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When is the Bible metaphorical?

When is the Bible metaphorical? May 5, 2012

Carolyn Arends speaks my language and my experience when she says her old days were marked by reading the Bible literally but now she sees more metaphor, but that means we have to ask this question:

How do we know when something that can be read literally is actually metaphorical? What are the clues that something is metaphorical? How do you know a “parable” is more metaphor? How do you know “Jonah” is not metaphor? How do you know the world resting on pillars is “metaphor” (at least now it is)? How do you know the “dragon” or Rev 12 is not to be a real dragon?

Most of us were earnest, sincere evangelicals. We weren’t biblical studies majors, but we saw the defense of the Bible as our sworn duty. Against the onslaught of those who sought to undermine Scripture’s authority, we committed ourselves to upholding it as the reliable Word of God.

One of the unintended side effects of our fervor was that we took almost everything literally, at least in spiritual matters. Generally, we weren’t very good with oblique metaphors and analogies. And if, like Bono, you talked about spiritual things in a seemingly unorthodox way, well, we worried.

There was much that was good about our impulses, and maybe they were necessary in a time when the “battle for the Bible” was raging. But for me, and, I suspect, others like me, our “literalist” convictions left us confused in significant ways—not only about song lyrics, but, much more tragically, about Scripture itself.

All these years later, I’m learning that understanding the literal meaning of the Bible is a more nuanced adventure than my college friends and I imagined. We’d been blithely unaware that there is more than one genre in the Bible, or that literary context profoundly matters to meaning. We didn’t understand that when we read ancient Hebrew prose poems (like Genesis 1), wisdom literature (like Proverbs), or apocalyptic literature (like Revelation) as if they were science textbooks, we were actually obscuring their meaning….

If you’d told me back then that the language we have for God—even (especially) much of our biblical language—must be understood analogically, I would have prayed for you and backed away slowly. I wouldn’t have understood that there are no words that can be applied to God exactly the same way they are applied to creaturely things, no language that can be used “univocally.”

When I say that I am “alive” and God is “alive,” the word “alive” is analogical, not univocal—it does not apply to me (a temporal creature) the same way it applies to God (who is eternal). The same goes for words like “good” or “powerful.” Connotations of imperfection or limitation must be deleted from any word when it is applied to God, and the notions (as best as we can conceive them) of total perfection and completion must be added.

Understanding this sooner would have helped me with biblical descriptions of God’s “wrath.” I can only get a glimmer of what God’s wrath looks like when I divest the word of the human implications of self-centered, reactionary anger, and condition it with the unchanging goodness that must clarify all of God’s attributes. Or take the word “Father.” The claim that God is our heavenly “Father” can ultimately mean something wonderful, even to my friends who had terrible human dads, because the word is not used univocally when it’s applied to God.

 

 

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