Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion

Written by Richard Lints Reviewed By G. K. Beale

Richard Lints’s recent book (the body of which is 155 pages) is the thirty-sixth volume in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the definition and nature of the image of God (especially in Gen 1) and the necessity of it being understood conceptually by considering the whole canon of Scripture, which is self-interpreting (i.e., interpreting the parts by the whole and the whole by the parts). Chapter 3 attempts to understand the image of God within the context of Genesis 1’s portrayal of creation as a cosmic temple. Chapter 4 continues to elaborate on humans as the image of God, especially in the light of Genesis 1–11. The end of Chapter 4 makes an important transition to the remainder of the book: God has created humans to be creatures who reflect. Humans were originally made to reflect God, but when they turned from him, they were still reflective creatures, and thus reflected something in the creation (idols) to which they were committed. This idea leads into Chapter 5, which is titled “Turning the Imago Dei Upside Down.” The theme running through this chapter is that “what you revere you resemble either for ruin or restoration.” The emphasis of the chapter is on revering (being committed to) idols and becoming like them (here especially Lints appeals to my own earlier work on idolatry, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008]). This prominent theme occurs elsewhere in the book. Chapter 6 continues to elaborate on the destructive aspect of becoming like one’s idols but especially underscores the reversal of this condition. Only Christ, the perfect image of God, can reverse this condition and break the enormous power that idols exercise over their worshippers (this chapter is similar to Beale, We Become What We Worship, chs. 8, 10). Chapter 7 changes focus from the biblical period to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lints narrates briefly the lives of what he terms “the secular prophets” (p. 129). These were philosophers who did not believe in God and argued that those who did affirm belief in God had used their idolatrous imaginations to make up such a belief to which they committed themselves. Such beliefs in God were manufactured to meet people’s psychological and existential needs to depend on something else, to overcome their fears, and to solve their problems. Since there was no God, such people, according to the secular prophets, were worshipping something that did not exist, which is the essence of idolatry. Chapter 8, the concluding chapter, provides further discussion of the nature of idolatry, some illustrations of contemporary idolatries, and the solution to idol worship in Christ.

First, I have some comments on the strengths of the book and then some reflections on how the book could perhaps have been made even better.

The traditional approach to defining the image of God in humanity has been ontological in focus. Humans reflect various attributes of God (spirit, reason, morality, holiness, righteousness, etc.). However, over the past two decades or so, scholars, especially biblical theologians, have focused on a functional approach to defining God’s image in humanity (though a number of traditional theologians have affirmed both the ontological and functional aspects of the image of God in humanity, e.g., A. A. Hoekema, Created In God’s Image [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 66–73). For example, some have seen this to be summarized partly in Genesis 1:26, 28: ruling and subduing, being fruitful and multiplying, and filling the earth with image bearers that reflect God’s glory. These functions reflect God’s actions in Genesis 1 of ruling and subduing the chaos of creation, creating and multiplying creation, and filling creation with his glorious handiwork. God’s concluding act of resting may indicate a mandate for humanity to “rest” in Gen 2:2–3 (though this is implied and even the implication is debated). For myself, these reflective functions presuppose that humans have been made in the ontological image of God (as summarized above).

Lints clearly favors the functional perspective but he summarizes it with the word “identity” (pp. 23–30). This is a helpful word since it seems to encompass both the ontological and functional, while focusing on the functional. As far as I know, no one else has emphasized this in the way that Lints does. Lints’s attempt to add new terminology to the image of God discussion and to continue the trend of moving away from focusing on ontology reminds me of Richard Bauckham’s similar move in not focusing on the ontological nature of Christ’s deity but rather on Christ’s divine “identity” (see his Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies of the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). Instead of trying philosophically to define Christ’s divine nature, Bauckham sees it to be more helpful to view the NT writers as including Jesus in the unique “identity” of the one God of Israel (especially in applying OT texts about the one God of Israel to Jesus). Lints’s introduction of the term “identity” is not just a semantic synonym with the earlier functional approach but adds a new dimension to image-of-God language. “Human identity is in view rather than human nature” (p. 23). Human “identity” for Lints is primarily understood as a “reflective identity” (p. 29) and “is rooted in what it reflects” (p. 30). One either reflects God or something in the created order (which is idolatrous). The former results in “worship, honour, completion, and satisfaction” and the latter in “perversion, corruption, consumption, and possession” (p. 29).

One notion that would have enhanced Lints’s discussion of the image of God throughout the book (and especially on p. 124) is that part of Adam being “formed” in the image of God was that he was given “life” from God, both physically and spiritually (Gen 2:7). It is this “life” that became corrupted and distorted in that, while his physical life continued (but became subject to corruption and would subsequently end), his spiritual existence also continued but in separation from the blessedness of life with God (which was spiritual death). Subsequently, the life that Adam and Eve had possessed began to be regained, as symbolized by the clothing of Genesis 3:21 (so J. H. Kim, The Significance of the Clothing Imagery in the Pauline Corpus, JSNTSup 268 (London: T&T Clark, 2004, 13–17). This new Adamic clothing pointed to Christ regaining that life in inaugurated manner and consummately for believers in the new-covenant age (on which see G. K. Beale, “Colossians,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 866–68, on Col 3:9–10). The reason this notion of “life” is important for Lints’s image of God discussion is that “life” appears to be at the heart of one’s identity, a word and concept so central to Lints’s approach. For example, in the present inter-Advent age one’s individual life is either corporately identified with the life of the first Adam (his sin and condemnation) or with the Last Adam (his life of obedience, resurrection life, and justification), and the latter is directly related to being “in the image of the one who created him” (Col 3:9–10, on which, among others, see the standard commentaries on Colossians by Douglas Moo and P. T. O’Brien).

The idea that idolatry means resembling something in the creation to which one is committed runs throughout Lints’s book and, as noted above, is not new. But referring to this as “identity” is new and helpful. However, there could have been more biblical material adduced to support the “resembling what you revere” theme instead only of referring to others who have discussed this material. A little exegetical review would have been helpful (e.g., discussion of Isa 6:9–13 and Ps 115:4–8 [=Ps 135:15–18], among other OT passages), since this is such a central theme throughout the book.

Lints perceptively adds to the positive understanding of reflecting what you revere in developing the sonship-image idea. It has been pointed out by others that sonship is image language. Thus, to be in the image of a parent is to be a son (Gen 5:1–2), which means that Adam and Eve being in God’s image (Gen 1:26, 28) indicates that they are children of God. Lints develops this by noting that part of a son being in the image of his father is to love and honor the father and thus to want to become like, and actually begin to resemble, the father whom he so highly respects. It is the same in our relationship to our heavenly Father (p. 72).

Lints also insightfully discusses the notion that idolatry is not merely an intellectual error (believing in false gods) but is especially a matter of the heart (a desire to control one’s destiny and find fulfillment in the wrong way). It is the intrinsic desire for fulfillment of our deepest longing, for significance, and for security that drives idolatry. But we can never be fulfilled by the idol, only by the true God. Yet, the addiction to the idol nevertheless drives the worshipper into further devotion to the idol, hoping to find fulfillment but still not finding it and becoming more dissatisfied. Indeed, the idol creates addictive passions that consume people but do not deliver them (here it would have been helpful for Lints to have discussed the potential involvement of demons behind the idols, as referenced in 1 Cor 10:19–22). Yet the worshipper remains loyal to the idol, becoming possessed by it. The idolater’s identity changes depending on the particular kind of idol worshipped (pp. 40, 111, 155, 157, 171). While these are heart issues, the life of the mind is still crucial, since idolatry is rooted in forgetting God’s word and faithfulness is rooted in remembering it (p. 79). This has significant practical implications for Christians, especially with respect to knowing their Bible well in resisting idolatry.

Lints also helpfully reminds readers that the NT employs two main arguments against idolatry: (1) idolatry inverts the Creator-creature relationship, whereby creatures think they can shape their Creator according to their own imagination; and (2) idols represent gods that do not exist (p. 109).

One of the most intriguing illustrations of modern-day idolatry offered by Lints is that of a kind of interpretive idol worship. Idol worship occurs when believers are not careful in interpreting passages in the Bible and so interpret erroneously, especially according to their own uncritical and narrow presuppositions, and they commit themselves to such false interpretations. Accordingly, God’s word “becomes refashioned in our own image” (p. 164). This becomes even worse when pastors do this in their preaching, since they are affecting whole congregations. This issue needed more elaboration than Lints gave to it, since it is of such importance to preaching and the ministry of pastors to their flocks. I am thankful, nevertheless, that Lints mentioned it because of its grave and practical importance for God’s people. May pastors and teachers take to heart what he has said.

There are a few areas of the book that Lints could have made even better. The discussion of the temple in chapter 3 needed more exegetical grounding in the scriptural evidence supporting the notion that Genesis 1 and 2 presents respectively the cosmos as a temple and the garden of Eden as a sanctuary. In addition, there could have been a better review of the secondary works arguing for these notions, since such a vast amount of literature has arisen over the past decade supporting such an idea (e.g., John H. Walton and the literature cited by him in Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011]; see also Richard M. Davidson, The Flame of Yahweh [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007], 47–48). This would have helped readers to understand the richness of the idea.

With respect to the same extended discussion of the temple, there is no clear link between the idea of the image of God and the cosmos as a temple or Eden as a sanctuary, besides the general comment that the image of God in Genesis 1 and 2 is to be understood contextually in the light of the temple notion. One specific proposal that could have been made is that once God creates Eden as a sanctuary, he places Adam as God’s living image in that sanctuary, just as ancient pagan temples were constructed to house the image of a god. In contrast to the garbled ancient Near Eastern view, Genesis 1–2 is the true narrative of such a temple-building and image-placing project.

Likewise, I was looking for a clear discussion about how Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy relates to the issue of idolatry, as there was with respect to the other secular philosophers discussed in Chapter 7, but I found none. Why is talking about Nietzche relevant to the idolatry discussion?

There are a number of other strengths and some additional critiques that could be mentioned here. Nevertheless, this is a good and creative book, and it helped me better to understand the image of God and the perversion of that image in idolatry. I am grateful that Lints wrote this book, and I commend it to others for a better understanding of this significant issue of the image of God and idolatry. The rich themes of the book have significant practical implications for Christians.

G. K. Beale

G. K. Beale is professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.

Other Articles in this Issue

The Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal,” has massive implications for human life on earth...

Kyle Faircloth argues that Daniel Strange’s earlier work on the question of the unevangelised is undermined by his more recent theology of religions, and in particular his theory of a ‘remnantal’ revelation...

Although evangelicals agree the church must be fervent in seeking to reach those who have little or no access to the gospel, this missiological consensus has not led to a theological consensus regarding the salvific state of those whom the church never reaches...

John Barclay has written a stimulating and ground-breaking book on Paul’s theology of gift...

The literary notion of “implied reader” invokes a series of hermeneutically significant questions: What is it? Who produces it? and How can it be identified? These questions naturally lead to a further query: What is the relationship between this implied reader of a text and an actual reader of a text? This type of study is often associated primarily with reader-response theory and purely literary approaches...