05 April 2006

Delight and de danger of de metaphor

by Dan Phillips

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


Momo said...

Wonderful stuff. Common sense hermeneutical stuff that makes you want to slap your forehead and say, "Duh, why didn't I know that?"

It is sad how poorly equipped today's pew is when it comes to understanding the word. It is a direct reflection on the pulpit, imo.

Even So... said...

Well, that sure was perfect timing for me, just as I am about to go teach our Wednesday night gathering.

I appreciate the way you guys here at teampyro take so many different aspects into account. The Lord in His grace has you guys working together tremendously.

That is one reason I direct people here, so that they don't just get my particular viewpoint, and so our church doesn't rely on my witty aphorisms alone, and we don't have our own, special nomenclature that only we are "in" on.


Even So...

Craig Schwarze said...

So, what are your thoughts on "Bilbical Theology", along the lines of Vos?

DJP said...

Thanks very much for the encouragement, James and JD; it really means a great deal to me.

Craig, I don't know if this will do more than shotgun the area of your question, instead of hitting the target directly, but...

If you mean, what do I think of doing "theologies" of divisions of the Bible such as the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and such like; and/or tracing the development of theological concepts diachronically through those periods, or in those Biblical divisions -- I'm all for it. I'd not oppose it to systematic theology, which I also think is perfectly valid; but I'd say it may be a better aid to exegesis than the latter.

I get that from Hebrews 1:1-2a -- which has to be one of the most magnificent beginnings to any book, ever, anywhere. Revelation was done piecemeal and multiform. The whole picture was cobbled together by God bit by bit, here and there, until it was complete. At no point did any participant possess the whole picture, except God.

So if I want to know what Solomon meant when he wrote Proverbs 16:4, for instance, I won't so much bring in Matthew 25 and Revelation 19-20 as part of the exegetical process, as I will the Pentateuch, the histories, the Psalms. In that way, I'll be truer to the progressive unfolding demanded by Hebrews 1:1-2a. You see?

Systematic theology may help answer the exegetical question, "Is _____ true?" But it's less immediately useful in answering the question, "Is _____ what Solomon meant?"

That's awfully brief, but is it anywhere near the same universe as your question?

Even So... said...

Here is a nice little article by D.A. Carson on the relationship between Biblical and systematic theology


Even So...

Craig Schwarze said...

Yeah, I really just wanted to know if your gut response was. I've encountered a few evangelicals around the shop who seem to regard Biblical Theology with some suspicion. Glad to you you are 'for' it...

A local guy has done a lot of work on bringing Biblical Theology to the masses - Graeme Goldsworthy. I suppose he is not at all known in your part of the world?

JackW said...

James, I'll echo you on the 'wonderful stuff', but I wonder what you would do if everyone showed up Sunday morning with a laptop?

I actually use a PDA, but that's mainly because I have to carry a guitar and other stuff. The PDA has the NASB, the New King Jimmy and Strongs Greek and Hebrew. I sit in the front row and I think it makes the Pastor nervous.

Kim said...

Dan, I never thought of bringing my laptop to church! What a great idea!

As it is, I bring a bound notebook with me to church.

donsands said...

Nice lesson. Thanks.

I need to share this with my church. We are a "family" church. And the Lord is begining to purge us from this family mentality. It is painful. To see the desperatly wickedness in the hearts manifested is very discouraging, but necessary. The divine purging of the Lord is done for His glory and our good.
Keep me in prayer, if you think of it. It's getting ugly. And to tell you the truth, I'd love to leave, and was going to, but I can't. It's weird. Must be the Holy Spirit.

DJP said...

Kim and Jack -- I actually bring my Portege 3505 to church. It is a combination tablet/laptop. That way, I can actually write notes virtually silently, and have Bibleworks 7 there, to check or copy the Greek/Hebrew and whatever other versions.

But I've had some trouble with areas of the screen going "dead," and have had to convert it back to laptop. I sit it on my lap, and try to time my typing such that I'm typing as Pastor Andrews preaches, and not clattering during the pauses.

BTW, you can get a combo today for a fraction of what I paid three years ago. If I had it to do over again, though, I'd not have bought it from CompUSA.

DJP said...

Well, Craig, I'd argue against either a BTer or an STer who tried to exclude the other as invalid. After all, really, what is BT except doing an ST of individual periods, authoers, and/or portions of the canon? And any ST that treats the Bible as if it dropped directly from Heaven, complete and leatherbound and directly writtin by the finger of God, denies Hebrews 1:1-2a and the confluescent nature of inspiration and inerrancy.

Probably what Bible-believers have objected to in BT is the scoffing of some against ST, often premised as it was on a low view of Scripture.

Unknown said...

Very good stuff. Thanks for it. Incidentally, if you go to a highly liturgical church like I do, carrying a Bible into the worship service may have the opposite effect — distraction. In this context, Bible study is something that goes on during the week; reading the Word as a community, singing praises, and breaking bread with one another are all equal parts of worship. Obviously, the sermon is not the central focus in this context, which is refreshing to me (and besides, since seminary I haven't regularly sat under a preacher whose said anything worth taking notes on), for now I do participate — liturgically.

JackW said...

Shouldn't an elder with the gift of pastor/teacher teach? My problem is that everything seems to focus on one elder at the expense of the other elders who just seem to be office holders. Sorry to get off topic.

Metaphorically speaking, would an electronic Bible be like a light sabre?

Unknown said...

Understandably, Irish Calvinist, you missed my point, or perhaps read into it a bit much. I didn't state that the preacher wasn't preaching from the Scriptures, but I did allude to the idea that it might be better if at Sunday worship people get their noses out of the book and open up their ears, thus listening to the Word (which they arguably do not do any other time during the week). And by the way, preaching, despite what we Reformed folk imply, is not a sacrament (though it undoubtedly may impart grace).

DJP said...

Just to state what is probably obvious, for the record, to the Christian, the Word of God is central in everything. Nothing has any meaning apart from it. It is essential to saving faith (Romans 10:17), it is the essence of being a genuine Christian (Matthew 28:28; John 8:31-32), it is sufficient in every sense for Christian living (2 Timothy 3;15-17), and it is to be primary in all aspects of Christian ministry (2 Timothy 4:2).

One is a student of the Word, or he is not a Christian (John 8:21-32 again).

A pastor, as to his activity, is primarily a servant and proclaimer of the Word, or he is no pastor, for God honors no activity more highly (1 Timothy 5:18).

Bells, whistles, mirrors, smoke, art objects, food items, music, architecture, ritual -- they may be esthetically pleasing. Or they may well be misleading, distracting, and damning. What matters to the Christian is the centrality of the ministry of the Word of God.

Or one could be something other than Christian -- insofar as Christianity is defined by the Word of God. Discontentment with God's provision is the root of every manner of cult and heresy.

donsands said...

Hear, Hear!

"One is a student of the Word, or he is not a Christian."

"For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope". Rom. 15:4
"..Paul also according to the wisdom given to him has written to you; as also in all his epistles," 2 Pet. 3:15-16

Thy Word is a lamp and a light!

Unknown said...

djp, it was obvious. Let's not use it as an occasion for iconoclasm, okay?

MartinY said...

To expand a little, perhaps, on the danger. Should we not also be very careful with such as Revelation and the interpretation of, for example, the four horsemen.

Craig Schwarze said...

My own denom has emphasised biblical theology almost to the exclusion of systematic. Our laity are very biblically literate, but are often ignorant of theological categories and language - to their detriment. But some are quietly working to correct the imbalance.

Oh, and I have the Bible on my palm pilot. And I dont believe in taking notes during sermons unless a desk is provided...

Kent Brandenburg said...

I heartily agree with the metaphorology you presented. A lot of these are in the parables. I just debated a COC guy on eternal security for a week, and they make hay on metaphors, seeing losing salvation like a Bible code book. For instance, in John 15:6, they make a lot out of "withered." Something alive withers. I made this exact point to them, as well as pointing out that the plant in rocky soil in Mt. 13 also withers.

My belief is that this is also taken to an extreme with the "body" metaphor regarding church. Paul was using it to show how the Corinth church should function with diversity and unity (1 Cor. 12), but people invent a huge nebulous entity bigger than a Macey's Thanksgiving Day balloon and bring in a wrong understanding of unity from that one metaphor, that has lead to the dangerous devastation of doctrine in the day in which we live.

I really wasn't trying to get four "d"s in a row there at the end. Drust me.

Michael King said...

This post sounds a lot like my little church, although we would not identify it as a "family" church. I try to get them the bring their Bibles. Some do, but many do not. I guess I spoiled (maybe ruined) them with putting all my Scripture references on the PowerPoint (a great and handy tool, but still another issue to think through). So, I take this post to heart. Thank you.

But as far as notetaking goes... When I am preaching, I look out among my people and see them looking back at me with interest. Sometimes I can see the conviction on their faces. I know they are engaged with the message God has bought them through his word. If they were looking down or something, even writing notes, I think there might be something missed. I kind of agree with jerid. I don't see the sermon as classroom time. I see it as time that God speaks to us. Listen.

Usually though, after the service some of the people will want a copy of the sermon. Some will get an audio recording (tape, CD, or MP3). Often I will just give them a copy of my notes. Some things I say are verbatim in the notes, some are extemporaneous rabbits. One fellow has a whole collection.

Also, if a missionary when to a culture where people did not operate by schedules as we do, he would be foolish to impose Christianity and a worship service on them with set times. Many have failed at just this point. Is there some point in our culture even where some of the traditional norms are mere impositions and not sacred at all, things like service schedules or notetaking? This has caused me much wonder.

Anyway, I love this blog. Thank you for giving it. Much grace to all of you, Mike