God As A Symbolizing God: A Symbolic Hermeneutic -- By: Aída Besançon Spencer

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 24:4 (Dec 1981)
Article: God As A Symbolizing God: A Symbolic Hermeneutic
Author: Aída Besançon Spencer


God As A Symbolizing God: A Symbolic Hermeneutic

Aída Besançon Spencer*

“Look on him, beloved, and love him,” said the first. “He is indeed but breathing dust and a careless touch would unmake him. And in his best thoughts there are such things mingled as, if we thought them, our light would perish. But he is in the body of Maleldil and his sins are forgiven. His very name in his own tongue is Elwin, the friend of the eldila.1

So declares the eldil Malacandra to the eldil Perelandra about the human Elwin. In this dialogue the spiritual creature eldil speaks on the perennial mystery: What is distinctive to humans and, for those who believe in or posit the possibility of a Creator of humans, how are humans like their Creator?

Some of the concepts discovered in the twentieth-century study of the philosophy of language, particularly those elaborated on by Susanne K. Langer and Ernst Cassirer, begin to answer these intriguing questions. Interestingly enough these findings in historical philosophy may suggest a symbolic hermeneutic, God as a symbolizing God, which can be of great service to the field of Biblical studies, enlightening for us difficult-to-interpret passages such as the darkness at the exodus and at the crucifixion.

I. Symbolization Is A Characteristic Distinctive To Humans

The heresy is this: that I believe there is a primary need in man, which other creatures probably do not have, and which actuates all his apparently unzoölogical aims, his wistful fancies, his consciousness of value, his utterly impractical enthusiasms, and his awareness of a “Beyond” filled with holiness.2

From the perspective of a scholar who certainly and honestly declares her beliefs to be this-worldly3 begin to come the answers to this quest. Is there any quality or characteristic distinctive to humans? Langer aptly shows that there is:

Not higher sensitivity, not longer memory or even quicker association sets man so far above other animals that he can regard them as denizens of a lower world: no, it

*Aida Spencer is dean of academics at Alpha-Omega Community Theological School, Louisville, Kentucky.

is the power of using symbols—the power of speech4 —that makes him lord of the earth.5

In her early chapters she brings to light a distinction between “sign” (or “signal” as she later prefers to call it) and “...

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