The Bible as Metaphor
David Mills on Nuancing the Scriptures for Modern Man
The liberal or skeptical Christian believes that the stories given us in the Bible are, for the most part, not true. Some of the history may be true, but the stories of the supernatural are certainly invented, because things like that—seas parting, fire coming down from the skies, tax payments found in fishes, bodies rising from the dead—simply do not happen. The Bible, as Christians have traditionally read it, is not to be trusted. It is not to be read “literally,” is how they usually put it.
But these skeptics are also convinced that though the Bible is untrustworthy, it is still useful and perhaps still needed, at least by Christians whose story—in the sense of founding myth—it provides. The answer to this problem is to make the stories they feel they can’t believe metaphors for ideas they already believe. What they already believe they ascribe to “modern man,” into whose materialism and relativism Christians must mold Christian doctrine.
Some confuse the matter by speaking as if they are only translating the biblical stories into terms the modern man can accept, as the first step in converting him. I tend not to believe them because they almost always reveal a page or two later that they already agree with their “modern man.” I don’t know of a liberal work that offers any way to move the modern man, once he has been attracted by the liberal translations (I suspect this happens but rarely), to belief in the stories themselves.
The Skeptical Method
Such people make any uncomfortable historical fact a metaphor for an idea the liberal can put into a proposition, and which is almost always a comfortable and familiar idea. The story is not a report of something that actually happened but a colorful way of sharing the writer’s insight into the nature of human life, and the modern reader can take the meaning straight. The language is lifted from the Bible but the meaning imported into it.
This applies to the ancient doctrines and moral teachings as well. Liberals replace an unacceptable moral rule with broad principles they believe express the essence of the original teaching. The moral teaching is not a rule of life but a primitive attempt, marred by sexism, homophobia, and so forth, to articulate a moral truth in the limited terms of the day. The modern reader can take it in its purified form.
They explain the ancient doctrines in two different ways. They may describe them as the attempt to put an ineffable experience of the divine into words, or they may describe them as the attempt to gain power in the church by restricting the diverse experiences of Christians to those of which they approve. These doctrines may still have some value, if they are taken as metaphors for insights or ideas of which the liberal approves.
The notorious former bishop of Newark put this in its starkest form. In his Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, John Spong declared that the “limited view” that the Son of God was made man, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven “has faded,” meaning that we now know better. We know that Jesus was not the Son of God. Some other way of saying what the old language said must be found.
Jesus, Spong wrote, was a man “alive, totally alive, and in that vibrant vital life God was experienced.” (But not alive any more, of course, except in the minds of people who are totally alive, etc.) We know that “This God [is] the presence of life that animates the universe, that reaches self-consciousness in Homo sapiens and that breaks open to the essence of transcendence in Jesus of Nazareth.” We “worship this God and acknowledge the saving power of this Jesus when we dare to live openly, fully, completely—affirming the life of God that is within us.” You get the idea.
Many liberals will protest that Spong has gone too far, and say that they hold the Scripture and the creeds to be authoritative. They may be sincere in this, but they teach and preach about Jesus in much the same way as he. The test is in whether they will agree that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and was born of a virgin who was told of her call by an angel, and later healed the sick, raised the dead, and forgave sins. Most will say no, or ask to “nuance” the answer.
Overt skeptics like Spong and implicit skeptics like the moderate liberals are not the only ones who treat the biblical stories as metaphors. Many consciously orthodox pastors do so as well.
The pastor who on Easter morning preaches cheerfully about hope and perseverance and urges his people to keep on trying when things seem darkest, but says nothing about whether or not Jesus’ body remains in the tomb, is saying indirectly what the liberal says directly. He may not mean to say that the bodily Resurrection does not matter, but in his silence he says it nevertheless. He is preaching as a skeptic might preach.
The pastor who on moral questions appeals to a flexible general principle (the word “love” usually, often prefaced by some word like “inclusive” or “agapic”) and avoids the specific instructions of Scripture is treating the Bible in the same way as the skeptics. He may not make the same radical proposals for revising Christian moral teaching as they do, but he has rejected the crucial details of the revelation just as thoroughly. He is teaching as a skeptic might.
In both cases, the pastor is teaching nothing essentially different from the lessons the skeptic is teaching, and therefore his teaching will, over time, harm human souls in the same way, mild and inoffensive as it may seem to be. It will do so because it leads people away from the realities the Bible reveals, and replaces them with abstractions in which fallen men and women will find an excuse for believing and doing what they want.
Perhaps pastors who preach this way have simply not recognized the realities, even when they believe in them as propositions. If they had buried someone they loved, who then rose from the grave three days later, they would not speak of him as a metaphor for perseverance. They would leap to the telephone to call and tell everyone they knew that he was alive. They would be found shouting “He’s alive!” over and over again. They would not try to translate the story into propositions to express the “real meaning” of the event.
These pastors might, if asked, declare their belief in the Resurrection, but they habitually speak as if it were only an engaging story. This is a corrupting way to preach. As G. K. Chesterton remarked about educating children, “Education is implication. It is not the things you say which children respect; when you say things, they very commonly laugh and do the opposite. It is the things you assume that really sink into them. It is the things you forget even to teach that they learn.” These pastors teach their people to think of the biblical stories as metaphors and not realities.
Realities, Not Metaphors
But Christians believe in realities. When we speak of the Virgin Birth, we mean that a woman who could not possibly have been pregnant had a baby, and that baby was God. When we speak of the Resurrection, we mean that a dead man came alive again, that a body that should have rotted into dust is now—this moment—the living body of Jesus of Nazareth. When we say that some angels freed St. Paul from prison, we mean that some angels freed St. Paul from prison.
We will insist, against the liberal, that there is no good reason to treat these events as metaphors. They might have happened, and a reasonable argument can be made that they did. The liberal insists that they did not happen and must be turned into metaphors only because he believes that they could not have happened. His faith begins in a dogmatic assertion whose truth is not nearly so obvious as he thinks it is.
Even when we speak of things outside history, we believe we are speaking of realities. To say that Jesus is the Son of God is to use a metaphor in the sense that a material God the Father did not beget a child in the usual way. But it is not a metaphor in the sense that it is only a colorful way of saying that in Jesus we see something more of the Divine than we see in other good men. It means that Jesus, in some way we can barely grasp, and which we know only because it has been revealed to us, really is “begotten of the Father before all worlds.”
Of course, in putting the things of God into human words, Scripture speaks metaphorically. But there is a great difference between revealed metaphors that point us to realities beyond our grasp and human metaphors that bring the revelation within our grasp. There is a great difference between revealed metaphors that bring finite, fallen men as close as they can come to the truth, and human metaphors that bring the same men to a truth they can fully possess. Most Christians have known the difference.
The Father, for example, does not have a right hand at which his Son can sit. An “early peasant Christian might have thought that Christ’s sitting at the right hand of the Father really implied two chairs of state, in a certain spatial relation, inside a skypalace,” wrote C. S. Lewis in his Letters. But if he found that the picture was not literal, “he would not have felt that the essentials of his belief had been altered.”
The peasant was not stupid or deceived. “What had mattered to him, even in the days of his simplicity, had not been supposed details about celestial furniture. It had been the assurance that the once crucified Master was now the supreme Agent of the unimaginable Power on whom the whole universe depends. And he would recognize that in this he had never been deceived.”
Many of the modern skeptics, in their sweeping rejections of the biblical revelation because the images in which it is conveyed are ancient, show rather less sophistication than the peasant Christian. The peasant knows how such images work, but the skeptic does not—or does not admit it because he wants to replace the images. To do so and still claim to be a Christian, he must pretend that they are inadequate. He must claim to be rescuing and not rejecting.
There is a warning here for the self-consciously orthodox as well, the metaphorical habit being so deep in all modern men. We often think that the truth needs explaining, and feel slightly embarrassed by the bare biblical narrative, and grope after metaphors to illustrate and illuminate it. Though most of us can speak confidently of the Resurrection, many of us find ourselves embarrassed by the smaller miracles. For a reason I don’t understand, but that I feel myself, it is easier to say to one’s secular friends that Jesus rose from the dead than to say that one of the apostles was sprung from prison by an angel.
But look at St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14–36) or St. Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:2–53) or St. Paul’s address to the people of Athens (Acts 17:22–31). In each, the speaker retells the Christian story and leaves it to his hearers to respond. He does not try to explain it to them as a metaphor whose real meaning he can give in a set of propositions, so that were they intelligent enough they could do without the story. Even St. Paul, after opening with a rhetorical “hook”—suggesting that the unknown God the Athenians worshiped was the God revealed in Christ—immediately turns to telling the story of what that God has done since creation.
All three assumed that the facts were enough to compel those who had ears to hear. The story itself moved hearts and minds. It did not need to be explained as an illustration. And the Church that believed the story grew, and changed the world. This is what realities do.
A metaphorical religion is certainly appealing. It is infinitely easier to “live openly, fully,” and so forth, than to obey the Man who said that lust is adultery and hatred murder and expects us to take up a cross and die, and whose word we must obey because he is God himself. A command to live openly, fully, and so forth, means whatever you want it to mean. The only thing it cannot mean is to live as an orthodox Christian.
One wonders what the liberal is to do when his attempt to live openly and fully conflicts directly with someone else’s attempt to live openly and fully, as when a husband finds that living fully means to leave his wife for a younger woman and his wife insists that living fully means to stay together and nurture the life and the children they have made. Some people may find the rhetoric exciting, but I do not think most will find the life livable for long.
One may preach the Resurrection as a lesson in perseverance, and some people will still come to church—some to be reassured, some out of habit. They may leave more cheerful than when they came in, but they will not have been transformed, and their cheer will not last long. One ought rather to bring them to meet the risen Lord, who died for our sins and was raised from the dead that we might live with him forever—openly, fully, completely—in the Kingdom that shall have no end.
A metaphorical religion is the broad way that leads to destruction, because though an easy road to walk, it does not lead to the Lord. Think, if Christians are right, what is lost by making the Faith a set of metaphors, making the Resurrection, for example, merely a lesson in hope and perseverance.
When the Christian hears the biblical stories, he responds by learning more about the mystery and trusting it (or Christ) more deeply. He might even give his life for another, because the story tells him that he will rise again because Jesus rose again. This is a faith that creates heroes and saints. The skeptic who treats the Resurrection as a metaphor for perseverance will someday find that persevering in suffering will not end it or give it purpose. The metaphor will not comfort him as he holds a dying child or as he faces his own death and sees (if such knowledge is granted him) all his unrepented sins and the hardness of his heart. Having nothing but this useless metaphor, he can only collapse into unbelief and despair.
This is the last of a series of three Views on liberalism.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“The Bible as Metaphor” first appeared in the December 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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