Figurative Language

Some religious groups hold the completely absurd and untenable position that Scripture always speaks literally; it does not contain figurative language. (Sometimes when I hear certain people opine about the Bible I wonder what book they are reading. Even a simple reading of Scripture often refutes the ridiculous claims made about it.)

First, Jesus expressly says He spoke in figurative language: “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; but the time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father” (Jn 16:25). Kinda hard to miss that.

Further, Paul cites the births of Isaac and Ishmael and says, “Which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants …” (Gal 4:24ff). In this case literal events were analogous to spiritual truths so that the first illustrated the second.

Beyond this, there are literally hundreds of obvious uses of figurative language via various literary mechanisms such as metaphors, similes, synecdoche, etc. For example:

* The person and work of John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecies of “Elijah who is to come” (Mt 11:11-14; 16:10-13).

* Jesus spoke of raising a destroyed temple in three days. His enemies assumed He was speaking of the literal temple, “But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead His disciples remembered that He had said this to them …” (Jn 2:19-22).

* “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.’ And they reasoned among themselves, saying, ‘It is because we have taken no bread.’ … ‘How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? – but you should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Mt 16:6-12).

Such a list of figurative language in Scripture could continue page after page, but the deeper question is, “Why would someone deny what is clearly figurative?” When people oppose the obvious, it is usually in defense of a preconceived notion.

For example, when Jesus says, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54), Catholic theologians reject a figurative meaning and uphold the bizarre doctrine of transubstantiation. The Catholic Online Encyclopedia states: “The impossibility of a figurative interpretation is brought home more forcibly by an analysis of the following text: ‘Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life … For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed’ (John 6:54-56) … Consequently, eating and drinking are to be understood of the actual partaking of Christ in person, hence literally.”

It continues: “Nowhere do we discover the slightest ground for a figurative interpretation. If, then, natural, literal interpretation were false, the Scriptural record alone would have to be considered as the cause of a pernicious error in faith and of the grievous crime of rendering Divine homage to bread … a supposition little in harmony with the character of the four Sacred Writers or with the inspiration of the Sacred Text.”

So, let’s apply this reasoning to another figure. A few chapters later, in John 10, Jesus began talking about sheep, sheepfolds, thieves and robbers who threaten to steal the sheep, and sheep who know the voice of their own shepherd and follow him (10:1-5). A problem arose because those listening were taking His words literally, and John notes that “Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them” (10:6). But rather than retract His words and apologize for “pernicious error” caused by figurative imagery, Jesus doubled down: “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7); “if anyone enters by Me he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (10:9); “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own” (10:14). What was the effect of such language?

“Therefore there was a division again among the Jews because of these sayings. And many of them said, ‘He has a demon and is mad. Why do you listen to Him?’” (10:19-20).

So, is Jesus talking about four-legged Ovis aries or is He talking about two-legged Homo sapiens? If the latter, why does He insist on calling them sheep? Is this a lesson on shepherding, or is He using a figure or illustration (cf. 10:6 again) to make a spiritual point? To ask is to answer, but Catholic theologians will never make the same application to John 6 because they are deeply committed to their institutional traditions.

It is just as wrong to make what is literal figurative as it is to make a figurative reference literal. Both distort the actual meaning of Scripture. We must strive for honesty and clarity as we study and examine whether we are starting with our conclusion and bending Scripture to fit our preconceptions. It is an easy mistake to make.