Paul and Metaphor Theories: Reflections, Warnings and Guidelines

At the 2014 annual meeting of ETS Gregory Lanier delivered a paper titled “Metaphor in the New Testament: Catching Up to the Conversation on Contemporary Metaphor Theory.” Since 2014 scholars such as Erin Heim, Nijay Gupta, Katie Marcar and others have indeed continued to mobilize these theories for NT studies. (And it has become clear that we are better instructed to speak of contemporary metaphor theories). The increasing number of projects that use metaphor theories, and with increasing methodological precision, raises fresh hermeneutical questions. This is especially the case for evangelical biblical scholars whose stated goal in exegesis is not fulfilled by a mere analysis of a text’s devices (including metaphor), but seeks after something like the inspired text’s “main idea,” or further, to situate a text within Scripture’s whole theological tapestry by means of bringing to bear an eclectic set of tools which coalesce in a full exegetical method. This paper affirms with previous scholarship that good metaphorics has an important place in the exegetical toolbelt and that biblical metaphors have a unique, creative capacity for theologizing. What is needed is not another primer which translates the “isms” of linguistics and philosophies of language, but rather some hermeneutical and methodological reflections on how contemporary metaphor theories have been and should be used in exegesis.
To further focus the discussion, this paper will evaluate how recent, influential works in Pauline studies have integrated contemporary metaphor theories into their exegesis. I will identify the potential dangers and blind spots of applying these theories, including (ironically) reductionistic tendencies or tendencies to overinterpret the text. I will identify specific ways that metaphorical analysis can be integrated with other exegetical methods, from socio-historical analysis to inner-biblical exegesis to even classic typological approaches. Finally, while attending to some examples frequented in the literature, I also intend to suggest the importance of properly employing metaphor theories in reading Paul’s “gift” and related “economic” language. For instance, what questions need to be asked about the convergence of metaphors in Romans 6:23? How does this economic language relate to similar metaphors within the same letter (e.g., 2:6-10; 4:4)? Further, is it reasonable to systematize Paul’s “heavenly economics” with Jesus’ own metaphors about wages, debts, and treasures? In sum, this paper will be a methodological introduction for those seeking to incorporate metaphor analysis into their own exegesis of Paul’s letters by providing a set of warnings, guidelines, and compelling prospects for further study.

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