It’s a Metaphor

I enjoy reading the blogs and apologetic websites of folks in the Reformed Theology camp, which is good because there seems to be a lot of them out there. Yet, there are times when I get a bit frustrated with Calvinists. Most recently, I felt this frustration with an Australian Presbyterian pastor whose sermon I was listening to.

The sermon was on the doctrine of Total Depravity, which essentially says that there is absolutely nothing in all of Creation that has not been broken (corrupted) by the Fall of Adam and Eve. When it comes to humans, the Calvinist position tends to be that we are so corrupt that we are incapable of having a faith that results in salvation (aka “saving faith”). The metaphor that is used to illustrate this comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. (Eph. 2:1-2)

The pastor argued that just as a material corpse is non-responsive to external stimuli, so is a spiritual corpse. Before the dead spirit can accept the grace of God, it must be brought to life by the Spirit of God.

I think this is simply forcing the metaphor to say more than what Paul meant for it to say.  It’s a metaphor! The letter to the Ephesians is full of them. Gentiles are said to be “far away” from God, while Jews are said to be “near” and yet it’s clear that Paul isn’t talking about distance. He’s making a statement about relationship. Paul says in Chapter 2 that Jesus made “one new man out of the two”, but no one would suggest that Paul was saying that Jesus physically fused two male human beings. He was referring to classes of people; insiders and outsiders or simply enemies and their reconciliation.  Later in Chapter 5, Paul says to the Ephesian Christians “You were once darkness but now you are light in the Lord.” He didn’t mean: people =  darkness  or even people= light. Even the phrase “in the Lord” is a metaphor. Metaphors are limited and do not indicate a direct 1 to 1 correlation.

When he says that we were “dead in transgressions” Paul is simply making a strong statement about the abhorrent state of humans apart from Christ. Without Christ, we are as good as dead because when Jesus comes to judge the world, we will be separated from Him who is the Truth and the Life. (I tend to think that the expression here is similar to the one that we’ve heard in other contexts where someone ominously threatens to kill someone by saying, “You’re dead meat!” ) Whenever someone lays hold of this metaphor of the human condition apart from Christ and makes it say that humans are as responsive to the call of God as a dead dog is to the call of it’s owner, I think they’re saying something that Paul was not saying.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “It’s a Metaphor

  1. One of the things that occurs to me about reading the New Testament is that nearly everyone can attempt to shoehorn the words into their own theology. What is far harder is to form a theology where one would naturally say the sort of things the new testament writers say.

    What sort of Christology should we have, for instance, where it occurs to us to point out that Jesus really was superior to David and the Angels? Not one that assumes his divinity first and then tries to work his humanity in around the edges, but rather one that has known the man Jesus of Nazareth, and that has come in reverence and awe to the awareness that this human being is now seated at the right hand of the Father, and is to be identified with the eternal word of Israel’s God.

  2. amtog

    yes. i’m going to take a chance and go so far as to say that no one comes to the NT writers without a theology. (even if it’s actually an a-theology.)

    i love reading the works of NT Wright because they help me to start from the new testament and work toward my theology instead of the other way around. sometimes, the destination is the same and sometimes it isn’t.

  3. amtog

    yes. i’m going to take a chance and go so far as to say that no one comes to the NT writers without a theology. (even if it’s actually an a-theology.)

    i love reading the works of NT Wright because they help me to start from the new testament and work toward my theology instead of the other way around. sometimes, the destination is the same and sometimes it isn’t.

  4. i love reading the works of NT Wright

    Amen to that.

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