The concept of imitation has fallen on hard times in recent years, with many Christian thinkers expressing concerns about the implied legalism/moralism of trying to “live like David” or “be like Ruth.” Should we really respond to the difficulties of the Christian life by giving people ideal examples that we must strive to emulate? Where’s the grace?
According to Jason Hood, though, the concept of imitation is a biblical one that we desperately need to rediscover today. In his Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (IVP 2013), Hood offers a biblical theology of imitation, one that emphasizes both grace (the Christian life always begins with what God has done for us) and vocation (the Christian life is also one of human action expressed in response to God’s grace). And he does so in a way that is compelling, readable, and thorough. This is a terrific book for anyone wanting to think more deeply about what it means to imitate God as one of his image bearers in the world.
What’s the problem?
In the introduction, Hood argues that there are three main ways of viewing imitation in the church today (pp. 14-15). The “latitudinal ‘left’” are those who like the language of imitation, but limit the imitation to certain “acceptable” areas – e.g. embracing the marginalized. People on this side of the issue often downplay other aspects of imitating God such as reflecting his holiness in the world. The “massive ‘middle’” are those who love “WWJD bracelets and ‘be like’ sermons.” These are the people who exhort Christians just to try harder and imitate better. And interestingly, Hood argues that both the latitudinal left and the massive middle make the same mistake. In both “imitation eclipses salvation and substitutes for the gospel.”
Hood clearly thinks that the third group is closer to the mark. This is the “reluctant or resistant ‘right’,” which is suspicious of imitation as inherently legalistic. And in many ways Hood’s book can be read as a response to this group, contending that a robust biblical theology of imitation avoids undermining grace as they fear. Indeed, it places a high value on grace even as it calls on people to use imitation as an important tool for forming and informing Christian vocation.
What Is Imitation?
For Hood, we need to get away from the idea that imitation is mere copying. We do not simply look at someone like Jesus or Paul, note the things that they did, and then try to repeat those same actions. Imitation has more to do with discerning the patterns of living that guided godly models. especially any pattern “that conforms to Jesus’ self-denial and cross-bearing” (12), and then seeking to express those same patterns in the unique circumstances of our own lives.
Who do we imitate?
One of the main arguments of the book is that biblical imitation is about more than just “What would Jesus do?” And this isn’t merely because such a question seems to view imitation as mere copying. A bigger issue is that it has a fairly limited vision of who we are supposed to be imitating. Thus, Hood structures the book around three important ways of answering this question: we are to imitate God (chapters 1-4), Jesus (chapters 5-11), and God’s people (chapters 12-13). The final two chapters wrap things up with a look at how imitation has been understood in the history of the church (chapter 14) and what this should look like today (chapter 15). The very structure of the book, then, argues for a broad answer to the question of who we should imitate: God himself, primarily as expressed in Jesus, and secondarily as reflected in the rest of God’s people.
A Quick Evaluation
There is plenty to appreciate about the book. I particularly like that Hood begins the discussion by looking that the Old Testament language of “image” and “idol” as the starting point for understanding what it means to “imitate.” He contends that we are to reflect God in the world as his “royal imitators” (pp. 23-25) and priest (pp. 41-48). Associating imitation and image in this way provides a more robust language of imitation and allows us to begin seeing both imitation and image in places where the biblical authors seem to have the concept in mind even when they do not use that language explicitly.
Hood also does a nice job balancing themes. Although he clearly affirms the primacy of grace, he doesn’t neglect the importance of human action. I found particularly challenging his suggestion that imitation is a better term for what we’re talking about than reflection because the latter can lead to an entirely passive conception of what we’re talking about (p. 28). I’ve always liked reflection as better emphasizing the primacy of God’s grace and action, but this was a good reminder to be careful about emphasizing grace to such an extent that we downplay the active response of the human person.
And I like the more holistic notion of imitation that centers on Jesus but also looks to both the OT and the church as legitimate sources for imitation.
Although the strengths of this book far outweigh any weaknesses, there were just a few things that I would have liked to see done a bit differently. Most importantly, I was surprised by the fairly limited role the Spirit plays in Hood’s discussion. He does dedicate one chapter to pneumatology, which is good, but I would have preferred to see that integrated throughout the book rather than separated into a distinct chapter. Hood’s Christology clearly informs his entire presentation and his pneumatology should do so as well.
Second, although I greatly appreciated Hood linking imitation and the image of God, it was still not entirely clear to me how that connection actually works. Hood appears to move directly from the image as “reflection” to a fairly widespread notion of the image that includes basically any way in which we happen to reflect God (e.g. creativity, holiness, generosity). I would have liked to see a bit more work done on the nature of the imago Dei itself and how it informs our understanding of imitation. But that’s probably because I think the imago Dei is pretty cool and generally want to hear people talk more about it.
And on a similar note, I liked that Hood connected the concepts of imitation, image, and priesthood, but there is so much more that could be done with the priestly character of humanity than Hood pursues in that chapter, where his attention lies almost exclusively on the fact that we are called to holiness. That’s part of the picture, but it leaves out too much (mediation, representation, divine presence, etc.).
Imitating God in Christ is a great study in the biblical concept of imitation. The chapters are clear and concise (sometimes almost too short), and the overall shape of Hood’s argument is easy to follow. This would be an excellent book for anyone want to reflect further on what it means biblically to “imitate God” and how that shapes the entire Christian life.