Metaphors of revelation

'Ah Lord GOD,' Ezekiel cried, 'they are always saying of me, "He deals only in figures of speech"' (Ezekiel 20.49 REB). The language of the Bible is the language of the sanctified imagination. Blake claimed that the Bible was addressed to the imagination and declared that 'the Whole Bible is fill'd with Imagination and Visions'. Spinoza, one of the founders of modern biblical criticism, stated:

Scripture does not explain things by their secondary causes, but only narrates them in the order and the style which has most power to move men, and especially uneducated men, to devotion; and therefore it speaks inaccurately of God and of events, seeing that its object is not to convince the reason, but to attract and lay hold of the imagination.

A useful guide to the figurative character of scripture is G.B.Caird's The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Caird, 1980). There is now J.C.L. Gibson's Language and Imagery in the Old Testament (Gibson, 1998). Sue Gillingham has surveyed the poetry of the Hebrew Bible, including the Psalms, analysing its form and structure in a way that the Hebrews themselves never of course attempted. They did not draw our basic distinctions, such as that between poetry and prose: the two flow into each other so that we find poetic elements within prose and prosaic tendencies within poetry in the Old Testament (Gillingham, 1994, p.43).

John Keble, a child of Romanticism, believed that the biblical revelation was intrinsically poetic, in the sense of being both the product of the imagination and addressed to the imagination. The art of poetry is to conceal at the same time as it reveals and so to point to the beyond, the unknown, the infinite. Keble prefaced his rendering of the Psalter into English verse with the observation that in revelation God intends 'to disclose, rather than to exhibit, his dealings and his will; to keep himself, to the generality [of people], under a veil of reserve. a certain combination of reserve with openness being of the very essence of poetry' (Gillingham, 1994, pp.15f.). Keble may help us to see that figurative, imaginative language is the appropriate vehicle of divine revelation, preserving as it does, through its combination of disclosure and concealment, the transcendence and mystery of God.

Psalms, hymns and prayers speak of God in the metaphors of king, rock, shepherd, husband, brother, friend and even mother. One Psalmist runs through much of the repertoire: 'I will love thee, O Lord my strength,' he cries. 'The Lord is my stony rock, and my defence: my Saviour, my God, and my might, in whom I will trust, my buckler, the horn also of my salvation, and my refuge' (Psalms 18.1 BCP). These images are edifying, comforting and moving, as the case may be, but laying them end to end for cumulative effect is somehow self-defeating. The shock waves seem to diminish; they certainly do not generate a theological earthquake. So let us go, without more ado, straight to the heart of this matter. It is not the saying of metaphors, but the being a metaphor that is so explosive in biblical revelation. Let me explain that cryptic statement.

In the New Testament Jesus Christ is said to be both the image of God (Colossians 1.15) and the Word of God (John 1.1ff.). Here metaphors of expression—'image' and 'word'—are employed to express a relationship that is beyond human expression, the identity-in-distinction between the Godhead and the human being Jesus of Nazareth. An individual existence not only is a metaphor (as we shall see later), but is described by a metaphor. A person not only becomes a statement, but is stated by an image. A life not only serves as a symbol, but its significance is expressed by a symbol.

Jesus' distinctive teaching is given in the form of parables which are symbolic narratives, sometimes simply conveying one central message or meaning, but certainly demanding an act of imaginative insight on the part of the hearer to understand their meaning. 'Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.' Ricoeur says that a parable is a metaphorical process in narrative form (Ricoeur, 1980, p.26). But there is, once again, a further significant step: the Jesus who speaks in parables is himself a parable, a narrated life imaging the divine. 'Jesus proclaimed God in parables, but the primitive Church proclaimed Jesus as the parable of God' (J.D.Crossan, cited in McFague, 1982, p.48).

The words spoken by the Word and the images poured forth by the Image become vehicles of the same one truth. The Johannine Christ announces: 'The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life' (John 6.63). But those words in the discourse following the feeding of the multitude (as elsewhere) are full of cryptic metaphors and oracular symbols in which Jesus warns that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will attain eternal life. In these Johannine texts we see clearly that Christian faith depends on the truth-bearing capacity of metaphor, symbol and myth—indeed is hostage to it, so to speak. The coming together in scripture of being and meaning through the mediation of language undergirds the validity, dignity and authority of the image and the word. They are elevated to become the bearers of transcendent meaning. Our task, therefore, must be to demonstrate that truth-bearing capacity.

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