Metaphors. That is what Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective is all about. When we speak of God we must use metaphors. The ancient Hebrews especially used anthropomorphic metaphors. In other words, they drew upon human life to describe God.
The question is how seriously should we take these metaphors. If, as some say, God is wholly other than man, then the metaphors should not be taken too seriously. They are figures of speech that speak of God as though he were in the world and in time. They speak of God as though he makes decisions and changes his mind as we do. But, of course, God is really beyond all that. Or is he?
Fretheim argues that we ought to take the metaphors that come to us from the Hebrew scriptures more seriously. They prepare us for the incarnation of Jesus as a man. If Jesus shows us what God is like and the New Testament has continuity with the Old Testament, then the humanity of Jesus must be prefigured in the Yahweh.
Fretheim sees that some of the metaphors for God stand out as more telling than others. For instance, the metaphor of God as warrior he would see as limited. The important metaphors are personal and relational.
God is parent and Israel is his/her child. God is husband and Israel is his wife. God is shepherd and Israel is his flock. God is king and Israel is subject. God is redeemer and Israel is redeemed. These are the defining metaphors. They speak of God in relation to his people.
I think I am going to largely like Fretheim’s book. He and I have different perspectives. For instance, in the paragraphs above I have mostly used masculine pronouns for God. Fretheim avoids this. He says in his introduction that feminism has influenced him. He has also been influenced by liberation theology.. In other words, he is a person of the political left. (By the way, what I find questionable is not the equality of all people, but the social-conflict theories that tend toward rigid, humorless ideologies that have justified reverse discrimination, thought control, and even violence.)
In academic writers I am used to this. But I appreciate that he does not allow these views to dominate his discussion. Particularly, I appreciate that he holds back from signing on to process theology. Many of his arguments are congenial to process theology and open theism (the book was published in 1984, so I do not know if open theism was much discussed then). These theologies seem to me to care more about the philosophical question of theodicy (why bad things happen) than the Bible’s interests. Fretheim sticks pretty much to what the Hebrew scriptures actually say. Panentheism, the idea that God infuses all nature so that nature can be said to be a part of God, is the usual view of process theologians. But Fretheim stops well short of that view.
I also agree with his critique of canonical theology. This is the view that what counts is the final form that Israel and the Church gave to scripture. Canonical theology tends to mute the diverse voices behind scripture and interpret it all according to the final form. He is well aware of the pluralism within the Bible (Israel Knoll’s divine symphony).
The pluralism of scriptural voices does not matter too much for Fretheim’s approach. He looks at metaphors from various sources. But the main metaphors seem to be rooted in the culture of the ancient Near East. They contribute to all the scriptural perspectives. But it is good to know that Fretheim takes the pluralism of the Bible seriously.
The first couple chapters is all I have read, but it looks like the book is going to be an insightful survey of what the Hebrew scriptures say about what God is like. He will focus on the metaphors and what they imply about God.
I think that the static, detached God that process theologians and open theists lash out against is often a straw man. At least I never saw God that way. If you read the Bible, you have to have a more dynamic God than that. So, okay, lets read the Bible along with Fretheim and see what it implies about God in relation to the world.