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January 1983 · Vol. 12 No. 1 · pp. 10–13 

Can It Be Real if It Is Expressed Only by a Metaphor?

Jacob A. Loewen

David L. Turbayne in The Myth of Metaphor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962) makes the point that really new truth, especially great truths which have produced radical changes in man’s outlook and behavior, have usually first come to him in the form of metaphor. (Here we must hasten to explain that Turbayne uses the word metaphor as a cover term for all metaphors, similes, models, analogies, etc.) He cites Galileo’s novel description of the universe as a giant machine with moving parts as a classic example of new truth expressed in metaphor. And we have to admit that Galileo’s analogy, in spite of its being denigrated and rejected by the church and the civil authorities of that day, it nevertheless carried the day and became a foundation stone for the all-pervasive scientific revolution of our era.

In our early mission experience we saw the oblique power of such a metaphor when a rather lowly evangelist, faced with deeply entrenched Mariolatry, avoided attacking it frontally and instead fortuitously coined his metaphor by means of the following question: When you are sick, do you go for help to the doctor or to his mother? Soon a majority of the community accepted the evangelist’s message about Christ as Savior and a remnant of traditional Mariolatrists were now put down by: “Oh, you’re one of those who still go to the doctor’s mother rather than to the doctor himself when you are sick!”

There is no question that from a teaching point of view the analogy is a tool par excellence. Good teachers always go from the unknown, and a comparison or an analogy with something the student already knows is the ideal door by means of which to introduce a radically new idea or to explain a totally unfamiliar truth. Both speaker and hearer know that when someone makes such a comparison, the relationship between the two entities is analogical and not one of identity.

Next Turbayne points out that once the new concept has been accepted, a new danger arises—people may forget that they are dealing {11} with an analogy and thus they begin to treat yesterday’s metaphor as something literal. This is especially true of religion which deals with the supernatural and so-called “spiritual truth.” Statements that obviously were metaphors when they were first coined or used, are at some later date taken to be literal. Probably the most classic Christian example of this can be seen in Jesus’ words at the last supper when he took the bread and said: “This is my body,” and the wine saying: “This is my blood.” What to the twelve disciples was clearly an analogy, to the church in later years it became a statement of literal fact as the doctrine of transubstantiation shows.

Since dialogue with biblical writers is no longer possible, it sometimes is difficult to establish where the line is between what is a metaphor and what is a literal statement of fact. I recently tried to demonstrate this in a congregation, the majority of whom had university education. I gave them the following list of statements about God and asked them to say whether we were dealing with a metaphor or with a literal statement. Their responses are given in the right-hand column:

  • God is my shield (Gen. 15:1): Metaphor
  • Our God is a rock (2 Sam 22:2): Metaphor
  • Our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29): Metaphor
  • Our God is my light (Ps. 27:1): Metaphor
  • God is our father (Isa. 64:8): Metaphor, but only after some hesitation
  • God is spirit (John 4:24): Literal, but with later second thoughts

Why the eventual doubt about the literalness of the last proposition? I think the dilemma comes from the very word spirit, in Greek pneuma and in Hebrew ruach. In both of these biblical languages the word covers the following area of meaning: wind, breath, spirit. The question now arises: Is spirit also a literal meaning of the Greek and Hebrew words, just like wind and breath, or is it really an extended meaning, an analogy—there is a supernatural nonmaterial entity which can be likened to wind or breath? There is no question that in cultures where people experience spirits—good or bad—they undoubtedly feel that they are dealing with real entities. But even that is really not incontrovertible evidence that pneuma and ruach, when denoting spirit, did not begin as analogies which then at a later date came to be seen as literal. (Cf English stock as (1) cattle, (2) supplies in a store, and (3) shares in a business.)

We also need to remember that when we describe God and religion we are dealing with something we say is infinite, but to talk about it we must use finite language. When one recognizes the finite-infinite dichotomy it is easy to see that maybe many or even most of our expressions describing the supernatural originally were in actual fact analogies or comparisons based on natural entities people knew and experienced. Just consider how much of our vocabulary about God, for example, is anthropomorphic, i.e., it describes God by analogy to {12} human beings. Examples: the right hand of God (Ps. 18:35), the feet of God (Ps. 18:9), God sits on his throne (Ps. 47:8), God works and rests (Gen. 2:2), God repents (Jonah 3:10.), God is jealous (Deut. 4:24). Obviously in the effort to describe God and his activities man has had to fall back again and again on analogies to human beings, their feeling and activities.

Another example of truth coming by analogy can be illustrated with the biblical concept hell. Here we must begin with the Hebrew word Sheol “the place of the dead” described as “a cold, dark place deep underneath the earth, the home of the souls of all the deceased.” The Greek equivalent of Sheol was Hades (cf Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:27). By New Testament times Sheol was already seen as divided into a place for the good, called Abraham’s bosom and the Greek word Gehenna in actual fact is a transliterated form of the Hebrew expression ge hinnom meaning the Valley of Hinnom. This valley lay at the foot of the southeast corner of Jerusalem and it was the dumping ground for the city garbage. People threw their refuse over the wall onto the continually burning fires in the Valley of Hinnom below. The perpetual fires and the idea of the refuse heap outside of the city thus were at the base of what was obviously an analogical extension when Gehenna became the label for hell. Of course, the Bible actually uses a number of analogies based on the individual elements of the burning garbage dump, not just the place name, for example: the eternal fire (Matt. 5:22; 18:8), darkness outside (the wall) (Matt. 8:12; Jude 6), cast away, refuse (Luke 3:9; 2 Pet. 2:4; John 15:6). The fact that it may have begun as a figurative extension of a literal meaning or as an analogy to a well known observable place beside Jerusalem does not in any way negate the reality of hell, it merely says that when the concept was first expressed, it was done on the basis of an analogy to something all the residents of Jerusalem knew. A new concept about the supernatural was being expressed in terms of concrete human language.

Religious language is full of such metaphors or words with literal meanings which have been extended to include spiritual experiences: lost, saved, passed from death unto life, clean heart, darkness and light, born again, etc.

An important implication of the above is that different cultures, circumstances or times may make it necessary for us to change to new or different analogies if we want to preserve the identical message. It is not the word or the expression itself that counts, it is the reality which the word designates (cf. German Bezeichnung). In fact, even the word book is not the object I see in the library, it is merely a word that denotes it because spoken it is just a series of sounds (written it is a series of letters) which in one language stimulates people to conceptualize this specific kind of object. {13}

If we now apply this principle to the expression book of life (Phil. 4:3) we have to be aware that first of all, we may not be talking about a literal book of paper pages bound together, but of a spiritual reality which we can conceptualize on the analogy of the books we know. We can see this in the English Bible itself which uses the word for scroll or book more or less interchangeably (because the scroll is indeed the earlier form of our bound book), but the society that knows only clay tablets and not scrolls or books may have to render the above expressions as clay tablets of life, and in the post literate society one can imagine a time when we may have to speak of the name disc of life or the memory chip of life. (Life itself is here a metaphor which really means the existence in the beyond.)

By this time many readers will have realized that my real purpose is to say that in the so-called “battle for the Bible” the issue is not really whether a word spelled b-l-o-o-d does or does not appear in certain verses, but whether the real meaning which is therein referred to by the word blood has been truly and clearly expressed. In fact, if a literal translation of the word blood conveys only a reference to a kind of liquid or possibly suggests a wrong figurative analogy, keeping of the word itself may in fact make us guilty of the actions so strongly condemned in Rev. 22:18-19. The Bible is God’s message to mankind, and as such it is not bound to any specific language or some special words. Infinite truth can never be fully captured by the words of finite language.

Dr. Jacob Loewen is a translation consultant with the United Bible Society. He makes his home in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

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