Urban Apologetics and the Image of God

I have a live podcast interview coming up in a few days on the topic of what it means to be made in God’s image.

The interview is this Thursday evening, August 6, at 9 pm Eastern time. I posted a brief notice on Facebook about the interview.

The interviewer is Alfredo Valentin (aka the BK Apologist).

Alfredo Valentin is a Nuyorican (a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York city), whose specialty is “urban apologetics.”

This is a genre of apologetics that addresses questions especially relevant to the black and brown Christian demographic who are being targeted for proselytizing by religious groups like the Nation of Islam , the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, or Israel United in Christ. Such groups often play on issues of identity and race, suggesting that orthodox Christianity is a religion of whiteness.

Alfredo tries to educate his listeners in an intelligent way about the claims of genuine Christian orthodoxy, often by interviewing scholars and practitioners in the faith who has particular insight to share about Scripture or theology.

Since one of the primary issues in urban apologetics is identity (Who are we? and What is our purpose in life?), the topic of the image of God is directly relevant.

Having written a book on the image of God (The Liberating Image), as well as various articles and blog posts on the subject, I’m looking forward to the conversation.

You can tune in to the live interview here on August 6, 2020, at 9 pm Eastern.

The Heart of Torah: Jewish and Christian Voices on the Relationship of Biblical Exegesis to Theological Interpretation

The latest issue of the Canadian-American Theological Review (the journal of the Canadian-American Theological Association) has just been published. This is a theme issue, which collects the papers presented in a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature last year (November 2019) on Shai Held’s two-volume work, The Heart of Torah, (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). These papers were given by Jewish and and Christian biblical scholars.

Although it hadn’t been planned that way, the presentations (hence the published essays) all focused, in one way or another, on the question of the relationship of biblical exegesis to theology. Or, to put it in Jewish terms, the relationship between peshat (literary-contextual readings of the Bible) and midrash (readings that go beyond the intent of text, in order to explore contemporary significance).

While all the articles are agreed that these are both legitimate approaches to the Bible, there is some disagreement about how these should be related, and Held’s response addresses this issue head on.

This has a parallel with recent discussion among Christian biblical interpreters about the value of the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” and whether this is at odds with historical-critical study of the Bible. For an excellent discussion of why these two shouldn’t be severed, see Joel Green’s essay, “Rethinking ‘History’ for Theological Interpretation,” published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation (2011).

An Introduction to Shai Held

Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.

My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.

Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.

Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016

Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.

Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics.

The Heart of Torah

Held’s latest publication, The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017), is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.

Along with approximately 7,000 others, I subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.

I then organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, November 24, 2019 and I collected the papers for publication in the Canadian-American Theological Review.

You can download my introduction to the theme issue of the journal here.

If you want to read the entire issue (consisting in my introduction, six papers on The Heart of Torah, Held’s response, and some excellent book reviews), you will need to log on to the website of the Canadian-American Theological Association. This requires an inexpensive one-year membership (which includes subscription to the journal).

Depending on your library’s subscription to online materials, you might be able to access the journal that way.

This the lineup of articles.

  • Marvin Sweeney, “Human Participation with G_d in Perfecting Creation”
  • Ellen Davis, “Moral Theology in an Exegetical Key”
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, “The Perfect Craft Cocktail on a Sweltering Day”
  • S. Tamar Kamionkowski, “Jewish Theology Rooted in Biblical Texts”
  • David Frankel, “A Critical Review of Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah
  • Dennis Olson, “A Place to Stand: Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah in Dialogue with Pentateuchal Scholars and Literary Theorists”
  • Shai Held, “A Response to My Respondents”

Embracing Evolution: How Understanding Science Can Strengthen Your Christian Life

I just received from InterVarsity Press a copy of Embracing Evolution: How Understanding Science Can Strengthen Your Christian Life (IVP Academic, 2020), by Matthew Nelson Hill.

Matt Hill is a graduate of Roberts Wesleyan College (double major in psychology and in philosophy and religion). He went on to do an MDiv at Asbury Theological Seminary and a PhD in philosophy at Durham University. Matt is ordained in the Free Methodist Church and currently serves as associate professor of philosophy in the theology department of Spring Arbor University.

I have known Matt’s father, Nelson Hill, who was a faculty member and administrator at Roberts, before he retired, and I came to know Matt on his many visits to Rochester over the years.

Embracing Evolution is a beautifully articulate and helpful book that builds on the more technical book Matt wrote for IVP called Evolution and Holiness.

The IVP website says that the official release date for Embracing Evolution is June 16, 2020. I received an advance copy because I wrote the Foreword to the book (I had read Matt’s earlier book and benefited greatly from it).

In the Foreword (which is reproduced below), I recount some of my own journey towards reconciling the Bible and evolutionary science. This version of the Foreword has some extra footnote references (not all of which appear in the published format).


Foreword to Embracing Evolution

Many Christians today are on a journey of understanding, trying to make sense of evolution in light of their faith. This is particularly difficult to do in our polarized cultural climate in North America, where religion and science are often portrayed as opposed to each other.

For that reason I am delighted to be able to write this Foreword to Matt Hill’s Embracing Evolution. Whereas many books on Christian faith and evolution either view the two as antithetical to each other or struggle to make significant connections between them, Embracing Evolution shows that understanding human evolution can be positively helpful for Christians seeking to be faithful to Jesus Christ.

My Journey of Understanding the Bible and Science on Origins

Unlike those Christians who started out as young earth creationists and became convinced of the validity of biological evolution later in life, I have no memory of ever dismissing evolution as fundamentally incompatible with biblical faith. Having become a Christian at a young age, I not only accepted, in my teenage years, that the earth was very old (based on what seemed to be reasonable scientific research), but as a young adult I read widely about the evolution of Homo sapiens and our various hominin relatives.

Thankfully, my home church in Kingston, Jamaica (Grace Missionary Church) never insisted on young earth creationism. And when I began my undergraduate studies at Jamaica Theological Seminary, I took two courses in my first semester that made such a view of creation untenable.

The first was a course on the Pentateuch, where one of the textbooks assigned was Bernard Ramm’s The Christian View of Science and Scripture.[1] Here I found an evangelical theologian outlining multiple views of how the Bible related to a variety of scientific issues. Although Ramm articulated his own opinion on the issues he discussed, he noted that there was no single obvious “biblical” answer for questions such as the age of the earth, the great flood, or even evolution. In each case, this was a matter, not of biblical authority but of scientific evidence.

I also took a course in my first undergraduate semester on hermeneutics or biblical interpretation, where the textbook was A. Berkely Mickelson’s Interpreting the Bible.[2] While this was a bit of a dense read for an eighteen-year-old, I never forgot Mickelson’s point that since there was no human observer at creation and since the eschaton is still future, biblical language describing the beginning and end must be largely figurative; these descriptions inevitably transcended human experience.[3] Therefore, just as it would be inappropriate to read eschatological imagery in the book of Revelation as a journalistic account of what a movie camera might record (which seemed obvious to me), I came to realize that it would likewise be a misreading of Genesis to treat the six days of creation as a scientific account of origins.

These two courses at the start of my theological studies combined to convince me that there was no conflict, in principle, between science and the Bible on the question of origins. More than that, these courses (along the rest of my seminary education) encouraged me to be open to the scientific exploration of God’s world.

During my undergraduate studies I was also developing an interest in a holistic theology that affirmed the goodness of creation (in the beginning) and God’s intent to redeem the cosmos (in the end).[4] By the time I graduated with my bachelor of theology degree, I was on a track to take seriously what the sciences were telling us about how this world, including biological life, came to be.

Cognitive Dissonance about Evolution

Then as a graduate student in philosophy, while working as a campus minister for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of Guelph, in Canada, I found myself avidly reading books on hominin evolution—including Lucy, the account of the discovery of Australopithecus afarensis (nicknamed Lucy) by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edy.[5]

Although I had no real doubts about the scientific evidence for evolution, including the evolution of Homo sapiens, I was somewhat troubled that evolution didn’t seem compatible with the biblical notion of the fall, the origin of evil recounted in Genesis 2–3. I had always been taught that this text portrays Adam and Eve (an original couple) forfeiting a primal paradisiacal state through a single act of disobedience, which led to the introduction of death for both humans and the natural world. I couldn’t get my head around how this might fit with what scientists claimed about human evolution, including the obvious fact that animal and plant death preceded the origin of humanity on earth. So I did what many Christians do when confronted with cognitive dissonance—I put it out of my mind and concentrated on other things.

In my case, these other things were my graduate studies, first a master’s degree in philosophy and then course work in Old Testament, followed by a doctoral dissertation on humans as imago Dei in Genesis 1 (published as The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1).[6]

In the years leading up to my dissertation, I taught often on the imago Dei, in both church and academic settings, and I’ve now written some dozen articles and blog posts on the subject.[7] I have also regularly taught on the garden story of Genesis 2–3, both in churches and in a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses.

My teaching on the first three chapters of Genesis was developed without any explicit reference to evolution. Rather, my focus was on how these texts should be read for their theological discernment of God, the world, and the human calling. Instead of referencing the modern scientific context, I was focused on how the theology of ancient Israel, gleaned from the Bible itself, along with the “cognitive environment” of the ancient Near East, contributed to the meaning of these texts for the life of the church.[8]

Evolution and the Fall

But everything changed in 2013, when I was invited by James K. A. Smith to join an interdisciplinary team of scholars (united by a commitment to the classic orthodox creeds of the church) who would connect their scholarly expertise to the subject of human evolution and the fall. The invitation to participate in this project set me on a path to address the very questions that my cognitive dissonance had previously led me to avoid.

As I began working on how the narrative of Genesis 2–3 might relate to the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, I discovered that paying attention to evolution did not detract from reading the text but actually helped me notice nuances that I had previously overlooked. For example, I had simply assumed that the first humans lived in a paradisaical state of perfection before the entrance of sin. Yet immediately after the creation of the humanity in Genesis 2, we have the account of human disobedience in Genesis 3. Might that lack of narration of a paradisaical state be significant for relating the text to evolutionary history?

In the essay I wrote on Genesis 2–3, published in a volume called Evolution and the Fall, I attempted to hold together an evolutionary account of humanity with a real historical origin of evil (which I believe is a non-negotiable Christian doctrine), yet without claiming that the Bible and science are saying the same thing.[9]

In doing so, I was rejecting the classic idea that we can easily correlate or harmonize the Bible and science. Yet, I also found Stephen Jay Gould’s famous idea of nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) inadequate.[10] This view is usually taken to mean that the Bible and science describe different realms of reality—and so cannot, in principle, contradict one another. However, I have now come to formulate the relationship between the Bible and science as two different lenses or perspectives through which we may view the same world.

Of course, the connections between the lenses of the garden story and human evolution aren’t seamless. As Matt Hill himself admits, it isn’t always easy to correlate what the Bible tells us theologically about suffering and death with the history of animal predation and extinctions long before humans came along. And how exactly does a biblical perspective on human sin relate to the development of moral consciousness among Homo sapiens—or even among earlier hominins?[11]

Evolution and the Christian Life

But Embracing Evolution does not focus on the Bible and science generally. Instead, the book addresses how knowledge of evolution can aid us in the quest for holiness and moral transformation in the Christian life.

Matt helpfully builds on his earlier (more technical) book, Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection, but with a wider purview.[12] Drawing on what we know about our common genetic inheritance as human beings, and even the specific proclivities we may have because of our particular ancestry, Matt gives practical advice on how this knowledge can help us make better moral decisions as we seek to be faithful to the God of the Scriptures.

Having done more and more speaking of late for church groups and conferences on how a biblical approach to questions of human identity and the origin of evil might be related to what the sciences are telling us about human evolution, I’ve found a hunger among Christians (and interested others) to come to a deeper understanding of biblical faith in a way that opens us up to learning from God’s other book, the empirical world that the sciences address.

I am delighted to recommend Matt Hill’s Embracing Evolution as a wonderful addition to the literature on this subject.


[1] Bernard L. Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954).

[2] A. Berkely Mickelson, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963).

[3] Mickelson, Interpreting the Bible, chap. 14: “Descriptive Language of Creation and Climax” (306–322).

[4] This led to a book that I co-authored with Brian J. Walsh, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1984); I later wrote a book specifically on eschatology, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

[5] Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981).

[6] J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).

[7] A few of the articles are: “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context,” Christian Scholar’s Review 24 (1994): 8–25; “The Role of Human Beings in the Cosmic Temple: The Intersection of Worldviews in Psalms 8 and 104.Canadian Theological Review 2.1 (2013): 44–58; “Image of God,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology, vol. 2, ed. by Samuel E. Ballentine et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 516–523; “The Genesis Creation Accounts,” chap. 1 in T & T Clark Handbook of Christian Theology and the Modern Sciences, ed. by John P. Slattery (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2020), 15–31; and “The Image of God in Ecological Perspective,” in The Oxford Handbook of Bible and Ecology, ed. by Hilary Marlow and Mark Harris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[8] For more on the term “cognitive environment,” see John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). Walton has popularized this idea through his many books in the Lost World series.

[9] Middleton, “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution: Beyond Concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” chap. 4 in Evolution and the Fall, ed. by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 67–97. Along with this, I wrote a more broadly-based article on the garden story, entitled “From Primal Harmony to a Broken World: Distinguishing God’s Intent for Life from the Encroachment of Death in Genesis 2–3,” chap. 7 in Earnest: Interdisciplinary Work Inspired by the Life and Teachings of B. T. Roberts, ed. by Andrew C. Koehl and David Basinger (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017), 145–173.

[10] Stephen Jay Gould, “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16–22.

[11] A few years ago (2017) I was interviewed at the Faraday Institute (Cambridge University, UK) on the topic of the image of God and evolution (after having given a public lecture on the subject). More recently, I was interviewed by Jim Stump of BioLogos for a podcast on the topic of humanity made in the image of God, which touches on the question of evolution (you can read my blog post about it here).

[12] Matthew Nelson Hill, Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection, Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).