Figurative Descriptions of God

Not open for further replies.
Even poets express it

From Sir Thomas Wyatt's "Third Penitential Psalm"

O Lord, as I thee have both prayed and pray,
(Although in thee be no alteration
But that we men like as ourselves we say

Measuring thy Justice by our mutations)
Chastise me not, O Lord, in thy furor.
Nor me correct in wrathful castigation;
Last edited:
And here Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius explains that changes in relation are not changes in essence: and so a person can be under God's wrath at one point, and an object of His love at another, and yet that does not necessitate positing any change in God at all.

From De Trinitate, ch. V
It cannot therefore be affirmed that predication of relationship by itself adds or takes away or changes anything in the thing of which it is said. It wholly consists not in that which is simply being, but in that which is being in some way in comparison, not always with another thing but sometimes with itself. For suppose a man standing. If I go up to him on the right and stand beside him, he will be left, in comparison with me, not because he is left in himself, but because I have come up to him on the right. Again, if I come up to him on the left, he becomes right, not because he is right in himself, as he may be white or tall, but because he becomes right in virtue of my approach, and what he is depends entirely on me, and not in the least on himself.
John of Damascus

I'm a little mortified that I didn't remember this before.

John of Damascus, Dogmatic Chapters, Book I, Chapter 11.

Since we find many terms used symbolically in the Scriptures concerning God which are more applicable to that which has body, we should recognize that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life. So then all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, but have a higher meaning: for the Deity is simple and formless. Hence by God’s eyes and eyelids and sight we are to understand His power of overseeing all things and His knowledge, that nothing can escape: for in the case of us this sense makes our knowledge more complete and more full of certainty. By God’s ears and hearing is meant His readiness to be propitiated and to receive our petitions: for it is this sense that renders us also kind to suppliants, inclining our ear to them more graciously. God’s mouth and speech are His means of indicating His will; for it is by the mouth and speech that we make clear the thoughts that are in the heart: God’s food and drink are our concurrence to His will, for we, too, satisfy the necessities of our natural appetite through the sense of taste. And God’s sense of smell is His appreciation of our thoughts of and good will towards Him, for it is through this sense that we appreciate sweet fragrance. And God’s countenance is the demonstration and manifestation of Himself through His works, for our manifestation is through the countenance. And God’s hands mean the effectual nature of His energy, for it is with our own hands that we accomplish our most useful and valuable work. And His right hand is His aid in prosperity, for it is the right hand that we also use when making anything of beautiful shape or of great value, or where much strength is required. His handling is His power of accurate discrimination and exaction, even in the minutest and most secret details, for those whom we have handled cannot conceal from us aught within themselves. His feet and walk are His advent and presence, either for the purpose of bringing succor to the needy, or vengeance against enemies, or to perform any other action, for it is by using our feet that we come to arrive at any place. His oath is the unchangeableness of His counsel, for it is by oath that we confirm our compacts with one another. His anger and fury are His hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat. His forgetfulness and sleep and slumbering are His delay in taking vengeance on His enemies and the postponement of the accustomed help to His own. And to put it shortly, all the statements made about God that imply body have some hidden meaning and teach us what is above us by means of something familiar to ourselves, with the exception of any statement concerning the bodily sojourn of the God-Word. For He for our safety took upon Himself the whole nature of man, the thinking spirit, the body, and all the properties of human nature, even the natural and blameless passions.
Dear Ruben,

Thanks for the above material.

When did (modern) theologians start to question God's impassibility? Who were they?

Can you recommend any good books which survey the subject or look at it from an orthodox point of view?

Have you any good quotes (theological and/or biblical) which reconcile God's impassibility, with the fact that He is not "unfeeling"?

I suppose that some who are against impassibility, would say that some anthropopathisms relate to God's spiritual nature through speaking about what goes on in Man's spirit, and, unlike the anthropomorphisms which express what God is like through the metaphorical use of the human body, some of these anthropopathisms can be taken more at face value, because God is Spirit. What would be said to them?

What false "theologies" / "theologians" have abused these biblical figures of God, for their own nefarious ends?

There's no hurry in answering all this.

Last edited:
Hi Richard,

On the history of its denial, if I remember correctly, Dennis McFadden would be the man to ask. Jurgen Moltmann was quite influential, but I don't know if his thought was derivative from someone else on that point.

For book recommendations, I only know of a couple of books devoted to the topic, which I haven't read (but Prufrock probably has). They can be found at the end of this article by Paul Helm. Obviously there are the many references quoted above, and most systematic theologies will at least tackle the question. Richard Muller does have a good section on these matters in Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, III (beginning somewhere around p.433 - my copy is not to hand to check exactly).

"Unfeeling" would have to be defined. I think that there was a shift in how people viewed psychology, so that people thought of the will as following the affections, instead of the intellect. My theory is that the shift in our understanding of human psychology got projected onto God, and so instead of considering anthropopathic language to be a description of God's effects they became descriptions of His "emotional life". But anything that could be described as God's emotions must be understood as voluntary dispositions. "Feelings" are only improperly predicated of God, just as discursive thought is only improperly predicated of Him.

I think theologians who say we can argue from anthropopathisms to God's nature need to be reminded of the via negativa and of the insistence that we know God as He is ad nos, not in se.

I don't know about nefarious ends. I think often a confused evangelistic zeal that thinks you can't preach the Gospel freely if you can't say, "God wishes you would get saved" to any random sinner is behind it. (Of course, predicating such unfulfilled desires of God can be illustrated by a man who opens the door of his refrigerator, sees a piece of chocolate cake and says, "That looks good: I wish I had that." On being reminded that he can have it, and in fact urged to take it, he says, "No, I don't want it.") Also I'm sure Romanticism had something to do with people thinking that if God isn't emotional then they don't like Him very much.

There are some good quotes also posted on previous threads. I'll try to find them and bring them over here so they are all in one place.
Last edited:
Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, III


Far from being an excessively "speculative" doctrine in the modern sense of the term, the orthodox discussion of the divine will was deeply rooted in the redemptive and historical elements of Christian theology and indicative of the a posteriori character of much Reformed theology in the era of Protestant scholasticism: for the distinctions made by the orthodox concerning the divine willing were not a matter of rational speculation but rather a result of the examination of biblical texts and traditional discussions of the voluntas Dei, the latter with particular respect to the needs or concerns of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone.

pp.450, 451

In our finite minds, we divide the will of God, as the Scripture itself does, "according to the diversity of its objects." [quoting from Pictet, Theologia christiana,] To make the point as forcefully as possible, the distinctions in the divine will serve the purpose, not of dividing the will, but, explicitly, of preserving the sense of its unity: it is the Arminian, not the Reformed theology, that argued two wills in God.


Here, admittedly, the orthodox line of thought is guided not by a totally open or unbiased exegesis of texts, but by an ontological conception of the immutability of God: this guiding conception in turn leads to an interpretation of Scripture that gives priority to those texts stressing the unchangeability of God over those texts which indicate change, priority to those texts which stress God's otherness over those which indicate emotion, passion, or other kinship with humanity. But this is not a case of rationalism or metaphysical speculation overruling revelation: instead it is an example of one of the many instances in which theology must make a choice concerning its view of God, deciding which aspects of the scriptural view are governing concepts, anthropomorphism or transcendence, the "repentance" of God or the divine constancy. And in this case in particular, the Reformed orthodox stand not only in the line of the more philosophical arguments typical of scholastic theology but, together with the older scholasticism, in the line of the church's exegetical tradition — and, indeed, in accord with the doctrinal statements and with the exegesis of the Reformers.


The Reformed orthodox doctrine of the divine affections and virtues, although far more elaborate and characterized by a fuller and clearer recourse to scholastic distinctions, also stands in substantial continuity with the views of the Reformers. In particular, apart from differing nuances found in various thinkers throughout the period, the exegetical basis of the doctrine remained much the same: the orthodox systems refer to the same texts that the Reformers had identified as the crucial loci and, we might add, had themselves received from the medieval and patristic exegetes as the primary points of reference. Nor, indeed, has the basic doctrinal assumption shifted: life the Reformers, the orthodox assume that God has affections that characterize his relationship to the world and that some analogy can be drawn between these "divine affections" and the affections that belong to human willing — with the major qualification that, unlike human affections, the divine affections do not indicate essential change in God and that they are permanent rather than transient dispositions.

p.555 [quoting from Vermigli, Commonplaces, I.xii.21 on the attribution of repentance and anger to God]
it must be considered, that the scripture speaketh of God after the manner of men, for the affect of remembrance declareth the goodness of God: for they which be mindful of their friends in danger, do (for the most part) relieve them. Howbeit, to remember, accordeth not properly with God, seeing it noteth a certain forgetfulness that went before; which to ascribe unto God, were an unjust thing. But of knowing we see there be three kinds, the which are distinguished one from another, according to the difference of time. For if a thing present be found out ... this knowledge is the root of all the other and more sure than the rest. Further, if it respect unto things that be past, it is called memory. If unto things to come, it is foresight. ... Of those kinds of knowledge, none is truly attributed unto God, but the first, seeing all things are present with him: and even as his nature, so his actions are by no means comprehended within the course of time. But yet it is said in the Scriptures, that either he remembered, or that he foresaw; because oftentimes those effects are attributed unto him which they are wont to do that foresee or remember.
Last edited:
Gregory Nazianzen

In his Fifth Theological Oration: On the Holy Spirit, Gregory of Nazianzus gives an elegant description of how anthropomorphisms function.

According to Scripture God sleeps and is awake, is angry, walks, has the Cherubim for His Throne. And yet when did He become liable to passion, and have you ever heard that God has a body? This then is, though not really fact, a figure of speech. For we have given names according to our own comprehension from our own attributes to those of God. His remaining silent apart from us, and as it were not caring for us, for reasons known to Himself, is what we call His sleeping; for our own sleep is such a state of inactivity. And again, His sudden turning to do us good is the waking up; for waking is the dissolution of sleep, as visitation is of turning away. And when He punishes, we say He is angry; for so it is with us, punishment is the result of anger. And His working, now here now there, we call walking; for walking is change from one place to another. His resting among the Holy Hosts, and as it were loving to dwell among them, is His sitting and being enthroned; this, too, from ourselves, for God resteth nowhere as He doth upon the Saints. His swiftness of moving is called flying, and His watchful care is called His Face, and his giving and bestowing is His hand; and, in a word, every other of the powers or activities of God has depicted for us some other corporeal one.
Matthew Poole:

When terms expressive of our passions are applied to perfect beings, we must understand them so, as they alone can agree to such beings, separated from those excesses which they have in beings more imperfect. Joy signifieth nothing but the full sartisfaction of the will in a good obtained. Commentary on the Whole Bible; Luke 15:3-7
Philip Dodderidge:

...the holy inhabitants of heaven rejoice in the conversion of the most abandoned sinners, ad the great Father of all so readily forgives and receives them, that he may be represented as having part in the joy. Though, by the way, when human passions areascribed to God, it is certain they are to be taken in a figurative sense, entirely exclusive of those sensations which result from the commotions of animal nature in ourselves. The Family Expositor; Section CXXIII
Not open for further replies.