How Metaphors Make Us Moral

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.”

Arguably, John Sanders’ Theology in the Flesh from beginning to end attempts to show the significance of this statement by Orson Scott Card. He demonstrates how metaphors both shape moral reasoning and determine meaning. What if the church grasped the subtle yet pervasive ways that metaphors influence our ministry?

Metaphors are NOT like Similes

Metaphors are not like similes. We can easily locate similes. But they are like Chinese water torture…too many will drive people crazy. Metaphors shed light on everything we see and experience, though we tend not to notice them.

Metaphors matter far more than most people ever realize. I would even argue they are the most important link between culture and the Bible. This is another reason Sanders’ book is so helpful.

Metaphors embody truth

First, let’s clarify what metaphors are. Sanders says,

Basically, a conceptual metaphor is when we understand or experience one thing in terms of another—concept A is understood in terms of concept B. (p. 49)


Conceptual metaphors are grounded in everyday bodily and social experience. Metaphors are so ubiquitous and conventional that we typically are not aware that we are using them. (p. 52)

George Lakoff, who wrote The Metaphors We Live By, perhaps the most significant work on the topic, states, “Abstract thought is largely, though not entirely, metaphorical…. Abstract concepts are not complete without metaphors” (p. 272).

If so, why do I consistently find that both Chinese and foreigners struggle to identify metaphors in Scripture and their influence on our interpretation?

Literal or Metaphorical?

Metaphors make conservative interpreters nervous. The fear of extreme allegorical readings creates an ironic consequence. At times, it seems readers practically speaking disallow biblical writers the right to use metaphor. This makes for inconsistent exegesis.[1]

Sanders draws from a litany of research to undermine common impressions about the literal vs. metaphor debate. He summarizes,

figurative language is not first translated into literal language by our brains before it can be understood, and that, in many cases, figurative language is understood more quickly than literal language. Also, research demonstrates that metaphors do have cognitive content, have inferences about truth, and cannot be translated into literal language without loss of meaning. (p. 126)

Metaphors carry meaning that “literal” statements cannot. For example, take the image of God as Israel’s “Husband.” Sanders says, “Paraphrasing it as ‘Israel has an important relationship with God’ may be literal, but it has lost the rich inferences connected to marriage, and thus, forfeits some of the important meanings in the biblical metaphor. (p. 127).

We don’t want to be like those who deny the importance of metaphors because (they claim) we can simply “see” the truth when it’s stated plainly.

Metaphors shape moral reasoning

Sander dedicates an entire chapter to “moral reasoning” (pp. 139–171). He summarizes a study that powerfully illustrates the influence of metaphors on morality.

Metaphors can also shape what we think should be done about crime. A series of five experiments examined the results of thinking about crime as either a virus or a wild beast. American participants were given a report about crime in a city that contained statistics along with one of the two test metaphors and were then asked what should be done about the problem. The participants who read the report in which the virus metaphor was used suggested investigating the root causes and working to heal the city via social reforms. Participants who read the report in which crime was understood as a beast proposed rounding up the criminals and enacting harsher penalties. (p. 61)

Historically, metaphors shape how entire communities saw themselves and therefore made more decisions. For instance,

Sometimes, the metaphors used imply hostility toward others. Seventeenth-century Puritans used the narratives of Exodus and Joshua to conceptualize their move from England to America. They were establishing the “American Jerusalem” and had to drive out the Canaanites. The inferences of this conceptual blend helped make sense of violence against Native Americans. (pp. 145–46)

What if we shifted the metaphors we applied to ourselves and others? How might our own moral reasoning change?

In any circumstance, multiple metaphors are useful since various images serve different purposes. Alternating our metaphors might be one of the most consequential decisions we make when it comes to morality and theology.[2]

Cross Cultural Theology

The quality of our biblical interpretation, thus contextualization, depends much on how sensitive we are to metaphors.

According to Sanders, the Old Testament has 44 metaphors for God while the New Testament uses 50 metaphors (p. 218ff). That’s a lot of options to choose from when theologizing and teaching. Just imagine if we listed all the metaphors used to describe sin, salvation (which itself is a metaphor, i.e. “saving”), and the church, just to name three topics.

Western theology traditionally gives favored status to a narrow group of legal metaphors.[3] But what gives Western theologians the privilege to prioritize one set of metaphors at the expense of so many others?

Credit: Wikimedia/Rapyobro
Credit: Wikimedia/Rapyobro

Sanders examines the doctrine of atonement. If one emphasizes the Moral Accounting  metaphor, one will likely stress some sort of satisfaction theory, such as penal substitutionary atonement. By contrast, “thinking of sin as a cruel master who exercises domination over us as slaves [as in Romans 5–8] links to salvation as overcoming the power of the devil and liberating us from slavery,” thus the Christus Victor theory of atonement (pp. 178–79; my comment added).

We risk committing theological syncretism when we don’t respect the diversity of metaphors (at a practical level).

For instance, Sanders cites Wayne Grudem’s definition of sin as “any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature” (p. 185). Similarly, missionaries in China decided long ago that sin would be translated “crime” (zui). As a result, people’s theological thinking has been undermined (or rigged) since one’s view of sin will shape one’s view of salvation.

Metaphorical Logic and Worldview

I’ll offer two closing suggestions.

1) Identify the major metaphors that shape a cultural worldview.

A metaphor’s significance can vary across cultures (if they even exist in other contexts). For those in East Asia, a helpful book is Dilin Liu’s Metaphor, Culture, and Worldview: The Case of American English and the Chinese Language. Liu contrasts two major Chinese cultural metaphors (eating and family) with two dominant American themes (sports and business).

These metaphors do more than create interesting idioms; they shed light on an entire way of thinking about the world.Church as Facebook

2) Consider metaphors’ implicit logic.

Metaphors have implicit logic, but we must be careful in our reasoning

The conceptual metaphors we use are not merely ornamental rhetorical devices, but substantive cognitive tools guiding our reasoning. Different source domains deployed to understand the target domain often involve quite different inferences. (p. 146)

Sanders’ quote above about the Pilgrims is a case in point. Which metaphors have lost their force within our hearts?

In my mind, there is little argument we’ve lost sight of the Church As Body and Church As Family metaphors. We throw around words like “member” and “brother” but relate as though we use a Church As Facebook Friends  metaphor.

[1] Ezekiel 37 is a classic example, wherein certain interpretations assume the prophet speaks of an eschatological Temple building, rather than the temple of Christ’s body, despite countless clues to the contrary.

[2] In the book, Sanders discusses the effect of two common metaphors for parenting in America. Whether one leans towards an “Authoritative Parent” and “Nurturant Parent” model will drastically influence one’s political views (pp. 146–152).

[3] I say “narrow” because typical courtroom (juridical) metaphors are a small sphere of Law, whereas Law in the Bible routine refers to the broader “covenant” idea.

Credit: Church as Facebook image combines two public domain photos available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

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