A Closer Metaphor

From “Studies in Christianity”
by Borden Parker Bowne, 1847-1910

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Religious truth can be expressed only by figures borrowed from the relations of the life that now is. All religious speech, then, is based on metaphor and must be taken, not for what it says, but for what it means. The task of religious thought is to find the meaning in the metaphor, and also to find the metaphor which shall best express the meaning. There is a choice in metaphors.

The traditional theological doctrine concerning sin and salvation has been largely built on metaphors, taken partly from the rites of the ancient temple service and partly from governmental, legal and criminal relations. God’s relation to people was generally conceived, in the obsolescent theology of the past, like that of an irresponsible governor. People were by nature criminals, and the theory of the mutual relations of God and people was based mainly on this conception. The notion of the governor and his rights was determined largely by the political absolutism of the time, and the standing of people was determined by the forms of criminal law and criminal procedure. The two together produced a most incongruous compound. The theology was bad and the ethics was worse. God, like the king, could do no wrong and the clay was forbidden to protest at anything the potter might do. The infinite ill-desert of a sin against an infinite being was a favourite contention. Guilt was artificial, justice was artificial, penalty was artificial, salvation was artificial, perdition was artificial. There was very little in the doctrine concerning any of these things that spoke clearly and convincingly to the reason and conscience of people. This general view resulted in conceiving people as rebels, apostates, traitors and as all deserving immediate perdition at the hands of God. They were by nature children of wrath and of course unsaved. A great many texts, interpreted according to the fashion of that time, readily lent themselves to such notions.

But the entire Church has grown away from this view, except as a very imperfect and inadequate representation of the truth. God may be represented as governor, but never with the limitations of a human governor and still less with the irresponsibility of an Oriental ruler. The crude devices of criminal law, also, which are mainly makeshifts for doing as little injustice as possible, are never to be appealed to as models of divine procedure. We are fast displacing the entire conception of God as governor by the conception of God as father and the conception of the divine government is giving place to the conception of the divine family. The deepest thought of God is not that of ruler, but of father and the deepest thought of people is not that of subjects, but of children. And the deepest thought concerning God’s purpose in our life is not salvation from threatening danger, but the training and development of souls as the children of God. Salvation or redemption is but an incident or implication of this deeper purpose and must be interpreted accordingly. The entire subject must be studied as a relation of living moral persons rather than of ethical and juristic abstractions.

This new conception of the fatherhood and the family contains all that was true in the old conception of governor and subject, but it is deeper and more comprehensive, and hence truer, than the old. And in so far as the older view conflicts with this, it must be modified or set aside. It may be retained as a partial view or as one aspect of the subject, but it must always be interpreted in accordance with the larger view. But, on the other hand, the new conception is not to be viewed as a sentimental one, or as involving a relaxation of the rigour of moral demands.

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