Theology in 3D

Theological Imagination

Layton Talbert | October 5, 2017
New Testament, Theology

Imagination is the ability to form a mental image of something not present to the senses, or never before wholly perceived in reality (American Heritage Dictionary). It seems logical and theologically safe to say that everything that exists existed in the mind of God before he created it, making him the ultimate and infinite Imaginer. It is a capacity the Creator passed along uniquely to humanity via the imago dei. Everyone employs it on some level every day. Imagination is the ground of all metaphor, though probably its most common form is memory. We are distinguished from all other earthly sentient creatures not merely by cogitation but by imagination. Without it there would be no art or architecture, no music or poetry, no mathematics or geometry, no games or inventions. Anything and everything that makes life not just survivable but actually enjoyable hinges on the human capacity of imagination.

Here, however, I’m talking about a very specific kind of imagination: theological imagination. As I began working on this piece, I discovered that much more has been written on this subject than I had, um, imagined. And not all of it is good, or even orthodox. So I need to fence my definition a bit for the sake of clarity. As I am using the term, theological imagination is not merely an exercise in the free-range thinking of fallen minds, but a capacity to think outside the box (cogitare extra arca archa) yet still within God-ordained limits (bounded by the rest of God’s revelation).

The writings of C. S. Lewis are thick with characters who embody his theological imagination: from Aslan to Orual to Ransom to Screwtape. Lewis’s theological imagination, however, was not limited to fictional personifications. He also employed it to help with doctrinal abstractions. For example, he proposes an imaginatively helpful way, not of explaining, or modelling, or understanding the Trinity (all those verbs are too presumptuous), but of conceiving of (imagining) the Trinity in dimensional terms. (See his chapter on “The Three-Personal God” in Mere Christianity.)

What I mean by theological imagination (hereafter TI), then, is both the ability and the willingness to engage this God-given, God-like capacity in order to conceive beyond what a given text says, especially when what the text says seems inconceivable. In other words, at its best, TI is a display of unruffled confidence in God’s words, the application of faith to believe the incredible simply because God says it, even to the point of imagining ways the reliability of God’s words may be validated.

A Biblical Example of TI

The Bible is peppered with examples of TI: Mordecai’s challenge to Esther, David’s confrontation of Goliath, Daniel’s three friends facing the furnace, Jonathan and his armor bearer, Asa’s prayer in the face of a million Ethiopians or Hezekiah’s in the face of the threats of Babylon, Jesus and the twelve angelic legions. The Bible also furnishes examples of imaginational failures: Israel at the Red Sea or in the wilderness or on the doorstep of Canaan, Ahab going into battle in cognito, Gehazi’s imprudent ploy to pull the wool over the eyes of a seer.

To my mind, however, the premiere example of TI is Abraham in Hebrews 11:17-19.The fulcrum of the passage is Abraham’s faith in God’s promise. It’s right in the text. Abraham is identified as “he who had received the promise” (11:17), and Isaac as the one “of whom it was said [promised], ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called’” (11:18). The passage thrusts God’s promise right under our nose so we will see that, in the end, this is what Genesis 22 was really about.

The locus of Abraham’s dilemma was the apparent contradiction between a promise of God and a command of God. The same God who said,

Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him(Gen 17:19)

now said,

Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you (Gen 22:2).

The Genesis account gives no hint that the command created any conflict or quandary for Abraham at all. He never questions, never vacillates; his action is decisive, his speech calm and deliberate, his movements steady and uninterrupted until the sudden call of the angel arrests Abraham’s hand as he reaches for the knife. How could Abraham be so unhesitatingly resolute in the face of such a catastrophic and contradictory command?

By now, it seems, Abraham’s trust in God’s words was so reflexive, so instinctive and unwavering, that he had already arrived at an astonishingly imaginative conclusion regarding Isaac: he considered* that “God was able to raise him up even from the dead” if that’s what it would take to keep his promise (11:19). *[The word in the text is logizomai, to reckon, account, calculate, reason, infer.]

What makes this so extraordinary, of course, is that Abraham had no revelatory basis for coming to such a conclusion, and certainly no historical precedent that Isaac’s resurrection was an option. Yet he was so thoroughly convinced of the reliability of God’s words that it was easier for him to imagine that God would do something utterly unprecedented than that he could fail to fulfill his words, to the letter. Abraham’s willingness to think outside the box is one of the most striking examples of theological imagination in the Bible.

I think it’s profoundly instructive that Abraham’s instinct was not to rethink God’s promise regarding Isaac in a way that might more easily accommodate this unexpected turn of events. He didn’t reason, “Maybe God meant spiritual descendants; maybe when he promised land to me and my descendants through Isaac he was speaking figuratively.” Convinced of the straightforward meaning of God’s promises, Abraham clung deliberately to the jots and tittles of God’s words, and engaged his imagination to conclude that God would do something utterly unique rather than fail to do exactly what he’d said.

Feeding and Fencing TI

Spurgeon once observed that zeal is like fire; it requires both feeding and watching. The same may be said for theological imagination.

TI’s natural habitat lies just outside the definitive explanations of God’s words, like a dog on a chain long enough to let him to nose around just beyond his master’s property boundaries. Once it slips its leash to wander free and far away from its legitimate center of authority (namely, what revelation does address definitively), TI can get into all kinds of odd and even heretical territory. The real danger, then, is when one begins to get (if you’ll pardon the pun) dogmatic about one’s imaginations.

On the other hand, tended and tethered, a little TI can go a long way toward bolstering faith, relieving tensions that arise from our (often self-imposed) mental limitations, and giving God’s words the benefit of any doubts that may arise because of imaginational feebleness to envisage how he could possibly do exactly what he has said he will do.

Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert

5 responses to “Theological Imagination”

  1. Greg Stiekes says:

    Thanks for posting on this topic! This is one of my favorite subjects, and Lewis is a master at forming the categories of imagination in our understanding. For instance, when Prince Rilian is trapped with Eustace and Jill and Puddleglum in the “underworld,” and the witch-queen of underworld is trying to convince them that the “real” world consists only of what they can see there. In a last-ditch effort of sheer will, Puddleglum stamps out the enchanting fire with his webbed foot, and the odor in the air was replaced by the smell of burnt Marshwiggle (which, Lewis comments, is not a very enchanting smell at all). And then he says something like, “Even though it seems that this black pit of a world is all there is, I’m still a Narnian, and I’m going to live my life seeking that country!”
    I’m actually preaching at my church a series entitled, “Restoring Our Spiritual Vision,” based on Hebrews 11, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the imagination. The opening of Hebrews 11:1 says that faith (which operates with the imagination) is the “assurance” of things hoped for, the “conviction” of things not seen. So faith allows us to “imagine” in two areas: (1) that which is PROMISED but not yet OBTAINED; and (2) that which is PRESENT but not yet OBSERVED. So having faith in what God is going to do for us according to his promise is in that first category. But we must also imagine all of our spiritual blessings and who God is and that Christ is interceding for us at the right hand of the Father–all of these are in the second category, present but not observed. In fact, J. Gresham Machen argues in his classic Christianity and Liberalism that the gospel is not merely that “Christ died,” but that he “died for our sins.” The former statement was observable to those who witnessed the crucifixion, but the latter statement has always been and always will be that which must be imagined/believed as real. And the amazing thing is that this transaction of faith in that proposition unites us with Christ and gives us eternal life. And causes us to long for a new homeland!
    So, the writer of Hebrews says, without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever comes to God must believe that (1) he exists (what is present but not observed) and that (2) he rewards those who seek him (what is promised but not obtained). And consider the fact that we will ALWAYS imagine God the Father, since no one can see him!

    • Sounds like a great series, Greg. As you say, faith is the means by which we apprehend future realities and unseen realities (and they are realities simply because God says they’re so). So imagination is essentially, it seems, a tool of trust. LT

  2. Ken Casillas says:

    Thought-provoking observations and encouragements! Perhaps in a later post you could write up some examples of how we, Abraham-like, can use our imaginations without “slipping the leash” (particularly we who don’t share C. S. Lewis’ brilliance). Also negative examples of theologians who have wandered off into the heretical hinterlands. But, to push back a little, there seems to be a tension inherent in using our imaginations to bolster our faith with possibilities that we can’t be dogmatic about. In this regard, ultimately Abraham’s imagined resolution was incorrect. Can you use your imagination to help us with that tension?

    • Ha! Well put. My main point is using imagination as a tool of trust in God’s words. Unbelief queries, “How could that statement of Scripture possibly be so? How can God possibly keep this promise in these circumstances?” Trust is the unblinking confidence that it is so and that God will fully keep his promise. Imagination simply reminds us of some of the ways that hard-to-believe divine statements or promises could be so. The bottom-line is not whether it happens the way I imagine it (imagination is not infallible); the bottom line is God will certainly, absolutely keep all his words and fulfill all his promises. Not a syllable he has said will ever echo back empty or unfulfilled (Isa 55:10-11). And as I like to point out, God’s own specific application of that principle is the absolute certainty of all his New Covenant promises to Israel (Isa 55:12-13)–even those that sound most unbelievable. (But that’s for a future post:) LT

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