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Volume 13, Issue 3: Presbyterion

Preaching as Metaphor

Douglas Wilson

The apostle John brought hellenistic philosophy crashing to earth when he taught us that the Word was in the beginning with God, that the Word was God, and that the Word took on flesh and spent some time in Judea. The idea of an incarnate Logos was not really conducive to the Greek turn of mind. The Logos for them was disembodied, abstract, unearthly—spiritual. But John said what he said, and Hellenistic civilization failed.

Christians, therefore, are people of words because they are people of the Word. But taken in isolation, without discussion, this is too facile. John did not say, "In the beginning was the frozen Noun." Parmenides was out. Neither did he exalt the tumultuous Verb because Heraclitus was equally rejected. All that words do must be carried by the Word, sustained by it. Words can have no real meaning apart from Him, and the Word cannot be outdone by His little imitators. When we observe the metaphorical potency of our words, this should not be thought of as a little moonlighting. They have potency because of the Logos.
Gordon Clark goes too far when he equates the Logos with logic, but he does see that the Word must encompass all that words do—his mistake was in underestimating what words were created by God to do. Of course, words convey rational order, but they are by no means limited to this. Considering our familiar trinity of truth, goodness, and beauty, we see that words do far more than simply communicate the first member of it. Words bring us the truth of the gospel, the goodness of the law, and the beauty of holiness.
Now one of the central duties of righteous words is the duty of conveying truth, goodness, and beauty through metaphor. And this means that we should look for the archetype of metaphors in the Logos. Just as the Logos bears all true reason, so He embodies all true metaphor.
And we must watch our step here. We have been thoroughly conditioned by modernity and postmodernity to miss the glory of metaphor. Although they pretend to be desperate enemies, one to another, they are actually running a good cop/bad cop drill on us. Both systems agree that metaphor is meaningless. Modernity says metaphor is meaningless and goes off to look for meaning in mathematical formulae, technological achievement, and other stainless steel accomplishments. Postmodernity says that metaphor is meaningless, and that everything is metaphor. Hence, everything is meaningless.
This is why right-minded Christians, whenever they hear some modern evangelical academic bemoaning the Enlightenment, have a spirit within them that pulls at the sleeve and says uh oh. They see, rightly, that he is just another modernist, fleeing from the baying hounds of meaningless metaphors, and is now up a tree like a frightened racoon, with the base of the tree surrounded by all the various forms of meaninglessness, each of them sitting patiently on his haunches. After a while, the academic despairs of rescue from the Enlightenment, climbs down the tree, and becomes respectable in the current academy.
There is an alternative. This is that metaphor, far from keeping us away from meaning, is one of God's principal means of bringing meaning to us. Metaphor, like an honest answer, is a kiss on the lips. How can we say this? The Logos is identified with God, and He is also distinguished from God. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Is there a barrier of meaning between the Father and the Son? None at all. Jesus said that if someone had seen Him, he had seen the Father. Jesus was the Way to the Father. According to Paul, Jesus is the visible image of the invisible Father, and He is the exact representation of the divine Being. Put simply, Jesus Christ is like the Father, which means He is ultimate metaphor. He is not the Father, but as a distinct Person He nonetheless reveals the Father. He also is God, which means there can be no epistemological barrier between the Speaker and the Word. God the Father speaks the Word, and the Word in His turn "speaks" about the Father through being spoken. In a similar way, my words reveal something about me, and so more is happening than my mind speaking words. My words also speak my mind. Within the Godhead, we see this operative truth. Metaphor plays an essential role in ultimate meaning.
Now this has direct implications for preaching and teaching. Those who are ministers of the Word must never consent to handle that Word in a truncated fashion. God speaks the eternal Word of God, our Lord Jesus. He created the universe through Him. The universe is God speaking, and this is how the universe declares His glory—the heavens and earth speak through being spoken.
Because of our sinfulness, God gave us the protection of His inscripturated Word, so that we might not be misled by our own lusts. But with the divine Word, with the example in Scripture of the Word enfleshed, the speech of our surrounding universe becomes intelligible. And so, guided by Scripture, we now know the meaning of rivers, mountains, deaths, burials, birds in flight, hot food, and cold water. And this is how we are to texture our teaching and preaching. A word fitly spoken, an apt metaphor, will do more teaching, more revealing, than the most precisionistic word-chopping, lengthwise or otherwise. After all, the kingdom of God is like a pile of dead fish.

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