Marcus Borg’s “historical-metaphorical” hermeneutic

Read time: 7 minutes

I will be attending a small conference on Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God later this week at King’s College London, and I lugged my copy of his monstrous book all the way from Dubai with a view to doing some necessary revision. Unfortunately, I have also just acquired a copy of Marcus Borg’s much lighter and much less demanding Speaking Christian: Recovering the Lost Meaning of Christian Words, and I accidentally started reading that instead. I probably won’t get very far with it this week, but chapter 2 (“Beyond Literalism”) has a section on Borg’s “historical-metaphorical understanding” of the Bible, and I was curious to see how it compares with a narrative-historical understanding.

Borg objects to the inerrantist-literalist approach to reading the Bible—as we would expect—for a number of reasons. It does not constitute historical orthodoxy. It was not promoted by the Reformers. It is a modern Protestant development in reaction against the Enlightenment. It makes the Bible and Christianity incredible to many and especially to young people (except for those misguided young people who are “enthusiastic members of churches that proclaim biblical inerrancy and literalism”). It is not only a “public relations problem”; it also has a damaging impact on those inside the church: “it narrows, reduces, flattens, and ultimately distorts the meanings of the Bible and Christianity” (24-26). I don’t quite share Borg’s disdain for the conservatives, but I would broadly agree with his critique.

I also agree that “biblical scholarship provides an alternative way of understanding Christian language that is richer and fuller and does not create the intellectual stumbling blocks generated by literalism” (26). In the first place, this means that we should read the Bible historically—but having set off in this direction, we immediately come to a fork in the road. With Borg—but perhaps for different reasons—I would take the road rather less travelled, which leads in search of historical meaning rather than historical factuality. What we are asking is “What did these words mean in and for the ancient communities that used them?” The question of whether the events described actually happened is not unimportant, but if historical criticism is to have any “evangelical” or transformative force, it has to refocus on the community that produced the texts.

I agree with Borg that “Language comes alive in its context”, that the historical approach “prevents us from projecting modern and often misleading meanings back into the past”, that it “recognises that the Bible was not written to us or for us, but within and for ancient communities” (28). I agree that the historical approach relativizes Christian language in the sense that the language is understood to be related to a particular time and place, and that its significance for us now is contingent upon its significance for them then. It is a matter of perspective.

To recognize that biblical and Christian language is relative does not mean that it has no important meaning for our time. But it does change the question. The question is no longer simply, “What does the Bible say?” as if that would settle everything. Rather the question becomes, “Give what their words meant for their then, what might their meaning for our now?” (28-29)

But we now come to another methodological juncture, and this time I am less inclined to follow Borg. He argues that while what the Bible means for us now must take account of what it meant in its original context, “what it meant for their then may not be what it means for our now”. He then goes on to talk about metaphor. This is a critical manoeuvre. He has broken the narrative connection between then and now (because he does not like everything that was said then), and he has substituted for narrative continuity the much more malleable relation of analogy.

Metaphor, he suggests, is ‘about the “surplus of meaning” that language can carry’. Well, it depends what you mean by that. In a metaphor language is certainly doing more than or other than it was originally designed to do. But metaphors are just as much part of arguments, just as constrained by their literary and linguistic context, as non-metaphorical language. If we are going to insist, as Borg does, that biblical language must be read historically, its metaphorical content must also be read historically. “Surplus of meaning” does not permit the modern reader to pluck arbitrary pieces of text out of the Bible, shake off the undesirable historical elements, and repackage what’s left over as a metaphor for the human condition.

The two parts of Borg’s approach to reading the Bible actually constitute two quite distinct activities, only rather misleadingly held together by the observation that much of biblical language is “overtly metaphorical” (29). The historical component has to do with the original meaning of the texts. The metaphorical component is the means by which later readers accommodate the historical reading to their own worldviews.

Borg gives some examples of the metaphorical reading.

1. He says of the creation stories: “From antiquity, biblical and Christian theologians have seen these stories as a profound metaphorical portrayal of the human condition and of our radical dependence on God” (30). That may be true, but that is not a historical reading of the texts. A historical reading would (probably) attempt to make sense of the narratives as examples of Ancient Near Eastern creation myth. It would ask: Why did the exilic or post-exilic community—or if we prefer, the exodus community—tell this sort of story about human origins?

2. Borg lists all the miraculous and otherwise controversial details of the exodus story and then suggests that these are not “factual reports about the past”; rather “their surplus meanings, their more-than-factual meanings”, are really the more important ones.

According to a metaphorical interpretation, the exodus is about the human condition as marked by bondage to the lords who rule this world, and about God’s passion that we be liberated from bondage and embark on a journey that leads from Egypt to the promised land. (32)

In other words, he has lifted the whole exodus event—not merely the supernatural details—out of the story of Israel and made it a metaphor for a general human experience of liberation from oppression. This is really just old-fashioned allegorization.

3. He argues that the “primary” point of the healing of the blind man in John 9:25 is that Jesus is the “light of the world” (9:5). But what does “primary” mean here? Does Borg allow for a secondary “factual” meaning? This would be a little odd (by what criteria do we determine that the historical is secondary to the symbolic?) but hardly controversial, especially with regard to John’s Gospel. There is no reason why an event should not be both symbolic and factual. And what about the healing of the blind in the Synoptic Gospels, which is interpreted by reference to passages in Isaiah which speak of the blindness of Israel? There is still a symbolic aspect to these stories—the healings are prophetic events—but they are framed by a more restrictive historical narrative.

In Borg’s argument the historical meaning of the accounts of Jesus healing the blind is simply allowed to fade away and the metaphorical takes over. The historical and metaphorical approaches do not work together; rather metaphor trumps history. Metaphor is how the modern interpreter, from a supposedly neutral or a-historical standpoint, deals with what is judged to be “incredible” in the texts as historical documents.

Borg is doing what conservative preachers do all the time. He finds certain aspects of the biblical story unbelievable, so he resorts to metaphor. The modern preacher finds the historical aspects of the biblical story uninteresting so he or she resorts to allegory. For example, Nehemiah’s reconstruction work in Jerusalem is interesting only insofar as it serves as a metaphor for personal spiritual development. I heard a preacher openly pursue this line recently.

This is not the case with a narrative-historical hermeneutic. Narrative may include the metaphorical and symbolic, but it remains firmly committed to the historical. Narrative—or metanarrative—is the overarching category by which the historical community makes sense of its historical experience. If the historical community metaphorizes its self-understanding, to whatever degree (the creation stories, John?), that is fine. That is part of the narrative. But this recognition neither nullifies the historical event nor justifies the modern reduction of the story to metaphor.

So in brief, the narrative component of a narrative-historical hermeneutic has reference to the means by which the historical community interprets its experience in the light of Israel’s story. The metaphorical component of Borg’s historical-metaphorical approach has reference to how the self-understanding of the historical community is re-interpreted by people operating under an incompatible worldview.

Corey Diekman | Fri, 12/16/2011 - 18:16 | Permalink

So glad you "unfortunately" came to read Dr. Borg's new book and wrote about it. Just be thankful you didn't choose his recent attempt at fiction, "Putting Away Childish Things", it was pretty much rubbish except for when his main character is giving lectures and we see perhaps a glimpse of Dr. Borg in his professorial role. Although like the post about Scot McNight's The King Jesus Gospel, I wonder if finishing the book will be worthy of another post.

Indeed this and many of his books are geared towards a general audience. Personally I found his work liberating coming from a more conservative evangelical background, but have since taken much of what I learned and moved on. I have noticed that much of his theological view comes directly from process theology (originating with Alfred North Whitehead and further developed by Hartshorne, Cobb and others) as well as his quest for a historically "accurate" Jesus by examining historical accounts and (speculative?) cultural norms of the time.

As we've discussed via email in the past, you correctly point out that Borg's (and my own!) views are very rationalist. You make a very good point asking when consider a passage metaphorical. He has stated in other books that pretty much anything beyond the limits of physics (walking on water, water into wine etc.) and what we know know about the univese and the world (creation mythology) are the criteria. This is largely, as you've pointed out, a distinctly modern rationalist mindset and yes, a rejection of conservative supernatural theism and evangelical quasi-fundamentalism that is so prevalent in the U.S. today. The other flaw is that he has a very strong liberal bent - relating Jesus to modern day social justice political concerns, probably a stretch but nothing new.

These views clearly don't square with your historical-narrative approach. Calling the metaphorical half a "re-interpreting by people with an incompatible worldview" may be a little strong but I suppose true. However I think if we leave Jesus entirely in the past he just becomes a interesting (yet significant) historical footnote. Which to many I suppose that's all he is. I think Borg's work is valuable by attempting to popularize the idea of Christianity being important and relevant to modern culture in an age of both pervasive secularism on one hand and extremist fundamentalism on the other. Also I like his phrase "taking the bible seriously but not literally". His books certainly resonated with me at the time, and led to a renewed faith an interest in Jesus and theology.

But as always you've given much food for thought. How much of our views of the message and life Jesus are what we project onto him with our modern rationalist minds? Is he who he was/is or who we want him to be? Important to consider.


Corey, thanks. Some very interesting reflections. The comment that rather jumped out at me, though, was this one:

However I think if we leave Jesus entirely in the past he just becomes a interesting (yet significant) historical footnote.

Surely the whole point of the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension to the right hand of the Father as head of the body and ruler of the nations is that the historical Jesus who died for the sins of his people is not left in the past. Undoubtedly there are lessons that we can draw indirectly or analogically from the teachings of Jesus, but it seems to me to be exactly in keeping with the historical narrative to insist on the limited direct relevance of his earthly ministry and to seek to live now directly, as his people, under his continuing lordship. We would not have his present lordship if he had not lived and died within the far off story of Israel. That makes the historical Jesus much more than a footnote. He is a critical chapter in the development of the plot.

No one, anywhere or any time can cause dead people rise from the grave and walk, talk and eat broiled fish.

Nor do people walk on water.

Or are born of a virgin.

These things are not literal events, but nevertheless they are true.

After his death, Jesus’ followers still felt his Power & Presence among them.

Jesus lives.

Rome did not win.

Walking on water is a powerful metaphor which indicates Jesus was more than the average person.

The virgin birth speaks to the importance of Jesus. Not to the biology of Mary.

We make a fundamental mistake when we take the sacred and metaphoric language of faith literally.

This way only forfits their epic claims and hope.