Metaphor in Exile A Response to Douglas M. Jones from Bound Only Once

Douglas M. Jones sets out to prove that Open Theism’s criticism of anthropomorphism is unfounded. He uses his chapter in Bound Only Once to explore the construction of metaphors in the hopes of undermining Open Theist arguments. The Open Theist John Sanders (an excellent scholar of language) is Jones’ main target. Jones sets out to show double standards in Sander’s thinking.

Jones begins his essay by claiming that both the Enlightenment and Open Theists strip the “aesthetic” dimension from the Bible. This seems to be a claim that the Bible’s language is meant to be flowery and loose, allowing non-literal renderings. This apparently, in the mind of Jones, translates to “Jones is right and Sanders is wrong”. But if the Bible is just “aesthetic” then how does one know what the Bible is actually saying? How does this mean Sander is wrong and Jones is right?
Jones destroys the criteria for rationality, and assumes by stripping anything intelligible from the Bible, then Reformed theology is true. A better conclusion would be that everyone should throw the Bible in the trash, as it does not communicate anything meaningful. Better yet, Jones’ methodology can be applied to the works of Homer, and Jones can become a Homeric sage. This is not without precedence.

Throughout this chapter, we need to consider that Douglas Jones is treating the Bible in the same fashion that early Greek philosophy treated the works of Homer. The words of Homer were all symbolic and could not be taken literally. They had to be reinterpreted in light of Platonism, or whatever prevailing philosophy was popular. The myths of Zeus’ infidelities, murders, and passions were labeled figurative, a placeholder for real philosophy. And as such, the Greek (and Judeo-Christian) philosophers salvaged Homer from himself:

While Philo admits with Plato that the Homeric story is philosophically not true, he nevertheless insists on its benefit for education. His theological interest is immediately conspicuous. Philo has changed Homer’s plural formulation θεοι into a discrete neuter singular, το θειον, thus rendering the poet more monotheistic and more Platonic. Moreover, Philo at once connects the issue of anthropomorphism in Homer to the same problem in the Jewish Scriptures. While “holier and more august in its notions about Him That Exists”, the Bible, too, likens God to man (Somn. 1.234). This was done, Philo stresses, out of a longing “to provide instruction for the life of those who lack wisdom” (ibid.). For those “incapable” of grasping the true nature of God, especially His utter transcendence, such instruction is necessary even though it is “not true”… Homer is thus integrated into Philo’s discussion of the Jewish Scriptures, seeing that the problem of anthropomorphism appears in both. The same solution is moreover offered for the two canonical texts and the educational value of concrete images is highlighted. The author of each text is thus granted the license to express his philosophical theology in any form that pleases him. The literary means of expression needs to be appreciated as such, rather than being dismissed as if they were identical to the ideas themselves.
Niehoff, M. (2012). Homer and the Bible in the eyes of ancient interpreters. Leiden: Brill.

This tendency to allegorize, or morph Homeric epics into “anthropomorphism” is readily evidenced in early Greek writings. Heraclitus (1st century AD) writes, in Homeric Problems:

1 It is a weighty and damaging charge that heaven brings against Homer for his disrespect for the divine. If he meant nothing allegorically, he was impious through and through, and sacrilegious fables, loaded with blasphemous folly, run riot through both epics.2 And so, if one were to believe that it was all said in obedience to poetical tradition without any philosophical theory or underlying allegorical trope, Homer would be a Salmoneus or a Tantalus, “with tongue unchastened, a most disgraceful sickness.”

Plutarch (46-120 AD) writes, in The Life and Poetry of Homer:

But poetry requires gods who are active; that he may bring the notion of them to the intelligence of his readers he gives bodies to the gods. But there is no other form of bodies than man’s capable of understanding and reason. Therefore he gives the likeness of each one of the gods the greatest beauty and adornment. He has shown also that images and statues of the gods must be fashioned accurately after the pattern of a man to furnish the suggestion to those less intelligent, that the gods exist.

Douglas M. Jones, like the Greek philosophers, sets out to save the Bible from itself. But why the Bible? Can’t Jones accept all his Reformed theology and use Homer as his scripture? If Homer is merely aesthetic, allegorical, anthromorphic, written for people without means of understanding high philosophy, why this unnatural focus on the Bible?

In the modern world, the idea that Homer was writing philosophy in code is a laughable idea. We intuitively see that this is the case because we have an outsider’s perspective. We haven’t placed ourselves into a situation in which Homer needs to be salvaged at all costs. We read Homer at face value. Zeus, seducing women by becoming a Bull, is not allegory for the hypostatic union or God becoming flesh. Instead, this is an actual story meant to convey the idea that Zeus seduced a woman by becoming a bull. It was believed at face value until a philosopher decided it was no longer convenient to do so.

Douglas M. Jones is that Greek philosopher. Instead of changing Homer into a Platonist, he changes Moses into a Calvinist. In order to accept the Bible, he needs to save it from itself. The base of his argument is an attempt to destroy any foundation of metaphor:

Similarly, Gemma Fiumara notes that, “the paradox of a metaphor is that it seems to affirm an identity while also somehow denying it.” For example, when Scripture reveals that “Christ is a lamb,” it conveys to us that Christ both is and is not a lamb at that same rime. In part, a metaphor leads us to imagine or embrace one thing in terms of some, but not all, of the characteristics of another (in contrast, literalism attributes all of the characteristics of the one to the other). We really have no difficulty grasping this sort of truth. It doesn’t “kill” communication at all. It’s an exceedingly natural part of our normal discourse. Most of our language and thought is metaphoric, and we all communicate and interpret the built-in tensions and contradictions of metaphor with very little problem in day to day conversation.

Jones begins by undermining language in general. He claims “most of our language and thought is metaphoric”. This is true in a sense. After all, words are just placeholders for the objects they describe. They will never fully describe that what they represent. Communication is imperfect.

Human beings have cognition of anything because of context. Optical illusions work by framing items in unusual contexts. Our brains, working contextually, interpret the same items differently because of the surrounding framework. This is how all human experience, thought, and sensation works. Human beings are contextual creatures, only understanding things in context. This does not mean, as Jones seems to say, that we cannot know anything about the real world. Jones wants to focus particularly on speech about God, and then assume it is fundamentally different speech from anything else we experience. If you destroy language about God, you destroy language about everything. One must retreat into Nihilism or Solipsism.
Jones then assaults John Sanders’ standard of non-contradiction:

Yet, just a page later, Sanders tells us that all theological models, including his, must satisfy the demands of “public” and “conceptual intelligibility.” Part of this demand of intelligibility is that “If a concept is contradictory, it fails a key test for public intelligibility, since what is contradictory is not meaningful”:

The second and more important irony is that he positively wants to take metaphor seriously, even in its implicitly “is and is not” form, though here he claims that “what is contradictory is not meaningful.” On such standards, metaphor, above all things, should be quite meaningless (along with most of Scripture).

Jones seems not to understand what he is talking about. The law of non-contradiction states that nothing can be both A and not-A at the same time in the same sense. Metaphors work by contrasting two items. They are the same in one sense and different in another sense. Sticking with Jones’ metaphor: “Christ is a lamb” is true in the sense that a lamb is a sacrificial offering for atonement of sins, but this does not have to mean that Christ has fur and eats grass. This is not a “contradiction” and does not mean the metaphor does not teach us literal truths about Christ.
Jones, intent on undermining Open Theism, undermines the use and function of metaphor. He misunderstands language and then criticizes Sanders on points that are patently absurd.

Metaphors have meaning. Metaphors are literal to the extent that they communicate realities of the world through use of parallel ideas. Take, for example, the most famous metaphor / allegory in the Bible:

Jer 18:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
Jer 18:2 “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”
Jer 18:3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.
Jer 18:4 And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.

The setting of the story is historical literalism. Jeremiah is commanded to go and watch a potter, a real potter. What happens in the house, also historically meant to be taken literal, is used to parallel how God acts. The potter attempts to craft one pottery piece, but decides on another after the clay spoils in his hands.

Here is how Calvinist James White interprets this metaphor:

God could refashion and remake Israel as He pleased. He did not have to ask permission, seek advice, or in any way consult anyone or anything outside of Himself. The entire nation was as the clay in the potter’s hand. Clay has no inherent “rights,” no basis upon which to complain about the potter’s decisions, no say in what the potter does.
White, James. The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal To Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free (italicize title) (pp. 43-44). BookMasters. Kindle Edition.

This could be a possible interpretation. It fits the structure of the metaphor. A pot is being formed by a potter. The potter molds the pot into whatever he wishes. Reformed theologians, taking this metaphor as an illustration of God’s unopposed power could be a possible understanding of the truth behind how God acts. But there is a problem. In Jeremiah, the metaphor is explained. The text literally tells us in what way the metaphor mirrors reality, and it is not in the way the Calvinists pretend:

Jer 18:6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
Jer 18:7 If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,
Jer 18:8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will [repent] of the disaster that I [thought] to do to it.
Jer 18:9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it,
Jer 18:10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will [repent] of the good that I had [said] to do to it.

The reality behind the metaphor is that God repents. The context describes a change of mind in which God both does not do what He “thought” He would do, and does not do what He “said” He would do. Contextually, the passage is about God’s changing His mind in the most dramatic way based on the actions of people. Reformed theology denies that God can change, that God reacts to events as they occur, and that God can think things about the future that are not true. The entire point of Jones’ article is to dismiss these things as metaphor. The interpretation of a metaphor is not a metaphor itself.

The language, as we see, does not have infinitely flexible meaning. The metaphor is not intended to mean that God controls all things, and creatures have “no rights”, or that no one can complain about what God does. That meaning is overextending the metaphor, and is contradicted in the explanation of the metaphor. God’s treating people based on merit does not equal man’s having no rights. God’s responding to actions does not equal meticulous control of all things. God’s changing His mind does not equal God’s not receiving input into His decisions. The Reformed Tradition is contradicted by the Biblical author’s interpretation of his own metaphor. To compound the issues for Reformed interpretation, God is the one explaining the metaphor in the text.

Moving to Jones’ conclusion, he offers seven summary points. First:

In Sanders’ words, “There must be some properties that are used of God in the same sense that they are used of things in the created order. Otherwise we will be back in the cave of agnosticism.”31 The first premise fails if we can find only one other option besides univocity and agnosticism. And the other option isn’t even just the plain analogical option explained by the medievals. The assumptions of metaphor are actually more subtle than analogical predication, since metaphor invokes rational but noncognitive aspects of our persons (see below).

While Sanders insists that metaphors about God communicate something meaningful about God, or they are worthless, Jones offers a third option: they are meaningless statements meant to appeal to the emotions of the reader. In other words: Jones is saying it is fiction. It is true that Sanders did not consider the possibility that the Bible is fiction.

Second:

If meaningfulness can only apply to what can be logically consistent, then most of our language and many disciplines will be ruled out by Openness theology.

We have already discussed how Jones abandons logic by claiming that metaphor is not logically consistent. His striving to identify his belief with logical inconsistency is not something to ignore. It is very telling about his treatment of facts and reality. He has not established any framework in which one can say his views of the Bible have any preference over Sanders’. Instead, the claim is that Sanders strives for consistency and Jones does not.

Third:

In order for Openness’s notion of univocity to work, as well as its desire to receive only statements capturable by logic, it too has to assume that meaning is reference. Note this assumption working in Sanders’ discussion of anthropomorphism: “What I mean by the word literal is that our language about God is reality depicting (truthful) such that there is a referent, an other, with whom we are in relationship and of whom we have genuine knowledge.” It is this sort of tying of meaning to referent that nullifies metaphor, as well as all the sorts of language noted just above. But many thinkers, Christian and not, have shown that meaning is more than referent. So much of our language can’t even be tied to a referent in the world (“the,” “and,” “for,” etc.), and yet these are meaningful.

Sanders states that language about God has literal meaning. Jones counter-claims that individual words don’t reference literal objects. This would be like saying the sentence “The and is the and can be is” proves that language does not point to objects. It is true that a random jumble of words has zero meaning. At that point, it is not language. It is nonsense. Language works contextually, and Jones discounts this. Jones’ overall point seems to be that the language of the Bible is a random jumble of words with zero reference. Sanders, on the other hand, believes the Bible is not nonsense.

Forth:

For [Open Theists] and other Enlightenment thinkers, every metaphor can and must be reduced down to a literal core before it can count as meaningful and logically presentable. And reducibility means finding the referent. But referents of metaphor are often images (sometimes actual mental images or patterns) that can’t be broken down into indicative propositions, or they invoke referents that are cognitively important but which aren’t purely intellectual in the Enlightenment sense, namely, emotional frameworks, aesthetic attitudes, subjective connotations, ethical virtues, etc. As several thinkers have noticed, metaphor is much more like music than mathematics.

Jones then quotes Sanders quoting the same scholarship on metaphors that Jones references. Jones claims that these scholars would agree with him over Sanders. What is more probable, that Jones misunderstands Sanders or that Sanders misunderstands his references? In a metaphor there are points of commonality between the things being compared. Jones rejects this on the premise that the comparison includes an image that can’t be broken down into propositions is absurd. He misunderstands how cognition works. At the same time, he undermines everything anyone knows.

And, as always, nothing he is saying means that Jones is right about his concept of God and Sanders is wrong. Jones only seeks to undermine that language has meaning. This is a weird thing to do in a written essay, using language.

Fifth:

Logic, of course, has its place, but Openness theology’s rather naive swinging of its bat is a root cause of its confusion… Suspicions should arise when we start trying to apply logic in nonphysical arenas, where we’re not sure where the edges and corners really end… But that aside, Openness theology involves a very fundamental misapplication of logic, given the above. Instead of letting logic rest naturally in the realm of the physical, it has no hesitation in assuming that the divine realm is clearly and distinctly quantifiable. By applying logic to the divine realm, Openness assumes it knows all the edges and possible negations. But this seems fundamental to misunderstanding the nature and abilities of logic.

The basic axioms of logic are just that— axioms. It is not possible that logic only applies to the physical realm. This claim, by Jones, should disqualify him as ever being taken seriously on any point. If you throw out axioms such as the law of non-contradiction (which he wants to do throughout his essay), you are left with nonsense. If he is arguing his position is nonsense, everyone should readily agree.

Sixth: Jones does not actually have a sixth point, he moves directly to number seven.

First, note how transcendence is ruled out a priori, since nothing can break the wall of literality (bur see the first criticism above). Second, Openness theologians are quite confident that none of the “traditional” transcendence passages (e.g., Is. 58:8) “refer to character differences between God and humans, not ontological or epistemological differences. For Isaiah, God is incomparable to humans in that he loves those who would not.” But the fact is that in context no such ethical limits are set down there; instead the passage wide openly refers to various epistemological features: hearing, seeking, finding, knowing, and thoughts. And how would ethical or character differences not be species of epistemology and ontology?

Jones means to reference Isaiah 55:8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.” The direct context is God’s forgiveness in verse(s) 6 and 7:

Isa 55:6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near;
Isa 55:7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Perhaps Jones is confusing Isaiah 58 with Isaiah 55. He might have read Sanders talking about Isaiah 55, and then read all of Isaiah 58 and commented on the wrong chapter. But the context of Isaiah 55:8 is God’s forgiveness. God will pardon where man would hold grudges. This is absolutely a contextual reference to character, not ontological or epistemological differences. Jones is wrong.

Jones concludes with this trite statement:

Ironically, given the Openness argument for univocity, the rhetorical question “who has known the mind of the Lord” actually gets answered. We know the mind of God, since God can only speak univocally to us-or as Sanders says, “All that is possible for us to know is what God is like in relation to us …. The Lord our Creator and Redeemer is what God is really like in relation to us.”

Ironically, Paul answers his own question:

1Co 2:16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

All Jones needed to do was read the second sentence in his quoted verse to see that the Open Theist is correct and he is wrong. Christians understand the mind of God, because Christians have the mind of Christ. Paul’s point, in context, is that he is teaching people hidden wisdom. Literally this contradicts everything Douglas M. Jones would have this verse mean.
The quoted passage is not an appeal to transcendence, not in Paul and not in Isaiah 40:13. Plenty of people throughout the Bible have given God counsel including Abraham (in Genesis 18) and Moses (in Exodus 32). Paul’s reference is to Isaiah 40:13 which is a hyperbolic reference to God’s status of being unequalled. Instead of taking this phrase as obvious hyperbole, a common idiom in language, Jones forces his theology onto the text and then discounts all the instances in which the Bible references God’s taking council.

Jones is sloppy with the text of the Bible. The Bible just does not teach the theology that Jones wants to believe, so he sets up a framework in which language has no meaning. The Bible is unknowable. The language about God within the Bible is fiction, phrased to make us feel certain things. He then disclaims logic and reason. With this strategy, Douglas Jones might as well adopt Homer as his scripture. There is no difference between Homer and the Bible in Reformed theology.

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