When I was a student at the seminary, a required book in one of my classes was called Just Words. Written by a Lutheran theologian named J.A.O Preus III, the goal of this book is to encourage pastors to dive into the deep waters of Biblical language in their preaching. So, instead of just preaching 20 minutes of doctrinal assertions, don't be afraid to speak of death, condemnation, life and salvation the way the Scriptures so frequently do--with images of deserts and drowning, with themes of making low and bringing up, with metaphors of shepherds and seeds.
As one with a B.A. in English who loves to bit smacked in the ears with a bit of prose from the pulpit, I think Preus' admonition is a meet, right and salutary one. Not only does it enrich the layman's understanding of the Scriptures when he hears these themes expanded and expounded in his pastor's sermon, it also helps the pastor develop a backbone of structure in his sermon, which is vital to any good bit of preaching.
There are times, however, when diving into the deep waters of Biblical language can cause you to bonk your head on the bottom of the pool. And I think that most frequently happen when, instead of using images, themes and metaphors to enhance our theology and practice, we actually use them to establish or justify our theology and practice.
So, for example, pastoral themes, themes of fields and flocks, shepherds and sheep, abound in the Scriptures. But when it comes to these themes and their connection to the pastoral office, they serve to paint a picture of what the office is, rather than to establish what that office is. So from these themes, we can better understand how it is that pastors are to feed their members with the word, how they are to love them and to keep them safe from the wolves of false teachers. But they don't tell us specifically in what way pastors are to drive the wolves away. And because of that, I shouldn't conclude that I have the right to reenact the baseball scene from The Untouchables on any problem members in the congregation because any decent shepherd would bludgeon a wolf to death with his staff, given the chance. Rather, I follow the clear, non-metaphorical words of Paul, such as Titus 3:10-11, in order to know how to be faithful to the image of shepherd painted in the Scriptures.
And just as you don't establish doctrine on Biblical themes, imagery and metaphors, you also don't justify novel practices with them. So if a congregation or pastor has something that they would like to do, whether in the Divine Service or as a kind of community event, they ought to be able to demonstrate from the clear, direct words of Scripture that this will promote pure proclamation and understanding of the Word and that it will accurately reflect the love of the God who bought us through the blood of Christ.
And whenever you depart from that guideline (or whatever you want to call it), it becomes really easy to lather yourself up in any practice you want and then claim that it's justified by citing figurative language from the Bible.
And yet, that's precisely what's happened in some circles where Christians have cited the Scripture's use of spiritual warfare language in an attempt to justify the Church embracing the hyperviolent sport known as MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). If you're not familiar with the stuff, here's the YouTube link of the first video that popped up when I searched for it. Classy stuff.
So, after all, we are called to put on the whole armor of God, right? And Christ does rejoice in His victory over the devil, does He not? Therefore, it must be acceptable for Christians to engage in MMA, and even for congregations to host these events, because, after all, our warrior Jesus didn't tap, right?
Well, there are two points of response here.
1. Well, no, Jesus didn't tap. But He also didn't fight back. To use the imagery of MMA, the way Jesus defeated the devil was to get kneed in the face until He was dead. As Isaiah 53 puts it, He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. So if you want an MMA fight to accurately portray the manner in which Christ fought against the devil, I suppose you could try having one guy refuse to punch back until he was brain dead. But I doubt that would make the cut of 2011's Greatest MMA knockouts.
2. Just because we are called to be soldiers of the cross does not mean that we are free to kick our neighbor in the head. The figurative language of spiritual warfare is meant to enhance our understanding of what it means for the devil to try to rip you away from the faith. It's not meant to prescribe how to deal with our neighbor, in particular, whether we may or may not kick him in the head. If you want to know if you may kick your neighbor in the head, there are plenty of clear, non-figurative verses that deal with that issue directly. Such as this one. And this one. And this one. And those verses teach us that Christians shouldn't beat the crap out of each other, even if that's what real life warriors do. Just as they teach us that pastors shouldn't hit troublemakers in the head with big pieces of wood, even though that's what a real life shepherd does to the real life wolves.
So, when it comes to your preaching, don't be afraid of images of deserts and drowning. When it comes to your teaching, wrap yourself in the themes of making low and bringing up. And when it comes to your prayer life, your devotional life, your worship life, dive headfirst into the metaphors of shepherds and sheep.
But don't dive so far down that you bonk your head hard enough to think you're doing the kingdom any favors by encouraging those clad in the armor of God to bionic elbow each other in the throat.