Metaphors of the Christian Faith

metaphorsAlmost all theology is based in metaphor. This is not because theology = fantasy but because this type of language is all that is available for the task of describing God. As I sit typing this, I could describe myself in concrete language: wearing khakis, a black polo, freshly shaved, graying hair … etc. But I have few such concrete terms for God, so I must take terms from my experience, my world, and apply them to God in ways that help me understand him. When I quote John to say, “God is light,” I am not making a statement that requires a degree in physics to understand. I am making a metaphorical statement about the purity and intensity of the presence of God in my world.

This is particularly true when it comes to describing our relationship with God. The Bible authors employ many different metaphorical ways of understanding this situation, especially the restoration of the relationship damaged by my rebellion against God and his authority. Consider a few:

  1. Redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις, e.g., Rom. 3:24). This is a metaphor drawn from the slavery system of the ancient world and refers to the buying back of a slave and perhaps releasing him.
  2. Reconciliation (καταλλαγή, e.g., 2 Cor 5:19). In context of 2 Corinthians 5, this is a metaphor drawn from the world of diplomacy, ambassadors working on behalf of kings.
  3. Forgiveness (Remission) of Sins (ἄφεσις, e.g., Acts 2:38). This word means “release,” and had several applications in NT times, including the word for “divorce.” Theologically, however, it is drawn from the financial world to bring up the metaphorical image of cancelling a debt.
  4. Names in Book of Life (τὰ ὀνόματα ἐν βίβλῳ ζωῆς, e.g., Philippians 4:3, also Rev 21:27). This is an metaphor from the government world of censuses, keeping lists of persons enrolled as citizens. Aside: do we really think there are giant dusty volumes in heaven with names inscribed by angels? Haven’t they updated to Windows 10?
  5. Justification (δικαίωσις, e.g., Romans 4:25). This is a metaphor drawn from the legal world and refers to the acquittal of a person charged with a crime.

There are many other such metaphors used to describe a restored relationship with God: gospel (good news), salvation, ransom, transformation, restoration, peace, etc. But here is the kicker: these are all talking about the same thing! We use the arenas of language available to us in theological ways to describe this renewed relationship. Through faith in Christ, we are no longer alienated from God.

One of the problems for Evangelical Christians has been to see everything exclusively through the lens of Paul’s understandings. This is particularly true here, and the forensic language of “justification” has trumped all others for most Reformed theologians. This is reductionistic and misses the richness of the Bible’s other metaphorical descriptions. The references above serve to show that Paul employed many metaphors for salvation. Some are unique to him, leading us to think that he might have coined them himself using his fertile metaphorical imagination (metaphor from agriculture if you didn’t notice it).

So let us not park exclusively on the idea of God as a Judge who has pardoned us. He is also a Father who allows us to call him Abba (Daddy). He is also a rich person who adopts us as his heirs. And I have not come close to exhausting the metaphorical language.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Note: due to my responsibilities as the Academic Dean at Nebraska Christian College and Crossroads College, I have neglected to blog much for the last several months. Our NC accreditation review is almost done, and I intend resuming weekly posts. Thank you for your patience.

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One thought on “Metaphors of the Christian Faith

  1. Thanks Mark! This taps into why I have enjoyed exploring the theological imagery of the Orthodox over last couple of years – they have a rich perspective that goes beyond the justification/legal model of the western church.

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