One thing I appreciate about Calvin the Exegete is his ability to work a metaphor. As good as he was at tracing a logical argument, drawing together variegated texts into a unified whole, he also had a deep appreciation for the pictures that Scripture uses to teach us. Not only does he understand and note them, he expands them and fills them out to great pastoral effect.
We can see him at work in his commentary on the Colossians. Paul is exhorting the Colossians early in chapter two to remain grounded firmly in the tradition that they were taught by Epaphras. False teachers were aiming to steal Christ from them, so Paul mixes three metaphors to paint a portrait of what faithful holding the true doctrine of Christ. Calvin draws them out for us:
- The first is in the word walk. For he compares the pure doctrine of the gospel, as they had learned it, to a way that is sure, so that if any one will but keep it he will be beyond all danger of mistake. He exhorts them, accordingly, if they would not go astray, not to turn aside from the course on which they have entered.
- The second is taken from trees. For as a tree that has struck its roots deep has a sufficiency of support for withstanding all the assaults of winds and storms, so, if any one is deeply and thoroughly fixed in Christ, as in a firm root, it will not be possible for him to be thrown down from his proper position by any machinations of Satan. On the other hand, if any one has not fixed his roots in Christ, he will easily be “carried about with every wind of doctrine”, (Ephesians 4:14,) just as a tree that is not supported by any root.
- The third metaphor is that of a foundation, for a house that is not supported by a foundation quickly falls to ruins. The case is the same with those who lean on any other foundation than Christ, or at least are not securely founded on him, but have the building of their faith suspended, as it were, in the air, in consequence of their weakness and levity.
—Commentary on Colossians 2:6-7
So, we are to be keep to the path, in order to stay rooted, so we can be built up into Christ. Calvin takes each of those metaphors here and lets them have their full force, not letting the reader simply skim on by as we’re wont to do. No, instead, we are shown a safe path, a solidly-rooted tree, and a building which nothing can shake. Scripture’s metaphors are now engraved on our minds–or at least held more concretely than before.
Preachers of God’s word should take note here: work the pictures. Don’t rush past them to make some logical, structural point, but play with the images that the Word gives us–then make the point.
I’m not simply saying we should be like Calvin. Calvin knew what the authors of scripture knew: that God uses these metaphors, these pictures, to capture our imagination in a way that, by the Spirit, our faith is actually increased and maintained. We are affective-imaginative-rational beings who can’t simply hear a logical point, we need to be immersed in it. Our minds and hearts need to have Scripture painted on their walls and windows, so that looking out at the world is like starting through a stained-glass window.
Scripture wouldn’t be so jam-packed with living, breathing images, like bees in a hive, if there weren’t some purpose to them. For preachers, they’re there to be used, to stir up the faith of our hearers to trust more deeply in the Christ whom they heard preach. That’s what Paul did, Calvin after him, and, if we’re smart, we will do too.
Soli Deo Gloria