Metaphors & Preaching

Preaching (Part 4)

We seek out metaphors to understand reality. The study of metaphor can be traced back to Aristotle who defined metaphor as a word in which two literally dissimilar entities are compared. Metaphor is much more than a rhetorical divide, however. True metaphor is a bearer of the reality to which it refers. The hearer not only learns about that reality but also participates in it. In other words, language, human thought processes, and experienced reality are largely metaphorically structured and defined.1 Metaphor is a powerful communicative device whereby, as Janet Martin Soskice says, “we speak about one thing in terms which are seen to be suggestive of another.”2

Metaphors are locomotives of meaning because they compress and compact assumptions and insights accepted in one domain, and transfer them to another domain, often without great cognitive effort on the part of the interpreter. Metaphor transfers meaning, not between two terms, but between two rich domains of content, or “semantic fields.”3 In metaphor,4 we use one thing – the “vehicle” – in order to speak about another thing – the “tenor”.5 Tenor and vehicle are not isolated words or things but bring with them an entire “network of associations.”6 Metaphorical meaning arises from the interaction of tenor and vehicle as the vehicle, in a sense, organizes our perception of the tenor.7 In this interaction, metaphor creates new meaning and offers a new conception.8 Indeed, metaphor, according to

Soskice, is “a new vision, the birth of a new understanding, a new referential access.”9 Particularly in its referential function, Paul Ricoeur reminds us, metaphor has the ability to re-describe reality.10

The metaphor you choose is a perceptual lens that shapes how you see reality. How does the metaphor shape perception? Change the metaphor and see how perception changes. For example, when choosing a metaphor for the church, there are several options (e.g. body, family, flock, building, army, and bride). Different metaphors, even biblical metaphors, change the understanding you have of the same topic. If you consistently use “body” as your primary metaphor for the church, what is missing in your preaching? What is seen differently when you exchange metaphors? Which metaphor functions best for this sermon?

The most common metaphor used when doing hermeneutics is “crossing a bridge.” A “bridge” is a translation metaphor. How do you translate the text from the world of the Bible to today’s language?

Warren discusses how the transition from text to sermon often takes shape as the search for a method of interpretation to bridge the distance between then and now, their world and ours; between the text and our congregation.11

Three More Metaphors: Witness, Fusion, & Windows

Witness – Scripture is a witness. Scripture is the ongoing story of God witnessed throughout history by the people of God.12 The Bible is the faithful testimony of God’s people, of the fidelity of God throughout history as God’s story is concretized in their lives. The preacher, as WITNESS, beholds, sees, experiences, observes, basks in, becomes aware, and perceives the BIBLICAL TEXT, AND THROUGH ITS WITNESS ENCOUNTERS GOD! Then, the preacher, as WITNESS, attests, gives out, says, makes others aware, and testifies to the COMMUNITY. Therefore, God, by means of the witness of the biblical text and the witness of the preacher, encounters the congregations.13 The preacher beholds and experiences God through an encounter with God’s self-revelation through Scripture. The preacher witnesses God in the text. Then, the preacher gives testimony to the congregation of what was witnessed. The preacher cannot give witness to what has not been witnessed.

Fusion – Physics uses the term “fusion” to indicate when two nuclei combine to form a new nucleus. For example, it is the reaction in which two atoms of hydrogen combine, or fuse, to form an atom of helium and, in the process, generate something new. Christian Smith names this an “emergent reality…something new has come into existence that is more than the sum of its parts.”14 Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, proposes the oft-cited metaphor of “fusing the horizons” to explore the task of hermeneutics. Two circles each have a center. As the two circles merge, the two centers for an ellipse. The new center is the intersection of the major and minor axes. The ellipse is a new geometric shape. The fusion metaphor fuels the preacher’s imagination in multiple hermeneutical and homiletical ways. What say you?

Windows – I also sometimes use the image of a window in a room in my house. When you look through the north window you can see the piano on the south wall, the couch sits in the center of the room. On the east wall, out of the corner of your eye, you can see a TV on a table. From the window on the west wall, you can see the TV on the table more clearly and now the piano on the south wall is less obvious. From the new angle of vision, you can now see the fireplace on the north wall, a fireplace hidden from view when looking through the north window. Different windows in the room give different angles of vision. Only when you look through windows on all four walls does the room come into full focus.

  1. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 139–46. See also Raymond W. Gibbs, The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  2. Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), 15 (italics hers). See also Janet Martin Soskice, The Kindness of God: Metaphor, Gender, and Religious Language. U.S.A.: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  3. Eva Feder Kittay, Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 31, 34–38.
  4. The following paragraph is adapted from Jonathan Harris, “God’s Justice-Establishing Act in Christ: Justification in Galatians Through the Lens of Contemporary Metaphor Theory.” (SBL Pauling Theology Section, Nov 20, 2021).
  5. The language of “tenor” and “vehicle” originated with I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 93–103. Gregory W. Dawes, The Body in Question: Metaphor and Meaning in the Interpretation of Ephesians 5:21–33 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers), 27 defines the tenor as “the subject upon which it is hoped light will be shed,” and the vehicle as “the subject to which allusion is made in order to shed that light.”
  6. Soskice, Metaphor, 49–50. See also Max Black, Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962), 40, who uses the language “system of associated commonplaces.” Also, Max Black, “More About Metaphor,” Metaphor and Thought. Edited by Andrew Ortony. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 28–29 when he describes the relationship as an “implicative complex.” Soskice illustrates well the concept of associative network and its possibilities as she discusses her example of a “writing script.” She writes: “It may be that at some stage the reader will think of writing in terms of a thing, or things, that write, such as a snake, or a man in pain, or a piece of paper on fire, or possibly all of these, but none would be either an explicit or a necessary second subject of the metaphor” (Metaphor, 47).
  7. Black, Models, 39–41.
  8. Black, “More,” 35–38; Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors, 139–46. See also Peter W. Macky, The Centrality of Metaphors to Biblical Thought: A Method for Interpreting the Bible. Studies in the Bible & Early Christianity. (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1990).
  9. Soskice, Metaphor, 57–58.
  10. Paul Ricouer, The Rule of Metaphor: The Creation of Meaning in Language. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis, 1987), 6. See also Paul Ricouer, “Stellung und Funktion der Metapher in der Biblischen Sprache,” Evangelische Theologie 34, no. Supplement (1974): 51–52.
  11. Timothy Warren, “A Paradigm for Preaching,” Bibliotheca Sacra (Oct-Dec 1991): 463–86.
  12. I see the Bible as Christian Scripture. See Brad East, The Doctrine of Scripture, (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2021). Brad East, “What are the Standards of Excellence for Theological Interpretation of Scripture,” (Journal of Theological Interpretation, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2020): 149–79, provides dispositions that guide how we read the Bible.
  13. See Long’s Witness to Preaching, Lose’s Confessing Jesus Christ, and Florence’s Preaching as Testimony for a fuller explication of the metaphor witness.
  14. Smith, What is a Person, 27. A brief overview of Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” is found in Swinton and Mowat, Practical Theology, 109–110.