Let me offer a nice bit of theo-jargon here—“anthropopathism”—for anyone who doesn’t already know the term. I’ll then comment on it and invite any responses.
An anthropopathism is the emotional and less-well-known cousin of anthropomorphism.
The latter term refers to human descriptions of God that use bodily terms—as in the Father having arms or legs despite texts that tell us he is a never-seen Spirit. An anthropopathism makes a similar God-to-human parallel but instead denotes our use of the language of human emotions to describe God’s attitudes and activities when he—as immutable—is necessarily emotionless.
William Perkins, for one, promoted this. He was among the most influential English Puritan theologians of the 16th century and his heritage is still lively among us. In his Treatise of God’s Free Grace and Man’s Free Will he asked, rhetorically, “whether there be such an affection of love in God, as is in man and beast.”
He went on: “I answer that affections of the creature are not properly incident unto God, because they make many changes, and God is without change. And therefore all affections, and the love that is in man and beast is ascribed to God by figure.” [Perkins, Works, 1.723]
Thus, God expresses his unchanging will so that he achieves “the same things that love makes the creature do” even though, in his essence, he has no feelings or affections.
Any biblical expressions of love, then, are simply figures of speech. God, we are told, does everything out of a sublime but dispassionate will: “Because his will is his essence or Godhead indeed.” [Perkins, Works, 1.703].
In summary, this priority of the divine will, along with a rejection of any divine affections because of divine changelessness, explain anthropopathisms. With this insight we then learn that every biblical reference to God’s love, compassion, wrath, or joy are actually actions of his ever-determinative will.
So, too, we learn, God is just wearing a warm and winsome mask in Bible texts such as John 3:16 “For God so loved the world . . .” In fact, he doesn’t really care about us but has a plan in mind to achieve good outcomes for us. To suggest, in this view, that he is merely a calculating God may sound harsh, but we just need to suck up our distress and start to be more godlike and Stoic.
The problem, of course, is that this has to be a carefully guarded secret—shared only with those in the know. Perkins, for instance, first offered this pivotal insight in his academic tomes that only theology students would read. From the pulpit, by contrast, Perkins was famously affective—always presenting God’s love as a profoundly comforting reality for all the saints.
Was he lying to his non-Latin-reading parishioners when he did this? Not in his view. He was, like God, just using the proper—but not literal—terms that the Bible offers to produce proper obedience to God’s will. If we need the appearance of emotions in God in order to respond to him, that’s just fine, but don’t look for affective authenticity in any of it.
But what if Perkins, and his current theological kin, are actually missing the reality that God does love us in emotional, affective terms? Would that make a difference to us? What if the Nicene-based doctrine of the Trinity as an eternal community of mutual love and shared glory were true? And what if Perkin’s devotion to the Greek philosophical and monadic axiom that God must be an “unmoved mover” was wrong-headed in light of Trinitarian realities?
Would it make any difference to us? Would it keep Bible College students from progressively losing their initial passion for God as they encounter the world of anthropopathisms? Might we rediscover God’s attractiveness even at the highest levels of theology by dumping Perkins’ version of God?
I’m certain that is the case. The Triune God, who “is love” according to 1 John 4, knows and directs the beginning from the end—so his stability is not threatened by love. Instead his love is the real and winsome motive for all that he plans and does. And the Bible can, indeed, be trusted for actually meaning what it says.
You are invited to comment on Ron’s article at Cor Deo
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].