Conceptual Metaphor Theory as Support for Open Theistic Hermeneutics

Presented at the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta, November 23, 2015.

Not for citation or quotation. The ideas in this paper appear in Theology in the Flesh (Fortress Press, August 2016).


Open theists typically make use of the narrative texts and metaphors in the Bible to support their position. Evangelical theologians and analytic philosophers critical of open theism say it relies on figurative language and anthropomorphism instead of literal language and propositional truth. The critics believe that literal language is true and that metaphorical language needs to be translated into literal language in order to have truth. Conceptual metaphor theory (developed by George Lakoff and others) provides a helpful way for open theists to respond. It is argued that metaphors can be cognitive and that conceptual metaphors have logical (true) inferences. Various biblical metaphors will be examined for their meaning. A cognitive approach to metaphor shows that open theists are the ones using normal human conceptual structures when they reason about God using biblical metaphors.


In The God Who Risks I said the metaphors about God in the Bible were “reality depicting” in that they appropriately portrayed the divine nature and how God relates to us. Some critics claimed that this use of metaphor was fraught with peril; they held that literal language about God in the Bible was superior because it was “clear” and spoke truth about God whereas figurative language falls short of truth. Other critics asked why I took biblical texts about God “changing the divine mind” literally but read texts about God “coming down to see” what was going on metaphorically. However, I was not taking either sort of text literally. Underlying this debate were different understandings of the nature of metaphor, truth, and meaning. Conceptual metaphor theory furnishes open theists with a well-developed model of how metaphors are used to reason about theological topics.[1]

A dominant Western view of metaphor considers them to be non-cognitive and even merely ornamental devices. It is commonly thought that (1) metaphors are figurative ways of stating what could otherwise be better said literally and (2) ordinary conventional language is literal.[2]  Evangelical philosopher Norman Geisler claims: “All communication ultimately depends on something being literally or factually true. We cannot even use a metaphor unless we understand that there is a literal meaning over against which the figurative sense is not literal.”[3] Many evangelicals affirm that a literal reading of the Bible interprets the Bible “straightforwardly” and places the “strong” or “clear” language above the “weak” and “unclear” figurative language. The evangelical theologians who use such terms believe they are speaking literally about literality. They are not, however, since texts are not literally straightforward or crooked, strong or weak, and clear or unclear. Rather, these ordinary words are metaphors drawn from our embodied experiences of walking a path (straight/crooked), the ability to support an object (strong/weak), and whether or not our vision is impeded (clear/unclear).

John Locke said that figurative language fails to “speak of things as they are” but, instead is used “for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats.”[4] Contemporary philosopher Donald Davidson says that “metaphors mean what the words, in their most literal interpretation, mean, and nothing more.”[5] Philosopher Michael Rea lays out four propositions regarding how an approach to doing theology known as analytic theology is to be done. The first three propositions are:

P1. Write as if philosophical positions and conclusions can be adequately formulated in sentences that can be formalized and logically manipulated.

P2. Prioritize precision, clarity, and logical coherence.

P3. Avoid substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor and other tropes whose semantic content outstrips their propositional content.[6]

Though Rea believes metaphors have a role in philosophizing and have “cognitive significance” he values precision and clarity which, he thinks, require literal language.[7]

Conceptual metaphor theory, however, holds that metaphors are cognitive and are used to draw inferences (reason about) conceptual domains. Note that Rea and Locke each make use of conceptual metaphors which are not merely decorative but are tools by which they reason about topics. Rea speaks of manipulating (grasping and moving) ideas and his third proposition suggests we avoid (go around an obstacle in our path) using metaphors for serious philosophical work because their meaning outstrips (goes beyond) their literal content. These seemingly literal statements make use of several metaphors. Manipulating ideas uses the Thinking Is Object Manipulation metaphor.[8] Some of the Mappings of this metaphor are:

The Mind Is A Body

Thinking Is The Work of Moving Objects

Ideas Are Manipulable Objects

Understanding Is Grasping The Object

Analyzing Ideas Is Taking Apart Objects

Rea speaks of avoiding mental obstacles which uses the Thinking Is A Journey metaphor according to which:

Ideas Are Locations

Thinking Is Moving To These Locations

Rational Thought Proceeds Step-By-Step

A Line Of Thought Is A Path

In short, we are thinking of ideas as either physical objects we can handle or places we can go to.

The crucial point here is not that philosophers use metaphors but that they use metaphors to think with and reason about the nature of meaning and truth. In other words, they use metaphors in cognitive ways.

Before going any further, it needs to be clearly said what is not being claimed. Conceptual metaphor theory does not claim that all language is metaphorical. Literal language is important but limited in usefulness and so we use figurative language such as metaphors to reason about aspects of life. Often, the figurative language we employ is so common and basic that we are not even aware of it and think we are speaking literally.

Cognitive linguists Dancygier and Sweetser define literal meaning as “a meaning which is not dependent on a figurative extension from another meaning.”[9] For example, the statement “These colors are similar” is non-metaphorical while the expression “These colors are close” is metaphorical because the frame of spatial proximity is being used to understand the relationship between the colors. The statement “God loves creatures” is a literal (non-metaphorical) expression that entails a lover, a beloved, and a relationship. The words do not depend upon other domains for their meaning. The literal idea of love, however, is skeletal in meaning and insufficient for understanding all aspects of our experience which is why we seek to understand topics such as love via conceptual metaphors.

The statement “John committed a sin” is not a figurative statement but its meaning is skeletal so it is no surprise that we draw upon a variety of domains in order to understand the experience of sin. The Bible contains many different ways to construe sin.[10] For instance, it is thought of as an agent or animal of prey. When God confronts Cain’s anger he says, “sin is lurking (or crouching) at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen 4.7). The domain is that of an adversary intending to assault Cain so the proper response is for Cain to gain control over the foe.

But when we use a different source domain then the proper response may change. For example, if we think of sin as a master who owns us such that we are “slaves to sin” (Rom 6.6-16), then we are not in a position to subdue the master. Sin here is understood as an agent who “exercises dominion” over humanity (Rom 5.14) and compels our obedience. On the other hand, we can think of sin as the refusal to give “honor “to God (Rom 1.21). The word “honor” triggers the cultural frame of what is expected of various parties in the patronage system. God, the patron, provides for the well-being of humans and humans are to honor and give thanks to the divine patron in return.  In this case, we can do something about our situation. Paul also conceives of sin as “trespassing” where we should not go and as “walking” the wrong path (Eph 2.1-2).[11] The source domain of walking on a path provides the inference that we should turn around, locate the proper path, and begin walking on it.

James says, “Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4.4).  Here James uses two different metaphors. He draws upon the Old Testament tradition of Israel as God’s unfaithful wife and then switches to the domain of friendship to understand sin as forsaking a friend. The expected behaviors from the source domains of marriage and friendship are quite different from understanding sin as being enslaved.

Though there is literal language about sin its meaning is minimal which is why we use source domains such as marriage, an adversary, friendship, slavery, and going on a journey to understand and give greater meaning to the concept. The same is the case with salvation.

Brenda Colijn’s Images of Salvation in the New Testament provides a helpful survey of the main metaphors.[12] Among those discussed in her book are: citizenship in God’s kingdom, regeneration, new creation, rescue, healing, redemption, ransom, reconciliation, adoption, vindication (justification), pilgrimage, contest with an adversary, and participation in the life of God.

The metaphors used have different inferences depending on the source domain. For instance, in the three parables of Luke 15 the objects of salvation are either passive or active in the salvific process depending on the source domain. The first parable employs the animal husbandry domain in which the sheep is a passive recipient of the salvation provided by the shepherd. In the parable of the woman searching for the coin the object of salvation is wholly dependent upon the woman. However, in the final parable, the prodigal son, both sons are lost and neither is passive since reconciliation with the father requires their participation.  In each parable something of value has been lost but in the first two parables humans are understood as passive objects waiting for God to find them while in the parable of the prodigal son the source domain of familial relations requires the cooperation of the sons. The different metaphors have different logical inferences depending upon the source domain used.

Also, the different source domains lead to different entailments about whether salvation is understood as a single momentous event or an ongoing series of events. In the parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin salvation occurs as a single event. However, if salvation is construed as marriage, friendship, or as following the directions of a physician then salvation will involve an ongoing series of events.

These examples show that most of our ordinary language for sin and salvation is metaphorical, not literal, and that we use these metaphors to reason about such doctrines. The metaphors are not merely ornamental.[13]

Some, however, claim that metaphors need to be translated or paraphrased into literal language.

Philosopher Donald Davidson says the expression “He was burned up” means only that the person was “very angry.”[14] However, notice that different conceptual metaphors entail different inferences. “To be burned up” is to have fire overtake you whereas “To blow one’s stack” is to have a heated fluid in a container explode. Though both metaphors use heat they are not equivalent in meaning. Also, the metaphors have causal and scalar structure that the literal expression lacks. Thinking of anger as a fluid being heated in a container has the causal structure of heat and pressure that is absent from the literal expression, angry person. Understanding anger as pressure that builds in a container may move us to allow the person to “vent” his anger in order to control it. The metaphor has scalar structure in which a person who is simmering is not as angry as one who is boiling. We relate to someone who is simmering differently from someone who is boiling or ready to explode. Paraphrasing both simmering and boiling as very angry would mean the loss of how we should understand and deal with the situation. The metaphors have important meaning that the literal expression lacks.

Consider “Their love has weathered many storms” and “He is crazy about her.” Weathering storms has inferences about perseverance through difficulties over time whereas insanity does not and to suggest that either of the statements has the same meaning as “They love each other” loses sight of how we actually reason using metaphors. This is also true for sin and salvation. Understanding sin and salvation as someone who has been captured and sold into slavery requires someone else to pay the ransom for their freedom. However, thinking of sin as walking on the wrong road entails that the person needs to take responsibility and get onto the correct path in order to get to the destination called salvation. To paraphrase both metaphors as “You have sinned and need salvation” loses the important meanings and inferences provided by the metaphors.

Some evangelicals claim to read the Bible literally. However, they do not, for instance, take “God is the husband of Israel” literally and, so far as I am aware, do not paraphrase this into literal language in order to understand its meaning. Paraphrasing it as “God has an important relationship with Israel” may be literal but it has lost the rich inferences from the source domain of marriage regarding the sorts of behaviors expected in the relationship. Having God as one’s husband informs you about the specific actions you should and should not do but paraphrasing this into the literal language “I have an important relationship with God” fails to provide us with concrete expectations and behaviors.

In conclusion, we use metaphors and other figurative language to reason about our experiences and so open theists are justified in using the figurative language in the Bible to reason about God. Conceptual metaphor theory provides open theists with a helpful approach for understanding biblical metaphors.

[1] Given the time constraints for this session a full explanation of conceptual metaphor theory and its value for theological reasoning cannot be given here. As a shameless self-promotion see Sanders, Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think about Truth, Morality, and God (forthcoming Fortress, 2016).

[2] For these and other assumptions see Lakoff, “Contemporary Theory of Metaphor”, 204-205, 247-248.

[3] Norman L Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999).

[4] John Locke, “Of the Abuse of Words” in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in two volumes, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), 2.146.

[5]Donald Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 245.

[6] Michael Rea, “Introduction,” in Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology, ed. Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1–30.

[7] It should be noted that analytic theologians are worried about those contemporary theologians and philosophers who appear to substitute “theopoetics” for truth and advocate a “universal interpretationism” in which nobody’s interpretation is better than anyone else’s. Since metaphors play a significant role in such views it is not surprising that some suggest we abstain from metaphor as much as possible. I share these concerns and hold that some interpretations are more valid than others.

[8] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 240.

[9] Barbara Dancygier and Eve Sweetser, Figurative Language (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 4.

[10] The Bible and Christian tradition use a wide array of source domains for sin. Sin is conceived as lack of spiritual hygiene, corruption of God’s good gifts, perversion from what God intended for us, pollution and contamination, disintegration from the wholeness of life God desired for us, a parasite preying upon God’s good creation, addiction, and a masquerade—pretending to be one thing (goodness) when it is not. See Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995).

[11] The NRSV does not consistently translate the journey metaphor in verse two. Instead of saying “in which you once walked” it reads “in which you once lived” which uses the States Of Being Are Locations metaphor.

[12] Brenda B Colijn, Images of Salvation in the New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2010).

[13] However, some proponents of the traditional approach attempt to get around this by espousing the “dead metaphor theory” according to which much of our ordinary language is comprised of “dead” metaphors which at one time were genuine metaphors but then lost their metaphorical meanings. Against the dead metaphor position see Raymond Gibbs, “Why Idioms Are Not Dead Metaphors” in Cristina Cacciari and Patrizia Tabossi eds., Idioms: Processing, Structure, and Interpretation (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993), 57-77.

[14] Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean,” 261. Against the paraphrase position see Lakoff and Turner, More Than Cool Reason, 120-122.

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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