Conceptual Metaphor Theory and the Mormon Understanding of God

Draft version not for quotation or citation. For published version see Jacob T. Baker ed., Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology: Essays in Honor of David. L. Paulsen (Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 193-210.

It is with pleasure that I write this contribution for the festschrift to David Paulsen. David is a good philosopher and a devout Mormon. He has been at the forefront of the attempt by Mormon intellectuals to bring some of the key classical Christian concepts such as the trinity into harmony with Mormon teachings. Paulsen has asked Christian theologians to revise traditional theological formulations. These Mormon intellectuals have not, so far as I am aware, asked their fellow Mormons to revise their own theology. That may be too dangerous an enterprise given LDS authority structures. Nonetheless, I will invite Mormons to do just that. My chapter explores a prominent new way of thinking about metaphor and language which would require serious rethinking by Mormons of their understanding of God. Since this rethinking involves some of their most distinctive beliefs, I doubt it is possible for them to agree with my approach.

Reading the Bible Literally

In 2001 the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society debated an article of the theology known as dynamic omniscience which is held by open theists: that God does not know with absolute certainty what creatures with libertarian freedom will do in the future. The Society passed the following resolution: “We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate and infallible knowledge of all past, present and future including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents.” Evangelical Calvinists have taken the lead in arguing that the Bible “clearly teaches” God’s exhaustive definite foreknowledge of all future contingent events. Steven Roy, for example, claims that there are 4,017 biblical texts that “clearly and explicitly” teach exhaustive foreknowledge.[1]  He cites familiar texts such as Psalm 139: 4, 16 where God is said to know what we will say before we utter it and that God knows all of our days before they existed. For Roy it seems clear as day that the Bible teaches exhaustive foreknowledge and those who reject this claim (such as open theists) are reading their position into the Bible rather than out of it.

There are many responses I could offer to this criticism but here I shall focus on the issue of reading the Bible literally. In part, the disagreement concerning what the Bible teaches about divine foreknowledge arises out of a debate about which texts of scripture are literal and which are metaphorical. Open theists have sometimes claimed that they read the Bible literally or in a straightforward fashion.[2] Calvinist critics have claimed that open theists are inconsistent when they interpret the “God changed his mind” texts literally but do not take the texts about God’s body parts literally.

Millard Erickson and Bruce Ware put forth the following criterion: we should take all the biblical texts literally unless there are compelling reasons that the biblical author did not intend the text to be taken literally.[3] Ware concedes that the texts used by open theists “when interpreted in a straightforward manner yield the conclusion that God lacks exhaustive knowledge of the future.” But, he adds, “the issue is whether the authorially intended meaning is the straightforward meaning.”[4] For the evangelical Calvinist critics of open theism the biblical authors did not intend the meanings that open theist interpretations ascribe to them for the simple reason that such a reading would contradict the literal passages of scripture which clearly teach God’s exhaustive foreknowledge.

Several years ago I gave a lecture on open theism at Brigham Young University. In the questions that followed I was asked why I took the God has emotions texts literally but not the God has a body texts literally. Were not, the speaker asked, Mormons more consistent in their reading of the Bible than open theists?  Here I was, being confronted by the same criticism, albeit for different reasons, from evangelical Calvinists and Mormons. My response to the questioner was that I did not take either of these texts literally. The audience was quite surprised because they were sure I was interpreting the biblical texts literally. Subsequently, I realized that I needed to explain my view of language more fully.

This chapter is a partial response to the criticism that I am inconsistent about which texts of scripture I take literally. The main section of the chapter will explore some relevant material in the field of cognitive linguistics. This material will then be applied first to biblical depictions of God and then to Mormon teaching on God.

Conceptual Metaphor Theory

In general, my approach is shaped by some of the recent work in the field of cognitive linguistics which seeks to understand how humans reason about various aspects of life. More particularly, I draw upon the insights of what is called “conceptual metaphor theory” which attempts to document how different cultural and language groups conceptualize human experiences.

The first insight of cognitive linguistics that I will mention is that the human mind (our ways of thinking) is inherently embodied. We conceptualize our world in terms of that which we know best: our experiences as embodied creatures. We use our embodied experience to understand what is important to us. Consider the following expressions: the heart of the problem, to shoulder a responsibility, the head of a department, a healthy economy, my feelings are hurt, exports flourished last year, his finances are ruined, he received a warm welcome, and spend your time wisely.[5]  Each of these statements uses something from our embodied experience in order to understand another aspect of human life.

Humans have particular kinds of bodies which allow us to do some things and not others. Our visual system allows us to use spatial relations in order to understand elements of our experience. We have the ability to move and so motion plays a significant role in understanding the world. Also, the use of force by our arms and legs gives rise to causal concepts.  It is important to understand our visual systems, motor system and the general mechanisms of neural binding because the same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also are the basis of our conceptual systems and modes of reason.

That embodiment is fundamental for thought is seen in the research on how infants learn. Infants with normal vision attend to movement more than anything else.[6] Repeated motions form neural pathways which are the neurological basis for our abstract conceptualizations. Infants are also highly attuned to other human faces. The face of the primary caregiver provides security and peace. Moreover, being held by the caregiver provides literal warmth and protection. These initial experiences eventually give rise to several of our basic cognitive image schemas. That is, we use our experiences of warmth, security, and movement to form basic understandings of the world.

Basic-level image schemas is the name cognitive linguists give to notions such as up-down, part-whole, and near-far. They are spatial structures that are mapped (applied) to conceptual structures.[7] According to Mandler, “Even though image-schemas are derived from perceptual and . . . motor processes, they are not themselves sensorimotor processes.”[8] Our perceptual information leads us to form a small number of image schemas and the image schemas become the main generator of the conceptual system. For example, because we have eyes on one side or our head we form the image schema front-back. The concepts “in front of” and “in back of” are based on the type of bodies we have. Similarly, we have bodies that take in and expel things which gives rise to the inside-outside image schema. Some of the other image schemas are: whole-part orientation (our bodies consist of parts), center-periphery (we sense that our head and torso are central and that our limbs are peripheral since life goes on without a finger but not a head), up-down (our erect posture and lying down), and source-path-goal (to reach an object or place requires movement from our present location to the location of the object).

If we had different sorts of bodies then we would form some different image schemas. For instance, if we had bodies similar to those of jellyfish then we would not have the front-back schema since there is no front or back for jellyfish. Our basic image schemas are derived from our embodied experience and imprinted in our neural network.

Image schemas form the conceptual building blocks for basic-level concepts. Examples of basic-level concepts are time, quantity, state, change, action, cause, purpose and category.  For example, the image schema in-out is developed into the concept of category. The very notion of category presumes a container into which items may be placed. To categorize something is to place it “into” a cognitive container. In other words, the concrete properties of containers are mapped onto (used to understand) the abstract notion of categories.

Since image schemas have very little content we use them to form metaphorical extensions. The chart below contains some examples.[9]

Image Schema Metaphorical Extension
In-out I’m out of clothes.
Head She’s at the head of her class.
Up-down I’m feeling low.
Motion She went crazy.

Conceptual metaphor theorists identify several types of metaphor but only some of these will be discussed here.[10] The most fundamental ones are called primary metaphors and are based on our embodied experiences. For example, we know what it is to have experiences such as having a fluid inside the body, feeling pressure, and being hot or cold in parts of our bodies. We apply such experiences to more abstract experiences in order to understand them. For instance, physical grasping of an object is used for understanding concepts (he could not grasp the topic), sight is used for knowledge (I see your point), hearing is used for internal receptivity (My parents just don’t hear me), touch/feeling are used for emotions (I feel great today), and taste is used for personal preference (the room was tastefully decorated).

When we say to children “let’s see what is in the box” we are using the verbs for vision in such a way that knowing what is in the box depends upon vision. Eventually, we metaphorically extend the meaning of the verb to see when we say, for example, “Let’s see if I can fix your toy.” At first, young children do not understand the second usage of see because they conflate the actual use of vision with the metaphor of seeing. It is confusing when adults use “seeing” to mean something that is not visually seen at all in a statement such as “I see what you mean.”  In time, children are able to separate the literal seeing from the conceptual metaphorical.[11]

Some other key primary metaphors are AFFECTION IS WARMTH (give grandma a warm welcome), HAPPY IS UP (I’m feeling up today), INTIMACY IS PHYSICAL PROXIMITY (they are close friends), DIFFICULTIES ARE BURDENS (he’s weighed down with responsibilities), MORE IS UP (the price of the toy is too high), CATEGORIES ARE CONTAINERS (lions are in the feline family), TIME IS MOTION (the day just flew by), and PUPROSES ARE DESTINATIONS (she is well on her way to being a success).[12]

The other main type of metaphor is complex metaphors which utilize primary metaphors. This can be illustrated by looking at two complex metaphors. In the culture of North America we use the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor when we say things like, “we’ve come a long way in our marriage,” or “our relationship is at a crossroads,” or “our romance is moving right along.” In this metaphor, the lovers are travelers, their common life goals are destinations, the journey is events in the relationship, distance covered is progress made, and the relationship is a vehicle. Love is a journey draws upon primary metaphors such as INTIMACY IS PHYSICAL PROXIMITY and PURPOSES ARE DESTINATIONS.

The second example is our use of the metaphor AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING when we speak of giving support for the argument so that it does not collapse, laying the groundwork for a good argument, the framework for a solid argument, and whether the argument is strong and can withstand criticism. The ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING metaphor is comprised of two primary metaphors: LOGICAL STRUCTURE IS PHYSICAL STRUCTURE and PERSISTING IS REMAINING ERECT.

In these examples a “source domain” (journey and building) is applied to a “target domain” (love and argumentation). Some aspects of the source domain are used to think about (understand) the target domain. But why do we use these source domains instead of others? Why, for instance, should we think of arguments as buildings? Though they are extremely common in our culture there is no necessary connection between journeys and love or buildings and arguments.[13] In fact, the target domain of love was not conceptualized in terms of a journey until that particular source domain was mapped onto it. We created the conceptualization of love in terms of journey but we need not have since other cultures have different ways of understanding love relationships.[14] Conceptual metaphors are culturally constrained since not all cultures use the same metaphors to think about abstractions such as love, anger, success, and truth.

Variations of conceptual metaphors among cultures are not the only constraint upon metaphors. Three other constraints will be mentioned. First, metaphors only partially map reality in that they apply only some aspects of the source domain and ignore others.[15] For instance, in the ARGUMENTS ARE BUILDINGS metaphor elements of physical structure such as foundations and supports are applied to argumentation but not plumbing or chimneys. If metaphors are used to highlight some specific aspects of a target domain this means that other aspects that could be used are not. In other words, the partial mapping of metaphors filters some elements out while letting others through.

The flip side of this idea is that not every characteristic of the source domain is attributed to the target domain. For example, when it is said that “the Pope is the father of the Roman Catholic church” only some entailments of human fatherhood are applied to the Pope. The fatherhood of the Pope often refers to authority but his fatherhood certainly does not entail sexual relations to give birth to Catholics.   If we say “Tom is a firecracker” we clearly do not think that Tom explodes and makes a loud noise. Rather, only the aspect of liveliness is taken from the source domain and mapped onto the target domain.[16]

The second constraint is that the use of different sources changes our understanding of the target. If we want to highlight other aspects of the target which a particular metaphor does not involve then we use other sources because different source domains lead to different entailments in the target. For example, there are several other ways that speakers of English conceptualize arguments and these bring out different features. First, we think of arguments as containers when we say “your argument has a great deal of content.” Second, we understand arguments as journeys when we say “the reasoning proceeds step-by-step” or “we have covered a lot of ground.” Third, we conceive of arguments as war when we say “he could not defend the point” or “she attacked his major premise.” Kövecses suggests that each of the ways of conceiving arguments highlights different aspects unavailable in the other sources. The container metaphor highlights the content while the journey metaphor brings out progress and the war metaphor seems to focus on control and persistence. Kövecses observes that while the “CONTAINER metaphor highlights issues of content it simultaneously hides such other aspects as progress, control, construction and strength.”[17]

This leads us to the final constraint: we typically need several sources for the same target because a single metaphor does not disclose all that can be understood about a target. Given that different sources highlight different elements in the target domain, it is not surprising that we have a variety of conceptual metaphors in order to understand our experiences. Take the experience of love, for example. There are literal elements to love: a lover, the beloved, feelings of affection and a relationship which has a temporal beginning. This is rather skeletal, however, which is why we have a rich assortment of metaphors for conceptualizing love. In addition to LOVE IS A JOURNEY we think of love as a NUTRIENT (he was starved for affection, her love sustains him), as FIRE (burning with love), as PHYSICAL FORCES (he is strongly attracted to her), as NATURAL FORCES (he was swept off his feet), as INSANITY (he’s madly in love), as UNITY (she is my better half or they are a perfect fit) and as a GAME (she’s playing hard to get). If we had to think of love only in terms of a journey we would sacrifice these other ways of conceptualizing love.

The Traditional Theory of Metaphor Versus Conceptual Metaphor Theory

The contrast between the “traditional” theory of metaphor and conceptual metaphor theory will show why the foregoing material is important. The traditional way of distinguishing metaphors from literal statements involves several assumptions: (1) That metaphors are figurative ways of stating what could otherwise better be said literally; (2) Definitions and conventional everyday language are literal; and (3) Only literal language can be true or false.[18]

Conceptual metaphor theory rejects these three assumptions and affirms, instead, that metaphors are used to conceptualize and reason about our world.[19] They are not used simply to speak about the world and our experience; they are vehicles for understanding our world—they structure the way we think about life experiences. Our conceptualizations about interpersonal relationships, time, purposes, and categories are largely metaphorical in nature. This does not mean, however, that all statements are metaphorical. For example, the statement “the car is blue” is literal whereas the statement “Sally is blue today” is metaphorical. The statement “these colors are similar” is literal whereas the statement “these colors are close” is metaphorical since colors are not actually near or far. The statement “these colors are close uses the SIMILARITY IS PROXIMITY metaphor. The problem is that the traditional view of language claims that “these colors are close” and “our relationship hit a dead end” are literal when, in actuality, they are metaphorical ways of conceiving our experience.

Consequently, when evangelical Calvinist critics of open theism speak about the “clear” texts of scripture they fail to realize that they are using conceptual metaphors. In this case, “clear” utilizes the KNOWING IS SEEING metaphor which will be discussed more fully below. Here, it is sufficient to observe that windows can be literally clear but texts are not literally clear. Cognitive linguists have discovered a huge system of such metaphors by which we give meaning to our life experiences. In the words of George Lakoff, “It is a system of metaphor that structures our everyday conceptual system, including most abstract concepts, and that lies behind much of everyday language. The discovery of the enormous metaphor system has destroyed the traditional literal-figurative distinction, since the term ‘literal,’ as used in defining the traditional distinction, carries with it all those false assumptions.”[20]

Thinking About God in the Bible

This section will apply the preceding ideas to biblical depictions of God.[21] Above, it was argued that abstract concepts are largely metaphorical and that these are grounded in our embodied experience. Moreover, metaphors are used to conceptualize and reason about our world rather than simply to speak about it. Our conceptualizations about interpersonal relationships, time, purposes, and categories are largely metaphorical in nature. All of this is also true of the way we understand God and our relationship to God.

To begin, if God is going to communicate with us and have a relationship with us it will have to be in ways which we can comprehend. If we are to think of God in rich rather than skeletal ways then we are going to use conceptual metaphors and these will be grounded in our embodied experience. Recall that the human face of a caregiver provides security, affirmation and peace to an infant. Repeated face-to-face interaction with a child helps it to develop its sense of personhood. This profound human experience in infancy becomes a prototype for the experience of God in the Bible. The biblical writers repeatedly speak of the “face” of God.[22] In the Hebrew Bible the worshippers sought the “face” of Yahweh (Ps 24:6; 42:4). When God’s face is turned toward the worshipper, one experiences affirmation and peace (Num 6:24-26). When God hides his face the worshipper experiences anxiety (Ps 13:2; 104:29). In the New Testament Paul writes that the glorified face of Christ manifests the glory of God (2 Cor 4:6). Also, believers are promised that the eschaton will contain the experience of the face of God (Rev 22:4). The biblical writers used the powerful human experience of the physical face of the other in order to conceptualize ideas such as SECURITY IS THE DIVINE FACE..

Talk of the “face” of God is closely related to the common metaphors INTIMACY IS PHYSICAL PROXIMITY and EMOTIONAL DISTANCE IS PHYSICAL DISTANCE. Deeply spiritual persons are said to be physically close to God. Enoch walked with God for many years (Gen 5:22-24). God carried the Israelites in his arms as a father carries a son (Deut 1:21). Moses had a face-to-face relationship with God (Ex 33:11; Num 12:8). When worshippers experience problems in their relationship with God they ask God to be “near” them (Ps 22:11; 35:22; 38:21). In the new Jerusalem worshippers will experience a clear presence of God for they will be “close” to God (Rev 22:4). In passing it should be noted that these metaphors as well as several others discussed below remain in use in our culture (e. g. “My mom and I are really close”).

Biblical writers frequently used basic-level image schemas in order to comprehend religious experience.[23] For example, the BODY IS A CONTAINER image is frequent. The community of believers is the temple of God in which the Spirit of God dwells (1 Cor 3:16). The heart is a container for good or evil thoughts (Mark 7:21-23) and the Israelites are instructed to put God’s word into their hearts (Deut 30:14). Also, the up-down schema is used in a variety of ways. It seems that all cultures share the valuations that GOOD IS UP while BAD IS DOWN and AUTHORITY IS UP while SUBMISSION IS DOWN. In the Bible the prayers of God’s people rise up to God (Ex 2:23). Greater security is conceived as up when it is said that God will set the believer securely on high (Ps 20:1). Higher authority is conceived as up when the Centurion says to Jesus that he is under authority and he has authority over others (Mt 8:8-9). This explains why biblical writers conceptualize God as looking down from heaven (Ps 14:2; 102:19) and even descending from heaven (Gen 18:21). It would be improper to conceptualize God (a greater authority) as coming from below us.

Primary metaphors occur in the Bible as well. For example, KNOWING IS SEEING is used of both God and humans. God investigates to see if the humans in Sodom are beyond help (Gen 18:21). God looks down to see if anyone understands (Ps 14:2; 53:2). Humans are able to see whether God has blessed someone (26:28) and see whether God’s word is true (Num 11:23). Moses was allowed to see the divine goodness (Ex 33:18-23). We are asked to see that God is good (Ps  34:8). Divine “goodness” is not a visible object that can be literally seen. Instead, it refers to complex characteristics of God in relation to creatures. In these texts, the concrete source domain of visual sight is mapped onto God in order to conceptualize the abstract relations of God to creatures.

In the Bible a wide array of metaphors are used to understand what God is like. In a wonderful article, Mary Therese DesCamp and Eve Sweetser have cataloged these metaphors and found 44 separate metaphors for God in the Hebrew Bible and 50 in the New Testament.[24] Their interest was to discover which characteristics of God were most important to the biblical writers by cataloging which metaphors were applied to God. A few of the metaphors they list are father, king, warrior, husband, woman, master, fortress, heat, eagle, bear, potter, smelter, planter, and land owner. They note that some metaphors are sparse (God is a rock) while others are frequent (God is a father). For each metaphor they map the entailments from the source domain which are attributed to the target domain (God). The same six characteristics are found in both the Old and New testaments. These are (1) protection and sustenance (husband, father), (2) mutual relationship though asymmetric in authority (father, judge), (3) physical control (smelter), (4) the ability to change one’s state or essence (king, woman in labor), (5) authority (king, teacher) and (6) the power to punish (father, bear).

DesChamp and Sweetser draw two main conclusions from their detailed study. First, mutual relationships are the ideal form of relationship between God and humans. Even though the relationships are asymmetric in terms of authority (e. g. father-child, king-subject) there is two-way mutuality between the subjects. Each gives and each receives though not in equal measure. Second, human-to-human metaphors are usually preferred over metaphors of inanimate objects or animals. The reason why is because human metaphors have richer entailments due to the ongoing and dynamic nature of the relationship.

The metaphors used for God do not map every characteristic of the source domain onto the target. Just as “The Pope is the father of the Catholic Church” does not entail sexual relations in order for a person to become a member of the Catholic family, so every aspect of each source domain is not applied to God. Even those metaphors used a great deal such as father and shepherd do not map every aspect of human fathers and shepherds onto God. God does not, for example, have a penis to impregnate a goddess in order to give birth to Israel nor does God sheer humans or roast them for a feast. Only those aspects of the source domain that the biblical authors deem fitting are applied to God. In his excellent study of the metaphor God as king, Marc Brettler, notes that the biblical writers frequently used this metaphor for God yet they were highly selective about which aspects of the source domain (human kings) they applied to God.[25] Though some aspects of human kingship are ascribed to God, most aspects are qualified such that God is king in a special way that either surpasses or is contrary to human kings. For example, human kings and God are both called shepherds but only God uses his staff beneficially rather than for punishment. Also, though both have “power,” God can use his power for peace and justice. Finally, God uses his strength to forgive and his right hand for righteousness whereas human kings often use their right hand for bloodshed.

The biblical writers used different source domains in order change the way we conceptualize the target. For example, conceptualizing God as an eagle has some entailments very different from understanding God as a rock. God’s relation to creatures is very complex and rich which is why multiple metaphors are needed. Hence, Yahweh is not only understood as father but also has so-called feminine characteristics: Yahweh gave birth to Israel (Deut 32:18), Yahweh has a nursing child (Isa 49:15), and Yahweh is a female vulture (eagle) who hovers over the nest and carries the young on her wings (Deut 32:11). Conceptualizing God as father helps us understand certain characteristics of God while conceiving God as mother highlights other aspects of God. As father, Yahweh could not give birth to Israel so in order to apply this deep connection between God and Israel Yahweh had to be understood as a mother.

This leads to a couple of important cautions. First, DesChamp and Sweeter note that “theologians should be concerned with the repeated use of ‘father’ and ‘king’ because no matter how benevolent those particular metaphors may appear, they nonetheless suppress certain features of God and lead faith communities to inaccurate and inadequate representations.”[26] Second, though we need many metaphors in order to understand the many facets of God we must be careful not to mix the entailments from the different metaphors. Consider that God as father of Israel and as husband/lover of Israel each have rich entailments but if these two are brought together at the same time we have incest which is an inappropriate entailment for God.

Conceptual Metaphor Theory and the Mormon Understanding of God

Mormons believe that God is literally the father of all humans. God the father once lived on earth but is now “an exalted man, a corporeal being, a personage with flesh and bones.”[27] God the father and his wife (a female deity about whom not much has been revealed) produce spirit beings who are then born to human parents. Jesus, also known as Yahweh (Jehovah), is the literal firstborn spirit being of the divine parents. Jesus is special in that he is the first born as well as the one who fashioned the basic elements into our planet and brought about salvation. Yet, all humans are essentially like Jesus in that “men and women are literally the spirit sons and daughters of God” who lived in a premortal existence (the “first estate”) prior to our physical births.[28] Consequently, humans “are of the same species as God.”[29] We were sired by the divine parents after Jesus was born in the first estate. This means that Jesus is literally our “elder brother.”[30]

I find this sort of literality quite puzzling as would, I believe, most Christians throughout history for the simple reason that a host of metaphors are used in the Bible to conceptualize both God and our relationship to God. The human situation in relation to God is not only portrayed in terms of children but also in terms of household servants, sheep, branches of a vine, temple, and bride just to name a few. To my knowledge, no one takes these literally. Given the Mormon propensity for highly literal readings of biblical texts it seems to me that they run into a host of difficulties. Consider the statement in First John that those who are “born of God” do not continue in sin (3:9). Clearly, this cannot be taken in the Mormon sense that we are all literally born of God since there are many humans who do continue in sin. Moreover, though Paul refers to Christians as “sons of God” who now call God “Abba” (father) this is because we have been “adopted” rather than because we are natural born children of God (Gal 4:5-6; Rom 8:14-17). For me, adoption is just as metaphorical as sons of God. Also, I do not know if Mormons take the statement that Jesus is the “only begotten of the father” (John 1:14; 3:16) literally. If they do, such literality would seem to create a problem for them in that Jesus is not, in fact, the only begotten but only the first begotten.[31]

In the previous section it was noted that Yahweh is identified as the father, mother, and husband of Israel.[32] If, as Mormons believe, Jesus is Yahweh then it is difficult to see how Jesus can be father, mother, and husband except as conceptual metaphors.[33] If Jesus is literally our elder brother then he cannot literally be our mother as well. Yahweh is portrayed as the husband of Israel in the Old Testament and Jesus is the bridegroom of the church in the New Testament (Rev 19:7) and so Israel and the church are understood as female but if these are taken literally it is difficult to understand since there are males in both Israel and the church. Also, the Mormon teaching that God the father is not Yahweh (Jesus) seems to lead to the following problem. If God the father is our literal father then what is to be made of the biblical statements that Yahweh is our father? These seem to be contradictory assertions unless interpreted as conceptual metaphors.

Mormons have a long history of defending their religion and they may have already developed answers to the problems I raise. Mormons are, I believe, on target in so far as they draw connections between our embodied experiences and our understanding of God. However, I believe that conceptual metaphor theory is correct so I simply cannot agree with the highly literal Mormon understanding of God. In my view, the biblical depictions of God in terms such as father, mother, rock, vulture, and shepherd are all metaphors and should not be taken literally. This is not to “demote” the biblical language because conceptual metaphors are the normal means we use to reason about abstract relations such as love, argumentation, and the economy. The process by which we reason about biblical texts and God is the same.


[1] Roy,  How Much Does God Foreknow? A Comprehensive Biblical Study (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 312. See also, Millard Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), 39-57. Roy claims that  a “straightforward reading of the omniscience texts” requires exhaustive definite foreknowledge whereas the openness type texts do not require a rejection of foreknowledge (220-1).

[2] See, for example, Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2000), pp. 14, 118.

[3] Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000), pp. 67, 85.

[4] Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, p. 85. Emphasis is his.

[5] See Zoltan Kövecses  Metaphor: a Practical Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 16-24. Kövecses  does not claim that all thought is directly related to physical experience.

[6] Shaun Gallagher, How the Body Shapes the Mind (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005), 247. See also the work by Raymond Gibbs, Embodiment and Cognitive Science (New York. Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[7] See Jean Mandler, “How to Build a Baby: II. Conceptual Primitives, Psychological Review, 99. no. 4 (1992), 591-2; and George Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987): 416-461; and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 31-35. For an excellent overview of conceptual metaphor theory and the key literature see Bonnie Howe, Because You Bear This Name: Conceptual Metaphor and the Moral Meaning of 1 Peter (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), chapter 2.

[8] Mandler, “How to Build a Baby,” 591.

[9] These examples are drawn from Kovesces, Metaphor, 37.

[10] See Kövecses, Metaphor.

[11] See Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh, 48-56.

[12] Conceptual metaphor theorists typically identify the metaphor of which they are speaking in one of several ways: by capitalizing the first letter of each word, by placing it in quotation marks, or by putting all the letters in caps. I will use the third format.

[13] Proponents of the traditional theory of metaphor typically claim that metaphors involve a similarity between the source and target domains. Though there are similarities in some cases there need not be any similarities between the two domains. For instance if we say “She is a firecracker” it is the source domain that imposes a structure on the target domain. There is no literal similarity between the woman and a firecracker. Rather, it is the application of firecracker that enables us to understand an abstraction about the woman. See Kövecses, Metaphor, 67-77.

[14] On the subject of cultural influence on conceptual metaphors see Zolton Kövecses, Metaphor, 163-197 and his Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[15] Kövecses, Metaphor, 79-92.

[16] See Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way we Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexitites (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 141-142.

[17] Kövecses, Metaphor,80.

[18] George Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor,” in Andrew Ortony, ed. Metaphor and Thought, second ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press), 240-1.

[19] See Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor,” 202-251.

[20] Lakoff, “Contemporary Theory of Metaphor,” 204.

[21] For a helpful overview of cognitive science and its applicability to theology see Gregory R. Peterson, Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003). For an excellent introduction to conceptual metaphor theory and its application to biblical studies see Bonnie Howe, Because You Bear This Name. For the relevance of cognitive linguistics to biblical translation see Kenneth A. McElhanon, “From Simple Metphors to Conceptual Blending: The Mapping of Analogical Concepts and the Praxis of Translation” Journal of Translation 2. no. 1 (2006): 31-81. http://www.sil.org/siljot/abstract.asp?id=48002.

[22] See The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1975) 1. 585-7 and The Faces of Foregiveness: Searching for Wholeness and Salvation, F. LeRon Shults  and Steven J. Sandage (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2003), 105-124.

[23] The following section is deeply indebted to several unpublished papers by Kenneth McElhanon.

[24] Mary DesCamp and Eve Sweetser, “Metaphors for God: Why and How Do Our Choices Matter for Humans? The Application of Contemporary Cognitive Linguistics Research to the Debate on God and Metaphor,” Pastoral Psychology, vol. 53, no. 3 (January 2005): 207-238.

[25] See Marc Zvi Brettler, God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor.  Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 76 (Sheffiled, England: JSOT Press, 1989).

[26] DesCamp and Sweetser, “Metaphors for God,” 236.

[27] Robert Millet, The Mormon Faith: A New Look at Christianity (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1998), 29. I will draw heavily on Millet’s book for he is widely accepted by Mormons as a trusted authority. See also, B. H. Roberts, The Mormon Doctrine of God (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1998).

[28] Millet, Mormon Faith, 56.

[29] Millet, Mormon Faith, 34.

[30] Millet, Mormon Faith, 57.

[31] Mormons believe that the body of Jesus was literally “sired” by God the father with Mary and had no human father (see Millet, Mormon Faith, 31). Perhaps (I speculate) Mormons would explain the appellation of “only begotten” to Jesus by claiming that whereas our earthly bodies are from two human parents, Jesus earthly body was only from one human parent.

[32] On Yahweh as husband see the excellent study by Nelly Stienstra, YHWH is the Husband of His People: An Analysis of a Biblical Metaphor with Special Reference to Translation. Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1993.

[33] Millet, Mormon Faith, 30.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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