Volume 14, Issue 1: Liturgia
The Metaphorical Principle of Worship
Peter J. Leithart
God is great in mercy, and one of His mercies is that the Bible is not written like an encyclopedia or the IRS code. Instead
of systematic and comprehensive coverage of every possible subject, the Bible gives us stories,
torah, letters, proverbs, poems, and phantasmagorical prophecies. Unfortunately, Christians have often considered the Bible's form a flaw rather than a
mercy, and have set out to correct it.
If, however, we assume that God knew what He was doing, some interesting things happen when we try to interpret
and apply Scripture. Because the Bible does not cover every ethical situation that confronts us, we are forced to apply Scripture
to situations that Scripture never mentions. To use Scripture at all, we have to notice that while, on the one hand, "this is
not that," yet, on the other hand, "this is that." In other words, the Bible forces us to think metaphorically.
Death-by-flying-axe-head is the key example of manslaughter in Deuteronomy (19:4_6), but we're unlikely to face that
exact set of circumstances. To apply this law to a traffic accident, we have to ask, "Is losing the brakes and ramming into a
pedestrian like killing someone with a loose axe head? Or, is it more like lying in wait for a brother? Or, is it more like leaving a pit
uncovered?" When that "made in China" label pricks our conscience, we might ponder the analogies between buying Chinese toys and
eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul applied the law this way when he urged the Corinthians to purge the incestuous man from the church
(1 Cor. 5:13), and when he observed that muzzled oxen resemble underpaid ministers (1 Cor. 9:9_10).
A similar kind of reasoning underlies the numerous New Testament passages that use terminology from the sacrificial system to
describe Christian worship. Christians are to offer "a sacrifice of praise to God" (Heb. 13:16) and "spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through
Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:5). God's word is a sword dividing between "joints and marrow" (Heb. 4:12), and the prayers of Cornelius ascended "as
a memorial before God" (Acts 10:2). Jesus used a number of sacrificially loaded terms when He instituted the Lord's Supper"body and
blood," the "blood of the covenant," "memorial." Word and sacrament, prayer and praisenone of these are "literally" sacrificial acts (in the
Levitical sense), but they are all described as sacrificial acts by the Apostles.
By and large, Reformed liturgists have refused to do much of anything with these metaphors. Sacrificial figures are mere figures,
decorations attached to more literal teaching; they don't give us any insight into the nature of worship and no principles for guiding how we
Yet, in a crunch, everyone resorts to metaphor when talking about liturgy. No one in John Knox's day was offering literal "strange
fire," but that didn't stop him from citing Leviticus 10:1_7 to warn against worship that deviated from the "express commandment of God."
For Knox, "strange fire" was a metaphor for all liturgical deviations. It still is. Contemporary Reformed pastor Carl Bogue has written that
the evangelical church is full of Nadabs and Abihus, illustrating the point by suggesting that altar calls are an example of "strange fire."
The question is not whether we will resort to metaphor in formulating our theology and practice of worship. The issue is whether we
will employ good metaphors or bad, whether we will employ them poorly or well. (For my money, the analogy between an altar call and the sin
of Aaron's sons is tenuous at best.)
Instead of shoving sacrificial metaphors to the margins, we should take this language as a crucial clue to the New Testament teaching
on worship. Just as Paul and the others reasoned metaphorically about paying the pastor, so they reasoned metaphorically about worship.
The apostles' language is an indication that they saw a similarity between burning an animal and singing a psalm, an analogy between
preaching and cutting an animal into bite-sized pieces, a metaphorical connection between the Old Testament feasts and the Lord's Supper.
But what's the bottom line? Can metaphors really give us practical instruction about how to worship? Does a metaphorical principle
of worship have teeth? Sure. Let's try out this metaphor: The Lord's Supper is the Christian Feast of Booths. Literally, that's not true; we
don't construct tents from tree branches, and our celebrations normally don't last a week. But there is an analogy between the Old Covenant
feast and the New Covenant feast. Just as the Feast of Booths celebrated the gathering of the harvest, so the Supper is the meal to which the
nations are being and will be gathered. Every time we gather for the Supper, we are declaring, by an objective sign, that this meal, and this
harvest, have begun.
According to Deuteronomy 16:13_17, the Feast of Booths was to be celebrated with great rejoicing, and the worshipers were to be
"altogether joyful." It hardly need be said that this is not the way that Christians have normally celebrated the Supper. In many churches,
the Supper is more wake than feast, more tomb than table, more famine than harvest. By the metaphorical principle of worship, such
anti-celebrations violate the character of the Supper. Anyone coming to the table in mourning is a true Nadab and Abihu, offering strange fire.