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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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Imagination is the faculty by which we are able to reproduce mentally the images or ‘copies’ of past elements of sense-experience. This may be done in three ways: (1) passively, as when we reproduce our mental pictures in the form or order in which we experienced them as sensations; or (2) actively, as when we combine the images of past sensations into fresh groups for purposes of our own, as in the telling of an imaginary story; or (3) creatively, as when these images are used to symbolize abstract ideas, or to illustrate the teaching of moral and spiritual truth. There are great differences in the endowments of individual men and women in these respects. Many have but a faint power of mentally reproducing past events and objects, and among those in whom the power is well developed, some are able best to reproduce visual images (artists), others auditory impressions (musicians), others the images of movement (those possessing the dramatic gift). The poetic or creative temperament is richly endowed with all these aptitudes, and makes a free use of its resources in the presentation of ideal scenes and events as a medium for inculcating its message.

Students of our Lord’s personality will at once recognize that He possessed the creative temperament in its noblest development. He was psychically endowed with a rich and varied imagination, which was disciplined, like all His human gifts, to the finest pitch of efficiency, and consecrated to the highest uses. His discourses are crowded with bright and vivid pictures, symbolic of the great truths which He had come to reveal. They are expressed in language that is rich, musical, and full of verbal colour and rhythmic phrases. In the narrative portions and the parables there is also a striking dramatic element, which gives them wonderful life and movement.

1. Characteristics of the imagination of Jesus.—It is the last feature—the dramatic—which is the most prominent quality in the imagination of our Lord. If the form of His teaching can be relied on as an indication of His mental endowments, it is clear that truth naturally clothed itself for Him in the form of concrete pictures and symbolic events. This is probably the key to the Temptation scenes so vividly described in Matthew 4:1-11. The temptations of His public life became visualized in these typical scenes, and in fighting them thus prophetically, He rehearsed the long drama of His future spiritual conflicts, and overcame them beforehand. The same dramatic way of dealing with the critical facts of His life and work may be seen in such incidents as are detailed in Matthew 9:36-38; Matthew 21:31; Matthew 26:39; Matthew 26:53, Luke 10:18, and many others. This instinctive love of a dramatic situation as the vehicle of imparting spiritual truth, is illustrated also in the frequent use of object-lessons full of incident and movement. Sometimes He made a sudden and skilful use of opportunities offered to Him in the course of social intercourse, as in Mark 5:30; Mark 10:15; Mark 12:41, Luke 5:24; Luke 7:44; Luke 14:1-6; Luke 17:17 etc. In other cases He deliberately created the situation, and then drew the lesson with which He desired to impress the spectators, as in Mark 9:33-37, Matthew 18:2-5, Luke 22:17-20, and John 13:2-12. (The incident of the Blasted Fig-tree, if understood as a simple but vivid action-parable, loses all the ethical difficulties which have hidden its meaning from so many commentators).

The pictorial side of our Lord’s imagination is scarcely less obvious than the dramatic. He was temperamentally as well as spiritually in the deepest sympathy with Nature in all her varying moods, her wealth of life, her process of growth; and He was a keen and accurate observer of her ways, showing a vivid interest in the life of plants and animals (Matthew 6:28; Matthew 7:16; Matthew 6:26; Matthew 8:20) and in the common experiences of human life. These impressions were all stored up, as He watched them, in the treasure-house of a faultless memory, to be afterwards used as drapery for the everlasting truths of the Kingdom in a way which makes many of His discourses a perfect arabesque of beautiful imagery. His predominating love, however, was for images drawn from the incidents of human life and experience. He seldom used imagery of a purely natural kind, i.e. drawn from the impersonal action of physical or vital forces: there is nearly always some human agent or sufferer in view whose action or suffering invests the simile with it sympathetic as well as an intellectual aspect. Thus He was fond of drawing His word-pictures from the occupations of such familiar folk as shepherds, husbandmen, fishermen; from social customs in the home,—marriage ceremonies, feasts, salutations, journeyings; and even from bodily life and sensations,—the eye, ear, bones, feet, hunger and thirst, laughing, mourning, sickness, sleep, etc. Our Lord’s use of natural imagery may be put into words written elsewhere by the present writer:

‘Nature is interesting to Him only as the handiwork of God, and the mirror of His perfections or providential care for His creatures, or of Him as the Creator of human joys and sorrows. The cold impersonal attitude of the modern scientist towards the creation was impossible to the Lover of Souls. Nature with Him is the vehicle of truth as applied to conduct: she is a bundle of analogies in the sense of the poet:

“Two worlds are ours; ’tis sin alone

Forbids us to descry

The mystic earth and heaven within

Plain as the earth and sky.”

In this way our view of Nature is beautifully enriched and impregnated with higher meanings: and her operations resolve themselves into a series of delightful reminders of human duty and of Divine love’ (The Master and His Method, p. 67).

The imaginative side of our Lord’s mind is seen, finally, in the artistic use of language. Whether He spoke in the dialect of the common people, or (occasionally at least) in that form of Greek which was commonly known in Palestine, in which the Gospels have come down to us, it is unquestionable that even if we have His discourses only in translation, they are full of characteristic qualities of vividness, terseness, and colour. His use of popular proverbs in fresh applications (Matthew 9:12-13; Matthew 7:16; Matthew 5:14; Matthew 6:21; Matthew 11:15; Matthew 12:37; Matthew 16:25, Mark 10:23; Mark 10:27 etc.); His love of paradox (see Matthew 5:38-42 for four striking instances of this; also Mark 10:23 and John 6:53); the exquisite grace of some of His descriptions of natural processes (Matthew 6:28 ff; Matthew 7:24 ff.), and of social functions (Matthew 25:1-12), together with the symmetrical build of many of His sentences and discourses (esp. Matthew 25:31-46), show a mastery over the resources of language to which only a poet whose natural gift had been carefully disciplined to high uses could attain. The more the form of our Lord’s teaching is studied, the more does this verbal skill impress the reader as complete and minute.

2. Practical uses of this imaginative element in our Lord’s discourses.—The method of Jesus being exclusively oral, it is easy to see how valuable is this pictorial, dramatic, vividly expressed quality that runs through them all. In order that this method should be effective under the circumstances of the time, it was essential that it should have the marks of simplicity, concreteness, vividness, and brevity. It must be simple, as it was meant to become current not amongst scholars, disciplined in the use of complicated trains of thought, well used to abstract lines of reasoning, and capable of retaining these in their memory for a long time, but amongst the common crowd of listeners who had had only an elementary education, and were incapable of giving a close and sustained attention to any train of thought. It must be concrete, because such people always thought and spoke in such terms as were closely allied to their daily experience. It must be vivid, because otherwise no deep or lasting impression could be made on such occasional and unstudied opportunities as our Lord habitually used to disseminate His teaching. And it must be brief and portable, for it was meant not merely for those who listened to Him at the time, but also for those who should afterwards ‘believe in his name’ through the ‘preaching and teaching’ of the eye-witnesses and auditors of His earthly ministry. All these ends were perfectly served by the imaginative method of presenting truth chosen by the Great Teacher, and consistently followed by Him throughout His public life. His wisdom is shown by the event. It was probably many years before any large portion of His discourses and life-story was committed to writing. But there are clear indications that great care was taken to give the general outlines of the teaching accurately and without admixture, and that the utmost reverence was felt for the ipsissima verba of their Lord’s utterances by the Apostles and their first pupils. Converts were carefully taught from the earliest times in catechumen classes in the ‘doctrine of Christ’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:11, Colossians 2:6, Luke 1:1-2), and they were counselled to be specially careful to retain and transmit the exact form in which the teaching (the ‘fair deposit’ of truth) had been delivered to them (cf. 2 Timothy 1:13, a very significant passage). It was only as these first witnesses were one by one removed by death, or so scattered as to be beyond the reach of appeal, that any need for a written version of the Gospel began to be felt. Then the immediate disciples of the Apostles would endeavour to perpetuate their record of the words and deeds of Christ by committing it to writing. In this way the first two Synoptic Gospels may have taken shape, using the common basis of the oral Gospel as a foundation on which to build. In time various versions would arise, which were collated and welded together into a more accurate whole by scholarly men such as St. Luke (Luke 1:1-3). Finally, as the last survivor of the original group passed away, his followers would have a strong desire to rescue his personal reminiscences from oblivion ere it was too late, and thus the Fourth Gospel arose as a supplement to the others.

If the Gospels and the Epistles are compared as to their form, further light is shed on the wisdom of our Lord in using the imaginative style of speech as a vehicle for His oral teaching. St. Paul’s involved literary style, full as it is of technical terms, long sentences, and abstract trains of reasoning, could not possibly have served as the vehicle of a spoken Gospel, though, as a supplementary commentary and exposition of the truths enshrined in that Gospel, it is admirably adapted for its purpose; and the same is true, with qualifications, of the other NT writers.

3. A lesson for preachers.—The example of the Great Teacher still applies to those whose business it is to carry on the Christian function of preaching. In more illiterate periods, preachers naturally followed this method of putting their discourses into a concrete, illustrative, and vivid style; but as books have spread, and the habit of reading has become general, there has been a growing tendency to throw sermons into a more literary form. While this has been partly inevitable and is so far justifiable, it is certain that the pulpit has lost much of its influence because of this unconscious change of method. All spoken discourse should aim at the qualities of simplicity, concreteness, vividness, and brevity of expression, which are so remarkable a feature in the discourses and parables of Christ. The very plethora of books makes this specially needful in an age when the human mind is overburdened with the rushing details of daily experience, and the evanescent appeal of ephemeral literature. Unique as are many of the qualities that belong to Christ as a preacher, and making due allowance for the contrast between the Oriental environment in which He lived and that of our own day, there is nothing that more needs to be built into our training of young preachers than a close study of the method of the Master with a view to adapt it to our own day and circumstances.

Literature.—Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, i. 106–151: Stalker, Imago Christi, ch. xiii.

E. Griffith-Jones.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Imagination'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​i/imagination.html. 1906-1918.