Imitating God in Christ: a book review

Champions of social-justice and sellers of Christian-kitsch (WWJD?) commend to us the imitation of Christ. Some conservative theologians are suspicious that a call to imitate Jesus undercuts the uniqueness of what Christ infact did and what only he can do. Yet the imitation of God is a  major theme throughout the Bible. Jason Hood, scholar-in-residence and director of Christ College Residency Program at Christ United Methodist Church, Memphis, has written a book which speaks to the ‘latitudinal left,’ the ‘muddled middle’ and the ‘resistant right, urging the recovery of imitation as an important biblical and theological theme.

In Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern, Hood gives us a biblical theology of imitation. What did Paul teach everywhere and in every church? Paul taught everywhere his ‘ways in Christ’ and urged others to imitate him (1 Cor. 4:16-17).  But the imitation of God does not begin with Paul or with Christ’s coming. Hood starts his study in the Old Testament examining the ways we are to imitate God (part one). He then explores the ways we imitate Christ (part two) and His saints (part three). In the final section, Hood explores the implications of imitation for today and a look at how Christians in the past have tried to live out the theme.

So what does it mean to imitate God? Hood argues that it is not mere mimicry.  Our imitation is hedged by God’s otherness. There are some things that only God can do and we better not try to copy. His ways are not our ways. Nevertheless the Bible repeatedly exhorts us to imitate the character of God in our participation in His mission. Hood argues that one of the implications of our image bearing is that we are to reflect God in our person. We are given the status of royal imitators  so that we can reflect God to our world(23). Our imitation of God comes  through the status we are given (and Israel was given) as children and servants of God.  Yet our striving to be like God in our character, means we also do not imitate him in ways which would  undermine and usurp His authority in our lives. He is God and we are not.

I think this is part of what makes Hood’s study so refreshing. He  delineates the ways we are called to imitate God, but he is careful to set this in a theological framework that acknowledges God’s ‘otherness.’ Yes we imitate, reflect, and ‘be holy as God is Holy’ (Lev. 11: 44-5; 19:2) but we cannot imitate God in status, in power, or in every action. Our ‘imitation of God’ is a thoughtful outworking of what it means for us to be like God–to treat others and our world the way God would have them treated.

When Hood discusses the imitation of Christ this comes into sharp focus.  Jesus is more than our substitutionary redeemer (though he is that!). He is also our model and moral exemplar. He is the firstborn of the New Humanity and we are called to be like him and pattern our lives after his example of self sacrifice. Thus we  do not grab at power or seek to shore up status. Like Christ we are to humbly give our lives in service to others (Phil. 2:5-11). The cross shapes our life as we seek to walk in His ways.  And in seeking to imitate Christ in this way, we also engage in God’s mission in our unique context. It is imitation but it is also creative engagement with a broken world. Hood writes:

The Messiah’s suffering did not provide bread and  education for Africa’s poor, leadership training for Latin American churches, evangelists for pagan North America, companionship for the rejected or families for the orphans and the lonely. Jesus’ death and resurrection were God’s great Word to us,  but they did not do the hard work of translating the Bible into ten thousand languages.  The church’s suffering and self-sacrifice, with a million crosses after the cross,  meet these needs and  more as we imitate the  infinitely greater sacrifice and suffering of Jesus (135).

And so Christ provides the pattern for us to follow but our ‘imitation’ leads us to lay down our lives in uniqueways.

Of course if we are to be imitators of God, it follows that our lives will become an example for others to follow. Hood explores the pattern in reference to both the New and Old Testaments.  Of course Paul emphasizes this theme when he says, “Be imitators of me as I imitate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).”  Yet Paul and Jesus are not the only exemplars commended to us in Holy Scripture.  We  are given the stories of various saints (in both testaments)  and we are to learn from their example.

This may be controversial in some circles. As Hood observes a number of leading confessional scholars (i.e. Noth, Greidandus, Willimon, Goldingay, Horton)  would see the moral examples of Old Testament character as hermeneutically suspect. After all the Hebrew Scriptures are to point us to God’s character and the coming redemption in Christ. Reading the lives of the saints for applicable moral principles sounds like moralism to many Christian scholars. Instead they say we should keep the focus on what the passage tells us about God and Christ and not make the Bible people into heroes.

Hood counters that this sets up a false dichotomy. The New Testament itself commends the example of Old Testament saints when it has us mimic the faith of Abraham or the prayers of Elijah. Yes we should read the Bible with an eye to where Christ is revealed and  evidence of God’s character. But we should also take note of praiseworthy aspects of God’s people found in the Bible’s pages and seek to emulate their character and actions as well (176-180).

Hood argues that the theme of imitation is important for the Latitudinal Left, the Muddled Middle, and the Reluctant Right.  Those on the Latitudinal Left exhort us to imitate Christ but sometimes  short-shrift doctrinal orthodoxy in the process. Hood urges them to set imitation within the bounds of Biblical revelation and to attend to the ways Christ’s work  was unique.  The Muddled Middle commend imitation of Christ and discipleship, but trivialize it by failing to explicate what imitation of Christ actually looks like. Those on the Reluctant Right look askance at these other two groups for failing to emphasize the gospel and what Christ did for us on our behalf. As a result they tend to emphasize God’s otherness and the uniqueness of Christ’s work and downplay the theme of imitation. Theologically, Hood is closest to those on the Right. He too is concerned that we are Biblical, that we are rooted in the gospel of Grace; however he urges those on the right to not forget the theme of imitation (which runs through the whole Bible).  His historical examples of church fathers and Reformers show that it is possible to care both about doctrinal truth and commend the imitation of God in Christ.

I really enjoyed this book.  Hood thoughtfully delves into the theme of the imitation of God. I read this book because as a minister, I’m interested in discipleship and helping people be transformed into the image of God. Hood provides a biblically rooted approach and I appreciated a lot of what he said here. I also felt he pushed me to consider how we are to imitate the saints. I, especially biblical saints  have been suspicious of sermons which exhort us to follow examples of Bible characters. Especially when those sermons do not then go one to proclaim God’s work in the text. I am grateful for Hood’s challenge and corrective to learn from God’s people  (in the Bible) how to be more like God by emulating the praiseworthy aspects of their character. While moralism is a danger if we make this the whole telos of the text, there should be room in our hermeneutic for this.

I give this book ★★★★★. Thank you to IVP Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.