At last: how to tell a Biblical metaphor from a Biblical truth

Over at Sneer Review, the estimable Sigmund has finally solved a long-standing problem of Biblical exegesis: how to tell a metaphor from a real “truth” (granted, Andrew Sullivan sees a distinction between the “real” and the “true”).

It’s a new tool, The Metaphorical Illuminator, and Sigmund uses it, with wonderful effect, on the Catholic Nicene Creed.  At last—science itself can parse scriptural truth from the fiction!

Here’s one result:

Go see how it works.

Oh, and also see how Sigmund highlight’s John Haught’s big mistake in our debate in Kentucky.


  1. daveau
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Metaphors all the way down.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink


    • PB
      Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

      As an ex-catholic, I testify that we’re (were, in my case) believing every word of it to be true, no metaphorical question is allowed.

      Of course when we say true, it has nothing to do with what the science says.

      True but not real, and if you’re confused about this simple act of faith, than you go to the hot-zone when you die.

      😀 (now I find this findings hilarious)

  2. Posted November 9, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    The coffee/tea motif is clearly a symbolic reference to transubstantiation principles.

  3. TJR
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Its quite literally all metaphorical.

  4. Ed Stephenson
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    The Nicene Creed is actually accepted and used by many (all?) Christian denominations, not just Catholics, ie., the Roman Catholic Church. The confusing part of the creed is the reference to the “catholic” church” which, written in small letters, means “universal.” As a young Presbyterian I was perplexed when asked to recite allegiance to another denomination, until the difference between “catholic” and “Roman Catholic” was explained.

    • gr8hands
      Posted November 9, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Actually, there are a number of “creeds” that are recited, and versions of those creeds.

      Some believe in god, some believe in one god, etc.

      The Apostle’s Creed also has different verbiage.

      • Posted November 10, 2011 at 2:30 am | Permalink

        The Apostle’s Creed is okay if a bit stuffy. Personally, I’m more into The Apollo Creed.

        “Stay in school and use your brain. Be a doctor, be a lawyer, carry a leather briefcase. Forget about sports as a profession. Sports make ya grunt and smell. See, be a thinker, not a stinker.”

      • Ray Moscow
        Posted November 10, 2011 at 4:42 am | Permalink

        We Anglicans (lapsed) generally recited the Nicene Creed for Eucharist — that is, regular services — and the Apostles Creed for baptisms.

        The traditional version (Rite 1 for modern BCP Episcopalians) used ‘I believe’, whereas the modern version (Rite 2) used ‘We believe’.

        I used to go to RCC services now and then, and the creeds only differed by a few words, which I figured where just 4 centuries of textual drift. No biggie.

    • Philip
      Posted November 9, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      I recited that creed so many times as a Catholic boy that it still gives me chills when I read it. Not a pleasant feeling.

    • Tulse
      Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      The Nicene Creed is actually accepted and used by many (all?) Christian denominations

      Not so, at least not historically. The Nicene Creed is fascinating precisely because practically each clause is in opposition to some specific heresy.

      • Ray Moscow
        Posted November 10, 2011 at 4:49 am | Permalink

        Also, not quite all churches accept the Nicene or Apostles Creed in any form. Some reformed churches stick by various ‘confessionals’ of faith (e.g., doctrines), and some don’t have much if any official statements of faith (although unofficially they can be quite rigid about doctrines).

        However, I’d say that the main propositions in both creeds are so commonly accepted that they can be used roughly to define what ‘Christianity’ teaches and believes — although a few exceptions are not hard to find. And both can be backed up with Bible verses as needed (with some interpretative stretches).

        Also, I agree with Jerry’s comment in the Haught/Coyne Q&A – it’s hard to take anyone seriously who proclaims his/her belief in these creedal propositions on Sunday and then pretends elsewhere that he/she believes something quite different.

  5. jose
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Catholics are supposed to believe the creed literally. I don’t know where this “ineffable mystery” business came from but definitely not from the church.

    By the way, notice the absence of the story of Adam and Eve in the creed. That’s one thing I thought it was rather unfair for Coyne to mention in his addressing of catholicism in the last debate.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 9, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      But Roman catholicism DOES claim that Adam and Eve were a historical couple.
      Pope Pius XII stated: “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now, it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teaching authority of the Church proposed with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis 37).

      • Frank
        Posted November 9, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        Please stop distorting important theology just to suit your strident atheism; all sophisticated theologians today of consider Pius XII to be a metaphor. Certo.

        • Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, all 2% (or so) of them…

      • Hempenstein
        Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        Odd that Pius refers to Adam as “an individual” and not “the individual”.

        • Sigmund
          Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

          As far as I know, the current Roman catholic position is not the same as the Young Earth Creationist Adam and Eve story.
          The catholics officially accept that biological evolution occurred, including humans. However they claim that a supernatural event occurred where God intervened and ‘ensouled’ two hominids – Adam and Eve, the first ‘real humans’ – who went on to sin against God and thus we have the fall and all the rest.

          • Hempenstein
            Posted November 9, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

            Yep, but did they accept biological evolution in Pius’ reign (do Popes reign?)? And still, the Adam of myth is a specific individual (“the”), not just any of several (“an”).

      • jose
        Posted November 9, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        For actual catholic doctrine, consult the catechism.

        It says Genesis 3 uses figurative language and explains the original sin in terms of Man (Man in general, as in humanity). They refer to the story of Adam and Eve as a “portrayal”.

        Catholics used to believe in a young earth which was the center of the universe back in the day, just as they also believed literally in Adam and Eve (hence the Paul quotes you can read in that page about “the disobedience of the first man”). Their dogmas adapt in order to keep them up to date in changing times (including this very creed! There are several versions).

        We’re seeing an example right now on the subject of evolution. Pius XII, creationist, rejected it; John Paul II said it was okay as long as it wasn’t a materialistic theory but it was somehow planned; the next step is yet to be seen. (Maybe by the year 2100 the church will endorse Haught’s “mystery” position and support materialism!)

        • blitz442
          Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink


          I think that it is inaccurate to call Pius XII a creationist; at least my reading of Humani Generis does not indicate that. It seems that evolution, at least non-human evolution, it not deemed by the Church to be inconsistent with its doctrine, provided that the Catholic rejects polygenism and believes that God somehow injected a human soul into a hominid at some unspecified time. I would assume that Catholics would also have a problem with evolution being “unguided”.

          Theistic evolution may be untenable, but I think that it is useful to separate it from young-earth creationism.

          • Microraptor
            Posted November 9, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

            Only in that it’s a different way of knowing how to be unscientific.

  6. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    If this is true, it means Templeton wasted all its money on science instead of tea-ology.

    John Haught’s big mistake

    So the other controversy is settled now, it’s pure catheism and nothing for dog-botherers?

    Oh noez. I’m not sure of this gnu development is accommodated by NCSE.

    • Posted November 10, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Ha ha! Is this the first instance of the term “tea-ology”? Such a sophisticated word.

  7. Stonyground
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Cain wander off into a far away land and find a wife? If there were only Adam, Eve and Cain on the planet, where did Cain’s wife appear from? The story is so nonsensical and badly written how can anyone but an idiot ever have believed that it was literally true?

    • Philip
      Posted November 9, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Nobody said Cains wife had a soul!

    • qbsmd
      Posted November 9, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Cain’s wife is a metaphor. Surprisingly, their children were real, providing the first evidence that humans and metaphors are the same species. The only question that remains is: really the same species or metaphorically the same species?

    • Draken
      Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      Didn’t Cain wander off into a far away land and find a wife?

      You mean Herman Cain? I sure as hell hope for you he wanders off into a far away land.

  8. Torbjorn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Oh, and while it is an awesome tour-de-metaphor as is, I will have to agree with another nitpicky commenter that said roughly ‘too much Christ, too little metaphor’.

    In fact, if we run that part through a combination of Metaphorical Illuminator and Historical Assertion Finder, it comes out:

    “and in a baseless assertion metaphor, his metaphor, our metaphor, who was metaphored by a metaphor, a baseless assertion with the metaphored baseless assertion, a baseless assertion with Pontius Pilate, was a baseless assertion, a baseless assertion and a baseless assertion;”

    What stands out as credible is that once there was a roman prefect and today we have a certain church. Maybe we should infer a connection between the two.

    [Ironically, this is AFAIU exactly correct. The romans made Greece a haven for the early worshipers, and they adapted to the greek syncretic tradition. Hence the greek variant of post-semitic religion.

    Isn’t it nice how fixed traits are preserved among the junk texts?]

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      I was treating “Jesus Christ” as the name of an individual rather than his job description.
      It’s more like “Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary Christ”
      Besides, I thought there were too many metaphors as it was – if I added any more it would begin (!) to look silly and nobody would believe it!

  9. MadScientist
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Heresy! Metaphors are unforgivable – obviously the Nicene Creed is not one adhered to by True Christians.

  10. Flounder99
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Wow. I have threatened people with the old “I could replace your job with a perl script” quip. Good to see that it can be applied to theologians too.

    • Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      Perl? Heresy! PHP is the one true scripting language. Burn the Witch!

      • Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        Wankers. Call me when you start writing machine code by using a bent paperclip to short the TTY lines like all real programmers do.



        • gr8hands
          Posted November 9, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

          I thought I was the only one who did that . . .

        • J.J.E.
          Posted November 9, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink


        • Posted November 9, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

          You had a paperclip? Looxury!

  11. Matt G
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    As far as I’m concerned, they can stick their metaphors right up their metaphorical metaphor.

    • Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Metaphorically speaking, of course….


  12. dunstar
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink


    Jesus should just come back and die for another metaphor.

    That’d be awesome.

  13. Aaron Baker
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Ametaphor. Indeed.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted November 10, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink


  14. Diane G.
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink


  15. Hempenstein
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    And since this is all about metaphors, I can’t resist posting Ron Thomason of Dry Branch Fire Squad’s line about metaphors (demonstrating his expanded vocabulary) on the Live from the Newburyport Firehouse CD:

    If that young filly would come out from behind those bushes, that old stallion would remember what he came down from the metaphor.

  16. Lotharloo
    Posted November 9, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    I don’t get the tea comment. The EG offered coffee not tea! So Haught had it right!

  17. Posted November 10, 2011 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    How about changing the word METAPHOR into ANALOGY and applying it to SCIENCE instead?

    • Posted November 10, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

      Science uses analogies for their explantatory value, not their factual content. Nobody imagines that the “flavours” of quarks have anything in commmon with literal flavour, nor that “up” and “down”, “charm” and strangeness” are anything but useful labels for distinguishing properties we don’t yet understand.

      When religion says Adam and Eve are metaphors, we ask “To what reality do these metaphors refer – what are they metaphors for?” And echo answers “What?”

      • Posted November 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        But it is impossible to think scientifically without resorting to analogies – which are provisional intuitions towards some sort of truth about the physical world.

        The use of metaphor in scripture is an analogous resort – in a greater ignorance – towards a truth about wisdom – through the medium of words.
        Okay those words are not always easy to interpret and most of Genesis is implausible
        but this bit {3:6} is crystal clear to me:

        … the day ye eat thereof [the tree of knowledge], then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. (thus said the snake)

        – a message for us scientists not to be arrogant in believing we know best.

        – a message for us scientists towards a self critical doubt: yes like Karl Popper,
        but also a doubt in all our good intentions that we think our science might bring.

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