Churchly Metaphors

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!” 🙂


Filed under Theological reflection

8 Responses to Churchly Metaphors

  1. My post coming up on the Good Shepherd just unraveled this whole ball of yarn for me. Thinking in the context of Scripture interpreting Scripture, does make it clearer. In Psalm 23 when we declare the Lord is my Shepherd, we really are simply proclaiming a promise rather than a metaphor. He stares, “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10, as you said- I AM is so much greater than metaphor. It’s complicated by the Isaiah passage I was studying, Isaiah 40:10-11, where God Himself states it as a metaphor. Ack! “He will tend his flock LIKE a shepherd.” The concept of vocation is helpful, this is ONE way that God comes to us in His Word, as well as helps us to see Him more clearly. We can never put Him in a box- real or metaphorical.

  2. Excellent point bringing up Isaiah 40! I wonder if it is an example of like and as having slightly different nuances. Perhaps He will tend as the Shepherd He really is, although I am surely not an expert!

    Sure love Scripture. Great, weighty, and interesting stuff!

  3. Alison

    Jesus was and is the Good Teacher. It makes sense that while educating us humans of limited experience, stuck in time and space, He would use examples of what we know in order to give is an idea about the much grander realities. The temptation we face is whether to keep those metaphors even in the face of a culture who does not know the context of what a shepherd did, what the word was like when it was dark, etc…and has a hard time appreciating the literary connections of God being the shepherd or the light of the world. Of course to be faithful, I think it a much easier, more beautiful task to keep the words rather than to create from scratch. Afterall, God ordained a certain time for Christ to come into this world. Perhaps it was a perfect cultural or political climate, but perhaps it was also a time when everyday life experiences such as growing grapes and baking bread made the teaching opportunities and linguistic connections the most universally, and truthfully recorded for all time. Somehow Christ saying “the kingdom is like an android device” or “I am the traffic light” doesn’t quite maintain cultural longevity or universal application as the originals. And as for kids – perhaps we take our job as teacher too seriously. I agree-let Him be the teacher and let the Spirit work faith and understanding in His time in their development and life. I, as a teacher, have been quite surprised at the connections children can make that developmental theorists say they can’t.

    • Aluson

      Can I recant this comment? I am afraid I said the very thing you are warning about. My bad!

      • Alison, I’m thankful for your comment and always want you to feel free to speak your piece.

        You make a very good point about cultural misappropriation, including the language and metaphors God gives us. 🙂

        • Alison

          Thanks, Mary! If I may since I have pondered this this evening while trick or treating… perhaps our words are not in contradiction at all. If we talk about creation- It was In Christ, through Christ and For His sake the world was created. Why couldn’t He be the very reason dark and light were created;that sheep were created and grapes, etc? That those things were created with the intent purpose of providing us finite beings an image of Christ in His eternal authority which would be pointed out to is by God through metaphors in His words spoken through prophets and himself in His earthly ministry. That of course is only possible because, as you say, He IS the very word he says and Has been since the beginning. Not that we can possibly nail down God’s purposes, but it does give much to ponder. It would not surprise me in the least to consider our amazing God creating the world with such attention to detail as to give opportunities thousands of years later for Christ to be unveiled to the world for what He is. Light, Shepherd, lamb of God, Vine…boy this list could be long 🙂

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