Theology in 3D

The Demetaphorizing of New Testament Words

Greg Stiekes | March 12, 2019
New Testament

In Col 2:7, Paul strings together a wonderful array of participial phrases that describe the stages of Christian maturity. We walk in Christ, Paul says, having been rooted and being built up in him, being established in the faith, and abounding in thanksgiving.

If you look closely at each of these participles, you’ll discover that the first three find their normal usage in very specific contexts. The phrase having been rooted is a participial form of the word ῥίζα (hriza), “root,” like the root of a tree. The word’s origin is therefore agricultural.

But the phrase being built up is a word that originates from the terminology of construction. It’s a participle form of the word οἶκος (oikos), “house.”

The third participle, being established is derived from the verb βεβαιόω (bebaioō). This is a word that actually comes from the marketplace, where it is used to refer to the firm, contractual agreement required to transact business.

Does Paul draw on three distinctly different word pictures? Commentators are divided. Some answer that Paul is simply mixing metaphors. They point to other examples such as 1 Cor 3:9 where Paul makes an abrupt turn from describing the church as God’s field to describing it as God’s building. (θεοῦ γεώργιον, θεοῦ οἰκοδομή ἐστε—lit., “God’s field, God’s building you are.”) But it seems odd to me and potentially confusing to Paul’s readers for him to string together three unique images so rapidly.

Other commentators suggest that Paul is really using only one metaphor, while drawing on vocabulary that could apply to that metaphor. For example, the verb “rooted” does not have to refer to the rooting of a tree but could also be used to describe the foundation of a building.

For instance, Homer describes an act of Poseidon who waits until a ship is coming into harbor, then turns it suddenly to stone. Then Poseidon drives the ship down with the flat of his hand so forcefully that the ship is “rooted” to the floor of the sea (Homer, Odyssey13.163). Sophocles writes that the threshold to Hades is “rooted” to the earth with bronze steps (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1591).

Perhaps we could conclude therefore that Paul is thinking of only one metaphor, that of a building, with the word “rooted” referring to the building’s solid foundation (cf. “rooted and grounded,” Eph 3:17) and “established” referring to the soundness of the finished structure.

However, I want to suggest a third option. What if Paul is not speaking metaphorically at all? What if he is thinking neither of trees, nor buildings, nor business contracts but simply of the believer’s life with Christ? unconscious of the etymological associations of the three verbal ideas?

After all, we ourselves use words and expressions all the time with no awareness of their metaphoric origin. For example, my wife says to me, “Why are you sitting inside? I thought you were mowing the lawn.”

“I was mowing,” I say. “But I ran out of steam.”

I cannot imagine her responding, “That’s clever! You just likened yourself to a steam engine whose boilers stopped producing steam because the fire was allowed to cool.” No, she only hears, “I got tired and came inside.” No visions of steam engines or locomotives. Because time has erased the actual metaphor inherent in that phrase from our community of shared knowledge. People use the phrase “run out of steam” because they learned it from those before them as a way to say that someone has lost energy or enthusiasm. (Imagine a scholar in the distant future explaining a twenty-first century use of the phrase “ran out of steam,” writing, “We can see by this expression that the twenty-first century culture still had a conscious understanding of the mechanics of the steam engine.”)

Thirty-five years ago, D. A. Carson wrote a little book called Exegetical Fallacies that has become a standard for warning students to watch out for bad interpretations of biblical words and phrases. I wonder if an approach to Col 2:7 that tries to establish Paul’s metaphor(s) would work as an example of word study fallacy, perhaps the etymological fallacy. Are we not in danger of breeding confusion in the interpretation of a given text if we try to let the words work metaphorically when there is no metaphor in the mind of the author?

Perhaps. For example, some commentators connect the participle rooted to Psalm 1 and the tree by the rivers of water, whose roots grow deep and whose branches bear much fruit. But clearly the tree in Psalm 1 depicts by way of simile the believer who delights and meditates in the law of the Lord, while the “rooted” believer in Col 2:7 has already been rooted [perfect, passive participle] by virtue of union with Christ at salvation (cf. Col 1:27; 2:3; 3:1-2). It is clearly the metaphorical idea in the etymology of the participle, however, that leads commentators to consider Psalm 1 as a parallel text.

One major theory of language is that all words are metaphorical at their inception. (Even the word “literal” is a metaphor!) Yet, as Alice Deignen explains, these metaphors lose their force—they “demetaphorize”—over time, until sometimes the metaphor becomes “inaccessible” to the speaker (2005: 25). Or, as Katie Patterson puts it, the metaphors become so embedded in our language so that we do not recognize them anymore (2018: 18–19).

By contrast, we are very good at recognizing the metaphors in ancient Greek words. But that’s because we are analyzing the language like etymologists. As good interpreters, however, we cannot assume that the author is using the word as a metaphor, even if we know the word first sprung into usage metaphorically. We must also ponder whether a word has been “demetaphorized” by the time the biblical authors use the word in the first century, or if it still retains its metaphorical meaning.


3 responses to “The Demetaphorizing of New Testament Words”

  1. Ken Casillas says:

    Helpful thoughts, Greg. As I tell my students, we get into dubious interpretive methods because we’re trying too hard to sound “deep.” Often the simplest explanation is the most compelling.

  2. […] his recent post about demetaphorizing, Greg raised some great issues. So I thought I’d piggyback off his idea, hitch my wagon to […]

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