Order of Contents
Theological Explanation: John Howe
In scripture sometimes grief, vexation, repentance, rejoicing and other human passions are attributed to God. These expressions are called anthropopathisms (man-like passions). Such expressions are often explained by what they don’t mean, that they are not literal, God is speaking as a man, does not have passions, does not change, and that God’s eternal purpose is sure, all of which is perfectly true. Yet, are we to believe that these scriptural expressions mean nothing? What do anthropopathisms positively teach about God?
While God is perfectly blessed in Himself, immutable, self-sufficient and does not have passions (WCF 2.1-2), yet these scriptural expressions express a real aversion in God’s benevolent nature and revealed will to human sin and the creature’s perishing. God in his nature is “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth,” to all men (WCF 2.1) and God’s revealed will is that “God created man… so that he might rightly know God His Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify Him” (Heidelberg Catechism, #6). In the words of Shorter Catechism #1, “the chief end [design] of man[kind] is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
Anthropopathisms express God’s revealed displeasure, in the only way that the finite creature can begin to conceive of it, that man has gone contrary to God’s revealed will and nature.
The puritan John Howe carefully defines the issue below. The other puritan and reformed quotes below confirm this interpretation.
A Theological Explanation by John Howe 1630-1705
The Redeemer’s Tears Wept Over Lost Souls, in Works, vol. 2, p. 358-361
“And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.”
“But when expressions that import anger, or grief, are used [Gen. 6:6; Jud. 10:16; Ps. 78:40; 95:10; etc.], even concerning God Himself, we must sever in our conception everything of imperfection, and ascribe everything of real perfection. We are not to think such expressions signify nothing, that they have no meaning, or that nothing at all is to be attributed to Him under them.
Nor are we, again, to think they signify the same thing with what we find in ourselves, and are wont to express by those names. In the divine nature, there may be real, and yet most serene complacency and displacency, viz. that are unaccompanied with the least commotion, and import nothing of imperfection, but perfection rather, as it is a perfection to apprehend things suitably to what in themselves they are. The holy Scriptures frequently speak of God as angry, and grieved for the sins of men, and their miseries which ensue therefrom: and a real aversion and dislike is signified thereby, and by many other expressions which, in us, would signify vehement agitations of affection that we are sure can have no place in Him. We ought, therefore, in our own thoughts to ascribe to Him that calm aversion of will, in reference to the sins and miseries of men in general; and, in our own apprehensions, to remove to the utmost distance from Him all such agitations of passion or affection, even though some expressions that occur carry a great appearance thereof, should they be understood according to human measures, as they are human forms of speech. As, to instance in what is said by the glorious God Himself, and very near in sense to what we have in the text [Luke 19:41-42], what can be more pathetic than that lamenting wish, (Ps. 81:13) “Oh that my people had hearkened unto Me, and Israel had walked in my ways?”
But we must take heed, lest, under the pretence that we cannot ascribe everything to God that such expressions seem to import, we therefore ascribe nothing. We ascribe nothing, if we do not ascribe to Him a real unwillingness that men should sin on, and perish; and consequently, a real willingness that they should turn to Him, and live; which so many plain texts assert. And therefore it is unavoidably imposed upon us to believe that God is truly unwilling of some things, which He does not think fit to interpose his omnipotency to hinder; and is truly willing of some things which He does not put forth his omnipotency to effect; that He most fitly makes this the ordinary course of his mises, and threatenings, (made most express to them that live under the gospel) to work upon their minds, their hope, and their fear; affording them the ordinary assistances of supernatural light and influence, with which He requires them to comply, and which, upon their refusing to do so, He may most righteously withhold, and give them the victory to their own ruin; though often times He does, from a sovereignty of grace, put forth that greater power upon others, equally negligent and obstinate, not to enforce, but effectually to incline, their wills, and gain a victory over them, to their salvation.
Now such expressions as these, though they are borrowed from man, and must be understood suitably to God; though they do not signify the same thing with Him as they do in us, yet they do not signify nothing. As when hands and eyes are attributed to God, they do not signify as they do with us, yet they signify somewhat correspondent, as active and visive power; so these expressions, though they signify not in God such unquiet motions and passions as they would in us, they do signify a mind and will, really, though with the most perfect calmness and tranquility, set against sin and the horrid consequences of it, which yet, for greater reasons than we can understand, He may not see fit to do all He can to prevent. And if we know not how to reconcile such a will in God, with some of our notions concerning the divine nature; shall we, for what we have thought of Him, deny what He has so expressly said of Himself, or pretend to understand his nature better than He Himself does?”
Appendix, p. 386
“Unto what also is discoursed concerning anger and grief (or other passions) ascribed to God, it will not be unfit here to add, that unless they be allowed to signify real aversion of will, no account is to be given what reality in Him they can signify at all. For to say (what some do seem to satisfy themselves with) that they are to be understood secundum effectum [a following effect], not secundum affectum [a following affection], though true as to the negative part, is, as to the affirmative, very defective and short; for the effects of anger and grief, upon which those names are put, when spoken of God, are not themselves in Him, but in us. But we are still at a loss what they signify in Him. Such effects must have some cause. And if they be effects which He works, they must have some cause in Himself that is before them, and productive of them. This account leaves us to seek what that cause is that is signified by these names. That it cannot be any passion, as the names are wont to signify with us, is out of the question. Nor indeed do those names primarily, and most properly, signify passion in ourselves. The passion is consequently only, by reason of that inferior nature in us which is susceptible of it. But the aversion of our mind and will is before it, and, in another subject, very separable from it, and possible to be without it. In the blessed God we cannot understand [that] anything less is signified than real displacency at the things whereat He is said to be angry or grieved.”
Order of Quotes
Thomas Vincent 1669
O.T. Allis †1973
Johannes G. Vos †1983
Thomas Vincent 1669
The Conversion of a Sinner, Explained and Applied, a sermon on Eze. 33:11, 1669, in The Puritans on Conversion, reprinted Soli Deo Gloria, 1990, pp. 146
“1. If you turn not [in conversion], you cannot answer the end [design] of your creation. You must not think God gave you a being and sent you into the world to please yourselves, to satisfy your inordinate and corrupt desires, and to live carelessly and rebelliously against Him. But this you do until you are converted. Did the Lord give you an understanding faculty, and not design that He should be understood and known by you? Did He give you a heart to love and to desire, and not design Himself as the Chief Object of both? Did He give you affections that you should give them away to sin and vanity? Oh, do not cross the end [design] for which you were made any longer lest you cause the Lord to ‘repent and grieve’ at the heart He made you, Gen. 6:6, and so resolve to destroy the workmanship of His own hands…”
O.T. Allis 1880-1973
Allis was an eminent reformed scholar and professor at old Princeton Seminary and early Westminster seminary.
God Spake by Moses: an Exposition of the Penteteuch (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1951), p. 23
“[Genesis 6] Verses 5-8 give the most terrible picture of human degradation, to which only Romans 1 compares; and the strongest anthropomorphic expression is used, ‘and it repented the Lord’, to describe God’s reaction to this almost utter perversion of His creative purpose. While it is the moral effects of sin which are summarily described in these few terrible words, it is to be noted that the physical effects may have been and probably were equally marked. Sin brutalizes!”
Johannes G. Vos 1903-1983
Genesis (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown & Covenant, 2006), p. 124
“‘And it repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at his heart’ ([Genesis] 6:6). This, of course, is anthropomorphic language; it speaks of God as if He were a man. Actually, God does not repent (1 Sam. 15:29); God does not change His mind; He has a single, consistent purpose that He follows from eternity to eternity. When the Bible speaks of God as ‘repenting’ or changing His mind, this means that He changed His attitude toward some of His creatures. The change of attitude itself was part of the original purpose of God and was planned from eternity. So, in the present passage, the truth is expressed that God changed His attitude toward the human race. Human sin had developed to such an extreme degree that the purpose for which man had been created could no longer be accomplished. A new beginning had to be made with the godly remnant of the race, while the mass of the wicked had to be destroyed. This, of course, was known and planned by God from eternity; the change was in God’s attitude toward man, not in God’s own intentions and purposes.”
John Howe on God’s Revealed Will is Actually his Will
John Howe on the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel
The Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel
Historic Reformed Quotes on the Sincere Free Offer of the Gospel