In Defense of Anthropomorphism

Edmond La Beaume Cherbonnier

Edmond LaB. Cherbonnier, “In Defense of Anthropomorphism,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 155–74.

In the aftermath of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, Mormonism embraced the intense Hebrew-Christian personalism of the Bible. The early non-Mormon reaction was that this was a theological Achilles heel, and many traditionalists found it “nonbiblical, nonphilosophical, and base.”

In recent decades significant Jewish and Christian voices have chosen to reenthrone this view. In the Harvard Theological Review, volume 55 (1962), pages 187–206, Edmond Cherbonnier wrote an article titled “The Logic of Biblical Anthropomorphism.” He urged that the language of personality, the realistic and so-called anthropomorphic language of the Bible, was not only unavoidable but was essential to understanding the nature of God, and was not simply a projection of our way of writing about the nature of God. Nothing is to be gained and much is to be lost, he insists, by substituting philosophical and absolutist language for the personal language of the Bible.

In the present paper, Edmond LaB. Cherbonnier argues that the biblical and the Mormon understanding of God are indistinguishable. His paper addresses the related question of why this view has fared so poorly in official Christendom, and the philosophical and historical confusions which, on his view, immunize many theologians from considering it. Cherbonnier touches only briefly on the issue which is both the most vital and the closest to religious life—the relation of a personal God to evil and suffering. Of the great philosophers and theologians who have rejected Christianity, unable to reconcile omnipotence and omni-benevolence with the terror of human evil and suffering, few have been willing to consider, let alone advocate, that, as Cherbonnier says, God is logically prior as an agent amidst agents. Far from being an “unmoved mover,” he is of all persons the most moved mover; that person most responsive to human need and yet unable to help when we throw our freedom against his or when we choose to ignore the eternal conditions in which the redemptive process operates.

T. G. M

When Christian thinkers have tried to judge themselves and their religion by the rules of rational argument, they have generally found the God of popular piety to be a source of embarrassment. A God who can communicate with mankind, and play a part in human events, is no doubt adapted to the mental level of children and of the uneducated, but is hardly taken seriously by the sophisticated. Hence the tendency, in both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology, to distinguish between those beliefs which are suitable for mass consumption and those which are intelligible only to an elite. And hence also the tendency to look with condescension upon those branches of Christianity, often referred to as fringe groups, which refuse to make such a distinction and which make no apology for conceiving God as personal; that is, as a being who can make known his purposes for the world and carry them out in human history.

No denomination holds more staunchly to this conception of God as Person than do the Mormons. The Mormon author, Sterling M. McMurrin, declares:

The prophetic religion of the ancient Hebrews is grounded in the belief that there is a living God who is a person and . . . that the souls of men are central to his purpose. It is a religion that must be defined . . . as an experiential relation of man to God and God to man; that is, a relation of finite persons to the divine person. [1]

Nearly any passage chosen at random from the Book of Mormon illustrates the point; for example, Mormon 8:22: “For the eternal purposes of the Lord shall roll on, until all his promises shall be fulfilled.” Quite consistently with this view, Mormons also conceive God as temporal, not eternal in the sense of timeless. The idea of a timeless eternity is incompatible with an acting God, for it would be static, lifeless, impotent. If God is an agent, then he must be temporal, for timeless action is a contradiction in terms. Hence the Mormon theologian, Orson Pratt, can say, “The true God exists both in time and in space, and has as much relation to them as man or any other being.” [2]

Carrying this logic one step further, Mormons do not hesitate to speak of God as having a body. Nor is this any cause for embarrassment, because for them, as for the Bible, matter is not evil but good. A disembodied spirit is a thing to be pitied, as it is in the Bible. Hence the assertion of Joseph Smith, “All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not.” [3]

What are the reasons why this conception of God has not been taken seriously by intellectuals, Christian or otherwise? Their reasons for opposing it are understandable and even admirable. They want to preserve the integrity of human reason against the credulity and superstition which often accompany religion. They want to show the thinking man that Christianity does not insult his intelligence. To that end, many theologians are unhappy with what they often refer to as “crude anthropomorphism,” and some even go out of their way to repudiate it altogether. They perceive it as a relic of a primitive mentality, wishful thinking, childish fantasy, or the projection of the father image upon the heavens. It was this latter idea which prompted Sigmund Freud to declare:

The whole thing is so patently infantile, so incongruous with reality, that to one whose attitude to humanity is friendly it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life. [4]

Julian Huxley concurs. He demands “the release of God from the anthropomorphic disguise of personality” and speaks of “reclaiming from the idea of God that garment of personality which we have put upon it.” [5]

Since time does not permit me to explore all of these allegations, I shall confine myself to two of the most common arguments against the conception of God as Person. The first calls it irrational because it interprets the Bible literally; the second, because it is unphilosophical. I hope to show that both these charges turn out, upon examination, to be themselves illogical.

Literal Interpretation—A False Issue

The first objection to the idea of God as Person is that it is based upon a literal interpretation of the Bible, which is sufficient to convict it of superstition and bigotry. The following quotation from an eminent theologian is typical:

The presupposition of literalism is that God is a being, acting in time and space, affecting the course of events and being affected by them. . . . Literalism deprives God of His ultimacy and, religiously speaking, of His majesty. It draws Him down to the level of that which is not ultimate. . . . Faith, if it takes its symbols literally, becomes idolatrous! [6]

Not content with this indictment of literal interpretation, this author goes on to impugn the motives of anyone who employs it: “[Literalism] is supported by authoritarian systems, religious or political, in order to give security to the people under their control and unchallenged power to those who exercise the control.” [7] Such magisterial pronouncements, occurring with an almost liturgical regularity, have convinced vast numbers of people, both Christian and otherwise, that the idea of God as Person is somehow bigoted and obscurantist. That they have done so must surely rank as one of the marvels of intellectual history, for, as will appear shortly, they do violence both to fact and to logic. Indeed, they are not so much an argument as a scare tactic.

Why then have so many people been intimidated, including a majority of the academic community itself? One reason undoubtedly is that there really is such a thing as literal-mindedness, an obtuse insistence upon taking at face value something that was clearly intended figuratively. A classic example is the famous German translation of the passage in Shakespeare about Duke Senior, who, during his exile in the forest, was able to find “books in the running brooks, sermons in stones.” (As You Like It, act 2, sc. 1.) Such a manifest impossibility was too much for the ponderous Teutonic mentality, which accordingly changed the text to read, “sermons in books, stones in the running brooks.”

Naturally, nobody wants to be that dull-witted. It is like not seeing the point of a joke. For fear of being caught out, however, people have allowed themselves to be stampeded into the opposite error, one which currently vitiates most discussion about how the Bible is to be interpreted. It is the mistake of taking a passage figuratively, or metaphorically, or symbolically, which its authors intended literally. If, for example, anyone maintained that when the United States Constitution speaks of an elected president it really means a hereditary monarch, he would be not merely mistaken but perverse. He might be a monarchist himself, but he can hardly justify attributing his views to the Founding Fathers. Yet this is what happens when people repudiate literal interpretation as a matter of principle, as Reinhold Niebuhr does, for example, when he asserts, “A literalistic interpretation of religious symbols makes for obscurantism.” [8] Though these individuals do so in the name of reason, it is they who turn out to be irrational. For wherever the Bible is intended literally, as it generally is, they inevitably conceal its meaning. Specifically, if the Bible really means that God is a Person, then anyone who takes it otherwise is like the monarchist who misreads the Constitution. He has a perfect right to believe in a different God, but not to impute such a belief to the authors of the Bible. That would only distort the text to suit his own predilections.

In the case of any other book, such distortions are easily recognized. The proper interpretation of most passages, whether literal or otherwise, is usually self-evident, for most authors want to be understood, and therefore take pains to make their meaning clear. In the case of the Bible, however, the question of interpretation has become the source of bitter controversy, not because the Bible is particularly obscure but because of a special claim made on its behalf that definitely is irrational: the belief that the Bible is literally true, often referred to as biblicism or fundamentalism. It is this belief that has caused so many black marks on the record of Christianity: the persecution of Galileo, the hostility towards Darwin, the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee. In their haste to disown such obscurantism, well-meaning persons have fallen into a serious confusion. Their proper mission is to question whether or not a given passage of the Bible is true. Instead, however, they often attack the wrong target. They condemn literal interpretation per se, as though it were inherently doctrinaire or authoritarian, when in fact it is frequently required by the context. When the Bible says that the walls of Jericho fell, it means it. Whether in fact they did fall is a separate issue. But it does not help matters to search the text for some other, hidden meaning.

What critics of literalism have done is to confuse two distinct questions: What does the Bible say? And, is what it says true? Logically, there is no connection between them. When tempers flare, however, logic is apt to be the first casualty. When that happens, distinctions blur and reputations suffer. That is what happened to literal interpretation. It has been the victim of guilt by association. Ask anyone, whether professional or lay person, to define biblicism, and nine out of ten will equate it with the practice of interpreting the Bible literally, as though the two somehow entailed each other.

In fact, however, the contrary is the case. Because the biblicist is committed to the inerrancy of scripture, he cannot stick consistently to literal interpretations. He may prefer it, but only so long as it does not jeopardize the Bible’s credibility. Whenever a given passage would prove embarrassing when taken at face value, he is quite prepared to avail himself of fanciful or bizarre interpretations in defiance of the literary or historical context. Consider, for example, how he reads the “Song of Songs.” Although it was written as a frankly sensuous love lyric, he refuses to take it as such, but treats it instead as an allegory of the love of Christ for the Church. Here his interpretation is wrong, not because it is literal but because it is not. In such cases (and they are numerous) literal interpretation is the corrective of biblicism, not its accomplice. The rational approach to the Bible is not to prejudge its truth, as the biblicist does, or its meaning, as his critics do. One may then examine it as one would any other book: first determine its meaning, and then inquire whether it is credible.

What then do the biblical authors mean when they speak of God? Are they speaking literally or not? Thanks to two centuries of scholarship, this is no longer a matter of guesswork, nor is it a question which anyone is free to answer as he pleases—anyone, that is, who respects the results of critical investigation. For biblical scholarship is unanimous in confirming what the Mormons have always held: that the God of the Bible is a personal Agent with a proper name. This conception might or might not be valid; that is a separate issue. But from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible conceives of God in the same terms that are peculiar to human beings, such as speaking, caring, planning, judging, and taking action. When impersonal terms are applied to him, as they occasionally are, they are used as they would be in the case of any other person, to emphasize some particular characteristic. One speaks of Stonewall Jackson or Richard the Lion-Heart; similarly, the Bible may refer to God as a rock, to underscore his steadfastness. To common sense the meaning of such terms is self-evident. Problems only arise when it is assumed in advance that God is not a Person. The effect of scholarship is thus to rehabilitate the plain meaning of the biblical text, after centuries during which it has languished in theological obscurity.

The most convincing evidence is to let biblical scholars speak for themselves. According to the late professor Abraham J. Heschel:

To the prophet God is . . . always a person, a subject. The prophet does not think of God as something absolute in the sense of unrelated. He thinks of Him primarily as of One who takes a direct part in the events of the world, [9]

The same point is taken a step further by H. Wheeler Robinson:

The personality of [God] is sharply and vividly conceived—so vividly that it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that He is the most clearly drawn figure in the portraiture of the Old Testament. [10]

A third scholar, Walter Eichrodt, concurs:

An unprejudiced evaluation of the Old Testament leads us . . . to see, however, that . . . the foundation of Old Testament faith . . . is His [God’s] personhood—a personhood which is fully alive and a life which is fully personal . . .. The divine will cannot be conceived as a dark, impersonal power or an unconscious life-force. It must be thought of by analogy from the demonstration of the human will, that is to say, as a being [who] . . . thinks, wills, and acts after the manner of human personality. [11]

If anyone wonders whether such remarks apply only to the Old Testament, let him try to make sense of any of the prayers in the New Testament, beginning with the Lord’s Prayer, without presupposing a personal God.

Concerning the details of what God has done, or even what he wants done, the biblical authors are not always unanimous, but that again is beside the point or, rather, it emphasizes the point. For before they can disagree on such matters, all parties must first concur that God is Someone; a personal Agent with a will of his own. For to say anything at all about what God has done implies a Doer; to say anything about his purpose implies a Purposer; to say anything about the word of God implies a Speaker. Abandon the premise that God is a Person and you undercut with a stroke everything else that is said about him, whether in the Bible or the Book of Mormon. In short, to use the forbidden word, the biblical God is clearly anthropomorphic—not apologetically so, but proudly, even militantly. As another biblical scholar, G. Ernest Wright, puts it:

Anthropomorphism thus indicates God’s personal relation to history, and to assume that we can dispense with it as belonging to a primitive stage in our religious development, is to separate ourselves not only from the Bible, but from the biblical conception of the true meaning of history. [12]

For good measure, Professor Heschel adds, “The language the prophets employed to express that supreme concern was an anthropomorphism to end all anthropomorphisms.” [13]

Critical scholarship thus assures us that when the Bible speaks of God as Person, it means exactly that. The next step is to inquire whether such a conception is credible. First, however, permit a final footnote on a curious irony. When people advocate nonliteral interpretation, the reason they often give sounds strangely like one that a biblicist might use. Interpret literally, they argue, and the Bible is vulnerable to disproof; but if it is interpreted metaphorically or symbolically, then like a poem, it is forever immune to criticism. The following quotation from Carl Jung is typical:

The standpoint of the creeds is archaic; they are full of impressive mythological symbolism which, if taken literally, comes into inseparable conflict with knowledge. But if, for instance, the statement that Christ rose from the dead is to be understood not literally but symbolically, then it is capable of various interpretations that do not collide with knowledge and do not impair the meaning of the statement. [14]

Such a proposal appeals to reasonable persons who want to defend religion without coming into conflict with science. Upon closer inspection, however, it sounds like the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy in a more sophisticated version. For if a given passage can never be pinned down to one specific meaning, it can never be refuted. The biblicist and his critic thus turn out to be brothers under the skin. In contrast to both, the rational approach is to let the Bible speak for itself and to take the risk of its being mistaken, rather than to twist its meaning. If such a risk appears fatal to biblical religion, it could hardly be more so than to abandon the conception of God as Person, without which the rest of the Bible collapses.

The Theologian’s Dilemma

At first sight the biblical conception of God does indeed appear untenable, for it conflicts with the nearly unanimous testimony of that most ancient and honorable of rational disciplines, philosophy. It was the philosophers who discredited the anthropomorphic gods of Mount Olympus, not out of impiety, but in the name of a loftier conception of the divine. As Plotinus said, “Think of the divine as God and you think too meanly.” [15] Does not the God of the Bible fall under the same criticism?

The philosopher looks for what is true regardless of time or place. That, for him, takes precedence over what may have happened at particular times and places. When he speaks of God, therefore, the philosopher speaks in terms of the general, the abstract, the universal, rather than the concrete, the particular, the individual. Such a God, as is often said, cannot be “a being alongside of other beings.” Rather It must somehow include all things within Itself. It is “the one without a second,” or “that than which there is no other.” Insofar as words can be used about It at all, they are such terms as timeless, impassible, purposeless, unconditioned, absolute, infinite. Clearly, the biblical God violates all these requirements. He is an individual, standing in relation to the world, but distinct from it. He is therefore regularly repudiated by most proponents of religious philosophy, as in the following remarks by the contemporary thinker, Marco Pallis:

Personality already implies some degree of limitation: every specification must always be sharply distinguished from the unspecifiable Infinite. So long as it is accepted that Personality occupies a lesser degree of universality than the Infinite, the Supreme Principle of All—there is no objection to admitting it as one among possible determinations. The enemy to be shunned at all costs is a permanently dualistic conception, an immutable persistence of pairs of contraries, such as Creator- Creature, or Worshipped-Worshipper. [16]

Such authoritative utterances, expressing the consensus of most religious philosophers, have persuaded theologians that no thinking person could subscribe to the idea of God as Person. In the name of reason, therefore, they long ago made a fateful decision. They decided to tone down this conception and to reach an accommodation with the philosophical conception of “the divine.” With the wisdom of hindsight, it is not difficult to see that their enterprise was doomed to fail. For while making overtures to philosophy, they could not, as Christians, abandon completely the anthropomorphic God of their own liturgies, hymns, and creeds. They were thus caught in a logical dilemma. For when they ascribe to the biblical God the attributes of “the divine” as conceived by philosophy, they tacitly contradict themselves. Though they aspired to rationality, they were trying to combine two ideas of God that are mutually exclusive, and were therefore bound to end in self-contradiction.

It was the Mormon theologian, Parley P. Pratt, who called attention to this dilemma over a hundred years ago. Commenting on the philosophical attributes of God, he said, “It is painful to be compelled to admit that such wonderful inconsistency of language and ideas have ever found place in any human creed. Yet so it is.” [17] In a less polemical vein, the writings of Professor Truman G. Mad-sen, of Brigham Young University, have clearly shown that the attempt to combine the biblical God with that of the philosophers is like trying to square the circle. [18]

In short, theology as traditionally practiced is a prescription for schizophrenia. Like other schizophrenics, its practitioners have developed strategies for rationalizing their problem. These include such technical devices as paradox, analogy, the via negativa, and two-level thinking. The most successful, however, has been the one already mentioned, the symbolic interpretation of the Bible. It is based upon the fact that the philosophers’ God can never be described in words. For language only functions on the finite level; when applied to the Infinite, it breaks down. Hence, all statements about “the divine” are necessarily metaphorical and symbolic. Statements which imply that God is a Person, with purposes of his own, are not wrong, provided that they are not taken literally. Properly understood, they are a poetic response to that ultimate reality which is expressed more adequately in the language of philosophic speculation.

In this way, an apparent reconciliation of sorts is achieved between the two ideas of God. In fact, however, it is hardly an equitable solution, for the biblical God is subordinated to the philosophical. No one ever suggested that the latter was a symbolic version of the former! As was pointed out above, persons who interpret the Bible symbolically have made up their minds in advance in favor of the philosophers’ God. They are therefore not prepared to hear what the Bible actually says, but only what they think it should say. By interpreting it symbolically, they subtly substitute the philosophers’ God for the Bible’s own, not after a fair hearing, but without one. Though the results may be convincing to the believer, the secular critic detects it for what it is: a magnificent tour deforce, undertaken with the best of intentions but nevertheless a house divided against itself. What the historian of thought, Arthur O. Lovejoy, says about medieval theology applies to Christian thought in general:

Perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of self-contradiction, among many such triumphs in the history of human thought, was the fusion of this conception of a self-absorbed and self-contained perfection.. .with the . . . conception of a busy interposing power making for righteousness in the hurly burly of history, . . . whose essence is forthgoing love. [19]

And speaking of that most systematic theologian of them all, Thomas Aquinas, Lovejoy adds:

Again we witness the painful spectacle of a great intellect endeavoring by spurious or irrelevant distinctions to evade the consequence of its own principles, only to achieve in the end an expressed contradiction. [20]

By strictly rational criteria, therefore, traditional theology is in no position to criticize the idea of God as Person. For though it aimed at rationality, it was trying to serve two masters, and consequently could never attain the systematic coherence which is the touchstone of rational thought. Consequently, when people tell us that God is dead, we should tell them to go back and have another look at the corpse. What has really died, after a long illness, is not God, but the attempt to combine two conflicting Gods, which could only end in self-defeat.

A Biblical Philosophy Question Mark

Does this mean that no consistent theology is possible unless it accepts the idea of the impersonal Infinite? This is what philosophers have maintained, and what impelled theologians to try to reach a compromise. I want to conclude, however, by suggesting that this assumption reflects a second major confusion in religious thinking, which, like the first, has prejudiced the case for biblical religion. It can be illustrated by a comparable confusion which has afflicted the various sciences. Why is it that science has taken so long to recognize the efficacy of such practices as acupuncture, medicinal herbs, and faith healing, or the existence of such psychic phenomena as telepathy, clairvoyance, and prevision? The explanation lies in a defect of mind to which no discipline is immune: the disdain of the professional for the amateur. The scientist becomes convinced that because only he understands the hows and whys, and because only he possesses an objective method for testing truth and exposing error, nothing is valid unless it has been discovered by that method. If he really maintained the experimental attitude, then such things as folklore, or the kind of therapy developed by so-called primitive tribes, ought at least to be explored and evaluated. To ignore the evidence is itself unscientific. Nevertheless, such things have been dismissed as old wives’ tales and rank superstition—until quite recently, when scientists have been obliged to eat their words.

A similar professionalism has infected philosophy. The questions it raises are common to all mankind—questions about the origin and value of the universe, the status of human beings in the scheme of things, the nature of good and evil, the significance of the individual and of human history, and so on. Ideally, all answers deserve to be investigated and tested. In practice, however, philosophers have recognized only those answers that can boast an academic pedigree. Other answers, such as those proposed by the Bible, are labeled “unphilosophical,” not because they have been tested and found wanting, but only because of their origins. The following statement by Benedict Spinoza perfectly illustrates this attitude:

They [the Israelites] had only primitive ideas . . . scriptural doctrine contains no lofty speculations nor philosophic reasoning, but only very simple matters such as could be understood by the slowest intelligence. [21]

That such an attitude is itself unphilosophical may be seen from the example of the founder of western philosophy, Socrates. For him, any idea was “philosophical” to the extent that it dealt, even if only implicitly, with the philosopher’s questions. He therefore refused to confine his quest to those answers that had already been spelled out with the clarity and the technical precision of the professional. He was not concerned with whether an idea already met the standards, but whether it could do so. Accordingly, he pursued his inquiries in marketplace and banquet hall, soliciting answers wherever he could find them, no matter how incoherently they might be expressed. None was too humble to receive a hearing, and none was rejected for lack of credentials.

To dismiss the Bible as unphilosophical, without giving it its day in court, is thus a sign of professional complacency. For it is at least theoretically possible that, in their present state of disarray, biblical ideas are like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, waiting to be rearranged into a coherent pattern. If this pattern could survive the philosopher’s critical scrutiny, then theology could be both biblical and philosophical at the same time. Perhaps, then, the time has come to reexamine the Bible in the spirit of Socrates.

Of course there is always the possibility—some would say the certainty—that such an undertaking would backfire. The Bible could turn out to be a collection of unrelated fragments that can never be fitted together. Prudence might therefore counsel not to expose it to such a risk, on the ground that they that live by logic shall also perish by it. The reply, surely, is the futility of two thousand years of Christian thought, which has either been frankly authoritarian or else, while trying to be reasonable, has tried to combine two incompatible Gods. So there is really no choice but to take the plunge and inquire whether perhaps the God of the Bible can vindicate himself without the help either of ecclesiastical dogmatism or of well-intended sophistry.

Actually, many of the Bible’s inconsistencies would be of little or no consequence if they occurred in any other book. It is only because of the controversy over biblicism that they have been magnified out of proportion. For the biblicist, believing as he does that the whole Bible is an infallible divine utterance, there is no such thing as a trivial error. The slightest mistake would discredit the entire book. The least discrepancy in dates or genealogies is as fatal as a contradiction in the idea of God.

Understandably, opponents of biblicism are delighted to argue on such terms. If trifling errors can refute the Bible, they can find more than enough to win the debate. What they seem to forget, however, is that the method of argument was artificial in the first place, having been borrowed from the biblicist.

Instead of adopting a sounder method, many people continue to hold up to ridicule such inconsequential matters as the age of Methuselah or the dimensions of Noah’s ark, as though such trivialities really do constitute a threat to the Bible’s main tenets.

That is where the philosophic method can provide positive help. For it does establish a scale of importance, based upon logical priority. One thing is logically prior to another if the first can be conceived without the second, but not vice versa. Straight lines, for example, can be thought of apart from triangles, but not the reverse. Straight lines are therefore logically prior to all polygons. When this scale of importance is applied to the more notorious of the Bible’s inconsistencies, most of them rank near the bottom. They are insignificant. At the higher levels there is often a remarkable degree of consistency, not least where the nature of God is concerned.

Not only is it doubtful whether even a single passage can be found that does not conceive God as a personal Agent, but the biblical authors also show a remarkable unanimity in what they have to say about him. The kind of thing they say is what any biographer reports about his subject: What he did, why he did it, what he said about it, and what his words and deeds reveal about his character. Similarly the Bible reports the words of God, his mighty acts and what they reveal about his motives, his aims, even his disposition. Of course there is room for differences of emphasis and interpretation; no two biographers of a person will ever describe him in exactly the same way. But they will unmistakably be describing a single individual. In that respect, there is a remarkable consensus among the biblical authors. Where discrepancies do occur in their account of God, they are of little logical consequence, such as why Moses was not permitted to enter the promised land, or how many animals Noah was told to take aboard the ark. The controversy over biblicism focuses on these relatively unimportant details. At the higher level of logical priority, and especially where the nature of God is concerned, the biblical authors are surprisingly unanimous.

For example, concerning the major things that God has done there is virtual agreement. Of particular importance is his primordial act in creating the world. Not only is this never denied—it is so important, and so fraught with consequences, that it is mentioned more often than any other act of God, including even the Exodus from Egypt. As a guess, one out of every ten pages contains some reference to the creation of the world. [22]

Another characteristic of God on which the biblical authors agree is that he has a purpose for the world, a righteous purpose which he makes known to humankind and which he actively promotes. Human history thus acquires a special significance. Historical events, and the human actions of which they are composed, are judged by whether they advance or impede this grand design. Of course this master plan is not accomplished in an instant, or disclosed all at once; it proceeds by stages and is only gradually unfolded, so that Isaiah’s comprehension of it can be more complete than Moses’. It also contains tactical surprises, but that entails no inconsistency. For the unity of an underlying plan often becomes clear only in retrospect, like the grand strategy of a military campaign or the moves of a chess player. Hence the regularity with which the biblical authors rehearse what God has already done in the past, as a clue to what his plans may hold for the future. [23]

This suggests a third characteristic of the biblical God on which the authors agree: his steadfastness. He is not capricious but trustworthy. He can be relied upon to keep his promises. This connotation of dependability is contained in several Hebrew words which have no exact equivalent in English, words like chesed and emet. Whether translated as steadfast love, goodness, righteousness, loyalty, or truth, in the original they convey the idea of God’s fidelity to his commitments.

Finally and quite consistently with the idea of God as Person, the Bible does not shrink from attributing emotions to him. No one has perceived this more clearly or expressed it more eloquently than Abraham Heschel in his writings on “divine pathos.” He says:

Quite obviously in the biblical view man’s deeds can move Him [God], affect Him, grieve Him, or, on the other hand, gladden and please Him. This notion that God can be intimately affected, that He possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also feeling and pathos, basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God. [24]

From a strictly philosophical point of view, the Bible thus contains an unsuspected internal consistency. But what about “external” consistency? Could biblical ideas conceivably hold their own against the giants of philosophy? Before jumping to conclusions, one might recall what happened when Moses sent scouts into Canaan to spy out the land. Most of them came back terrified because there were giants in the land. But there were also Caleb and Joshua who refused to be daunted by the giants. If it took the Israelites forty years to follow their counsel, it has taken religious thinkers nearly twenty centuries to venture into debate with the titans of philosophy without either compromising the Bible or holding some trump card in reserve in case the argument went against them.

Several recent authors, however, all with the highest philosophical credentials, have begun to do this with encouraging results. One is actually named Joshua—Abraham Joshua Heschel, already cited. Another is the late Professor W. H. V. Reade of Oxford, whose thesis is indicated by the title of his book, The Christian Challenge to Philosophy. It is futile, he says, to search for some academic philosophy upon which to graft Christianity, for “the only Christian philosophy is the Christian religion.” [25] Concerning anthropomorphism in particular, he adds:

When fear of anthropomorphism induces man to reject the idea of a personal God, and to substitute for it some product of abstract thinking, they simply delude themselves. What they propose is just as anthropomorphic as what they reject, and the only evident result will be that they have provided an inferior substitute for God. . . . The reason is that personality, however indefinable, is the highest “category” that we possess. Whenever we are promised something supra-personal, we may be certain that something infra-personal is what we shall get. [26]

A third author is Claude Tresmontante, of the Sorbonne. God, he says, is Someone. Though such a statement does not accord with the categories of traditional philosophy, it is quite defensible within the context of the Bible’s own system of ideas. That there is actually such a system, and that it can hold its own in philosophical debate, is one of Tresmontante’s main points:

The Bible’s teaching is not opposed to Greek philosophy as “faith” to rational thought. It is rather the opposition of one system of thought to another one of radically different structure . . . so we cannot pass from the universe of Greek thought to the Biblical world unless we forsake the Greek perspectives . . . and unless we wholly transform the system of references and coordinates. . . . indeed, unless we do question the implicit a priori and the unconscious intellectual habits of Western philosophy—habits all the more tyrannical because they are unconscious—we shall be unable to discover and understand the characteristics and the structure of Hebrew thought. [27]

Finally, this biblical world-view has been matched against that of traditional academic philosophies by the late Scottish thinker, John Macmurray, who not only establishes the validity of biblical thought in general but, speaking purely as a philosopher, actually endorses anthropomorphism as a philosophical asset rather than a liability:

We must think the world as a unity, and we have seen that this unity can only be coherently thought as a unity of action . . . we must think the world as one action and there can be no action without an agent . . . to conceive the world is thus to conceive it as the act of God . . . there is then only one way in which we can think our relation to the world, and that is to think it as a personal relation. [28]


The conclusion is that neither Jews, nor Mormons, nor other Christians need be embarrassed by the idea that God is a Person. They need not apologize for literal interpretation, for that does most justice to what the biblical authors meant. Nor need they apologize to traditional theology, for it has finally come to the end of a blind alley. Where then is the vitality in Christianity today? Where is it growing instead of shrinking? Among the so-called fringe groups who frankly do acknowledge that God is a Person. Is there perhaps a message in that for theology? Might it too be rejuvenated if it stopped deifying the subhuman and the impersonal? If it were based solidly upon the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, might it achieve the consistency that has eluded it? In the past this God has characteristically started from small and improbable beginnings. Mormons hardly need to be reminded of that. Would it be out of character for him to do the same in the realm of thought as well? It would not be the first time that he has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.


[1] Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965), 122.

[2] Cited by Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 122.

[3] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News Press, 1938), 181.

[4] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, n. d.), 13.

[5] Cited by Christopher North, The Old Testament Interpretation of History (London: The Epworth Press, 1946), 145.

[6] Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 52.

[7] Ibid., 51.

[8] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Faith as the Sense of Meaning in Human Existence,” in Christianity and Crisis (June 13, 1966), 128.

[9] Abraham J. Heschel, “The Divine Pathos,” in Judaism, vol. II, no. 1 (January, 1963), 61.

[10] H. Wheeler Robinson, Record and Revelation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938), 308.

[11] Walter Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, trans. J. A. Baker (London: SCM Press, 1961), 209, 211.

[12] G. Ernest Wright, God Who Acts (London: SCM Press, 1952), 49–50.

[13] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), vol. II, 52.

[14] C. G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self, trans. R. F. C. Hull (New York: The New American Library, 1959), 48.

[15] Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 619.

[16] Cited by Christopher North, op. cit., 144.

[17] Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1874), 157.

[18] Truman G. Madsen, “Can God Be Pictured?” Brigham Young University Studies, vol. 7, no. 2.

[19] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1948), 157.

[20] Ibid., 78.

[21] Benedict Spinoza, The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, trans. R. H. M. Elwes (New York: Dover Publications, 1951), vol. I, 175.

[22] For the Mormons, God created the world out of preexisting elements, whereas for traditional theology he created the elements as well. Which of the two views reflects that of the Bible is a question still to be determined.

[23] See especially G. Ernest Wright, op. cit., ch. 2, 3.

[24] Abraham J. Heschel, “The Divine Pathos,” in Judaism, vol. 2, no. 1 (January, 1963), p.61.

[25] W. H. V. Reade, The Christian Challenge to Philosophy (London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1951), 125.

[26] Ibid., 67.

[27] Claude Tresmontante, A Study in Hebrew Thought, trans. Michael G. Gibson (New York: Desclee Company, 1960), 141.

[28] John Macmurray, The Form of the Personal (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), vol. 1, 221; vol. 2, 222, 223, 173.