Every Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Anthropomorphism and God
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian who was murdered by the Nazis. Many people don’t delve too deeply into his theology, but I have found reading his broader works to be quite rewarding. Here’s a passage from his Creation and Fall:
God… receives a very specific proper name, Yahweh… One could suppose that such a proper name is evidence of a very primitive idea of God… yet just at this point one must reply that anthropomorphism in thinking of God… is no more irrelevant… than is the abstract use of the generic term ‘deity.’ On the contrary, clear anthropomorphism much more plainly expresses the fact that we cannot think of ‘God as such’ whether in one way or another. The abstract concept of God, precisely because it seeks not to be anthropomorphic, is in actual fact much more so than is childlike anthropomorphism. (74-75, sections 69-70, cited below)
Here, then, Bonhoeffer’s point is that merely abstracting the concept of God and speaking of God “as such” actually does just as much damage to our understanding of God as does “clear anthropomorphism.” That is, when we make God into a kind of philosophical construct, we are just as far away from the relational, radically personal God of the Bible as if we were to be anthropomorphic in a childlike way. For, as he points out in the last sentence above, we put God into our categories rather than the categories of Scripture.
I think Bonhoeffer has a good point here, one that warns people like me who are philosophically minded to remember that our God is an active God. Although it seems clear Bonhoeffer would not deny something like saying God is omnipotent, what he is denying is that we can use those categories to reach “God as such” and fit God into them alone. God–Yahweh–is much more than that, and we need to remember that.
What do you think? Can anthropomorphism be a helpful way to understand God? What dangers, if any, might come from making an abstract concept of deity?
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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall Douglas Stephen Bax, Translator (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2004).