Are you ready to think about churchly metaphors? I’ve been able to talk with several bright, theologically sound people about them lately, and I think you’ll enjoy an awesome distinction I was given. For the sake of clarity, we’ll briefly discuss the Good Shepherd and God as shepherd imagery.
For too long we have relied on metaphors. Don’t get me wrong, metaphors can be great. They are not, however, the golden ticket by which we educate children.
Lots of metaphors complicate rather than simplify. Adults like to pretend they are automatically object lessons, but often even object lessons are way over a child’s head. Call a thing what it is! Especially to children!!
Hear me out and correct me if I’m wrong. Leave titles below.
Metaphors about God tend to be heretical. Seriously. Truly, truly. Despite this, metaphors are published about God all the time.
Metaphors only stretch so far, for one thing, but for another God is primary. He is source and telos. He is the reality of realities while all the rest of us and creation dimly reflect Him, His roles, etc.
Let’s look at an example. God is the true Shepherd (Psalm 23; Isaiah 40; John 10). Is this a metaphor? Which is also to say, are readers or writers of Scripture anthropomorphizing God?
Call me crazy, but if God says, “I am . . .” that’s pretty definitive. Why presume human (or canine) shepherds came first? Doesn’t God gather, tend, feed, water, etc., explicitly within reality?
Wait, wait, but are we sheep?!
Let’s introduce a distinction. Metaphors about God intrinsically fall short. I think of a point by CS Lewis wrote in the Silver Chair: is the sun a glorified lamp, a lion a glorified cat? No. The greater thing illustrates the lesser rather than the other way around. God can really be Shepherd, but it seems like that can be a non-metaphor, while allowing a metaphor when the church enters the picture. The Church, though divinely given, exists as a creation.
Churchly metaphors still exist. We are not really sheep, but the Church, not God, is often described by metaphor and similes. Jesus commonly said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” We are like sheep. The church is like a flock. Pastors are to be like shepherds.
Metaphors are not off-limit, but they do have their places, even within theology. (Shoot, I have a children’s proposal sent off that I’m hoping I don’t need to recant as it waxes on a metaphor!) But let’s be clear and upfront about this: Jesus is the Door, because doors dimly reflect the gift that God gives entrance. Jesus is the Vine, because God kindly lets His life flow into us, even to the point of bearing fruit and granting eternal life, yet Jesus is neither green nor stringy.
Reading Scripture and letting Scripture interpret Scripture doesn’t make us absurdists. Still, there are revelations that guide our reading.
We don’t have to take metaphors or analogies to extremes. They are a tool rather an the solution to a problem. But let’s use metaphors as God gives them—without making God into our own images!
I’ll put it one more way. God works through vocations, and vocations find their source in God. Family comes from His Fatherhood (Ephesians 3:15), etc., so why not let God describe Himself with the functions and roles He has given? Why pretend they are merely metaphors? And, when God has already described Himself pretty amazingly thoroughly in Scripture, why imagine we can reinvent the wheel with better descriptors? He still knows our children better than we do. Let’s let Him teach.
You with me? What do you think?
Language is awesome.
Speaking of which, “Blessed Reformation Day and may God hallow muchly!” 🙂