I appreciate very much Eugene Peterson’s comments on the way the Apostle Paul uses metaphor.
Mystery, for Paul, is not what is left over after we have done our best to reason things out. It is inherent in the very nature of God and his works.
God and his operations cannot be reduced to what we are capable of explaining and reproducing.
The way Paul uses language in his writing is to load it with metaphor. There is hardly a paragraph he writes that lacks a metaphor. … Instead of pinning down meaning, metaphor lets it loose. Metaphor does not so much define or label; it expands, forcing the mind into participating action. … [Metaphor forces] the imagination into action to find meaning at another level, engaging the imagination to look for relationships and resonances that tell us more than anything literal. We cannot be passive before a metaphor; we imagine and enter into. Metaphor enlists us in believing-obeying participation. … Paul uses words not to define, but to evoke.
Paul’s language is a living energy field. He doesn’t develop a technical jargon for the sake of being precise about God. … He uses language like a poet. A living faith requires this lively, participatory language. … Paul’s theological imagination enabled him to keep the soaring truths and beauties of the gospel of Jesus Christ accessible and understandable to the very people that gather still in our congregations.
Theology comes alive in conversations and prayers. … Theology is not talking about God but living in community with persons in relationships, who, like Paul live in communities whose names they know.
Paul brings people by name into his theology, making sure we will not conceive theology as something impersonal, something to think about and argue over without living it. [i]
I typed some of the phrases above from Peterson’s writing in italics because I wanted to emphasize the expansive nature of what Peterson wrote, which in turns calls attention to the expansive nature of Paul’s theology. My brother is an Oxford-trained theologian. I often pick his brain, trying to understand what new things need to be written and thought in terms of theology. Hasn’t it all been covered? Isn’t theological writing done today just a rehashing and a reworking of what’s been said previously in the two millennia of Christianity’s existence? Hasn’t it all been said before?
Not the way Peterson presents it. If theology is ever expanding (because the God theology seeks is beyond human words and comprehension, but also is willing to reveal God’s self to unprepared human minds), then theology will never “know it all.” The lively, participatory nature of metaphor is not only necessary for theological understanding; metaphor itself is fueled by God’s very nature. In other words, we need to metaphor to understand God and ourselves and ourselves in relation to God and one another, and metaphor exists because of who God is.
I don’t know if Peterson’s understanding of metaphor and the expansiveness of God gets as the heart of theology as my brother understands it. But I do know what Peterson has written helps me see what my brother has insisted – that theology is necessary, ongoing work. It is the work of scholars. It is also the place where the church comes alive. It is where the rubber meets the road when the church exists in the world as a community “in Christ.”