A Key Bit of Jargon

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.

Any thoughts?

16 Responses to A Key Bit of Jargon

  1. dave February 21, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    Ron – can you think of any songs or hymns that express the sense of God’s affections well – trying to help those I work with to have good songs to go alongside good preaching?

  2. Rob Trenckmann February 21, 2011 at 7:57 pm #

    Dave–I really like “More Like Falling in Love” by Jason Gray.

    Ron–nice to see this in print–such a key point!

  3. Gretchen February 22, 2011 at 12:15 am #

    In response to Dave’s question regarding hymns expressing God’s love, here are a couple of my favorites. In the interest of space, I’m including only one verse for each. The full lyrics are available online.


    Could we with ink the ocean fill,
    And were the skies of parchment made;
    Were every stalk on earth a quill,
    And every man a scribe by trade;
    To write the love of God above
    Would drain the ocean dry;
    Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
    Though stretched from sky to sky.

    * O love of God, how rich and pure!
    How measureless and strong!
    It shall forevermore endure
    The saints’ and angels’ song.

    Words & Music © 1923, Ren. 1951 by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188.

    Source: http://www.hymnal.net/hymn.php/h/28#ixzz1Edq8e7co


    O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
    Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
    Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
    Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

  4. Brian Pestotnik February 22, 2011 at 3:46 am #

    I believe that God is the greatest communicator. Therefore His words need to be heeded carefully. He certainly could have stated His own self revelation to Moses in Ex. 34 with different terms. He used affectionate terms about Himself. I also believe our capacity for affections reflects His image in us. What do you think?

  5. Ron February 22, 2011 at 8:10 am #

    Dave, it seems that those more expert in songs & hymns than I am need to respond: and thanks to those who have already helped here. Any others?

    And, Brian, I’m certainly with you. The Western rationale for a disaffected God is birthed in the Classical Greek efforts to reduce deity to a tight, logical starting point of ONE. But God is, in fact, One who exists in a communion of Father-Son-and-Spirit and the bond of this oneness is love. Given that neither Plato or Aristotle knew the living God I’m not surprised they got it wrong. The only question is why so many bright believers buy their starting point.

  6. Karen February 22, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

    I’ve known believers who believed and acted like Perkins–affective love was absent. They became “teachers” who could only pass on “biblical truths”, but without love, it became law. They functioned as the church of Ephesus in Revelations 2. And God threatened to remove His lampstand.

  7. Tom Lyman February 22, 2011 at 7:01 pm #

    Ron, I am afraid that I sometimes take the world’s definition of affective love and forget that true love is not self directed. I could love my wife even if I did not “feel” like loving her simply by doing for her things that expressed love, Doesn’t the Lord shower His love on us in so many ways, especially by the expression in John 3:16?

  8. Ken Abramson February 23, 2011 at 1:20 am #

    Hi Ron – a couple of observations and thoughts. If God gives his affection to us, I believe that God has put within us the desire to express “affective” love back to him and toward others as we allow his love to penetrate us. I remember those times when my children were young and would give us a gift as an expression of their love – we sensed their affective love toward us and then we responded back with joy – which gives a great picture of God’s love. It is a belief of mine that in the church music world there ends up being at least two different approaches to music. When you listen and observe closely what pastors desire for congregational music, I wonder if you don’t see a couple of different beliefs and how they view God as affective or not. I express those two approaches as this – do we sing to God (give and express our affections back to God) or do we sing about God (affirm good doctrine about the character qualities of God). I have observed in many circles that there is a strong belief that singing to God is dismissed as shallow and not really worthy of good music – with the belief that it really is just based on emotion. I have also observed that when pastors lean toward a non affective form of theology, they tend to believe that singing about God and “good doctrine” is the more legitimate form of music. (I realize that some music does both) Yet so often when I observe physical expressions in worship such as raising hands, bowing down etc., the songs themselves lean more toward affective music that are written with words to express our affections and love back to God. (much like what my young children would do toward us as parents) So if one believes that Perkins theology of mind and will is the more legitimate view of God and that God does not have affections – then one would lean toward a belief that affections and emotions aren’t legitimate in the music world. But even beyond music it deeply penetrates the discipleship world as to how spiritual formation happens and what is really important – knowledge and the will or an affective path of finding delight in a relational loving God and responding to that love.

  9. Joel February 23, 2011 at 2:03 am #


    Great blog! I think Perkin’s theological kin are doing a poor job at guarding the secret. Their view of a God without understanding the Trinity seeps in at every sermon and written work they communicate.


  10. Eva February 28, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

    How deep the Fathers love for us
    how vast beyond all measure.
    That He should give His only Son
    to make a wretch His treasure.

    How great the pain of searing loss.
    The Father turns His face away
    As wounds which mar the chosen one
    bring many saints to glory.

    Behold the Man upon a cross,
    my sin upon His shoulders;
    Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
    call out among the scoffers.

    It was my sin that held Him there
    until it ws accomplished;
    His dying breath has brought me life:
    I know that it is finished

    I willl not boast in anything,
    no gifts, no power, no wisdom;
    But I will boast in Jesus Christ,
    His death and resurrection.

    Why should I gain from His reward?
    I cannot give an answer;
    But this I know with all my heart:
    His wounds have paid my ransom.
    (Stuart Townend)

  11. Ron March 1, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    I’m thinking of Ken’s point about our church music (which, in its themes of love, is getting it’s proper notice here . . . any others out there?) and its sharp contrast to the God of Aristotle’s disaffected immobility. A very good reflection.

    I’ve often sensed (and have noted it before in my writing) that we often experience spiritual whiplash between our times of singing and the time of preaching when a disaffected preacher is in the pulpit with an emphasis on the duties of faith just after we’ve been motivated by our delight in God’s love through the songs. But, as in the case of Perkins’ very winsome version of God when he preached, an alert anthropopathic preacher knows that the language of love needs to be lavished on a congregation in order to keep them together: we need to feel loved. But in the inner-counsels of his soul he has to think it’s all a bit of utilitarian pretense, wouldn’t you think? At the least he must hope that his song leader doesn’t know the difference!

  12. Jonathan March 3, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    Its definitely interesting he chooses to use the proper terms to keep the parishioners obedience to Gods will. It seems that literal terms are less affective. Is that because we don’t respond to knowledge and aren’t built up by it as it does say in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” and looking into the why love builds up 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” to me Love seems pretty key and even 1 Corinthians 13:13 shows this by saying “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Clearly Love is important and it is greater than hope or faith. In 1 John 4:19 it says “We love because he first loved us.” so if love had any affect on Gods stability I think he would know not to love us first and would not want us in this love relationship with him.

  13. Ron March 8, 2011 at 7:16 am #

    Amen, Jonathan. When Jesus gave us the great commandment to love him and our neighbors it was certainly a call for us to reciprocate the kind of affective love he already has for us. Otherwise it would best be called “the great commitment” to “work hard at being more Godly” through our studies and best moral efforts . . . i.e. what “love” represents to anthropopathic practitioners.

  14. Louis du Plessis October 5, 2011 at 4:40 am #

    Maybe this is a bit late in the day, only having discovered this site a few days ago (after reading up on Pete Gall).
    I have been struggling with these concepts (among others ) for a long time, finding myself tending towards the stoic option, although I hate it. Where I come from many people just believed/said that you have to get over it and move on, which can be good but also sometimes harsh advice.

    When his disciples said ,”Show us the Father”, Jesus responded , by telling them that they must look at him.So what do we see?Somebody with intense feelings.

    I could for long not understand why the cross is said to have caused such suffering, many criminals have died that way too. Maybe it was because He had such intense feelings which made that and other things so intense.
    I’m new at this way of thinking and writing, mostly reading sites about recovery from self-destructive behaviour, so I hope this is on the subject.

  15. Ron October 8, 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    Louis, you’ve made an important point here.

    That is, a hidden assumption that those in the anthropopathic camp have made, perhaps unwittingly, is to divide Christ’s humanity from his deity. When, as you’ve properly referenced, Phillip asked for Jesus to “show us the Father” (John 14) Jesus made short work of that dichotomy: “When you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”. Jesus, in his anger, in his tears, in his joy, in his compassion, in his love, in his truth-telling, and in his judgments, was living as fully God, fully man, and fully one.

    This God-in-Christ is easy to love, isn’t he! It’s only our self-love and self-deceptive versions of God that get in the way.

  16. Rich Strode October 17, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    Hymn – My Song Is Love Unknown

    Words: Samuel Crossman, The Young Man’s Meditation, 1664

    My song is love unknown,
    My Savior’s love to me;
    Love to the loveless shown,
    That they might lovely be.
    O who am I, that for my sake
    My Lord should take, frail flesh and die?

    He came from His blest throne
    Salvation to bestow;
    But men made strange, and none
    The longed for Christ would know:
    But O! my Friend, my Friend indeed,
    Who at my need His life did spend.

    Sometimes they strew His way,
    And His sweet praises sing;
    Resounding all the day
    Hosannas to their King:
    Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
    And for His death they thirst and cry.

    Why, what hath my Lord done?
    What makes this rage and spite?
    He made the lame to run,
    He gave the blind their sight,
    Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
    Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.

    They rise and needs will have
    My dear Lord made away;
    A murderer they saved,
    The Prince of life they slay,
    Yet cheerful He to suffering goes,
    That He His foes from thence might free.

    In life, no house, no home
    My Lord on earth might have;
    In death no friendly tomb
    But what a stranger gave.
    What may I say? Heav’n was His home;
    But mine the tomb wherein He lay.

    Here might I stay and sing,
    No story so divine;
    Never was love, dear King!
    Never was grief like Thine.
    This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
    I all my days could gladly spend.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.