Back in April of last year I recorded a video course on Biblical Eschatology with Seminary Now. The course will be available soon. I’m excited for you to see it. You can access 3 free sessions by signing up here!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.