On Metaphor

Before we continue to examine the scandal of the cross I would like to take a brief look at the concept of metaphor and symbol, as it is important to understanding theological discourse.

This is not a boat

It is just a pile of 1’s and 0’s that most assuredly will not float. It is in a sense a metaphor or symbol for a boat, not an actual boat. Furthermore it is a number of other things all together: a picture, a photograph, in this case a piece of art, it could represent history, it is html code, and maybe a few other things as well. One thing it is not, is an actual floating boat.

So it is with theological language. The language, even the concepts are not the reality behind them. The word atonement, event the concept of atonement is not the same as what Jesus actually did on the cross, especially from his and/or God's perspective.

If we want to talk about boats its nice to have a picture of one, but its not the same as sailing. And like wise, when we need to talk about theology (and we most assuredly do need to talk about it) its nice to have word pictures and concepts to use, but it is not the same as the actual reality.

Secondly, boats change. A dugout canoe and an aircraft carrier, they both float in water, but are slightly different. Over the course of time, depending on the needs of the user, boats and metaphors change.

Thirdly, boats and metaphors are bound up in their time and place, and must be used or at least understood in light of their surrounding culture. No one wants to float an aircraft carrier down a river, and a navy man doesn’t want to go to war with a dugout canoe.

All of this comes into play when interpreting the Bible. We can’t just grab words and or metaphors out of the Bible without being cognizant of the authors surrounding culture and his intent. Additionally while we absolutely want to hold on to the original metaphors, we need to realize that, A, they must be translated, and B, they already have been translated, over and over again through two thousand years of church history. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just something to recognize and be aware of. (though when done improperly it certainly is a bad thing.)

Additionally, we also bring our baggage to the table. Those of us who have grown up in the church have been raised with X metaphor, or Y metaphor for this or that. Those metaphor’s may have been appropriate to their original audience, (or not) and they may continue to be appropriate in this particular time and place, (or not). (Don’t read too much doubt into that last sentence, I’m just stating that either/or may be true) Consequently, we need to occasionally reexamine if the metaphors we are using, communicate to our audience A, what the original author wanted them to communicate, and B, what we want to communicate. Yes, A and B are often the same thing, but not necessarily. For instance, Paul may address women covering their heads, we may simply choose to only address modesty, or respect.

I say all of this simply to serve as background for the upcoming post on the scandal of the cross, but also for your own benefit in your own future endeavors in Biblical interpretation. I think it also illustrates that though the Bible may be infallible, interpreting it certainly is not.

Do you look at all of this a different way? Please tell me about it.


Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov said...

I read this earlier this week. I don't think it affirms or denies what you are saying but I just wanted your take on it in light of this post. If language is symbolic of the reality it tries to depict (like a picture). Does this mean that we only have allegory and finite symbols that will always fail to depict God truthfully? If this is the case, then the whole enterprise of theology is basically useless. I sometimes resonate with this position. But then I read this by Benedict XVI before he was Pope, and it brings hope:

"The truth about God is not abolished or reduced because it is spoken in human language; rather, it is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God."

By this he means that God became incarnate as a finite object in Jesus a human. Thus, if we are to claim that our finite symbols and languages can never hope to say something ultimately truthful about God then in a sense we deny the incarnation because in this act God revealed his infinite reality in finite form. Therefore, our finite symbols are not completely limited in describing eternal reality because they can describe Jesus who is the full revelation of God.

What do you think?

David Baxley said...

Nice job brother. I enjoyed that a lot and it was good stuff well written. I will think about it more and then try to through some stuff at you (examples). Anyways well written and cool stuff! I will read again just to think about it some more.