Salvation and Metaphor


According to Gordon Fee Paul’s language of redemption, propitiation, reconciliation, etc. is metaphorical because, “for Paul salvation is an especially theological reality, in the sense that it is both a reflection of God’s character and the result of God’s initiative.” [1] In as far as salvation is a reflection of God’s character it is incomprehensible to finite man.  However, this does not mean that nothing can be known for certain concerning the realities of Christ’s work but that “God’s majesty in itself far outstrips the capacity of human understanding and cannot even be comprehended by it at all …” [2]  Neither is the appeal to metaphor a sly way of reducing the meaning of Paul’s language to mere signs.  N.T. Wright affirms this idea, “Recognition of god-language as fundamentally metaphorical does not mean that it does not have a referent, and that some at least of the metaphors may not actually possess a particular appropriateness to this referent.  In fact, metaphors are themselves mini-stories, suggesting ways of looking at a reality which cannot be reduced to terms of the metaphor itself.” [3]  According to Hans Boersma metaphorical language is not a means of communication which bypasses the real but it is true language. [4]  He says, “All human language is metaphorical … there is a difference between saying that God is a shepherd and saying that he is dependable.  But the difference is not simply that the former statement is metaphorical and the latter literal.  If it is true that the language derives its meaning from a large field of associations, then in a strict sense there is no such thing as ‘literal’ language.” [5] Truly the description of God as a shepherd carries associations to certain realities that “plain” language, no matter how exhaustive, could never grasp. [6] Regarding Paul’s use of metaphor Fee comments that it is an erroneous approximation to set one metaphor in contest with any other, seeing that Paul’s metaphors tend to be contextually based – they are contained in letters, with occasional natures, addressed to specific churches.   The nature of the sin problem in the specific church has primacy for Paul therefore he used different metaphors for each unique situation. [7] Richard Gaffin makes a helpful observation regarding Paul’s use of metaphor, “while it is surely true that Paul speaks of Christ’s death in a variety of ways and it is important not to neglect any one, there is no inherent reason why one may not be more predominant than another.” [8] While this is true as it stands it is consequently true that “no one metaphor embraces the whole of Pauline soteriology.” [9]  Gustaf Aulen (in Christus Victor) breaks this rule by elevating the metaphor of reconciliation while discarding those of satisfaction and propitiation. [10]  
NOTES: [1] Fee, “Paul and the Metaphors for Salvation:  Some Reflections on Pauline Soteriology”, in The Redemption, 49. [2] John Calvin in I. John Hesselink, Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary, 8. [3] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 130. [4] Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross:  Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, 105. [5] Ibid. [6] Gerald O’Collins has pointed out that certain mediums of expression communicate a fuller reality than plain language. “The scriptural language of redemption has been set to music in antiphons, canticles, and hymns of all kinds.  Painting, sculpture, and architecture have portrayed ‘materially’ the nature and function of redemption.  Such verbal, musical, and material expressions show God’s redeeming actions rather than attempting to explain them.” Jesus Our Redeemer: A Christian Approach to Salvation, 2.  Peter Leithart affirms that all biblical language is comparable to a joke.  Just as in order to “get” a joke one has to know the context the same is true of biblical language.   In order to experience what it means that God is a shepherd one must understand the context of ancient Israel or at least the nature of shepherding. [7] Ibid, 51.  Richard Gaffin notes, “This hardly means that the power of his metaphors is largely, in some instances entirely, limited to the culture of his day, so that to be ‘faithful to Paul’ and ‘guided by apostolic testimony of the cross’ interpreters today ‘must continuously seek out [new] metaphors that speak specifically to culture and/or circumstance.'”  Gaffin, “Atonement in the Pauline Corpus:  The Scandal of the Cross,” in The Glory of the Atonement, 155. [8] Gaffin, 155. [9] Fee, 51. One should be careful not to be over zealous to shape an emphasis that Paul may place on a certain metaphor into the presumed theological “center” of his system.  “[If] articulation of a ‘center’ is to be useful in organizing Paul’s occasional and unsystematic theological statements, it seems necessary to focus on a theological theme that is broad enough to account for other important themes, yet not so broad that it becomes useless articulating the distinctive nature of Paul’s theology.” Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament:  A Canonical and Synthetic Approach, 231. [10] “It is precisely the work of salvation wherein Christ breaks the power of evil that constitutes the atonement between God and the world.” Christus Victor, 71.

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