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 Liberating Image—The Practical Significance of Being Made in God’s Image

Back in November 2019, when I was attending the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, I met up with Jim Stump, vice-president of BioLogos. I’ve known Jim for about five years and he asked if he could interview me for the Language of God podcast series that BioLogos sponsors.

The focus of the interview was a topic dear to my heart—what it means to be made in the image of God (imago Dei).

The podcast page introduces the interview this way:

“We were made in the image of God, but what does that really mean? Whom does that apply to? What does that call us to? The Bible is very central to understanding the answers to these questions, as is cultural context. In this episode, biblical worldview professor, Richard Middleton joins Jim Stump in an attempt to answer some of the questions about human identity through both of those lenses.”

This is some of what Jim Stump said on Facebook about the interview.

“Here we talk about the Bible and science (like what each has to say about Adam and Eve), but mostly focus on his specialty: the image of God. I’m biased and prone to believe what I want to be the case, but I think this is a really interesting conversation.”

You can listen to the full interview here on the BioLogos podcast website.

Although Jim does eventually ask me to speculate on how the imago Dei might relate to the development of Homo sapiens, the interview focuses on what the Bible says about the image in its ancient Near Eastern context and its relevance for living in God’s world. I essentially summarize the main thrust of my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005).

Prior to the book, I had written a programmatic article on the subject, with almost the same title: “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context,” published in Christian Scholar’s Review 24 (1994): 8–25.

Jim Stump is from the Missionary Church, the same denomination that I was a member of as a teen and young adult in Jamaica. I did my undergraduate degree in theology at the Jamaica Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1960 by the Missionary Church Association of Jamaica. It turns out that Jim had spoken at a 2007 commencement ceremony at my seminary.

Although the image of God is the focus of the BioLogos interview, I also talk a bit about what Jamaica is like (in response to Jim’s questions).

If you are interested in further reflections on the applicability of the imago Dei to matters of ethics and justice, you can read the blog post I was invited to write for the Imago Dei Fund. It is called “The Ethical Challenge of the Image of God in the 21st Century – Human Rights and Beyond.

And if you want to explore a bit more about how the imago Dei (and the Fall) might (I emphasize that word) relate to what we know of the origins of Homo sapiens, I discuss these topics in a presentation I gave for the Canadian and Christian Scientific Affiliation, called “Human Distinctiveness and the Origin of Evil in Biblical and Evolutionary Perspectives.”

Reframing Abraham’s Call in Genesis 12—Beyond Supersessionism

For a long time I have understood the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3) as fundamentally missional or instrumental, in the sense that the ultimate purpose for which God calls this ancestor of Israel is to mediate the blessings of salvation to the nations.

I taught the book of Genesis with this orientation for many years. And this understanding of Genesis 12:1–3 has played an integral role in my framing of the canonical narrative of Scripture in books I have written, such as Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (1995) and A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (2014). It can be found also in a variety of essays written in the intervening years.

Three Challenges to My Interpretation of Abraham’s Call

However, my missional/vocational interpretation of Genesis 12:1–3, and thus my instrumental understanding of Israel’s election, was itself called into question—no less than three times.

Initially, I was challenged by two Christian scholars who had participated in Jewish-Christian dialogue—the Canadian Catholic theologian Gregory Baum (who I met through the Canadian Theological Society) and the American Old Testament scholar Werner Lemke (who was my colleague at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School).

Both Baum (who had heard a paper I gave in 1995) and Lemke (who read my book Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be in 1996) challenged me to repent of my implicit Christian supersessionism towards my Jewish brothers and sisters. This was something I had not been conscious of in my thinking.

The third challenge, which helped me positively reframe the call of Abraham, was an email conversation in 2007 with the British Old Testament scholar Walter Moberly, as we discussed a chapter he was writing on the call of Abraham for his book The Theology of the Book of Genesis (2009).

These three challenges led me to take seriously the problematic approach to Judaism that I had inherited from the church, which assumed that once the messiah had come, Judaism had become irrelevant and could be safely discarded.

Of course, I would never have put things in quite so stark a way. But I see how my interpretation of Genesis 12 could be harnessed to support that idea.

The question I now had to grapple with was how I could be faithful to my Christian understanding of redemptive history (I am a Christian, not a Jew—even though my mother was Jewish), while respecting God’s desire to bless, not just the nations through Abraham, but Abraham himself—and his descendants, the people of Israel.

On the Way to a New Reading of Abraham’s Call

This required me to engage in a much more careful reading of Genesis 12 than I had previously done.

The result was that when I was composing my chapter on the plot of the biblical story for A New Heaven and a New Earth, I wrote a lengthy excursus on the call of Abraham that attempted to take into account Moberly’s analysis of the issues, while still maintaining (in the end) a missional reading of Abraham’s call.

Once I had completed the excursus, however, I judged that it was too much of a sidetrack from the flow of the chapter and so I ended up simply summarizing the fruits of my analysis in two brief sections—one about the call of Abraham (pp. 61–62), the other about the place of the exodus from Egypt in the larger biblical story (p. 63). Although I did not abandon a missional reading of the role of Abraham/Israel in the story of salvation, I did affirm God’s purposes for the flourishing of Abraham/Israel—on the way to this larger purpose.

Ever since writing this excursus, I intended to work it up into a published essay on the subject, but never got around to the task. I was, however, recently encouraged to do this by New Testament scholar Andy Johnson, who drew on my unpublished analysis for his chapter on the call of Abraham in Holiness and the Missio Dei (2016).

I was further motivated to work on this material by my participation in an ecumenical Jewish minyan in New York City called the Hadar Institute, through which my respect has been greatly enlarged for Jews seeking to respond in faithfulness to God’s covenant.

My connection to Hadar (formerly called Mechon Hadar) came through one of its founding Rabbis, Shai Held. Having had email correspondence and an initial phone call with Rabbi Held (in 2015), and then reading many of his writings. I have twice participated in the week-long Executive Seminar sponsored by Hadar (in 2016 and 2017). I blogged about my first experience of the Executive Seminar here.

At my request, Walter Moberly, along with other Christian Old Testament scholars, joined me in writing endorsements for Held’s recently published two-volume commentary on the Pentateuch, entitled The Heart of Torah. I then organized and chaired a panel discussion of The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2019. I blogged about this SBL panel here.

Beyond a Supersessionist Reading of Abraham’s Call

Most recently my engagement with Genesis 12 and the question of supersessionism led to an essay called “The Blessing of Abraham and the Missio Dei: Reframing the Purpose of Israel’s Election in Genesis 12:1–3.” In this essay, I tried to be faithful to the text of Genesis 12:1–3 (paying attention to its details), while understanding the role of this text in the larger biblical canon—in a way that honors both the Christian and Jewish traditions. At the end of my analysis, I interacted specifically with Martin Buber’s understanding of Israel’s election and the blessing of the nations.

The essay has now been published as chapter 4 in Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis: Essays in Tribute to Paul Livermore, ed. by Douglas R. Cullum and J. Richard Middleton (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2020), 44–64.

This is a volume of twenty-five essays that I co-edited with Doug Cullum, the Vice President and Dean of Northeastern Seminary. It is a Festschrift in honor of our retired faculty colleague Dr. Paul Livermore, one of the charter faculty members of the Seminary—indeed, the person who first came up with the vision to start Northeastern Seminary.

Although I have been moving towards a new reading of Genesis 12 for a while now, the decisive impetus to work on the essay “The Blessing of Abraham and the Missio Dei” was my participation in this Festschrift. I am delighted to offer the current essay in tribute to Paul Livermore, who has always been interested in how the New Testament and the early Christian tradition (articulated by the Church Fathers) are related to the Jewish context in which they were birthed.

I have written a follow-up blog with more details about the fascinating essays in the book, along with an introduction to the incomparable Paul Livermore, whose life of teaching generated these essays from faculty colleagues, church leaders, and past students.