Metaphors We Are Saved By – or maybe not

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

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.

0 thoughts on “Metaphors We Are Saved By – or maybe not

  1. I really love the synopsis of that book. We use metaphors all the time, and I think it’s really important for NT exegetes to realize that and understand how metaphors work.

    So often when I talk to Christians about how Paul’s theology is full of metaphors, they get the wrong end of the stick, and think that by saying this I’m denying the literal resurrection and saying “it’s all a big metaphor” or something.

    But the really important thing with interpreting soteriological metaphors is that metaphors generally have one and only one piece of similarity with the true reality they are used to depict, and exegetes need to be careful not to over-literalise Paul’s soteriological metaphors by trying to get more true reality out of the metaphor than what the metaphor actually expresses.

    As an aside I mostly agree with your metaphor backgrounds, but would challenge your alleged metaphor background for “justification”. It’s background is not law court but rather morality: It is a moral term primarily, that is sometimes (but not very often) used in law courts because of its moral meaning.

  2. Thanks, Andrew. Yes, you are right that we shouldn’t be “trying to get more true reality out of the metaphor than what the metaphor actually expresses”. Also you may well be right about the scenario for justification.

    Just to clarify, I do not consider resurrection to be a metaphor, but rather something which happened literally as part of the real history of the incarnate Jesus.

  3. It strikes me as odd that the very people who consider themselves to be the truest followers of Jesus, a man who never said anything of significance literally, insist that everything He said be taken literally.

    … and they get their knickers in a knot when someone suggests that exegesis (and/or translation) has to be sensitive to metaphor.

  4. Thanks, Peter, for showing us Lakoff and Johnson.

    What’s really odd is how metaphor itself is considered literal, and/or is the atom of a linguistics that would be logical positivism. (Yes, I know I’m using metaphor, and mixing one with another). But what if Lakoff and Johnson could admit that even their “metaphor” is, well, metaphorical?

    A more refreshing look at metaphor is Willis Barnstone’s “Parable of a Greek Moving Van” in The Poetics of Translation. Barnstone notes how, in modern Greece, the proprietor of a moving van company has painted the word metaphora on the sides of the vehicle. It means (as also etymologically through ancient Greek, Latin, and English in transliteral cognates) both “transportation” and also “translation.” Barnstone suggests then that “translation is metaphor” and also that “translation is the activity of creating metaphor.”

    No one “has to be sensitive to metaphor,” as you put it Rich. But those who choose to be can conceive of even Aristotle’s “metaphora” as things like a pregnancy, a bearing through full term to delivery.

  5. All our human language about God is metaphorical in one way or another.

    An excellent point, and an excellent post. I particularly like your brief list of the various metaphors which attempt to communicate the change in our status before God, wrought by Christ.

    I completely agree that “justification” is a metaphor, and only one metaphor among several.

    I would go so far as to say that the sundry metaphors are not entirely consistent with one another. Indeed, a metaphor is only an approximation to the reality illuminated by it: it corresponds (like a parable) at one or more points, but not at every point.

    Therefore one metaphor need not cohere precisely with the next: though one expects that they will be complementary insofar as both metaphors correspond to a greater truth.

    One small quibble with your post. You seem to be somewhat critical of the adoption metaphor:

    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.

    On the other hand, the adoption metaphor safeguards an important truth: i.e., that we are not by nature part of God’s family. God and human beings are different sorts of entities, even if we don’t take human corruption into account.

    As Jesus puts it, we must be born twice: once of the flesh and once of the Spirit. Not quite the same thing as the adoption metaphor, but both imply that we must undergo a metamorphosis before we can be joined to God.

  6. Thanks, Stephen. I agree with you. Thanks for pointing out a couple of ways in which my post was less than perfect. My point about adoption being “less vivid and unreal” is that it is somewhat closer to literal reality.

  7. Peter – I think we should point out, as well, that the Greek word traditionally rendered “justification” has a semantic range that encompasses what are, in English, two totally distinct concepts, and I think that Paul exploits this at a number of places. The first is, as you say, acquittal. The second is receiving a formal certification that your penalty has been paid in full. The idea is that once you are arrested you are “unjust,” and you are not free to go until you have been “justified” – i.e. made just again. This happens when either (a) you are proven to be innocent (I don’t believe they had “innocent until proven guilty” back then), or (b) your penalty is paid in full. Paul uses both: (a) we are found innocent because we live in Christ’s righteousness, and (b) we are “free to go” because Christ has paid our penalty in full (which is part of yet another metaphor – “propitiation”).

    I don’t see how you can take these both literally at once, but they both explain important aspects of our salvation. (Incidentally, I think “salvation” may be literal, and the rest metaphorical.)

  8. Thanks, Kenny. That is helpful. But I wonder if both of these senses of “justification” are actually what Paul intended, or if they are simply different Christian interpretations of his one meaning. Do you in fact have evidence (other than assertions by Reformed theologians) that “justified” can mean “guilty but penalty paid in full”?

    I guess we can decide whether “salvation” is literal rather than metaphorical only by considering the primary usage of the Hebrew and Greek words in question. If their primary meaning is to rescue someone from physical danger or death, then their New Testament use concerning a change of eternal destiny is metaphorical.

  9. In terms of salvation, the NT usage is extremely similar to Plato’s usage (my understanding is that Plato was also the first to use the phrase “salvation of the soul”), so if the usage was ever metaphorical then, as widely read as Plato was, the metaphor was probably dead by the time the NT was written.

    I’m on vacation and don’t have BDAG with me, but in the online LSJ we have for dikaioo, “to do a man right, or justice: hence, chastise, punish” and also “pronounce and treat as righteous.” For dikaios we have, “observant of custom or rule … esp. of social order, well-ordered, civilized … Later: … lawful, just.” Finally, under dikaiosune we have “fulfillment of the Law” (Law is capitalized and the citations are from the LXX and NT).

    My understanding is that dikaios is the property of being on the right side of the law, and dikaioo means to make a legally binding proclamation that someone is dikaios. Once you have been accused, these are the two ways of becoming dikaios again: either to be acquitted, or to fulfill your punishment.

    It is also my understanding that when someone was released from prison in the Roman Empire he or she was given a document stating that the penalty was paid, but I don’t have a citation for this and I don’t know what word they used in the Greek east.

    Of course, even if this was established, it wouldn’t necessarily prove that Paul used it that way (I know you’re skeptical because you don’t like penal atonement), but I think that if we take Paul as using the full range of meaning of this word it explains a lot.

  10. Thanks, Kenny. Yes, maybe salvation is a dead metaphor.

    I am indeed wary about penal substitutionary atonement, not because I reject the doctrine but because of the huge mythology which has grown up around it. This idea that “he or she was given a document stating that the penalty was paid” has the flavour of that kind of mythology. And so does the suggestion that justification means full payment of a penalty. Things like this tend to become accepted facts, at least in certain circles, when there is in fact no proper basis for them.

  11. Mark, yes, I would suggest that God’s love and wrath are indeed some kind of metaphor. His wrath fits into the scenario of a person in authority being angered by and punishing disobedience by one under authority. It is not quite so easy to find a single scenario for God’s love, but one which fits is the comparison in Ephesians 6:25 with the love of a husband for his wife.

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