Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion
Reviewed by Adam Green, Philosophy, Azusa Pacific University
Richard Lints has written a book about the imago dei, what it is for God to have created humans in God’s image. His contention, though, is that to understand the imago dei, one must see it as part of a theme that runs across Scripture that includes the discourses against idolatry from the golden calf incident onward and incorporates the Christology of the New Testament. With a proper understanding of the imago dei in hand one is poised, according to Lints, to gain insight into the prominent attacks on religion that came in the nineteenth century, in particular the attacks of Immanuel Kant, Anselm Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. For Lints, these figures turn the logic of idolatry back on Christianity itself, and this explains both the power and internal inconsistency of each attack. Finally, Lints enlarges his canvas still further as he turns to general critique and exhortation aimed at the contemporary church and particularly American evangelical Christianity.
Lints points out something curious about the introduction of the term “image of God” in the creation narrative. On the one hand, it seems to occupy a very important place in the narrative. The creation narrative is densely structured, not simply a list of happenings. Within that structure, human beings being made in the image of God seem an important part of the story. Interestingly, Lints points out that you do not see this phrase play any important role in the rest of the Old Testament, not overtly anyway. In fact, talk of “images” in the rest of the Old Testament is negative, being related to idolatry and its “graven images.” Lints says that we should see this juxtaposition as intentional. Human beings were meant to reflect God, to be God’s image making God’s character manifest in the created order. Idolatry inverts our purpose as reflectors of God by creating something that reflects us and our desires as a replacement of the God we should be imaging. The use of the “image” metaphor in reference to idolatry helps to define the meaning of the imago dei, just as the imago dei helps us see just how contrary to our created purpose idolatry is. Jesus Christ, however, is the image of the Father. Jesus reflects the divine in a deeper and truer way than could otherwise be done and empowers the church to become the images of God human beings were always meant to be.
Having drawn this thematic arc across the Scriptures, Lints then seeks to connect it with a series of critiques from the nineteenth century that stem in one way or another from the Kantian and Hegelian tradition. The clearest connection point within the authors Lints mentions is Ludwig Feuerbach, who famously insisted that God did not create man in God’s image, but rather that man created God in man’s own image. For Lints, Feuerbach is highlighting the psychological resources that Scripture uses in explaining and condemning idolatry and is, in a way, demanding a good reason not to apply the critique of idolatry within Scripture to religion across the board.
Likewise, Lints claims that in Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, one sees the echo of Scripture’s analysis of idolatry. For Marx, the connection to the exegetical material is weaker, but it is there. In idolatry, one looks to an idol for security and significance, but instead the idol enslaves you. In the exploitations of the capitalism of the early industrial revolution, Marx saw people participating in a system of wealth creation that did not benefit them, but instead turned them into slaves. Marx, furthermore, saw religion as participating in the pacification and enslavement of the masses. Freud’s theories about the psychological origins of religion, like the work of Feuerbach, can be seen as descendants, even if with distortion, of that same biblical account of idolatry. Instead of responding to the objective value of something outside ourselves, for Freud, religion involves the projection of our deepest needs and fears onto reality, creating a god of a “no god.” Similarly, one can think of Nietzsche’s advocacy of the will to power as the acknowledgment that if all religion is the equivalent of idolatry, the only honest thing left to do is to admit that we create our own meaning and live accordingly.
With the heart of the book thus laid out, I want to develop one critique that is entwined with the main argument but perhaps unnecessarily. Throughout the book, Lints repeatedly combines the assertion that the imago dei speaks of a relation, the relation of imaging or reflecting, with the assertion that the imputation of the imago dei holds no metaphysical weight. In essence, thousands of years of reflection on what might be unique about human beings in virtue of their special place in God’s creation is misreading the text, according to Lints. At some points, Lints does acknowledge that there is a question that can be asked, namely: What is it in virtue of which human beings can image God? One can be curious about such things, but the impression that Lints gives is that it is irrelevant, a matter of speculation that does not affect the true thrust of what this phrase is doing in Scripture. Lints’s move here is not opposed to any particular anthropology as far as I can see. This is not, for example, biblical theology trying to close the door on dualism yet again. Rather, it is the very topic of human nature that Lints seems to want to push out of the domain of biblical theology in favor of a focus on “identity.”
To be sure, it is helpful to orient our focus on the way in which the imago dei is a calling, on the way it speaks to teleology as much as or more than it does to form. Let me give you at least one reason from within Lints’s own treatment of Scripture to think that allowing identity and nature to float free of each other is unwise. Key to Lints’s portrayal of his thematic arc in Scripture is the idea that Jesus Christ is the true image who fulfills and restores the imago dei. Christ images God amongst us. In doing so, Christ does not just fulfill the purpose God had for Israel specifically but the purpose God had for all of humanity as portrayed all the way back in the creation narrative. But, in virtue of what does Christ do this? To assert that the nature of Christ does not much matter so long as Christ accomplishes this task of imaging the Father would be heretical. I feel pretty confident that Lints would not be tempted to dissociate Christ’s nature and identity. Jesus Christ is God, the second person of the Trinity incarnate. It is his nature, the metaphysics of being the God-man, that allows him to enter into the relationship with the Father that he has. His identity and his nature do not come apart, and understanding Christ’s mission and relationship to us necessarily involves understanding his nature, as well. Notice, however, that, if Christ’s fulfilling of the imago dei is intimately involved with Christ’s nature and how Christ’s nature dictates his identity, then that gives us a reason to ask again whether our nature might not be intimately involved with our calling to live up to this very same imago dei that Christ fulfills. It seems to me that one can hold onto the idea that the imago dei speaks primarily to our relationship to God and an ideal that we are called to while also honoring the long tradition within Christian thought of reflecting upon what kind of thing, metaphysically, God is creating when he breathes life into dust and makes man.
Furthermore, I think one will find that adding a layer of metaphysics to one’s understanding of the relational nexus involved in identity and idolatry reinforces Lints’s analysis of the nineteenth-century antagonists to religion in necessary ways. It is Immanuel Kant’s general theory of human nature that entails that we co-create our experience and cannot get in direct cognitive contact with God. This general feature of Kant’s views sets up the worry about whether religion only reflects our own psychologies rather than objective reality à la idolatry. It is Freud’s undercutting of reason in general and his emphasis on the subconscious in general that lay the groundwork of his views on the origin of religion. It is Nietzsche’s general account of human nature that all but necessitates a view of religion as idolatrous.
Richard Lints connects two familiar items in the Christian tradition, the imago dei and idolatry, in a way that helps both come to life again for the reader. To invoke a point familiar in the work of another nineteenth-century author, Søren Kierkegaard, the reader walks away from reading this text convicted that who God has meant us to be is not simply a birthright. Rather, personhood is a project or, better, a vocation.