Two New Books on the Imago Dei

Some years back I wrote The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005). My purpose was to explore what the Bible meant when it described humans as created to be God’s image (Genesis 1:26–28).

I envisioned my primary audience as those involved in the discipline of theology—both scholars and students. The problem, as I perceived it, was that many theologians writing on the topic of the imago Dei had not engaged Scripture very much and seemed unacquainted with the excellent work done on the topic by biblical scholars. The theological books and articles on the imago Dei that I read tended to be too speculative; they engaged primarily with what other theologians (ancient and modern) had written and were not rooted in what the Bible actually says on the topic.

The Approach and Argument of The Liberating Image

Granted, the Bible doesn’t seem to say much on the topic of the imago Dei; explicit biblical texts seem few and far between. But by paying attention to context I attempted to show that the biblical writers had a specific understanding of being human in mind—namely, that humans are meant to be the representatives of God on earth, gifted with dignity and agency, and commissioned with the vocation of developing the world to the glory of God.

Among the various interpretations of the imago Dei, this view has been called the functional view (it highlights human action, not some faculties that make us human that we supposedly have in common with God); it has been called the royal interpretation (we represent the King of creation by our own “rule” of the earth); It has also been called the vocational view of the image (the focus is on the human vocation or calling in the world)—this is my preferred terminology.

To clarify this understanding of the image, I first addressed the history of interpretation of the imago Dei and laid out the assumptions I was working with—my methodology and hermeneutics. Then I engaged in a careful reading of Genesis 1:26–28 in the context of the creation account in Genesis 1:1–2:3, noting how this understanding of creation dovetailed with the rest of Scripture.

The next section of the book examined the ancient Near Eastern background to the idea of the image of God, focusing on the theology of cult images (idols) and the rationale for kings being called the image of their gods in Egypt and Babylonia/Assyria. I tried to show how the understanding of the imago Dei developed from attention to the biblical and cultural contexts of the term unifies the Primeval History (Genesis 1–11) as an account of human culture that was alternative to that found in the ancient Near East.

A final section of the book explored in more detail the ethics of the image, especially how the biblical imago Dei addressed the question of violence in our world. I attempted to show that we are meant to image God’s loving use of power, both as depicted in Genesis 1 and as modeled by Jesus. The book ended with these words: “In both creation and redemption, God so loved the world that he gave . . . .”

I’ve been very pleased by the reception The Liberating Image received, well beyond the community of theological readers. It has been read by theologians and by scholars in different fields (the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences), who have found it helpful for connecting their fields of study with biblical anthropology. The book has also been used by pastors and theological students, who have found it grounding for ministry in the contemporary world.

God’s Prism: My Popular Book on the Imago Dei

Almost from the very beginning, however, I began to receive suggestions from readers that I write a popular version of The Liberating Image, which would be more accessible to lay Christians.

That book is finally coming. I am working on a short book for Baker Academic, with the tentative title, God’s Prism: The Imago Dei in the Biblical Story (I’ve been using the idea of a prism to communicate the meaning of the imago Dei since a talk I gave at the University of Rochester in 1988).

Presenting on the Imago Dei at Upper House, University of Wisconsin-Madison (July 2022)

The new book will combine the ethical thrust of The Liberating Image (the use and abuse of power) with what I call a sacramental focus (this was a subtheme in The Liberating Image, but it wasn’t foregrounded).

I plan to highlight the theme of God’s desire to make creation a cosmic temple indwelt by God’s glory/presence, with humans called to manifest that glory/presence through the way we exercise power on earth. The book will trace this theme throughout the entire Bible, from creation to the eschaton, showing the Bible’s thematic coherence around the imago Dei.

Grounded in this theme, the book will address implications of this sacramental-ethical understanding of the image for a variety of contemporary issues, all relating to human dignity and the use of power in the world.

I have been teaching the imago Dei this way for the past decade or more, both in courses at Northeastern Seminary and Roberts Wesleyan University and in public lectures I’ve been giving at churches and other groups of Christians in Canada, the USA, and elsewhere.

Whether or not the title God’s Prism sticks (publishers ultimately determine the title), I am hoping that this new book will be available in 2025, the twentieth anniversary of the publication of The Liberating Image.

Being God’s Image: Carmen Imes on the Imago Dei

In the meantime, however, I can point readers to a wonderful new book by Carmen Imes, called Being God’s Image: Why Creation Still Matters (IVP Academic), scheduled for publication in 2023.

This is a “prequel” to Carmen’s earlier book, Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters (IVP Academic, 2019), which is a popular version of her academic book, Bearing YHWH’s Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command in the Decalogue, Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 19 (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018).

The academic book won the R. B. Y. Scott Award from the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (CSBS) for an outstanding book in Hebrew Bible and/or the ancient Near East. I was vice-president of CSBS that year (I became president the year after) and I personally presented Carmen with the award.

That was how I first met Carmen Imes.

Since then I have come to know Carmen as a wonderful Old Testament scholar, who cares passionately for the church. She writes (books, articles, blogs) and posts on YouTube with a view to teaching Christians more about the Bible’s vision for life, in the process empowering them to live for their Lord in all the ups and downs of life in this complex world.

I had the privilege of reading the pre-publication manuscript of Being God’s Image and writing the Foreword.

I can testify that this will be a most helpful book for laypeople in the church. You don’t need to be a theologian or a pastor to understand Carmen’s lucid writing. Yet she has sneakily woven serious biblical scholarship into what seems to be a breezy, conversational book addressed to ordinary readers.

When Being God’s Image is published, I invite you to delve into the book and allow your vision to be expanded. Carmen will help you to appreciate the tremendous love of God for all people and for all creation, a love that led the Creator to became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, to bring healing and redemption to a broken world and a broken humanity. May this amazing biblical vision inspire and empower you to live toward your calling to be fully human in God’s marvelous world.

Reflections of a Kuyperian Wesleyan

I was recently invited to write a Foreword to a new book of Portuguese essays on a Christian worldview. The book is aimed at Brazilian Christians interested in how the Christian faith can impact all of culture to God’s glory.

This is a unique book. First of all, it is a work of contextualization, written by and for Brazilian Christians. Beyond that, the authors address various topics relevant to a Christian worldview specifically from the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. This is unusual, since those who emphasize the importance of a Christian worldview are typically located in the Reformed or Calvinist tradition.

I was invited to write the Foreword since I am someone who bridges this divide in my own work, doing biblical interpretation as a Wesleyan theologian informed by a Christian worldview. And it didn’t hurt that the book I wrote with Brian Walsh on a Christian worldview (The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview [IVP, 1984]) has been translated into Portuguese (A Visão Transformadora: Moldando uma cosmovisão cristã [Cultura Cristã, 2010]).

So I took the opportunity to explore in this Foreword (more fully than I’ve done elsewhere) the extent to which the Reformed and Wesleyan traditions overlap and are compatible (especially as they relate to a Christian worldview), drawing on my experience of these two traditions.

The book is entitled: Cosmovisão Cristã: Reflexões éticas contemporâneas a partir da Teologia Arminio-Wesleyana, which translates into English as: Christian Worldview: Contemporary Ethical Reflections from Arminian-Wesleyan Theology. It contains twenty essays, edited by Vinicius Couto, and will be published by Reflexão Editora in Sao Paulo.

The essays cover topics such as:

  • the nature of worldviews
  • the biblical vision of creation, fall, redemption
  • the mission of the church
  • the nature of Brazilian society
  • ecology
  • wealth and poverty
  • human sexuality
  • feminism
  • the arts
  • citizenship in a democracy
  • abortion
  • tolerance in a pluralistic society
  • education in schools, universities, and churches
  • Marxism
  • the nature of work
  • communication in the twenty-first century.

Each essay is written by an author who works either as an academic or a practitioner in the area addressed.

My thanks to Vinicius Couto for translating my Foreword below into Portuguese.


I am delighted by the invitation to write a Foreword to this book on Christian worldview from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective in the Brazilian context. Like the editor and the authors of the various chapters, I am a Wesleyan Christian, who works in the area of worldviews.

A Cultural and Ecclesial Journey

I started my journey of Christian discipleship in a holiness church in the Wesleyan tradition in Jamaica (the Missionary Church) and earned my BTh at Jamaica Theological Seminary (a theological school founded by this denomination).

After Seminary I immigrated to Canada, where I completed Masters and Doctoral degrees, and then later immigrated to the United States to take up a teaching position. Along the way, I attended churches in various Reformed, Presbyterian, and Baptist denominations, but I found my way back, some twenty years ago, to the Wesleyan tradition (the Free Methodist Church). A few years after that (in 2002) I began teaching at Roberts Wesleyan College and since 2011 I have taught at Northeastern Seminary (both founded by the Free Methodists).

Although I am a Wesleyan, the Reformed theological tradition has been important to me—specifically, that branch of the Reformed tradition associated with the Dutch statesman and thinker Abraham Kuyper. While in Canada I studied at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, a graduate school shaped by Kuyper’s vision, which claims that all human life and culture—indeed all creation—belongs to God.

It was Kuyper who first introduced the importance of a Christian worldview (he called it a “world-and-life view”) to North American Christians in his Stone Lectures on Calvinism at Princeton University in 1898–99.1 Ever since then, the idea of a Christian worldview has usually been thought of as a Calvinist or Reformed theological emphasis.

On Being a Kuyperian Wesleyan

However, I have been teaching biblical theology (with a specialization in Old Testament) for many years in a manner that integrates a Kuyperian understanding of worldviews with a Wesleyan theological perspective.2 Just as my experience of living in three different nations has led me to describe my hybrid cultural identity as “Jamericadian,” so I have come to identify myself theologically as a Kuyperian Wesleyan.

What does that mean? What relationship is there between the Kuyperian branch of the Reformed tradition and Wesleyan theology?

John Wesley said that his theology differed by only a hair’s breadth from that of Calvin.3 That may have been an overstatement, especially given their differences on the question of sanctification.4 However, when it comes to the Kuyperian version of Calvinism and the Wesleyan tradition, there is significant overlap that bears on the topic of this volume.

All the World Belongs to God

Central to the Kuyperian tradition is Christ’s cosmic lordship over all things, which results in an emphasis on the cultural mandate—the call to develop culture to God’s glory (Gen 1:26–26; Gen 2:15). These themes are summarized in a famous quote from Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign Lord of all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”5

It is well known that John Wesley said, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”Although the context of that quote was his willingness to be a pastor or evangelist to all people, Wesley himself had a vision of the entire world—including culture, the sciences, and human reason—as belonging to God. He demonstrated his interest in the natural sciences by collecting the best writing of his day on the topic, which was published in a multi-volume work entitled A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, Being a Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation.7

The range of topics related to a Christian worldview addressed by the Wesleyan-Arminian authors in this volume is entirely in harmony both with Kuyper’s vision and with the breadth of Wesley’s interests.

A New Heaven and a New Earth

In the last decade of his life Wesley came to disavow the unbiblical idea of an immaterial heaven as the final destiny of the believer. By contrast, he affirmed the biblical teaching (Rom 8:19–21; Eph 1:10; Col 1:20) of God’s desire to redeem all things in heaven and earth (including human culture and the natural world) through Christ.8 This emphasis on cosmic redemption (“a new heaven and a new earth”; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1) is also central to the Kuyperian tradition. In both traditions God’s saving work through Christ is understood to be as wide as creation.9

Since this redemption of “all things” is rooted in God’s love for his good but fallen creation—a love that does not diminish even after the fall—the authors in this volume are motivated by their desire to love what God loves. So they are willing to explore what leads to human flourishing in various realms of cultural life.

The Need for Human Effort

Some branches of the Reformed theological tradition have tended to emphasize the sovereignty and glory of God to the exclusion (or even denigration) of human “works” (as if it were opposed to faith). Yet the apostle Paul, who was the chief proponent of justification by faith, saw no contradiction between faith and good works. Paul affirmed that we are saved by faith yet created for good works (Eph 2:8–9), and he enjoined the church in Philippi to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).

Within the Reformed tradition, Kuyperians stand out in positively valuing human participation with God in developing culture in ways that contribute to earthly flourishing. This valuation of human subjectivity (the contributions humans can make to God’s world), along with a radical critique of subjectivism (the absolutization of the human subject), was central to my studies at the Institute for Christian Studies, including my doctoral work on the image of God (imago Dei).10 This Kuyperian approach is eminently congruent with the Wesleyan-Arminian emphasis on the need for human effort in the process of sanctification.11

The Role of the Church

But there are some differences of emphasis between the Kuyperian and Wesleyan traditions. The Kuyperian tradition has been very helpful in distinguishing between 1) the church as an institution (denomination or local church) and 2) the church as the body of Christ or God’s people, who may organize themselves in denominations and gather for worship, teaching, and fellowship; but who are still God’s people when they simply live their lives in the world, as parents, spouses, citizens, politicians, engineers, students, teachers, farmers, workers; and also when they organize themselves into non-ecclesial institutions, such as schools, labor unions, etc. So the church in the first (narrower) sense is only one manifestation of the church in the second (wider) sense.

Kuyper thus calls on Christians wherever they are and whatever they do (whether individually or collectively) to represent the Lord Christ (and his kingdom) in their lives. It is the mission of the church (in the broader sense as God’s people / the body of Christ) to conform their lives to the standards and values of the King of all creation.

But the distinctive contribution of the Wesleyan tradition is its emphasis on the crucial role of the gathered (institutional) church for the life of faith and the importance of ecclesial witness. The worship of the gathered church (along with discipleship groups) should be spiritually formative, grounding the life of the people of God for faithful living in the wider world (which is still God’s world). I found this ecclesial emphasis to be underdeveloped in my exposure to the Kuyperian tradition.

But I don’t want to give up on the Kuyperian distinction between the two senses of church. In fact, if we read the Pauline epistles with the broader sense of “church” in mind, they have much more far-reaching implications, addressing what Wesleyans have called “social holiness.”12

The World as God’s Cosmic Temple

There is also a sacramentalism in Wesley, which he learned from the Greek Fathers (who influenced him greatly). While this is sometimes limited to the idea of sanctification as participation in Christ (equivalent to the Greek term theosis), Wesley’s sacramentalism has far-reaching implications for a Christian worldview. I have had to go beyond the Kuyperian understanding of the world as God’s kingdom to view the cosmos as God’s temple. Human beings are the designated image in the cosmic sanctuary of creation, called to channel God’s presence from heaven (pictured in the Bible as God’s throne room, the cosmic Holy of Holies) to earth. The cultural mandate is, therefore, both a royal and a sacred calling.

Earth is not strictly speaking “secular” or “profane,” but is equivalent to the holy place in the cosmic temple, such that ordinary earthly life is constituted as priestly service to the Creator. Of course, the earth, as God’s intended holy place, may be desecrated; but earthly life is never simply “secular.”

I am grateful to have been profoundly shaped by these differing traditions rooted in God’s creation, which have been unfolded and refolded over time by communities of faithful Christ-followers, in ways that engender blessing and shalom in God’s world.

It is my hope that this volume of essays on the Christian worldview, undergirded by the Wesleyan-Arminian theological tradition and offered to the Brazilian church, may challenge us both intellectually and practically to be more faithful disciples of our Lord in a complex and hurting world.

J. Richard Middleton
Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis
Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College
Rochester, NY, USA


NOTES AND REFERENCES

The lectures were published by Eerdmans, originally in 1931 under the title Calvinism, later in different editions as Lectures on Calvinism. On Kuyper’s legacy, see Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) and Richard J. Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

This integration of Kuyperian and Wesleyan perspectives goes back even before my formal teaching career to two books I co-authored with Brian Walsh in Canada: The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1984), Portuguese edition: A Visão Transformadora: Moldando uma cosmovisão cristã, translated by Valdeci Santos (São Paulo: Cultura Cristã, 2010); and Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1995). The former was written when I was a campus minister with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, the latter when I was a doctoral student at the Institute for Christian Studies.

In Minutes of Some Late Conversations (1745), Wesley was asked how close the gospel came to Calvinism; he replied “within a hair’s breadth” (Friday, August 2, questions 22–23). In a 1765 letter to John Newton, when discussing Calvin’s understanding of justification, Wesley stated: “I do not differ from him an hair’s breadth” (my emphasis).

The differences between Wesley (both John and Charles) and Calvin are most evident (though not limited to) the role of human freedom in relation to divine action (especially predestination) in relation to the Christian’s experience of sanctification.

Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488 (from a speech on October 20, 1880 in Amsterdam).

John Wesley, Journal, June 11, 1739.

John Wesley, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, Being a Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation, 3 vols., ed. Robert Mudie (London, UK: Thomas Tegg and Sons, 1836).

See Wesley’s sermons, “The General Deliverance,” sermon 60 (on Rom 8:19–22) and “The New Creation,” sermon 64 (on Rev 21:5), in The Sermons of John Wesley (1872 ed.), ed Thomas Jackson. Also Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1754) on Rom 8:21.

The Kuyperian and Wesleyan perspectives on cosmic redemption come together in Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

10 This valuation of the human contribution led me to explore the way Scripture was written to address actual historical situations, specifically how the doctrine of the imago Dei constituted a critique of Mesopotamian ideology; see Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).

11 The emphasis on the importance of human effort shows up in my exploration of the role of human actors in Scripture, such as my discussion of how the prophet Samuel contributed to the fall of King Saul in 1 Samuel. When I taught this material during a 2009 sabbatical in Jamaica, my students immediately recognized this as an Arminian approach to the text. Some of that material is published as Middleton, “Samuel Agonistes: A Conflicted Prophet’s Resistance to God and Contribution to the Failure of Israel’s First King.,” chap. 4 in Prophets, Prophecy, and Ancient Israelite Historiography, ed. by Mark J. Boda and Lissa M. Wray Beal (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 69–91.

12 Wesley himself noted (in contrast to the approach of the desert mystics): “The gospel of Christ knows no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.” John Wesley, “Preface,” to Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), viii (paragraph 5), in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 14 (3rd ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 321.