1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Anthropomorphism

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ANTHROPOMORPHISM (Gr. ἄνθρωπος, man, μορφή, form), the attribution (a) of a human body, or (b) of human qualities generally, to God or the gods. The word anthropomorphism is a modern coinage (possibly from 18th century French). The New English Dictionary is misled by the 1866 reprint of Paul Bayne on Ephesians when it quotes “anthropomorphist” as 17th century English. Seventeenth century editions print “anthropomorphits,” i.e. anthropomorphites, in sense (a). The older abstract term is “anthropopathy,” literally “attributing human feelings,” in sense (b).

Early religion, among its many objects of worship, includes beasts (see Animal Worship), considered, in the more refined theology of the later Greeks and Romans, as metamorphoses of the great gods. Similarly we find “therianthropic” forms—half animal, half human—in Egypt or Assyria-Babylonia. In contrast with these, it is considered one of the glories of the Olympian mythology of Greece that it believed in happy manlike beings (though exempt from death, and using special rarefied foods, &c.), and celebrated them in statues of the most exquisite art. Israel shows us animal images, doubtless of a ruder sort, when Yahweh is worshipped in the northern kingdom under the image of a steer. (Some scholars think the title “mighty one of Jacob,” Psalm cxxxii., 2, 5, et al., ריבא‎ as if from רבא‎ is really “steer” ריבא‎ “of Jacob.”) But the higher religion of Israel inclined to morality more than to art, and forbade image worship altogether. This prepared the way for the conception of God as an immaterial Spirit. True mythical anthropomorphisms occur in early parts of the Old Testament (e.g. Genesis iii. 8, cf. vi. 2), though in the majority of Old Testament passages such expressions are merely verbal (e.g. Isaiah lix. 1). In the Christian Church (and again in early Mahommedanism) simple minds believed in the corporeal nature of God. Gibbon and other writers quote from John Cassian the tale of the poor monk, who, being convinced of his error, burst into tears, exclaiming, “You have taken away my God! I have none now whom I can worship!” According to a fragment of Origen (on Genesis i. 26), Melito of Sardis shared this belief. Many have thought Melito’s work, περἰ ἐνσωμάτου θεοῦ, must have been a treatise on the Incarnation; but it is hard to think that Origen could blunder so. Epiphanius tells of Audaeus of Mesopotamia and his followers, Puritan sectaries in the 4th century, who were orthodox except for this belief and for Quartodecimanism (see Easter). Tertullian, who is sometimes called an anthropomorphist, stood for the Stoical doctrine, that all reality, even the divine, is in a sense material.

The reaction against anthropomorphism begins in Greek philosophy with the satirical spirit of Xenophanes (540 B.C.), who puts the case as broadly as any. The “greatest God” resembles man “neither in form nor in mind.” In Judaism—unless we should refer to the prophets’ polemic against images—a reaction is due to the introduction of the codified law. God seemed to grow more remote. The old sacred name Yahweh is never pronounced; even “God” is avoided for allusive titles like “heaven” or “place.” Still, amid all this, the God of Judaism remains a personal, almost a limited, being. In Philo we see Jewish scruples uniting with others drawn from Greek philosophy. For, though the quarrel with popular anthropomorphism was patched up, and the gods of the Pantheon were described by Stoics and Epicureans as manlike in form, philosophy nevertheless tended to highly abstract conceptions of supreme, or real, deity. Philo followed out the line of this tradition in teaching that God cannot be named. How much exactly he meant is disputed. The same inheritance of Greek philosophy appears in the Christian fathers, especially Origen. He names and condemns the “anthropomorphites,” who ascribe a human body to God (on Romans i., sub fin.; Rufinus’ Latin version). In Arabian philosophy the reaction sought to deny that God had any attributes. And, under the influence of Mahommedan Aristotelianism, the same paralysing speculation found entrance among the learned Jews of Spain (see Maimonides).

Till modern times the philosophical reaction was not carried out with full vigour. Spinoza (Ethics, i. 15 and 17), representing here as elsewhere both a Jewish inheritance and a philosophical, but advancing further, sweeps away all community between God and man. So later J. G. Fichte and Matthew Arnold (“a magnified and non-natural man”),—strangely, in view of their strong belief in an objective moral order. For the use of the word “anthropomorphic,” or kindred forms, in this new spirit of condemnation for all conceptions of God as manlike—sense (b) noted above—see J. J. Rousseau in Émile iv. (cited by Littré),— Nous sommes pour la plupart de vrais anthropomorphites. Rousseau is here speaking of the language of Christian theology,—a divine Spirit: divine Persons. At the present day this usage is universal. What it means on the lips of pantheists is plain. But when theists charge one another with “anthropomorphism,” in order to rebuke what they deem unduly manlike conceptions of God, they stand on slippery ground. All theism implies the assertion of kinship between man, especially in his moral being, and God. As a brilliant theologian, B. Duhm, has said, physiomorphism is the enemy of Christian faith, not anthropomorphism.

The latest extension of the word, proposed in the interests of philosophy or psychology, uses it of the principle according to which man is said to interpret all things (not God merely) through himself. Common-sense intuitionalism would deny that man does this, attributing to him immediate knowledge of reality. And idealism in all its forms would say that man, interpreting through his reason, does rightly, and reaches truth. Even here then the use of the word is not colourless. It implies blame. It is the symptom of a philosophy which confines knowledge within narrow limits, and which, when held by Christians (e.g. Peter Browne, or H. L. Mansel), believes only in an “analogical” knowledge of God.  (R. Ma.)