Biblical Metaphors and the Doctrine of the Atonement -- By: Henri Blocher

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 47:4 (Dec 2004)
Article: Biblical Metaphors and the Doctrine of the Atonement
Author: Henri Blocher


Biblical Metaphors and the Doctrine of the Atonement

Henri Blocher

[Henri Blocher is Knoedler professor of systematic theology at Wheaton College Graduate School, 501 E. College Ave., Wheaton, IL 60187.]

Metaphors have been a topic en vogue for several decades. Factors include the so-called “linguistic turn” of Western thought—Michel Meyer, who teaches at the University of Brussels, suggests “one could speak of a ‘rhetoric turn’ with Habermas and Perelman, Eco and Gadamer”1 —the emphasis on the social sciences, on anthropology, and on the power symbolic systems have to mold minds and behavior; an interest in form rather than contents; and, both as a consequence and as a supplementary cause, a heavy investment in the study of metaphors on the part of major thinkers, such as Paul Ricoeur.

It is little surprising, therefore, that many writers should stress the abundance of metaphorical material in the biblical exposition of Christ’s atoning work. Some count as many as thirteen key metaphors or “models.” Willem J. van Asselt (from the University of Utrecht), to whom I owe this piece of information, settles for four: the Ransom-Victory, the Sacrificial, the Substitution, and the Exemplarist representations.2 A possible typology would distinguish three basic schemes (already singled out by R. W. Dale)3 and two additional schemes (also distinguished by Emil Brunner),4 as instruments the NT uses to unfold the significance of Christ’s death, the “way it works” for our salvation (Christ the Example, even unto death, is not included, since one fails to see anything metaphorical in that presentation: it is literally valid, and that is the difficulty!):

  1. It was a sacrifice of atoning (piacular, expiatory, propitiatory) value and efficacy, each mention of the “blood” of Jesus Christ recalling that model (the emphasis on his blood is not called for by the literal mode of his execution, for crucifixion shed little blood); this language pertains to the religious or cultic sphere.
  1. It was a. judicial execution, the infliction of penalty (capital punishment), which, though a denial of justice on the part of human judges, did satisfy divine justice, by virtue of the voluntary substitution of the Righteous Head for the sinful members of his Body; within the same forensic frame work, the NT proclaims the free justification of believers.
  2. It was the payment of a ransom that red...
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