Are Metaphors in The Bible? Why Scripture Needs Them

Many people have never learned about right Christian teaching, yet they call themselves Christians and attempt to portray their own beliefs as true doctrine rather than as their subjective opinions.

When they do so, these people often invent strange views and heresies which must then be addressed in order to prevent the disintegration of religious standards within the Christian community. Among these issues which have been raised is the question of whether or not the bible uses metaphors.

The Bible uses metaphors. The most famous of these is that Christ is the Lamb of God, for Christ was clearly not a literal lamb. The writers of the Bible use metaphors in to convey new messages by comparing novel insights to things which were known before divine revelation was given.

Some factions have arisen claiming that the Bible should be understood without metaphors and other poetic language. Below, we’ll be meeting and rebutting some of these views in pursuit of stable Christian doctrine.

book, poems, persian poet

“Scripture shouldn’t use poetic language because poetry is unfit for theology.”

If God exists, then nothing in the world can be nearly as important as Him. Therefore, only the most precise and reliable methods should be used to develop theology, for the purpose of theology is to uncover what can be known about God and man’s relation to Him. So metaphors should be avoided when discussing God, because their vagueness destroys our ability to produce reliable knowledge concerning Him.

“Poetry is better at concealing the truth than at uncovering it.”

tree, jungle, green

If a person speaks clearly so that the meaning of his words is apparent, then those same words can be easily assessed for their truth value. However, if a person speaks using many vague statements, a set of which metaphor is a member, then they may contain lies just as easily as truths, and only the most astute listeners will be liable to hear these.

Moreover, if a listener discerns a metaphor to contain a lie, and if they accuse the poetic speaker of lying, then that mischievous one may easily defend himself by pretending that he meant something else by his vague language and that his opponent has accused him falsely. In this way, the liar is protected while the astute listener is chastised.

So poetic language tends to be useful for spreading and protecting lies. Therefore, studies concerning important topics should avoid the use of metaphors, because figurative language allows many falsehoods to masquerade as knowledge. These falsehoods will then begin to propagate throughout the science which they have entered and undermine the validity of the whole field.

Therefore, metaphors and other types of poetic language should be withheld from theological discussions because they endanger the integrity of the theology which employs them.

“We should be able to clearly understand God.”

Humans are made in God’s image. No other creature may say the same. Therefore, humans are sufficiently close to God that they may understand Him without the use of metaphors. Poetic language is unnecessary for humans when they construct theology. When man’s lack of need for metaphorical language is accepted alongside the knowledge that metaphors foster error and imprecision, we may then conclude that metaphors are rightly avoided in our theological discussions.

art painting, mural, michelangelo

Why Scripture Should Use Metaphors

Scripture can use metaphors and other forms of poetic language in order to express truth. That these metaphors liken divine insights with material things is no problem.

This is because God has provided insight to man, and He has done so with the knowledge that man is a limited creature who uses his senses to understand the world. Man, unlike an angel, must then use his sensory knowledge to reason and thereby produce conclusions regarding truth.

So holy scripture, by likening the divine to the material, allows God to convey messages to mankind in a manner that man normally knows uses. This reduces the likelihood that a message will be misunderstood.

Moreover, the revelations which God has given to mankind is not meant for only a select few, and to believe otherwise is the basis of all gnostic heresy. Therefore, metaphors should exist within holy scripture.

This is because comparisons between the divine and the palpable allow dimwitted people to more easily understand the truths which are given to them. If revelation were delivered without comparisons to things already known, then only a small number of intellectually gifted would be able to fully comprehend what had been said to them.

So the inclusion of metaphor within scripture is a type of mercy, which we could reasonably expect from a merciful god.

Metaphor Is Respectful

Meanwhile, the first objection to the use of metaphors within holy writings should be met with the assertion that, because God and His revelations are of great importance, it is fitting that they should be expressed in the most effective manner.

This effectiveness will depend upon both the one who presents them and upon those who are meant to receive knowledge. Moreover, both parties involved will be human, and humans grasp metaphors more easily than abstract ideas.

Therefore, poetic language should be preferred as the main method for conveying divinely inspired truths.

theravada buddhism, buddhist, novice

Metaphor Protects Truth

The second objection to scriptural metaphor, the one asserting that poetry facilitates lying, is partially true. Metaphor certainly allows liars to insert false interpretations and strange meanings into divinely inspired truths, yet it also protects those who have found the correct understanding of what has been given.

This is because the same vagueries which allow liars to spread falsehood through metaphors also ruin the ability of those same liars to definitively assert their lies. These people may lie, but their lie can only ever be understood as a suggestion or an interpretation. So the true meaning of a metaphor may still be given despite the lie.

This truth will, if set against the lie, eventually be shown to be the proper understanding as the falsity of the lie becomes apparent.

However, if metaphors are not used to convey meaning, then a false interpretation of a truth which was thought to have been clearly stated may be advanced as an unassailable fact. The production of this false fact can then be used as a justification for ignoring all competing interpretations of the misunderstood statement. Therefore, decisive language in scripture has the effect of destroying truth, rather than conveying it.

Why Man’s Likeness to God Does Not Abolish Metaphor

The fact that man is made in God’s image does not mean that his understanding of the divine is so great that metaphor is irrelevant. I present three reasons for this.

First, the statement that man is made in the image of the divine does not mean that he is a perfect representation. So to pretend that man’s likeness to God is somehow sufficient for him to understand his creator perfectly and out of his own mental acuity, without the use of metaphor, is an error made in arrogance.

Next, the imperfect knowledge we gain from our imperfect representations of God, that is, those provided by metaphor, is appropriate for the imperfect connection which we have with Him in this life. If we were given so much and in such a way so that we could come to know God fully in this life, then we would have little to gain by entering Heaven in the next. Our understanding of Him would not be improved thereby. So the use of metaphor within scripture withholds certainty from us, and this allows something more to be gained upon our ascension into Heaven.

Third, let us recognize that although men are made in God’s image, some men strive to live in sin, and these are less worthy of receiving divine insight than those who have followed His precepts properly. Therefore, by concealing truth within metaphor which must be interpreted, those who are unwilling to listen or to think about the revelation given to them will not receive it.

In this way, revelation is withheld from the unworthy.

Concluding Remarks

The Bible uses metaphors. Legitimate views exist for believing that this should not be the case. The counterarguments are greater though. Through the use of metaphor, divinely inspired truths are both protected and withheld from those unfit to hear them. Truth is also made more accessible to mankind when it is expressed via metaphor. Therefore, a metaphorical understanding of certain passages found within the Bible is most appropriate, and literalist views are rightly regarded as dangers to the faith.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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