Back Issues

Volume 14, Issue 1: Thema

The Metaphorical Word

Douglas Wilson

The universe is a metaphor. And now that I have your attention, allow me to explain immediately what I do not mean.

As I have noted elsewhere, the modernist and the postmodernist agree on one essential thing—metaphor is meaningless. The modernist therefore seeks rationalist meaning in brute factuality, the objectivist view of scientific materialism. The postmodernist grants that metaphor is meaningless, but then wants to go on to say that everything is metaphor. We should then see that he is saying that everything is meaningless (except for him talking about it, but we weren't paying him to be consistent). Postmods may want to represent this as a simplistic conservative distortion of their sophisticated position—but this is how postmodernism still shows up in the classroom and on the street. But these are just introductory comments, not the central point; the only reason for bringing them up is so that I will not be confused with them, in both senses of the phrase. But nervousness about postmoderns ignores the subject of the initial assertion, universe. In order to predicate anything about the universe, it has to really be there first. Nothing argued here contradicts the objective materiality of a universe made of stuff, a universe full of stuff that we can know genuinely.
Neither am I using metaphor as it comes up in English class, alongside metonymy or simile. I am using it in a much broader sense.
Nevertheless, God created the heavens and the earth through the Word, sustaining and holding together the heavens and earth through this same Word. The universe is the result of God speaking, as only God can. God said, "Let there be light." Everything that exists is a visible word (Ps. 19). This does not denigrate or threaten the primacy of Scripture or sacraments at all. The Word and sacraments are not examples of God speaking as if He is silent in all other things. Rather, they are examples of God speaking to us in a clear manner so that we might come to understand how it is He has spoken in and through everything else.
So, God the Son is the ultimate Word. We also know the Holy Scriptures are the revealed Word and the oak tree on my property is a created word from God. And how are we trying to sort all this out? With words. We see the uncreated ultimate Word, we see the revealed inscripturated Word, we see the created words around us; and man, himself a created word in the image of this speaking God, sees everything in wonder, and speaks about that wonder in words.
Now the Bible teaches us that the created order speaks about God. But it speaks precisely because it is spoken. The universe speaks—not as an independent source of knowledge—but speaks as my words, for example, "speak" about me. The spoken always "speaks" about the speaker. What follows from this? Everything created therefore reveals something about the Creator. Everything is therefore, at some level, a metaphor. If every aspect of the created order reflects the glory of God, then we can rejoice in that fact. But after we have done this, we should push on into new territory. How does the created order glorify God? It does so through being like Him, distinct from Him, and, in some reflective way, identified with Him.
All things are therefore cognates. And the wide-eyed Christian should look around at the resemblances. The affinities are necessarily there. If a meadowlark is tied to some aspect of the Creator, and the tidal wave is reflective of another characteristic within Him, and so on, then what follows? All attributes within the Godhead are all internally consistent—He is never at odds with Himself. This means that all things in the universe (the meadowlark, tidal wave, and bamboo grove) are all created cousins at peace. And this is what makes effective "horizontal" metaphor within the created order possible. There is always a connection somehow.
What else follows? This view of things considers the poet more as seer, and less as maker, although he still genuinely "makes" in some sense. What the poet sees are the interconnections between apparently disparate things, but the interconnections which he sees are not imposed by him; they are a given, like the segments of an orange. The striking metaphor does not tie two isolated and fundamentally alien things together, but rather reveals a similarity initially spoken by God, and then discerned and declared by the poet. Of course this does not mean anything can relate in any way to any other thing. It has to relate in a way consistent with how God shaped the world. Some do not do this; this is why poor metaphors are also possible.
A metaphor is present when, in different senses, one thing both is and is not something else. In this sense metaphors are everywhere, and "mere" names or symbols are much richer than we suspected. There is a trinitarian reason for this; the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father. And yet, if you have seen the Son you have seen the Father. The Son reveals the Father by not being the Father, and the Father and the Son are one.
Christians should therefore maintain that not only may a metaphor communicate truth, but ultimately it is the only thing which can do so. And this means that a Christian speaker has to understand the Word before he can hope to work effectively with words. The Word of God is not a metaphor in the sense that we derive our understanding of Him from studying our small m metaphors. Rather, the ultimate Word is that from which every word spoken by every creature, whether spoken in heaven or on earth, derives its name. We do not derive Him from our metaphors; our metaphors are faint images of Him.
Our understanding begins with an ultimate metaphor. The foundation of all this is found in the triune nature of God. In the beginning was the Word—en arche en ho Logos. In the first place, at the arche, in the place of preeminence, at the place where all things cohere, was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. That is, the Word is God fully, and, at the same time, the Word is distinct from God in the sense that we are able to say He is "with" God. The Son is God but the Son is not the Father.
Now it is clear that between God the Speaker and God the Spoken there is no degradation of meaning. Nothing whatever is lost. The Word does not obscure meaning, but rather reveals it—all of it. This is a revelation of love. This means the connection between God the Speaker and God the Spoken is not a matter of mere data transfer. The Father and Son love one another with an everlasting love. This love is Himself a person, the Holy Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit of the Word. This Spirit is the same One who gave us the words of all Scripture.
Thus, the Father speaks the Word in love, and the Word spoken reveals the Father in love. This is the unifying Spirit of love, the Spirit who is the reason why there is no degradation of meaning. The divine hermeneutic is therefore the Holy Spirit. He is the One who searches the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10). The ultimate hermeneutic is therefore a divine Person.
The Word spoken by God is not a solitary word—neither a lonely frozen monistic Noun, nor a frantic Verb in the flux of any created temporal process. Yet the Son is eternally begotten, the Word is eternally spoken, the Light eternally shines. Thus the Word contains within Himself all the wisdom of the Godhead. The Word is therefore the Metaphor of God. We will only find this shocking if we have bought into the lies that unbelievers tell about metaphor.
Not surprisingly, the way God is affects the creation He spoke into being. God spoke the created universe into being. God the Father "God-the-Son-ed" light, and there was light. God the Speaker Worded the heavens and the earth, and so they came to be.
But God did not need to create the universe in order to speak this Word. The Son was eternally begotten by the Father. The Word was eternally spoken by the Father without dependence on any aspect of the creative decree. The creation did not bring the triune nature of God into being. Nevertheless, when God in the good pleasure of His will determined to create the heavens and earth, it was fitting and necessary that He speak the universe into existence through His "organ of speech," that is to say, through the Word. Without Him was not anything made that was made.
As the Father speaks the Word in love, so the Word spoken speaks in turn about the Father in love. As the Word, in the will of the Father, spoke the creation into being, so the creation speaks (through being spoken) about the Word in love. And so the heavens declare the glory of God. The universe is therefore a lesser metaphor of the Word of God. Day after day pours forth speech.
Man was created in the image of this speaking, self-revealing God. Man is therefore created in the image of God the Speaker, God the Spoken, and God the Interpreter. In the first created place, in that lesser arche, therefore, the word was with man and the word was man, and a spirit of love bound the two together. Created in the image of God, we speak words and, marvelous to relate, we understand them.
God gave this man dominion in the earth, and commissioned him with the authority of naming. This means that whenever a man lawfully names, he is exercising the authority of covenant-naming, and is doing so as a covenant head and lord. What is man, that God is mindful of him? Whenever a man names, therefore, he reveals himself. When a man names lawfully, that which he names becomes that thing—this is true in history, in literature, in science, and art. Adam had the authority to name the animals, and Eve. Eve had the authority to name her children. Since the creation of our first parents, we have never stopped naming. But naming lawfully is dependent upon a hermeneutic of humility. A word has fuller meaning within the context of a sentence, a sentence has fuller meaning within the context of a story, and a story has fuller meaning within the context of a religion. In order to name rightly, a man must be right with God.
Because man has fallen into sin, his redemption must include the redemption of metaphor. Since the Fall, whenever a man names he reveals himself as a sinner. He is a fallen lord, a fallen namer. His words therefore obscure meaning, not because they are words, but because they proceed from a lying heart. The Word took on flesh, and dwelt among us. The Incarnation of the Word was directed in part to the restoration of words. This is why the Scriptures place such importance on preaching and on the sacraments—words which are heard, words which wash, and words eaten.
Because there is no degradation of meaning at the ultimate place of metaphor—the Word being distinct from the Father, and yet fully revealing Him—we have a basis for confidence in our own faithful use of things that reveal something else, and in a mysterious way are that something else. Because Christ is the Word, we can speak of Him—and of everything else.
A man's words reveal, first, the man. The words are not the man, and yet they reveal him faithfully. Out of the abundance of the heart the man speaks. The foundational nature of all language is therefore metaphorical because every word a man speaks reveals him—just as God reveals Himself through His Word. Every word spoken ultimately identifies with the speaker, and yet is not that speaker; and this can only be explained by the Lord of metaphor.

Back to top
Back to Table of Contents

Copyright © 2012 Credenda/Agenda. All rights reserved.