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(anthropos, man, and morphe, form).
A term used in its widest sense to signify the tendency of man to conceive the activities of the external world as the counterpart of his own. A philosophic system which borrows its method from this tendency is termed Philosophic Anthropomorphism. The word, however, has been more generally employed to designate the play of that impulse in religious thought. In this sense, Anthropomorphism is the ascription to the Supreme Being of the form, organs, operations, and general characteristics of human nature. This tendency is strongly manifested in primitive heathen religions, in all forms of polytheism, especially in the classic paganism of Greece and Rome. The charge of Anthropomorphism was urged against the Greeks by their own philosopher, Xenophanes of Colophon. The first Christian apologists upbraided the pagans for having represented God, who is spiritual, as a mere magnified man, subject to human vices and passions. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, abounds in anthropomorphic expressions. Almost all the activities of organic life are ascribed to the Almighty. He speaks, breathes, sees, hears; He walks in the garden; He sits in the heavens, and the earth is His footstool. It must, however, be noticed that in the Bible locutions of this kind ascribe human characteristics to God only in a vague, indefinite way. He is never positively declared to have a body or a nature the same as man's; and human defects and vices are never even figuratively attributed to Him. The metaphorical, symbolical character of this language is usually obvious. The all-seeing Eye signifies God's omniscience; the everlasting Arms His omnipotence; His Sword the chastisement of sinners; when He is said to have repented of having made man, we have an extremely forcible expression conveying His abhorrence of sin. The justification of this language is found in the fact that truth can be conveyed to men only through the medium of human ideas and thoughts, and is to be expressed only in language suited to their comprehension. The limitations of our conceptual capacity oblige us to represent God to ourselves in ideas that have been originally drawn from our knowledge of self and the objective world. The Scriptures themselves amply warn us against the mistake of interpreting their figurative language in too literal a sense. They teach that God is spiritual, omniscient, invisible, omnipresent, ineffable. Insistence upon the literal interpretation of the metaphorical led to the error of the Anthropomorphites.
Throughout the writings of the Fathers the spirituality of the Divine Nature, as well as the inadequacy of human thought to comprehend the greatness, goodness, and infinite perfection of God, is continually emphasized. At the same time, Catholic philosophy and theology set forth the idea of God by means of concepts derived chiefly from the knowledge of our own faculties, and our mental and moral characteristics. We reach our philosophic knowledge of God by inference from the nature of various forms of existence, our own included, that we perceive in the Universe. All created excellence, however, falls infinitely short of the Divine perfections, consequently our idea of God can never truly represent Him as He is, and, because He is infinite while our minds are finite, the resemblance between our thought and its infinite object must always be faint. Clearly, however, if we would do all that is in our power to make our idea, not perfect, but as worthy as it may be, we must form it by means of our conceptions of what is highest and best in the scale of existence that we know. Hence, as mind and personality are the noblest forms of reality, we think most worthily of God when we conceive Him under the attributes of mind, will, intelligence, personality. At the same time, when the theologian or philosopher employs these and similar terms with reference to God, he understands them to be predicated not in exactly the same sense that they bear when applied to man, but in a sense controlled and qualified by the principles laid down in the doctrine of analogy.
A few decades ago thinkers and writers of the Spencerian and other kindred schools seldom touched upon the doctrine of a personal God without designating it Anthropomorphism, and thereby, in their judgment, excluding it definitively from the world of philosophic thought. Though on the wane, the fashion has not yet entirely disappeared. The charge of Anthropomorphism can be urged against our way of thinking and speaking of God by those only who, despite the protestations of theologians and philosophers, persist in assuming that terms are used univocally of God and of creatures. When arguments are offered to sustain the imputation, they usually exhibit an incorrect view regarding the essential element of personality. The gist of the proof is that the Infinite is unlimited, while personality essentially involves limitation; therefore, to speak of an Infinite Person is to fall into an absurdity. What is truly essential in the concept of personality is, first, individual existence as opposed to indefiniteness and to identity with other beings; and next, possession, or intelligent control of self. To say that God is personal is to say that He is distinct from the Universe, and that He possesses Himself and His infinite activity, undetermined by any necessity from within or from without. This conception is perfectly compatible with that of infinity. When the agnostic would forbid us to think of God as personal, and would have us speak of Him as energy, force, etc., he merely substitutes lower and more imperfect conceptions for a higher one, without escaping from what he terms Anthropomorphism, since these concepts too are derived from experience. Besides, he offers violence to human nature when, as sometimes happens, he asks us to entertain for an impersonal Being, conceived under the mechanical types of force or energy, sentiments of reverence, obedience, and trust. These sentiments come into play only in the world of persons, and cannot be exercised towards a Being to whom we deny the attributes of personality.
A sect of Christians that arose in the fourth century in Syria and extended into Scythia, sometimes called Audians, from their founder, Audius. Taking the text of Genesis, i, 27, literally, Audius held that God has a human form. The error was so gross, and, to use St. Jerome's expression (Epist. vi, Ad Pammachium), so absolutely senseless, that it showed no vitality. Towards the end of the century it appeared among some bodies of African Christians. The Fathers who wrote against it dismiss it almost contemptuously. In the time of Cyril of Alexandria, there were some anthropomorphites among the Egyptian monks. He composed a short refutation of their error, which he attributed to extreme ignorance. (Adv. Anthrop. in P.G., LXXVI.) Concerning the charges of anthropomorphism preferred against Melito, Tertullian, Origen, and Lactantius, see the respective articles. The error was revived in northern Italy during the tenth century, but was effectually suppressed by the bishops, notably by the learned Ratherius, Bishop of Verona.
ST. THOMAS, C. Gent., I, x; III, xxxviii, xxxix; Summa Theol., QQ. ii, iv, xiii; WILHELM AND SCANNELL, Manual of Catholic Theology (London, 1890), I, Bk. II, Pt. 1; SHANAHAN, John Fiske's Idea of God in Cath. Univ. Bull., III; MARTINEAU, A Study of Religion (New York, 1888), I, Bk. II, i; FLINT, Theism (New York, 1903), Lect. III; THEODORET, Church History IV.9; VIGOUROUX, in Dict. de la Bible, s.v.; ST. AUGUSTINE, De divers. quaest., Ad Simplicianum, Q. vii; City of God I.2.
APA citation. (1907). Anthropomorphism, Anthropomorphites. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01558c.htm
MLA citation. "Anthropomorphism, Anthropomorphites." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01558c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Bob Elder.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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