3 Protestant Concerns with Imagination

Despite the marvelous assets God gave to humans through imagination, Protestants historically manifest three concerns with the human capacity to imagine. One challenge is that this term can be used to underscore wrong or evil imaginations. For example, in Gen 8:21, “the imagination of man’s heart (is) evil,” or “I know their (evil or disobedient) imaginations even before I bring them into the land . . .” (Dt. 31:21). So, Protestants have often thought about this term with negative feelings, unfortunately.

A second challenge imagination seems to bring before Protestants is that in passages where this term is used positively the translators use other English renderings which do not pick up the attribute of imagination. For example, the King James Version translates in Isaiah 26:3 with the term mind, instead of the term imagination: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee . . .” The term is imagination, not mind. Note the thrust of the passage if the term mind were rendered more correctly, as imagination: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose imagination is stayed on thee …” Clearly, when the verse uses imagination there is far more mystery in this prophetic affirmation.

Given the orientation Protestant theologians have concerning the mind, the characteristics of the imaginal capacity of human intellect are sometimes lost. It seems that the Protestant community somehow takes a one-dimensional view that the human mind is only given to rational and informational ideal. Certainly, a life of faith will often move on past what seems rational to the “average person.” And, even the thoughts and mental engagement involved in worship itself encompasses much more than rational exercise or information.

A third challenge is the tendency to think of God’s attribute (or perfection) of creativity in terms of His POWER and disregard the aspect of His own imagination. That is, God has the power to create (bara) all things from nothing. But here Scripture is emphasizing His power to make all things. This reality of His power is true, and the Hebrew term bara seems only to be used for God, suggesting that this bara-power is reserved only for God. But God’s power to create also includes God’s yatsar-power—the ability to imagine—which, in Scripture, is not solely reserved for God. One sees this yatsar-power attributed to man as well (e.g., Is 26:3). So, if man is made in His imagine, God has given this power to people. Although Protestants seem to discount imagination, the God-given human capacity of imagination is perhaps one of the most important characteristics distinguishing people from lower animal life.

God is transcendent. He is powerful, mighty and beyond our understanding. But he is also imminent. God is also personal, loving and he chooses to live in the hearts of men and women. The very fact that He has superintended for us a method to see Him as our father, friend, companion, and comforter demonstrates His own ability to exercise imagination. And He gives people the ability to imagine as they worship. Why? This is because God is both the object and the subject of human worship. Worship demands that humans enter a proximity with God they can neither completely understand or control. God allows imagination in worship so that we be engaged with the true God who is fully real and beyond all that could be imagined.

God directed Old Testament Israel to use metaphor and symbols and ritual activities as human aids to direct their faith into the realities of Himself. This God is beyond the metaphors and symbols. Ultimately, as Christians look at these Old Testament metaphors and symbols (types), a clear picture of the role Christ played in redemption is seen. This is the principle that the writer infers to in the Hebrew epistle: “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, . . .” (Hebrews 9:11-12).

In summary, one can see that in the Old Testament, and in the Hebrew world view in general, God engages humans through all three dynamics of human intelligence—the rational (information, first spoken, then written in propositional form), the imaginal (metaphors, symbols, and multi-sense expressions), and the emotional (the heart, the core or center of a person’s self).

Imagination, as revealed in the Bible, is two-fold: First, humans have a capacity to invent things. This is the capacity to see what could be but is not yet. Second, humans have a capacity, through the working of the Holy Spirit, to interact with transcendence—including the ability to engage with God. This is the capacity to see through what is known into the realities beyond what is known.

Once the Biblical concept (and definition) of imagination is seen in context with the biblical definition of the artist as a craftsman, the connection between God’s plan for worship and man-kind’s ability for expression can be seen. First, it affirms the way God has made humankind. Second, it moves Christians to reject the notion that the arts and artists are simply elitist and somehow disconnect-from-main-stream-culture. Third, it presses Christians to seek out and include artists, creativity, and beauty as mainstays in the life and worship of the Church.

Throughout Scripture, one sees that God has directed His people to be engaged in a holistic, multi-sensory assortment of imaginative and emotional expressions to engage Him in worship—a worship-way-of-life.

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