What a funny word. What does it mean, you may ask? Well, according to my old “Doctrine of the Word” papers, it’s definition is something along the lines of when “one text alludes to an earlier text in a way that evokes resonances of the earlier text beyond those explicitly cited” (thank you, Richard Hays). So, essentially, it’s a literary echo. It’s when you learn more about the second passage of a book because it reminds you of the first. The very structure of the text is like music, self-repeating and layered—throughout the Scriptures, the authors reuse phrases, changing the wording subtly so that it has an even deeper meaning that evokes the first (this metaphor can be attributed to Leithart).
The concept is one of my FAVORITES, out of all the things that I learned while getting my Religious Studies degree, because I think that it epitomizes some of the most essential doctrines of the Scriptures out there. When many Christians think of the Bible, they think of it in confusing or watered-down terms. The Bible is a “love letter”, they say, a mirror for our personal struggles and a storehouse of encouraging quotations. There are a few stories thrown in, and a couple of books that don’t make any sense, but mostly it’s just God’s way of helping us through hard times. This picture, guys, doesn’t even come close to the realities of the intricate, powerful, written Word.
Above all else, the Bible is first meant to be the narrative of God’s work over the course of human history, not something that can be randomly utilized for our own purposes. Both the Old & the New Testaments are continuously telling one long story about how the divine has interacted with humanity- that is, it’s a story of creation, of sin, and of redemption. At the beginning (think Genesis, Exodus, all the way to the prophets) this interaction primarily took place between God and Israel, but through Christ, Gentiles (that is, anybody who is NOT a Jew) are pulled into that narrative as well. This concept is reinforced by… you got it, metalypsis. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul mentions a portion of Israel’s history that is described in Exodus and Numbers: although he is vague, his use of metalypsis opens up the world of the New Testament and evokes images of, among other things, a golden calf. The New Testament passage is referring to the Corinthians’ situation regarding meat sacrificed to idols, and Paul addresses the issue by first speaking to the Gentile Christians as if they were Israel. From that point, Paul’s entire argument is based on an imaginative projection of the Gentile’s lives into the framework of the Jewish narrative. That means that Gentiles can read that Old Testament as if it was our heritage, too.
This historical-redemptive narrative is often broken up into two parts: the Law and the Gospel. The Law are those portions of the Old Testament that lay out the ways that Christians are supposed to behave to become righteous, and the things we can do to try to atone for our sin. It’s a disclosure of God’s will, which, in the ancient times of the Old Testament, separated his people from the nations surrounding them. It was an expression of their special relationship with God. In the history of salvation, it acts as an indicator of man’s (both Jew and Gentile) sinfulness. Enter metalypsis: in Romans 3, Paul uses passages from Psalms (13:2-3, 5:10, 139:4, etc), which emphasize the unrighteousness of those outside of the covenant, to apply this failure to both the Gentiles and the Jews. Thus, the Law reaches out of its purely historical and narrative sense (as is connected to the Jewish identity) to judge all of humanity, which then causes it to point to the need of a Savior. And so, we realize that the true heart of all these rules is to make us realize that we can never keep them. We can’t do it. The Law condemns all people as sinful and broken and indicates that God has gathered his people in unity under his righteousness, both Jew and Gentile.
And then we get to the Gospel. This portion of the Bible is the accounting of how God, in his love and mercy, makes a way for humanity: Jesus Christ (God incarnate) lived a perfect life and died; by faith in him, now any person can be saved through grace. Throughout the New Testament, metalypsis is used a thousand times to reinforce the nature of Jesus as God. For instance, the use of the phrase “in the beginning” (1:1) in the gospel of John echoes the harmonic process of creation in Genesis, where the sovereign God created and filled the world in an act of divine self-giving. The reader is reminded of the foundational nature of this act and connects Jesus, the Word, with all that God does from the point on, for “He was with God” (John 1:2). Connections between the Incarnation and creation are instantly drawn— ties of renewal, of God’s self-sacrifice, and of hope become clear and the Christian’s reading of Scripture is enriched. This apostolic reading is generally used as a tool to read Christ into the larger narrative of the Biblical story, as the older texts change meanings in light of the newer ones. Thus, the purpose, inspiration, and unity of the Bible become even further interwoven, pointing to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
The Bible is so much more than we give it credit for. It’s the complex, culture-laden, living and active narrative of God’s work throughout history. It’s a story of the Law and of the Gospel, of our sin and our redemption, of Christ making a way into life where before there was only death. As I said, it’s powerful. Like so many good things, the Scriptures are incredibly simple and yet way more complex than you or I could ever understand … in that, I would say that they are beautiful. Metalypsis is only a tiny fragment of how layers of meaning in this text are unearthed, revealing that verse after verse points to the truth of Christ. When I was first introduced to the concept, I found it mind-blowing. And now, well, I still do.