The End of the Metaphor

I am reviewing Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann’s massive God of the Living: A Biblical Theology for an academic journal, and I am thoroughly enjoying this journey. Perhaps I will have more to say about their volume in the future, but for now I want to draw attention to a particularly poignant observation they make about a particular set of divine behaviors, “Hiddenness and Wrath” (chapter 11, pp 339-60):

The combination of wrath with love and hiddenness with revelation would suggest that both involve complementary options for divine behavior. Such, However, is not the case. By no means does the God of the Bible have “two souls in his breast.” Instead, the God who is “slow to anger” is known by the characteristics that express his intention not to be angry: by his graciousness and mercifulness and his abundant love (ḥesed). Accordingly, the New Testament says that God is a God of love (2 Cor 13:11), indeed , that he is love (1 John 4:8, 16), while the contrary statement, that he is a God of wrath, indeed, that he is wrath, is inconceivable. One can even intensify this clear asymmetry between wrath and love and between hiddenness and revelation further. God hides and grows angry because of his love and for the sake of his love. It must, therefore, be asserted emphatically that God’s wrath is his reaction to injustice and defiance (see Rom 1:18), not a divine affect, not one of God’s dark sides, and certainly not a divine attribute. (339-40)

In a quote recently highlighted by Charles Halton, Feldmeier and Spieckermann make it abundantly clear that “the craft of exegesis developed in academic theology” is an “indispensable path” for the knowledge of God. These two demonstrate great capacity for theological reflection as they navigate the text and the channels of life, be they ancient or modern. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the weight of the task of talking about God. In the conclusion where they reflect on “The Bowls of Wrath in the Revelation of John” they write:

The Revelation of John is the radical response to a situation experienced as radically corrupt. The fact that it opposes injustice and, in all its distress, still introduced a hopeful perspective, constitutes its significance. On the other hand, it bears the mark of an undifferentiated black-or-white viewpoint that results in the one-sidedness and gruesomeness of the vision cycles that require theological correction by reconnecting them to the overall witness of the Bible. The danger that lurks in language about God’s wrath if not appropriately distinguished from the wrath of believers is conspicuous here. (360)

This need to exercise caution concerning John’s portrayal of divine wrath reminds me of something which Terence Fretheim argued in The Suffering of God, “There is always that in the metaphor which is discontinuous with the reality which is God. God outdistances all our images; God cannot finally be captured by any of them” (8). To speak of the Bible as an “indispensable path” for the knowledge of God is not to resolve the challenges one faces in the task of talking about God.


4 thoughts on “The End of the Metaphor

  1. Joseph,

    I had begun to hear Fretheim in reading the first quotation you posted, but I think–and trust you would agree–that the analogues go much further than even what you suggest in this brief post. However, I remain hesitant with their tethering of love and wrath so intimately together that they are nearly inseparable (assuming I”m reading them properly). While I will grant that is to some extent a fair response, it does not cover every instant of what my friend Eric Seibert has dubbed “disturbing divine behavior.” In saying that, I also realize one may potentially level a similar critique at me in the conclusion to my ‘Jacob and the Divine Trickster.’ Regardless, as you well know, I am open to such honest and close readings of the text, but resist them when they become too “apologetic” or attempt to exonerate or defend God in certain places.

    1. I actually have in mind to follow this up with a post featuring Fretheim and Brueggemann in dialogue on a similar issue. Ironically, they could not be more opposite one another. Look for the post sometime next week.

  2. Who more opposite? Fretheim and Brueggemann?

    There was an interesting, albeit brief, exchange between the two at the first session in the Genesis unit at SBL. Fretheim was addressing Gen 32:23-32 and talking about God’s SELF-limitation, and Brueggemann asked why it has to be a SELF-limitation . . . why can’t we just say God is limited? Fascinating discussion.

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