General Information

Anthropomorphism (Greek anthropos,"human being"; morphe,"shape") is the attribution of human form or qualities to that which is not human. In the history of religion, anthropomorphism refers to the depiction of God in a human image, with human bodily form and emotions, such as jealousy, wrath, or love. Whereas mythology is exclusively concerned with anthropomorphic gods, other religious thought holds that it is inappropriate to regard an omnipotent, omnipresent God as human. In order to speak of God, however, metaphorical language must be employed. In philosophy and theology, seemingly anthropomorphic concepts and language are used because it is impossible to think of God without attributing to him some human traits. In the Bible, for example, God is endowed with physical characteristics and human emotions, but at the same time he is understood to be transcendent. In art and literature, anthropomorphism is the depiction of natural objects, such as animals or plants, as talking, reasoning, sentient, humanlike beings.

The earliest critique of anthropomorphism in the West was made by Xenophanes, a Greek philosopher of the 5th century BC. Xenophanes observed that whereas the Ethiopians represented the gods as dark-skinned, the northerners in Thrace depicted the gods with red hair and blue eyes. He concluded that anthropomorphic representations of the gods invariably reveal more about the human beings who make them than they reveal about the divine. The Greek philosopher Plato likewise objected to a human representation of the gods; in the dialogue The Republic, he particularly opposed the attribution of human failings to divine beings. Both Xenophanes and Plato wished to purify religion by eliminating elements that they considered primitive and crude.

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Nineteenth-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel held that Greek anthropomorphic religion represented an improvement over the worship of gods in the shape of animals, a practice called theriomorphism (Greek therion,"animal"; morphe,"shape"). Hegel also maintained that Christianity brought the notion of anthropomorphism to maturity by insisting not only that God assumed a human form, but also that Jesus Christ was both a fully human person as well as fully divine. Because Christianity incorporates humanity into the very nature of divinity, it has been accused of anthropomorphism by both Jewish and Islamic thinkers.


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The term (not found in the Bible, derived from Greek anthropos, man, and morphe, form) designates the view which conceives of God as having human form (Exod. 15:3; Num. 12:8) with feet (Gen. 3:8; Exod. 24:10), hands (Exod. 24:11; Josh. 4:24), mouth (Num. 12:8; Jer. 7:13), and heart (Hos. 11:8), but in a wider sense the term also includes human attributes and emotions (Gen. 2:2; 6:6; Exod. 20:5; Hos. 11:8).

This tendency toward anthropomorphism, common to all religions, found such full expression in Greek polytheism that the common man thought of the gods as mortal men. Xenophanes (ca. 570-480 B.C.) reacted strongly, accusing man of making the gods in his own image. Later developments in Greek thought considered men as mortal gods (an early form of humanism) or viewed God in the metaphysical sense of pure, absolute Being. The transcendentalism of the latter influenced the hellenistic Jews of Egypt so that the translators of the Greek OT, the LXX, made during the third and second centuries B.C., felt compelled to alter some of the anthropomorphisms. e.g., where the Hebrew reads "they saw the God of Israel" (Exod. 24:10) the LXX has "they saw the place where the God of Israel stood"; and for "I will speak with him mouth to mouth" (Num. 12:8) the LXX translates "I will speak to him mouth to mouth apparently."

However, the OT, if read with empathy and understanding, reveals a spiritual development which is a corrective for either a crude, literalistic view of anthropomorphism or the equally false abhorrence of any anthropomorphic expressions. The "image of God" created in man (Gen. 1:27) was in the realm of personality, of spirit, not of human form. Because the Israelites "saw no form" (Deut. 4:12) at Sinai, they were prohibited images in any form; male or female, beast, bird, creeping thing, or fish (Deut. 4:15-19). The NT declaration of Jesus, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24), is anticipated by Job 9:32; Ps. 50:21; and Hos. 11:9.

The anthropomorphism of the Israelites was an attempt to express the nonrational aspects of religious experience (the mysterium tremendum, "aweful majesty," discussed by Rudolf Otto) in terms of the rational, and the early expressions of it were not as "crude" as so-called enlightened man would have one think. The human characteristics of Israel's God were always exalted, while the gods of their Near Eastern neighbors shared the vices of men. Whereas the representation of God in Israel never went beyond anthropomorphism, the gods of the other religions assumed forms of animals, trees, stars, or even a mixture of elements. Anthropomorphic concepts were "absolutely necessary if the God of Israel was to remain a God of the individual Israelite as well as of the people as a whole.... For the average is very essential that his god be a divinity who can sympathize with his human feelings and emotions, a being whom he can love and fear alternately, and to whom he can transfer the holiest emotions connected with memories of father and mother and friend" (W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, 2nd ed., p. 202).

It is precisely in the area of the personal that theism, as expressed in Christianity, must ever think in anthropomorphic terms. To regard God solely as Absolute Being or the Great Unknown is to refer to him or it, but to think of God as literally personal, one with whom we can fellowship, is to say Thou. Some object to this view, to explain how the creatures of an impersonal force became personal human beings conscious of their personality.

"To say that God is completely different from us is as absurd as to say that he is completely like us" (D. E. Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion, p. 270). Paradoxical as it may seem, there is a mediating position which finds the answer in the incarnation of Jesus the Christ, who said, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). Finite man will ever cling to the anthropomorphism of the incarnation and the concept of God as Father (Matt. 7:11), but at the same time he will realize the impossibility of absolute, complete comprehension of God, for "my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord" (Isa. 55:8).

D M Beegle
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT, I; J. Hempel, "Die Grenzen des Anthropormorphismus Jahwes im Alten Testament: ein Vortrag," ZAW 57: 75ff.; G. D. Hicks, The Philosophical Bases of Theism; R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy; H. H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel; H. B. Swete, An Introduction to the OT in Greek.

Anthropomorphism, Anthropomorphites

Catholic Information

(anthropos, man, and morphe, form).

A term used in its widest sense to signify the tendency of man to conceive the activities of the external world as the counterpart of his own. A philosophic system which borrows its method from this tendency is termed Philosophic Anthropomorphism. The word, however, has been more generally employed to designate the play of that impulse in religious thought. In this sense, Anthropomorphism is the ascription to the Supreme Being of the form, organs, operations, and general characteristics of human nature. This tendency is strongly manifested in primitive heathen religions, in all forms of polytheism, especially in the classic paganism of Greece and Rome. The charge of Anthropomorphism was urged against the Greeks by their own philosopher, Xenophanes of Colophon. The first Christian apologists upbraided the pagans for having represented God, who is spiritual, as a mere magnified man, subject to human vices and passions. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, abounds in anthropomorphic expressions. Almost all the activities of organic life are ascribed to the Almighty. He speaks, breathes, sees, hears; He walks in the garden; He sits in the heavens, and the earth is His footstool. It must, however, be noticed that in the Bible locutions of this kind ascribe human characteristics to God only in a vague, indefinite way. He is never positively declared to have a body or a nature the same as man's; and human defects and vices are never even figuratively attributed to Him. The metaphorical, symbolical character of this language is usually obvious. The all-seeing Eye signifies God's omniscience; the everlasting Arms His omnipotence; His Sword the chastisement of sinners; when He is said to have repented of having made man, we have an extremely forcible expression conveying His abhorrence of sin. The justification of this language is found in the fact that truth can be conveyed to men only through the medium of human ideas and thoughts, and is to be expressed only in language suited to their comprehension. The limitations of our conceptual capacity oblige us to represent God to ourselves in ideas that have been originally drawn from our knowledge of self and the objective world. The Scriptures themselves amply warn us against the mistake of interpreting their figurative language in too literal a sense. They teach that God is spiritual, omniscient, invisible, omnipresent, ineffable. Insistence upon the literal interpretation of the metaphorical led to the error of the Anthropomorphites. Throughout the writings of the Fathers the spirituality of the Divine Nature, as well as the inadequacy of human thought to comprehend the greatness, goodness, and infinite perfection of God, is continually emphasized. At the same time, Catholic philosophy and theology set forth the idea of God by means of concepts derived chiefly from the knowledge of our own faculties, and our mental and moral characteristics. We reach our philosophic knowledge of God by inference from the nature of various forms of existence, our own included, that we perceive in the Universe. All created excellence, however, falls infinitely short of the Divine perfections, consequently our idea of God can never truly represent Him as He is, and, because He is infinite while our minds are finite, the resemblance between our thought and its infinite object must always be faint. Clearly, however, if we would do all that is in our power to make our idea, not perfect, but as worthy as it may be, we must form it by means of our conceptions of what is highest and best in the scale of existence that we know. Hence, as mind and personality are the noblest forms of reality, we think most worthily of God when we conceive Him under the attributes of mind, will, intelligence, personality. At the same time, when the theologian or philosopher employs these and similar terms with reference to God, he understands them to be predicated not in exactly the same sense that they bear when applied to man, but in a sense controlled and qualified by the principles laid down in the doctrine of analogy.

A few decades ago thinkers and writers of the Spencerian and other kindred schools seldom touched upon the doctrine of a personal God without designating it Anthropomorphism, and thereby, in their judgment, excluding it definitively from the world of philosophic thought. Though on the wane, the fashion has not yet entirely disappeared. The charge of Anthropomorphism can be urged against our way of thinking and speaking of God by those only who, despite the protestations of theologians and philosophers, persist in assuming that terms are used univocally of God and of creatures. When arguments are offered to sustain the imputation, they usually exhibit an incorrect view regarding the essential element of personality. The gist of the proof is that the Infinite is unlimited, while personality essentially involves limitation; therefore, to speak of an Infinite Person is to fall into an absurdity. What is truly essential in the concept of personality is, first, individual existence as opposed to indefiniteness and to identity with other beings; and next, possession, or intelligent control of self. To say that God is personal is to say that He is distinct from the Universe, and that He possesses Himself and His infinite activity, undetermined by any necessity from within or from without. This conception is perfectly compatible with that of infinity. When the agnostic would forbid us to think of God as personal, and would have us speak of Him as energy, force, etc., he merely substitutes lower and more imperfect conceptions for a higher one, without escaping from what he terms Anthropomorphism, since these concepts too are derived from experience. Besides, he offers violence to human nature when, as sometimes happens, he asks us to entertain for an impersonal Being, conceived under the mechanical types of force or energy, sentiments of reverence, obedience, and trust. These sentiments come into play only in the world of persons, and cannot be exercised towards a Being to whom we deny the attributes of personality.

Anthropomorphites (Audians)

A sect of Christians that arose in the fourth century in Syria and extended into Scythia, sometimes called Audians, from their founder, Audius. Taking the text of Genesis, i, 27, literally, Audius held that God has a human form. The error was so gross, and, to use St. Jerome's expression (Epist. vi, Ad Pammachium), so absolutely senseless, that it showed no vitality. Towards the end of the century it appeared among some bodies of African Christians. The Fathers who wrote against it dismiss it almost contemptuously. In the time of Cyril of Alexandria, there were some anthropomorphites among the Egyptian monks. He composed a short refutation of their error, which he attributed to extreme ignorance. (Adv. Anthrop. in P.G., LXXVI.) Concerning the charges of anthropomorphism preferred against Melito, Tertullian, Origen, and Lactantius, see the respective articles. The error was revived in northern Italy during the tenth century, but was effectually suppressed by the bishops, notably by the learned Ratherius, Bishop of Verona.

Publication information Written by James J. Fox. Transcribed by Bob Elder. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I. Published 1907. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


ST. THOMAS, C. Gent., I, x; III, xxxviii, xxxix; Summa Theol., QQ. ii, iv, xiii; WILHELM AND SCANNELL, Manual of Catholic Theology (London, 1890), I, Bk. II, Pt. 1; SHANAHAN, John Fiske's Idea of God in Cath. Univ. Bull., III; MARTINEAU, A Study of Religion (New York, 1888), I, Bk. II, i; FLINT, Theism (New York, 1903), Lect. III; THEODORET, Hist. Eccl., IV, ix; VIGOUROUX, in Dict. de la Bible, s. v.; ST. AUGUSTINE, De divers. quaest., Ad Simplicianum, Q. vii;De civ. Dei, I, Q. ii.

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