Saturday, June 4, 2011

Metaphor Extensions

The metaphor is a wonderful thing. The authors of the Bible use it quite often to convey a literal truth represented by a symbolic idea. The motivation behind a metaphor is most often not to obscure (some of the parables in the Gospels notwithstanding [as they were intended to confuse the Pharisees]) but to illustrate.

However, metaphors are some of the most commonly misunderstood devices in all of Scripture. How are we to interpret metaphors? Does each segment or thing within a metaphor correlate to some other thing? If so, how do we recognize it? If not, how do we decide what does and does not belong? One thing that is for sure is this: do not “extend” a metaphor.

What do we mean by extending a metaphor? A metaphor is extended in the case that it conveys or expresses more “truth” than the actual intent of the passage or author involved. It is applying the illustration to other areas of Scripture, other ideas of theology, or even other thoughts or subjects within the passage itself. It is not the case that all uses of a metaphor are legitimate. We should examine a few as cautionary examples.

1. The metaphor of the dead.

First, let me be clear: I unequivocally support the biblical language of “death” in Romans and everywhere else it is used in Scripture. I am not saying these are not legitimate uses, nor am I claiming they do not mean what they plainly appear to mean. I am merely cautioning against extending the metaphor.

The metaphor of death is a powerful one. We know that the dead do not communicate with anyone, their body is nonfunctional, and they do not think, will, or do anything at all. But this is precisely where the extension of the metaphor occurs! Our Calvinist brethren (and they are brethren, just so everyone is clear) make this particular extension more than anyone else. They will read that mankind is spiritually dead, and so will claim, “a dead man cannot do anything; neither can he resist! He cannot will, act, or move. Therefore, God saves only those he wishes to be saved, and they cannot resist.” This metaphor is a favorite of Pauline theology, though it appears in James as well.

The problem should be seen immediately. First, it goes beyond the passage itself. That is, there is nothing in these passages that suggest, independently or put together, that all of these intricacies are being discussed. Second, it contradicts other metaphors. Consider in John 11 when Jesus answered those who said Lazarus was dead; Jesus responded that he was only sleeping! “Sleeping” is a metaphor or euphemism for death; but sleeping people are not dead. They are simply resting; they can get up at any time. Or consider the metaphor Jesus used concerning those who need salvation: they are sick (Matt. ). Sick people are not dead. In fact, sick people often have antibodies that help fight off the infection. So an extended metaphor here would mean people have a part in their own salvation.

Obviously, these metaphors are contradictory. But that is because they are only meant to convey specific points and illustrations! They are not meant to teach systematic theology in one shot![1] Romans 5 is about God’s love for the ungodly. God sent his own Son Jesus Christ to die for us, so that while the world was away from God, the world can be reconciled to him. That is all this metaphor in this particular passage attempts to teach, and it should be left that way.

2. “I am the vine, ye are the branches.”

This is a discussion by Jesus in John 15. Many aspects of this metaphor have been abused. As an example, consider the idea of “fruit.” This has been described as meaning “leading people to Christ.” However, this is completely unjustified; one will not find any reference to this anywhere in the passage. Fruit here only means the results of something. Those who are in the vine (Christ) will bear fruit off of their branches (the people showing the results of this). One can say that fruit takes good conditions to grow, and that it is the natural result of those right conditions. But this is unfaithful to the text; it is putting words into Jesus’ mouth.

Now, how can we tell what Jesus might mean by fruit? Look in the same discourse. Verses 12-14 detail that they are to love one another. Earlier in the same discourse (or later depending on whether or not John 13-18 constitutes an aporia) Jesus told them “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35)

3. The blind leading the blind.

This is found in Matthew 15:14 in response to the Pharisees’ being offended at Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ point is that blind leaders of the blind result in both failing to know where they are going, and thus they fall into a ditch. But doesn’t Jesus know that blind people also have sharpened senses? Thus, they can hear better, and after all, those who have ears to hear are better off than those without. Of course this interpretation is ludicrous. Why? Because that is not what Jesus intended! It is not the intent of the author or speaker and it is not the purpose of a metaphor to extend to every part of the illustration a segment of “real life.”

How can you tell if you have extended a metaphor? First, check the immediate context. If it cannot be found there it is likely you have abused the metaphor. Second, it is not always true that every person in the story has a representation in the metaphor. If the speaker or author explains the point, take it at face value and do not apply the metaphor further. Only in the case that the metaphor or illustration virtually demands this (like a usage in the Old Testament that the passage in question explicitly references) can one do that. In short, avoid making up stuff. Any questions or comments? Share them please!

                [1] Interestingly, this is why people think all illustrations of the Trinity fail; the metaphor does not extend fully and completely. But so long as one illustrates the concept of three separate things subsisting on the same essence, the basic idea is shown.

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  1. "They will read that mankind is spiritually dead, and so will claim, “a dead man cannot do anything; neither can he resist! He cannot will, act, or move."

    First, look at the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter IX "Of Free Will". What you have posted is not the same as what it says.

    Second, are you saying this is not talking about man being spiritually dead?

  2. Hi Brian, thanks for commenting! I can point you to many, many websites, articles, and books that claim this very thing. I was generalizing, so if you (or not you, but any Calvinist) do not extend the metaphor in this way, then it is not to you that I am speaking! :)

    I am saying the metaphor does not apply beyond what it explicitly or contextually states. So, since the Bible affirms we are "dead," in our sins, then we are dead. Since Jesus affirms we are "sick" in our sins, we are sick. But these are metaphors. Metaphors have a true reality behind them (otherwise they are empty words), and that reality is that we have imputed sin and it's our fault. Praise God for sending his Son Jesus!

  3. Thank you for the clarification. I'd be interested in references to the books (anybody can write an article or put up a website). I'm curious if they are "mainstream" authors. No need to post them, please email them to me. Thanks! and yes Glory to God for salvation through Jesus!

  4. Regarding metaphors 'versus' systematic theology. I agree that we don't expose anyone (least of all children) to the -whole system- of systematic theology -all at once-. But you might chuckle at my approach to teaching my (circa) five year ol son about "God" and "Jesus".

    He was a clever boy, and I feared that the egg, the shamrock, etc., would make him balk. They would make -me- balk. So what did I tell him? That God is the perfect being, who exists and exists uniquely in his perfection. God speaks. He does not speak many words. He eternally speaks one word. That word is "God". And that word is perfect, and is himself. He is the speaker, and he is the spoken, and etc., etc. He loved it!

    (There might be incipient heresy in describing God this way, but much less that what lies in describing God by wholes that are made of of three parts, I think!)

    1. Thanks for commenting! By your last line, I assume you mean analogies for the Trinity? Or do you mean the Trinity itself?


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