The God of the Old Testament

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November 1, 2010 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose

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

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.

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Jon Garvey - #38607

November 5th 2010 - #38432

Not really too keen too get into deep discussion about objective ethics, whilst not disputing that morality is a universal, though easily subverted, human attribute (the subversion being the most mysterious part). It does seem, though, that it becomes less objective if I’m having to argue somebody elses’s continued existence when I perceive it threatens my own. Or indeed, to argue for my own existence if I’m heartily fed up with arguing and would like to cop out. But in the end that’s a philosophical issue: if one believes in God, one would also believe he was the source of any objective ethics as he would be the source of objective maths.

As for your description of Boyd’s views, well maybe - though I would have thought that tying God into time in the era of relativity is limiting. If it helps one come to grips with God’s omniscience well and good, as long as one remembers that he might very well say, “You do your job, and let me do mine.”

I’m unsure, though, that it helps evade fear of determinism. If God has a zillion responses to each human action so things turn out as he wishes, is that much different from knowing them in advance and planning the whole universe accordingly?

Martin Rizley - #38612

November 5th 2010

Steve,  Your objections to God’s actions in the Old Testament all rest on the assumption that it is absurd to say that what is a sin in human beings is not necessarily a sin in God.  But why is this absurd—when one considers the absolute ontological difference between God and His creatures?  For human beings to seek their own praise and glory in what they do, or to call on their fellow human beings to worship them, would be exceedingly sinful, because we are, after all, mere creatures, dependent beings who possess nothing good but what we have received and who are full of imperfections.  Why should we expect people to worship us or esteem us as their highest good?  But for God to seek His own praise and glory in what He does is not sin,  precisely because He is the most praiseworthy of all beings.  Being absolutely perfect and the highest good of His creatures, it would be sinful for God NOT to exhort His creatures to value Him as their highest good.  It would be idolatrous for Him NOT to pursue His own glory in all that He does and NOT to command us to praise and worship Him, for that would be to encourage the worship of the creature, rather than the Creator.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #38613

November 5th 2010

So my basic objectionto what you are saying is the same objection that Luther brought against Erasmus when the latter objected to God’s sovereignty in salvation.  “Your thoughts of God are too human,” Luther said.  “Let God be God!” 
You also point out that the ancient pagans justified their atrocities by claiming that it was the will of the gods for them to commit such acts.  True; Muslim terrorist do the same thing in our day.  Pagans also justify perverted forms of worship, child sacrifices, and sexual immorality by saying, “It is the will of God.”  Although their claims are false, they rest on a principle that is true, however twisted out of shape by the pagan mind—that is, that there can be no higher rule of conduct than the revealed will of God, who being absolutely perfect, is free to do anything that is in accordance with His righteous nature—and free to use His people as instruments in carrying out His righteous will.  The problem is, the gods of the ancient pagans were not righteous, nor were they even gods, but ‘magnified men’ who were constantly lusting after women,  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #38614

November 5th 2010

quarreling among themselves, and acting in a generally capricious, short-tempered, petty manner—a far cry from Yahweh of the Old Testament, who is longsuffering and patient, slow to wrath,  reluctant to judge, and kind even to His enemies by pouring out on them the sunshine and the rain.  His righteous wrath is kindled only after rebellious sinners have been given sufficient warning and ample opportunity to repent; but when it is kindled, it is terrifying, like a consuming fire.  One cannot honestly compare Yahweh to the pagan gods of the ANE, or to the false god of Osama Bin Laden.  Muslim terrorists believe themselves to be more righteous than the ‘infidels’ whom they slay;  but Yahweh told His ancient people that they were NOT more righteous than the Canaanites.  Although He was judging the Canaanites for their wickedness, and using the Jews to execute that judgment—which He is free to do as the sovereign Lord of men—He was NOT giving the land to Israel because they deserved it.  Rather, He was acting for His own glory to establish His kingdom on earth, an act which had in view the long term benefit of ’all the families of the earth.’

RBH - #38624

November 5th 2010

Rich wrote

But it’s very rare, in science or in any field of human endeavor, that one position is 100% right and all competing claims are 100% wrong.  Galileo was right against Aristotle, but wrong against Newton.  It might be that one position is 80% right and a rival position 20% right.

I am irresistibly reminded of Isaac Asimov’s remark:

“[W]hen people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

—Isaac Asimov (1989). “The Relativity of Wrong.” The Skeptical Inquirer, 14(1), 35-44. Fall 1989.

The claim that the earth is less than 10,000 years old is just plain wrong.  The claim that a moral system requires a supernatural agency/monitor to enforce it is empirically wrong: some people are moral without gods, and no amount of philosophy or theology trumps the data.

I had more surgery yesterday (3rd procedure in 6 weeks) and am not in shape to respond further for a while.  Sorry. - #38642

November 5th 2010

Hi again Jon, #38607:

If you’d rather not jump into a deep discussion on rational ethics, that’s fine.  But I’d just be a little more careful before you throw around statements like your previous one: “it’s only God that renders the Holocaust so evil: without him it’s just an extinction event.”

If you’re fed up with arguing for your own existence and just want to cop out and kill yourself, that option is certainly open to you.  But it would still be immoral for you to do so.  You can’t just surrender your ontological status as a rational, communicative (argumentative) being.  And to your other concern, argumentative ethics does not imply pacifism, though it certainly does imply non-aggression.

And I would agree with you that God is the ultimate source of ethics, just as he is the ultimate source of mathematics.  But that doesn’t therefore imply that one must appeal directly to theology in order to do the work of an ethicist, just as it doesn’t imply that one must appeal directly to theology in order to do the work of a mathematician.

Also, I do think Boyd and others have adequately addressed the concerns you have raised re: open theism, but anyway…

Peace to you, my brother!

Rich - #38646

November 5th 2010


Sorry about your surgery.  I wish you a speedy recovery.

I agree with Isaac Asimov’s point.  I also agree with you that the earth is older than 10,000 years.  However, there is no reason you should have raised the age of the earth to *me* in particular.  I’ve never quarrelled with the consensus date for the earth’s age.  Nor is the age of the earth any part of the ID position at all.  The earth could be 10,000 years old or 4.5 billion, and ID arguments against neo-Darwinism would take the same form.

Don’t confuse my position with Martin’s.  I reject his way of understanding the Bible, and I reject his reduction of Christianity to the teaching of the Bible.  If there is conflict between the Bible and science, it’s not conflict over floods or days or serpents, but over fundamental teachings.  The Bible teaches that life and man were planned and determined outcomes; if chemical and biological evolution teach that nature is such that there are not and cannot be planned and determined outcomes, then they conflict with Christianity.  Martin draws the line in the wrong place.  The *meaning* of Genesis, not the narrative detail of Genesis, is what must be defended. - #38649

November 5th 2010

Hi Rich, and RBH,

I’ll echo Rich’s wish for a speedy recovery for you, RBH.

Rich, I’m not sure that evolutionary theory is in conflict with Christianity in the manner in which you’re wary that it is.  Now I might be exposing myself as horribly ignorant of the details of cosmological and evolutionary science, but consider the following possibility:

It may well be the case that God set the original parameters of creation in such a way that it was an inevitable, determined outcome that at some point, somewhere in the universe, a rational, relational species such as homo sapiens would evolve.  To say that the precise physiology of homo sapiens may not have been an inevitable outcome is not identical with saying that the eventual evolution of a species such as homo sapiens could not have been an inevitable outcome.

Am I onto something?

Rich - #38688

November 5th 2010

You’ve just presented, in outline, the argument of Michael Denton in *Nature’s Destiny*.

Denton is an evolutionary theorist, but not a *Darwinian* evolutionary theorist.  That’s an important difference.  Denton’s view is compatible with the Biblical and Christian view of creation because it portrays the emergence of life, species and intelligent life as planned.

(I’m not saying that Denton himself is a Christian.  I think he is probably a Deist.  But his view is not incompatible with Christianity.)

It’s always important to distinguish between “evolutionary theory” generically (which embraces a wide variety of conflicting views about how and why evolution occurs) and particular versions of evolutionary theory, such as “neo-Darwinism.”  It is neo-Darwinism which has been the main object of attack for the ID people.  On the other hand, some ID people are sympathetic with, or open to, the views of Denton.  In principle, TEs should be open to the views of Denton as well, but for some reason he gets a cool reception from most of them.  I don’t know why; you’ll have to ask the TEs.

penman - #38754

November 6th 2010

Rich - #38688

What about Simon Conway Morris, in his “Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe”? (Cambridge University Press 2003) He argues that humans or something like them were inevitable, but as far as I can make out, he hasn’t given up the key role played (in his view) by mutation & natural selection. His big idea is evolutionary convergence - something like a constraint imposed by natural processes that leads to certain “solutions” (like the eye) being arrived at repeatedly.

“...the ubiquity of convergence will lead inevitably to the emergence of recurrent biological properties that define the fabric of the biosphere. Re-run the tape of life as often as you like, & the end result will be much the same. On Earth it happens to be humans…” (p.282)

Conway Morris is a TE - or an EC, as many of us prefer. He’s Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology in Cambridge.

Rich - #38755

November 6th 2010


I haven’t read Conway Morris yet, though I’ve heard of his ideas, and your description about matches what I’ve heard. 

It would be interesting to find out exactly where he agrees and disagrees with Denton; there seems to be some overlap.

The question is what lies behind the constraint that produces the convergence.  For Denton, it’s clearly design.  I don’t know if Conway Morris would use that language; he might shy away from it because his Darwinian colleagues would frown upon it.  But either the “constraint” is just a freak accident that itself arose by chance mutations, or it was built in from the beginning, in the earliest life-forms or even in the properties of matter itself.  So whether you use the word “design” or not, you have to make an intellectual decision.  I wonder what Conway Morris’s decision is.

penman - #38763

November 6th 2010

Rich #38755

I claim no expertese on Conway Morris. But I have his book “Life’s Solution”, & the last chapter is “Towards a Theology of Evolution”. It seems clear he accepts a divinely intended “anthropic principle” for the cosmos. And he has this:

“we can ask ourselves what salient facts of evolution are congruent with a Creation. In my judgment, they are as follows:
1. Its underlying simplicity, relying on a handful of building blocks
2. the existence of an immense universe of possibilities, but a way of navigating to that minutest of fractions which actually work
3. the sensitivity of the process & the product, whereby nearly all alternatives are disastrously maladaptive
4. the inherency of life whereby complexity emerges as much by the rearrangement & co-option of pre-existing building blocks as against relying on novelties per se
5. the exuberance of biological diversity, but the ubiquity of evolutionary convergence
6. the inevitability of the emergence of sentience, & the likelihood that among animals it is far more prevalent that we are willing to admit.”

He says biological facts do not “prove” God’s existence but are “congruent” with it. He quotes Denton favorably twice; I can post the quotes if you like.

Rich - #38786

November 6th 2010


Thanks.  This is helpful.  No need to post any more of the material.  Conway Morris is a TE/EC that I could do business with.  I’m automatically attracted to independent thinkers, such as he seems to be.  I think I will have a look at what he has to say.

Douglas Swartzendruber - #38848

November 6th 2010

Going back a bit to RBH’s fundamental question regarding resolving conflict - I prefer the concept of conflict transformation over conflict resolution, and would encourage all to read John Paul Lederach’s work on the theory and practice of conflict transformation. 

This blog and comments brought to mind Jeremy Cambell’s book “The Many Faces of God.”  In the Hebrew bible, the faces of God seen by the Israelites change over time and are similar yet different than the faces of God seen in Jesus 2000 years ago which are similar yet different than what we see today - perhaps once could say, an evolution of how humans have understood God [not to be confused with the Evolution of God].

Martin Rizley - #38854

November 7th 2010

Douglas,  The problem I have with what you are saying is that, historically, Christians have regarded Jesus, not as a ‘high point’ in God’s self-revelation to men, but as the ‘end point’ of that revelation.  That is to say, there can be no higher revelation of God than what we see in Jesus, because in Him all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.  To say that “the faces of God seen in Jesus 2000 years ago are simiar yet DIFFERENT than what we see today” could be true only if Jesus were not God.  But since He is God, EVERYTHING that He reveals to us about God’s character, will, and works is FINAL—it can never ‘pass away’ in light of a superior revelation.  That’s because Jesus was not a ‘high’ point in God’s self-revelation, but the ‘end-point’ of that revelation.  He was not   a ‘God-filled’ man who saw God more clearly than His Hebrew ancestors, while retaining a few of their primitive ideas;  He was and is God in human flesh, incapable of teaching any false or wrong or primitive ideas about God that fade away with the moral and spiritual progress of humanity to a ‘higher pinnacle” of evolutionary development.

Douglas Swartzendruber - #38931

November 7th 2010

Martin - I left out an important word right after “seen in Jesus” - time.  This may or may not influence your response, but I did not mean the faces of God seen in Jesus, but seen by those who were in the presence of Jesus.  I will admit that I resonate much more with Steve Ruble’s perspectives than with yours, but will also affirm that it is good for us to listen to one another which surely helps each of us to more clearly communicate what we believe. 

I had to chuckle a bit when I read your comments about appropriate dress in church, because I have seen both ends of the spectrum from growing up in a Mennonite Church to attending the Malibu Vineyard - just can’t see Pam Anderson wearing a covering

Martin Rizley - #38937

November 7th 2010

Doug,  Thanks for clarifying your remarks; however, it seems to me that what Karl Giberson is saying in the article above is that Jesus’ own teaching about God in the New Testament is a ‘mixed bag,’ in that he did not entirely move away from the false visions of God’s character so often presented in the OT.  In some of HIs teachings, as a ‘child of His culture,’ Jesus upheld the primitve OT vision of God as a God of wrath and judgment, capable of judging wicked cities with fire and brimstone and sending a flood on the world; in other teachings, He presented a more enlightened, advanced and gentle picture of God as a loving and benevolent Father.  In Giberson’s view, once must measure the validity of earlier visions of God’s character (visions which Jesus never entirely expunged from His teahings) against later visions (which Jesus emphasized).  We are able to do this because we have ‘evolved beyond’ the cultural limitations of Jesus’ own day; we live in a more enlightened age which no longer takes seriously the ‘horrible’ visions of God’s character taught in the Old Testament.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #38940

November 7th 2010

I think I am presenting accurately Giberson’s view of Jesus’ teaching; the problem with it is that such a view could be true only if Jesus were not absolute deity.  One who is absolute deity cannot teach or uphold ANY erroneous view of God’s character, SINCE GOD KNOWS HIS OWN CHARACTER!    If the Biologos Foundation continues to teach the view of Jesus’ Person presented by Giberson—as a fallible Teacher who presented diverse ‘faces of God’ in His teaching, some truer than others—then I don’t see how it can avoid denying eventually Jesus’ absolute deity; for if society has ‘moved beyond’ some of Jesus’ teachings—those based on a warped view of God which He inherited from His Jewish culture—how can we possibly regard Him as being God incarnate—the object of our worship and praise?  That admission, however, would entail the formal abandonment of historic, orthodox Christianity and the formal embrace of a ‘new religion’ for the 21st century, the religion of ‘Evolutionism,’ in which God’s self-revelation is seen as an ongoing process, with the teaching of Jesus representing a ‘high point,’ but not the end point, in the process of divine self-disclosure.

Jon Garvey - #38969

November 8th 2010

@Martin Rizley - #38940

I guess the response I’d anticipate to your point here is likely to be under the banner of “kenosis” - Jesus, by voluntarily emptying himself of godhead, takes on the cultural limitations of Jewish humanity. Thus a virtue is made of his fallibility.

The concept of kenosis is obviously of value not only in expressing incarnation itself, but in making the sufferings, the doubts etc of the Lord more than a pretence - he truly became human.

But I agree with you that, in practice, it becomes carte blanche for choosing what teachings of Jesus are regarded as “divine” and which are to be ignored as “human”. This forgets the fact that the inspired Evangelists clearly regarded all the words they actually recorded as divine (they didn’t write every time he said, “Do any of you know what time we’re due at that Pharisee’s house?”).

But more importantly it makes the criterion for judging his teachings a kind of anti-kenosis: the divine Jesus became fallible enough to make mistakes, but somehow we have become divine enough to untangle them (together with those of the inspired prophets before him).

Someone needs to explain whence comes our superior judgement.

Martin Rizley - #39028

November 8th 2010

J. I. Packer has written a devastating critique of the kenosis theory; you can read it here:

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