The God of the Old Testament
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.