Is It All Imagination? (RJS)

God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersburg. Image from wikipedia.

This post today finishes up our series on God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time, and History by Harry Lee Poe and Jimmy H. Davis. The eighth chapter of the book looks at the involvement of God in history and this includes scripture and the historical basis of scripture. The chapter concludes with a long discussion on the importance of human imagination for relationship with the God who acts in history. The ninth chapter is a conclusion that summarizes the premise of the book as a whole and wraps up the argument regarding the evidence or room for divine activity in space, time and history.  This post will concentrate on the chapter on history, scripture, and the way God interacts with humans throughout history.

Any discussion of the relationship of God to the physical world must take account not only of physics, chemistry and biology, but also of human history. The question of God’s involvement in nature cannot be separated from God’s involvement in history. History forms the extended study of humans in social relationship. (p. 249)

Scholars over the last several hundred years have pushed to explain human history without reference to God in much the same way that science explains nature without reference to God. Poe and Davis point to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a watershed in this approach to history.  History as a discipline became “scientific” which means that it assumed and subsumed naturalism. Naturalism as a foundation for history leaves no room for divine action. Human history can be explained without any reference to God or the action of God. Any appeal to God by ancient peoples was simply the result of superstition and an overactive imagination. It is nothing to be taken seriously in our enlightened age. But this is a philosophical assumption, not a necessary consequence of the data any more than an absence of the action of God is a necessary consequence of the scientific data concerning the natural world.

Where do we see the action of God in history?

Where should we expect to see evidence of divine activity?

The Bible is a historical resource, a text that describes and reflects on God’s actions in history. Poe and Davis see moral development and a profound moral ethic within scripture. The action of God in history serves not to proclaim and protect God’s Glory in a fallen world but to chart a course to shape what God has in mind for human history.

Inflicting pain and suffering on someone weaker seems like a good way to get ahead and experience an advantage as humans emerged from the collective ooze of life, but violence as a bad thing appears in the earliest lesson God teaches humans across the span of their interaction. From the earliest pages of Genesis through the books of the prophets, God condemns individual, institutional, and cultural violence. The punishment for violence is violence. (p. 259)

But the Bible is not a magical recital of divinely inspired fact. Their description of the Bible is worth quoting at length:

The Bible is a unique document of human history whether God exists or not. It is a narrative of a defeated people that spans over a thousand years of written history and even more of oral tradition. At one time in the early development of higher criticism in the nineteenth century, it was popular to regard the Hebrew Bible as a product of the Jewish community in Palestine during the Persian period and later, which was intended to relegate figures like Abraham, Moses, and David to historical myth-making by the priestly community. Development in higher critical method, involving advances in cultural and archaeological studies, now indicate the antiquity of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and other early accounts. The narratives make frequent reference to customs and related family structure, marriage, village organization, religious practices and geographical sites that had long since been forgotten by the time of the Babylonian conquest, which modern archaeology and anthropology confirm. The Bible is a panorama of a people of faith who live in a variety of cultures in which they are the minority over a period of more than fifteen hundred years. (p. 259-260)

This does not mean that the tightly literalistic view of scripture is right after all – Genesis, for example, also contains anachronisms and shows signs of being an edited text – compiled from older written sources and from oral traditions. The books of Judges, Samuel, Kings, and so forth are unabashedly edited compilations from older sources. The point is that neither the radical revisionist view that it is all fiction or the typical evangelical view of, for example, a divinely dictated Pentateuch, capture the depth and structure of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible is not flat prose or imaginative fiction. It is a reflective compilation relating the action of God in history. This action culminates in the incarnation, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the establishment of the church as the people of God, grafting Jews and Gentiles together.

The Bible tells a different story that involves God relating to different people in different ways, depending how they respond through resistance or cooperation. In the self-consciousness of the peoples involved in the biblical narrative, the critical change in attitude and moral orientation came as a result of a personal encounter with God. In the encounter they had the option of responding differently. The biblical narrative follows the stream of those who respond to God positively over centuries. God selects those who respond in a way that moves the story along.  (p. 270)

Human Imagination. Poe and Davis move beyond the discussion of scripture to consider the way God relates to people within human history, in scripture and continuing today. In considering the question of divine action they emphasize the openness of relationship that allows room for change and influence. They also emphasize the importance of imagination in human experience. Imagination isn’t merely fiction and make believe, or worse yet delusion and psychosis. Imagination as Poe and Davis define it is the ability to comprehend what we do not experience, it takes us beyond the empirical and the already known and tells us what could be. Without an imagination science would be impossible, because it could never advance beyond the mundane. They list six aspects of imagination:

1. Imagination provides the means for people to “have an idea.”

2. Imagination provides a helpful and ever-present means of relaxation in the form of the daydream.

3. Imagination provides the facility for invention.

4. Imagination involves the poetic grasp of reality in a way that elicits wonder.

5. Imagination produces the hallucinations experienced by the mentally ill (nothing is all good).

6. Imagination is the human faculty for perceiving transcendent experience, just as the eyes are the faculty for perceiving light and ears are the faculty for perceiving sound. Imagination is processed physically within the brain.

Poe and Davis emphasize that imagination is not to be viewed as a phenomenon of the mind separate from the body, in a return to dualism. This dualistic view of human nature is not the view of the Bible. Rather human nature involves the physical and the spiritual (soul) in “dynamic, inseparable unity.”  Imagination is physical and, Poe and Davis suggest, imagination provides a bridge to God. The same capacity to comprehend quarks and gluons also allows us to “hear” God.

Thus we do not dismiss the imagination as the bridge between the physical and the metaphysical simply because the imagination involves the brain and the central nervous system. More to the point, the imagination involves the entire physical body of a person. At the same time, it interacts seamlessly with those dimensions of consciousness that we call reason, emotion, character, and will. The imagination provides the medium by which people may “hear” God.

The human imagination, a faculty we use and take for granted throughout every waking day, provides God with access to every person on earth. The imagination processes information that it receives from any source. Just as the imagination allows us to know things about the physical world we have not learned, the imagination allows us to know God. Paul argued that imagination is why people have so many conceptions of God (Romans 1:21 KJV). People have the facility to receive cognitive information from God, but we also have the facility to create our own image of God. Humans have the freedom to respond as they please, but the existence of imagination provides God with access to humans without any violation of the laws of nature. This feature of human experience raises the question of how we might know we are hearing from God and not simply an overactive imagination. (pp. 278-279)

The answer to the last question lies in the importance of experience over time, not just the lifetime of an individual, but the experience of the people of God over the range of history from Abraham and Moses through Paul and today. The check to an overactive imagination is the corporate experience of the community of the people of God. Poe and Davis connect this discussion of human imagination as a medium to hear God with the active voice of the Holy Spirit, a voice which the apostles warn must be tested in the community of believers (they point to Paul in Romans and to 1 John here).

Divine Activity in Space, Time, and History is consistent with the world we experience. This is a major point Poe and Davis make in their book. All of nature points to an openness that belies the view of God as a deistic uninvolved entity who set the world in motion and stepped back.  None of this  proves the existence of God, but there is nothing in the nature of the world that of necessity removes God from the picture and eliminates the possibility of divine action without miraculous disruptions of nature. Assuming God exists, and this is the assumption of Poe and Davis, God can act and relate within the nature of the universe he has created. Metaphysical assumptions and philosophical commitments are required to remove God from consideration. Poe and Davis conclude:

The universe is not the tightly sealed machine that Enlightenment thinkers still suppose. It is open to the initiative of any personal being, including God. (p. 292)

This book is well worth reading. While I do not think they’ve solved all the problems, and there are places where they are off track, or at least so it seems to me, the book is an important contribution to the discussion of science, faith, and the activity of God. In God and the Cosmos Poe and Davis move out of many of the usual ruts and introduce a number of ideas worth serious consideration.

Do you think that human imagination provides a medium for people to hear God?

Do you see problems with the argument made by Poe and Davis?

How does God communicate with his people?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Scot McKnight

    I’m glad to see someone take on imagination in these contexts, RJS, as I have for a long time been convinced of the significance of imagination — in faith and in theology. For some it only means “making things up,” but imagination creates an “as if” image in the brain and we respond accordingly. Jesus uses “kingdom of God” as an imaginative force for his disciples.

  • DRT

    I am curious how you got through that without using the word “discernment”. Do they not use that term at all?

    I pretty much agree with this, but believe the discernment process is key, as you say “The check to an overactive imagination is the corporate experience of the community of the people of God”. I often wonder how much of the communication from god is signal versus noise.

  • DRT

    ….and to bounce off of Scot’s comment in 1, I think it is vital for people to have a picture of the target. And that picture is imagined, and very valuable. I bet many here can tell that I use my imagination for “what if” quite extensively too….

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    For Christians, theological imagination has a lot to do with not only how we “see” things but how we understand or even work out theological problems. Some of our imaginations are stunted and others may be overly active. There is a kind of debased imagination that Paul speaks about and I believe there is a sanctified imagination we see throughout all of Scripture for those who have eyes to see. In RJS summary of six aspects of imagination, the two that really stick out to me the most in my Christian journey are (1) imagination involves a poetic grasp of reality that elicites wonder. I believe the Christian mystics throughout church history had what could be called a sacramental imagination or what Brother Lawrence practiced in his faith, the art of seeing God everywhere and in all that we do; and (2) imagination is the human faculty for perceiving transcendent experience. Or to answer one of RJS last questions, cultivating a theological imagination is an important key to seeing and understanding and hearing from God. And if the Bible is written by Jews, then should we not also try to understand and cultivate a more Jewish imagination in how they wrote and thought?

    First thoughts . . .

  • Michael Teston

    A very exciting discussion. I have pondered such things for some time. Even in our day to day relationships “imagination” assists in anticipating what could be, what might be, what is possible. It acts as the hinge of so much good and not so good. The discussion around the “reflective” work down in the Biblical material is fantastic and shows the importance of re-working life story, God story, our stories in the creation of new life possibilities, or new creation if you will. Gonna have to pick this text up. “The Bible tells a different story that involves God relating to different people in different ways, depending how they respond through resistance or cooperation.” Have been saying this for years in Bible study classes. Dare I say that the Bible as the author insists is the “Minority Report” of a people who for the most part cooperated with God as opposed to resisted. What is possible when we imagine cooperation and not resistance? Excellent.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Great summary of Chapter 8. I read between the lines that you also consider this chapter to be one of the strongest in the book. Si?

     I’ve already said enough on this book on previous days. But here are a few quotes from Chapter 8 that seemed very helpful and that address at least some of RJS’ questions today.

    “Poor Aristotle. Without defenders like the relics of Enlightenment thought, his influence would have declined by now. With such a poor track record, (author’s provide a chart) one wonders at Aristotle’s hold on the modern world.” 282

    “It (the Bible) was not written as a theory of how God changed culture. Any pattern that may be present cannot be seen in the details of the text but by stepping back from it.” 264.  I can’t resist wanting to append to the first sentence of this quote “or how God made the universe.”

    With reference to Adam and Eve “For all it’s simplicity and purity, innocence is not the same as holiness or righteousness.” 264. Perhaps my favorite quote from the whole book!

    “God interacts in history by interaction with human spirit.” 262 It would be good to be able to quote their whole section entitled ‘Human spirit’.

    “Within ourselves, we engage in a continuing conversation as we create the next moment of our lives, but in this conversation the Holy Spirit has a voice.” 280

    “God offers alternative choices. God gives warnings. God allows wrong choices. In all of this, God models behavior for people to treat each other as people rather than as mere things.” 259

    “…..the biblical story proposes that God has begun to change people into a form of life that continues beyond the grave and transcends physical existence. The focus of this transformation involves the spiritual dimension of people, which also provides the elusive locus for interaction with God. The Holy Spirit who transforms us into children of God also interacts with us cognitively.” 271

  • Imagination has been central to political theology. Bill Cavanaugh’s *Theopolitical Imagination* is just one example. Indeed, those of us who work in this area refer to certain “realist” strains as entailing a failure of imagination. Imagination is central to interpreting scripture, and it is particularly important when considering eschatological implications for the church’s life today. Good stuff. Thanks for reviewing it, RJS.

  • Joey Elliott

    While offering much appreciation to the points raised in this post and the comments following (I especially appreciated Scot’s mention of Jesus’ use of Kingdom of God as an imaginative force, and DRT’s highlighting of discernment), I would like to say, at the risk of stating the obvious, that imagination as the primary means to interpret objective truth from Scripture is going to be problematic. I don’t think that is God’s purpose with our imagination, although the discussion surrounding how our imagination enhances that objective truth revealed in Scripture, alongside our experience, is fascinating. I think in some way God does use our imagination, by the Holy Spirit, to help us “take hold of the eternal life to which we have been called”, and really gain an eternal perspective on life (I also liked Bev’s quote from page 271 of this chapter).

    But if imagination becomes the primary means to gaining a saving knowledge of and relationship with Jesus, I cannot go there. If that were true, as I wrote recently, I personally would be in a ditch somewhere. Wet and dirty and miserable. And I’d have a worn Bible, and an old smeared piece of cardboard next to me that said, “Help. Please. My imagination is fallen. I can’t, and haven’t, experienced God, and I don’t understand this book. What must I do to be saved? Who is this Jesus?”

  • RJS


    Our imagination is fallen, our reason is fallen, our ability to trust or believe people is fallen, every hermeneutic is contaminated by our ability to deceive ourselves. Poe and Davis pull no punches here. The community of the people of God is essential across the board. We have no intrinsically reliable approach.

    I think they make a good point, and open a needed discussion. Imagination, revelation, community, reason … all of these work together. But ultimately it is the Holy Spirit (which they would agree).

  • CGC

    Hi Joey,
    I think we all need a vision from God. I remember reading about Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life where he had a vision from God and suddenly he realized that all his theological writings were nothing compared to experiencing this kind of beautific vision that the Catholic Church calls it and other Christians may have other names for it.

  • Scot Miller

    This talk of imagination reminds me of Kant, who famously argued that freedom, God, and the immortality of the soul are postulates of practical reason but are not objects of knowledge. Science and history do not need God to explain the intelligibility of the natural world. Instead of trying to insert God into the world as if God were an agent in nature or history, it would be better to re-think the nature and reality of God. Is God really an entity that exists with other entities, or is God the Ground of Being which does not exist per se, but makes existence possible?

  • Joey Elliott


    I agree also with the preeminence of the Holy Spirit here, and within that, especially the importance of community.

    But I wonder, in the context of Acts 2 after Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, was imagination a component of the apostles’ belief? They did not yet have the Holy Spirit, and asked, “what shall we do?” after hearing the Gospel presented. And Peter plainly stated, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

    In their/our fallen state, before the Holy Spirit was/is present within them/us, this truth of Jesus is enough “information” or “revelation” needed to trust Him and receive the Holy Spirit, without a component of imagination, is it not? Does the Holy Spirit not do His initial work in us through the objective proclamation of the Gospel, not imagination or reason? Or was their being “cut to the heart” a product of their imagination, outside the work of the Holy Spirit? What is it that causes repentance and change in us before the Holy Spirit comes? Is the not the Holy Spirit Himself, through an objective word of truth? Or just randomly?

    I think objective truth in Scripture can be understood savingly even in our fallen state, and has to be, or we’d be without hope, and I believe it is what the Holy Spirit works through initially, before He indwells us permanently. And if that’s true, we really see how God uses imagination by the power of the Holy Spirit, AFTER an initial trust in him for salvation. We see it in the wonder of the Christian life and the challenge of taking hold of eternal life, every day.

  • RJS


    I think imagination was part of the experience of God for Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, and Hosea to list just a few. Does the statement that the disciples were to wait for the gift of the Spirit mean that the Spirit was absence from the experience of mankind before this? I haven’t thought about it much – but if it does I would say that imagination was still important to hear God. I am not going to push to hard to equate the Spirit with God speaking through imagination though.

    That brings up another point though. I don’t think there is an “objective truth” in scripture that can be understood without what Poe and Davis are calling imagination. To understand the saving work of God, even dimly, we have to be able to imagine things as they could be rather than as they are. Or at least so it seems to me at this time, as I think about this.

  • CGC

    Hi Joey,
    You might as well be asking when someone hears the gospel, does their spirit respond to God before or after belief? Does the mind come before the heart or after it? Is it the soul we are after or the body? I find this kind of dissecting of the human person problematic. Why can’t we just approach this holistically rather than having to break it all down into parts and then start trying to put the pieces together? Isn’t better to speak of the whole person—-heart, mind, imagination, intuition, etc. all working together as a whole then some parts come first and other parts/aspects come later? It sounds like the whole dichotomous ways of doing western theology like justification comes first and then sanctification. This may be due to more of our modern theologies about Scripture rather than what Scripture actually presents.

  • CGC

    PS – I think the whole objective and subjective truth is a misnomer. Why have we dissected and put these against one another? Isn’t there a subjective and objective side to truth? Isn’t this a both/and rather than another either/or? I personally like Michael Polanyi’s “Personal truth” model and ’embodied truth’ better than the old debates between subjective and objective truth.

  • Joey Elliott


    Thanks for the dialogue. I respectfully disagree with the following:

    “I don’t think there is an “objective truth” in scripture that can be understood without what Poe and Davis are calling imagination. To understand the saving work of God, even dimly, we have to be able to imagine things as they could be rather than as they are.”

    If we “have to be able to imagine things”, what if we can’t? Who can be saved? Sure, nothing is impossible with God. But is it not more sure than this? Is the example of the apostles in Acts not more clear than this? On the one hand you can say God uses imagination combined with truth to save (always alongside the Spirit). In the NT, where is this clearly seen? On the other hand, you can say God uses only the truth, along with the supernatural (initial) work of the Spirit – and our imagination, thankfully, is not what our salvation is dependent on. I don’t know of any examples in the NT of God the Spirit working apart from the proclammation of truth. One would have to read into the text His use of imagination (in His initial work), because I don’t think it clearly is there. I used the example from the NT, because although I do agree the Spirit moved, was present, and worked in Old Testament saints, He clearly worked differently, and He clearly does not work that way now, as most of the New Testament clarifies. So, its more important for us, I think, to consider how the Spirit works after Jesus, rather than before. Hence my highlighting the passage in Acts.

    I appreciate that this is an appropriate venue for disagreement! I still benefited greatly from this post and conversation.

  • DRT

    Scot Miller,

    I think I am gaining an affinity for the one t Scot club. [and thanks for pointing out your authorship on Tony’s blog, that was good stuff]


    Talking about god is inherently a process of abstract thinking. Sure, there are tangible components about the effect or action of god, but the nature of god is imagination for us.

    I would like to fold into this conversation the two posts my Roger Olson:

    Those help provide a semantic base to help with these conversations that can be more specific for some, but less attainable for others. I would believe that Roger would say that the theologians provide models and descriptions for the imagination to help them be intelligible.

  • DRT

    Scot Miller,

    I think I am gaining an affinity for the one t Scot club. [and thanks for pointing out your authorship on Tony’s blog, that was good stuff]


    Talking about god is inherently a process of abstract thinking. Sure, there are tangible components about the effect or action of god, but the nature of god is imagination for us.

    I would like to fold into this conversation the two posts my Roger Olson with the first part here (had to eliminate the reference to the second link since the spam filter caught me):

    Those help provide a semantic base to help with these conversations that can be more specific for some, but less attainable for others. I would believe that Roger would say that the theologians provide models and descriptions for the imagination to help them be intelligible.

  • Joey Elliott


    How can there be an objective AND subjective side to truth? If it is possible for it to not be true, how can it be truth? Wouldn’t it be something else?

  • DRT

    Joey Elliott,

    Not sure if my view would help or hurt you, but here it goes.

    I find this conversation roughly equivalent to the conversation around biblical inerrancy. Those who believe in a strong form of inerrancy seem to believe that they can understand the absolute truth of what the bible says and it is the bible, not them, that is saying these things. While I believe that all they have access to is their interpretation of the bible, not the absolute truth of what it says.

    In my life I can have a thought, “I see that tree” and be looking at the tree, but the tree I see is a mental construct, a model of the real thing. I do not see a tree, I see what I have constructed as a tree in my mind.

    So when someone hears the gospel they are interpreting what they are hearing into imaginations of the concepts and ideas. Some see one thing, others something else.

    So we all imagine. Imagining is, perhaps, the most important thing we do. Further, we can consciously choose to imagine one thing or another. We have a choice and can use the imagination to do “what ifs”, or paint a picture for someone else, and many more things. We are imagining creatures.

    I also agree with CGC’s comments on breaking this down to finely. Certainly there are common elements of truth somewhere, but by and large we only have access to what we think.

  • Joey Elliott


    Didn’t hurt, but didn’t help.

    I repeat, if my salvation and basic understanding of my Creator and Redeemer depended on my imagination at all, I would be in a ditch somehwere with a worn bible and a cardboard sign that said, “Help, my imagination is not sufficient. It’s just confusing reality for me. What even is real? Who is Jesus? How can I be saved?”

    That is just my personal testimony.

  • Joey Elliott


    Further, what do you mean you don’t actually see the tree? The tree isn’t real? What is this the Matrix? 🙂

  • Joey Elliott


    Sorry, one more thought. If we don’t have access to absolute truth, then there is nothing unique about Christianity. Do you disagree?

  • Bev Mitchell

    Joey, RJS, CGC, DRT and others,
    Great discussion on important stuff. Maybe the following will be helpful.

    As some of you know, I’m trying to read and understand T.F. Torrance’s “The Trinitarian Faith”. Torrance did not hold out much hope for the natural theology project, to say the least. The following quotes  let him be part of this excellent imaginative conversation. 

    (Among Alexandrians like Clement, Anatolius and Athanasius) “precise, scientific knowledge was held to result from inquiry strictly in accordance with the nature of the reality being investigated, that is, knowledge of it reached under the constraint of what it actually and essentially is in itself, and not according to some arbitrary convention. To know things in this way, strictly in accordance with their nature, is to know them in accordance with their truth or reality and thus to think and speak truly of them.”

    and a sentence later,

    This scientific approach, in which we know things only under the constraint of their distinctive nature, applies even more forcefully to the knowledge of God, for since there is no likeness between the eternal being of God and the being of created reality, God may be known only out of himself. Thus if we are to have any true and precise scientific knowledge of God, we must allow his own nature, as he becomes revealed to us, to determine how we are to know him, how we are to think of him, and what we are to say of him. This is what happens when we approach God as Father through Jesus Christ his Son.”

    and later,

    When we seek to know God from his created works, on the other hand, we do not know him as Father, but only know him as Maker, and are no better off than the Greeks. But he who knows God as Father in and through his Son, the Word of God, also knows God as Creator, for it is through the Word that God has created all things.”

  • DRT

    Joey, the fact is that light hits this thing called a tree and hits my eye. Then it is transmitted as a bunch of electrical signals to my brain where my brain has learned to construct something intelligible to me, and labels that thing a tree. All I have access to is the electrical impulses from my eye. So you see, all I have is my mental image of a tree.

    Haven’t you ever wondered if other people see red the same color as you do? Or blue?

    And this reminds me of one of the stories in the bible. Jesus healed a man’s sight and the man could then see. But if he had been blind since birth then he would not have been able to make sense of the surroundings at all. His brain would not know how to interpret these images and would not be able to “see”.

    This may seem to be somewhat esoteric or irrelevant, but it is actually important when we start to talk about relating to other people. We all walk around looking at the world through the mental pictures that we have built up over a lifetime. And each of us has a slightly different mental picture of the world. If we don’t realize that then it is difficult to talk to each other and we start making claims like “I see the world for what it really is!”

  • Rodney Reeves

    Walter Brueggemann’s work on prophetic imagination has been especially helpful to me.

  • Larry Chouinard

    Ethicist refer to the moral imagination as that which enables one to explore the options, possibilities , and consequences one might face in confronting an ethical dilemma. The moral imagination also helps one to move beyond a mere rules based ethic to probe the basis and reasons for a moral imperative. This exploration is best done within the constraints of a faith community using Scripture as foundational for ethical reflection. The imagination is indispensable for applying an ancient text to modern ethical dilemmas.

  • Joey Elliott


    How does no common ground (no absolute truth) help us relate to other people?

    And call it what you want, but what you perceive as a tree is really there. The truth of its existence and presence does not depend on your imagination or brain’s impulses. By the grace of God you can know your perception of reality (or absolute Christian truth) is not self deception. It is real.

  • CGC

    Hi Joey #19,
    If you follow some of the old debates between Christian philosophers and Christian theologians, people like Kierkegaard argued for subjective truth (which sounds similar in how people defined objective truth but the focus was on the subject as knower and not the objects being known)—coming back to some things DRT is trying to say about how do we know what objects are that we see with or eyes? Objective truth people like Francis Schaeffer, Carl Henry and others “old school evangelicals” spoke of truth in absolute and only objective truth counts. But our postmodern condition has rightly shown the contingent and cultural ways we see truth as well as there is no objective view from beyond like we can see truth absolutely like God (only God can do this). We do have certainty but we don’t have absolute certainty at an ontological level even if we have it at more of a confidence or epistemological level (sorry about the philosophical terminology so you see why I don’t go here very often). So yes, there is subjective truth in that we experience truth subjectively and by a knowing subject and truth is objective in that there are real objects we are not making up with our minds that are actually out there (objective truth).

    Hi Bev,
    I for one feel uncomfortable calling something a scientific approach as a way of knowing God as Torrence does but I think he is using knowledge not in an empiracal sense but in regards to religous experience. This relates to the discussion with Joey because a lot of scientists who are atheist scientists would object from the start that what Torrence is doing is actually science. Come from the other side of Joey, they would say religious experience can not be objectively verified and therefore does not exist.

  • Joey Elliott


    Thanks for that. Truly. I am not a philosopher, but when I start going into that realm, perhaps without meaning to, I appreciate a respectful clarification on the history, terms, and major concepts.

    So there is objective truth, but we can only know it subjectively? I’m ok with saying it that way. The key is that we can know it. Which to me, has to be the case, otherwise God would not be personal. I suppose if I am getting this right, that would also mean that we can be objectively saved, but only know so subjectively, which would be to say not for sure. I don’t happen to agree with that, but assurance of salvation is not the topic here, so I only mention it as an example to see if my logic is consistent to what you are saying.

  • Tim

    I agree with much of what the author says regarding some of the scholarship coming from the likes of Borg, Crossan, Ehrman, etc. However, I also agree with Scot that to then impugn the entire field of Historical Jesus studies is unwarranted.

    Some underlying bias to reshape Jesus into one’s ideal of him (or form him into a weapon against groups one happens to disagree with) does seem rather ubiquitous. However, scholarly communities have to deal with personal biases like this routinely, whether biases involving Jesus, Christianity, or any other issue. This does not then mean that scholarship can’t progress or that provisional confidence can’t be assigned to any finding. It just means that we have to proceed cautiously and ensure a rigorous evaluation of arguments, particularly among one’s peers in the relevant expert communities.

    If you look at the historical Jesus studies, a few conclusions seem to enjoy broad support. Others not so much. The endless debate among the more contested areas of historical Jesus scholarship should not therefore take from the areas where there is stronger support and consensus.

  • DRT

    My daughter and I are raising a new batch of chickens this spring and they are nearly full grown now. We keep them in a coop in the back yard while they are young, and will be free range as they get older. Click the picture in this link to see the setup that I am talking about.

    Well, the dog in the picture is Freckles and she has had an interesting reaction to these new chickens. You see, we had chickens before and she never really bothered them. The chickens and her would simply ignore each other.

    But when the chicks were young and we started keeping them in the coop, she would immediately throw herself against the wire on the coop and run around trying to get them and eat them. It was obvious that her brain saw these chicks and could only see them as one thing, a tasty meal that she must, absolutely must get.

    My daughter and I were a bit shocked by this since she really did not do that to the other chickens. But after some research and thinking we realized that it was the peeping noise that the chicks made. The peep when they are young, and then start to cluck when they get older. That peeping noise was an obvious signal to her to eat them.

    As time went on, the chicks start clucking, and now they only cluck. No more peep noises. But Freckles still attacks them in the coop and thinks they are food! Hmmmm.

    Well, Nikki and I determined it was time to take the next step in chicken raising, so we put the chickens in the garden. You can see the garden behind the coop in the picture. We were a bit worried about Freckles because she was absolutely viscous toward them and the fence for the garden is not exactly bullet proof.

    Much to our surprise, when we let Freckles out to see the chickens in the garden she totally ignored them! Worse yet, she would walk by them, wag her tail, then proceed to go over to the empty coop and freak out trying to find those good things to eat. She did not recognize that the chickens in the garden are the same ones that were in the coop, and the ones in the coop were food, but the ones in the garden are not.

    It was an amazing experiment and we have more experiments to do on this, but I would like to relate this to this post (finally….. 😉 )

    First, it is clear that there is such a thing as a chicken that we all can agree to. But Freckles has two different subjective views of that chicken, and I pretty sure they both are different than my subjective view. Her view that the chickens in the chicken tractor are clearly interpreted by her as “food that I must eat”, but the same chickens in the garden are “chickens that I ignore”.

    The two concepts for Freckles are just like it is for any of us. Each of us has our own contextualized version of what a chicken, or tree, or god, or bible, or sin is and they are all different. None of us is smart enough nor omniscient enough to know what the true chicken is like.

    So, it is vital that we realize this when we talk to other people. Someone’s pet chicken may be a mouthwatering lunch to someone else. We need to be open to the fact that the objective truth is probably unattainable to either of us, but we can work together to try and get there.

  • CGC

    Hi Joey,
    I don’t want to say there is no such thing as objective truth but I do want to caution against it for several reasons (at least its common abuses).

    1. Conservatives have tried to use objective truth to trump liberals and then scientists have tried to used objective truth to trump religious experiences (and their interpretations) of God.

    2. Objective truth has so many problems like its persepctive is the only true one to the myth of objectivity (my view is totally fair, unbiased, and nuetral). We all see thngs from a certain location or perspective. Nobody is totally neutral or has no apriori ideas or thoughts on an issue. We all are highly influenced and like to priviledge our own views over others. I don’t know if DRT would agree with me on this or not but in one sense, only objects are truly objective (and we are more than objects).

    3. Objective truth people have thought in the past that all reasonable people would see things like them and arrive at the same conclusions. Universal reason was any rational person would see things as I see them. Obviously in our postmodern world and where the global conversation has become more personal, everybody seeing things like we do simply does not exist as if it ever truly did. This is also why Christian theists can call atheists irrational and atheists often call theists irrational (they have stacked the deck in their proverbial favor privileging their own position as rational and the opposite as irrational while never really taking a deeper look at the rules for Reason to begin with).

    4. Objective truth typically confuses truth with certainty (I am not even going to go into this one except it reminds me of similar moves innerantists take when they confuse interpretation with the Bible’s authority). If you don’t interpret the Bible like I do then you really don’t believe in the authority of God’s Word or so goes the arguement. The underlying issue is often not the authority of God’s word but different interpretations of God’s Word. I will also add that objective truth also often confuses and conflates faith and reason. Faith too often takes a backseat to reason whether that be the absolute certain Christian or the absolute certain scientist or the absolute certain atheist.

    Let me end with what I believe is a more robust scriptural approach to our knowing and certitude. 2 Tim.1:12 says, “I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.” The kind of assurance we receive is quite different than what we have inherited from the age of Reason. Notice our confidence is not in our knowing but in the faithful reliability of God. Secondly, “until that day” reveals to us that we do not posses final truth but we are on a journey that will lead us to the fullness of truth. I only know partial truth, but someday I will know the fullness of truth.

    I hope all that makes some kind of sense. Anyway, good discussion Joey!

  • Joey Elliott


    With all due respect to Freckles, I don’t think that example relates. Humans created in the image of God are uniquely different than animals, and the fact that animals cannot discern objective truth does not in any way refute our ability to. All I’m hearing in your explanation is classic relativism. I stand by my point that there is objective truth, and we can know it. Otherwise, there would be no Christianity. Discerning different backgrounds and perspectives is of course helpful in relating to other people. But backgrounds and perspectives are different than truth.

    Others – help me out here. Am I crazy or has this conversation lost its footing? I’m not talking about God communicating through truth vs. imagination as it relates to salvation issues anymore, I’m just talking about the basic foundation of absolute truth being essential for Christianity to make any sense. I don’t see how the phenomenon of dogs and chickens helps bring clarity, and in fact I feel like we are drifting into foolish controversy.

    DRT, please help me understood your connection more clearly.

  • Joey Elliott


    Thanks for your winsome approach to this conversation. It is all very helpful. I can stand with you at 2 Timothy 1:12 with great joy.

  • DRT

    CGC says only objects are truly objective

    I agree! Though I would not say that in mixed company….. Is that your own thought? It is quite good and I had not heard that before.

  • DRT

    Joey, thanks for engaging with me on this. I am enjoying the conversation tremendously (and CGC’s thoughts too…..)

    I am pretty sure that most us have heard that our closest relative is the Chimp. Years ago I heard the other side of that, that is, that not only is the Chimp our closest relative, but we are the Chimp’s closest relative.

    I am one of those strange people who feel that, just like the bible does not advocate for eliminating slavery, it also does not advocate for respecting animals more. No, they are clearly not as evolved as us.

    Look at it this way. We do not, objectively, know what the image of god means! Not even close. It could be that the cognition demonstrated by Freckle’s is very similar to ours (I contend that it is). And that this has nothing to do with the image of god.

    Let’s say that the image of god is knowing right from wrong. Now, aside from the fact that my dog knows when she did wrong, that does not come into play at all when discussing the way we perceive the world as my scenario says.

    Why does image of god enter into this for you? I don’t understand that.

  • DRT


    I don’t understand how you can say that losing objective truth eliminates Christianity. If we all agree on Christianity, then there is Christianity among us, right? And if we all say it is not real, then it may still be real and we just don’t know it. How does that get rid of Christianity?

  • CGC

    Hi Drt, Joey and all,
    Two influetial and easy to understand books I read many years ago were Daniel Taylor’s “The Myth of Certainty” which I believe I first heard this idea DRT? The other book which I believe is one of the best ever written on this topic of discussion is Lesslie Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship.”

    Karl Barth will probably be known as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century but Lesslie Newbigin probably had a more down to earth easy way of presenting Christian issues better than most. He was a missionary in India for forty years and when he came back to America (early 1980’s? the decade of the Evangelicals), he was the first to my knowledge to start speaking about America being a ‘post-Christian nation’ which is so popularly spoken of these days.

    So DRT, when it comes to having new ideas, I will say the writer of Ecclesiastes said it best, “there is nothing new under the sun.” I also believe God gives some people new ideas from over the sun but that is another discussion 😉

  • DRT

    Scot may have to jump in to say this, but if we are cracked Eikons of the image of god, then we may be unable to perceive what the image actually is.

  • DRT


    Does not Corinthians capture this same concept well?

    13:11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. 13:12 For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.

    We cannot see the objective truth. If we do, it is by chance not planning or intelligence. We make motions toward the objective Truth, but are unsure even when we hit it, or at least we should be.

  • CGC

    Hi DRT #40,
    If God’s grace and Spirit can lead us to repentance and cooperate with God’s will, then this may goes against the Calvinist/ism grain of man can do nothing, not even respond because either free will is an illusion or so terribly broke that it can’t help us.

    I remember when I first heard an analogy of Augustine’s interpretation of the imago dei, it was like a car and the image of God is like a car engine. Augustine did not say we did not have a car engine (and probably Calvin did not either) but that the engine did not run because it was so marred and ruined (cracked eikons). My response from a practical perspective is what is the difference between no engine and a broke engine? (neither one will work!).

  • T


    When you ask regarding use of our imagination, “What if I can’t?” I would say show me the person that can’t imagine things. A two year old can imagine. I think, too, you’re failing to see how words, even ones of objective truths, catch fire in our imaginations whether we want them to or not. Try to read a book without using your imagination. I assure you, you won’t get far. Many folks believe that a person must be able to understand guilt and a death sentence before they can have a saving relationship with Jesus. I personally doubt that. Saying that someone must have the ability to imagine to relate with Jesus is pushing the bar lower, not higher, than folks who only practice adult baptism, for instance.

    What I mean is, when you say “But if imagination becomes the primary means to gaining a saving knowledge of and relationship with Jesus, I cannot go there” it makes me think that you are separating “gaining a saving knowledge of and relationship with Jesus” from the use of our imagination, and I think what many are arguing (and I agree) is that no one gains an understanding of anything without using imagination. Peter’s sermon was great, but no one listened to it (unless they were brain-dead) and failed to use their imagination as he spoke. It’s a fundamental part of our thinking process. It’s how we listen and interact with words that represent things and actions. If your imagination didn’t work, you might very well be in a ditch somewhere, or in a hospital, or a morgue. Words, or symbols of any kind, are meaningless without imagination.

  • Bev Mitchell

    CGC #29
    Yes, I don’t think it was helpful for Torrance to dub his approach Scientific Theology because it is too easily misunderstood. It has nothing to do with using science (as applied to the study of nature) to find God. In fact, he has practically no use for natural theology, for the very reason that he calls his theology scientific. Stay with me now brother/sister. His reason for using the term science is that he sees scientists as making progress only when they study real things as they are in themselves (not as imagined things, derivative things etc.). Likewise, he reasons, God can only be known as he is, and since he is God, that means we can only know God through God’s self-revelation – ie via the Holy Spirit. It is not good ‘scientific’ theology, Torrance would say, to try to imagine God, or to find God truly by studying creation, or by building philosophical constructs without faith. First faith, derived through revelation, then consider God’s works. He would see interpretation of Scripture as needing the same faith-filled foundation.

    On your second point. I get the impression that Torrance would not have been too concerned if some atheistic scientists didn’t consider his approach to theology as scientific. 🙂

    Hope this helps. With Torrance it’s difficult not to get wordy.

  • CGC

    Hey Bev,
    Don’t get me wrong, I love Torrence (his book “The Mediation of Christ” is one of the best books I have read this year). I think Torrence is typically dealing in some of his books with the philosophy of science and not the actual practice of science. So I may have a lovers quarrel with Torrence on this myopic issue over terminology because I see the Christian faith too often in the Evangelical world, being hi-jacked by science and either science must prove our faith, be read out of the Bible, or more commonly, the Bible is to be investigated scientifically.

    Do we really believe this is the best way to read the Scriptures or to get the most out of God’s Word? Is scientific exegesis by modern standards really superior to Jewish Midrash, Early Catholic multi-layer approach, mystical pneumatic readings of Scripture? And why were those Christians so eager to lay their life down for the gospel and it seems like we avoid death like a plague at all cost today? Why were those Christians dying martyered deaths, surrending or giving up everything but we give up our tithe (maybe?). Why were those Christians so immersed in the spiritual disciplines and scriptures and we read books about the scriptures rather than the scriptures themselves (unless we have a lesson or teaching to give a group of people). Why did earlier generations hundreds of years ago have so many saints and we have so few today?

  • CGC

    PS Bev,
    By the way, I love Torrance’s historical approach to Scripture. I doubt he would be very enthusiastic of what I see and am talking about either?

  • DRT

    CGC, there difference is that a broken engine actually slows you down.

    Thanks for your thoughts on that.

  • Bev Mitchell

    CRC #45
    Thanks for the clarification. From your other comments on many threads I’m not surprised that you like Torrance. Why don’t we hear more of him? – though I realize that is changing. Or for that matter, what about that other Barth protégé, Donald Bloesch? And while speaking of Dubuque, I e-mailed Elmer Colyer (author of “How to Read T.F. Torrance”) the other day to thank him for writing that book. He graciously responded saying he was now working on a book on Wesley’s thought on the Trinity. In passing, he mentioned that he was finding great similarity between Wesley and Torrance. It’s things like this that make me scratch my head when we see the great smoke and mirror show billowing out from the confrontation between some Calvinists and some Arminians.

    Finally, I sometimes get a little frustrated with our blog discussions when we try to hash out matters already well covered by very fine Christian thinkers. I realize this process of interchange and restatement is essential to making their ideas real to us. It’s just that I sometimes would like to see more explicit references to our giants. Maybe it’s my science background, but discussing things without reference, or trying to reinvent the wheel is not that easy to get away with in that world – not impossible, mind you, just not easy.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Argh! Sorry CGC, I did it again. CRC is a big scientific publishing company that puts out indispensable tomes such as “The Handbook of Physics and Chemistry” Old habits die hard.

  • Thanks for this overview on what seems a very fascinating text. I’m definitely going to add it to my reading list.

    I’m not sure, however, that imagination is focused enough. We can imagine the worst, or imagine evil as well.

    How about “hope”? Which is imagination with a purpose.

    Not surprising that the theologians of hope, Moltmann and Pannenberg, wrote so much on the topic of history. Pannenberg more systematically, Moltmann more passionately.

  • Michael Teston

    Yes, the rigorous work of Walter Brueggemann certainly dovetails with this material as well. Prophetic Imagination, Hopeful Imagination, David’s Truth, we could go on an on. Brueggemann began to assist me in freeing my Biblical studies from the boxes of historical critical methodologies and saw the major characters of the O.T. as imagining, dreaming, and prophets writing poetry to undo their people from the constrictions of the “objective truths” of the pharaohs and others. Great discussion. If you can’t first see it (vision/dream/image) its hard to move toward new creation.

  • Joey Elliott


    First of all, I don’t believe man and chimp have common ancestry, so we might as well not go down that road. I am unconvinced that anyone can (or needs to) conclusively say that natural selection alone can create a new species on a molecular biological level. But I digress.

    The image of God came in play for me because you were comparing the way that dogs and humans experience reality, and I don’t think that works, because of the unique and significant difference between man and dog, namely, that man was created in the image of God, with unique gifts and abililties that animals do not possess; among them, the ability to comprehend truth, and through it, knowingly glorify our Creator. Dogs can’t do that.

    The reason losing objective truth undermines all of Christianity is you aren’t able to even say objectively that there is a Creator, let alone a Redeemer. If truth is relative and subjective only, nothing is true. How does one do evangelism with such loose approaches to the truth of Christianity? What separates Christianity without the objective truth of God our Creator and Redeemer, revealed to us in the Person Jesus who is God?

    My understanding of the passage in Corinthians is that it is talking about knowing truth comprehensively, not sufficiently. It doesn’t say we can’t know it sufficiently now. “Face to face” refers to seeing Jesus at his second coming, where we will experience Him in all His glory. Nowhere does this even imply that we can’t know Him sufficiently and truly on this side of His life, death, and resurrection, but before his second coming. In fact, we must, or we won’t see him face to face.


    I never said or implied that imagination doesn’t play a part. Just that it is not the determining factor in understanding truth. I don’t think you are being sensitive enough to my ditch analogy. My point was there are people in a ditch, literally and figuratively, who are trying to imagine themselves to salvation and it’s not working because someone needs to tell them the objective truth about Jesus!

    Two-year olds can imagine things, sure, but they can’t imagine that Jesus came to earth fully God, yet fully man, lived a perfect life, died for the forgiveness of sins, and rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures. Some may be able to comprehend this once told, but they can’t imagine it. Most 2 year olds probably can’t yet comprehend this (that’s another topic), but we still tell them! And when they can, they then form a belief based on this objective truth, with their imagination, sure, but not reliant on their imagination.

  • CGC

    Hi Bev,
    I was reading a response by someone on a different thread and I thought, “I wonder who wrote that, that person sounds a lot like me.” I wasn’t surprised to see it was you 🙂 We all have diffiferent pet peeves or things that bother us maybe more than others. I feel like I am still pretty new to the list so up till this point, I can go with the flow whether people document things better or not (some people give references as times which I appreciate but I don’t neccesarily have an expectation, at least not yet, for people to do it more than what I see it being done so far).

    So Bev, keep giving up references and books to read (I for one go and look these up on Amazon to see if I want to pursue something more). Hey, here’s a nugget, read Robn Meyer’s book “The Underground Church” 🙂 I am only on the fourth chapter but the first few chapters have been worth the price of the book to me at least. Another fascinating book I am reading is “The Jesus Scandals” by David Instone-Brewer (I love where history and biblical insights come together!).

  • Bev Mitchell

    Hi CGC,
    I was wondering if anyone would pick up on my little grumble and had already decided on my response viz. it’s not terribly important that I feel a bit frustrated from time to time. It is far more important that people are willing to discuss these things, thoughtfully and amicably. And, there are sometimes references. Especially, I do very much like to see helpful quotes from some of the best authors from time to time, as a way of letting these gifted people speak to our discussion.

  • CGC

    Hi Bev,
    As someone who has seen a lot of different ways people respond, especially on other theological discussion lists that function in my view in very unhelpful and unhealthy ways, I am one who would rather listen to people give hopefully their informed perspective rather than simply quoting someone else.

    My problem (not what you or others on this list do) is I have seen too many people pull out their favorite theologian or apologist to blundeon someone with long quotes. I have seen whole sections of Scripture quoted ad nauseum used like a weapon that is soley aimed at destroying other people with different viewpoints. So from what I have witnessed in the past, I personally like the personal touch and even at times the brief way people can say what they want quickly and precisely.

    I love N. T. Wright for example Bev but I would rather hear what you have to say in your interaction with Wright than simply hearing a quote from Wright. I know we are all wired differently Bev and so I really don’t have any answer to your dilemma? And please don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind if you or anyone else land a good quote now and then (I for one just don’t like long quotes—-which can go on for pages—-which I am happy to say I don’t think I have seen this happen on this list yet? or at least, not very often).

  • Bev Mitchell

    Hi again CGC,
    I agree with everything you say, especially re long quotes! Being relatively new at this, I have not experienced some of the worst behaviours you describe – how awful. May the saints preserve us 🙂

  • DRT

    Bev Mitchell,

    I certainly picked up on your little grumble, and feel that I resemble that remark 😉

    The way I look at it Bev, is that if there were too many people like me who do not have all the training and deep knowledge then this would get shallow, and that is not good. And if there are too many people who simply say things like, “you are wrong because of the hypothesis in Chapter 2 of Systematic Theology, but not the one edited by Wright but the one edited by McKnight” then we have a different type of conversation.

    I think there have been some players who have stopped frequenting this blog in the past year that used to be more well read, and wanting to debate based on previous theories (dopderbeck, Tim used to do it to excess for awhile, the Kruse man, and some others). So there does seem to be an opportunity for more of that to come back here.

    As it stands right now, it seems that both methods can coexists quite peaceably together.

    But I hear you. I think part of it is cultural, much like what CRC ( 🙂 ) is saying, this blog tends to not approve of proof texting, and that carries over quite a bit into the use of other established authors.

    I think there is an implicit assumption that people here have read a smattering of many of the great works. I have had Scot say to me that I really should read Luther some more to have that background, but in general I have a working knowledge of the range of works, if not the actual content 🙂

    But, using reference the way you do is a first from what I have seen here.

  • CGC

    Yes Bev,
    You use references in a very non-polemical way that strives to encourage growth and learning. May your tribe increase!

  • Bev Mitchell

    CGC, DRT,

    Thanks for the vote of confidence. I find that choosing an appropriate quote and commenting on it as well helps me understand better what an author is saying, especially someone like Torrance for example. A string of well chosen quotes with comments can be a great summary. This is basically a study strategy, whether or not it gets posted. As for proof texting – I’ll beat you to the door!