet by a destruction he could produce change.

III. 12, XXVII
Although God testifies that he willed to go down and see whether the cry of Sodom that came to him was true (Gen. 18:21), it does not follow that he was ignorant of the nature and degree of the impiety of that city before. He had already said, "The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great." But this is said after the manner of men to intimate that he performs the part of a good and exact Judge, and neither pronounces nor executes anything rashly (as an accurate judge inquires on the spot into the thing itself to avoid precipitate action).

IV. 2, IX
Although God changes his dispensation towards men in time, either for good or for evil, it does not follow that the decree itself is changed or is made only in time because this very change was decreed even from eternity. Rather these things, said in accommodation to men, ought to be understood in a manner becoming God; not with respect to a change in God, but with respect to a change in his works. Thus the following passages are understood: Jer. 18:10; 31:28; Deut. 28:63.

V. 10, V [Speaking of what the image of God in which Adam was created is not]
Nor does it consist in any figure of the body or external bearing in which man resembles God (the delirium of the Anthropomorphites of old). For although we do not think that every relation of that image should altogether be denied of the body and see some rays of it glittering there, whether we regard man's immortality of which his body is also in its own manner a partaker; or that majesty of bearing which Ovid thus elegantly expresses, "Whilst other animals look downwards upon the earth, he gave man a lofty face, and ordered him to look at heaven, and lift his countenance towards the stars" (Metamorphoses 1.85); or attend to the admirable structure, symmetry and use of the organic body and all its members; still it is certain that image shone in the body not so much formally as consequently and effectively (inasmuch as both the figure of man itself and the majesty resulting from it testify to the power of man over the rest of creatures, and thus of his having a soul fitted for contemplation and knowledge; and thus the proper seat of the divine image is the soul and not the body). If human members are attributed to God in the Scriptures, it does not therefore follow that the image is to be placed properly in these, since they are ascribed to him after the manner of men and must be understood in a manner becoming God not formally and properly, but figuratively and analogically.
 

py3ak

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Gill

John Gill also takes up the majority position on these figurative descriptions.

Exposition of the Old and New Testaments - On Judges 10:16
"...and his soul was grieved for the misery of Israel."
Which is to be understood after the manner of men; for grief properly does not belong to God, there being no passion in him; but it denotes a carriage or behaviour of his, which shows what looks like sympathy in men; a love and affection for Israel, notwithstanding their ill behaviour to him, and a change of his dispensations Providence towards them, according to his unchangeable will; so Maimonides understands it of the good will and pleasure of God, to cease from afflicting the people of Israel....

Exposition of the Old and New Testaments - On 1 Samuel 15:11
"It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king, etc."
Which is not to be understood of any change of mind, counsel, purpose, or decree in God, which is not consistent with his unchangeable nature; but of a change of dispensation, and outward dealings, and is spoken after the manner of men, who, when they repent of anything, change the course of their conduct and behaviour; and so the Lord does without any change of his mind and will, which alters not; and though he changes the outward dispensations of his providence, yet he never changes and alters in the matters and methods of his grace; though he repented he made Saul king, he never repents of his making his saints kings and priests for himself; his outward gifts he sometimes takes away, as an earthly crown and kingdom; but his gifts and calling, which are of special grace, are without repentance.

A Complete Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Book 1, Chapter 4
It is no objection to this, that the parts of an human body are sometimes attributed to God; since these are to be understood of him not in a proper, but in an improper and figurative sense, and denote some act and action, or attribute of his; thus his face denotes his sight and presence, in which all things are, Genesis 19:13 sometimes his favour and good will, and the manifestation of his love and grace, Psalm 27:8; Psalm 80:3 and sometimes his wrath and indignation against wicked men, Psalm 34:16 ; Revelation 6:17. His “eyes” signify his omniscience and all-seeing providence; concerned both with good men, to protect and preserve them, and bestow good things on them; and with bad men, to destroy them, Proverbs 15:3; 2 Chronicles 16:9; Amos 9:8. His “ears”, his readiness to attend unto, and answer the requests of his people, and deliver them out of their troubles, Psalm 34:15; Isaiah 59:1. His nose and nostrils, his acceptance of the persons and sacrifices of men, Genesis 8:21 or his disgust at them, anger with them, and non-acceptance of them, Deuteronomy 29:20; Isaiah 65:5; Psalm 18:8. His mouth is expressive of his commands, promises, threatenings, and prophecies delivered out by him, Lamentations 3:29; Isaiah 1:20; Jeremiah 23:16. His “arms” and “hands” signify his power, and the exertion of it, as in making the heavens and the earth, and in other actions of his, Psalm 102:27; Job 26:13; Psalm 89:13 118:16; Deuteronomy 33:27.

A Complete Body of Doctrinal Divinity, Book 1, Chapter 5
Nor is the unchangeableness of God in his word, whether in a way of promise or threatening, to be disproved by repentance being ascribed to him, which is to be taken in a limited sense, for in some sense it is absolutely denied of him, Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29. When it is spoken of him, it is to be understood improperly and figuratively, after the manner of men, he doing like what men do, when they repent, that is, undo what they have done; as a potter, when he does not like a vessel he has made, breaks it to pieces: so when it repented God that he had made man on earth, and Saul king, Genesis 6:6; 1 Samuel 15:11 he destroyed man from off the earth, whom he had created; and took away the kingdom from Saul and his family, and gave it to another: in doing which he did not change his mind, but his operations and providences, and that according to his unchangeable will.
 

py3ak

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Owen

John Owen discusses the matter with accustomed thoroughness.

Vindiciae Evangelicae, Chapter 3
Because the Scripture speaks of the eyes and ears, nostrils and arms of the Lord, and of man being made afar his likeness, if any one shall conclude that he sees, hears, smells, and hath the shape of a man, he must, upon the same reason, conclude that he hath the shape of a lion, of an eagle, and is like a drunken man, because in Scripture he is compared to them, and so of necessity make a monster of him, and worship a chimera. Nay, the Scripture plainly interprets itself as to these attribution unto God. His arm is not an arm of flesh, 2 Chronicles 32:8. Neither are his eyes of flesh, neither seeth he as man seeth, Job 10:4. Nay, the highest we can pretend to (which is our way of understanding), though it hath some resemblance of him, yet falls it infinitely short of a likeness or equality with him.
And the Holy Ghost himself gives a plain interpretation of his own intendment in such expressions: for whereas, Luke 11:20, our Savior says that he “with the finger of God cast out devils;” Matthew 12:28, he affirms that he did it “by the Spirit of God,” intending the same thing. It neither is nor can righteously be required that we should produce any place of Scripture expressly affirming that God hath no shape, nor hands, nor eyes, as we have, no more than it is that he is no lion or eagle. It is enough that there is that delivered of him abundantly which is altogether inconsistent with any such shape as by Mr B. is fancied, and that so eminent a difference as that now mentioned is put between his arms and eyes and ours, as manifests them to agree in some analogy of the thing signified by them, and not in an answerableness in the same kind. Wherefore I say, that the Scripture speaking of God, though it condescends to the nature and capacities of men, and speaks for the most part to the imagination (farther than which few among the sons of men were ever able to raise their cogitations), yet hath it clearly delivered to us such attributes of God as will not consist with that gross notion which this man would put upon the Godhead. The infinity and immutability of God do manifestly overthrow the conceit of a shape and form of God. Were it not a contradiction that a body should be actually infinite, yet such a body could not have a shape, such a one as he imagines. The shape of any thing is the figuration of it; the figuration is the determination of its extension towards several parts, consisting in a determined proportion of them to each other; that determination is a bounding and limiting of them: so that if it have a shape, that will be limited which was supposed to be infinite, which is a manifest contradiction. But the Scripture doth plainly show that God is infinite and immense, not in magnitude (that were a contradiction, as will appear anon) but in essence. Speaking to our fancy, it saith that “he is higher than heaven, deeper than hell,” Job 11:8; that “he fills heaven and earth,” Jeremiah 23:24; that “the heaven of heavens cannot contain him,” I Kings 8:27; and it hath many [such] expressions to shadow out the immensity of God, as was manifest in our consideration of the last query. But not content to have yielded thus to our infirmity, it delivers likewise, in plain and literal terms, the infiniteness of God: “His understanding is infinite,” Psalm 147:5; and therefore his essence is necessarily so. This is a consequence that none can deny who will consider it till he understands the terms of it, as hath Been declared. Yet, lest any should hastily apprehend that the essence of God were not therefore necessarily infinite, the Holy Ghost saith, Psalm 145:3, that “his greatness hath no end,” or is “inconceivable,” which is infinite; for seeing we can carry on our thoughts, by calculation, potentially in infinitum, — that is, whatever measure be assigned, we can continually multiply it by greater and greater numbers, as they say, in infinitum, — it is evident that there is no greatness, either of magnitude or essence, which is unsearchable or inconceivable besides that which is actually infinite. Such, therefore, is the greatness of God, in the strict and literal meaning of the Scripture; and therefore, that he should have a shape implies a contradiction. But of this so much before as I presume we may now take it for granted.

Vindiciae Evangelicae, Chapter 4
To the whole I ask, whether these things are in the Scriptures ascribed properly unto God, denoting such affections and passions in him as those in us are which are so termed? or whether they are assigned to him and spoken of him metaphorically only, in reference to his outward works and dispensations, correspondent and answering to the actings of men in whom such affections are, and under the power whereof they are in those actings? If the latter be affirmed, then as such an attribution of them unto God is eminently consistent with all his infinite perfections and blessedness, so there can be no difference about this question and the answers given thereunto, all men readily acknowledging that in this sense the Scripture doth ascribe all the affections mentioned unto God, of which we say as he of old, Tauta anthropopathos men legontai theoprepos de noountai. But this, I fear, will not serve Mr B.’s turn. The very phrase and manner of expression used in this question, the plain intimation that is in the forehead thereof of its author’s going off from the common received interpretation of these attributions unto God, do abundantly manifest that it is their proper significancy which he contends to fasten on God, and that the affections mentioned are really and properly in him as they are in us. This being evident to be his mind and intendment, as we think his anthropopathism in this query not to come short in folly and madness of his anthropomorphitism in that foregoing, so I shall proceed to the removal of this insinuation in the way and method formerly insisted on. Mr B.’s masters tell us “That these affections are vehement commotions of the will of God, whereby he is carried out earnestly to the object of his desires, or earnestly declines and abhors what falls not out gratefully or acceptably to him.” I shall first speak of them in general, and then to the particulars (some or all) mentioned by Mr B.: —
First, In general, that God is perfect and perfectly blessed, I suppose will not be denied; it cannot be but by denying that he is God. (Deuteronomy 32:4; Job 37:16; Romans 1:25, 9:5; 1 Timothy 1:11, 6:16.) He that is not perfect in himself and perfectly blessed is not God. To that which is perfect in any kind nothing is wanting in that kind. To that which is absolutely perfect nothing is wanting at all. He who is blessed is perfectly satisfied and filled, and hath no farther desire for supply. He who is blessed in himself is all-sufficient for himself. If God want or desire any thing for himself, he is neither perfect nor blessed. To ascribe, then, affections to God properly (such as before mentioned), is to deprive him of his perfection and blessedness. The consideration of the nature of these and the like affections will make this evident.
1. Affections, considered in themselves, have always an incomplete, imperfect act of the will or volition joined with them. They are something that lies between the firm purpose of the soul and the execution of that purpose. The proper actings of affections lie between these two; that is, in an incomplete, tumultuary volition. That God is not obnoxious to such volitions and incomplete actings of the will, besides the general consideration of his perfections and blessedness premised, is evident from that manner of procedure which is ascribed to him. His purposes and his works comprise all his actings. As the Lord hath purposed, so hath he done. “He worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” “Who hath known his mind? or who hath been his counsellor? Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things.” (Isaiah 14:24; Ephesians 1:11; Romans 11:33-36; Isaiah 40:18, 14.)
2. They have their dependence on that wherewith he in whom they are is affected; that is, they owe their rise and continuance to something without him in whom they are. A man’s fear ariseth from that or them of whom he is afraid; by them it is occasioned, on them it depends Whatever affects any man (that is, the stirring of a suitable affection), in all that frame of mind and soul, in all the volitions and commotions of will which so arise from thence, he depends on something without him. Yea, our being affected with something without lies at the bottom of most of our purposes and resolves Is it thus with God, with him who is I AM? Exodus 3:14. Is he in dependence upon any thing without him? Is it not a most eminent contradiction to speak of God in dependence on any other thing? Must not that thing either be God or be reduced to some other without and besides him, who is God, as the causes of all our affections are? “God is in one mind, and who can turn him? what his soul desireth, that he doeth,” Job 23:13.
3. Affections are necessarily accompanied with change and mutability; yea, he who is affected properly is really changed; yea, there is no more unworthy change or alteration than that which is accompanied with passion, as is the change that is wrought by the affections ascribed to God. A sedate, quiet, considerate alteration is far less inglorious and unworthy than that which is done in and with passion. Hitherto we have taken God upon his testimony, that he is the “LORD , and he changeth not,” Malachi 3:6; that “with him there is neither change nor shadow of turning;” — it seems, like the worms of the earth, he varieth every day.
4. Many of the affections here ascribed to God do eminently denote impotence; which, indeed, on this account, both by Socinians and Arminians, is directly ascribed to the Almighty. They make him affectionately and with commotion of will to desire many things in their own nature not impossible, which yet he cannot accomplish or bring about (of which I have elsewhere spoken); yea, it will appear that the most of the affections ascribed to God by Mr B., taken in a proper sense, are such as are actually ineffectual, or commotions through disappointments, upon the account of impotency or defect of power.

Corol. To ascribe affections properly to God is to make him weak, imperfect, dependent, changeable, and impotent.

Secondly, Let a short view be taken of the particulars, some or all of them, that Mr B. chooseth to instance in. “Anger, fury, wrath, zeal” (the same in kind, only differing in degree and circumstances), are the first he instances in; and the places produced to make good this attribution to God are, Numbers 25:3, 4; Ezekiel 5:18; Exodus 32:11, 12; Romans 1:18.
1. That mention is made of the anger, wrath, and fury of God in the Scripture is not questioned. Numbers 25:4, Deuteronomy 13:17, Joshua 7:26, Psalm 78:81, Isaiah 13:9, Deuteronomy 29:24, Judges 2:14, Psalm 74:1, 69:24, Isaiah 30:30, Lamentations 2:6, Ezekiel 5:15, Psalm 78:49, Isaiah 34:2, 2 Chronicles 28:11, Ezra 10:14, Habakkuk 3:8, 12, are farther testimonies thereof. The words also in the original, in all the places mentioned, express or intimate perturbation of mind, commotion of spirit, corporeal mutation of the parts of the body, and the like distempers of men acting under the power of that passion. The whole difference is about the intendment of the Holy Ghost in these attributions, and whether they are properly spoken of God, asserting this passion to be in him in the proper significancy of the words, or whether these things be not taken anthropopathos, and to be understood theoprepon, in such a sense as may answer the meaning of the figurative expression, assigning them their truth to the utmost, and yet to be interpreted in a suitableness to divine perfection and blessedness .
2. The anger, then, which in the Scripture is assigned to God, we say denotes two things: —
(1.) His vindictive justice, or constant and immutable will of rendering vengeance for sin. So God’s purpose of the demonstration of his justice is called his being “willing to show his wrath” or anger, Romans 9:22; so God’s anger and his judgments are placed together, Psalm 7:6; and in that anger he judgeth, verse 8, And in this sense is the “wrath of God” said to be “revealed from heaven,” Romans 1:18; that is, the vindictive justice of God against sin to be manifested in the effects of it, or the judgments sent and punishments inflicted on and throughout the world.
(2.) By anger, wrath, zeal, fury, the effects of anger are denoted: Romans 3:5, “Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance?” The words are, ho epipheron ten orgen, — “who inflicteth or bringeth anger on man;” that is, sore punishments, such as proceed from anger; that God’s vindictive justice. And Ephesians 5:6, “For these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.” Is it the passion or affection of anger in God that Mr B. talks of, that comes upon the children of disobedience? or is it indeed the effect of his justice for this sin? Thus the day of judgment is called the “day of wrath” and of “anger,” because it is the day of the “revelation of the righteous judgment of God:” Romans 2:5, “After thy hardness,” etc. In the place of Ezekiel (chap. 5:13) mentioned by Mr B., the Lord tells them he will,” cause his fury to rest upon them,” and “accomplish it upon them. I ask whether he intends this of any passion in him (and if so, how a passion in God can rest upon a man), or the judgments which for their iniquities he did inflict? We say, then, anger is not properly ascribed to God, but metaphorically, denoting partly his vindictive justice, whence all punishments flow, partly the effects of it in the punishments themselves, either threatened or inflicted, in their terror and bitterness, upon the account of what is analogous therein to our proceeding under the power of that passion; and so is to be taken in all the places mentioned by Mr B. For, —
3. Properly, in the sense by him pointed to, anger, wrath, etc, are not in God. Anger is defined by the philosopher to be, orexis meta lupes timorias phainomenes dia phainomenen oligorian, — “ desire joined with grief of that which appears to be revenge, for an appearing neglect or contempt.” To this grief, he tells you, there is a kind of pleasure annexed, arising from the vehement fancy which an angry person hath of the revenge he apprehends as future, — which, saith he, “is like the fancy of them that dream,” — and he ascribes this passion mostly to weak, impotent persona Ascribe this to God, and you leave him nothing else. There is not one property of his nature wherewith it is consistent. If he be properly and literally angry, and furious, and wrathful, he is moved, troubled, perplexed, desires revenge, and is neither blessed nor perfect. But of these things in our general reasons against the propriety of these attributions afterward.
4. Mr. B. hath given us a rule in his preface, that when any thing is ascribed to God in one place which is denied of him in another, then it is not properly ascribed to him. Now, God says expressly that “fury” or anger “is not in him,” Isaiah 27:4; and therefore it is not properly ascribed to him.
5. Of all the places where mention is made of God’s repentings, or his repentance, there is the same reason. Exodus 32:14, Genesis 6:6, 7, Judges 10:16, Deuteronomy 30:9, are produced by Mr. B. That one place of 1 Samuel 15:29, where God affirms that he “knoweth no repentance,” casts all the rest under a necessity of an interpretation suitable unto it. Of all the affections or passions which we are obnoxious to, there is none that more eminently proclaims imperfection, weakness, and want in sundry kinds, than this of repentance. If not sins, mistakes, and miscarriages (as for the most part they are), yet disappointment, grief, and trouble, are always included in it. So is it in that expression, Genesis 6:6, “It repented the L ORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” What but his mistake and great disappointment, by a failing of wisdom, foresight, and power, can give propriety to these attributions unto God? The change God was going then to work in his providence on the earth was such or like that which men do when they repent of a thing, being “grieved at the heart” for what they had formerly done. So are these things spoken of God to denote the kind of the things which he doth, not the nature of God himself; otherwise such expressions as these would suit him, whose frame of spirit and heart is so described: “Had I seen what would have been the issue of making man, I would never have done it. Would I had never been so overseen as to have engaged in such a business! What have I now got by my rashness? nothing but sorrow and grief of heart redounds to me.” And do these become the infinitely blessed God
6. Fear is added, from Deuteronomy 32:26, 27. “Fear,” saith the wise man, “is a betraying of those succours which reason offereth;” — nature’s avoidance of an impendent evil; its contrivance to flee and prevent what it abhors, being in a probability of coming upon it; a turbulent weakness. This God forbids in us, upon the account of his being our God, Isaiah 35:4; “Fear not, O worm Jacob,” etc, chap. 41:14. Everywhere he asserts fear to be unfit for them who depend on him and his help, who is able in a moment to dissipate, scatter, and reduce to nothing, all the causes of their fear. And if there ought to be no fear where such succor is ready at hand, sure there is none in Him who gives it. Doubtless, it were much better to exclude the providence of God out of the world than to assert him afraid properly and directly of future events. The schools say truly, “Quod res sunt futurae, a voluntate Dei est (effectiva vel permissiva).” How, then, can God be afraid of what he knows will, and purposeth shall, come to pass? He doth, he will do, things in some likeness to what we do for the prevention of what we are afraid of. He will not scatter his people, that their adversaries may not have advantage to trample over them. When we so act as to prevent any thing that, unless we did so act, would befall us, it is because we are afraid of the coming of that thing upon us: hence is the reason of that attribution unto God. That properly He should be afraid of what comes to pass who knows from eternity what will so do, who can with the breath of his mouth destroy all the objects of his dislike, who is infinitely wise, blessed, all-sufficient, and the sovereign disposer of the lives, breath, and ways of all the sons of men, is fit for Mr. B. and no man else to affirm. “All the nations are before him as the drop of the bucket, and the dust of the balance, as vanity, as nothing; he upholdeth them by the word of his power; in him all men live, and move, and have their being,” and can neither live, nor act, nor be without him; their life, and breath, and all their ways, are in his hands; he brings them to destruction, and says, “Return, ye children of men;” (Acts 15:18; 2 Samuel 22:16; Job 4:9; Psalm 18:15; Job Romans 1:25; Genesis 17:1; Romans 9:16-18, etc., 11:34-86; Isaiah 40:15; Hebrews 1:8; Psalm 33:9; Acts 17:24-28; Psalm 1. 8; Daniel 5:23; Psalm 90:8; Job 34:19.) and must he needs be properly afraid of what they will do to him and against him
7. Of God’s jealousy and hatred, mentioned from Psalm 5:4, 5, Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 32:21, there is the same reason. Such effects as these things in us produce shall they meet withal who provoke him by their blasphemies and abominations. Of love, mercy, and grace, the condition is something otherwise: principally they denote God’s essential goodness and kindness, which is eminent amongst his infinite perfections; and secondarily the effects thereof, in and through Jesus Christ, are denoted by these expressions. To manifest that neither they nor any thing else, as they properly intend any affections or passions of the mind, any commotions of will, are properly attributed to God, unto what hath been spoken already these ensuing considerations may be subjoined: —
(1.) Where no cause of stirring up affections or passions can have place or be admitted, there no affections are to be admitted; for to what end should we suppose that whereof there can be no use to eternity? If it be impossible any affection in God should be stirred up or acted, is it not impossible any such should be in him? The causes stirring up all affections are the access of some good desired, whence joy, hope, desire, etc., have their spring; or the approach of some evil to be avoided, which occasions fear, sorrow, anger, repentance, and the like. Now, if no good can be added to God, whence should joy and desire be stirred up in him? if no evil can befall him, in himself or any of his concernments, whence should he have fear, sorrow, or repentance? Our goodness extends not to him; he hath no need of us or our sacrifices, Psalm 16:2, 50:8-10; Job 35:6-8. “Can a man be profitable unto God, as he that is wise may be profitable to himself? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty, that thou art righteous? or is it gain to him, that thou makest thy ways perfect?” chap. 22:2, 3.
(2.) The apostle tells us that God is “blessed for ever,” Romans 9:5; “He is the blessed and only Potentate,” 1 Timothy 6:15; “God all- sufficient,” Genesis 17:1. That which is inconsistent with absolute blessedness and all-sufficiency is not to be ascribed to God; to do so casts him down from his excellency. But can he be blessed, is he all-sufficient, who is tossed up and down with hope, joy, fear, sorrow, repentance, anger, and the like? Doth not fear take off from absolute blessedness? Grant that God’s fear cloth not long abide, yet whilst it doth so, he is less blessed than he was before and than he is after his fear ceaseth. When he hopes, is he not short in happiness of that condition which he attains in the enjoyment of what he hoped for? and is he not lower when he is disappointed and falls short of his expectation? Did ever the heathens speak with more contempt of what they worshipped? Formerly the pride of some men heightened them to fancy themselves to be like God, without passions or affections, Psalm 50:21; being not able to abide in their attempt against their own sense and experience, it is now endeavored to make God like to us, in having such passions and affections. My aim is brevity, having many heads to speak unto. Those who have written on the attributes of God, — his self-sufficiency and blessedness, simplicity, immutability, etc., — are ready to tender farther satisfaction to them who shall desire it.
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
John Brown

After the long discussion by Owen, here is something remarkably brief and clear.


John Brown of Haddington, Questions and Answers on the Shorter Catechism, q.4
Q. If God be a spirit, how are eyes, ears, arms, feet, face, fingers, mouth, lips, &c., ascribed to him in scripture? —A. God, in condescension to our weakness, doth by these bodily members point out some property in himself, the work of which in some way resembleth the use of such members in man, Hos. xii.13, and xi. 8.
...
Q. If God change not, how is he said to repent? —A. His repenting means only a change in his work, but it means no change of his will, Gen. vi. 6, 7.
Q. Why is the change of work called a repenting? —A. In allusion to the case of men, whose change of work shows a change of their will, Acts iii. 19.
 

KMK

Administrator
Staff member
After the long discussion by Owen, here is something remarkably brief and clear.


John Brown of Haddington, Questions and Answers on the Shorter Catechism, q.4
Q. If God be a spirit, how are eyes, ears, arms, feet, face, fingers, mouth, lips, &c., ascribed to him in scripture? —A. God, in condescension to our weakness, doth by these bodily members point out some property in himself, the work of which in some way resembleth the use of such members in man, Hos. xii.13, and xi. 8.
...
Q. If God change not, how is he said to repent? —A. His repenting means only a change in his work, but it means no change of his will, Gen. vi. 6, 7.
Q. Why is the change of work called a repenting? —A. In allusion to the case of men, whose change of work shows a change of their will, Acts iii. 19.

This is why I love Brown of Haddington. Thanks for the tip. I assume this is the same work that was titled, "An Essay Towards An Easy, Plain, Practical, and Extensive Explication Of The Assembly's Shorter Catechism" available here: An Essay Towards and Easy, Plain ... - Google Book Search

All of the words Haddington saved in his books were then used on his titles. :lol:
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
Yes, the Essay, etc., etc., is the same as "Questions and Answers". Just for marketing purposes I think RHB was wise to retitle the book! He is one of my favorites precisely because of his concise clarity.
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
Well, I thought we might get some discussion. If we don't, I guess the opening article and attached quotes could be turned into a PDF and uploaded to the links manager.
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
Timothy Rogers

A boldly simple explanation from Timothy Rogers

Trouble of Mind and the Disease of Melancholy, pp.221,222 (of the SDG reprint) [In context he is speaking of grieving the Holy Spirit]
The divine nature indeed is incapable of our passions; it is above our joys and our sorrows.
It is said of those who are upon Mount Olympus that the see the clouds gather below their feet; they see the hail and the thunder disturb and land on the plain, while they rejoice in the pure light of the sun. In such a manner the divine essence sees all the troubles and agitations of the creatures, remaining always in its own peace and tranquility. This expression is borrowed from human affections, and when the Holy Spirit does that in us which our nature does when it is seized with sorrow, then He is said to be grieved.
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
Patrick Fairbairn

Fairbairn demonstrates that this is a hermeneutical issue.

Opening Scripture: A Hermeneutical Manual Introducing the Exegetical Study of the New Testament
p.90
In this way, Scripture was explained as accommodating itself to men's infirmities or habits, when it speaks of God as possessing human parts and passions, or uses parables, proverbs, and familiar images, to set forth to our view things spiritual and divine.
pp.95,96
To the first or more general class of accommodations are to be referred the representations given of Divine and spiritual things—things which lie beyond the region of sense, and are not directly cognisable by any faculties we possess. Such things can only be made known to us by an accommodation from the visible to the invisible, from the known to the unknown; and though, in such cases, the form is necessarily imperfect, and conveys an inadequate idea of the reality, it still is the fittest representation of the idea, the nearest to the truth of things, which it is possible for us in present circumstances to attain to. What is said, for example, of God's anger toward sinners—or of His being revealed (through Christ) in flaming fire for the execution of judgment upon the wicked—or of the possibility of moving Heaven by prayer to depart from some purpose already formed, as if there could be passion or mutability with God—everything of this sort manifestly proceeds upon that necessity, which is inherent in our natures, of thinking and speaking of God in a human manner. It is impossible, otherwise, to gain definite ideas of His perfections and government; and the only way of guarding against the abuse of such representations, is by the employment of counter-representations, which declare God to be in Himself essentially spiritual, unchangeable, and incapable of being carried away by the feelings and impulses of finite beings.
We must, nevertheless, think of Him, and conduct ourselves towards Him, as if the human form of conceptions respecting Him conveyed the exact truth;—He will act toward impenitent sinners precisely as if He were moved to anger by their sins—His appearance for judgment against them will be as if He were encompassed with devouring fire—He will give effect to earnest and believing prayer, as if He could be changed by the entreaties of His people.
p.140 [speaking of the leading principles which can help us determine whether a text is literal or tropical]
The first of these is, that when anything is said, which, if taken according to the letter, would be at variance with the essential nature of the subject spoken of, the language must be regarded as tropical. This principle requires to be little more than enunciated; it carries its own evidence along with it. No single act, no particular attribute can be ascribed by an intelligent writer to a person or an object, which is inconsistent with their proper nature. So that, on the supposition of the nature of that nature being known to us, we can be at no loss to understand in what sense the language should be taken. Thus, it is essential to the nature of God, that He is spirit and not flesh—a Spirit infinite, eternal, and unchangeable; consequently without bodily parts, which are necessarily bounded by space and time; without liability to passionate excitation or erring purposes, which arise from creaturely limitations. Hence all those passages, which represent God as possessed of human powers and organs, as seeing, or hearing, or having experience of such affections as are the result of human weakness and infirmity, must be understood in a figurative sense.
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
Charles Hodge

Hodge exercises the virtue of brevity (and presumes upon prior knowledge):

Systematic Theology, I.5,7
Those passages of Scripture in which God is said to repent, are to be interpreted on the same principle as those in which He is said to ride upon the wings of the wind, or to walk through the earth. These create no difficulty.
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
Louis Berkhof

An indication that this hermeneutical concept of anthropomorphism did not disappear.

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Part One, VI, B.
The immutability of God is a necessary concomitant of His aseity. It is that perfection of God by which He is devoid of all change, not only in His Being, but also in His perfections, and in His purposes and promises. In virtue of this attribute He is exalted above all becoming, and is free from all accession or diminution and from all growth or decay in His Being or perfections. His knowledge and plans, His moral principles and volitions remain forever the same. Even reason teaches us that no change is possible in God, since a change is either for better or for worse. But in God, as the absolute Perfection, improvement and deterioration are both equally impossible. This immutability of God is clearly taught in such passages of Scripture as Ex. 3:14; Ps. 102:26-28; Isa. 41:4; 48:12; Mal. 3:6; Rom. 1:23; Heb. 1:11,12; Jas. 1:17. At the same time there are many passages of Scripture which seem to ascribe change to God. Did not He who dwells in eternity pass on to the creation of the world, become incarnate in Christ, and in the Holy Spirit take up His abode in the Church? Is He not represented as revealing and hiding Himself, as coming and going, as repenting and changing His intention, and as dealing with man differently before and after conversion? Cf. Ex. 32:10-14; Jonah 3:10; Prov. 11:20; 12:22; Ps. 18:26,27. The objection implied here is based to a certain extent on misunderstanding. The divine immutability should not be understood as implying immobility, as if there were no movement in God. It is even customary in theology to speak of God as actus purus, a God who is always in action. The Bible teaches us that God enters into manifold relations with man and, as it were, lives their life with them. There is change round about Him, change in the relations of men to Him, but there is no change in His Being, His attributes, His purpose, His motives of action, or His promises. The purpose to create was eternal with Him, and there was no change in Him when this purpose was realized by a single eternal act of His will. The incarnation brought no change in the Being or perfections of God, nor in His purpose, for it was His eternal good pleasure to send the Son of His love into the world. And if Scripture speaks of His repenting, changing His intention, and altering His relation to sinners when they repent, we should remember that this is only an anthropopathic way of speaking. In reality the change is not in God, but in man and in man's relations to God. It is important to maintain the immutability of God over against the Pelagian and Arminian doctrine that God is subject to change, not indeed in His being, but in His knowledge and will, so that His decisions are to a great extent dependent on the actions of man; over against the pantheistic notion that God is an eternal becoming rather than an absolute Being, and that the unconscious Absolute is gradually developing into conscious personality in man; and over against the present tendency of some to speak of a finite, struggling, and gradually growing God.

(Bold emphasis added)
 

Prufrock

Arbitrary Moderation
The affections which are attributed to God figuratively are joy, sorrow of heart, the wrath of God, jealousy, hatred, repetance. For these are not emotions or passions in God, even as in man; since God is a stranger to all change and passion, perpetual remaining constant in himself. Rather, these are the works or actions of God, which in some way parallel those actions of men which they perform in accordance with these affections.

Therefore all affections which are attributed to God are effects.


The joy of God is his approbation of obedience and salvation, and even of perfection and happiness in us ... When we do well, we do not benefit God in anyway, but ourselves; and God rejoices not in his own benefit, but in our salvation.

Here is a brief portion of Polanus (Syntagma, Libr. II, caput XXXIV). Pardon the rough translation; but it speaks to the point. Polanus sees human affections in terms of their effects, not actual dispositions in God. God does not experience joy in himself when one is saved; rather, the effects of God's approbation toward us are considered God's rejoicing.
 
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Prufrock

Arbitrary Moderation
Ruben: Recognizing that such forms of speech are accommodated to our understandings, what would you say is the most proper way, then, for us to conceive of God? Does the condescension of God in revealing himself by way of anthropopathisms indicate that such is how we are to think of him; or is the intention of such expressions to get us to "think past them" and instead rest on the actual truth expressed in figure?
 

KMK

Administrator
Staff member
Ruben: Recognizing that such forms of speech are accommodated to our understandings, what would you say is the most proper way, then, for us to conceive of God? Does the condescension of God in revealing himself by way of anthropopathisms indicate that such is how we are to think of him; or is the intention of such expressions to get us to "think past them" and instead rest on the actual truth expressed in figure?

I look forward to Ruben's answer, but in the meantime will offer one of my own.

At the very least we could say that there is nothing 'improper' in conceiving of God in exactly the terms He uses to describe Himself. However, it would be 'improper' to conceive of God in one category of terms to the exclusion of another. For example, one must conceive of God in terms of Deut 32:36, but at the same time conceive of Him in terms of Num 23:19. However, I do not think there is anything 'improper' in allowing both conceptions to exist simultaneously. Are we under some mandate to satisfactorily resolve every apparent contradiction in the way God describes Himself? Can I not just conceive of God in terms of both?
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
Well, you are probably more capable of answering your own question than I am, but I'll take a stab at it.

The denials of imperfection to God (does not change, does not repent, does not sleep, is not a man, does not grow weary, etc.) serve to show that we can't:
1. Make the figures absolute
2. Extend the figure past the particular point being made

However all our thinking is metaphorical (see Owen Barfield, History, Guilt and Habit or C.S. Lewis, "Bluspels and Flalansferes"). So it is not inappropriate to think in terms of the metaphors, even the daring metaphors, that God has employed. While we bear in mind that God is setting Himself out in terms appropriate to ourselves, rather than to Him, I don't think we shall be led astray, especially as we give due weight to the denial of imperfections.

So yes, we can think of God in terms of the anthropomorphic expressions, while remembering that there is more to it than that. But there is still another qualification we can add.

With Polanus, we ought to realize we are talking about what God does rather than what He is in Himself. Even in speaking of what He does, we speak from a limited perspective and without the whole picture, so that it can seem like God has forgotten or gone to sleep.

And when we are tempted to take the fact that God describes Himself in terms belonging to birds or dragons or drunken warriors and reason from the creature to the Creator, then we ought to remember one of the valuable lessons that Aquinas drew from Dionysius:
Although it may be admitted that creatures are in some sort like God, it must nowise be admitted that God is like creatures; because, as Dionysius says, (Div. Nom. ix): A mutual likeness may be found between things of the same order, but not between a cause and that which is caused. For, we say that a statue is like a man, but not conversely; so also a creature can be spoken of as in some sort like God; but not that God is like a creature.
(ST, P1 Q4 A3 RO4)
 

KMK

Administrator
Staff member
After the long discussion by Owen, here is something remarkably brief and clear.


John Brown of Haddington, Questions and Answers on the Shorter Catechism, q.4
Q. If God be a spirit, how are eyes, ears, arms, feet, face, fingers, mouth, lips, &c., ascribed to him in scripture? —A. God, in condescension to our weakness, doth by these bodily members point out some property in himself, the work of which in some way resembleth the use of such members in man, Hos. xii.13, and xi. 8.
...
Q. If God change not, how is he said to repent? —A. His repenting means only a change in his work, but it means no change of his will, Gen. vi. 6, 7.
Q. Why is the change of work called a repenting? —A. In allusion to the case of men, whose change of work shows a change of their will, Acts iii. 19.

As far as I can tell, all of the commentators would agree with JB in that God's use of human attributes to figuratively describe himself is a 'condescension' on God's part. But is there scripture that backs that up? I admit, I am confused by JB's use of Hosea.
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
A lot of the references are mistakes: there are references to chapters and verses that don't exist, which are clearly mistakes, and the printer's carelessness in this regard makes it easy to conclude that there may be mistakes when the reference is to an irrelevant, but real, text. I don't know why Hosea would be cited, and my first impression is that it's a printer's mistake.

As for Scripture, I think Numbers 23:19, Job 33:12, Psalm 50:21 and Isaiah 55:8,9 should go a long way towards indicating that Scripture itself requires that we consider the attribution of human characteristics to God a figurative attribution.
 

Curt

Puritan Board Graduate
I just got around to reading this thread today. What a marvelous tool it has become. Thanks to all who provided some wonderful quotes.
 

KMK

Administrator
Staff member
As for Scripture, I think Numbers 23:19, Job 33:12, Psalm 50:21 and Isaiah 55:8,9 should go a long way towards indicating that Scripture itself requires that we consider the attribution of human characteristics to God a figurative attribution.

From Thomas Vincent's exposition of the SC: (my paraphrase)

Q. 3 Then how is God said in the scripture to have eyes, ears, mouth, hands and other parts? (Ps 34:15; Isa 1:20; Heb 10:31)
• A. These and similar body parts are not in God properly as they are in men; but figuratively he is pleased to condescend to our weak intellects, in order that we might more easily conceive of him.

How do we come to the conclusion that God's expressing himself in human figures is an act of condescension? How would you respond to the objection, "God expressed Himself in figures to deliberately confuse us."
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
I think Deuteronomy 30:10-14 (in conjunction with its use in Romans 10, and of course Christ's teaching about the purpose of the parables) sufficiently establishes that God intended His word to be clear to His people.
 
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