What do you do if you want to understand something?
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gandalf said to Saruman, “He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
There’s a lot of truth in that statement. Scripture does have this living quality about it. It moves in people and breathes life into them. So if it has living qualities, then we certainly do not want to break or destroy parts of it when we try to find out what it is and what it means.
But let’s be clear about so-called living documents. When the Supreme Court of the United States refers to the Constitution as a living document, a lot of us cringe. By ‘living’, I don’t mean that the scripture changes to meet the times, as the legal relativists (and positivists) believe. I mean that there is life in the words and symbols. Provided, of course, they reach the heart.
Scripture means what it means, and the truth in it is fixed and unchangeable. If it were not, it couldn’t carry the kind of authority that it does. But it moves. Or, should I say, the Spirit moves through it, giving it a dynamic aspect.
But at the same time, scripture is layered. There can often be found deeper levels of meaning in various passages through metaphor. And there is a great deal of life in the study of metaphor, when you really dig into it.
Study of scriptural metaphor should not alter the plain meaning of the text. If it does, then you’ve destroyed it, and proved Gandalf correct. Rather, metaphor should reinforce the text, and shed light on details not seen before.
Sometimes the text doesn’t even have a plain meaning. We call those verses ‘obscure’. The study of metaphor can uncover the plain meaning, where before, that meaning was sealed.
In Hebrews 8, Paul teaches us that the pattern of the tabernacle, and the priests who served in it, are a shadow of heavenly things. To me, that sounds a lot like the temple furniture is metaphor for heavenly things. What heavenly things do the temple and it’s furniture represent?
How do we proceed, then, to find out what these things are without breaking them? Do we deconstruct the symbols of metaphor to find out what they mean in and of themselves? Or do we examine their relation to other symbols and watch how they move like living things? To work backwards from history to the substance of the unseen things?
Whatever the method we use, it’s not about the method, for we do not place our hope in our methods. We trust the Spirit to guide us into all truth. But it may help to remember to avoid destroying that which we seek along the way.