Conceptual Metaphor Theory is True, but is it Useful?

It’s worth noting that when John Locke condemned the use of metaphorical language as “perfects cheats” he was, in fact, speaking metaphorically. This irony exposes a fundamental truth: figurative language is far more pervasive in our thought and discourse than we generally appreciate. It’s hiding everywhere, and Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) provides a persuasive explanation of why that is: human beings cannot understand their world without it. We structure and frame our thought and discourse about abstract concepts like death, friendship, and love from more physical and tangible human experiences. “Life is a game,” we say, because our visceral familiarity with games and sports inform our concept of “living life;” we can “win” or “lose” it, and in it we “earn points” but “cheaters never prosper” and in the end “nice guys finish last.”

This is all well and good, but is it exegetically useful? CMT may be a helpful explanation of how our brains work, but can it actually generate or establish new exegetical conclusions? Sure, the “life is a game” association explains why Paul, at the end of his life, declares “I have finished the race” (2 Tim 4:7), but does it tell me anything about what that means? Does it disclose anything that I didn’t already know, or couldn’t come to better appreciate by using the more standard and traditional tools in my grammatical-historical toolbox? Or, to put the question of this paper succinctly: is CMT merely descriptive (that is, useful in so far as it describes the dynamics of human thinking), or is it methodologically generative (that is, useful because it provides a tool for uncovering the meaning of a metaphor that would not be accessible otherwise)?

In this paper I will argue that CMT provides an efficient and non-redundant toolset for exegetical analysis of figurative language in Scripture. It does this in at least three areas. (1) Linguistically and anthropologically, it highlights structural patterns of human thinking and communication that establish continuity and connection between modern and ancient audiences. (2) Historically, it encourages the exegete to think about the particular kinds of experiences that would have structured the original author’s conceptual world and how those experiences inform the metaphorical association under scrutiny. (3) Pastorally, it opens up opportunities to explore other possible metaphorical associations consistent with, but not explicitly affirmed by, the original author.

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