Vol.XII No.II Pg.5
April 1975

Figurative Language

Robert F. Turner

One of the most common ways of teaching the unknown is by comparison with the known. This is the basis for figures of speech such as the simile, parable, and various metaphors. But a comparison is limited by the maker and he alone has the right to establish its use or application. If I say of a track star, He runs like a deer I do not mean he bounds on all fours, browses, or drops his antlers like a deer. But in Bible interpretation (?) such absurdities are common. Saints are called children of God, so some conclude the aspects of the physical relation must be found in them. They think we must have a pre-natal state, and once a child, always.

The point of comparison intended in a figure is usually indicated by the context (this man receiveth sinners) or is stated (likewise joy shall be in heaven — Lu. 15:2,7), and is never left to the fancies of others. Bullinger, in his introduction to Figures of Speech, said No one is at liberty to exercise any arbitrary power in their use. All that art can do is to ascertain the laws to which nature has subjected them. There is no room for private opinion, neither can speculation concerning them have any authority. Again, It is used for a definite purpose and with a specific object.

There is no reason to believe that figurative language in one context must, in another context, be used in exactly the same way. Christ used the keep and sheepfold in two ways, one immediately following the other. He was the door of the sheepfold, and he was the good shepherd (Jn. 10:9f). Born of God may refer to the initial entrance into Gods family (Jn. 3:5, 1 Cor. 4:15, Phile. 10, 1 Pet. 1:3) or it may indicate the sustained relation of those who continue to be influenced by the seed (1 Pet. 1:23, 1 Jn. 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1-4). We become children of God, but we must continue to show God-like characteristics in order to be His children (see Jn. 8:37-47, Matt. 5:44-45).

Those who ask, How can one be unborn? make a like mistake with Nicodemus (Jn. 3:4) in that they fail to see the metaphorical nature of the matter, and expect the figure to have all points of the literal. Shank, in Life in the Son (p. 90f) lists three essential differences between physical and spiritual birth. (1) One effects inception of life in toto, but the other is only a transition from one mode of life to another. (2) In physical birth the subject has no prior knowledge and gives no consent, but these must be present in spiritual birth. (3) In the first the individual receives a life independent of his parents. They may die, but he lives on. Such is not the case in the spiritual birth. One becomes partaker of the life and nature of Him who begets. (Shank has a chapter on the subject, well worth reading and study.)

In debate one may answer anothers illustration by extension — and prove his opponent inept at figure making. Even here, logical consequences are not chargeable unless avowed. But God makes no improper figures, and we had better accept His comparisons for the point indicated — and leave it exactly where He left it. Period!