Book Review: Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry

Lints, Richard. Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion. New Studies in Biblical Theology 36. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 190 pgs., Pb.; $22.00 Link to IVP

This contribution to the NSBT series by Richard Lints offers a biblical theology of the image of God as a basis for understanding idolatry. Lints admits connecting the image of God and idolatry is a kind of “strange bridge,” but he argues a proper understanding of human identity as the image of God will correct a misunderstanding of idolatry as well as realign the Christian self-understanding with a proper view of image of God across the canon. In fact, Lints pulls together several threads to create a biblical theology of identity which includes the idea image of God as well as the “inverted” rebellion of worshiping another idolatrous image.

For Lints, imago Dei is a “methodological postulate” at the very beginning of the canon. Human identity is contingent on God, so when Scripture refers to idolatry to refers to a subversion of god in “religiously significant ways” (29). Elaborate theological and philosophical explanations of the image of God ignore larger canonical issues. For Lints, theologians have erred by assuming the image of God is some metaphysical or moral element essential to human identity. Instead, Lints argues the image ought to be understood in the larger context of Israel’s covenant relationship.

In his third and four chapters, Lints argues Eden is a “liturgy of creation in the cosmic temple” and this cosmic Edenic temple is connected to the image of God. Solomon’s Temple was designed to reflect the theology of the Garden and the image of God. The image bearers reflect God and relate to him in a unique way as they serve him in the cosmic temple of creation. Graven images pull humans in the opposite direction, neither reflecting the creator or his creation (76).

In the next two chapters Lints tracks the theme of idolatry through the former and latter prophets and into the New Testament. Although idols are forbidden in the Law, God is not threatened by then since they do not actually exist. Lints argues Israel’s own well-being is threatened by the idols (89). According to the prophets, idolatry is “turning the imago dei upside down” (chapter 5). Lints correctly sees a covenantal aspect to idolatry across the Old Testament, especially as illustrated by the image of marital infidelity. This section briefly surveys the pervasive prophetic comparison of idolatry and adultery, beginning with Hosea. He cites Ortlund’s NSBT volume God’s Unfaithful Wife. I reviewed much of this material and connected it to Jesus’s ministry in Jesus the Bridegroom.

The New Testament, Lints argues, “turns this story upside down” by present Christ as the image of God (chapter 6). It is in the mission to the Gentiles where the conflict with idolatry occurs. He calls Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 10 a “theology of idolatry,” although Paul’s critique of idols does not move far beyond that of the prophets. What is more interesting in this chapter on the New Testament is the comparison between idolatry in Israel’s history (Acts 7) and Paul’s confrontation with idolatry on Mar’s Hill (Acts 17). Perhaps this section of the book could have been enhanced by integrating Paul’s brief sermon in Lystra (Acts 14). Lints includes a brief discussion of the imperial cult in the chapter, although he does not focus on this as a background for reading Paul’s anti-idolatry texts. In addition, although the book attempts to take into account the whole canon, this chapter does not make use of Revelation and its critique of the imperial cult. The New Testament section concludes with a Paul’s Adam-Christ typology (Romans 5). If Christ is the perfect image and the Christian is the “in Christ,” then the believer is “in the image of the image” (126). The one who is “in Christ” has a new identity, they are being renewed and will bear the image of Christ in heaven.

Chapter 7 examines modern explanations of idolatry as psychological projection or examples of alienation and oppression. Lints traces this development from Kant to Nietzsche, including Freud’s pronouncement idolatry was the origin of all religion. Religion, for Freud was a response to fear and humanity will never develop until it moves beyond dependence on religion. For Lints, these “withering critiques by secular prophets” (146) ought to drive the church back to the prophets and their call to holiness.

In his final chapter, Lints develops the significance of his thesis applied to the “idolatries of consumption.” Here Lints engages in prophetic speech as he condemns the “plastic narratives” of contemporary culture. He points out this narrative has crept into Evangelicalism by embracing the “solitary mind” and the “what does this mean to me” style of Bible study. The antidote to this is a recovery of the biblical narrative of imago dei, the “eternal story told across time.”

Conclusion. The title and introduction to the book will lead the reader to think this is a biblical theology of idolatry, which in some respects it is. But Identity and Idolatry is really a biblical theology of the redemption of the image of God from idolatrous worship. Lints does not really concern himself with the nature of idolatry or the allure of idolatry in in the Old Testament, nor does he deal in any detail with the issue in the Second Temple period. The final two chapters attempt to draw appropriate conclusions (and perhaps reachable applications), but it is not always clear how these final two chapters relate to the biblical theology of imago dei and idolatry in the rest of the book.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.