Metaphors and God

The Bible contains over fifty different metaphors for understanding who God is and our relationship to God. Some of these are: husband, woman, shepherd, potter, bear, eagle, and rock. The metaphors structure how humans construe the types of relations and expected behaviors we have with God. For instance, thinking of God as a father involves responsibilities and expectations between both the parent and the children that are lacking when God is understood as shepherd. The sheep do not have the sorts of obligations that children have. If we think of God as a husband then the responsibilities and expectations for humans are increased from that being God’s children. Continuing this line of thought, the biblical metaphor of friendship with God has some different types of expectations than that of husband.

The metaphors we use sometimes significantly shape how we think about theological topics. If think of God as a smelter or potter we understand God to be an artisan in total control of the metal or clay. We don’t tend to think of metal or clay “responding” to the artisan or having responsibilities so if we use these metaphors to understand, say, divine providence, then we are likely to conclude that God gets exactly what God wants. However, if we think of God as a father or mother then parents do not fully control their children and more complex interactions are required to nurture and develop children. If we use metaphors drawn from interpersonal relations the divine providence will entail risk. These are just some of the examples used in the book to show that the metaphors we use can shape the way we understand God’s relationship with us.

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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