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Literal, Metaphorical, or Neither?

The Bible is brimming with metaphors and analogies. The sun is like a strong man running through the sky (Ps 19:5); men are like grass and their glory like the flowers of the field (1 Pet 1:24); the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed or a bit of leaven hidden in three measures of flour (Matt 13:31, 33); kind words are like honey and rash ones like thrusts of a sword (Prov 16:24; 12:18).[1] How exactly are we to understand this sort of language?

A secular view of metaphor and analogy may have us believe all too easily that metaphorical language is not as “important” or “true” as literal language.[2] And, as some have pointed out, sometimes the Bible suggests the contrary: that metaphors and analogies are potent and have been woven into the fabric of reality for divine purposes.[3] But the problem, at second glance, is more complicated than distinguishing between “metaphorical” and “literal” language. These categories themselves assume that there is a clear line between “literal” and “metaphorical” language, which is oftentimes not the case. Yet, what is even more important is that the literal/metaphorical distinction many times betrays an unbiblical affirmation, namely, that literal language can be understood exhaustively (univocally) and thus has no element of mystery or depth.[4] Metaphorical language, on the other hand, is more overtly “loose” and mysterious, and thus is potentially less helpful and more difficult to comprehend (equivocally). This view of literal and metaphorical language, however, is deeply flawed and theologically problematic.

As a test case, let us look at the Bible’s description of God as our Father. Trying to make this a literal statement or a metaphorical one is not so helpful. If, on the one hand, we say that it is metaphorical, what do we mean? Do we mean that God is not really our Father, or perhaps that God is our Father, but only in a secondary sense; in the primary sense, our earthly father is our true father? This brings up many problems, as I have recently realized. After reading the following words of Herman Bavinck, and considering a passage such as Galatians 4, I wonder whether this “metaphorical” approach is really the way in which we should approach such language, especially if “metaphorical” is understood in the sense described above.[5] Bavinck writes,

The scriptural name “Father” is a much better description [than “unbegotten”] of the personal property of the first person. Implied in the word “fatherhood” is a positive relation to the second person. The name “Father” is even more appropriate than the word “God,” for the latter is a general name signifying transcendent dignity, but the name “Father,” like that of yhwh in the Old Testament, is a proper name, an attribute describing a personal property of God. Those who deny to God the name “Father” dishonor him even more than those who deny his creation. This name of “Father,” accordingly, is not a metaphor derived from the earth and attributed to God. Exactly the opposite is true: fatherhood on earth is but a distant and vague reflection of the fatherhood of God (Eph 3:14–15). God is Father in the true and complete sense of the term.[6]

We can easily breeze over such a statement. “Yes, yes, God is the true Father of all. Now what else?” What else?! Bavinck is turning our earthly experience on its head. We tend to think that our earthly experience with fatherhood is the basis on which we understand Paul’s claim that God is our Father. But the reverse is the case, according to Bavinck. God’s intrinsic Fatherhood is the grounds for any earthly manifestation of fatherhood. So, if we read a passage such as Gal 4:4–7, we should understand God to be our Father literally, right? Not quite.

That approach has its problems as well. The word “literally” could be misunderstood to mean that we are sons in the same way that Christ is the Son. But that would not be theologically accurate either. The divine Son is eternally generated by the Father, and the Spirit proceeds both from him and the Father. Eternal generation and Spirit-procession are not qualities that we have as creatures. This does not mean that we are not sons of God, however. Directly after v. 4, when Paul makes the statement that the Son of God was born of a woman, he tells us we have been adopted as sons and are now sons (v. 5, 6). And, what’s more, we receive the Spirit of God’s eternal Son and cry out to God as Father (v. 6). So which is it? Are we literal sons or metaphorical sons?

Maybe the literal/metaphorical distinction is not so helpful here. In fact, it can even be harmful. Think about how this distinction is often used. If we can delineate which statements in Scripture are “literal” and which are “metaphorical,” that could be fodder for univocal thought, suggesting that some statements in Scripture can be understood as “brute” facts, known by God in the same way that they are known by us. In saying that God is literally our Father, we can be tempted to think that there is little mystery in such language. But we easily find mystery if we press the semantics a bit. If God is our Father, what does that mean? He is not our Father by blood, of course, since that is an earthly trait (this would be a “literal” view). But he is ultimately responsible for our coming into existence, and the moving of blood through our veins, which keeps us in this earthly existence, would not have come about apart from his speech and breath (Gen 2:7; Job 33:4). In that sense, he is our Father by blood, since our earthly father merely fell in line with God’s structuring of the human race (this could be a “metaphorical” view). So even the phrase “Father by blood” is deep and mysterious and eschews the literal/metaphorical distinction. We can understand it to a degree, but our finitude keeps us from understanding it exhaustively or from categorizing it with divine surety.

The same could be said for other fatherly behaviors attributed to God: offering guidance (Ps 23:2; 139:10), showing love (1 John 3:1), teaching us from his wisdom (Ps 51:6), chastising us for wrongdoing (Heb 12:6), etc. It does not seem to be helpful to apply the literal/metaphorical distinction in such cases, for embedded in this distinction is often (though not always) an intention to understand language exhaustively, to demarcate with precision the beginning and end of so-called “literal” and “metaphorical” expressions.

Instead, we might simply say that these fatherly behaviors are things that God truly does, but we can (and should) understand them analogically, with a profound sense of awe and an appreciation that this triune God is in a loving, guiding relationship with us. He knows what that means far more than we do, but he has not hidden that meaning from us. He has revealed it to us, but revealed to us as creatures.[7]

We can still express truth in language analogically. God really is our Father in Christ by the power of the Spirit. We know this because he has told this to us in passages such as Gal 4:4–7. But we know this only as creatures. We are free to follow Bavinck and affirm that we have been adopted by the ultimate Father, who acts in ways incomparably higher than, but not irrelevant to, our earthly father. We must embrace both the divine and earthly contexts of human language, just as we embrace the divine and human natures of the person of Christ.[8]

And such an analogical approach also gives us more freedom to make linguistic connections and applications today. Consider the divine “adoption” discussed in Gal 4. We can connect this to human adoption analogically, with many benefits.

Thinking from an earthly perspective, we tend to view adoption as the forging of a foreign relationship, the taking on of one person by another family. But the truth is that sin has orphaned all of us. We were all in desperate need of adoption. And God waited until the proper time to adopt us—waiting far longer than the painful interlude many couples struggle with today in trying to adopt children from another country. And it was costly—oh, was it costly. It cost the blood of his own Son, the highest price to be paid.

It is the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit—who stands behind the redemptive possibility of adoption.[9] In God’s eternal counsel, a pact was made (the pactum salutis) to adopt not just one child, or a few, but every tribe and tongue and nation. We are—all those in Christ—sons and daughters in a divinely proper sense, a sense which goes beyond any notion of literal or metaphorical language. Thus, “adoption” can be stretched to encompass both earthly and heavenly senses in a way that illuminates both for us as creatures. We can be adopted on earth, but our greatest adoption is by our heavenly Father.

If all of this is true—if we should choose to invoke neither the literal nor the metaphorical category with ultimate control and precision—then we need to begin practicing how to use language analogically, and that may require significantly modifying or, in some cases, even abandoning prior terminology. If we go on using categories like these thoughtlessly, we risk leaving behind the riches of redemption and relegating the truth of the gospel to a seat at the univocal table, where we continue to imagine that we can fathom all that God has done for us in calling us back to him as our Father.


[1] Poythress suggests, helpfully, I believe, that metaphors serve as perspectives on the world. See Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987), 15–18. Some of these metaphors I have taken from him.

[2] “There is no reason to have any general theological preference for literal language over figurative or to assume that every metaphor must be literally explain in precise academic terms. Scripture does not do that. Often, in fact, figurative language says more, and says it more clearly, than corresponding literal language would do.” John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987), 227–28. “Language in its literal and metaphorical capabilities derives from God, who is the infinite source of both the literal and the metaphorical and their relation to one another. In mysterious ways the relation is grounded in the very being of God, in the relation of the Father to the Sonthrough the Spirit. We cannot neatly and perfectly separate out the literal and the metaphorical within language, any more than human thinking can perfectly comprehend the relation of the Son to the Father. The presence of the Word before the Father is not only the source of human metaphorical language; it is the source of the world. God created the world through his Word. We therefore expect that the world itself is shot through with metaphor.” Vern S. Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 284. See also Vern S. Poythress, “Rethinking Accommodation in Revelation,” Westminster Theological Journal 76 (2014): 150–51.

[3] I discuss one option for a biblical approach to metaphor in “In the Beginning Was the Word: John 1:1–5 and a Revelational Theory of Metaphor,” Westminster Theological Journal (forthcoming).

[4] This does not have to be the case. I have no problem with people using the descriptor literal when trying to express that a piece of language is not emphasizing a relationship between two concepts. “Jesus is the savior of the world” is more literal than, say, “Jesus is our rock.” In the latter expression, we have to relate the concept of Jesus to the concept of a rock, mapping the qualities of one onto the other so as to arrive at a deeper understanding of the “target” (Jesus). See George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 63–65. The danger is when we think that the statement “Jesus is the savior of the world” is void of mystery and can be exhaustively understood by us. This violates the Creator-creature distinction and assumes we have God-like mastery over language, when, in fact, “mystery is not something that comes at the end of our study, as if we can master some things but have to default to mystery in the end. Mystery, as Bavinck says, is the lifeblood of all theology. We begin with it, we study and think and learn in its context, and we conclude with the joyous affirmation of its exhaustive presence in all that we know.” K. Scott Oliphint, “Simplicity, Triunity, and the Incomprehensibility of God,” in One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, ed. Bruce A. Ware and John Starke (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 229n23.

[5] All credit where credit is due: I was finally convinced of what I outline in this article after hearing a sermon on Galatians 4 by David Cummings at Calvary Chapel in Quakertown, PA, on September 6, 2015.

[6] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 307.

[7] Note here Oliphint’s words on the “creaturely” nature of all that we do: “Because God has spoken, we can know who he is, something of what he does, even why he does what he does; and we can know that who he is, what he does, and why he does what he does is revealed to us to know as creatures, not as creators. In other words, it is not the case that since we have the truth of Scripture, what we know is identical with what he knows. . . . All that we are, think, do, and become is derivative, coming from or out of something else; we depend on, as well as mirror, the real, the Original, the Eimi. In classical terminology, we are ‘ectypal.’ The kind or type of people we are, knowledge we have, thoughts we think, things we do, is always and everywhere a copy, pattern, impression, image, taking its metaphysical and epistemological cue from the only One who truly is, that is, from God himself.” K. Scott Oliphint, Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 176, 178–79.

[8] Edward Morgan helpfully explains how Augustine understands language as “incarnational.” Human speech is analogous to the incarnation—God’s internal Word manifested in the flesh and applied in the love of the Spirit—and thus “the incarnation in fact reads as a commencement of an explicitly Trinitarian conversation between God and humanity, whereby through the incarnation humanity recognizes as Trinity the God who addresses it. Reflection on this conversation leads the human person closer to God, who is truth. Finally, the Spirit inspires this conversation.” Edward Morgan, “The Concept of Person in Augustine’s De Trinitate,” in Augustine and Other Latin Writers: Papers Presented at the Fourteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held at Oxford, ed. F. Young, M. Edwards, and P. Parvis, Studia Patristica 43 (Paris: Peeters, 2006), 206.

[9] “Paul’s specification of the Spirit’s identity—his delineating who this Spirit is whom the Galatians have received—involves his referring the Galatians back to God and Jesus. However, he does not picture God and Jesus as enjoying a priority to which the Spirit is then added as a supplementary afterthought. If that were the case, then we would not be able to speak of mutuality in the constitution of the identities of God, Jesus, and the Spirit. Rather, Paul has in mind a fully reciprocal relationship whereby the Spirit’s identity is intertwined with God’s and Jesus’ identities from the outset. Both in eternal priority and in the temporal outworking or “sending” from that eternal priority, the Spirit is identified here along with God and his Son in a web of inter-determinative relations. This matrix or web that exists between God, the Son, and the Spirit preexists their effecting of the Galatians’ adoption described in 4:5.” Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 142.


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