Fallacies and Questions Surrounding Redemptive Analogy

The following are some thoughts that I have with regards to Redemptive Analogies. Redemptive Analogies have been popularized by Don Richardson through “Peace Child,” “Eternity in Their Hearts” and more. However, Redemptive Analogies have always been with us. In fact, the Bible is full of them. A few would include:

Isa (Jesus) bringing down heavenly food for hi...
Isa (Jesus) bringing down heavenly food for his disciples (Quran 5:111-115) John, ch. 6) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Redeemed (slave auction)
  • Ransomed (kidnapping)
  • Adopted (Roman adoption)
  • Justified (courtroom)

Don Richardson brought back the idea that analogies need to be updated and contextualized to be effective. Below are a few thoughts on what I consider to be errors or issues with the idea of Redemptive Analogies.

  1. Redemptive Analogies are created by God. I won’t call this a fallacy, but it is certainly a question. It has been suggested by Don Richardson and others that God creates redemptive analogies and we must discover them. Is that true? Possibly, but it is hard to tell. In some cases, such as the story of the Incan Emperor Pachacuti and the god Viracocha, or the Karen people and the great book, it sounds as if God had stepped into the culture to crack the door open to Christian witness. We do need to be reminded at times that God is at work in all times and all places, and not only in and through Christians and the Church. But to assume that this happens in every culture seems doubtful (to me at least). In general, redemptive analogies are created not disovered, I believe.
  2. Some Cultures do not have redemptive analogies. This is a bit opposite of the first point. For example, Don Richardson, being interviewed by Dick Staub for Christianity Today (February 2003), claims that he has “fully studied the Quran” and found that there are no redemptive analogies in Islam. The reason is that every concept with a Christian connection (heaven, salvation, Jesus) has been distorted. I believe this is a flawed view. The first and obvious problem is that to have studied the Quran (the primary of the two uniquely Islamic holy books) is in no way saying you have studied various Islamic and Islam-influenced cultures. Redemptive analogies are culture-related more than book-related. However, I believe the main problem is a basic misunderstanding of what a redemptive analogy is. A redemptive analogy is a symbol. In semiotics (study of symbols) there are three components, the sign vehicle, the sense, and the referent. Rather than dealing directly with that, let’s simplify that to the idea of a redemptive analogy:

To say that there is no redemptive analogy is to say that there is no story or symbol that exists or can be imagined that could help a person in Culture A to grasp the divine truth of redemption. Our commonality as humans (hope for the future, a desire for the truth and the divine, a need for relationship and love, recognition of our failure for perfection, and our own frailty) pretty much guarantees that there are things in our individual and societal experiences that are resonant with divine truth.

  1. Redemptive Analogies have to be perfect to be beneficial. This is not normally said, but does appear to be commonly felt. So it must be emphasized that ALL ANALOGIES BREAK DOWN AT SOME LEVEL. Analogies help us to bridge the concrete and the abstract, the human and the divine. Take the most well-known extrabilical redemptive analogy… the Peace Child. The peace child was human, not divine. The peace child was not permanent but was limited to the lifespan of the peace child. While Jesus was killed by the people He was given to (and thus made the sacrifice complete), the peace child must not be killed by the recipient to complete the peace. Clearly, this redemptive analogy has limitations. One of the most well-known redemptive analogies in the Bible is Jesus as the ransom for sinners (Mark 10:45). Yet the idea of a ransom implies a literal kidnapper. But who would that kidnapper be? Is it God, is it Satan, is it someone else? Or are we trying to take an analogy too far? Those who feel that certain cultures do not have redemptive analogies believe (in my opinion) that they must find a perfect analogy. Perfect analogies simply do not exist… in any culture.

4. Redemptive Analogies leads to syncretism or relativism. This assumes that redemptive analogies must involve a moral judgment about the culture. For example, Hinduism has the concept of Moksha. Moksha refers to the release from the suffering involved in living in this world. To use the concept of Moksha to help Hindus understand the Christian concept of redemption does not mean that we are accepting the full understanding of Moksha (as it is tied to reincarnation, for example). Likewise, Taoism seeks harmony between the divine, humanity, and nature. Linking that to grand narrative of the Bible (with harmony between God, Man, and Creation in Genesis 1 and a restoration of that harmony, through Christ, in Revelation 21) in no way necessitates a pluralistic relativism of belief. Clearly, poorly explained analogies can lead to confusion. For example linking Jesus in some way to the concept of the “avatar” can be enlightening or misleading depending on how it is used. But let’s face it, propositional doctrine is just about as prone  to distortion and confusion if there is inadequate commentary/explanation. I believe Christian missions is enhanced by the use of redemptive analogies, storying, and parables. However, a misunderstanding of their characters and limitations can take something useful and destroy it or discount it. <Note: This is part of my book, “Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture“.>

Redemptive Analogy

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Don Richardson has done a lot of work with Redemptive Analogies, in Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts (among other places). Redemptive Analogies are important in faith, but are also problematic.

Consider some of the redemptive analogies in the Bible. This is not a complete list.

1.  The Vine. Those who are part of God are joined to Christ as a branch is part of, and dependent, on the main vine.

2.  The Two Ways. People are on a path. Either they are on the narrow path to life, or on the wide path to death.

3.  Redemption. We are as slaves who are up for sale to the highest bidder. We are bought by God.

4.  Justified. We are on trial… clearly guilty on all charges, but God declares us innocent on all charges because of Jesus.

5.  Ransomed. We are like one who is kidnapped, but Christ has paid the ransom for us.

6.  Saved. We are like people in a dangerous place about to die, but we are rescued from certain death by Christ.

There are newer analogies. The most well-known one is probably the Bridge Illustration. We are on one side of a deep deep ravine while God is on the other side. Only through Jesus, the bridge, can we be united with God.

There are a few dangers with redemptive analogies.

A.  Analogies always break down at some level. For example, if we see ourselves as ransomed or redeemed, the questions are Who was our kidnapper? or Who was our owner. With the two ways/two gates analogy, one can get the impression that to go from one path to another would be impossible (since real paths diverge). Taking an analogy too far can easily lead to error.

B.  Related to “A”, there is a tendency to theologize analogies. Therefore, terms like justification and redemption lose the idea of being an analogy and become terms of propositional truth.

C.  Related to “B”, analogies require commentary. It is dangerous to give an analogy without explanation. Without commentary, analogies are as likely to lead to confusion as much as enlightenment.

D.  Related to “C”, it is not always clear to the extent that an analogy is useful. In Biblical times, the Christ as the Good Shepherd is useful. However, in the Philippines, very few tupa (sheep) are raised so the reference is quite obscure. In the US and Australia, sheep are raised in ways that are very different than in Biblical times. When too much time is spent trying to explain the usefulness of an analogy, it may not be useful. Biblical analogies of Jacob versus Esau or Isaac versus Ishmael requires such high level of understanding of the Biblical history, it is doubtful that it would today be useful for many.

E.  Related to “D”, analogies that may be useful for one group and one time may be useless in another. Jewish believers in Biblical times would understand the Isaac versus Ishmael. However, most people today would not understand. Muslims could be deeply confused because their belief system is built around a revisionist historical view that gives preeminence to Ishmael. Many others today would might confuse the story with a sort of divine racism (problem of taking an analogy way too far). Bruce Olson in the book Bruschko, gives another example. He pointed out that the analogy/ parable given by Jesus about the wise man (building on a solid rock) and the foolish man (building on sand) would not be useful in some places. In the tribal group Olson worked with, they built using bamboo technology. For them building on rock would ensure instability while driving their bamboo frames into deep sand would provide stability.

Analogies are useful (or useless or counterproductive) depending on the culture of the respondent. Redemptive analogies are important, but they must be chosen wisely, carefully explained, and cautiously used.

<Note: This is part of my book, “Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture>