Symposium Introduction

At the beginning of his defining book, Totality and Infinity, Emmanuel Levinas offers the following provocative synopsis of what he takes to be the history of metaphysics, which serves as the backdrop of his own account of the absolute alterity found in the ethical relation:

“The true life is absent.” But we are in the world. Metaphysics arises and is maintained in this alibi. It is turned toward the “elsewhere” and the “otherwise” and the “other.” For in the most general form it has assumed in the history of thought it appears as a movement going forth from a world that is familiar to us, whatever be the yet unknown lands that bound it or that it hides from view, from an “at home” which we inhabit, toward an alien outside-of-oneself, toward a yonder. (Levinas 1969, p. 33)

For Levinas, the metaphysical “alibi” is such that we are stable in ourselves and, thus, able to move beyond ourselves toward this objective order that lies beyond the illusory world of embodied sense and meaning. Epistemology as a search for that which is transcendentally stable forms much of the general metaphysical account of numerous philosophers from Plato to Hegel, and beyond. Famously, or perhaps infamously depending on who you ask, the postmodern turn in philosophy (in both the continental and also the analytic traditions), amounts to a humbling of such epistemic pretense regarding the narrative of metaphysical stability. The “alibi,” as it were, has begun to wear thin and questions have rightly been raised about whether or not it remains plausible. The consequences of such questions on human inquiry are significant indeed.

In the wake of this general postmodern awareness, the issue that now presses upon us is not how to get beyond ourselves to some sort of stable objective reality, but how best to understand who it is that we are as confronted by the epistemic realities that attend embodied, contextual existence. In this way, postmodernism does not preclude metaphysical realism, but simply the idea that we could somehow have access to that reality outside of where it is that we currently find ourselves. We are in the world. Whatever true life there is, if it is to be known by us, must be available to us as the beings we are, not the beings we would like to be if we somehow could escape the limitations of physicality and finitude. Indeed, it is precisely because of such limitations that the task of inquiry presents itself to us as a task in which to engage ever more deeply, rather than as a goal to be finally achieved. The end of inquiry, if there is such a thing, is not fixed and waiting for us, but stands as the vanishing point of the human condition itself. When inquiry stops, so does our finitude. Since it doesn’t seem like we are going to become infinite anytime soon, inquiry continues . . . but now humbly aware of itself as a contingent human practice. Thinking is no longer best conceived as a divine activity in which humans are able to participate insofar as they overcome their current situation and obtain direct access to that “elsewhere” and that “yonder” of which Levinas speaks, and toward which traditional metaphysical inquiry has striven.

What is especially striking about this postmodern realization is that it is not at all distinctively postmodern. Instead, it is quite ubiquitously, and extremely mundanely, human . . . all too human. We are bodies in motion. Inquiry amounts to bodies asking questions. Accordingly, regardless of our discipline, our training, or our discursive goals, we should all be attentive to the ways in which our bodies form the ground from which any such inquiry could spring forth and become categorized as philosophy, or theology, or psychology, or sociology, or whatever. Advances in cognitive science, and especially cognitive linguistics, have helped to refocus our attention away from the Truth (always with a capital-T) “out there” to the inescapable truth (whether with a capital or not) that language is always a product of one’s embodied (prelinguistic) experiences. Language may or may not be the house of being, but embodiment is the soil upon which any such house would be able to be built.

As obvious as it might seem to say that we only speak and think as we do because of the vocal chords and brains that we have, this realization is often ignored or even outright rejected due to two general worries. On the one hand, this account of embodiment and its impact on language and concepts might be viewed as metaphysically restrictive. On the other hand, this account can also be read as epistemically (and ethically) reductive. In the first case, one might point to thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, who is sometimes read as suggesting that since we can’t escape our perspectives that there really is nothing other than these perspectives—there is no state of affairs by which one perspective could be deemed better than any other. In the second case, one might offer any number of reductive physicalist accounts of knowledge and moral theory. When confronted with the options of problematic metaphysical anti-realism or problematic scientistic reductionism, perhaps it is better to abandon the assumptions that led to such options.

However, many scholars have rightly demonstrated that the implications of cognitive linguistics and postmodern epistemology avoid both of these worries. In fact, no metaphysical implications follow at all from a postmodern awareness of embodied human inquiry and the impact of lived experience on our speech and thought. All that follows is an increased humility regarding the pretentions to being able to get beyond ourselves to check what it is that we claim to know. Whether or not Derrida engages in a non sequitur, we shouldn’t do so. Just because we can’t know Truth other than as engaged and interpreted as truth available to bodies like us doesn’t mean that there is no Truth, but simply that we can’t stop being who we are in order to know it. As Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus rightly warns, to try to know objective Truth in this way would be so inhuman that it is not clear that any existing individual could recommend it. We are stuck with ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that we are all that there is (see Kierkegaard 1992).

Similarly, reductive physicalism might indeed be true, but it is not at all required by the conclusions drawn by cognitive linguistics. That our speech and thought is shaped (necessarily and inescapably) by embodied experience doesn’t mean that we are merely, or only, or reducible to vocal chords and brains. It simply means that even if we are ultimately souls, or minds, we are now unable to understand anything outside of the embodied lived experience that forms our framework for meaning. So, just because we can’t make sense of disembodied ethical decision, for example, doesn’t mean that there are not moral facts. Just because we can’t know reality as God does, say, doesn’t mean that there is not divine knowledge of reality. It simply means that moral facts and divine knowledge would only be knowable by us if they are knowable by the sorts of beings that we are. This should seem trivial because it is. Again, the upshot of postmodernism is not something new and radical about how to conceive of ourselves, but something deeply universal to the human condition that has simply been forgotten at various points in our history—viz., being concerned about giving an alibi can often prevent us from being concerned about speaking truly. Cognitive linguistics, even if a recently emerging field, is not itself suggesting something that we didn’t know previously, but simply helping us understand how it is that we know anything at all.

One of the truly slow adopters of these realizations about embodiment and its impact on inquiry and discourse is Christian theology, and especially Evangelical Christian theology. Perhaps this hesitancy is due to the reasons mentioned above. Indeed, surely metaphysical anti-realism and reductive physicalism would pose serious problems for the worldviews of many within Christian faith communities. Unfortunately, though, adopting such problematic interpretations leads to a genuinely missed opportunity for theological discourse to be maximally relevant to the human condition—the condition to which faith is, itself, supposed to speak most directly. In his new book, Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think about Truth, Morality, and God, John Sanders sets out to correct these misconceptions and demonstrate with clarity and precision the resources offered by cognitive linguistics for both Christian theology and Christian life. This book is comprehensive in its scholarship and probing in its challenge to the complacency that so often characterizes Christian thinking.

The participants in this symposium are Bonnie Howe, James Van Slyke, Sharon L. Baker Putt, and Scot McKnight. They all offer careful engagements with Sanders’s thought but all apply it to different areas of intellectual and religious concern. First, Howe focuses on the way that cognitive linguistics impacts moral interpretation. Then, Van Slyke turns to questions of political existence and the dominant metaphors used to situate individuals into social groups. Next, Baker Putt moves into a more directly theological vein and considers traditional models of the atonement in order to explore new resources offered by cognitive linguistics for avoiding the moral problems associated with the satisfaction and penal substitution theories. Finally, Scot McKnight considers theological epistemology and the possible ways that cognitive linguistics can invite a better awareness of how specific theological claims might be read by different individuals and groups because of different social histories.

Ultimately, in these essays, and in Sanders’s replies to each of them, what we find is a robust demonstration of how humility and hospitality need not lead to a watered-down homiletics. Standing confidently within one’s religious tradition, and engaging confessionally in the theological reflection occurring within that tradition, should not be threatened by an awareness of one’s own embodied finitude. Indeed, in light of the Christian notion of kenosis, it seems much more likely that we are better able to understand the account of God revealed in Christian scriptures when we no longer attempt to overcome our embodiment, but instead stand, in our full fleshy reality, in a personal relation to a God who took on flesh in order to be related to us. Although Levinas provides a profound account of how ethics requires a relation to the absolutely other, Christianity, at least according to the model of it presented by the authors in this symposium, shows how the absolutely other is not lost in mystical distance, but perhaps found most radically, most intimately, most humanly, when we realize that all knowledge of God is embodied knowing.


Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments Vol. I. Ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.



Minds Reading

Reflections on John Sanders’s Theology in the Flesh

When we open our Bibles and begin to read, our minds are engaged. Yes, and our hearts can be moved. But human minds are not disconnected from human hearts or from our whole selves. In cognitive linguistics, we speak of embodied human minds and of thought and language as grounded in everyday, experienced reality. Potentially—hopefully—our whole selves are engaged, especially when we read the Bible in our faith communities. We want our actions as individuals and as church communities to flow from our Bible reading. We do live in interesting and challenging times, and I’m eager for us to have this conversation around John Sanders’s Theology in the Flesh because I think he is offering us a treasure trove of questions, insights, models and methods for doing faithful and biblically grounded theology.

Theology in the Flesh does open up a huge set of issues and questions. Here I want to focus on the implications of cognitive linguistics for Bible reading, biblical interpretation, and ethics. Sometimes my church friends and extended family members tell me that Bible reading is not rocket science. “I just read the Bible and do what it says.” So, I get it: it’s not linguistic science, either. But some of us are interested in understanding in more detail how reading and interpretation happen. It’s not as simple as it seems, and I think in this case it’s not necessarily that the devil is in the details. Doing cognitive linguistic analyses of Scripture has opened up its richness for me, rather than closing it down.

Way back in 1980, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson said, “The meaning is not right there in the sentence—it matters a lot who is saying or listening to the sentence and what his social and political attitudes are” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, p. 12). Words—as with all of our perceptions—are interpreted, and that interpretation is mediated through our everyday experience, including whatever connections and memories any text evokes for us. Without that embodied experience, the text evokes nothing. That’s part of what we mean by “embodiment” and embodied cognition. I think that is also what John Sanders means by theology “in the flesh.” He’s echoing (with permission) Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999), and I find Sanders’s appropriation of the idea deeply coherent with incarnational Christianity.

Here is one touchstone concept from cognitive linguistics: Reading is a humanly invented activity, for many people a daily activity, one that involves our minds. Human beings—across cultures—love language, tell stories, and write books. Reading is both wonderful and ordinary, in the sense of everyday.

On one level I’m simply observing that reading the Bible, which I do believe is the Word of God, also works this way. Yes, the Bible is revelatory in ways that even other ancient texts are not. But, in God’s wisdom and self-giving love, God has taken the risk (a key concept for Sanders) of using human language and literary conventions to communicate that wisdom and love. John Sanders says it this way at the beginning of chapter 6, “Reading the Bible.”

Biblical writers used the same cognitive processes available to us . . . biblical texts manifest the conceptual conventions present in their languages and cultures. This includes everything from grammar to moral reasoning to cosmology. Much can be learned about how different biblical writers conceived various topics by paying attention to the conceptual structures prompted by the texts. (Sanders 2016, p. 203)

That last phrase is loaded! What does it mean to pay “attention to the conceptual structures prompted by the texts”? I’ve spent over twenty-five years trying to understand what that means and how to do it, and I am still learning.

My introduction to the field was via Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. I found it in a Berkeley bookstore, read it—and it blew my mind. I was hooked when they said this on page 1:

Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. . . . Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p. 1)

Metaphorical thought. Conceptual system. We use it to comprehend everyday reality. It affects both thoughts and actions. Another piece of the argument in that book also got my attention: “The most fundamental values in a culture will be coherent with the metaphorical structure of the most fundamental concepts in the culture.” That’s the first sentence of chapter 5, in Metaphors We Live By. I was studying biblical ethics, and I realized that if Lakoff and Johnson are right, then we ought to pay attention to the metaphorical structures in the texts, in Scripture. That’s how I personally got hooked on cognitive linguistics. First it was about metaphor, thought, and values and ethics.

I soon realized that although we do live by metaphors, it’s not just about metaphors. A great strength of Sanders’s book is that he shows us an array of cognitive linguistics interests, tools, and models. If you haven’t read more than Metaphors We Live By, you haven’t given this set of approaches enough attention. The field has grown; the models have been refined and have proliferated. Cognitive linguistics is offering us much more than it could in the ’80s and even the ’90s.

For most people in the modern world, reading in our natural language is a daily activity. But though reading is everyday, if we ask how it works, the answers get complicated quickly. The wonder is that we make sense at all of squiggles on a page or screen, and that we ever come to shared interpretations. We read a text, and we make sense of it. That is wonderful! It ought to evoke awe, as we ponder how that happens. Literary scholar and cognitive scientist Mark Turner makes this observation:

The most amazing phenomenon our profession confronts, and the one for which we have the least explanation, is that a reader can make sense of a text, and that there are certain regularities across the individual senses made of a given text. How do readers do that? (Turner 1991, p. 19)

Cognitive linguists and literary scholars like Mark Turner have worked for several decades now to understand how language and thought are linked, to discern the patterns and processes involved in reading and interpretation of texts. In The Way We Think, Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier ask this question: “When we see words on a page, do those words stand directly for external realities?” (Fauconnier and Turner 2002, p. 146). Their answer is “No, but . . .” No, words do not directly stand for anything. Words are key to the making of meaning and to human communication because they are prompts, triggers that activate the human imagination. Words activate perception, which then is available for interpretation. In cognitive linguistics circles we say, “The meaning is not in the word.” We mean that words are not little meaning capsules that carry x content no matter the context in which they are uttered or written or read.

What in the human brain and embodied mind (two different entities) allows reading and interpretation to work? It is complicated. One thing we know for sure: Reading is not automatic. Readers participate in making meaning out of textual cues. One set of implications for those of us trying to make sense of ancient texts is that we are doing cross-cultural work. Listen to Ben Bergen, who directs the Language and Cognition Lab at the University of California, San Diego:

If meaning is based on experience with the world—the specific actions and percepts an individual has had—then it may vary from individual to individual and from culture to culture. And meaning will also be deeply personal . . . the processes of meaning are dynamic and constructive. It’s not about activating the right symbol, it’s about dynamically constructing the right mental experience of the scene. (Bergen 2012, p. 16)

This has huge implications for biblical interpretation. It should encourage us to do thorough social-cultural and historical background work along with our basic Bible reading. When we construct mental experiences as we read, as we engage the stories of Scripture, our minds are working hard to make meaning, and the way we construe scenes matters.

The Morals of the Stories

Because so much of Scripture is narrative material and because we are a Story-formed people, we’d be wise to pay attention to what researchers are finding out about how we process not just single words or phrases, but stories and narratives. For example, in a study done at Washington University in St. Louis, published in 2009 in Psychological Science, fMRI scans tracked brain activity as people read short stories and processed individual words (Speer et al. 2009). They found that readers simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. We don’t just decode words, we are running simulations. On this topic, John Sanders quotes Warren Brown and Brad Strawn, who wrote a book called The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church:

The power of stories lies in the brain’s capacity to imaginatively simulate the behaviors being narrated. . . . We do not passively comprehend stories, but mentally engage in simulations of the action. (Brown and Strawn 2012, p. 82; Sanders 2016, p. 159n46)

Brown and Strawn’s insight is significant for many reasons, but what I’d like to point out is that scriptural morality and ethics is a morality of the stories, and not just a principle-based one, not reducible to rules or propositions or even lists of values.

To get at the nitty-gritty of how that works, we do need to pay attention to the features of the narrative, to how the stories are told (and received). Lakoff and Johnson were right: We do live by metaphors—at least partly. Noticing the metaphors in the texts does help us locate the values of the biblical cultures. But it turns out that it is not just about metaphors (and Lakoff and Johnson are well aware of this). Metonymies, semantic frames, image schemas—an array of features that cognitive linguistics can help us locate and parse—also are key to understanding the stories and the morals of the Story. John Sanders lands here in the book, where he explains why principle-ist reading strategies like Walter Kaiser’s are so thin and overly rigid (Sanders 2016, pp. 157–68). They are also culturally inept and misguided in a number of ways.

Sanders also turns to Joel Green and others of us who are advocating for an “exemplar” model for Scripture and ethics (Sanders 2016, p. 168). The aim is to move beyond the old read-and-apply methods and those that try to distill the ethical content to rules and so-called “timeless propositional” truth. Exemplar-focused interpretation asks what challenges and situations the characters in the text faced, and then tries to notice how they located the issues before them. What did they struggle with? What were their questions? How did they talk to each other?

It matters what we choose to read and study, in the biblical canon and beyond. These days I am turning again to 1 Peter, and I notice a surge of interest in some churches in studying Habakkuk. Interesting. Lately, I sense my “alien and stranger” status in my own country acutely. But we need to talk about it in depth and detail. If my Bible study friends and I assign ourselves the “stranger” role, will we also be able to respond as Jesus would to actual strangers—Muslims and Mexicans, for example? How are American Christians reading and interpreting “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” in our present context? We are not all running the same simulations as we read this text.

Finally, I recall Russell Moore’s 2016 Erasmus Lecture—which Krista Tippett posted on her On Being site just before the election—in which Moore called for a more robust evangelical ethics. Moore said, “Evangelical commitment to the Bible means not just that we’re committed to shaping our lives and our politics by a set of doctrines and principles derived from Scripture but more so by experiencing the world through a sense of place in the biblical story” (Moore; and see Krista Tippet’s remarks). What John Sanders is offering us is a basic cognitive linguistics toolkit for noticing that Story, the big one and all the little ones in Scripture, attending well and deeply, so we can let it shape our theology and our lives.


Bergen, Benjamin K. 2012. Louder than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. New York: Basic Books.

Brown, Warren S., and Brad D. Strawn. 2012. The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fauconnier, Giles, and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980; 2nd edition 2003. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic Books.

Moore, Russell D. “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?” 29th Annual Erasmus Lecture, October 27, 2016. Video: Article:

Speer, Nicole K., Jeremy R. Reynolds, Khena M. Swallow, and Jeffrey M. Zacks. 2009. “Reading Stories Activates Neural Representations of Visual and Motor Experiences.” Psychological Science 20, no. 8: 989–99.

Tippett, Krista. “A Generation-Defining Speech by a Conservative Religious Leader That Is Good News for All.” On Being.

Turner, Mark. 1991. Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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    John Sanders


    Response to Howe

    Language is the tip of an enormous cognitive iceberg. Just as some of the ice is visible above the water but most of the ice remains unseen below the water line, so there are visible and aural aspects to language that we perceive but there is a tremendous amount of cognitive activity going on beneath the surface. Cognitive linguistics seeks to understand the entire iceberg, both above and below the waterline. It studies the “visible” aspects of language such as grammars, word usage, and the like but it draws upon cognitive science to understand what is going on behind the scenes. It seeks to elucidate the mental tools we use to understand our lives and the world we inhabit.

    One of the first tools to be examined was metaphor. Conceptual metaphor theory, in particular, is now one of the most empirically tested, refined, and cross-linguistically studied approaches to metaphor. It has been applied to fields such as music, law, literature, biblical studies, psychology, and politics. Due to its immense explanatory power, it has become a dominant academic approach. Theologians have said many helpful things about metaphor, but few have drawn upon the incredible insights of conceptual metaphor theory. Many philosophers and theologians continue to think of metaphors as rhetorical devices instead of as mental tools we use to reason about topics such as God, justice, and truth. A conceptual metaphor is when we understand A in terms of B. For instance, we understand God in terms of a husband. Conceptual metaphors have inferences so ancient Israel was invited to live out the culturally expected behaviors of wives in relation to Yahweh, their God. In Theology in the Flesh, I discuss two studies by Eve Sweetser and Mary Therese DesCamp that examine which domains of human experience biblical authors selected to understand God and to conceptualize their own rights and responsibilities. The studies also elaborate the principles governing metaphor use. They are not used arbitrarily but intentionally within the shared values and expectations of the culture in which they lived. Hence, conceptual metaphor theory is quite helpful.

    In her contribution to this symposium, Bonnie Howe rightfully notes that cognitive linguistics is about much more than metaphor. Some of the other mental tools that I explore in the book are image schemas, metonymy, conceptual blending, categorization, and frames. Cognitive linguistics offers an integrated set of models and methodologies based on the ideas that (1) there is a set of principles which governs all aspects of language and (2) language makes use of the same cognitive tools humans use in other areas of life such as perception and memory. Hence, cognitive linguistics draws upon what is known about the embodied mind from an array of disciplines. Theology in the Flesh applies an “embodied mind” approach to various theological topics to shed new light on them. For example, it offers ways of defining concepts such as “Christian” in light of prototype theory and shows why both realist and anti-realist approaches to truth have some things right and some things wrong. Overall, the book calls us to humility in our claims to knowledge in part because there is often more than one legitimate way to construe topics such as God, truth, and salvation.

    Another key point that Howe makes is that language prompts for meaning construction. There is usually more than one way to understand a text. There is a range of possible meanings and our minds actively assemble the most likely meaning from sparse information. Language prompts the mind to construct meaning by bringing in lots of background information. For example, one scholar who read the book wrote me that he appreciated many things about the book but he considered the title “Theology in the Flesh” absolutely horrible. The reason why is that the word “flesh” triggered in his mind one possible meaning of “flesh”—as sinful. Why do theology from a sinful perspective? Perhaps that understanding would sell more copies but I had a different construal of “flesh” in mind. The embodied mind approach affirms that the particular type of human bodies (flesh) we have, particularly our specific types of sensory and motor capabilities, deeply shapes the mental tools we use to understand our experience. Human embodied existence is what I mean by “flesh” which is a common understanding of the term in the Old Testament and is used by the Gospel of John when it says “the word became flesh” (1:14). This illustrates how our minds construct meaning.

    A final point of Howe’s that I wish to comment on is her statement about the importance of cross-cultural understanding. Cognitive linguistics draws upon anthropology and cross-linguistic studies to compare and contrast understandings between various cultural groups. Many dozens of examples of cross-cultural differences are discussed in the book in order to help Westerners in general, and North Americans in particular, grasp the benefits of learning how peoples in ancient times or in different geographic regions understand a topic. For example, it is rather easy to fall victim to Anglo ethnopyschology—using the psychological categories and understandings of modern Western peoples as normative for all times and places. The book discusses several studies by biblical scholars using cognitive linguistics to understand the similarities and differences between ancient Israel’s prototypical scenario of anger (who is allowed to display anger, the object of anger, how it is manifested, and how it is evaluated) and the scenarios found in many cultures around the world. It is important to see how even familiar concepts such as “anger” are understood differently in various languages.

    Cross-cultural studies have pointed out a number of intriguing differences. Here are some of the examples that I discuss in the book. Cultures that employ an honor/shame framework often think of justice, including divine justice, in ways that are different from guilt-based cultures. Americans are highly individualistic and so American Christians tend to construe “fairness” quite differently from Christians in China and India. Shaped by different cultural values Christians in Tanzania, Russia, and America read the parable of the Prodigal Son in significantly different ways. Christianity is two millennia old and is a global religion. It has been indigenized into various cultures from its inception. Christians in different cultures can enrich one another through conversations about what they share in common and how they see things differently. The book seeks to show that Christians have widespread agreement on some general ideas along with cultural variation on most topics. Understanding why this is the case should help us be more humble in our claims to possess the correct theology and to appreciate what others have to teach us. Cognitive linguistics is a very useful tool to assist in this process.



Engaging John Sanders

John Sanders offers an excellent introduction to embodiment and theology in Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think about Truth, Morality, and God. Sanders provides a helpful and comprehensive overview of current views in embodied cognition, a model of human cognitive activity that prioritizes systems of the entire body and motor action in the world. Embodied cognition does not view thoughts as abstracted from the world or “inside” the head; rather thought is composed of metaphors and schemas based on motor actions performed in the world, neural network systems of the brain, and the physiological systems of the body.

When we describe a concept such as a romantic love, we use various metaphors based on our embodiment to describe the experience. So persons “fall in” love when a relationship begins, and experience “bumps in the road” when relationship difficulties arise, which may lead them to “go their separate ways” when the relationship ends. Thus, we use a motor experience like taking a walk or a hike to describe a more ambiguous concept like romantic love. Since all persons are bodies, embodied experience provides a shared foundational frame for understanding a variety of conceptual forms that may be difficult to describe. Most humans go through similar experiences in their early motor development, thus it stands to reason that many cultural forms would emerge based on these shared experiences.

The use of embodied cognition to help understand various theological concepts is in some ways a natural extension of the move to a physicalist understanding of the person in theology. In the Christian tradition, dualism was often the assumed ontological view of humanity where persons were composed of an immaterial soul and a physical body. From a Neoplatonic perspective, which heavily influenced the writings of Augustine and many foundational theological treatises in the Western tradition, the soul was that which was closest to God and most clearly the part of humanity that was made in his image (Cary 2000). Many theologians and Christian philosophers have embraced various forms of physicalism or emergent monism as an ontological view of the person who is not composed of a disembodied mind or soul plus a body (Clayton 2004; Green 2008). Murphy’s nonreductive physicalism attempts to integrate insights from the cognitive neurosciences and contemporary philosophy of mind to view the person as physical without the reduction of the person to some form of biological determinism or materialism (Murphy 2006). Although debates will continue on the type of physicalism that is most resonant with theological categories, the turn to physicalist views of the person makes embodied cognition an important avenue for understanding theological discourse because if our bodies are the primary ontological substance that constitutes the person then understanding the role of the body in the construction of a religious tradition will be essential.

Sanders uses embodied cognition as a framework for understanding many different aspects of the Western Religious tradition including our understanding of truth, the foundations of morality based in embodiment, various Christian doctrines, and conceptions of God. Each of these topics is interesting in its own right, but I’ll limit myself to the topic of morality because much of my own research has focused on that topic. Sanders’s work using embodied cognition to understand theological and political categories presents an opportunity for a fruitful dialogue on contemporary American politics. Embodied cognition (and the related discipline of evolutionary psychology) provides a framework for a better understanding of the polarization in contemporary American politics in that persons are using different types of embodied metaphors and adaptive cognition to process religious and political information. These sciences can be used to understand how these stark differences emerged and provide a shared psychological language that both conservatives and liberals could use to comprehend political and religious differences and better understand the perspective of the other side.

A strong argument can be made for the usage of different unconscious embodied cognitive systems in moral judgment. One of the strongest of these systems is disgust, which is an evolved system that helped to protect our evolutionary ancestors from parasites, disease, and infection. Any time you’ve left milk in the refrigerator for too long and were unwise and performed a smell test on it, olfactory cues activated the disgust system, which immediately identified the sour milk and instantaneously gave you the motivation to throw it out quickly. The disgust system works well not because it uses reflective reason but because it works at the unconscious level to provide a strong motivational cue to get rid of the disgusting substance quickly. It is also biased toward over-detecting false positives since it is ultimately in our best interest to get rid of a potentially infected substance rather than to take the chance that it may be unsafe. Thus, once a person is in a state of disgust it is often difficult to untether the unconscious judgment from our current processing situation.

Several studies have demonstrated the role of disgust in moral judgments. When sitting at a disgusting desk (sticky, with gum attached to it, dirty) or when smelling something foul (fart spray), persons are more likely to make negative moral judgments regarding someone’s behavior and when arbitrary words are hypnotically paired with the disgust response, persons are more severe in their moral judgments (Schnall, Haidt, Clore & Jordan 2008; Wheatley & Haidt 2005). Inducing disgust through olfactory cues increases negative views of gay men (Inbar, Pizarro & Bloom 2011). Based on this and other social psychological research, Haidt developed the social intuitionist model (SIM) of moral judgment (Haidt 2001). This model argues that moral judgments are primarily intuitive in that evolutionary adaptive programs, such as disgust, play the dominate role in moral judgment and reason is an ad hoc justification for our intuitions. Based on empirical evidence from multiple sources, five primary moral foundations were identified with links to our evolutionary heritage: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation (Graham et al. 2013).

Haidt demonstrates the embodied nature of morality and the important role that evolved moral intuitions play in moral judgment. For some, there may be a concern for a type of biological determinism, where evolution or moral intuitions determine moral judgment, but I think this would be a mischaracterization. Although intuitions form the basis of moral judgment, the types of morality paired with specific intuitions will vary based on cultural factors and experience. For example, in American politics, conservatives and liberals emphasize different types of moral foundations with liberals emphasizing care/harm and fairness/cheating while conservatives emphasize loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation (Haidt & Graham 2007). Thus part of the reason why American politics has become so divided is because they are emphasizing different moral foundations activating different contrasting intuitions, which contributes to the inability for liberals and conservatives to understand the perspective of the other.

When a particular political view (typically from the opposite spectrum of one’s personal political views) is paired with a powerful embodied response such as disgust, it becomes very difficult to have a fruitful exchange on political differences. Since evolution designed disgust to be non-reflective, automatic and quick to respond, this embodied motivation will often override any attempt at reason, even in the most open-minded of persons. Sanders highlights a similar and important pattern of parental metaphors that are used as intuitions to help conceptualize God (Froese & Bader 2015; Lakoff 2002). These metaphors work in concert with moral foundations to provide an unconscious framework for the fusing of American politics with a particular religious narrative. This is one of the real opportunities for embodied cognition, it provides part of the explanation for the deep cultural divides in America and could be used as a shared scientific language for unpacking the roots of disunity.

Many liberals continue to be baffled at how Donald Trump won the election. Most polls had Hillary Clinton winning and with the video footage surfacing of Trump bragging about his sexual exploits it seemed like his campaign was in a downward spiral. However, Trump did win the election and embodiment, in terms of our evolutionary heritage, may be able to help explain why a man that most democrats and liberals would most likely characterize as repulsive, unintelligent, and barbaric is now president. The primary voter for Trump was male and in fact if just men had voted Trump would have won in a landslide (Silver 2016). One poll identified that the best predictor of support for Trump was not race, income, or education, but propensity toward authoritarianism (MacWilliams 2016). Authoritarianism is a preference for and willingness to defer to perceived dominance in others, usually males (Rueden 2016). This is also supported by the conservative association with the moral foundation of authority/subversion and an authoritative God. Humans show a tendency to prefer leaders who are taller and exhibit more masculine features, which is associated with higher levels of testosterone and aggression in men (Little, Burriss, Jones & Roberts 2007; Re, DeBruine, Jones & Perrett 2013). These qualities are most often desired during threatening situations or fearful contexts. Trump’s acceptance speech illustrated the type of fearful and threatening perceptions often associated with his campaign.

Another factor that contributed to his win is also related to embodiment, viz. human sexuality. Recent research has linked different aspects of religiosity to evolved mating strategies and there may be reason to suspect that similar evolutionary adaptations may have influenced views of Trump (Slone & Van Slyke 2015; Van Slyke 2016). The different forms of authoritarianism associated with Trump could be related to the types of male display behaviors used to attract a mate. Although males made up the largest voting block for Trump, a significant percentage of women voted for Trump as well (41%), which is fairly similar to the percentage of women who voted for Romney in 2012 (44%) (Clement & Alcantara 2016). Part of the preference (or tolerance) for Trump may be related to female mate preferences. Women show preferences for more masculine faces and lower-pitched masculine voices especially during peak levels of fertility during their menstrual cycle (Puts 2005). Females also show preferences for self-assurance, social dominance, self-confidence, and competitiveness during peak levels of fertility (Gangestad, Simpson, Cousins, Garver-Apgar & Christensen 2004).

During ovulation, females report higher levels of marital satisfaction with male partners who are relatively more masculine (Meltzer 2017). Despite the fact that egalitarian marriages are preferred by a significant number of men and women, couples with more traditional gender roles tend to have higher levels of sexual frequency in contrast to more egalitarian gender roles (Kornrich, Brines & Leupp 2013). This research does not indicate that mate preferences determine female voting choices, but demonstrates possible influences on voting behaviors that would apply to males and females. For example, during the 2012 election, it was found that during ovulation single females were less religious, more liberal, and more likely to vote for Barack Obama, while women in committed relationships were more religious, more conservative, and were more likely to vote for Mitt Romney (Durante, Rae & Griskevicius 2013). This is an interesting finding because it suggests that ovulation will affect women’s preferences differently based on their marital status and current reproductive goals. This type of research in evolutionary psychology may provide some new avenues for understanding a wide range of behaviors in both politics and religion.

Sanders’s work presents a helpful new paradigm for understanding theology from an embodied cognition perspective. Understanding the embodied intuitive moral foundations may shed light on unconscious processing that effects how moral and religious concepts are formed and transmitted. Mating preferences and display behaviors may help to shed light on preferences in political candidates and leaders from a variety of religious domains. By looking at the psychological science behind these views, it may provide a common language to help understand differences in political persuasion and how persons can form perspectives that seem so alien to our own understanding of the world.


Cary, P. (2000). Augustine’s invention of the inner self: The legacy of a Christian platonist. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clayton, P. (2004). Mind and emergence: From quantum to consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clement, S., & Alcantara, C. (2016). “2016 Election Exit polls.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Durante, K. M., Rae, A., & Griskevicius, V. (2013). “The fluctuating female vote: Politics, religion, and the ovulatory cycle.” Psychological Science, 24(6), 1007–1016.

Froese, P., & Bader, C. (2015). America’s four gods: What we say about God and what that says about us. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gangestad, S. W., Simpson, J. A., Cousins, A. J., Garver-Apgar, C. E., & Christensen, P. N. (2004). “Women’s preferences for male behavioral displays change across the menstrual cycle.” Psychological Science, 15(3), 203–207.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., Koleva, S., Motyl, M., Iyer, R., Wojcik, S. P., & Ditto, P. H. (2013). “Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism.” Advances in Experimental and Social Psychology, 47, 55–130.

Green, J. (2008). Body, soul, and human life: The nature of humanity in the Bible. Studies in Theological Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Haidt, J. (2001). “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review, 108, 814–834.

Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize.” Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98–116.

Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D. A., & Bloom, P. (2011). “Disgusting Smells Cause Decreased Liking of Gay Men.” Emotion, 12, 23–27.

Kornrich, S., Brines, J., & Leupp, K. (2013). “Egalitarianism, housework, and sexual frequency in marriage.” American Sociological Review, 78(1), 26–50.

Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Little, A. C., Burriss, R. P., Jones, B. C., & Roberts, S. C. (2007). “Facial appearance affects voting decisions.” Evolution and Human Behavior, 28(1), 18–27.

MacWilliams, M. (2016). “The one weird trait that predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter: And its not gender, age, income, race, or religion.” Politico. Retrieved from http://home/

Meltzer, A. L. (2017). “Wives with masculine husbands report increased marital satisfaction near peak fertility.” Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 11(2), 161–172.

Murphy, N. (2006). Bodies and souls or spirited bodies? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Puts, D. A. (2005). “Mating context and menstrual phase affect women’s preferences for male voice pitch.” Evolution and Human Behavior, 26(5), 388–397.

Re, D. E., DeBruine, L. M., Jones, B. C., & Perrett, D. I. (2013). “Facial cues to perceived height influence leadership choices in simulated war and peace contexts.” Evolutionary Psychology, 11(1), 89–103.

Rueden, von, C. (2016). The conversation about Trump should consider the evolution of men’s political psychology. Retrieved May 15, 2017, from

Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G. L., & Jordan, A. H. (2008). “Disgust as embodied moral judgment.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1096–1109.

Silver, N. (2016). “Election update: Women are defeating Donald Trump.” Retrieved from

Slone, D. J., & Van Slyke, J. A. (2015). The attraction of religion: A new evolutionary psychology of religion. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Van Slyke, J. A. (2016). “Can sexual selection theory explain the evolution of individual and group-level religious beliefs and behaviors?” Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1–7.

Wheatley, T., & Haidt, J. (2005). “Hypnotic disgust makes moral judgments more severe.” Psychological Science, 16, 780–784.

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    John Sanders


    Response to Van Slyke

    James Van Slyke provides some wonderful insights from cognitive science about how human embodiment shapes our moral understanding. Jonathan Haidt’s (2012) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion proposes that human moral reasoning makes use of six foundations: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Haidt says that in the United States political liberals focus on care, liberty, and fairness and tend to ignore the other three foundations while political conservatives utilize all six but highly emphasize authority. Both liberals and conservatives are committed to liberty and fairness but they define them differently. Liberals see fairness as equality regarding access to goods and services while conservatives view it as getting what you deserve—you receive in proportion to what you contributed. The left thinks of liberty in terms of freedom for powerless groups while the right thinks of liberty as the freedom from interference by others. Hence, the same moral foundation can be construed and applied in quite different ways.

    Van Slyke notes that these same two patterns or types occur in two conceptual metaphors that I use in Theology in the Flesh: the Nurturant Parent and the Authoritative Parent. Many political scientists and sociologists use these metaphors in order to understand what is happening in American politics and culture. The Nurturant Parent is also known as the Benevolent model while the Authoritative Parent is also called the Strict Father, Disciplinarian, and Authoritarian model. Researchers identify a common set of characteristics for each type. The Nurturant Parent wants children to become responsible and self-reliant as they navigate new situations in life. To accomplish this, they set high expectations and enforce standards while simultaneously providing acceptance and encouragement of appropriate questions since situations change and life is complex. This model emphasizes learning empathy for others, social responsibility, and cooperation. The Authoritative Parent wants children to be obedient to the rules established by the legitimate authorities such as God, government, and parents. These rules are to be followed without question out of respect for the various authorities. Disobedience is punished by strong behavioral control along with rejection. The world is understood as a dangerous and competitive place so children must obey the moral authorities in order to be accepted and prosper.

    In numerous surveys, including the American National Election Studies, political scientists have used a set of four alternative values regarding the type of child one prefers to identify Authoritative and Nurturant voters. Researchers ask people which one of the following they believe it is more important for a child to have:

    • Independence or respect for elders
    • Curiosity or good manners
    • Being considerate or well behaved
    • Self-reliance or obedience

    Those who affirm the Nurturant Parent value set select independence, curiosity, being considerate, and self-reliance. Those who affirm the Authoritative values select respect for elders, good manners, well behaved, and obedience. Stephen Mockabee (2007) concludes that the values regarding childrearing strongly indicate one’s orientation towards authority/uniformity versus autonomy/difference. A study by Barker and Tinnick (2006) says, “The stronger one’s views regarding childrearing—either in terms of nurturance or discipline—the more consistently liberal or conservative one’s political attitudes tend to be.” In the 1950s the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States each contained a mix of both Nurturant and Authoritative types but over the past seventy years Republicans have become almost entirely Authoritative while Democrats have increasingly identified with the Nurturant approach (Hetherington and Weiler 2009).

    These studies discuss the different attitudes and values manifested by each parenting model. In terms of cognitive style proponents of the Nurturant model are comfortable with shades of gray and place a high value on dialogue, perspective-taking, tolerance, and collaborative work. They are averse to ethnocentrism. They exhibit a strong preference for personal autonomy in matters of private behavior rather than social conformity. They tend to use problems in institutional structures to explain lack of success rather than blame individuals. On the other hand, the cognitive style of the Authoritative is to think in black-and-white terms and desire cognitive closure by submitting one’s own thinking to the moral order established by a proper authority (such as religion). They favor moral traditionalism which must not be changed since it upholds the well-being of society. There is a tendency to have negative views towards minority groups since they are perceived as threatening the social order. Concern for others is limited primarily to the in-group. They tend to blame individuals for lack of success since the economic, educational, and social institutions provide a level playing field for all.

    In Theology in the Flesh, I seek to show that these same two general models go back many centuries in the church and are seen in theological differences among American Christians. They appear in different views of atonement, for instance. The penal substitution and satisfaction theories fit well with the Authoritative value set. God has provided clear moral rules and human disobedience must be punished lest the moral order fall apart. Someone must “pay” for wrongdoing and Jesus suffers the full consequences of our penalty. The medieval penitential system in which the sinner had to perform righteous actions in order to balance God’s moral accounting fit with the Authoritative approach. On the other hand, Julian of Norwich and others wrote specifically about God as a Nurturant parent who wants to heal and restore the child from sin rather than punish. In the Nurturant approach, sin is understood primarily as broken relationships which need to be reconciled rather than broken rules that require punishment. These views carry over to the topic of divine eschatological judgment as well. Is God a by-the-book judge who requires everlasting punishment or a parent who desperately seeks reconciliation with the children? Those who think of God as an Authoritative Parent tend to affirm hell as eternal conscious punishment while those who understand God as a Nurturant Parent are open to a remedial hell.

    Since writing the book I now see many more ways in which these two parenting models manifest themselves in politics and doctrines. In America, white evangelicals score significantly higher on the authority scale than all other religious groups (Hetherington and Weiler 2009) so it is unsurprising that they overwhelmingly support the Republican Party and voted for Donald Trump, whom they see as a strong authority figure. Regarding the nature of God, proponents of the Nurturant model tend to highlight biblical texts where God is empathetic, open to what others want, and does not unilaterally decide everything. Instead, God fosters cooperation among creatures. This contrasts to the Authoritative approach which selects biblical texts where God issues commands and tolerates no disobedience. God operates unilaterally and is not open to changing the divine mind. Proponents of the Nurturant view tend to understand the Bible as a means of grace for Christian living. It functions as a guide for how believing communities should reason about moral and doctrinal issues. According to the Authoritative model the Bible is an unconditioned and absolute rule book with clear moral and doctrinal teachings that can never be questioned. Advocates of the Authoritative view tend to affirm biblical inerrancy and a literal interpretation of the Bible. God communicates the rules of the social and moral orders in clear, literal, terms which are timeless truths unconditioned by language and culture. Alternatively, the Nurturant model will see biblical teachings as situated in particular cultural thought forms that have to be interpreted and are not timeless, unchanging absolutes. When it comes to issues such as whether divine grace reaches outside of Christianity and whether people in other religions can be saved, proponents of the Nurturant view are more likely to believe that God makes the redeeming work of Jesus accessible to non-Christians while proponents of the Authoritative model are more likely to say God saves only a particular in-group.

    Regarding cognitive style, Christian proponents of the Nurturant Parent are likely to affirm a few practices and general teachings as central to the Christian faith while maintaining a constrained pluralism with regard to other practices and doctrines. It will be open to how Christians in other parts of the world understand and practice Christianity. In contrast, proponents of the Authoritative Parent are likely to affirm a large set of practices and doctrines as clearly given by God and necessary to be a genuine Christian. These specific practices and doctrines form clear boundaries one should not cross and they are to be believed and practiced in the same way by all Christians regardless of time and place.


    Barker, D., and J. Tinnick. 2006. “Competing Visions of Parental Roles and Ideological Constraint.” American Political Science Review, 100, no. 2: 249–263.

    Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage.

    Hetherington, M., and J. Weiler. 2009. Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

    Mockabee, Stephen. 2007. “A Question of Authority: Religion and Cultural Conflict in the 2004 Election.” Political Behavior, 29: 221–248.



Reconciling Metaphors

In his provocative book Theology in the Flesh, John Sanders argues that we cannot conceive, articulate, or understand God without language and cognitive tools that enable us to express and embody our theology. He rightly, according to my calculations, emphasizes the significance of metaphors as ways of communicating ideas, meanings, and truths about God. Moreover, he asserts that engagement with God does not demand autonomous or complicated cognitive linguistic systems disengaged from mundane life. Instead, God relates to us within our own cultural, social, and semiotic systems that, more often than not, include the use of figurative language such as metaphor. He writes that “we use that with which we are most familiar, our embodied interaction with the world, to make sense of our lives” (Sanders 2016, p. 77). In fact, cultures throughout the ages developed cognitive linguistic tools to enable them to discover truth and meaning within their own contexts.

The biblical writers were not exempt from using these linguistic tools. Figurative language pervades the pages of scripture as biblical writers took embodied human experience and meaning from the secular life and transferred those meanings into the sacred life. For example, when they spoke of Jesus as the “good shepherd,” listeners would know something sacred about God’s son—yet another metaphor depicting a relationship—because they knew quite a bit about shepherds in the secular realm. Likewise, metaphors and their employment in biblical texts inform theological construction and provide the ingredients to incorporate culture, language, and human experience into cultivating diverse faith communities that, in turn, seek to understand God and hope to reach a diverse expanse of people with the gospel message.

So, metaphors matter. And they matter a lot. Figurative language enables us to understand complicated concepts about God with familiar examples, ideas, and experiences from everyday life. For instance, most of us believe that God is love. But what does that mean? Does God love the same way that I love my spouse? Or ice cream? To aid our understanding, the biblical writers turn to the cognitive linguistic use of metaphor and speak of God in terms of a father who loves his children (Matt 7:7–11; Rom 8:15; Jer 31:9). Consequently, we know more about God because we know quite a lot about a father’s love. They also communicate the love of God using spatial or architectural imagery such as height and depth when referring to divine love (Rom 8:39). We know all about “tall” and “deep” from our embodiment in the world, which then enables us to transfer those meanings to our understanding of God whose love reaches such heights and depths we cannot fathom its extent. As Led Zeppelin sings, that’s a “whole lotta love!” In other verses we talk about the church as the body of Christ—a metaphor that enables us to grasp the unity, interdependence, and interaction among the diverse global Christian communities (1 Cor 12). Furthermore, we understand the Holy Spirit as a breath or wind—a metaphor that enables us to conceive of the Spirit who, like the wind, infiltrates all of creation as an invisible and refreshing force. These linguistic tools profoundly reveal to us significant information about the things of God.

Yet, does every metaphor at work in the various Christian traditions communicate the nature and character of God in relevant ways that guide and encourage us to live according to the example set forth in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? I answer that question with a resounding “no!” Christianity expresses its theology with certain metaphors that, in these uncertain days and violent times, should either be simply discarded, perhaps replaced, or significantly reinterpreted. Why? Historically, Christianity has used some of its most common metaphors to invoke violence and to achieve its own ends. And even though there is no definitive, direct line of proof connecting cognitive linguistics with violence, I wager that much of the violence committed by followers of Jesus is due to an interpretation of specific metaphors found in scripture. Indeed, metaphors depicting God as violent or as condoning violence “grace” our interpretations of the Bible all too often. As responsible interpreters of scripture, theologians need to acknowledge that “the use of different metaphors can lead to different theological inferences, and thus, different theological models” and search for truth and meaning in these metaphors that cohere with the life, character, and teachings of Jesus (Sanders 2016, p. 176).1

Sanders acknowledges that some of the biblical metaphors that generated traditional theories of atonement have also contributed to conceptions of a violent, tyrannical God. The New Testament explains Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in terms of law, economy, substitution, military maneuvers, sacrifice, and priestly practice. The biblical writers take ideas from common experience such as the religious, familial, legal, commercial, and economic, and then transfer them into the theological arena in order to explain how God works through Jesus to redeem all creation. From these metaphors in scripture, the church has constructed models of atonement that depict God as a wrath-filled judge, ready to exact punishment for sin. At the same time, however, many other metaphors describe the divine as a love-filled God ready to forgive, redeem, and reconcile humanity to the divine. As Feisty Hayseed says in the film Raising Arizona, “which is it young feller?” (Cohen and Cohen 1987). Does the Prince of Peace redeem through wrath, punishment, and violence or through love, mercy, and forgiveness?

Although, as Sanders asserts, the church has not identified a specific model of atonement as the standard for orthodox belief, the more violent satisfaction and penal substitution theories remain the dominant view in Western Christian theology (Sanders 2016, p. 184). These two theories arise from and depend upon certain interpretations of metaphors dealing with the Law and God’s wrath. They focus on the divine need for an economic transaction between God and Jesus, in which Jesus suffers God’s wrath before God will forgive sin. Not only does this metaphor describing the work of atonement compromise the nature of true forgiveness, it also makes God complicit with injustice and violence. God forgives freely; yet, at the same time, God demands a substitute to take away the debt, compromising the nature of forgiveness as complete pardon. A just God finds satisfaction in Christ’s unjust death or demands the unjust punishment of an innocent man, therefore evoking the question “is injustice ever just?”

Furthermore, conceptions of the Father demanding the death of the innocent Son pit the persons of the Trinity against one another, portraying an image of God against God, a triune inner conflict that works in opposition to the God who is love in three persons. These models of atonement interpret the metaphorical language too literally and make God appear as a judge in a court of law, bringing to the bench a case of God saving us from God, rather than communicating a God who loves humanity enough to freely redeem it. Additionally, satisfaction and penal languages of the atonement fail to do justice to the personal, relational aspects of divine reconciliation with a straying human race. Instead, redemption degenerates into a retributive balancing of accounts. Taking these metaphors too literally portrays God as more interested in legal rather than relational ramifications of the cross. Little focus is given to the place of reconciliation, forgiveness, and a renewed relationship with God. In addition, legal language taken literally also turns on notions of retributive justice in which the wrath of God demands payment for sin’s debt through the murder of an innocent man before extending divine forgiveness.

Yet, even worse, interpreting the metaphors that describe the passion event as satisfaction or penal portray God as violent and retributive rather than as merciful and restorative. Moreover, I assert that these metaphors help us to condone our own violence and retributive actions in the world. They help form our ideologies and, therefore, can influence our actions. According to the most common interpretation of the metaphors describing Jesus’s death on the cross, we see that he appeased the just wrath of an angry, offended God who must take vengeance on someone for sin. Through horrific suffering and by dying an unjust, violent death, Jesus placated the Father and paid the unfathomable debt that God’s enemies, sinful humanity, owed to God. Clearly, according to this view, only the torturous suffering of an innocent man deflected God’s vengeance from us and pacified the divine wrath. Violence, the physical suffering of a righteous man tormented with whips, thorns, mockery, beatings, and nails, somehow satisfied God.

The next logical step for those in power is that God’s enemies are now the objects of God’s wrath and vengeance. Christ’s followers can now imitate God and execute God’s same vengeance for perceived sin (see, Kaeuper 2009, pp. 21–22). Although we cannot prove a direct connection with absolute certainty, we can look through the pages of history and see some links between the violence of Christians and the metaphors describing the atonement. I, however, am not in the business of proving these connections with scientific certainty, but only in showing patterns of behavior, examples of rhetoric, and models of discourse described in written works over the centuries that may have served as catalysts in motivating violent behavior in order to accomplish God’s (so called) will. Even one instance of unjust violence issuing from the ideologies inculcated through these cognitive linguistic tools should give us pause enough to reconsider our interpretations and use of certain atonement metaphors. Indeed, a quick look at the evidence, however circumstantial, will enable us to see we have some theological reconstruction work ahead of us.

For example, one impassioned twelfth-century poet cried, “Strike in the name of the cross!” (Mullally 2002, p. 102). Calling the masses to arms in the name of Christ, under the sign of the cross, happened quite often during the turbulent Middle Ages. As a result, thousands of men, women, and children rushed to take up their own crosses and kill or be killed for the glory of God, the forgiveness of sin, the defeat of Christ’s enemies, and in defense of God’s kingdom (Kaeuper 2009, p. 22). The twelfth-century priest Peter the Hermit formed an army for the first crusade under the cry of “take up your cross!” Eager to heed the call, they went forth in the name of Jesus, and armed with a model of the cross, slaughtered over ten thousand Jews (Brock and Parker 2008, pp. 271, 289). These Christian warriors found pious motivation as they heard one preacher proclaim, “I assert that every man was won in battle through the mighty death that Christ suffered on the cross” (Kaeuper 2009, p. 120). Likewise, a fourteenth-century aristocrat roars, “Now war is upon us again, thanks be to Christ!” (Kaeuper 2009, p. 7; see also Housely 2008, pp. 75, 184–86). Furthermore, the celebration of the Eucharist fell victim to the pious Christian warrior mentality. Invocations such as “peace by the blood of the cross” unified those who shared in Christ’s body and blood. Eating the body and drinking Christ’s blood obligated believers either to convert others or to kill those who refused. This bloodshed enabled them to imitate Christ’s death and the agony of his self-sacrifice as celebrated in the Eucharistic meal (Brock and Parker 2008, p. 270). Christians, eager to gain divine favor with their violent fervor, deviated to militant theories of atonement. In fact, Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement so impressed Roger of Apulia, a Norman knight, that he invited Anselm and Pope Urban II to watch the siege of Capua in 1098. Written accounts attest that both holy men appeared quite at ease watching this cruel violence of war fought in the name of the warrior Christ (Bartlett 2008, p. 95).

Although Jesus exhorted his followers to love their enemies, even dying on a cross as an example, we have taken up his cross and with it sanctioned violence and war. From the fourth century on, popular theories of the atonement (fueled by an interpretation of scriptural metaphors) depicted an angry, vengeful God demanding blood before he (pronoun intended) would forgive sin. For these pious believers, the excessiveness of Jesus’s sufferings made salvation from God’s wrath even more excessive. The more excessive their salvation, the more they too must suffer for Christ, the more they must torture others into conversion, and the more they must win cities and souls for God through the taking of life. For centuries, Christians have used the supreme example of self-sacrificing love to steal, kill, and destroy, absolving themselves of unethical behavior under the guise of “God wills it” (Brock and Parker 2008, p. 274).2

The violence committed under the name of the cross continues today. We have learned to camouflage our violence under the guise of just war and submission to the one in power—be they husbands, pastors, administrations, presidents, or governments. We may have clothed our violence in more civilized attire, looking at our reflection and admiring our new look, and our more humane way of life, but someone needs to tell the emperor he is not wearing any clothes. Whether through spiritual abuse, verbal defamation, emotional coercion, or acts of war, we still do violence against those who do not think or act the same ways we do. And if we are ever going to fulfill the mission of Jesus—to bring peace on earth, to function as ministers of reconciliation, as a sweet aroma of Christ everywhere we go (2 Cor 5:18, 20; 2:15), we are going to have to start loving God and others more than we love the violence and vitriol. Now, I know that most of us do not love violence and are not violent people. But regardless of whether Christians have fought, killed, or mutilated themselves, or others, for reasons they could justify and for purposes interpreted to be useful in defending, promoting, and participating in God’s kingdom, we just cannot seem to get away from this cycle of tyranny. Whether out of fear, a lack of imagination, or a thirst for power over a nation, a community, a family, or a person, our violent ways persistently continue to function as the norm.

For example, I have heard story upon story of women and children encouraged and even ordered to stay with abusive husbands and fathers because that’s what “taking up your cross” is all about (Brock and Parker 2001, p. 22).3 When I lived in Dallas, a pastor well known for taking part in getting seminary professors fired for imagined doctrinal faux pas committed a few faux pas of his own. He was exposed for sexually abusing women in his large congregation. It had been going on for years, and the women were afraid to report him. Were they silent because of their community’s interpretation of the metaphors surrounding the cross event? Possibly. Feminist scholars claim that inappropriate relationships between a male minister and a female parishioner often imitate the relationship between a patriarchal God who demands recompense and the self-sacrificing Jesus, who takes the place of a sinful humanity. This language refers directly to interpretations of the cross that could very well serve as the motivation for allowing abuse to continue. The abuser plays the part of God, and the abused plays the part of Jesus. For instance, one woman, an incest victim, was taught in traditional atonement language that “you must sacrifice your own needs and wants, you mustn’t resist, mustn’t stand up for yourself, must serve God, mustn’t be your own person with your own ego” (Poling, 2006, pp. 53–54). This is spiritual terrorism and it runs rampant in our churches, in counseling sessions, in Bible studies, in books, and in sermons preached from the pulpit. We are encouraged to endure, to persevere, to rejoice and, therefore, unwittingly, to condone domestic and social abuses served up in the name of Jesus in imitation of his cross.

But the abuse of the cross to justify violence against others exceeds the boundaries of families and home-life, infecting behavior on social and national levels. This violence is often couched in theological terms surrounding the crucifixion and the name of Jesus. For instance, American history reveals that our violence contributed greatly to the building of the United States. White Americans benefited substantially from the stealing of Native American lands and the actions surrounding Manifest Destiny. These were all violent acts executed in the name of Christ, the mighty victor (Kirk-Duggan 2006, vii–viii). During the American Civil War, the Northern states used the language of divine vengeance, stating that they were God’s “terrible swift sword.” Southern states referred to themselves as being “baptized in blood”—a direct reference to the cross. The Ku Klux Klan often recruited its members from the clergy. They read Bibles and planted crosses in the ground to mark their violence against Blacks, Catholics, and Jews. In other words, not only do our atonement metaphors matter, they directly affect our behavior toward others. They motivate us to imitate the God behind these metaphors in ways that the God revealed in Jesus would never condone.

What can we do to turn the tide of violence justified by our own embodiment of cognitive linguistic interpretations? I argue that we need to focus on different metaphors and, therefore, change the way we see God. We start reading the biblical texts in ways that promote peace and that focus on the merciful, compassionate, loving, restorative character of God. We remember that the one who commands us to love our enemies is Jesus, the one who also most fully reveals the nature of God to us (Col 1:19). Instead of satisfaction and penal metaphors of the cross, which I believe are misinterpretations of the metaphors found in scripture—an argument for another time, we may need to shift our metaphors and focus on those that express restorative justice, that describe Jesus reconciling us to God “while we were still enemies” (Rom 5:10) that, as Sanders asserts, “emphasize relationality over rule-keeping” (Sanders 2016, p. 186). He states that “many of the New Testament metaphors for atonement entail deep relational ideas that should result in transformed lives and communities” (Sanders 2016, p. 186). Focusing on the relational metaphors lead communities to embody their salvation in practical ways and that positively (and nonviolently) affect the lives of those around them.

Scripture abounds with these relational metaphors that describe salvation. We see profound instances of relational redemption in the story of the forgiving father or in the relational union with God and others described by the writer of Ephesians (Luke 15:11–32; Eph 2:17–22). In like manner, we may want to focus on the language of forgiveness rather than punishment—Jesus never said anything about coming into the world to receive punishment for sin, but he did say quite a bit about forgiving it. In fact, according to 2 Cor 5:19, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (emphasis mine). In other words, God redeemed sin by forgiving it through Jesus Christ. This verse clearly provides us with powerful language of forgiveness that reaches beyond ourselves to those we encounter in daily life and experience. One more metaphor—although there are many. Perhaps we might dwell on language that illustrates Jesus liberating us from the power sin, gaining victory over death, instilling us with hope, and giving humanity the divine Spirit of grace and love (Matt 5:17; 1 Cor 15:55–57; 2 Cor 3:1–18). None of these metaphors we have examined that express God’s work in Christ to redeem humanity emphasizes, requires, or condones a violent God in need of payment or satisfaction in order to reconcile and restore us. Neither do they allow us to justify our own violent behavior in the name of God or Jesus or the cross. In fact, they may, perhaps, serve as a catalyst that motivates us to love one another; for that is how everyone else will know we are disciples of Christ (John 13:35). Indeed, John Sanders firmly believes that “the specific metaphors we employ can lead us to significantly different behaviors and policies” (Sanders 2016, p. 171). If, as he asserts, our metaphors arise from our embodiment in culture, then our metaphors have the potential to change how our bodies live within those cultures.

The pages of scripture resonate with metaphorical language of atonement that communicate redemption, love, and peace. If we can eliminate just one act of religious violence by refocusing our language and, therefore, eventually, our behavior toward others, it is worth the tough theological work. Maybe then we can fulfill God’s design for our lives, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given to us the ministry of reconciliation,” making us “ambassadors for Christ” and “a sweet smelling aroma of Christ in every place” (2 Cor 2:15; 5:18, 21).4


Bartlett, Anthony. 2008. Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.

Boyd, Gregory. 2017. Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker. 2008. Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker. 2001. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Cohen, Ethan and Joel Cohen. 1987. Raising Arizona. Circle Films.

Kaeuper, Richard W. 2009. Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kirk-Duggan, Cheryl A. 2006. Violence and Theology. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Housely, Norman. 2008. Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Mullally, Evelyn. 2002. The Deeds of the Normal in Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Poling, James N. 2006. “The Cross and Male Violence.” In Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today. Ed. Marit A. Trelstad. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Sanders, John 2016. Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think about Truth, Morality, and God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

  1. See also the magnificent recent work by Gregory Boyd (2017) that provides us with the hermeneutical tools to search for non-violent meaning in the violent texts of scripture.

  2. Brock and Parker remind their readers that in the tenth century, churches displayed life-sized images of the crucifixion intended to remind them of God’s judgment and wrath if they did not lay down their lives in battle just as Jesus laid his life down for them on the cross (2008, p. 258).

  3. This text comprises stories of women abused by those in power and who use metaphors of the cross to justify their violence and to keep women and children in bondage to it.

  4. In other works, I have argued intensely in favor of a nonviolent God based upon the life, death, teachings, and resurrection of Jesus who embodies the fullness of deity and who reveals the nature and character of God. Gregory Boyd beautifully expresses the significance of Jesus for knowing who God is and how God acts in history. He writes that he has come to believe “that Jesus revealed an agape-centered, other-oriented, self-sacrificial God who opposes violence and who commands his people to refrain from violence” (Boyd 2017, xxvii). The notion of a nonviolent God as revealed in Jesus strengthens and necessitates a reinterpretation of the scriptural metaphors surrounding not only the atonement, but the doctrine of God in general.

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    John Sanders


    Response to Baker Putt

    Does every metaphor about atonement help Christians live out the values and attitudes of Jesus? Sharon Baker Putt emphatically says they do not. In fact, she makes the case that the two most popular understandings of atonement in the Western Church, penal substitution and the satisfaction theories, have had deleterious consequences in many areas of life. She shows that Christians have rightfully wanted to imitate God in the ways they live but that they too often did so by imitating the violence of God inherent in these two atonement theories. She gives numerous examples, over many centuries, of Christians justifying violence because of their understanding of what God did to Jesus on the cross. They were simply behaving as they thought God did.

    Theology in the Flesh shows that both the satisfaction and penal substitution models use the moral accounting metaphor to understand what God did in Christ. This metaphor is extremely old in human history and occurs in many languages. It uses our experience of financial accounting to understand morality. When someone buys something from you they must pay an equivalent amount in order to balance the books. We often think of our experience of hospitality in accounting terms. For instance, after someone has had us over to dinner we are likely to say, “We owe them.” The basic idea of moral accounting is that if somebody does something good to you then you “owe” them something good in return and if somebody does harm to you then you owe them an equivalent harm in return.

    That said, I want to make some slight emendations to what Baker Putt says about the satisfaction and penal substitution views. First, she says twice that proponents of these models took these metaphors “too literally” and thus thought God is more interested in a legal balancing of the books instead of reconciliation. She is correct that proponents of the satisfaction and penal models focus on legal judgment rather than reconciliation, but I would not say the problem is that they took the metaphors literally. Rather, conceptual metaphors are used to reason about topics. We do this when we think of moral activities in terms of accounting or sin in terms of being a captive. A cognitive approach to metaphor means that the metaphors have logical inferences. The source domains of accounting and being a captive are “mapped” onto the target domains of morality and sin. The source domains provide the entailments for what we should do in these situations. The proponents of the satisfaction and penal models are not being too literal as opposed to being figurative. Rather, they are properly living out the inferences from the source domains.

    The real problem, as Baker Putt notes latter in her remarks, is that they selected the wrong metaphors to conceptualize the atonement. She says, “We need to focus on different metaphors and, therefore, change the way we see God.” Yes! In the book, I talk about how Christians’ disagreements over moral and theological issues are often the result of one group of Christians using a particular metaphor and the other group using a different one. Debates over which metaphors to use are not always easy to resolve. Cognitive linguistics is helpful in elucidating why people disagree but conceptual metaphor theory does not determine which metaphor is the right one. The decision about which metaphors about God or salvation are the best for a particular time and place is the product of ongoing Christian conversations over the centuries. Simply put, we have to dialogue and make a case for why some metaphors should be favored over others. This is precisely what Baker Putt does in this contribution and also in her other writings.

    Baker Putt rightly sees a problem in the penal theory when she says, “God forgives freely; yet, at the same time, God demands a substitute to take away the debt, compromising the nature of forgiveness as complete pardon.” In Theology in the Flesh (pp. 194-195), I discuss this issue in light of the moral accounting metaphor. When the moral books show that your failures outstrip your obedience to God then you must pay for your sins. It is claimed that if we allowed wrongdoers to go unpunished then the moral order would be undermined and society would collapse. In the same way, God cannot allow sinners to get away with it. No, they must be punished to pay for their sins and learn the fear of God so they don’t disobey again. If God did not punish then God would be considered an unjust ruler.

    At this point in the satisfaction and penal stories a bit of good news occurs. Jesus takes our place by paying our debt or receiving the punishment due us. Proponents of these views of atonement often describe this as divine “forgiveness” but this is mistaken since nobody is actually forgiven. Rather, as philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff (2011) correctly notes, it is “vicarious punishment.” God does not forgive since God punishes Jesus to satisfy the heavenly books and pay for our sins. God exacts the full punishment due for breaking God’s commandments. Wolterstorff notes that Jesus, Paul, and Peter flatly reject the negative side of moral accounting in which you are to repay an equal harm when someone harms you. Jesus says to not return evil for evil (Matt 5:38-41). Wolterstorff suggest that the “reciprocity code” runs so deep in human thinking that even Jesus and the apostles could not persuade Christians to set it aside so it manifests itself in our ethics and models of atonement.

    If Christians want to talk about forgiveness, restorative justice, and reconciliation instead of punishment, retributive justice, and balancing the books, then they need to use different metaphors for sin and salvation. What I call the Authoritative God demands respect and obedience to the divine rules as the condition for acceptance. On the other hand, the Nurturant or Benevolent God lavishes love, acceptance, and forgiveness first and uses these to motivate and empower us to change the way we live. These different understandings of God entail competing sets of values which are manifested in the different views of atonement. A number of New Testament metaphors for salvation are discussed in the book, such as liberation from captivity, being lost and found, reconciliation, and becoming friends with God, to name but a few. Christian communities need to recover these rich metaphors of salvation in order to have a better understanding of God and healthier relations with others.


    Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 2011. Justice in Love. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.



Anthropogenic Theology

I didn’t know what to expect when I was asked to participate in this forum about John Sanders’s Theology in the Flesh (Sanders 2016), but I knew I needed to become more aware of cognitive linguistics, I wanted to read more from Sanders because I have found him in the past to be courageous and informed, and so I was unprepared for the delight the book brought. Theology in the Flesh is both an introduction to cognitive linguistics—and so far as I know a very good introduction—and an exploration of its significance for a variety of theological topics, not the least of which explored are God, atonement and scriptural interpretation. Sanders has a foot in two streams: in the stream of academic cognitive linguistics and mostly evangelical theological interests. The frisson is palpable at times and more than fun.

Cognitive Linguistics

I begin by bringing to the surface some of Sanders’s understanding of cognitive linguistics. What Sanders and others think is that “cognitive linguistics is a game changer for the way religious believers construct theological meaning” (Sanders 2016, p. 4). But what is it? “Understanding language entails comprehension of how both writer and reader are thinking, and the thoughts of both are shaped by human embodiment and cultural communities because human thinking is deeply dependent upon both the particular types of bodies humans have and the specific cultural communities we inhabit” (4–5). Again, “Humans are embodied beings and the particular kind of body we have, with our specific sensory and motor systems, constrains our cognitive abilities” (6). But all this leads to a full display of the heart of Sanders’s proposals, and at the heart are these five claims: “Human cognition is dependent upon embodied human experience. All human understanding is perspectival. Meaning is encyclopedic. Linguistic meaning is grounded in usage and experience. Linguistic meaning is flexible and dynamic” (19–20). In one crisp sentence we get this: “Human knowing is situated embodied knowing” (23). The implication is potent: “Thus, all human embodied knowing is and can be no other than ‘anthropogenic’” (23). That conclusion and term “anthropogenic” may not be a game changer but it is a necessity, both to admit and to bring into play at all times.

Words on a page, that is words when I read Paul’s letter to Philemon or Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, are not isolable from their authors or the person whom an author (in the case of Jesus) may be more or less quoting. What are words on a page? As mind-to-mind, or better yet person-to-person, communication units words “serve as points of access or prompts to incredible stores of knowledge. Words do not come with fully stipulated prepackaged meanings” (25). This is vital to understanding what the Bible is. It cannot be said often enough. Language, words, texts, and the like are communications between minds, not simply a text with a mind/reader. Thus, “language is fundamentally about meaning between persons” (188). It makes a big difference when the Bible is seen as one author—a human-divine author mind you—communicating with a reader in a community or even a reader alone, than if it is taken as a TEXT communicating with a READER.

Objective Truth

John Sanders makes—and I don’t know the subject well enough to know if it is distinct to him—a contribution (at least to me) when he turns to objective truth—especially what happens to objective truth when it moves into the realm of cognitive linguistics. There are, as is well known, three major theories of truth: truth as correspondence (to reality), coherence (with reality) and truth as pragmatics. Sanders is persuaded that cognitive linguistics makes a singular contribution to whether or not we can know truth objectively, and he here shifts out of the realism vs. non-realism gambit. Sanders accepts “objective truth,” but explains how cognitive linguistics alters the way that both terms are determined, since they are often overdetermined (by well-meaning fundamentalists, some of whom won’t listen) or underdetermined (by well-meaning postmoderns, some of whom are cynical). He says, “Given our embodied cognitive abilities, humans are predisposed to experience entities in some specific ways rather than others” (88). That is, “The sky is blue for us, given our species-specific perceptual capacities” (89). Some will raise the red flag or warn of the slippery slope, but Sanders will have none of that: “this does not mean that all human concepts are arbitrary social constructions” (89). We are embodied knowers and bodies impact our knowing. That means, truth, “like meaning, is related to understanding and human understanding is embodied. In other words, truth, for humans, depends upon the way we understand our world through our embodied experiences, which includes both our sensorimotor capacities as well as culture” (95). Again, “Cognitive linguists believe there is truth as correspondence to reality, but it is truth according to our embodied sensory and cognitive capacities. It is a species-specific understanding of reality” (97). Here he says it in the best way possible: “Humans have objective truth, for some things, so long as by ‘objective’, we mean the way things appear in relation to our normally operating species-specific cognitive abilities” (97). Can I know you, can I know someone you tell me about, can I know a person described in a book, can I know Jesus—and know these persons objectively? Yes, so far as I am an embodied knower know other embodied persons. He offers a form of chastened, critical but hopeful realism.

In a recent discussion in theological circles the apocalyptic Paul folks have made larger claims for how we know—only through apocalypse—and in making such claims they have argued that something like N. T. Wright’s method of knowing through history cannot render results that are right for knowledge of God. That is, one cannot study history and conclude something about God. One can only experience the revelation of God to know God, and once one knows that revelation one can know everything else. One wonders from reading Theology in the Flesh if apocalyptic epistemology has not denied the reality of embodied knowing (see Adams 2015). As Sanders puts it, “Thus, objective truth always refers to the way humans understand a situation” (97). Here one transcends in some ways critical realism but knows the limits of human knowing because of embodiment.

To be sure, we are not God and God does not know as we know. “Hence, God’s way of understanding is non-anthropogenic” (98). The issue is not what God knows or how God knows—who can know that but God? But in our Christian faith we make claims that God has spoken to us—in word and in flesh and in Spirit and that God continues to speak to us. How then does God do this? Cognitive linguistics advances the discussion; in the words of Sanders, “But if God is to communicate with us, what is God to do? God will have to communicate by thinking like a human and utilize particular cultural forms of meaning” (98). Which diminishes the confidence of the apocalyptic knower and keeps the historian humble. Which is to say, Sanders very often keeps us aware that embodied situated knowing has its limits, some of them severe: “The emphasis in cognitive linguistics on embodiment and culture leads to the conclusion that the quest for timeless and culture-free truth is a dead end for humans” (7–8).

One of the more fascinating discussions in this book, and one senses Sanders could easily have made this three volumes, is about “categories.” I often hear people wistfully wish for a non-categorized world: no evangelical vs. liberal/progressive, no Calvinist vs. Arminian, no male vs. female, and no African American vs. White American. Ah, Sanders observes, that world does not exist for embodied situated knowers. As he explains, “Humans need order to live meaningfully, and placing objects and experiences into categories is one important way of achieving this goal” (27). To be sure, categories have been abused, especially in the Western tradition: “Since the time of Socrates, Western thought has generally thought of categories as containers with clearly shaped boundaries, so we know what is inside and what is outside” (27). Most importantly, as one can hear on any blog or any discussion of who is and who is not an evangelical, “membership in a category is all-or-nothing . . . degrees of membership are not allowed . . .” (28).

But cognitive linguistics throws dust into the eyes of such neatness even if watchdogs will not listen. Most importantly, when it comes to categories there is a further specification that leads both to a reshaped way of thinking about ideas and morals: “humans normally categorize by means of a ‘prototype,’ a mental concept of exemplars that best represent instances of a category rather than by means of the necessary conditions of the classical theory” (30–31). In my field of New Testament studies, when we talk about various approaches to Jesus or to Paul we think of major proponents and let them speak for a class of other scholars: Dom Crossan on Jesus, Beverly Gaventa on the apocalyptic Paul, Jimmy Dunn on the new perspective, and Stephen Westerholm on the old or Reformation perspective. In a recent attempt to map such trends in Paul, I asked a few authors I know if the synthesis described them and they said “no.” If one wants to describe the new perspective then, describe solo scholars, use the prototype alone: E. P. Sanders, J. D. G. Dunn or N. T. Wright, but don’t try to combine them into a synthesis. Why? Because we think in terms of prototypical categories. Sanders, John that is, observes, “Of importance to education is that people learn a category more easily and accurately if they are initially exposed to only the most representative exemplars of the category” (32). Of course, one scholar is not the whole and so cognitive linguists think in terms of radiation: “The term ‘radial’ is commonly used by cognitive linguists to denote the idea that category membership radiates outward from the center or prototypical members” (32).

But this leads to categories, which leads to prototypes, which leads to moral exemplars, which leads to the stubborn exaltation of such exemplars in The Gospel Coalition, Missio Alliance or charismatics. That is, the exemplars for TGC are John Piper, Tim Keller, and D. A. Carson. They can do no wrong among their crowds for that would destroy them as exemplars. Among Missio Alliance, I think of my colleague David Fitch, and when it comes to charismatics their heroes seem to be Gordon Fee and Craig Keener. In quoting a study, Sanders says, “The authors argue that moral exemplars carry special salience as the center of a category and because communities encourage members to imitate the exemplars. Communities identify genuine human flourishing by highlighting paragons who show how to live morally and virtuously in the decisions they make and the ways they relate to others” (159). Cognitive linguists, so I am arguing, provide for us an explanation for why it is that some people are exalted to such a level and why anyone who does not fit the paragon exemplar status is either silenced or somehow demonized and scapegoated.

Theology in the Flesh, however, is a book mostly about how cognitive linguists give us a refined angle on metaphors. When I wrote A Community Called Atonement (McKnight 2007), I explored the various metaphors about the atonement. One of my reviewers was stuck on the idea that there has to be a “central” metaphor. In the book I used the image of a golf bag into which we place golf clubs, with the clubs being the various atonement metaphors and the bag being a big enough category to contain all the metaphors. I settled on “incorporation through identification,” but I will let John Sanders turn it into a Lakoffian uppercase metaphor. My reviewer was settled in his mind on a prototypical metaphor that gave perspective to all the others. So he said that in playing golf eventually everyone uses the putter for every hole. To which I said “sometimes one knocks the ball in the hole before getting to the green where one uses the putter.” Not surprisingly, this didn’t get us anywhere. He was stuck, as I see it now, on the powerful usefulness of a prototypical metaphor, while I was working toward the abstraction of a more comprehensive set of terms.

What I most like about Sanders’s discussion of metaphor is that it is a cognitive tool and not simply an illustration or “just” a metaphor. Thus, “a conceptual metaphor is when we understand or experience one thing in terms of another—concept A is understood in terms of concept B” (49). We think about fundamental religious realities with metaphors and the metaphor is a window (speaking of which) onto the “target domain” (say, God) but the metaphor sheds light on God because through its words it prompts our thoughts about God. Hence, in the Bible there are two dominant domains about God—Father and King—but “since different sources highlight different features in the target domain, it is not surprising, for instance, that biblical writers employ so many different metaphors for God. No single metaphor captures all of ways humans understand God” (59). Thus, there is no single metaphor for God; when one succumbs to such a singular method of knowing, God is diminished because our knowing is diminished.

All of this, I think, leads Sanders into his most important discussion about how we treat the Bible. If it is a TEXT and we are READERS, then we miss out on what the cognitive linguists teachs us: texts are not just words on a page. They are words from one mind to another, or from one person to another. Hence, “this means that the notion that all the meaning resides in the text is false” (40). Instead, “grammar and words prompt for the construction of meaning, but meaning is not simply the sum of the parts of speech” (118). A text is an iceberg and below the surface there is far more than is above the surface, and cognitive linguists not only teach us this but tell us that ultimately what lies below the surface and above the surface is a human being seeking to communicate. He’s right in this, too: “This understanding of the nature of meaning contrasts strongly to a prominent approach in American evangelical theology, which circumscribes meaning to texts rather than minds, embraces an autonomous rather than encyclopedic view, and tends to discount the role of cultural framing” (118). He mentions a former teacher of mine, David Wells, as well as two of my former colleagues, Walter Kaiser and Wayne Grudem. All could benefit from John Sanders, even if they regard him, and he them, as not so prototypical!

Sanders knows the limits of metaphors, but I want to draw our attention to one I don’t think he brings into the discussion and which would turn this discussion in some other directions—namely, slavery. We are all aware that slavery has a history, that New World slavery is not the same as Roman empire slavery, though it is not as different as some would like to believe. We are aware, and more need to be more forthcoming about this if they want to see the Bible for what it is as embodied situated knowing, that the Bible does not go as far as we would like on abolition. That is not the problem I want to focus on here. The problem is the use of slavery as a metaphor. I shall try out a Lakoffianism: THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS SLAVERY. What does it mean to us today to use the metaphor of slavery for the Christian life? Consider these passages:

  • Gal 1:10: Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
  • 1 Cor 9:19: Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.
  • 2 Cor 4:5: For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.
  • Rom 6:16–17: Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.
  • Rom 6:19–20: I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.
  • Rom 12:11: Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
  • Rom 14:18: because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

We can unpack this as follows: to call ourselves slaves/servants of Christ is to affirm the Lordship of Christ, our surrender to him as Lord, his redemption of us, and our summons to serve Christ in life. We could say it expresses the glory of being in relation to the Lord Jesus. In the Bible to be called a “servant of God” is a complement.

For the African American in the United States today, who knows New World slavery, who knows the aftermath of the Civil War, who knows Jim Crow laws, and who knows the insoluble and intractable implications of racism and slavery in the United States that manifest themselves every day on every street of our major cities and elsewhere, what does it mean to say that being a “slave” of Christ is a complement? Better yet, can it even be understood as such a complement? No, it can’t be apart from the training of the mind not to do what embodied situated knowing is all about. Metaphors can become obsolete but when they are in the Bible the African American reader becomes truculent with the Bible itself. Rightly so.

Embodied situated knowing is a reality, and so is the legacy of some metaphors. Every reading of such metaphors for the African American and I hope increasingly for white Americans ought to be a history lesson in the power of words and their legacy. Redemption comes but it may mean talking back. All theology is anthropogenic and it would be much better if the anthropos—the human—had a nobler history. Perhaps what Theology in the Flesh will do for many of us will be to remind us of the potency of metaphors and the need for the redemption of some of them.


Adams, Samuel V. 2015. The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. Wright. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

McKnight, Scot. 2007. A Community Called Atonement. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Sanders, John. 2016. Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think about Truth, Morality, and God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

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    John Sanders


    Response to Scot McKnight

    Scot McKnight refers to the “Apocalyptic Paul folks” who claim that we can know God only through divine disclosure, not via human understanding. This sounds good until one considers how human cognition works. We do not circumvent our human mental tools when the topic is God. There is no special part of the brain used to think about God. Rather, we employ the only cognitive tools we have at our disposal such as metonymy, metaphor, prototypes, and image schemas. Any disclosure by God to us has to be in ways we can understand which means using our situated embodied cognitive apparatus. The revelation of God to our species will use concepts our species can understand. This must take into account not only the general mental tools available to humans but the particular languages and cultures that use the tools to produce specific concepts which can vary considerably from language to language.

    The approach advocated by the Apocalyptic Paul folks seems to be that one must first accept that X is a disclosure from God and then the meaning is self-explanatory. This ignores that even common statements such as “this is a revelation from God” or “God loves you” are not self-interpreting. There are many different understandings of what “God” is like and English has at least a half dozen ways to conceive of “love.” It is false to believe you have no understanding of what “God” or “loves” mean until God addresses you. If God says “I love you” you already had to have had some notion of divinity and an understanding of love as well as a concept of a self. To say we have no idea of God before God addresses us is a nonstarter. The human mind is not a theological blank slate until God comes along and writes on it. Rather, God has to work with our already existing concepts. Those who claim we must begin theology from “above” by taking God’s point of view instead of from “below” using history (as N. T. Wright does), fail to understand that humans have to use our species-specific cognitive apparatus to understand anything, including God. There is no escape to some ethereal nonhuman conceptualization. Cognitive linguistics helps us see more fully what is involved when historians seek to understand what ancient people had in mind.

    Related to this is the claim by the approach known as “analytic theology” that the goal of theology is to “see the truth as God sees it” in a perfectly objective way so that we arrive at eternal truths that are independent of human linguistic and cultural thought forms (See Crisp and Rea 2009). In Theology in the Flesh I include a section critiquing these ideas. Human knowing is species specific in that it is dependent upon our distinctly embodied cognitive equipment and inescapably situated in particular languages and cultures. The very notions of “seeing” the truth and having “perspectives” are human concepts derived from the sorts of bodies we have. Humans do not have access to God’s own cognitive processes. Instead, God communicates to us by means of human conceptual tools because this is the only means of comprehension we have.

    The other main topic that McKnight raises is metaphor, which is one of our important mental tools. Much of the book explains and applies an approach known as conceptual metaphor theory. Here I want to reiterate a few points about how metaphor functions and then comment on what to do when Christian communities find specific biblical metaphors objectionable.

    Some people suggest that there is a clear formulation of the gospel such that all who encounter God’s disclosure understand it the same way. The problem is that there are multiple images and metaphors for the gospel in the New Testament itself and Christians have always used a variety of metaphors for understanding Jesus’ atonement. On a very general level Christians agree that Jesus is the savior but there is incredible diversity when it comes to understanding what sin is and what salvation amounts to. Here are a few of the ways biblical writers construe sin and salvation. Sin is understood as a slave master and salvation as ransom from slavery. Sin is conceived as breaking friendship with God which corresponds to salvation being the restoration of the friendship. Sin is thought of as being dead which entails that salvation is restoration to life. Sin is being sick so salvation is being healed by the physician. Sin is not having citizen status so salvation is becoming a citizen. Sin is being lost so salvation is being found. Sin can be understood in many different ways so biblical writers drew from a wide variety of source domains to get at the different aspects of sin. Each way of understanding sin entails a different way of conceiving salvation. The human experience of sin and salvation is multifaceted which is why no single metaphor says everything about the topic we want to say. In one of his books McKnight conceives of different ideas of salvation and atonement as a set of golf clubs and says just as a golfer would never think of using just one club for every situation on a golf course so we should not limit ourselves to one metaphor for atonement.

    Also, note that some of the metaphors are so different in their logical inferences that they cannot be combined into a single concept. For example, sin as being dead has a vastly different framework than sin as breaking friendship and different yet from being enslaved. We need multiple metaphors and need not seek to subsume the diverse metaphors under a single metaphor. Though I appreciate much of N. T. Wright’s work, I suggest that his attempt to find a central metaphor of atonement that includes and makes sense of all the other metaphors is likely impossible given the different entailments of the various metaphors. Instead, we should use different metaphors for various kinds of people in diverse situations. We might have a favorite golf club and use it more than others but one club does not include or explain all the others.

    McKnight raises an important issue regarding whether or not some biblical metaphors are appropriate in our historical context. He investigates the metaphors Christians are slaves and God is a slave owner. In Roman society, a slave sometimes held a higher social status than a free person depending upon the status of the slave owner. The inference is that if God owns you then you have an incredibly high social status. Slavery was ubiquitous in Roman society so the metaphors were understandable and perhaps not even jarring to their sensibilities. Modern Christians find it appropriate to construe sin as slavery and salvation as release from slavery. But what about texts such as 1 Cor 6:20 which says “you were bought with a price,” meaning that God purchased me as a slave and I am not a free person? As a white American I tend to read this verse and not catch its meaning because I find it difficult to imagine myself as a slave. But should Americans use this metaphor today given our history of racial slavery? McKnight notes that African Americans rightfully balk at this.

    The issue is similar to the questions about what to do with biblical texts depicting God as condoning genocide or as committing sexual abuse on Israel. A section of my book addresses how Christians have always found principled ways to revise or even reject specific biblical teachings. The metaphor of God as slave owner is a poignant example of how Christian communities have to negotiate what is transformative and what is objectionable in the Bible.

    The notion of any biblical critique is anathema to many evangelicals who claim that whatever the Bible says we must affirm, end of discussion. Some postliberals say the biblical narratives must shape the way we think instead of allowing extrabiblical ideas to guide us. Both groups believe it is a one-way street from the Bible to us and ignore what was said above about divine accommodation in scripture—that God has to make use of human languages which have inherent cultural values embedded in them.

    For those who value the Bible as a means of grace to transform our lives it is difficult, on the one hand, to allow the biblical narratives to shape our lives and, on the other hand, to raise questions about a specific biblical teaching. The approach I take in the book is that there must be a dialogue between the people who wrote the Bible and modern Christian communities. The narratives of the Bible are to shape the vision of the contemporary community while that community takes seriously the idea that biblical teachings are inescapably enmeshed in human languages and cultures which took particular values and beliefs for granted. It is a conversation, not a one-way street as some claim. Though it seems plausible to say we must begin with God’s values instead of our own values, such an approach presumes a blank slate understanding of human cognition. Actually, it is a two-way street since Christian communities (including fundamentalist ones) have always negotiated how they accepted biblical themes while they simultaneously set aside particular biblical teaching such as selling your children into slavery. Naturally, some will protest that this is “picking and choosing” what is correct in the Bible. My response is that of course it is and responsible Christians, Augustine, for example, have always formulated principled ways to follow biblical teaching while also revising or setting aside specific teachings.


    Crisp, Oliver, and Michael Rea, eds. 2009. Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.