How Anthropomorphic is your G-O-D?

Confession time: for most of my parochial ministry, I was a theistic personalist, to use the term coined by Brian Davies.

“Egads! Tell me that’s not true.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“But what is a theistic personalist?”

“Someone who espouses theistic personalism, of course.”

“And now you are going to tell me what it is, right?”

“My pleasure.”

According to Davies, theistic personalism makes person the decisive philosophical cate­gory for thinking about God (Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, pp. 9-15). We all know what persons are. For good or ill, we have to live with them every day. So what do we mean by the word? I don’t know what the philosophers would say, but let me throw out this tentative definition—a person is a center of consciousness with whom we can ratio­nally converse. This is probably severely defective (I’m a blogger, dammit, not a philoso­pher!), but at least it will get us started.

Now let’s turn to the Bible and its rendering of deity. Doesn’t YHWH sound and act like a person, not in the sense that we can physically see him, but in all the other important ways that constitute personhood? Consider the definition of God advanced by one of the world’s premier Christian philosophers:

By a theist I understand a man who believes that there is a God. By a “God” he understands something like a “person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sus­tainer of the universe.” (Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, p. 1)

God is that person, Swinburne says, who is “picked out by this description” (The Existence of God, p. 8).

If Swinburne’s exposition represents theistic personalism, then this is pretty much what I preached and taught throughout most of my parochial ministry. I suspect that theistic personalism is the default position of the overwhelming majority of Protestant preachers and probably a fair number of Catholic and Orthodox preachers. It begins where all preachers begin, namely, with the Scriptures. We preach the God of the Bible—the Holy One who spoke to Abraham and commanded him to leave his home and journey to Canaan, who delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, who gave Torah to Moses on Mt Horeb, who spoke to Israel through the prophets, who sent his beloved Son in the fullness of time to die for the sins of humanity and rise into indestructible life. Once God is intro­duced as a character in a narrative, then of course he will and must be portrayed as a being, a divine self, analogous to a human self. How else could a story be told about him? In the pulpit, every preacher is a theistic personalist. This means that if we take the Bible straight, as it were, we will always think of God as person, as a person. All we then need to do is detach God from embodiment and finitude, and … voila! … we have Swinburne’s omnipresent spirit.

Edward Feser has criticized theistic personalism as inescapably anthropomorphic and contrasts it with the classical Christian understanding of divinity:

Theistic personalists, by contrast, tend to begin with the idea that God is “a person” just as we are persons, only without our corporeal and other limitations. Like us, he has attributes like power, knowledge, and moral goodness; unlike us, he has these features to the maximum possible degree. The theistic personalist thus arrives at an essentially anthropomorphic conception of God. To be sure, the anthropomorphism is not the crude sort operative in traditional stories about the gods of the various pagan pantheons. The theistic personalist does not think of God as having a corporeal nature, but instead perhaps along the lines of something like an infinite Cartesian res cogitans. Nor do classical theists deny that God is personal in the sense of having the key personal attributes of intellect and will. However, classical theists would deny that God stands alongside us in the genus “person.” He is not “a person” alongside other persons any more than he is “a being” alongside other beings. He is not an instance of any kind, the way we are instances of a kind. He does not “have” intellect and will, as we do, but rather just is infinite intellect and will. He is not “a person,” not because he is less than a person but because he is more than merely a person. (Also see Feser’s article “Classical theism“)

The emergence of theistic person­alism, unfortunately, has made it possible for theologians and philosophers to begin to significantly redefine the attributes of God. The first to go were immutability and impassibility. After all, don’t the biblical writers speak of God as changing his mind, repenting of his actions, and experiencing grief, anger, and joy? More recently, open theists have begun telling us that the divine omniscience is limited—God does not exhaustively foreknow the future. A significant revision of the traditional under­standing of divinity is now taking place in some Christian quarters. When one reads a philosopher like Swinburne, one hardly notices the shift in emphasis; but the shift becomes marked when one reads those who are more fearless in departing from inherited formulations. Jürgen Moltmann immediately comes to mind.

David Bentley Hart has devoted a few pages of his book The Experience of God criticizing this new, or at least different, model of deity. Hart is blunt. Advocates of theistic person­alism (he prefers the term “monopolytheism”) have broken with the catholic tradition. They are advancing, he writes, “a view of God not conspicuously different from the polytheistic picture of the gods as merely very powerful discrete entities who possess a variety of distinct attributes that lesser entities also possess, if in smaller measure; it differs from polytheism, as far as I can tell, solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being” (p. 127).

There’s a serious theological problem here. I did not begin to recognize it until two decades ago, when I discovered the writings of Robert Sokolowski and Herbert McCabe and began to reassess my theology; but still I minimized it. But then I began worshipping the LORD in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Apophatic theology became not just a way of doing theology but a reality lived and prayed. I find it difficult to articulate in words how this is so; it is the experience of the whole: the chanting and multiple invoca­tions of the Trinity, the icons and metanias, the candles, the incense, the opening and closing of the Royal Doors, the sacred choreography, the anaphora and epiclesis, the communion in the Flesh and Blood of the glorified Christ—together they manifest the subtle interplay of negative and cataphatic theology.

It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit; for all things that we know and do not know, for blessings seen and unseen that have been bestowed upon us. We also thank You for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands, even though You are surrounded by thousands of Archangels and tens of thousands of Angels, by the Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring with their wings.

“We have entered the Eschaton, and we are now standing beyond time and space,” exclaims Alexander Schmemann. In the Divine Liturgy we meet the triadic Divinity beyond being and are lifted into his divine life. Philoso­phy gives way to the Mystery.

(2 December 2013; rev.)

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16 Responses to How Anthropomorphic is your G-O-D?

  1. Concentrism says:

    Lived and prayed apophaticism. Good stuff, thank you Fr. Aidan.


  2. Dee of St Hermans says:

    “Only God is truly eternal, while we are eternal only in the measure that we remain in God and God in us.”
    St. Sophrony, Striving for Knowledge of God (2016), p. 234

    Fr Aidan, speaking from experience, I pray in communion with God, and it seems I relate to God as Person, mainly through Christ. I’ll admit I now have more difficulty understanding intellectually, God the Father, philosophically as a Person, now that I’ve become an Orthodox Christian, but experience Him through providential experiences and it seems through Christ. And while I pray to the Holy Spirit, I also pray to the Trinity and relate to Christ. It seems fairly difficult to describe, then, given the experience of my communion with God, using some sort of logic. I believe this might be what you are saying at the end of your article.

    I’m not yet versed on the arguments surrounding theistic personalism, but has your own outlook on this changed with your extended life in Orthodox Christianity, and if so, is it possible to describe how it has changed? Or is it as difficult as I find it?

    Coming back to St Sophrony’s quote above, it remains a little bit difficult for me (given my preference of universalism) to interpret this quote in a universalist way. Although his quote resonates with my thinking insofar that I see sin as a tendency to non-existence. If I attempt to do so, that is to frame it within my universalist stance, would it seem to you that I’m trying to put a square peg in a round whole?

    I appreciate your thoughts. Sometimes I get a little lost in these arguments.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dee, at a personal level, my move to classical theism has not impacted me significantly. I still pray the same. If I were preaching and catechizing regularly, I would probably preach and teach the same, except when speaking about the divine transcendence and immanence. I have definitely become more apophatic in my understanding (or non-understanding) of divinity.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Regarding the St Sophrony quotation: it does not affect the greater hope at all. It is a truism that the more we estrange ourselves from the divine life, the less life we have. If we were able to cut ourselves off completely from God, we would cease to exist. The universalist simply believes that we will never be totally successful in our efforts to separate ourselves from God, that in his love he will find a way to bring us to repentance and faith.


      • Dee of St Hermans says:

        Thank you Fr Aidan! Your responses are quite helpful. And admittedly, I’m relieved that I’m not stretching what I’m reading beyond what might be considered acceptable.


  3. John Grinnell says:

    Fr Aidan,
    Would you consider Dumitru Staniloae a theistic personalist?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, that’s an interesting question! I would have to go back and reread the first volume of his Dogmatics; but given his strong personalism, I think the answer might be yes (but don’t hold me to that–it’s only a guess).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. mary says:

    We are persons, God is Person. We are made in His image and likeness and are called to full personhood by sharing in His divine life. The Christ, the Word, shows us how our human personhood can be be fulfilled and united with divine Person. We are told to call God “Father” (or “Abba”), a term of intimacy that only speaks of Person knowable yet never completely known.

    The danger, it seems to me, is that either we make God too small, imagining His Personhood as grander version of our own, or we risk imagining Him to be non-Person, an unknowably grand Energy (without any Essence).

    We tend to approach things in a backwards manner. Rather than looking at ourselves to conceive of God, we need to look at God to conceive of ourselves. We do not know who we are. But Christ is the key – for in Him we can “look at God” and begin to imagine what our own personhood means.

    Just my ramblings… Correct me if I have totally missed the boat.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. johnjlamb says:

    I came to Christianity through Plato without prior religious upbringing, so classical theism is my normal way of approaching God with my understanding. The difficulty for me is the other way around. I tend to de-personalise God and conceptualise Him too much as an abstract divine Essence.

    I’m interested in theistic personalism. Both Feser’s and Hart’s criticisms seem overstated to me. There doesn’t seem to be any more danger in anthropomorphising God as a Person than as a Being. It’s just less obvious that we are anthropomorphising in the latter case, since our abstract concepts seem on the surface to be less grossly anthropomorphic than our knowledge of persons; though really, our human notions are forever all-too-human. As long as you make the same qualifications that classical theists have made about God as Being (i.e. that He is the transcendent, super-essential, self-subsisting Being) with God as Person (i.e. that He is the transcendent, super-existential, self-defining Person), then I don’t see how this approach is more anthropomorphising.

    The idea that God is not altogether immutable and impassible is an interesting one. Obviously His divine Essence is impassible and immutable, but might there be a sense in which, as Person, God is subject to influence and change? I think this line of thinking has the potential to cut the gordian knot on the free-will vs. predestination dilemma. I think there may be a sense in which, – as our souls divine image, especially when empowered to act by divine grace – just as God moves us to act in a certain way, we simultaneously move God to act in a certain way; thereby in a real sense participating in the divinity. God is not intrinsically passible; but He has made Himself passible for our sakes, because He wants to be moved by us (love). Isn’t this why Palamas felt the need to make the essence-energies distinction – to give God and man a medium in which to dynamically interact?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. joel in ga says:

    Is the divine will simply one, an aspect of the one Divine nature/essence, or is the divine will a Trinitarian symphony of three wills that will one and the same thing?


  7. John Grinnell says:

    Dumitru Staniloae is the ultimate theistic personality.For him,God is Person.


  8. John Grinnell says:

    Another typo. I have a dyslectic index finger!


  9. Pingback: A Response to Al Kimel’s non-Theistic Personalistic God – The Evangelical Calvinist

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