Anthropomorphism and Authorial Intent

A while ago I read (and very much enjoyed) Does God Have a Future by Hall and Sanders. [1] At the time (Feb 2011) I wrote down some thoughts which I will now share. The book is essentially an edited version of a series of emails between Sanders and Hall discussing and debating the nature of God’s providence and the issues which surround this. Below my interest is in the discussion of anthropomorphism, metaphor, and accommodation which run throughout the emails, but is especially the focus in chapters 12-15.

The thought occurred to me that both Sanders’ and Hall’s (but Hall’s more so) overriding concern to interpret and synthesize the Scriptures for a theology of God is leading them to neglect the significance of authorial intention and audience competence. What we need to be asking is what was the author intending to communicate when ascribing thoughts and emotions to God,[2] and what we may imagine his initial audience would have found intelligible. What would the author would have thoughtfully expected to have been able to communicate to his audience in such a straightforward and simple way (such as short statements in narratives and prophetic oracles), without providing any philosophical or theological clarification.

Hall seeks to interpret texts which ascribe human characteristics to God (such as changes of mind) through the framework of a specific doctrine of God (“Classical Theism”), and does so by philosophically, hermeneutically, and theologically sophisticated and rigorous means. But apart from such means and such a prior doctrine, are we to imagine that such a reading against the “face value” of such passages would be probable or even possible for the envisaged audience? And what of the author? We would have to posit that he too held to such a doctrine of God and believed that the audience shared this understanding and hence were positioned to interpret the text accordingly.

If the response comes that we need to interpret passages alongside others within the Canon (and possibly tradition), then what of authorial intent? Is it only important for some passages and not others? How do we determine which become hermeutical keys for interpreting the rest? Surely we would need to start somewhere to gain a fixed point of reference, and this somewhere would have to be the authorial intention of a passage or set of passages. For me authorial intention (as much as we can establish this) is the aim of exegesis, and exegesis is the foundation of theological and practical appropriation of Scripture.

If we do consistently seek authorial intent, maybe we will end up with a more fragmented and varied set of Scriptures than the tightly coherent book which we would like. But,  if that is what we’ve got then so be it. Thoughts…?

[1] Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders, Does God Have a Future? A Debate on Divine Providence. Baker Academic, 2003.

[2] The IVP Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms defines “anthropomorphism” as ‘A figure of speech used by writers of Scripture in which human physical characteristics are attributed to God for the sake of illustrating an important point.’ Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 11. While this definition refers to “physical characteristics” and mentions “face” and “arm” as examples, within contemporary theology the concept of Anthropomorphism has sometimes been extended (mistakenly I think) to include human emotions and cognitive acts  being applied to God (such as changing one’s mind). It is such things which are often the focus of debates about God’s foreknowledge and providence.