Scriptural imagination is the faculty that enables us to see the world through the lenses of the Bible’s images and stories—and to be transformed by what we see. To exercise scriptural imagination does not mean living in a fantasy world where we ignore the daily realities around us; rather, it is to have our eyes opened to recognize that the story Scripture tells is the true story of the world. To look at the world through scriptural lenses is to have our vision corrected so that our illusions are stripped away and we see the world as it really is: created by a loving God but fallen into disobedience and alienation. Through the lenses of Scripture, we also see this real world redeemed and transformed by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. With our vision thus corrected, we can join Paul in discerning “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Additionally, scriptural imagination enables us to inhabit the story that Scripture tells. We read the Bible not just to find devotional tidbits, “illustrations” of something we already knew on other grounds, or general principles to shape our lives. Instead, we read it to learn the unfolding story in which we too are characters, and to understand the role we are called to play in it.
That is what Paul does when he addresses his fledgling converts who were Gentiles in Corinth about the problem of whether they should eat meat offered to pagan idols. He does not just give them a ruling on the question. He retells a biblical story: “I don’t want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). Remarkably, the ancient Israelites in the wilderness now become “our ancestors” to the Gentile Corinthians. Paul is narrating them into the story, inviting them to reread it imaginatively so that the events of the exodus from Egypt become typological foreshadowing of the Christian experience of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Once the Corinthians understand themselves as characters in the continuation of this same story, they will grasp that theyÑlike their Israelite ancestors—should “flee from the worship of idols” (1 Corinthians 10:14). Seeing the world through the lens of this story will enable the Corinthians to discern a faithful response to the immediate problem they face in their own time.
That is scriptural imagination at work for pastoral purposes, forming the imagination of the church. That same sort of formation is at the heart of the mission of the theological education offered by Duke Divinity School. Kavin Rowe explores this in more depth in his article in this issue of DIVINITY. This issue also offers several perspectives on the ways in which scriptural imagination can be formed or malformed, and how it can empower the work of the church. Sujin Pak presents lessons from church history for envisioning the parameters and context of scriptural imagination, and Willie Jennings describes how Christian leaders and institutions form healthy scriptural imaginations. Scriptural imagination shapes our conceptions of death and dying, as Allen Verhey explains, and Th.D. student Jacob Onyumbe articulates the importance of a scriptural imagination shaped by the psalms of lament for a community of believers who are suffering. The new dean of Duke Chapel, Luke Powery, demonstrates the way that a scriptural imagination infuses our discipline and ministry of writing sermons and preaching.
As you reflect on these essays, may you be moved to see your own ministry and your community freshly through the lenses of Scripture. May we inhabit this true story and be formed in ways that enable us to reimagine how God is working to transform the world.
Richard Hays is the Dean and George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School.