Three Protestant Concerns with Imagination
In spite of 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 there (evil or disobedient) imaginations even before I bring them into the land . . .” (Dt. 31:21). So apparently, 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 actually 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-dimension view of that the human mind is only given to rational and information 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 or 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:
“11 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 NIV).
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,1 the core or center of a person’s self).
1 Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Word defines the Hebrew term, Lebab, rendered HEART in English, as follows: Lebab is often compounded with “soul” for emphasis, as in 2 Chron 15:12, which reads, “And they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul” (cf. 2 Chron 15:15). Also see, “…man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” 1 Sam 16:7. From Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Electronic Database © 1996 by Biblesoft.