Friday, May 25, 2007

Comparison Theory of Metaphor and Theology

Those who advocate comparison theory generally claim that metaphors “help us to make sense of things with which we are initially unfamiliar by making comparisons.”[1] Thinking metaphorically (according to this model) means perceiving similarities between two otherwise divergent objects, events or structures (e.g. “Man is a puppet.”).[2] Moreover, comparison theory assumes that metaphorical constructions of the form “S is P” condense the locutionary forms “S is like P.” According to the comparison view, metaphorical constructs tend to make implicit or explicit comparisons.[3]

Comparison theory further suggests that metaphors provide an innovative portrayal of reality by combining “a dialectic of the familiar and the strange.”[4] It thereby implies that metaphors are both tools of discovery and lingual stratagems that presage interpretations of human experience in more adequate terms. Additionally, metaphors are iconoclastic in that they now and again eradicate unsatisfactory construals of lived existence.[5] For instance, tropes occasionally militate against prevailing social institutions,[6] their ongoing maintenance and meaning-constituting plausibility structures (i.e. foundations that legitimate socially constructed worlds).[7] Combes fittingly deems metaphors “dangerous things.”[8] They are capable of altering the existing status quo; moreover, communicative agents evidently preserve or slay each other in accordance with metaphors that comprise social discourse.[9] It also seems that metaphors have the ability to shape one’s belief or disbelief in God. Fretheim thus argues that “metaphors matter” when one is formulating theology.[10]

In addition to having a sociogenic function (i.e. metaphors have the ability to constitute or influence societal institutions), tropes appear capable of disclosing that which is ineffable, abstract, supersensible or transcendent.[11] The process of phenomenological unconcealing generally transpires by means of a speaker or discourse agent interchanging familiar and strange concepts, nominals or genera in order to make comparisons.[12] This function ultimately plays an integral role in theology or the formulation of theoretical thought. For instance, the Gospel of John identifies Christ as “the lamb of God” (John 1:29). The imagery that the author employs conveys profound religious truths that are best understood within the cultural context of the Gospel. The “lamb” metaphor evokes images of ritual or sin-atoning practices carried out in ancient Israel. The Gospel of John does not just utilize the metaphor based on natural properties indigenous to a lamb.[13] One also witnesses the revelatory nature of tropic speech in substitution theories of metaphor. The most celebrated substitution theory is that model wrought by Aristotle of Stagira.

[1] Sanders, God Who Risks, 15.

[2] McFague 15; Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology, 171; Duck, Gender and the Name of God, 14; Kjärgaard, Metaphor and Parable, 44-45.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, 93. Sokolowski argues: “Metaphor rearranges the potentials of our sensibility and provokes a new way of perceiving” (Husserlian Meditations, 227). The verb “perceive,” here means “any unarticulated intuition at all,” not just intentional activities such as seeing or touching.

[5] Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, 93.

[6] See Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for an example of this phenomenon.

[7] Sanders, God Who Risks, 11-12. Authors such as Maureen Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa, 5-7; Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City: Doubleday, 1967), 45-47, Lewis R. Gordon, Her Majesty’s Other Children: Sketches of Racism from a Neocolonial Age (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), 38-39 and Richard C. Lewontin, Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), 7 discuss social construction and the role of social plausibility structures.

[8] I. A. H. Combes, The Metaphor of Slavery in the Writings of the Early Church: From the New Testament to the Beginning of the Fifth Century (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 11.

[9] See “Metaphors We Kill by.”

[10] The Suffering of God, 1.

[11] Fretheim, Suffering God, 5-12.

[12] Kittay, Metaphor, 4.

[13] Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John. Sacra Pagina (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), 58-59; Gerald Borchert, John 1-11, 135-136; Aune, Revelation 1-5, 52A: 367-373.


Bill Ross said...

Edgar, John is not alluding to the sacrificial system when he refers to Jesus as a "lamb." Lambs were not any significant part of the sacrificial system since a lamb was the least precious of the animals. Ie: to sacrifice a lamb was to give that which you have invested the least into. A sheep would represent years of tending and would thus be a significant atonement (expression of remorse and responsibility).
The lamb metaphor best known in the first century was a military figure. Think Sylvester Stallone as "Lambo." We see this military connotation in Revelation as well. Lambs conquer. Go figure. I cover all of this in my forthcoming book "Bible Shockers!" which you can find information about at

Edgar Foster said...

Bill, I am not contending that the word lamb (when used of Jesus Christ) always bears some type of sacrificial significance. However, in John 1:29, which I was referencing in my original comments--the sacrificial nature of the figurative Lamb's work and mission are being highlighted. There is nothing that suggest the mention of God's Lamb in John 1:29 only denotes a conquering figure and not a sacrificial victim. Israel placed great worth or meaning on the lamb of the pascha (i.e. the paschal feast). Exodus 12:1-13 outlines this important festal observance and shows the divinely ordained meaning attached to the lamb. John also alludes to the Lamb of God's connection with pascha in John 19:14, 31-37. See Revelation 5:6-10.

Edgar Foster

Edgar Foster said...

Baptist exegete Gerald L. Borchert (John 1-11, page 136) argues that the Lamb of God eradicates sin "by the smearing of blood," which is a symbol of God's pardoning of humanity by means of death and reconciliation. It is the Lamb who was "slaughtered" that takes away the world's sins (Revelation 5:9-10). Beasley-Murray also appeals to lion and lamb motifs in texts from Judaism (T.Jos. 19:8; T.Benj. 3) and John 19:31-37 to demonstrate that "the mighty Christ wins salvation for the world through his sacrificial death" (See B-M, John, 24-25).