Synoptic Imagination

In the introduction to the Imagination Symposium, I mentioned that I would be writing on synthetic imagination. Recent conversations with colleagues, however, persuaded me that the term ‘synthetic’ unfortunately connotes either artificiality (e.g. synthetic leather vs. real leather) or Hegelian philosophy, where thesis and antithesis converge in synthesis. To avoid these connotations, I have settled on a comparable but less contentious phrase: synoptic imagination. I didn’t make up this phrase, first encountering it when reading The Drama of Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer. So hopefully I can expand a bit on his original insights.

The synoptic imagination is our ability to see things as a comprehensive whole (syn-optics). As such, we rely on synoptic imagination every time we construct unified order out of disunity, envision disparate parts as a comprehensive whole, or create connections between things that may otherwise be disconnected. The synoptic imagination enables us to read a book, construct a worldview, obtain a holistic understanding of an individual person, and makes narrative sense of our lives.  There are a plethora of ways in which the synoptic imagination affects theology and the life of faith, but I will merely mention a few in what follows.

First, synoptic imagination enables us to read Scripture as a unified drama. What does Genesis have to do with Revelation? Is Numbers actually connected in some way to Nehemiah? Answering these questions in the affirmative is an act of synoptic imagination. On the one hand, Scripture has an inherent unity out of which the church recognized it as biblical canon. But on the other hand, each time we relate parts of Scripture as a unified whole, we are using our synoptic imagination, often uniting the biblical drama under a common theme, such as covenant, kingdom, or redemption. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because they give us different yet complementary views of Jesus’ life and ministry. Putting these perspectives together requires good exegesis, but it also takes synoptic imagination.

Second, synoptic imagination facilitates the construction of a comprehensive Christian worldview. How is cooking connected to Christ’s work of new creation? Do sports have anything to do with my salvation in Christ? Through the synoptic imagination, we are able to create a comprehensive vision that connects everything to Christ and his lordship. Some might argue that worldview construction is more a function of reason than imagination, but I maintain that we need to blur these all-too-often bifurcated intellectual functions.

In real life, we employ reasonable imagination and imaginative reason to make sense of the world around us.

Third, synoptic imagination helps us realize our roles in the divine drama. Just as constructing a worldview takes imagination, so does living in line with that worldview. Placing our particular lives and actions within the plot of the overarching divine drama is an act of imagination whereby we seek congruence with the ways of Abraham, David, Moses, Jesus, Paul, and the people of God throughout the centuries. Through the synoptic imagination, we re-incorporate what has gone before and pre-incorporate what is yet to come for the sake of faithful improvisation in the present.

Fourth, synoptic imagination brings the invisible, God-saturated reality to bear on the visible. Here, imagination is a very close kin to faith; but again, we must resist tearing apart what belongs together. With a faith-full, synoptic imagination, we can see/believe that Christ really is present in Communion, suffering really is Spirit-filled sanctification, and the church really is the body of Christ.

In sum, Christians constantly rely on synoptic imagination. As I hope this Imagination Symposium has  demonstrated, imagination is not an optional luxury for creative types; it is an essential part of existence and the life of faith.


Originally published on 30th April 2011

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