Literally Metaphorical

In The History of an Idea I talk about how we should understand the meaning of a word especially when it comes to theological jargon. What about the ways in which words are used?

We employ words, sometimes the same word, in many different ways. The great Catholic philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, talked about three different ways we use words. First we can use a word univocally, which means it used to mean the same thing all the time. Other times we use words equivocally where one word is used for two or more loosely related things. Thirdly we can use the same word for two things that are quite similar but are not exactly the same. This analogical use is what Aquinas contended was the only way we could talk about God. The classic example is goodness. When you say “that person is good” and “God is good” both statements are related because we are referring to moral persons. However, the goodness of human being can never be exactly the same as the goodness of God. He therefore argued that when we use anthropomorphisms to describe God, that is giving him human attributes, they are only meaningful if we understand them analogically. That is to say we only approximating something that no amount of words can truly describe. In other words such language serves as sign posts. I believe this view is very important in understanding the Bible which is essentially about God.

In English speaking, overly literalistic cultures where “literally” also means metaphorically there is a problem when reading the Bible. Liberal New Testament scholar J.D. Crossan sums it up this way.


Far removed from their culture and time we are unable to grasp the metaphors they used without a second thought. There used to be a British sitcom I really loved called Mind Your Language which thrived on such cultural misunderstandings. It was about a group of foreigners taking English night classes. Though they often grasped the raw words being spoken they still misunderstood the language. It’s the same problem we encounter when we read the Bible, often mistaking the literal for the metaphorical and vice versa. Even more worryingly, it is not even as straightforward as the simple mix up I just presented. Most speech is somewhere between the purely metaphorically and the purely literal and hardly ever hits either extreme. Metaphor is symbolic and words are just that, symbols. However symbols, if they are to be of any use, point to real things. Even Aquinas’ brilliant theories are only artificial categories that help us conceptually to think more clearly and carefully about the matter. Nevertheless recognising the analogical use of language is very useful in understanding some of the thornier sections of the Bible.

Imagine you took a well-earned holiday to a secret exotic island location. It is filled with breath taking picturesque vistas, and many alien flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. You just bask in the glory of this new pristine environment which is completely different from your home. Now you return home. How would you describe to your landlocked, untraveled friends and family what it is like to stand on the shore of a tropical bay overlooking crystal clear water, where in the distant horizon the sky and ocean melt seamlessly into one other in a brilliant azure? The way you would go about that is to use the familiar things common to their own experiences to describe something quite unfamiliar. You would say this particular thing x is like y which is found in their environment and experience. This is what happened in visionary or apocalyptic experiences in the Bible. One of the most popular words in extensive visionary accounts like in Ezekiel, Daniel or Revelation is the little word “like.” They wrote in such a way so that you could at least experience in your imagination what they witnessed.

The curious thing about apocalyptic texts it is often very hard to distinguish the between the internal and external experience. What I mean by this is what N.T. Wright notes as a historian,

One of the hardest questions about apocalyptic is whether any given writer actually experienced the visions he records, or whether he is simply employing a literary genre as a vivid and dramatic form of writing. Here there is most likely something of a continuum.

The New Testament and the People of God, p. 141

Apocalyptic as a genre in biblical scholarship is basically about visionary experiences. Like the tourist, the visionary’s account is a mixture of external reality and his internal impression of it. Brilliant apocalyptic writers could describe true realities using the language of the genre without necessarily having an esoteric experience. (In a sense this is actually quite similar to parables because they also use stock language and tropes to convey the truth.) Apocaylptic writers may have truly experienced such fantastic things but they would still have to relate them according to the conventions of how people in that culture understood such things. Perhaps, this might help explain some of the “heaven tourism” books that have become so popular in recent years with even movies about them. Anyhow, what I want to point out is that these visions were not recorded as timeless truths directly accessible to people. We need to put in work before we understand them. Since we have brought up the apocalyptic we need to discuss the Book of Revelation and its somewhat unlikely counterpart the Book of Genesis.

There’s a reason Genesis and Revelation are at the beginning and the end of the Bible respectively. The first is about the beginning of things whiles the last is about the end of things. Revelation contains the climax and the conclusion of the story that begins in Genesis so in it you find a lot of allusions and references to the Genesis narrative. It is unsurprising to mention Revelation in the discussion of how the apocalyptic uses analogy but what about Genesis. I think the beginning of Genesis has more in common with exilic and post-exilic texts, like Daniel and Revelation respectively, than most other parts of the Bible. This is because they discuss unrepeatable events, not open to direct public observation. Heavenly visions aren’t things you can repeat. Also the beginning and the end of the world cannot be duplicated. In that regard we can see these events as historical in the sense that history describes the unrepeatable where science in contrast deals with what you can repeat for the sake of testing. Admittedly, normal modern historiography cannot fully handle such matters.

Funnily enough, science also deals with the unrepeatable like in cosmology and astrophysics. The bursting of a supernova cannot be tested in a lab. The Big Bang is unrepeatable and unobservable yet there are sound theories regarding it. However what happens right at the beginning is a total mystery. This is known as a singularity, a point where the laws of physics as we know them break down. Similarly, after more than a century of the theory of evolution we still don’t know how life began, it is a biological singularity. On one level we know people use special symbolic and metaphorical language to describe things which are out of the ordinary. On another level when it comes to Genesis, Revelation, and the heavenly visions found in between, we’re dealing with something even more special. These are what we might call epistemological singularities in the Bible or perhaps a more appropriate theological term is special revelation.

Revelatory language does not convey smooth, ahistorical, universally comprehensible information about a subject. If something is hard to describe we use the familiar to help us describe the unfamiliar. This means they would have used language appropriate for their time and culture to understand these things. We must remember the Bible is for us but not written to us. However, when a subject becomes developed enough they use language appropriate for it in the same way every discipline or profession has its own terminology. “Species,” for example, means one thing to the biologist and another to the chemist even though they are both scientists.

Even though Genesis 1 shares a lot in common with other ancient Near Eastern origin myths, it is so significantly different, many scholars place it in its own genre. It tells a particular type of story that means it will use certain stock tropes of its genre. Yet it is unique and exciting because it dramatically subverts expectations of how such stories go. In the case of Genesis the most obvious subversion is creational monotheism, that is, one uncreated God making everything as opposed to many created gods making the world. (I explore the differences further in “god” disambiguated.) Ezekiel and Revelation also in their own way are very subversive.

From the way we use words to specific genres and stories, we can see that the Bible uses language in sometimes very complex ways. Especially with the apocalyptic genre and prophetic literature we find layers upon layers of meaning like lenses on top of one another, each modifying the focus. At both ends of history and in between the Bible uses special language to describe special events to describe how God acts within time and space. We need to appreciate the narrative grammar of the text and not impose our ways of looking at things on it. Even the Reformers who taught the perspicuity of the Bible i.e. the Bible is clear enough for the average person to understand, wrote thousands of pages of commentary. Also the overwhelming majority of us rely on translations since we can’t read the Bible in the “original tongues.” This means we need assistance to understand their language and culture, all the while critically engaging our minds and imaginations, as we try to understand the complex and exciting word-pictures and stories they painted for us.

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