The Divine Metaphor

Jul 13th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Recently I was discussing the issue of the atonement with a PCA friend of mine and it became apparent that our differences on this doctrine were based on much deeper differences in theology. We traced our subtle disagreement backwards but I will start here from the beginning: with Creation. Creation is not just the beginning of history, it’s the beginning of theology. Creation itself reveals the truth about God that is pre-requisite knowledge even for discerning the Scriptures. The Judeo-Christian narrative of an ex nihilo creation reveals a great deal itself but the product of Creation, the universe, reveals God’s nature because it was intended to. It does this by what can be referred to as “the divine metaphor.”

God is Simple
The more we learn of the universe, the more we appreciate its complexity. But this itself is, in some way, counter-intuitive because we observe that in the natural world, whatever is complex must have a creator which is more complex. A house is complex, but more so an architect. It would seem to follow that since the universe is so complex, God must be even more complex. But complexity entails a composition of various parts and God is not composite. An individual man includes things, like his particular attributes, which are not included in ‘humanity’, but God, who is not composed of “matter and form”, does not include anything which does not belong to ‘divinity’. Humanity is the form of a man; his particular physical components are his matter. Together, this form and matter compose a man. But God is not composed; He is pure form and is not a body. God is altogether simple. Therefore, it is wrong to say that lesser complexity necessarily comes from greater complexity as is shown by God’s simplicity.1 It is however, true that lesser unity necessarily comes from greater unity although it is beyond the scope of this paper to demonstrate. It is important to understand God this way because it informs how we interpret Divine revelation.

Now this may sound too philosophical for some appetites or maybe superfluous. Why do we need philosophy if we have the Scriptures? The problem with this attitude is that it is impossible to start with the Scriptures as our absolute basis for theology. When we approach the Scriptures, we already have some beliefs which are formed by reason and these beliefs are presuppositions through which we will read every verse. This is why it is important to have a theological starting point which is based on sound reason and is then informed by the divine Scriptures.

Creation Reveals the Truth of God
Now God is simple, but our means of knowledge are all complex. That is, we derive knowledge of God, who is simple, through His complex creation. Aquinas says: “We can speak of simple things only as though they were like the composite things from which we derive our knowledge.”2 This does not mean that we cannot arrive at reliable knowledge of God because this is precisely how God chose to reveal Himself to us. When I speak of “the divine metaphor”, I do not mean that our means of knowledge are not real, but that they are divinely established metaphors, teachings from the mouth of God, as it were, about Himself. The universe teaches us of the truth; that is, God.3

Big things in nature have important things to teach us of God and His nature. Though He is not male or female, our sex tells us something about God. But this is not to say that God’s masculinity, as divinely revealed, is merely metaphoric (as if it weren’t true). On the contrary, it is true and it tells us something important about Him. Masculinity is not our metaphoric projection onto God’s identity; it is exactly the other way around. Masculinity is a divinely established reality intended by God to teach us something about who He is. In the same way, fatherhood is not our metaphoric projection onto God’s person, man’s fatherhood was established by God to show us who He is. To be clear, God is properly called Father.4

This is why we must handle with care the way the Scriptures speak of God. We have a tendency to project ourselves onto God as if He were only an all powerful and sinless version of ourselves in the sky. On the contrary, we were made in His image and not the other way around!5 A potent example of this important point is passion as applied to God. God is immutable and therefore is free of passions.6 That is, a passion is never properly applied to God, only analogically7 The Scriptures, however, often speak of God’s “anger” (e.g. Exodus 4:14, Leviticus 26:28). Thus, it must be understood that the Scriptures speak analogically of God’s anger.

When we hear the word “metaphor”, it has the connotation of something being false. For example, if I tell you something and then later I say, “I was only speaking metaphorically”, you get the impression that I haven’t told you the whole truth or that I haven’t been straight forward. But this is not the case with the divine metaphor(s) precisely because they are divine. God has established these efficacious ways for us to understand Him, and these are the best means available to us to know Him although the Truth exceeds what can be expressed to those of us with limited capacity.

Implications
Nature itself is divinely established to lead us to Truth. That is why errors cannot be illustrated by nature except with great difficulty. St. Paul compares the Church to a human body8 and the fullness of this metaphor is only found in the Catholic Church as shown in Called to Communion’s recent paper on the Visible Church. It is important to mention that the Catholic Church is a body, but it is only analogically compared to a human body. The model of an essentially invisible Church does not fit this metaphor nor any metaphor which can be found in nature and this is part of the reason why we know it to be false. True things are easily illustrated by natural phenomena but nature must be falsely interpreted to be used as a supporting metaphor of a false proposition. Recalling that man’s fatherhood is divinely established to teach us about God’s Fatherhood, we can see how the human body is created, in part, to teach us the nature of the Church and her unity. This is why Paul’s analogy of the Church to a human body is not merely a helpful illustration; it is a “divine metaphor.”

Seeing that nature itself, revealed by God, is so inclined to teach us truth by metaphor, it comes as no surprise that the divinely revealed Scriptures make frequent use of allegory and symbolism. When the modern skeptic reads that John the Baptist wore camel’s hair and a leather belt9 , he thinks that the author is trying to conjure up a connection between St. John and Elijah10 . It has never occurred to the skeptic that what is said of John may actually be true. But on the other hand, when the Scriptures speak of the sun standing still11 , it has never occurred to the skeptic that the Scriptures might be speaking metaphorically. It’s obvious in the latter case, but in the former as well, a metaphor is at play. The divine metaphor opposes both fundamentalism and skepticism. The gospels record that Jesus rose on the third day, and the skeptic wants to insist that the gospel authors are inserting their own symbolic theology. This assumes the very antithesis of my argument: that God is not capable of enacting anything with meaning!

On the contrary, the Scriptures are the God-breathed account of the created universe and the salvation story. It is not surprising that this account is full of symbolism and metaphoric language. This is not to say that the accounts must only be taken metaphorically. In fact, those who appreciate the “divine metaphor” prefer a literal reading in some cases (like the three days in the tomb). On the other hand, it informs and validates the allegoric method of Old Testament exegesis that the Catholic Church has long employed. Now, as Origen showed, an allegoric method of interpretation does not indicate that a thing cannot be literally true. 12 This is because God uses real things in nature to teach Truth by allegory. We call this, again, the “divine metaphor.”

The consequences of misunderstanding God’s simplicity may seem subtle but they can have far reaching effects. Fundamentalism, for example, is replete with errors caused by an oversimplication of Biblical language concerning God and His actions. This is why it is important to have, among other things, a solid understanding of God’s simplicity and immutability. It will demonstrate that some things said of God must be analogical and thus help us avoid certain theological errors.

So this brings us back to where the discussion began: the atonement. In recent times, the concept of Christ suffering vicariously for our sins has surfaced under the Protestant atonement theory known as Penal Substitution. This is caused by a misreading of key texts especially regarding God’s wrath. I do not intend to fully engage the theory, which is still popular among Protestants, but a couple points would be worth mentioning. First, wrath belongs to the passions and as mentioned above, it is not properly attributed to God, as if He were subject to it, but only analogically. Secondly, the theory falsely teaches that God is moved from wrath to forgiveness by the act of the vicarious sacrifice of Calvary. If God could be moved from a state of love, to a state of wrath, and then back to a state of love, then the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement, in which God the Father pours out His wrath on His Son until His anger is spent, would be a possibility. But if God cannot be moved at all, as the doctrine of immutability insists, then a conception of the atonement in which the Father pours out His anger on Christ until His wrath is spent is not possible.

Further, if we understand God’s simplicity and immutability in this way, it has implications regarding justification. It follows from God’s immutability that justification must entail a change in man not a change in God. Christian theology has no room for a change in God nor a change in how God sees His people. Penal Substitution, as described above, and the concept of imputed righteousness, which teaches that we are moved from enmity to friendship with God without actual change in ourselves, both seem to contradict God’s immutability because they entail changes in God rather than changes in the created order.

The Reformed would argue for a third option since they too affirm God’s immutability. They would say that the change, at initial justification, is not a change in God or a change in man but a change in the relationship between the two. Now there are two types of relationships: intrinsic, such as familial, and extrinsic, such as geographical. In the case of the latter, a change in the relationship may take place without any inherent change in the involved parties. That is, the change in relationship may be effected by extrinsic change. If one party moves, the geographical relationship is altered, but neither party has been inherently changed. On the other hand, in the case of an intrinsic relationship, a real intrinsic change must occur in one or more of the involved parties in order for the relationship to change. For the relationship of two men to go from friendship to enmity, something must happen in one or more of the friends. They must undergo a change in disposition toward the other.

Now it is clear that God did not change when man first sinned. It should also be clear from the above that God does not change during the process of justification. So if it is true that in order for an intrinsic relationship to change, a real change must occur in one of the involved parties, then the doctrine of imputed righteousness must be false. But it is conceivable, at this point, that it is not universally true that in order for an intrinsic relationship to change, a real change must occur in one of the involved parties. Ordinarily it certainly is true, but suppose that God, from eternity, decreed that the righteousness of His Son would effect the necessary change in the relationship between man and Himself such that a real change was not necessary in either party. This is impossible because it is like saying that God could make a square circle. God can’t do something that is not capable of being done by its own terms. God cannot cause an intrinsic change by non-intrinsic means because then it would not be an intrinsic change. Further, the model of imputed righteousness has no precedent in nature, i.e. it is not supported by the divine metaphor.

Now I would not pretend to have sufficiently dealt with the nuances and arguments that the Reformed would readily employ in defense of this pivotal Evangelical “dogma”, but I hope I have at least given the reader something to consider.

Conclusion
The Divine Metaphor is one primary way that we begin to know God. It is the pedagogy of nature itself. It informs our understanding of God and is confirmed by the Scriptures. It may not be apparent to some why it is so important to understand God rightly from the start. But if we start with a proper understanding of who God is, informed by divine revelation, then it will help us avoid errors like fundamentalism, penal substitution, imputed righteousness, and many others. I should make it clear that I have not intended, in this post, to advance a particular theory of hermeneutical method, the atonement, or justification. I brought these up as brief examples of errors caused by a misapprehension of the divine metaphor and consequently God’s nature. Whatever is left wanting in the discussion of these points will be handled at a later date with more thorough treatments.

Going forward let me encourage you to look closely at nature expecting the Divine Metaphor.

  1. Summa Theologica I Q.3 a.1-8 []
  2. Summa Theologica I Q.3 a.3 []
  3. John 14:6 []
  4. Summa Theologica I Q.33 a.2 []
  5. CCC 370; Gen 1:27 []
  6. Summa Theologica I Q.9 a.1-2 []
  7. Summa Theologica I Q.20 a.1 r.1 – Aquinas says, “Therefore acts of the sensitive appetite, inasmuch as they have annexed to them some bodily change, are called passions; whereas acts of the will are not so called. Love, therefore, and joy and delight are passions; in so far as they denote acts of the intellective appetite, they are not passions.” []
  8. 1 Cor 12:12-31 []
  9. Matt 3:4, Mark 1:6 []
  10. 2 Kings 1:8 []
  11. Josh 10:13 []
  12. See, for example, McCartney, Dan “Literal and Allegorical Interpretation in Origen” Westminster Theological Journal 1986. Online text. Origen said, “The incidents which are historically true [in the OT] are much more numerous than the spiritual interpretations which have been woven in by the Holy Ghost for pedagogical reasons.” – De principiis (4.3.4) []
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  1. “Now I would not pretend to have sufficiently dealt with the nuances and arguments that the Reformed would readily employ in defense of this pivotal Evangelical “dogma”, but I hope I have at least given the reader something to consider.”

    I hope you intend to address those Reformed arguments in another post, or that they are at least touched on in the comments to this post.

  2. Sarah, we certainly do. We are building a step-by-step case for Catholicism and are making our arguments slowly. They are more planned out, as far as order goes, in the lead articles, but I thought I’d throw this one in as a primer to philosophical discussions that need to take place at some point. I hope it’s helpful.

    So this is just a foreshadowing of some more careful arguments that are forthcoming.

  3. Just a clarification: it seems to me there is a typo in the second paragraph under the “Implications” heading:

    “It has never occurred to the skeptic that what is said of John may actually be true. But on the other hand, when the Scriptures speak of the sun standing still11 , it has never occurred to the skeptic fundamentalist that the Scriptures might be speaking metaphorically.”

  4. Faramir,

    Nice catch! It could actually go both ways and your way might be better than mine but here’s what I meant: the skeptic reads that the Scriptures speak of the sun standing still and takes it as evidence that it is not divinely inspired. If the skeptic understood the Scripture to be speaking metaphorically, then he wouldn’t see it as an error.

    On the other hand, yours is a good point as well. The fundamentalist may insist on a literal reading where it should be metaphoric.

  5. By the way, let me just say that as a young Baptist unexpectedly finding myself on the road to Rome, finding this website has been a great blessing. You are providing solid intellectual justifications to what began as emotional and “gut feeling” reactions to problems with sola scriptura, sola fide, worship service = mini-concert, anti-sacramentalism, and above all the need for a human authority to make the fulfillment of John 17 possible.

    P.S. Your website design is beautiful!

  6. Thanks for the clarification. I was wondering whether there was something there I just wasn’t seeing!

  7. Faramir,

    Glad to have you here and thanks for the compliments on the web design. Tekeme Studios helped us out with that.

  8. First, wrath belongs to the passions and as mentioned above, it is not properly attributed to God, as if He were subject to it, but only analogically. Secondly, the theory falsely teaches that God is moved from wrath to forgiveness by the act of the vicarious sacrifice of Calvary. If God could be moved from a state of love, to a state of wrath, and then back to a state of love, then the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement, in which God the Father pours out His wrath on His Son until His anger is spent, would be a possibility. But if God cannot be moved at all, as the doctrine of immutability insists, then a conception of the atonement in which the Father pours out His anger on Christ until His wrath is spent is not possible.

    Tim,

    Are you saying here that since God is immutable he is necessarily dispassioned, and that only our understanding of his having passions is only analogy–that they are not real passions? And, that a change in a passion (i.e. his disposition toward us) necessarily entails that he is mutable?

  9. Jared,

    Any change in God at all would entail that He is mutable because that’s what mutability means. The passions are not properly attributed to God in the sense that God is moved by passions as you and I are (e.g. that He sees something that makes Him angry or something happens that causes His “mood” to change). Passions are properly said of God because we find them in Scripture. However, they must be understood in the correct sense. Anger/wrath as spoken of God in scripture is not the same thing as anger/wrath spoken of men. Acts of the inellective appetite on the other hand (see footnote in the article) are properly attributed to God because they proceed from the will.

    Sorry for the brevity I gotta go for now.

  10. Tim,

    I think we may pretty much agree, and the problem may only be misunderstanding on my part, or semantics, but consider the following for clarification:

    Would you agree that even though the passions said of God are not the same kind as ours (in the sense of mood, i.e. God goes from a good mood to bad mood), they are nevertheless real, perhaps more real, and more certain than ours?

    In any case, if the passions we see attributed to God in the scripture are not real in any way,then, since love is a passion, it cannot properly be attributed to God as a real passion. So, it would seem that the love of God is not really love, but is just portrayed that way for our limited human understanding. However, if God’s love is a real passion, then it must also be that his anger/wrath are real as well. For, since the love of God is for all that is good–principally himself, all that proceeds from himself, or is derived from him, and properly magnifies his Glory–then all that is bad and evil–those things which are not ordered toward him, the principal good, and do not magnify his Glory–God must necessarily hate, for he cannot love those things. Thus in this sense we can understand God to be immutable, because of the (intrinsic) unchanging nature of his will and disposition toward the Good (i.e. himself), yet his disposition toward us may change based on an intrinsic change in us, for we can be disposed to either good or evil intrisically, while God cannot. But this change in his disposition toward us in no way entails that he has changed intrinsically in respect to his will and ultimate disposition (i.e. toward himself, the good). In other words, that God is unchanging in his will and intrinsic disposition toward the good is the very reason he must necessarily change in his disposition toward us when we do evil, and this we should understand to be no less than a real anger (if his love is real love) and a real execution of that anger in judgment if it pleases him to pour out his wrath. It would rather make sense to say that a change in God’s disposition toward us is more like an accidental change by virtue of his immutable nature, but is nevertheless a real passionate change.

    Furthermore, I think this helps establish your point above about penal atonement where the doctrine of imputation must be false because it entails an accidental change toward us without an intrisic change in us, thus necessarily causing an intrinsic change in God. For, if God is unchanging in his disposition toward the good, then for him to make an arbitrary change in his disposition toward us sinners, without an intrinsic change in us toward the good, would be in defiance of his own nature which must always and necessarily be disposed to the good.

  11. Jared,

    In any case, if the passions we see attributed to God in the scripture are not real in any way, then, since love is a passion

    Love is not fundamentally a passion; only in us is love accompanied by passion, because we are material beings. But in angels and in God, love is without passion. Aquinas explains:

    [A]cts of the sensitive appetite, inasmuch as they have annexed to them some bodily change, are called passions; whereas acts of the will are not so called. Love, therefore, and joy and delight are passions; in so far as they denote acts of the intellective appetite, they are not passions. It is in this latter sense that they are in God. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii): “God rejoices by an operation that is one and simple,” and for the same reason He loves without passion. (Summa Theologica I Q.20 ad 1.)

    But with that qualification, the rest of your comment is correct.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  12. Would you agree that even though the passions said of God are not the same kind as ours (in the sense of mood, i.e. God goes from a good mood to bad mood), they are nevertheless real, perhaps more real, and more certain than ours?

    Yes, absolutely. I’m glad that came across despite my lack of articulation. It’s a difficult thought to express fully but that is the precise link I wanted to make between the “divine metaphor” and God’s immutability especially regarding the passions.

    Bryan is right about the passions. You’ll find that the passage in the Summa he quoted is listed above (in part) in footnote number 7. Thanks for the clarification Bryan.

  13. Bryan,

    That qualifying distinction helps a lot. Just so I am understanding correctly, is St. Thomas saying that love, joy and delight are not passions because they are not of the sensitive appetite, but since they are part of the intellective appetite they are nevertheless real, just not sensitive and complex like ours? If we cannot properly call them passions, then what do we call them? Do we have intellective appatites as well, and if so, is our love, joy and delights properly attributed to this appetite, therefore rendering them non-passions? Thanks for the comment.

  14. For our consideration I’ll start with Holy Thursday. The Easter Triduum includes the Passion. It is easily identified in the Synoptics, in John, and with Paul.

    Passion is the right word. It is highly descriptive and is easily associated with the fact that He did not run away from what was to occur. Having been a Marine, we called it “die in place.” If things are going horribly wrong, it was expected so that others might prepare or escape. No love, no die in place.

  15. Donald,

    I’m having trouble understanding what you mean. Are you saying that God is subject to passions just like us because of the passion of Christ during the original Easter Triduum?

  16. In reading the Gospels, I found that Jesus exhibited emotions such as joy, sorrow, fear, anger. The emotion being expressed did not inhibit Him from doing the right thing. His expression of fear at the fate confronting Him did not cause Him to avoid it, when He could easily have left the garden and at least postponed His fate.

    His love of God the Father as expressed in obedience to God the Father appears to me to be a passion that transcended the emotion of the fear of death. I believe that passion is the right word for what occurred in the Garden and continued through the Crucifixion. If that is correct, then God the Son passionately loves God the Father, and based on what occurred, it would appear that God the Father passionately loves us. I believe this because the Church uses the word “passion” to describe what occurred on Thursday night and Friday, and that word must be applied to the Person undergoing that trial; and might reasonably be applied to how the Father loves us.

    You noted “passions just like us” in your response. Our passions are fallen and are at least occasionally expressed in a fallen response. That issue did not occur with Jesus Who did not suffer from the fall. The fall not withstanding, we have a record of those who imitated their Lord in life and in death, and their passion for Him is why they are notable.

    Grace is intended to perfect nature. I believe that the depth of what He did was so profound, and even pervasive, that we don’t know we are – on occasion – imitating Him albeit unknowingly.

    I noted that Marines are trained to die in place. I believe that this is one of those ideas that is so profound and even pervasive that a particular military establishment with a brilliant record in its field of endeavour – knowingly or unknowingly – decided that there are times when it might require that command. In order to do so, one must love a person or an ideal so greatly that one is willing to die in place, no matter the fear that must be evident in the situation. One need not equate this with Our Lord, one might point to the Spartans as a similar ideal, but the Marines were formed long after the Spartans had ceased to be recognized for anything in a time when Our Lord was recognized. Proximity in time would seem to me to be a better indicator for this consideration.

    Cordially,

    dt

  17. Donald,

    You are right that God experienced passion in His human nature, but He does not and cannot experience passion in His divine nature. This is because He is eternal and unchanging.

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