Through a couple conferences I’ve been to, through my congregation’s ecclesial network, and the conversation with a couple others, the phrase ‘metaphor’ has come up more than once. The context of this is in describing God’s designations throughout the Bible, some of which are ‘Healer’, ‘Warrior/Lord-of-Hosts’, ‘Judge’ etc. The following will be some of my thoughts, without any real conclusion on this mental knot.
At first, I was a little disconcerted with the idea of ‘metaphor’, but I wasn’t quite sure why I had issue with it. In fact, in the past, I might have been comfortable and used this term in arguments and disputations. However, recently, I was able to put my finger on my growing discomfort with this phrase. It puts the weight of importance upon Human reception and articulation, and less on the Divine Revelation Himself. At one conference, the constant refrain was “God is like a Warrior…God is like a Judge”.
Is it too much to wonder if they’re putting the burden on the Human reception of God’s Word? This has certainly happened, and is a hallmark of christic Liberalism. This religion teaches the Biblical witness is Man’s attempt to make sense of God, which they might put in quotations to denote even this word’s fleeting use. The Scripture contains no infallible, Spirit-writ, Truth, but a fallible approximation. It’s a fumbling in the dark instead of harkening to the Light.
Now, the group I’m referring to are not adherents to Liberalism, though I think their pool has been tainted by certain assumptions, but I’ll come back to that. Let’s, instead, allow Liberalism’s stance, including the fleeting use of the term ‘God’. It is true that the word ‘god’, in the Hebraic/Near-Eastern context, was not all encompassing phrase. It had to do with judgement and reign. That’s why there could be varying degrees of god in the Canaanite pantheon, just as in the Hellenic and Norse pantheons. Some gods were enthralled to others, some could be wounded, some had narrow roles, while others were more managerial. This was the world which the Biblical witness operated within.
But even if the word ‘God’ is conditional, this isn’t the problem. The issue is the starting point of the entire conversation. The inherent assumptions in the use of ‘metaphor’ are in the operation of the Scriptural witness. What we are saying is that Human interpretations are coming first within Revelation. It means the Human author, and Human reception, are taking precedence within the act of Revelation. God’s revelation is conditioned by the Human audience.
This does not mean Liberalism, where man is poking and pondering about the divine. Liberalism promote the view that all religions are grasping at the same reality, none of it divinely ordained, and some of which are closer to reality. However, ultimately, we’ve progressed beyond the limitations of earlier times. Liberalism’s project may be found in a combination of Hegel’s systematics and Kant’s skepticism of metaphysics. It’s all in a Christian shell, but it’s a totally different nut. When I read about Hegel’s triune modeling of reality, I could only shake my head. This is a completely different religion.
This isn’t what my compatriots are doing. They’re not denying Biblical inspiration or Christ’s exclusivity. The ‘metaphor’ language is, perhaps, an attempt to maintain the multiplicity of revelations and self-descriptors that the Lord of Glory uses. It’s not allowing one to run-over all the others. It’s keeping in check our human propensity to control the Divine Word by vain imaginings. I’ve certainly read some very odd theological thoughts regarding the Lord as Husband and sex. The mystery of God is maintained, and all we have is Divine stooping.
However, is that how the Scripture testifies? I’m all for suspending man’s arrogant speculation, and trying to build our little intellectual towers of Babel. But consider the example of the priesthood, written in Hebrews, involving the institution of the Aaronic High Priest, the Tabernacle, and both of their fulfillment:
Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2 a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.
3 For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. 4 For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; 5 who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle.
This frame puts everything backwards than the language of ‘metaphor’ and ‘stooping’. Instead, the Humanly is the copy, the shadow, of the Heavenly reality. Moses and the Israelites were not commanded to make sacrifices based upon ANE culture-induced assumptions of sacrifice and the holy. The Lord wasn’t reacting to what was, but setting a strict copy-based reality that unenlightened Humans fumbled about with. The human institutions of government, priesthood, marriage (and many others) are not autonomously invented, they’re copies of reality. At their best, they’re shimmering reflections of God’s Reign and Reality, at their worst, they’re imposters and distorted and twisted corruptions.
I suppose this question gets at the philosophical distinction between Realism and Nominalism. How much stock are we putting in the things around us? Are their names really real, or are they convention? Or are they some sort of middling? But this is a little too far off scope.
Instead, let’s consider the writings of formerly Pagan, and philosophically inclined, Justin Martyr. One of his major arguments, and accusations, was that Plato stole from Moses the idea of the ‘Forms’. This defended the Church from accusations that they were a novel cult, and had no root in history, but also turn the argument around on the critics. They were heirs to a plagiarizer, and their ideas had shorter roots than the Christians.
Despite the title, I doubt Plato ever read Moses. However, he was heavily influenced by Pythagoras, who spent many years learning in Egypt. This is a red herring, and we’ll get nowhere trying to hunt down what exactly happened, and how Pythagoras, and Plato, developed the forms, both mathematically and ethically respectively.
Now it is popular to talk about the Hellenizing of Christianity over the centuries. I don’t doubt that it happened, but generalizations are misleading (I’m aware of the irony of this statement). We have to take each writer, and each voice, in their own place, and not lump them all together. Some Christians attempted to synthesize with the prevailing currents to gain intellectual respectability. Others might have seen the use in pulling certain phrases and insights and repurpose them. Even more, language and grammar might be inherited without active consideration for its origin.
There is no doubt Plato had a major influence in the early Church, but we might exaggerate this. We have to ask where the overlap with observance and mere grammatical similarity occurs. Where is the difference between using Plato and following Plato? An example, I would argue, might be between Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, or even between Ambrose and Augustine(!). It’s my contention that Augustine was not a Christian Platonist, though he certainly borrowed grammar and concepts. At least, not as he matured. He certainly found much to use amongst the neo-Platonists of his day.
The point is not what Augustine, or anyone else thought. I wouldn’t lose any sleep if I was wrong. The point is how we go about receiving God’s self-revelation, which truly and fully is in Christ Jesus. None of my friends would ever say “God is like Jesus Christ” at the expense of confessing “God is Jesus Christ”.
In fact, in Christ, all of the shadows of the Old came to fulfillment. Jesus was, is, and will be, the Real which all of the other shadows stood as copies. Jesus is the King, not merely like a king, though David, and his line, were copies of the divine reality. The mark against Kingship, in Samuel’s dialog with his Lord, was not Israel having a king, but denying God as their King.
It may seem crude to some, but we can, and should, talk about Heavenly realities in the terms the Bible gives. Paradise will be a city, the Heavenly Jerusalem. In fact, it’s not a city, but the City. It will be more City than any other city has ever approximated, yea, even Jerusalem, which was the God-ordained copy. Even more importantly, our lives and existence are not not metaphors, but copies. We won’t be something else, but more us than we could ever conceive of.
However, this also raises questions of other earthly realities. Here-and-now, there is marriage and sex, but in the resurrection there will be no more marriage. Is this a case of a metaphor in action? Maybe there’s a mix employed, where some of creation is a copy or shadow of the Reality, where others are creaturely ordinances to be enjoyed, and point away from themselves, as differences to the Reality. Thus, there is no sex in the resurrection, but because this was employed as a metaphor to true unity and life-creation.
Whatever is the truth, the point of these considerations is too take the Lord seriously on His own terms. He set the boundaries of peoples and sustains all things. He was not limited by the appreciations and understandings of His people, though the means He employed were not perfect, and were to be replaced by the better. Maybe our assumptions that the Almighty would work this or that way need to be questioned. Regardless, His Wisdom surpasses our attempt at cultural analysis and apologetic defenses.
May we seek the Truth in reverence.