The Power of a Metaphor

Terrence Fretheim’s book The Suffering of God (Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1984) has had a profound influence on my theology and my teaching.  The book has helped me gain a better understanding of the God of the Old Testament.

I have read The Suffering of God several times.  I have used the book in several of my courses and consult it frequently whenever I am doing research on aspects of the character of God.  I strongly recommend this book to my students.  I tell them to read the book once to learn its content and then read it a second time to consider its argument.

A few days ago, as I was preparing to write an article, I reread a statement that has opened new perspectives on my understanding of human’s relationship with God.  It is for this reason that I decided to share this quote from the book to a wider audience.  In his discussion on metaphors about God, Fretheim wrote (pp. 10-11):

Why are these metaphors so central?  They have a richness of association in human experience; they are true to life, revealing a certain fitness with respect to that experience.  They have a capacity to capture, organize, and communicate our experience and understanding of God; to focus our thinking, feeling, and living.

They can often be extended to capture many facets of an experience (e.g. family interrelationships).  They lend themselves to “a two-way traffic in ideas.”  For example, the father metaphor moves not only from human fatherhood to God, but doubles back and help s shape the human father in the likeness of God.  But, the understanding of the human as created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) is of central importance here.

These metaphors are especially important because Israel believed that “the pattern on which man was fashioned is to be sought outside the sphere of the created.” Rather than accommodating God to the level of the human or raising human characteristics to the nth degree, the human is seen to be fashioned in the likeness of God.

Hence, the human is seen in theomorphic terms, rather than God in anthropomorphic terms. Thereby, the essential metaphorical process is revealed to us.  The “image of God” gives us permission to reverse the process and, by looking at the human, learn what God is like.

When we look at God from the perspective Fretheim is suggesting, we gain a better understanding of the God/human relationship.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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2 Responses to The Power of a Metaphor

  1. Tim Bulkeley says:

    Great stuff! I was in Congo when the book came out, and have had it on my “to read” list for years. I really must get to that list 😉


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