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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Metaphor, which is to be taken here inclusively as
any representation of one subject matter in terms liter-
ally appropriate not to it but to some different subject
matter, has been pervasively present within religious
discourse from earliest known times. The explicit rec-
ognition of metaphor as metaphor, however, logically
presupposes some structured beliefs or theory about
what may and may not be considered “literally appro-
priate” modes of representation when applied to reli-
gious subject matter. This additional sophistication, first
met explicitly in ancient Greek thought, brings with
it the need for exegesis and therefore provides a stimu-
lus for rival theological theories. Consequently, the
history of the idea of metaphor in Western religious
discourse, involving not only the vital transition to
self-consciousness about the “literal-nonliteral” dis-
tinction in religion but also the long development of
various approaches to religious uses of nonliteral ex-
pressions, may illuminate aspects of the theological
situation in recent years.


The Bible, as Western civilization's principal reli-
gious book, illustrates the pervasiveness of unself-
conscious imagery—only later to be distinguished as
metaphor—in primary or nontheoretical religious dis-
course. There can be no fixed boundaries delineating
what is “image” from what is not, as we shall see, since
various theories of religious metaphor will make these
demarcations at very different points, but a few obvious
examples drawn from various contexts of religious
usage will give at least preliminary substance to this

Prophetic speech, first, is rich with imagery, often
of great power. Even the comparatively straight-


forward threats and denunciations of the first great
prophet, Amos, are mingled with such images as the
personification of Israel as a prostrate young woman:

Fallen, no more to rise,
is the virgin Israel;
forsaken on her land,
with none to raise her up

(Amos 5:2; RSV).

His immediate successor, Hosea, used imagery of vari-
ous kinds to express God's agonized love for a faithless
people. God is depicted as a father and (in a mixed
image) as a compassionate herdsman.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and burning incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of compassion,
with the hands of love,
and I became to them as one
who eases the yoke on their jaws,
and I bent down to them and fed them

(Hosea 11:1-4; RSV).

Hosea is still better known for his image of God as
righteously angered but nonetheless loving husband of
the adulterous wife, Israel:

Plead with your mother, plead—
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband—
that she put away her harlotry from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts;
lest I strip her naked
and make her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and set her like a parched land,
and slay her with thirst

(Hosea 2:2-3; RSV).

Not only in speech, but also in significant action, a
prophet could express his images. Hosea may have
actually married a whore as living enactment of his
central image, though scholarly opinion is divided on
this question. Certainly other prophets did communi-
cate in part through nonverbal imagery, however, as
is illustrated by Jeremiah who publicly broke a potter's
vessel after proclaiming “O house of Israel, can I not
do with you as the potter has done? says the Lord.
Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you
in my hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6).
Jeremiah, indeed, is an especially fertile source of
image in speech and action. God is represented as a
fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13), a planter of
good seed (2:21), a husband (3:1), a father (3:22), a lion
(4:7), and so on. Other later prophets, like Ezekiel,
Deutero-Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi con-
tinue to create and employ imagery in the service of
the prophetic ministry.

Devotional literature, despite its very different con-
text of use, is no less crowded with imagery. To take
a few obvious examples, one finds God pictured in
many of the Psalms as a rock, a shield, a fortress, a
horn, besides being represented anthropomorphically,
as in the familiar pastoral:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me to lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul

(Psalms 23; RSV).

Not all even of devotional images are so idyllic, of
course, nor so concerned as those above with security
and protection, but they are typical. A rather startling
contrast is presented by the discourse of apocalyptic
literature. The imagery of apocalypse, as in Daniel,
is far more removed from ordinary experience:

And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from
one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles' wings.
Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was
lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet
like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it

(Daniel 7:3-4; RSV).

With the discourse of apocalypse, however, we have
come to the end of what deserves the title of primary
or unself-conscious religious imagery. The images are
consciously constructed with an esoteric significance
known only to the initiates. This phenomenon of en-
coded imagery itself is widely encountered in various
religious and cultural traditions, which justifies to some
extent the inclusion of apocalyptic imagery, as a pri-
mary religious expression, within the present section;
but by the time Daniel was being written (ca. 166 B.C.)
in Hellenized Palestine, the conscious distinction be-
tween levels of religious meaning had clearly been
made. We must go back to examine how this occurred.


Explicit awareness of the distinction between
would-be literal uses of religious language and “meta-
phor,” as we have here broadly defined it, arose in a
significantly different cultural context from the biblical
one. Greek religion, like the Hebrew, was shot through
with vivid imagery, but at least two significant social
differences distinguish their histories. First, Greek reli-
gion from the sixth century B.C. was obliged to coexist


with a lively independent philosophical movement, as
Hebrew religion was not. Second, Greek religion of
this period, unlike the Hebrew, lacked an institu-
tionalized priesthood of specialists in the defense, ex-
position, and transmission of inherited belief. These
two differences doubtless worked together in Greece
to reinforce the rise of critical consciousness of non-
literal religious discourse, both by placing the latter
in a competitive situation with alternative accounts of
ultimate matters and by giving greater freedom of
interpretation to those inclined to amend or reconcile
the inherited imagery of religion with reference to
those alternatives. That such freedom was not absolute
is quite clear from the prosecution of occasional
philosophers on grounds of unorthodoxy, notably in the
cases of Anaxagoras, who was banished by the outraged
citizens of conservative Athens about 432 B.C., and of
Socrates, who took the hemlock in order to teach the
Athenians a lesson (Apology 38C) after they tried and
condemned him publicly in 399 B.C. on charges of
impiety. Still, such incidents, however noteworthy,
were the exception in a normal context of considerable
latitude of belief and interpretation.

It is probably not wise to lay heavy emphasis on
the famous assertion attributed to Thales, “All things
are full of gods” as marking, in itself, a clear break
with previous religious imagery; but it remains an
instance, from such an ancient philosopher, of reinter-
preted philosophical use of traditional religious dis-
course, inasmuch as Thales was in all likelihood refer-
ring here to the behavior of natural magnets and the
like. He was, even more important, at the start of a
long train of thinkers whose efforts were bent towards
constructing naturalistic explanations of the whole of
things, a universal domain which had hitherto been
the exclusive preserve of mythic images. It would be
false, of course, to suppose that these thinkers dispensed
with imagery—their bold speculations were, on the
contrary, deeply involved in imaginative models of
various sorts—but philosophical accounts of things
after Thales differed in key ways from the religious
imagery of inherited Homeric religion. First, philo-
sophical explanations were constructed rather than
inherited; secondly, and consequently, they relied for
their acceptability on intrinsic plausibility rather than
on extrinsic cultural authority; and thus, thirdly, they
were relevant to evidence and open to argument on
grounds of consistency, inclusiveness, and the like, on
which their plausibility depended. In sum, the aim of
the philosophic movement in Greek culture was to
provide rational and (in intention, at least) literal the-
ory for the understanding of the universe.

Such an aim and such an intention (no matter the
degree of success) is, as we noted earlier, the logical
prerequisite for the discovery of metaphor in religious
discourse. Only when there is a theory about what is
“literally so” can there be explicit recognition of
oblique, allegorical, symbolic—in a word, metaphori-
cal—alternative uses of significant forms. What is taken
to be the case “literally,” of course, is entirely relative
to the theories believed, and in consequence the
specific content covered by the “nonliteral,” or the
metaphorical, shifts with shifting beliefs.

Given an intellectual standing place outside tradi-
tional religious discourse, Greek thinkers divided on
the question of how to assess the inherited Homeric
tapestry of images. Some, for example, Xenophanes,
Heraclitus, and the Pythagoreans, chose to stand un-
compromisingly against the religious tradition. Others,
however, were prepared to give the venerated images
a reinterpretation to bring them—with their “real”
meaning—more into line with what the commentators
variously believed to be the literal truth. The usual
method of interpretation was through “allegory”
(ὑπόνοια), which term (originally derived from Greek
rhetoric) simply meant a series of metaphors or a
sustained metaphor. Perhaps the first to have intro-
duced this metaphorical interpretation of Homer was
a somewhat shadowy figure, Theagenes of Rhegium (fl.
530?), who wrote an “Apology” for Homeric poetry;
following Theagenes, a distinguished list of thinkers
took up the method. The above-mentioned Anaxagoras,
for example, gave a purely ethical metaphorical re-
duction to the orthodoxy of his day, while his pupil,
Metrodorus of Lampsacus (d. 464 B.C.), offered a quasi-
scientific account in which Demeter stands for the
liver, Dionysus for the spleen, Apollo for the gall,
Hector for the moon, Achilles for the sun, and so on.
Likewise, the philosopher Diogenes of Apollonia (fl.
440-430 B.C.), who supported the view that air was
the fundamental substance of the universe, took Zeus
as a metaphor, naturally, for air. Democritus, the great
atomist philosopher, was also an enthusiastic allegor-
izer of Homeric religion.

Plato, on the other hand, was of the opinion that
such allegorizing of the traditional religion is greatly
overgenerous to the poets. He showed Socrates making
delightful nonsense of the attempt to allegorize
etymologies of the names of the gods (Cratylus
406-08); he also had Socrates dismiss the effort as

Now I quite acknowledge that these allegories are very nice,
but he is not to be envied who has to invent them; much
labor and ingenuity will be required of him; and when he
has once begun, he must go on and rehabilitate Hippo-
centaurs and chimeras dire. Gorgons and winged steeds flow
in apace, and numberless other inconceivable and porten-
tous natures. And if he is sceptical about them, and would


fain reduce them one after another to the rules of proba-
bility, this sort of crude philosophy will take up a great
deal of time

(Phaedrus 229C).

But the most profound of Plato's objections to this
attempt to save the imagery of traditional religion by
treating it as metaphorical is that the imagery itself,
if allowed to be taken this seriously by the uncritical,
has the dangerous power to corrupt truth and morals.

Neither, if we mean our future guardians to regard the habit
of quarrelling among themselves as of all things the basest,
should any word be said to them of the wars in heaven,
and of the plots and fightings of the gods against one an-
other, for they are not true.... These tales must not be
admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have
an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot
judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that
he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become
indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important
that the tales which the young first hear should be models
of virtuous thoughts

(Republic II 378D).

Plato, here, is clearly not condemning all use of
allegory, image, or metaphorical discourse. He himself
used such forms of language to excellent effect on a
number of crucial occasions (e.g., Phaedo 107-15;
Phaedrus 246A-247C); he knew and respected the
power of such discourse. Indeed, precisely because of
this great respect for its potency, he wanted to keep
it under firm control of literal truth.

There is no need to continue examining the rise to
explicit consciousness of the literal and its opposite in
religious speech. The distinction is quite clear even
before Plato; and we have further seen that different
evaluations of how the concepts should be deployed
have come to the surface. Metaphor in religious dis-
course having been discovered, what are its conse-


The confluence of the Hebrew and the Greek cul-
tural traditions, which occurred in the Hellenistic pe-
riod, is vividly exemplified by the Jewish philosopher
Philo of Alexandria. Although the metaphorical
exegesis of biblical imagery had been known before
him, it was Philo who first turned allegorical inter-
pretation of scripture into a system based on a coherent
philosophical position. Ironically, in view of Plato's
own attitude toward the allegorizing of religious
imagery, Philo's primary philosophical resource was
Platonic, though he drew much in addition from cur-
rent Stoic thought, which tended strongly to support
metaphorical methods of approaching religious tradi-
tion. The substance of Philo's views need not concern
us here; of greater significance is his approach and his
justification for it. Above all one must remember that
Philo was both a convinced Jew and, at the same time,
a determined philosopher. Truth, he argued, cannot be
divided into compartments. If Moses wrote something,
it must be true in some sense; if, on the other hand,
good reasoning shows something to be the case, it must
somehow be compatible with all other truth. There-
fore, when there are apparent conflicts between sacred
scripture and good reasoning, these putative conflicts
cannot be final. In general, Philo thought, wherever
the literal meaning of the Bible leads either to absurd-
ity or to impiety, there it is both right and necessary
to discover the allegorical meaning behind the meta-
phor, since metaphor it must be.

Philo was fortunately situated, philosophically, for
deploying his distinction of literal-metaphorical in this
way because of his thorough acceptance of the Platonic
distinction between the visible world of imperfect,
changing particulars, on the one hand, and the purely
“intelligible world” of perfect, eternal Archetypes, on
the other. Such a distinction makes it easy to interpret
literal descriptions of events or objects in the empirical
world as belonging to an inferior order of reality,
knowledge, and value, while also participating—by
virtue of the Forms—in a higher order of perfection
in all respects. Given such a distinction and such a
method, indeed, the dimensions of what could be taken
as metaphorical were open to vast enlargement. All
things visible, not just a few obvious items like rocks
or shields, on this view, refer beyond themselves to
the world of eternal Archetypes. If the lion image of
Jeremiah had to be given a nonliteral meaning to avoid
absurdity or impiety when applied to God, so, too, the
mention of the “face” of God, or his “walking” in the
Garden of Eden—and the Tree in the Garden, and the
Garden itself—must be given metaphorical meaning
in any systematic account of scriptural truth. This Philo
set out to do, interpreting the Bible as carrying
throughout more than its literal significance. The story
of Joseph and his coat of many colors, for instance,
he treated as a metaphor in which Joseph stood for
the Ideal Form of the Statesman and in which his
many-hued garment signified the complexity of his
political policies.

It is interesting to note that Philo, though profoundly
immersed in the allegorizing of his own scriptures, had
no use whatever (like Plato) for the allegorizing of the
pagan sacred writings in the manner of the contem-
porary Stoics. This trait, a direct reflection of Philo's
Jewish piety, is of course typical of the theological
employment of allegorical interpretations: where there
is absence of respect for the religious literature in
question, there is correspondingly little motivation to
“save” it by appeal to metaphor. Where, on the other


hand, there is both veneration of inherited material
and an explicit theory of what constitutes “absurdity”
and “impiety” in it, the recourse to distinctions be-
tween literal and metaphorical meanings may be
tempting. Here, in fact, we find one of the crucial
differences, among many similarities, between Philo
and Plato. Both, we recall, objected to whatever might
corrupt truth or morals: Plato, on these grounds, urged
the censoring of any poetic images which might have
this effect; Philo, on the same grounds, urged the very
process of allegorizing that Plato condemns. The obvi-
ous difference between them is that Plato is free from
allegiance to the traditional religious forms while Philo
is committed to his.

This difference in commitments is reflected in an-
other way important to the tradition of which Philo
was to be the source. Even the Greek philosophers
who, unlike Plato, were ready to see metaphorical
truths in the religion of their ancestors were not pre-
pared to place primacy on the latter. If in Greece the
myths of old were able to be viewed by some as still
having intellectual value in terms of more adequate
theory, it was only as groping approximations. The
literal truths of reason, by which the metaphors alone
could be recognized as such, were firmly in the primary
place. Philo, however, took the opposite view. The
Bible was God's revelation through Moses. There can
ultimately be no conflict between the truth given di-
rectly by God and the truth discovered by philosophy,
but there can be no doubt, for Philo, which must come
first. Therefore it was a problem for him and for his
Christian successors to explain how the Greeks came
by their truth. Different solutions were given—includ-
ing hypotheses of Greek plagiarism from Moses and
the prophets—all, however, leaving no doubt about the
priority of God's revelation over man's discovery. In
this emphasis we find the root of the famous “hand-
maiden” theory of the relationship between philosophy
and revelation. Revealed truth, given through the tra-
dition to which one is committed, must be the ruling
mistress; philosophy, through which the metaphors of
scripture are harmonized with each other and with
other systematic knowledge, must be ancillary (from
ancilla, the Latin word for serving girl).

Christian adoption of metaphorical interpretation of
their authoritative religious discourse was soon to fol-
low, deeply indebted to Philo, particularly after the
second century, and carrying with it the various theo-
logical overtones we have just noted. This process was
encouraged by a certain amount of allegorizing in the
New Testament itself. Saint Paul, for example, takes
the statement from Deuteronomy “You shall not
muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (Deuteron-
omy 25:4) as a metaphorical justification for his own
financial support (I Corinthians 9:9); and elsewhere he
uses allegory explicitly to argue his position (Galatians
4:21). The author of the Gospel of John, too, clearly
makes conscious use of metaphor throughout. Jesus'
parables, furthermore, whether they were uttered self-
consciously or in the primary mode of simple religious
speech, lend themselves obviously to allegorical inter-
pretation, sometimes as simple metaphor (e.g., the
cursing of the fig tree), and sometimes, when extended,
as allegory (e.g., the Sower, the Laborers in the Vine-

Enthusiastic use of metaphor of various sorts, pri-
marily allegory, was characteristic of the early Church
Fathers both in the Latin-speaking West and in the
Greek-speaking East despite the disapproval of
Irenaeus (fl. 177) and Tertullian (160?-?230) in East
and West respectively. Both of these authors were
disturbed by dangerous similarities between allegorized
Christian doctrine and the always luxuriantly meta-
phorical thought of Gnosticism. The tide, however, was
too strong in Hellenistic times to be resisted, and one
finds the greatest names among the supporters of
metaphorical exposition: Clement of Alexandria
(150?-?220) and Origen (185?-?254), both of the Greek
church, continued to be strong influences in favor of
the method despite the multi-volumed polemics of
Theodore of Mopsuestia (350?-?428), who argued that
without a literal, historical base the excesses of meta-
phorical hermeneutics could have no check at all.
Likewise, in the Latin church, Saint Jerome used met-
aphor, for example, to justify Jacob's polygamy and
favoritism by letting Leah stand for Judaism and Rachel
for Christianity. Saint Augustine, too, found meta-
phorical interpretation useful, especially in apologetics,
and justifies it scripturally by an appeal to Saint Paul's
distinction between the letter, which “kills,” and the
spirit, which “gives life” (II Corinthians 3:6). Given
such authority, it is not surprising that the approach
to religious discourse by means of metaphorical inter-
pretation was widespread in medieval times, though
for many centuries the substructure of explicit philoso-
phy—certainly present in Fathers like Saint Augustine
—was in little evidence. Instead, as exemplified by the
theologians associated with the Abbey of Saint-Victor
during the twelfth century, a devotional concern rein-
forced by a mystic sense of the levels of meaning and
of reality, led sensitive thinkers to contemplate the
various senses—literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical—
in which Scripture could enrich spirituality.

With the rediscovery of Aristotle's thought in the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the efforts of Saint
Thomas Aquinas to unite the truths of Christian reve-
lation with the truths of “the Philosopher” inevitably
included a prominent discussion of the place of meta-


phor in religious discourse. Aquinas predictably came
to the defense of controlled metaphorical inter-
pretation via an appeal to Aristotelian epistemological

It is befitting Holy Scripture to put forward divine and
spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material
things. For God provides for everything according to the
capacity of its nature. Now it is natural to man to attain
to intellectual truths through sensible things, because all
our knowledge originates from sense. Hence in Holy Scrip-
ture spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness
of material things

(Summa theologica, Q. I, Art. 9).

In answer to the charge that it is somehow unfitting
to represent higher things by lower, he pointed out
that since God is not knowable directly by any sensible
concepts, we are saved from erroneously supposing that
we have literal understanding by the very incongruity
of the metaphors employed in what we have called
primary religious imagery. Besides, such metaphors
have the virtue of being readily available to “the sim-
ple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual
things” while simultaneously being the means whereby
“divine truths are the better hidden from the un-
worthy” (loc. cit.). Elsewhere Aquinas laid foundations
for the important doctrine of analogy, whereby tech-
nical theological theory when applied to God could
be held to avoid the dual threats of literal anthro-
pomorphism, on the one hand, and vacuous equivoca-
tion, on the other. This doctrine, although related to
the idea of metaphor in religious discourse, has its
primary bearing on other philosophical matters and
will not be pursued here.


The first serious break in Christian attitudes toward
the metaphorical interpretation of primary religious
discourse (one which was never equally duplicated
within Jewish thought) came with the Reformation in
the sixteenth century. Martin Luther was by no means
an absolute opponent of metaphor and allegory—he
used it himself from time to time, especially in inter-
preting such biblical sources as the Song of Solomon—
but his emphasis (and that of the weight of Protestant-
ism after him) was on the sharp reduction of the
boundaries, once again, of what could legitimately be
considered figurative in scripture. Just as the Protestant
movement broke away from the authority of the insti-
tutional church of Rome, so it rejected the authority
of much within church tradition and interpretation that
had over the centuries come to share the sanctity of
the Bible. If the Bible was to be the one basic authority
for faith, then the Bible, Luther argued, should be
permitted as far as possible to speak for itself as liter
ally as possible. Any other attitude, he saw, would be
to elevate human critical standards above the Word
of God.

This position, we should note, is not quite identical
with that of the Fundamentalism of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. The latter movement grew in a
context of scientific biblical criticism and as a reaction
against it—a context which Luther and other early
Protestants never knew. In a sense, it can be argued
that the history of higher criticism, which parallels the
history of science itself, is just as much an opponent
of runaway metaphorical interpretation as was Luther,
though from different motives. It can also be argued
(though it is speculative to do so) that Luther might
have welcomed neutral scientific biblical scholarship
as providing the best means through which the original
biblical texts could be permitted to “speak for them-
selves.” It would have required considerable revision
of Luther's rather contemptuous attitudes toward the
powers and prerogatives of human reason for him to
have taken this attitude, of course, since scientific
biblical criticism is emphatically based on certain fun-
damental beliefs regarding what is literally the case—
they are the pervasive presumptions underlying the
scientific attitudes of the modern Western world—but
since Luther was a man of his time and not of ours
it is fruitless to examine this point further. The Funda-
mentalists, however, were in the historical position of
being required to make the choice, and their choice
was to hew to the literal language of scripture rather
than either to accept the allegorizing of the mainly
Catholic past, or to welcome the scientific discovery
of biblical history and literature by the Modernists.

In this literalism, of course, there were many de-
grees. Some metaphors were allowed by most Funda-
mentalists, although there was little consistent theory
to systematize where the literal line could appro-
priately be drawn. The Song of Solomon, for a prime
example, was seldom interpreted by Fundamentalists
at face value, which would make of it a rather erotic
collection of ancient wedding poetry. But while Philo's
warning against “impiety” was carefully followed, his
equal emphasis against “absurdity” was not. More
accurately, the Fundamentalists would not grant to
their opponents that there was anything absurd about
the sun standing still in the sky on command (Joshua
10:12), about an iron axe head floating on water (II
Kings 6:5), or, especially, about certain “fundamentals”
(hence the name) like the virgin birth of Jesus or his
bodily resurrection from the dead. All such accounts,
indeed, are only absurd relative to a set of beliefs about
what is and is not possible. If those beliefs are rejected,
then the choice between metaphorical treatment and
disbelief is not forced.


Rejection of the set of beliefs in question, however,
is inconceivable for most modern men. These are the
beliefs that underlie the common sense and the com-
mon life of contemporary civilization as well as the
intellectual possibility of science. There are today,
therefore, comparatively few outright Fundamentalists;
but there are still many Christians whose primary
religious discourse is full of much that is incompatible
with their basic beliefs about reality. This creates a
severe problem for contemporary non-Fundamentalist
theology, since the footloose freedoms of allegorical
interpretation have been blocked by the rise of modern
critical consciousness—for Catholics, today, as well as
Protestants—and the alternative of sheer disbelief, in
the manner of Plato against the Homeric poetry, is
unattractive to those who continue to venerate the
inherited religious tradition of their culture.

Several attempted solutions have recently been
under debate, all recognizing the nonliteral but some-
how valuable character of primary religious discourse.
One attempt has been made following the German
theologian Rudolf Bultmann, to “demythologize” the
biblical world-picture, interpreting scriptural stories
couched in primary religious discourse in terms of the
existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Another
effort to challenge the underlying philosophical
premisses on which Christian theology has traditionally
rested is based on the process philosophy of Alfred
North Whitehead: if the absolutes of the Platonic and
Aristotelian philosophies, especially in their bearing on
the nature of God, can be replaced with a new relativ-
istic and dynamic theoretical matrix, like Whitehead's,
capable of accommodating science and contemporary
consciousness as well as of giving a coherent meaning
to the traditional religious images, then, it is argued,
both religion and intellectual integrity can be saved.
Still other positions draw variously on the philosophical
views of Ludwig Wittgenstein, of John Dewey, of
Edmund Husserl, of Henri Bergson, or on still other
theoretical bases found either in philosophy or inherent
in the Christian tradition itself.

What is in common to all these efforts, the details
of which remain beyond the scope of this article, is
the insistence on retaining, so far as possible, primary
religious discourse while refusing to allow it to claim
literal truth. Its literal interpretation is to be found
in some further system of beliefs which, functioning
in a way similar to the way a theory articulates and
deploys a model in science, relates the vivid imagery
of primary religious discourse to what may be respon-
sibly believed relative to current knowledge. In the
extended sense of metaphor employed above, therefore,
we are witnessing in theology a return to metaphorical
interpretation of religious discourse; but it is a meta
phorical hermeneutic of a highly sophisticated form.
There are many, of course, who share the hostility of
Plato to this entire enterprise, however guarded the
method and refined the analysis. Still, as long as the
theories which interpret the inherited metaphors of
religious discourse are fashioned with integrity and
measured with rigor against the appropriate standards
of intellectual adequacy, the enterprise can do little
harm; and as long as there are many who find rich
values in preserving attachment to the primary
imagery of their religious tradition, the enterprise will
(despite Plato) be doubtless considered worth all the
“labor and ingenuity” required.


A standard American edition of The Holy Bible, from
which all biblical quotations above have been taken, is The
Revised Standard Version (New York, 1952). Since, when
discussing metaphor in religious discourse, the element of
imagery must be kept distinct from the element of old-
fashioned English speech, which makes everything sound
vaguely figurative to many, the Revised Standard rather
than the King James Version of the Bible has been used
throughout the article. The early philosophic sources are
reliably examined, with extensive Greek fragments and good
English translations, in G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The
Presocratic Philosophers
(Cambridge and New York, 1957).
A distinguished translation of Plato's works is available in
The Dialogues of Plato by B. Jowett (New York, 1937), from
which the above excerpts have been taken.

Philo's thought has been treated in depth by H. A.
Wolfson in the two-volume work Philo (Cambridge, Mass.,
1948), which contains excellent notes and further bibliogra-
phy; and H. A. Wolfson's The Philosophy of the Church
(Cambridge, Mass., 1956) is a valuable source for
a study of the extension of the philonic tradition of meta-
phorical exegesis into early Christian thought. Later devel-
opments, including the Victorines, are examined in B.
Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 2nd
ed. (New York, 1952).

Various editions of the Summa theologica of Saint Thomas
Aquinas are available; and for a brief systematic critique
of the extension of Saint Thomas' theory of religious dis-
course into the traditional doctrine of analogy, see “Analogy
in Theology” by Frederick Ferré in The Encyclopedia of
8 vols. (New York and London, 1967), I, 94-97.

Martin Luther's exegetical works are contained in the
first thirty volumes of Luther's Works, edited and translated
by J. Pelikan and W. Hansen (Saint Louis, 1958-67); in
addition, a valuable companion volume in the set, Luther
the Expositor,
has been appended by J. Pelikan (Saint Louis,
1959). Another seminal Protestant view is found in Jean
Calvin's Commentaries, translated and edited by Joseph
Haroutunian (Philadelphia, 1958). A useful series of general
articles on the Bible and the principles of critical biblical
scholarship, including three excellent articles on the history


of the interpretation of the Bible, are found in The Inter-
preter's Bible,
12 vols. (New York, 1952), Vol. I.

Some works in English by modern interpreters of religious
discourse who believe that it requires fresh articulation in
terms of a more literal philosophical theory include the
following. Defending exegesis in terms of the thought of
Martin Heidegger are R. Bultmann in Kerygma and Myth,
edited by H. W. Bartsch (New York, 1961) and John
Macquarrie in Principles of Christian Theology (New York,
1966). Attempting a similar exposition in terms of the phi-
losophy of A. N. Whitehead are John B. Cobb, Jr., in A
Christian Natural Theology
(Philadelphia, 1965), Charles
Hartshorne in Man's Vision of God (New York, 1941), and
Schubert M. Ogden, who combines an interest in both
Whitehead and Heidegger, in Christ Without Myth (New
York, 1961). Working toward analogous ends in terms of the
position of John Dewey is Henry Nelson Wieman in The
Source of Human Good
(New York, 1947). And arguing for
the articulation of religious discourse in terms of the analy-
ses of Ludwig Wittgenstein are Dallas M. High in Language,
Persons, and Belief
(New York, 1967) and Paul M. van Buren
in The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (New York, 1963).


[See also Allegory; Ambiguity; Church, Modernism in;
Gnosticism; God; Hierarchy; Literary Paradox; Myth in
Biblical Times; Prophecy;
Rhetoric; Symbol.]