As part of my training to be a Bible translator I looked at the book Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff. I don’t actually remember the book very well, but this is part of its synopsis (as at amazon.co.uk):
People use metaphors every time they speak. Some of those metaphors are literary – devices for making thoughts more vivid or entertaining. But most are much more basic than that – they’re “metaphors we live by”, metaphors we use without even realizing we’re using them.
This same principle applies to the metaphors we use to describe God and how he works in the world. A few days ago I looked at one such metaphor, justification. But this is in fact one of a whole series of metaphors which are used in the New Testament to describe how humans can come into relationship with God through Christ. As I touched on in a comment on that previous post, it seems to me that “salvation”, “justification”, “sanctification”, “redemption”, “regeneration/new birth”, “adoption” and others are different metaphors, all used in the Bible, to describe essentially this same reality.
But these metaphors are not just words. Each of them relates to a particular scenario which is conjured up when they are used. In some of these cases the original scenario has become obscured because the traditional translation of the biblical term is not clearly linked to the modern English words used for the same scenario. But in the original Greek the scenario is clearly present, sometimes explicitly in the context, the extended metaphor, in which the word is used, and sometimes implicit just in the use of the word.
- Salvation: the scenario is some kind of danger, and the metaphor is of being preserved from the danger, and perhaps of being victorious when in danger of defeat.
- Justification: the scenario is a court of law, and the metaphor is acquittal.
- Sanctification: this is apparently a religious scenario of priests serving at a temple, familiar from the Old Testament, and the metaphor is of becoming ritually clean or holy in order to access the temple.
- Redemption: the scenario here is slavery, and the metaphor is manumission, the release of slaves by their masters, or perhaps the purchase of slaves in a market in order to set them free.
- Regeneration/new birth: the scenario here is the family, and the metaphor is of being born into that family.
- Adoption: again the scenario is the family, but this time the metaphor is the less vivid and unreal one of being adopted into the family.
The implication of this is that it is wrong to assume that there is a real theologically significant distinction between these different descriptions. I am not saying that there never is. For example, it is often claimed that justification is the initial change of status and sanctification is the ongoing process which should follow, and I would not deny this.
But the real trap which many theologians fall into is trying to force distinctions on to the biblical data. This is considered justified by an understanding of the Bible as giving literal and objective information about God. Instead, interpreters should humbly realise that neither they nor any other human person, not even the biblical authors, can describe God and his works in literal and objective terms. All our human language about God is metaphorical in one way or another.
There is one seasonal exception to this. When the Son of God (a metaphorical description) was born as a human baby, he entered the world which we can describe with literal language. God’s metaphorical Son became the literal son of Mary (and perhaps Joseph). In his song The Servant King Graham Kendrick wrote about
Hands that flung stars into space
To cruel nails surrendered.
This has always struck me as odd, for it was Jesus’ metaphorical hands which flung stars into space, but his literal hands which were nailed to the cross. Nevertheless, the point is clear: the incarnate Jesus is not just a metaphor for God but the reality of him in a form which we humans can grasp. For God could not save us by metaphors. If our salvation is to be real and not metaphorical, we need to be saved by the reality of God.