27 March 2012

Delight and de danger of de metaphor (from 2006)

by Dan Phillips
Last Sunday I had the pleasure of preaching The Church's Call — Big Picture, primarily drawing from Ephesians 3. In the course of that sermon, we looked at the fact that the church is an organism, but it is an organized organism, giving attention to the fact that it's a danger to excise one aspect of truth from the Bible and develop it at length without reference to other controlling truths. In my mind, I was thinking of this post, from almost exactly six years ago. A lot has changed; a lot hasn't.
Thank God that the Bible as a whole doesn't read like a legal document or — worse — anything written by any department of any branch of any government. Whereas legaloids, bureaucrats and eggheads tend to generate documents addressed mostly to themselves and the rarefied atmosphere of their peers, the Bible is addressed to craftsmen, tradesmen, farmers, parents, kids. Folks like us.

For that reason the Bible bristles with vibrantly colorful ways of communication, including stories, riddles, poems, aphorisms, personal letters, alliterations, similes and metaphors. We pretty instinctively know what a metaphor does: it illustrates something about something. It doesn't illustrate everything about anything. We shouldn't go nuts with it.

So when we read that Yahweh is our Shepherd (Psalm 23:1), we're usually smart enough to let the psalm itself bring out the implications of that word picture. We don't go nuts, and depict God as wandering around in the desert, carrying a literal stick, picking grit out of His stew and being bitten by bugs. That's leagues beyond, and beside, the point of the metaphor.

On the other hand, of course we don't sniff, "Well, of course, He isn't literally a shepherd," and then simply ignore the point of the psalm. The metaphor is used for a purpose, and we're both fools and the poorer for it if we evade that purpose.

We should similarly avoid going to either extreme when it comes to Biblical metaphors applied to believers. There are many of them.

Take the one I think is most misunderstood: disciple. What does that word itself mean? Ask any church gathering and, assuming that you know the answer, you'll be a bit disheartened. "Follower?" the first brave soul will venture. "Apostle?" "Believer?" "Disciplined, uh, person?"

They'll all mean well, and they'll all probably be wrong, because disciple has just become one of those words we use without definition. In Greek, it's quite unambigous. Mathetes is related to the verb manthano, which means "I learn," and it simply means "a learner," "a pupil," "a student." (See how much better sense that understanding makes of Matthew 28:18-20, and John 8:31-32.)

It's a neglected and much-needed metaphor, in my view. How many professed Christians come to church, Sunday after Sunday, mentally and physically prepared to do everything but learn? No pen, no pencil; no laptop, parchment, crayon, stub of coal. More often than I can bear to think, no Bible. They simply come to watch, to observe, perhaps to sing, hopefully to be entertained to some degree -- but not to participate, not to catch what they hear, tie it up, make it their own, and do something with it. They feel that their mere bodily presence fulfills all requirements.

Pastor, next Sunday, surprise your congregation with a pop-quiz on last Sunday's sermon. (No; on second thought, better not.)

So we'd move on a good bit towards the reality of Hebrews 5:11-14 if we stressed that image, that picture, that metaphor, more insistently. But it is not the only metaphor! Is the only goal of a church's function to fill up notebooks, or load heads with facts? Is a pastor doing his job if he develops a vocabulary that only his special students can understand, and develops the atmosphere of a college classroom?

Not at all. The Bible also pictures the church under the metaphors of a body (1 Corinthians 12:12), a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5), a temple (Ephesians 2:2), a new man (Ephesians 2:15), a priesthood (1 Peter 2:5), and a family (Galatians 6:10) -- among others.

But no one of these metaphors captures the whole. I knew a pastor who "camped out" on the family metaphor, almost exclusively. Church was at 10:00am, but folks always straggled in later and later. Rather than trying to address the lack of respect or discipline, he just said, "It's a family," and moved the service to 10:30. What happened? You guessed it. They adjusted their straggle-in time to 10:45, 10:50. and the service started at 11:00. Babies were allowed to wander all over the floor, right up to the pulpit. Kids ran around. Few brought Bibles; but the ladies did bring knitting.

Maybe it resembled some families... but it didn't do much for the other Biblical metaphors.

In sum: the Bible is a big book, on purpose. In crafting our view of anything, we should take in the whole range of revelation, and not just isolate the bit that strikes us at the moment.

Dan Phillips's signature

6 comments:

Kronstadt said...

Here are my honest thoughts on the subject. Christianity is a convoluted mess. Your average christian has been to numerous churches that all teach something different while all using the same book as their authority.That is part of the problem. I mean why take notes when next year you find out the guy down the road teaches better and interprets differently. I mean where do you start? Of course you will say the bible, which means your version of what the bible says.
Here is the meat of my point based off of knowing your reformed/calvinist point of view. I'm a simple person, My wife and I have been told by different people our eldest son (12) should learn a trade because he is slow and will never make it in college or any kind of higher education. One person at Bob Jones University used the descriptive word "numb". Guess what, he is just like his dad. I have always had to work twice as hard as the next person and things come difficult for me, its all good though.
We spent ten years at a reformed/calvinist church and loved how serious your version is about the faith. In those ten years my wife and myself tried taking notes, but you guys teach at such a high level we always left scratching our heads. You see, i come from a family of simple people, no educations for none of us but we love God more than anything. Why do you have to make Christianity so hard to understand? I dont recall Christ doing that. Your version of the faith is UN-intentionally only for the elite (in a positive sense, i have no problem with the elite). Argue it all you want , throw all the bible verses around you want, its true. I threw myself head over heels into your kind of Christianity and saturated myself in it. I know your kind well, and i think its great for the most part. Your greatest failure though as a christian sect is that you leave stupid people behind and make it just so darn hard to grasp.
Now you can go back to arguing, judging and debating the finer points of theology as you view them.

Halcyon said...

Kronstadt:

(1) I'm glad that you and your family love God, that you understand your son, and that you have a strong work ethic and desire to succeed.

(2) It is true that "Calvinist" circles (esp. Presbyterians like myself) can be a bit too eggheaded and abstract.

(3) Having said all that, what on earth does anything that you're saying have to do with Mr. Phillip's post? His very first paragraph made much of the fact that the Bible is not written by or for eggheads.

Phil Johnson said...

Kronstadt:

Thanks for the reminder that the gospel is simple. You are exactly right about that:

"For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

On the other hand, the truth of Scripture is unfathomably profound--and rich enough that we could learn from it for all eternity and not exhaust its truth. The sheer simplicity of the gospel doesn't negate our duty to be disciples (Greek mathetes--"learners").

We don't want to frustrate anyone who is struggling to understand. But we do want to challenge ALL of our readers to learn and grow and think more precisely and a little more deeply about biblical truth. Do that at your own pace, but don't succumb to the temptation to dismiss the importance of doctrinal soundness, wisdom, and understanding altogether. We mustn't become "dull of hearing" (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Sir Aaron said...

Kronstadt:

So.....if you don't subscribe to the same beliefs as "our version" or our "sect" which is it that you subscribe to?

It's quite natural for people who love something to want to get into the intricate details. Just attend any trade show for car enthusiasts, computer hobbyists, or coin collectors. Ever been in a room with serious Star Wars fans? They don't talk about the vegetation on Tatooine because they want to prove to others that they have more knowledge. They talk about it because they love Star Wars and want to discuss even the smallest detail. So can you really blame Christians who love God and the Bible for wanting to discuss every small point of doctrine?

The fact that you can't understand what they are talking about shouldn't cause you to throw up your hands in disgust and leave but to ask them to explain concepts to you in terms you'll understand until you reach their level of expertise. I think if you did that, you'd find that most of us would be happy to bring you along at your pace.

Linda said...

Krkonstadt, we know there's only one Author of Scripture and all who are truly born again have the Holy Spirit who is the Author for "All Scripture is God breathed". HE is the Spirit of Truth and interprets Scripture for us.

In other words Scripture is not subjective to individual’s interpretation and it's not a wax nose to be interpreted by the bias, bent, or beliefs of individuals.

If I understand you correctly in saying Christians are coming up with different "versions" or different messages-- then we know something is wrong with "US" not God because there's only one interpretation. And how are we to know if we don’t crack open the word of God and search like the Bereans did? It is our job as individual Christians to “study God's word to show ourselves approved who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth”-2 Timothy 2:15

I can't remember who said this but here's an illustration of why Christians can come to different views of what God's word says..
"one might liken the Holy Spirit to a radio station that is transmitting a perfect signal. Even though that radio signal is transmitted perfectly, there are all kinds of different quality radio receivers out there. Some have good reception; some have poor reception. Some have a good antenna; others have a broken antenna. Some have good batteries; others are low on energy. The point is, different radio receivers have varying degrees of success in receiving that perfect signal.
Some people have better reception than others and their signal is stronger because they have more of God’s word in them. People who don’t even crack open their Bible’s or hardly have any Scripture memorized or God’s law hidden in their hearts have very poor reception or signals and thus don’t interpret, rightly divide God’s word correctly.

Remember "Faith comes by hearing and hearing the word of God"~~ Memorize God’s word-David said “I have hidden your law in my heart so that I might not sin against you”..
And if you have a hard time reading and memorizing, record it and play it in your car or computer~ Hope this helps


"one might liken the Holy Spirit to a radio station that is transmitting a perfect signal. Even though that radio signal is transmitted perfectly, there are all kinds of different quality radio receivers out there. Some have good reception; some have poor reception. Some have a good antenna; others have a broken antenna. Some have good batteries; others are low on energy. The point is, different radio receivers have varying degrees of success in receiving that perfect signal.
Some people have better reception than others and their signal is stronger because they have more of God’s word in them. People who don’t even crack open their Bible’s or hardly have any Scripture memorized or God’s law hidden in their hearts have very poor reception or signals and thus don’t interpret, rightly divide God’s word correctly.

Remember "Faith comes by hearing and hearing the word of God"~~

Leslie Wolf said...

Kronstadt, I would recommend that you listen to some simple, Reformed sermons by a great pastor - Sinclair Ferguson. He is solid on doctrine, but he is also patient and kind, and he is one of the best preachers I have ever heard. If you have the time, I would also recommend checking out a few sermons by Aaron Baker from Covenant Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

I think that Reformed doctrine on justification etc. was taught by Christ, and by Paul, and in fact I think it can be found throughout the whole Bible. However, I think that it is rarely taught well, and I think that it is often hard for us to understand simple passages in Scripture due to the preconceptions we bring to the Bible. At any rate, listen to Ferguson and Baker. I think they might help.