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The God of the Old Testament

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November 1, 2010 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose
The God of the Old Testament

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

In Part V of the BioLogos series, “Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism,” Karl Giberson included some not-yet-fully-developed thoughts about whether science can trump revealed religious truth and about the reliability of certain Old Testament passages about the nature of God. Albert Mohler picked up on these statements, demonstrating how they can be misunderstood unless they are more fully developed. We asked Karl to expand on his views about each of these topics.

The BioLogos Forum is a place for conversation. Please think along with us about the points Dr. Giberson raises. We may not all agree, but surely each of us would concur that these ideas are worthy of consideration.

The Old Testament—and the God it reveals—has had a long and colorful relationship with Christians. New Testament authors appealed to the Old Testament as they made their case that Jesus was the Messiah; some early Christians debated about the extent to which the Old Testament and its laws were even relevant to their faith; and the caretakers of the canon made controversial decisions about which Old Testament books to include.

Many contemporary Christians also struggle to understand the message of the Old Testament, in the light of challenges from higher criticism and science, not to mention internal issues, like the complicated portrayals of God. We read in the Old Testament, for example, that God walked in the Garden of Eden and couldn’t find Adam and Eve when they hid. We read of God enjoying the smell of the burning fat of a sacrifice, or letting Moses see his back, or negotiating with various leaders. These references, which tend to be in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, have an anthropomorphic character to them that invites a more literary, non-literal interpretation.

We read of God controlling everything that happens in ways that would delight even the most rigorous five-point Calvinist. God sends the rain; God hardens pharaoh’s heart; God sends a fish to swallow Jonah; God makes older women fertile. There seems to be no difference, in the minds of Old Testament thinkers, between saying that “something happened” and “God made something happen.” I read the Bible as a Wesleyan, not a Calvinist, though, and wonder about this worldview. I wonder if what is coming through here is not so much a set of affirmations that God does particular things, but rather than God does everything. But, speaking again as a Wesleyan, if we are simply affirming that God does everything, then it seems that the significance of God doing particular things is diminished. My Calvinist brothers and sisters, however, have some helpful ways to think about that. They also have their own reservations about my belief that the creation has some autonomy and things can happen without God doing them. Both viewpoints are an important part of the BioLogos discussion.

For many Christians, the greatest challenge of the Old Testament is the morality of God’s actions as described by various authors. As Christians we cannot—and must not—read the Old Testament except through the lens of God’s revelation in Christ; the New Testament authors make this point over and over again. But sometimes that lens seems to become a dark glass, at least to me. Christians have long wondered whether the God revealed in Jesus could really have commanded the Israelites to kill all the women and children in Canaan. Could the God that inspired Mother Teresa to dedicate her life to serving hopeless Hindus, have inspired the Psalmist to rejoice in the bashing of babies heads against the rocks, just because they were not Jewish?

In our modern, more pluralist and culturally tolerant times—where we have learned the dangers of demonizing those who do not think like us—it grows ever harder to think that a God who loves all humanity would destroy all but a handful of people in a worldwide flood. It’s also hard to imagine that the residents of any city—men, women, children— could be so uniformly degenerate that all of them could justifiably be destroyed in a hail of fire and brimstone. My office overlooks a pre-school and there is nothing so innocent as those toddlers running about at recess. I am simply unable to imagine any scenario where God—as I understand him—would rain brimstone down on their heads, or drown them in a flood.

In my last blog I expressed some empathy for the much-despised Richard Dawkins who castigates Christians for choosing to worship the tyrannical God of the Old Testament:

“In The God Delusion,” I wrote, “Dawkins eloquently skewers the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament—the God that supposedly commanded the Jews to go on genocidal rampages and who occasionally went on his own rampages, flooding the planet or raining fire and brimstone on wicked cities.”

I had something of a personal reaction when I first read this concern of Dawkins. I wanted to say “Wait a minute! This is not the way most Christians think about God.” Some of this reaction is contained in my blog last week.

There are two guiding principles to my reading of Old Testament portrayals of God: 1) Do those portrayals faithfully agree with how Jesus himself reveals God in the New Testament? And 2) To what degree are the inspired-but-clearly-human authors of the Old Testament portraying God within their own limited cultural horizons—turning him into their “Commander-in-Chief” as Christians on military crusades have done throughout history? Since I am not a Biblical literalist, I am quite comfortable with acknowledging a genuinely human component to inspired Scripture, what Pete Enns and others have called the incarnational model of inspiration. These are my prejudices. They profoundly color how I read the Bible. Others start with different assumptions—I won’t call them prejudices—and read that same Bible differently.

In my limited understanding—which is not necessarily shared by everyone who contributes to BioLogos—the revelation of God in Scripture and elsewhere is progressive. The dark glass through which God is viewed becomes less dark and better focused over the many centuries that gave rise to the Scriptures and our traditions of interpretation. Earlier visions of God must be measured against later visions. With this understanding it seems to me that we can raise serious questions about ancient claims that God likes the smell of burning fat, or rejoices in the violent deaths of infants. For me, these are passages where Biblical writers created God in their image, forgetting that the real truth is the other way around.

The same Psalmist that rejoiced in the deaths of infants also wrote that “The earth is fixed and cannot be moved” (Psalm 93:1) If science can help us move beyond this latter affirmation of geocentrism, why can theology not help us move beyond the former endorsement of infanticide?

All of God’s revelation demands interpretation, whether it be in the Bible, in Nature, in the tradition of the church, or in our own lives. All is seen “through a glass darkly” in that wonderful phrase of St. Paul. There is no such thing as “uninterpreted revelation,” and we are called to move humbly along a path toward truth and reminded in so many ways that we must not forget that we don’t presently possess the truth in any final form as a club to be wielded against those who disagree with us.

In my blog last week I reflected on this progressive nature of revelation, noting that new science regularly trumps old science, and that new science sometimes even trumps Scripture, where Scripture expresses itself on matter open to scientific investigation. My comment “science trumps revealed truth,” was not a literal statement, of course, for absolutely nothing could trump revealed truth. What science trumps, in addition to older science, is our interpretations of revealed truth. I cannot agree with those, like Al Mohler and Ken Ham, who believe they possess an “uninterpreted truth.” I think, for example, of the well-educated, biblically literate, and deeply spiritual Christians in the 17th century who were sure that God had revealed in Scripture that the earth did not move. Poor Galileo—elderly, in poor health, and wearing a truss to keep his hernia in check— was forced to his knees on the hard marble floor in Rome with his hand upon the Bible and made to acknowledge that God had revealed in the Bible that the earth was stationary.

The advance of science has freed us from our prior error in assuming that geocentrism was “revealed truth.” I personally believe that the advance of theology has freed us from our assumption that God could rejoice in the killing of non-Jewish babies.

I still believe in and worship the God of the Old Testament. Yahweh is indeed the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But there are some aspects of that Old Testament picture where I think the humanity of the biblical authors comes through. I am thankful for this New Covenant.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Rich - #39030

November 8th 2010

Martin (39028):

The passage you cited from Packer does not mention “kenosis.”  In fact, it is not responding to the notion of kenosis, but to the following notion: 

“Some, overlooking the organic connection between the two Testaments, have suggested that Christ’s deference to the authority of the Old should be understood as deliberate accommodation to the prejudices of His hearers.”  (Packer, in the article cited.)

Jon was not speaking of “deliberate accommodation to prejudices”—which suggests that Jesus thought one thing, but taught another—but of a view in which Jesus, stripped of his Godhead, took on the basic characteristics of a Jew of his time, and thought and felt as one.

By the way, relevant perhaps to this point, but also to a general claim you in another comment above:  what would you say was Jesus’ view regarding the timing of the eschaton?  Do you agree, with many scholars, that he believed that it would be relatively soon, either within the lifetime of his audience or not long afterward?  If not, what do you make of the statements that seem to imply this, or have been taken by scholars to imply this?

leadme.org - #39039

November 8th 2010

Hi Martin, Rich:

This discussion of Kenotic Theology reminded me of something I had stumbled across a little while ago.  Not sure if you’ve ever looked into Biblical Unitarianism (not to be confused with Unitarian Universalism), but its adherents claim that a Unitarian understanding of God resolves the otherwise unresolvable tension between Kenotic and “orthodox” theology.  Check out this essay, paying particular attention to the content under section 3.

Biblical Unitarianism is a brand new concept to me, so I won’t even try to comment on its validity.  But the site on which that essay appears is very intriguing, to say the least.  Check out the “Trinity Verses” link on the left-hand menu.  And its seems to me to provide a possible answer to the concern Rich raises in the last paragraph of #39030, and that I had raised earlier in #38167.

leadme.org - #39041

November 8th 2010

Whoops, sorry, messed up that link.  Should have been:

BiblicalUnitarian.com - Philippians 2:6-8

leadme.org - #39042

November 8th 2010

Cripes!  Okay, I’ll do this the old-fashioned way:


Martin Rizley - #39050

November 8th 2010

You’re right that the quote from Packer as a whole deals with a range of views concerning Jesus’ attitude toward the OT; he does not talk exclusively about the kenotic theory.  But he does speak explicitly of that view in the paragraph beginning with the sentence, “The theory of conscious accomodation. . . will not fit the facts.”  He then goes on to explain why the kenotic theory is no more successful in explaining Jesus’ statements about the Old Testament than the theory of conscious accomodation.  Packer defines the kenotic theory as the view that “the process of incarnation involved such a resignation of divine knowledge on the Son’s part that in matters of this kind He inevitably fell victim to the prejudices and errors of His own age.” Flowing out of this assumption is the further idea that since Jesus was a child of His culture, ‘His views about the Old Testament were those of His time; but they need not bind us. This is a common line of thought, but it is clearly inadequate,” Packer says.  Whatever Jesus may have thought about the timing of the eschaton—whether or not He expected it to come within a generation—(continued)

Martin Rizley - #39053

November 8th 2010

the really significant fact, I believe, is that He refused to assert anything definite about the timing of the eschaton that His Father had not revealed to Him.  Concerning the timing of His return, He said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).  He knew that it was not the Father’s will for Him to know the timing of His return, so He refused to know anything or make any definite assertion in that regard.  I don’t believe this means that He had lost the attribute of omniscience, with regard to His divine nature—only that, with regard to His human experience, Jesus drew upon the infinite resources of His deity only as the Father directed Him.  For that reason, He did not change stones into bread in the wilderness at Satan’s suggestion, although He could have done so.  He did not call upon twelve legions of angels to deliver him from His captors, although He could have done so.  Likewise, He did not know the timing of His return, although He could have known that, had it been the Father’s will for Him to know that.  Jesus always exercised voluntary self-restraint in the exercise of His divine attributes.

Martin Rizley - #39057

November 8th 2010

Rich,  One further thought regarding Jesus’ expectations regarding the future.  It is significant that in various parables, Jesus gives some indication that an extended period of time will fall between His departure and His coming again at the end of the age.  Look at the parable of the wise and foolish servant in Matthew 24.  The foolish servant begins to act wickedly because he says in his heart “My master is staying away A LONG TIME” (Matt. 24:48).  In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the bridegroom is “A LONG TIME in coming,” so the foolish virgins become drowsy and fall asleep (Matthew 25:5).  And in the parable of the talents, the master who entrusted money to his servants returned from his journey to settled accounts with them “after a LONG TIME” (Matt. 25:19).  So there are various indications in the parables that a considerable passage of time will fall between Christ’s departure and His second coming at the end of history.  So I don’t think one can say that Jesus taught, or assumed as certain, that the eschaton would occur within one generation.  He knew that He did not know the day and hour of His return, so He refused to assert anything based on ignorance.

Rich - #39065

November 8th 2010


I don’t know how I missed the word “kenosis” later in that paragraph, but I did.  So yes, Packer does respond to that idea.  And I can see the similarity between your own views and those of Packer on a number of subjects; his approach to the Bible is not, of course, one that I share, as I read the Bible outside of the tradition of evangelical apologetics.

The point I was making, and a point of which I expect you are aware, is that there is a body of scholarly opinion, basing itself on passages in Mark, which maintains the view that Jesus taught that the eschaton would occur during the lifetime of some of his contemporaries.  This view is “to be respected” according to the author of the lengthy and learned article on NT eschatology in *The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible* (which references much NT scholarship on the subject).  I was wondering what you thought of that view; but I would surmise that you don’t accept it, and if you don’t, then I can’t make any further point here.

Jon Garvey - #39086

November 9th 2010

Rich - #39065

“This view is “to be respected” according to the author of the lengthy and learned article on NT eschatology in *The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible* (which references much NT scholarship on the subject).”

Rich, do you want to know if Martin agrees that Jesus expected a rapid eschaton, or whether he agrees that the view “should be respected”?

That last is an odd turn of phrase when you think about it - it suggests a whole new set of problems deciding the criteria for esteeming others’ opinions: “I agree with him ... I disagree but respect her ... I pour utter scorn on them.” Is the respect because a view has a lot of supporters? Because they’re great scholars? Because they respect the integrity of the Bible? Because they don’t?

Applied to the topic of the thread, should I respect someone for denying OT Biblical inspiration because they do so on moral grounds? Or they me because I uphold God’s ability to communicate clearly even when he challenges my own moral sense? Maybe in the end “respect” is just a matter of courtesy and the important thing is to critique the arguments and their presuppositions anyway.

Rich - #39100

November 9th 2010


In the context of the article, the view I was citing was “to be respected” because it was built *on textual grounds*, not just made up out of someone’s fancy; some passages of Mark appear to indicate that Jesus thought that the world was coming to an end very soon.

However, the author of the article thinks that those passages are susceptible of another interpretation.  The sense of the article then was:  “You can be an intelligent, well-informed Biblical scholar and take that interpretation, and many have done so and still do; but in my judgment, those passages are better interpreted in another way, in harmony with other passages which indicate that Jesus did not claim to know the time.”

I was assuming that Martin would have been aware of the scholarly opinion mentioned, and wondered how he dealt with the relevant Biblical passages.  After all, his final authority is scripture alone, so what the passages say ought to matter to him.

As should be clear from my original comments here, I am not taking Giberson’s side against Martin’s.  I’m merely suggesting that the truth may lie in that uncomfortable gray area in between.  But it seems to me that neither TEs nor inerrantists like uncomfortable gray areas.

Martin Rizley - #39119

November 9th 2010

Rich,  I believe that there are such things as ‘gray areas,’ especially when it comes to the application of biblical principles to our lives, because it is not always immediately clear how to apply those principles to specific ethical questions we face.    However, since I do not hold to a ‘post-modern’ conception of truth—where multiple perspectives that are flatly contradictory can be equally true—I do not believe it is possible to say Jesus both did and did not teach that He was definitely going to return within the lifetime of His disciples.  Unless one is prepared to say that Jesus flatly contradicted Himself on this issue, I do not see that as a ‘gray area.’  I believe the weight of the evidence supports the view that Jesus did not assert definitely that his personal coming would occur within a generation.  In the Olivet discourse, however, He did indicate that the events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A. D. would all take place within a generation (which they did), and He presents that event as a prophetic anticipation of and the eschatological prelude to wordlwide judgment on all the nations, which culminates in His personal coming in glory.

gingoro - #39141

November 9th 2010


“but in my judgment, those passages are better interpreted in another way, in harmony with other passages which indicate that Jesus did not claim to know the time.”

What you are expressing is my preferred way of understanding Jesus position on end times.  Although I also think that he thought that it could be anytime and therefore we should be ready.
Dave W

Rich - #39164

November 9th 2010

Martin Rizley:

I certainly don’t endorse any “post-modern conception of truth.”

I doubt that the real, historical Jesus contradicted himself.  However, we have no single, unified account of the real, historical Jesus.  Rather, we have four Gospels, each of which tells a slightly different story.  If it could be shown (and I’m not arguing that it has been shown, which is why I put my original remark to you in the interrogative) that in at least one of those Gospels, Jesus taught that the world was coming to an end very soon, then the Jesus of that particular Gospel would clearly be in error about at least that one thing (if about nothing else).  And you had claimed that the New Testament was utterly error-free.  But as I suspected, you do not agree with those Biblical interpreters who have Jesus teaching a belief that we now know to be false (since the world is still here).  I predicted this, and thus probably should not have bothered to raise the point.

The “gray area” I spoke of was the area between inerrantist Protestantism and the liberalism which rewrites the Bible to conform with modern theories and preferences.  You and Giberson occupy the black and the white positions; I live continuously in the gray.

Martin Rizley - #39190

November 9th 2010

Rich,  Although there are certainly differences between the gospel accounts, when it comes to Jesus’ teaching on the future, there is remarkable unity of content and theme.  I see no evidence that Jesus taught something different in one gospel regarding the future than what he taught in the other three.  In fact, if you compare the three accounts of the Olivet discourse they present the same ‘outline’ of the future.  Devastating judgment will come upon the city of Jersusalem within the generation of those standing there; that judgment will signal the arrival of the Day of the Lord and the outpouring of divine judgment upon the nations of the earth generally, symbolized by the imagery of cosmic changes in the heavens—“the sun not giving is light, etc.”  The climax of that day of judgment will be the personal advent of Christ Himself in glory and power.  When all this is read in light of what Jesus says in John 12 about His glorification being God’s ‘judgment’’ on the world and Satan, the god of this world, then it is clear that Jesus’ words have been and are being fulfilled—for the nations are even NOW being judged by the glorified Christ, and that judgment that will culminate in Christ’s visible return.

Jesse - #46113

January 6th 2011

Interesting idea, Karl! It’s possible that there is some cultural influence coloring the perception of God in the Old Testament, but I find that much of the time, people are actually misunderstanding what was described in the Bible, due to differences in culture. As an example, what the Bible seems to describe as “slavery” was actually a system by which the poor could sell their time and labor in return for economic support, not designed for the benefit of masters.

A good resource I’ve found for such matters is the Christian Thinktank, http://www.christian-thinktank.com.
On slavery: http://christianthinktank.com/qnoslave.html
On genocide of Canaanites: http://christianthinktank.com/qamorite.html

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