Review: Imitating God in Christ, by Jason Hood

Hood, Jason B. Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013.

For many of the same reasons as our relative neglect of Imitating God in Christthe category of virtue and the general hesitancy to attribute human agency in the life of Christian sanctification, Protestant evangelicals have not often treated the notion of “imitation of Christ” with much depth.[1] In many evangelical treatments of soteriology, imitatio Christi does not even make an appearance. Yet, as Jason Hood recognizes in Imitating God in Christ, imitation is an “inescapable” aspect of life (13). We regularly engage in imitation from childhood onward, and at least some of the times, we see this as a good thing.For example, children learn to speak and act from watching their parents while parents monitor their children’s friendships in hopes of preventing their imitation of bad actions and attitudes. Indeed, much of life consists of imitation, from our choice of clothing to hair/facial hair styles. One might say that imitation is basic to life. Hood notices that the life described and prescribed in Scripture is no different. The question for Hood, then, is “What does the Bible say about imitation?” (15). Concurrently though explicitly only on occasion, Hood seeks to identify the nature of biblical imitation that sets it apart from modes of Christian imitation that either subordinate biblical testimony to cultural (social or academic) modes or to shallow modes such as WWJD.

For Hood, the explicit question is primarily one of biblical theology (identifying the development of imitation through Scripture) rather than a thorough critique of churchly imitative practices (or lack thereof). Somewhat interlaced throughout is systematic theological considerations, though this is certainly not his primary discourse. Thus, there should be no surprise that Hood’s first three parts move through the canon and culminate in part four and an overview (brief) of the (Protestant) history of imitation and spotty contemporary relationship between the church and textual tradition of imitation: Part 1 explores imitation in the Old Testament from creation as image-bearers to the priestly, participatory role of Israel; Part 2 takes up imitation in the life of Christ as imitator of God par excellence, agent of the gospel who draws the borders of new creation imitation of God, and the one given for the church to imitate in the Spirit; Part 3 turns to the church as a community of imitators, not just of Christ but also of each other, which sometimes means learning not to imitate the wrong people and actions; Part 4 addresses the Protestant community wherein “left,” “right,” and “middle” have responded differently to the notion of imitation, often all falling short of the biblical model. Additionally, Part 4 looks to Protestant roots to debunk the evangelical development that either God sanctifies us or we responsibly imitate God in Christ. Calvin and Luther, argues Hood, know not of this contemporary combative disjunction.

Hood’s exploration of an important biblical theme is refreshing for both its biblical conscience and its integrative flare. Not frightened by evangelical traditions that lay claim to biblical authority yet manage to see only the indicatives of Scripture and not the significant and frequent imperatives, Hood boldly goes where more evangelicals should have gone before, seeking new life in participation in the life of Christ through imitation of him by the Spirit with the church. In explicating imitation in Scripture, Hood readily draws upon the work of systematic theologians, recognizing the centrality of programmatic judgments across the biblical text that enable continuity to the development of the theme of imitation in trinitarian and Christological ways.

Jason-HoodHood also rightly discerns the dynamic quality of imitation: Scripture never calls for mere rote repetition of past deeds and actions (even of Christ) but rather understanding and wisdom to live in accordance with the Spirit amid the triune missions, especially as embodied publicly in the person of Jesus Christ. One may even be able to infer the call to become virtuous through increasingly fitting imitation: “the church’s task is to make more Jesus-people: people united to him who begin to look like him. The new heavenly identity is a gift (Eph 2), but the development of heavenly character is the work of God in and through his people” (139). The result is the Spirit-led capacity to live well as a church and individuals within the church by becoming the right sort of new creatures through imitating the right people (Christ and his followers) and right kinds of actions (Christ’s and his followers’).

Amid these admirable strengths, further work yet remains for development, especially the theological work of more deeply grounding the ontological dynamics that more clearly demonstrate the boundaries of imitation. Especially important in this regard would be a protracted consideration of the person and work of Jesus Christ and what this may say about not imitating Christ. Imitatio Christi? Yes, but only to an extent. After all, while we can and should follow Christ’s model of humility in incarnation and self-giving on the cross, we should also beware, lest we adopt a messianic complex and see our own efforts as atoning for another. In a real sense, Jesus Christ is not only the first new human, he is also the unique human who cannot be imitated in key divine and soteriological ways. Hood certainly touches on this dynamic, but it is not fleshed out in theologically rich ways.

This critique may rightly be extended to Hood’s interaction with constructive theology in general. While I nevertheless affirm his integrative spirit, it remains primarily formal, leaving theological thinness materially. Certainly a book of this length should not be expected to do everything and wax eloquently on fine theological distinctions and matters, yet this reader was still left wanting for at least demonstration that Hood is familiar with some of the finer issues. For example, Hood follows a number of OT scholars in identifying a functional aspect to the imago dei and, in so doing, articulates the inherent imitative quality of image bearing in Gen. 1 and beyond. This is good and well but still misses ontological aspects of the imago dei that potentially strengthen (or, perhaps weaken) his association of image and imitation. Simple acknowledgment of these deeper contours could at least find their way into a meaty footnote.

Nevertheless, I fully recommend Hood’s work as an important piece for the evangelical church in the long but necessary journey to recover complexity in Christianity identity and, thereby, Christian practice. I especially commend Hood’s careful work to highlight the dynamic character of imitation not just in Scripture, but also in the ongoing life of the church.

Thanks to IVP for providing a review copy of the book.

[1] Hood identifies a troublesome opposition in Alister McGrath between “conformity to Christ” and “imitation” of Christ wherein the former is inherently passive and the latter is active. Conformity belongs to the theology of the Reformers (and, presumably, for him is thereby intricately embedded in Protestant soteriology) whereas imitation belongs to the medieval soteriology toward which the Reformers were responding (see 199-200). Needless to say, Hood thinks McGrath truncates the complexity especially evident in the writings of Luther and Calvin, where Hood sees support for the active endeavor of imitation (see 200-6).


About Ashish Varma

I am a PhD student under Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and my dissertation project pertains to defending the theological validity and identifying the dogmatic location of virtue in traditional Protestant thought, namely within the sphere of union with Christ. My wife Narissa and I attend College Church in Wheaton.
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