On Deconstruction and Reconstruction of the Christian Faith

There has been a lot of talk over the past twenty years or so about “deconstructing” the Christian faith (especially its evangelical versions). The problem, however, is that sometimes there is no substantial reconstruction that aims to recover the authentic, classical faith tradition—beyond its distortions.

I Began Deconstruction as an Undergraduate Theology Student

Although I would not have described it that way at the time, I was engaged in deconstruction (and reconstruction) of my faith from the very start of my undergraduate theological studies in Jamaica. I was blessed with a pastor at Grace Missionary Church and with professors at Jamaica Theological Seminary who welcomed healthy questioning and modeled an open and generous—fully orthodox—Christianity.

I have come to realize that this openness to questioning inherited traditions was also a function of doing theology in the Majority World, since both professors and students were vividly aware of the need for contextualization of the faith for the sake of the Caribbean church. We were thus prepared to challenge received versions of our church traditions, especially when they were shaped by Eurocentric or American biases. Professors and (especially) students in my Jamaican context were unafraid to dismantle what we thought was unhelpful, while seeking to be grounded in a better version of the core tradition of our faith.

As a result of my formative theological education in Jamaica, the deconstruction-reconstruction dialectic has been central to all my teaching and writing over the years.

Deconstruction and Reconstruction in My Writing

As a biblical scholar, committed to the renewal of the church, I have typically challenged received interpretations of Scripture in my books and articles. My approach has been to try and show that these interpretations are not rooted in a best reading of Scripture nor are they helpful for faithful living in our complex world.

To that end I have written books on a holistic Christian worldview (The Transforming Vision), the relevance of the Bible in our postmodern context (Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be), humanity created in God’s image (The Liberating Image), new creation eschatology (A New Heaven and a New Earth), and Abraham’s silent attempt to sacrifice Isaac in the context of the Bible’s prayers of vocal protest (Abraham’s Silence).

In each case, I have attempted to propose better interpretations of these topics than what I found in the received tradition—better in that they arise from more careful reading of Scripture and that they have transformative implications for human life in the real world.

Deconstruction and Reconstruction in My Teaching—Toward a Christian Worldview

This dialectic of deconstruction and reconstruction is at the core of a signature course on a Christian worldview that I have been teaching (and constantly developing) for many decades, focusing on biblical theology in dialogue with the contemporary world.

The early versions of this course (which I taught when I was a campus minister in Southern Ontario, Canada) led to a co-authored book with Brian Walsh, called The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP, 1984).

Next year I will begin working on a new version of that book, based on the way the course has evolved over the years. My tentative title for the new book is Shaped by God’s Story: Christian Worldview in a Global Key (also with IVP, set to be released on the fortieth anniversary of The Transforming Vision).

The course challenges students to rethink their orientation to life by re-reading Scripture as a grounding story that takes seriously our pain and our hopes. The course combines engaged biblical interpretation with historical analysis of the church’s sacred/secular dualism, the western myth of conquest and progress, and the postmodern condition, while encouraging students to explore their calling in God’s world.

I’ve been teaching this course since 2002 for undergraduates at Roberts Wesleyan University under the title “Exploring the Christian Worldview.” I’ve also taught a version of the course since 2011 for graduate students at Northeastern Seminary, where it is called “Being in the Story.”

More than any other course, this one often leads to student disorientation. As the course progresses, it is common for students to exclaim with dismay, “Oh no, I need to unlearn everything I have been taught!” I usually point out that they may need to unlearn some things, but that they typically have a pretty solid and stable core of faith to build on.

Starting with Trust, before Deconstruction

I have learned not to begin with deconstruction. A hermeneutic of suspicion is an important second step in the learning process; but we need to start with a hermeneutic of trust (and trust is where we end too). First, I offer students a more excellent way; then comes the critique of unhelpful tradition.

The metaphor that I use to explain my pedagogy is as follows: I begin by offering students the rich, plush carpet of biblical faith, then I gently begin to pull the threadbare rug of bad theology and inadequate biblical interpretation out from under them. They usually step quite eagerly onto the plush carpet.

At the end of one memorable course in Old Testament theology, which I taught at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology in Jamaica while on sabbatical, a student stood up on the last day of class and said (with a huge smile on his face): “Professor, you destroyed my theology!”

Of course, he had found something better. That’s the way deconstruction ought to work.

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.

J. Richard Middleton (Northeastern Seminary): 30 OT/HB Scholars to Read and Follow

Here is a blog interview that New Testament Professor Nijay Gupta did with me last year for part of a series he was posting on Old Testament scholars.

NOVEMBER 9, 2020 BY NIJAY GUPTA

Richard Middleton, Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College

Why do you love teaching and researching about the OT/HB?

I find the Old Testament to be rich, complex, and textured—in its literature, its theology, and its earthy spirituality. The literature is so varied (from creation texts to prayers of lament, from wisdom treatises to narratives about the ancestors of Israel and the rise and fall of the monarchy), it’s impossible to get bored with it. One of the great challenges for those who teach the Old Testament is that it is impossible to “master” it. You develop various areas of expertise, but there is always so much more that you have to learn.

The earthiness of the Old Testament is also a great antidote to some of the otherworldly spirituality that has become embedded in the history of the church. Since the Old Testament was the Scripture of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, it was the story and symbolic world in terms of which they mapped their lives and God’s plan of redemption for the ages. This means that it is essential for us to understand the worldview of the Old Testament, since it shapes the New Testament in a fundamental way. So my study of the Old Testament has led me to become a better reader of the New Testament.

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

I think I have two big ideas, or at least two emphases, that I hope I have been able to communicate in my teaching and writing. When I started teaching at Northeastern Seminary, the Dean suggested I take the title Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, since these were my twin emphases.

The first emphasis that I want to communicate is the big picture, the story of the Bible from creation to eschaton, which is the story that ought to make sense of our lives (the trouble is that many in the church have “lost the plot”). So the big picture can help reorient the church to its vocation (the missio Dei), how it is called to contribute to the unfolding of God’s purposes for the world God loves. For me, this has meant a focus (initially, at least) on creation texts, whether in Genesis, the Psalms, Job, or the prophetic literature. Creation is the founding moment of the biblical story and studying these texts helps us see God’s original intentions for humanity and the world, which have something to say about the telos or goal of salvation.

The other big idea that I want to communicate (and model) is that careful reading of the biblical text yields wonderful theological and ethical results. I’ve tried to show precisely that in exegesis courses that I teach on Genesis, Samuel, Job, and the Psalms. This means reading with an inquiring mind, wondering why the text says what it does, and why it says it in the way that it does. It means bringing the entirety of who we are to the study of the Bible, including our hopes, our doubts, our assumptions, our questions, and being willing to challenge the text—so long as we are willing to be challenged in response. The Bible is not a safe book; it can radically change us.

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

My first academic hero is Walter Brueggemann. Although I haven’t always agreed with Brueggemann (I’ve written an article critical of his creation theology, and he graciously accepted my critiques), his attempt to bridge the gap from the ancient biblical text to the contemporary world has inspired me to try and do the same. He particularly opened up to me the riches of the prophetic literature and the Psalms.

What books were formative for you when you were a student? Why were they so important and shaping?

When I was an undergraduate theological student, I was profoundly affected by George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth. In that book Ladd tried to sketch the Synoptic pattern, the Johannine pattern, the Pauline pattern, and also to address the Old Testament pattern that undergirded the New Testament. Whether or not I would fully agree with his analysis of the New Testament today, his attempt to show both diversity and coherence in the New Testament text was very helpful. But most helpful of all was Ladd’s chapter called “The Background of the Pattern: Greek or Hebrew?” where he did detailed textual study of Plato, Philo, and the Old Testament to address whether the Old Testament pattern was human ascent from the world to God or God’s descent from heaven to earthly existence.

When I was a graduate theological student, it was Brueggemann’s books that deeply impacted me—first The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, then The Prophetic Imagination. I still assign them in courses.

Read Middleton’s Work

The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1

A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology

If you ran into me at SBL, and you didn’t want to talk about OT/HB studies, what would you want to talk about?

I would probably talk about music—especially reggae (both from my home country and “world reggae”) and the music of Bruce Cockburn and Leonard Cohen.

What is a research/writing project you are working on right now that you are excited about?

I am now finishing the final chapter of a book on the Aqedah (Genesis 22) for Baker Academic. It’s called: Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God. It’s a theology of prayer for a time of suffering, developed through interaction with biblical texts (the only way I know how to do theology).

Update: Abraham’s Silence is now complete (published November 2021). For information, see the Baker website.

For those interested, there is a recent review of Abraham’s Silence, called “Revisiting the Sacrifice of Isaac.”