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 Salon.com, 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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Dunemeister - #38193

November 3rd 2010

Martin Rizley,

You seem to assume that knowledge gained by the Spirit is indefeasible. That is not so. I recommend you look at Alvin Plantinga’s work “Warranted Christian Belief.” In it, he argues that belief in God can be properly basic through revelation and assurance of its truth provided through the work of the Spirit on the heart and mind of the believer. However, he also notes that this knowledge is defeasible by a variety of means. So knowledge gained by the Spirit is of a different sort than that which is provided by our natural senses and reason; and it may even be (in some cases and ways) more sure than our natural reason; but, just as our natural reason is defeasible, so is knowledge gained through the Spirit. Remembering this aids our humility about what we think we know by the Spirit. And of course, there is still the not inconsiderable problem that you consistently avoid about how to tell which of two contradictory yet Spirit-assured beliefs are true, e.g., “Christians must never make war” vs. “War is sometimes permitted.” One can find Spirit-filled believers in both camps, and both sides will claim biblical support for their position and personal assurance from the Spirit. So how do we tell which is right?


Chip - #38197

November 3rd 2010

Leadme,

How can I be sure that Jesus actually made those statements?

Frequent BL contributor N T Wright rhetorically asks questions very similar to yours in the forward to The NT Documents, Are They Reliable?:

Can we trust the New Testament?  Hasn’t it all been disproved?  Doesn’t modern scholarship show that it was all made up much later, so that the supposedly historical foundations of Christianity are in fact a figment of the imagination?  This sort of thing is said so often in the media, in some churches, and in public life in general, that many people take it for granted that nothing can be said on the other side.  But, as so often, this is where careful, accurate scholarship of the type in which Bruce excelled, has a quiet, thorough and complete answer.  Yes, we can trust the New Testament.  (p ix)

Still one of the best books out there on the subject, IMO.  Well worth reading.


leadme.org - #38199

November 3rd 2010

Whoa!  I figured I was opening a can of worms with that last bit…

Jon and Martin, a lot of good stuff to think about, and sorry if the “beaming” bit sounded out of place.  I honestly wasn’t trying to mock.

Anyway, what it still comes down to for me is that when I look at the overall scope and message of Jesus’ ministry, it doesn’t appear possible to me to genuinely reconcile that with the image of God painted in certain parts of the OT.

And Martin, I don’t worship human reason or any such thing.  I think reason is a blisteringly powerful tool and a huge gift from God, but ultimately I think it comes up short in terms of being able to address the entire scope of human experience.  I absolutely do value the human aesthetic/intuitive sense, and my faith is much more intimately related to those faculties than to my reason.  But that said, I don’t think my intuitions ought to trump my reason, when the two are in conflict.  Faith, for me, of course goes beyond the facts, but it shouldn’t contradict the facts.

(cont.)


Martin Rizley - #38200

November 3rd 2010

Dunemeister,  I believe the internal witness of the Spirit is given in connection with what is objectively contained in the Scriptures.  That is, the Spirit does not give assurance of the truth of Scripture by imparting ‘new’ revelations of truth, but by clarifying to our minds the teaching already given in the Scripture and assuring us that we are understanding that teaching properly.  Since not all things in the Scriptures are reveale with equal clarity, however,  the Spirit’s internal witness concerning some things will be much stronger concerning some things than others—simply because the Bible itself contains more explicit or clear instruction concerning some things than others.  Thus, when we read of the way of salvation in Scripture, or of Christ’s incarnation, His substitutionary atonement, His resurrection from the dead,  justification by faith in Him, we can be sure of these things in a way that we cannot be so sure, for example, of the meaning of some of the symbols in the book of Revelation.  That is because the Spirit’s internal witness is strong where the teaching of Scripture is exceedingly clear.  (continued)


leadme.org - #38201

November 3rd 2010

(cont.)

I am curious, Martin, why you choose to be so involved in the forums over here.  I haven’t really joined in on any of the discussions until now, but I’ve been lurking in the shadows for a while and see that you’ve been very involved.  I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be involved, but it seems to me that you’re not really going to convince anyone of your position who isn’t already sympathetic to it.  And from what you have been sharing, it seems you are fairly confident in your perspective and not looking to be convinced otherwise.  So what’s the point? 

Please don’t think I’m trying to be dismissive, and again, I’m absolutely not trying to say that you shouldn’t join in.  But I am honestly a bit perplexed about what you’re hoping to get out of this…


Martin Rizley - #38203

November 3rd 2010

Among those things that are taught with clarity in the Bible, I would include Jesus’ attitude toward the Old Testament.  There is nothing in Jesus’ teaching to suggest that He opposed anything that Moses wrote; where He made changes in the Law, that was due to the advance of redemptive history to a new stage of development—not to a rejection of Moses’ authority.  He taught his disciples to regard the Old Testament Scriptures as being fully inspired and authoritative.  When it comes to the issue of Christian participation in war, I think the teaching of Scripture is ultimately clear, but I would say that this is a complex subject that doesn’t ‘jump out’ at you in Scripture as, for example, the truth of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  It requires extensive study.  I grant you that Christians holding different views believe the Spirit has given them understanding, but Spirit-imparted assurance will always be strengthened through more study and take into account the whole range of biblical teaching, whereas human misinterpretations become evident through further study and fail to take in the whole range of biblical teaching on the subject.


Martin Rizley - #38204

November 3rd 2010

leadme.org,
Do you remember Proverbs 27:17—“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”  I find that interaction wih people whose views differ from my own helps me to examine and understand better my own beliefs, and to see things from a different angle than I would without such interaction.  Through dialogue with people who differ from us, we become more ‘self-aware’ of the strengths and weaknesses of our position.  That is one reason I find myself drawn to respond to some of the articles on Biologos.  Also, I believe there are many people on this website who are not entrenched in one position or another; they are considering the strengths and weaknesses of different viewpoints, and it seems to me a good thing that they should be given the opportunity to hear from people representing different viewpoints.  Then, thirdly, some who respond to these articles are atheists who don’t believe in God at all, but who are interested in issues of science and faith.  Our common interest in that subject provides an opportunity for Christian witness to those who need to know the Lord.


nedbrek - #38205

November 3rd 2010

To Martin’s excellent reply, let me add:
Interestingly, the Bible offers little in the way of what would be called “evidential apologetics” or persuasion.  It simply proclaims the truth.  We are called to do likewise.


leadme.org - #38207

November 3rd 2010

Fair enough, Martin, nicely said.

What still confuses me, though, is that I asked you what, if anything, might possibly cause you to reject your view of Scripture.  To which you replied, in effect: nothing.  Or maybe I misunderstood your answer.

Is it the case that you’d potentially be open to the scientific ideas presented on this site, if you could somehow be convinced that it’s possible to reconcile those ideas with the concept of inerrancy?  In other words, our current topic of inerrancy is firmly settled in your mind and beyond dispute, but what is not necessarily fully settled in your mind is the content of your interpretative convictions regarding Genesis 1 and so forth?

Or again, perhaps I’m confused on your beliefs.  But you do accept the young earth view, correct?


Martin Rizley - #38209

November 3rd 2010

leadme.org,  I am always open to considering any interpretive position that does not involve the outright rejection of the Bible’s authority and that can be substantiated without abandoning sound principles of hermeneutics.  I don’t think the answer to every interpretive question regarding Genesis 1-11 is settled with equal clarity in the Bible.  Take, for example, the whole question of the age of the earth. When you ask me, “Do you accept the young earth view?” I am inclined to respond, “Which young earth view?”  There is not only one.  First, because the word ‘earth’ itself can refer either to the planet earth, or to the fossil record, which is a feature FOUND on the planet.  Regarding the age of the planet, I am far from being dogmatic regarding ‘how long’ the earth has been sitting here, because I am not sure that we say dogmatically how long a day lasts that is not ‘ruled’ by the sun (days 1-3).  The earth could conceivably have sat in darkness for a long time before God said, “Let there be light.”  But I am less inclined to see things like cancer and predation—apparently found in the fossil record—as part of God’s original order. (continued)


Martin Rizley - #38211

November 3rd 2010

And I do not feel bound to accept as ‘gospel truth’ scientific interpretations that depend on deistic assumptions about God’s relationship to the natural world.  In other words, I believe that supernatural divine intervention may be a factor in explaining why some features of earth’s geomorphology appear as they do.  I admit that I have unanswered questions concerning how to harmonize the teaching of Scripture with the scientific data, but I do not feel obliged because of those questions to abandon an essentially straightforward, grammatical-historical approach to biblical interpretation, which leads me to believe in a literal Adam and Eve, a literal fall, the genealogies of Genesis as historically true and accurate, a literal flood, etc.


Rich - #38213

November 3rd 2010

gingoro:

I agree with you that there was corruption in Rome at the time of Luther.  There were some very worldly people holding the See of Rome during that period, and Rome was entangled with European politics in a way that was unhealthy.  The doctrine of indulgences, doubtless flawed in itself, was being misused to raise money to build a grand new structure in Rome.  Luther was certainly right to challenge the practice of selling indulgences and to raise a debate about theological issues surrounding the practice.  But at least initially he did this as a loyal son of the Church.  He sought not unity but reform.  In this he was like many others of the day, like Erasmus, who hoped that the Church could be reformed from within, rather than by breaking away.  But as time went on, the vested interests of the Church, combined with the massive egos of both the Roman prelates and of Luther himself (an ego which Erasmus and other Protestant divines can testify to!), and the general tendency of Protestants to despise moderate compromises, led to schism.  It was very sad, but it happened.  Maybe it was even justified.  But once it happened, Luther and Calvin (though they tried) couldn’t clamp the lid down on Pandora’s box.


Rich - #38214

November 3rd 2010

gingoro (continued):

And this is the problem with “the Protestant principle” that Martin is championing.  It seems to lead to anarchy.

I have nothing against the laity reading their Bibles, or a role for lay leadership in the Church, or many other things introduced by Protestants.  And I am certainly not advocating that everyone should return to the practice of Christianity as it was in 1516.  Nor do I agree with everything that Rome says.  Nor do I think much of the claim that the Pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra (though Martin exaggerates the problem there, as the Popes have very rarely, in recent years, made use of the notion, and it is unlikely that they ever will make much use of it, since there are enough ways to enforce doctrine without bringing in the Joker of infallibility to trump everyone else’s Aces).  But there is a problem, and that is that phrases like “sola Scriptura” and “priesthood of all believers” and “I’m answerable only to God, the Bible and my conscience” can lead to a proud individualism and the tendency of groups to break away into new sects and denominations on the basis of a “pet theology” they have conjured up.  How can one condemn such actions, on Martin’s principles?


Rich - #38215

November 3rd 2010

gingoro (continued):

For example, when an ex-truck driver (or whatever he was) like Hal Lindsey publishes a book like “The Late Great Planet Earth,” based on a completely incompetent study of Biblical prophecy, I want to say to someone like that:  “Look, buddy, you’re a truck driver, not a theologian.  You don’t know Greek, you don’t know Hebrew, you don’t know ancient literary theory or the ancient historical context, you have no training from any serious university or seminary, and you don’t know what you are talking about.  You shouldn’t be publishing books filled with amateur speculation that mislead millions of Christians.”  But on Martin’s principles, how do you stop a guy like that?  If he thinks he has the true meaning of the Bible, he will see himself as heroic (like Martin Luther) for standing up against current theologians and denominations, defending God’s Word and spreading it to the world.  Now Rome, Luther and Calvin would have seen no problem in clamping down on this guy, burning every copy of his books, and excommunicating anyone who promulgated his doctrines.  They wouldn’t have left it up to individual congregations, as Martin would have it, to decide whether or not his teaching was OK.


Rich - #38218

November 3rd 2010

gingoro (continue):

I don’t really have an answer for the problem I’m raising.  It’s an age-old question:  how do you stop the Protestant principle from becoming an anarchist principle?  How do you justify the revolution without justifying all subsequent revolutions?  Who gets to decide what is the “right” interpretation of the Bible?

I can see the difficulty Martin is in.  He is a pastor in a denomination which, had it existed in Calvin and Luther’s day, would have been crushed by them as schismatic and heretical.  Yet he wants to appeal to the theologies of Calvin and Luther against Rome.  So he’s trying to walk a tightrope.  And maybe it can be done.  Maybe it’s what Protestant denominations must necessarily do.  Maybe it’s even a good thing.

Martin thinks I’m defending the current theology of Rome.  I’m not.  I’m defending not the particular decisions taken by Rome, but the principle which justifies taking them, i.e., the principle that the Church must have interpretive control over the Bible, if it is to remain one.  That doesn’t mean overruling the Bible with invented doctrines; it means ruling on some things that must be believed, and some things that must not be believed.  Luther did this regularly.


Martin Rizley - #38219

November 3rd 2010

Rich,  There can be no power of rule without the power to ENFORCE decisions.  Now, if all the churches in the world existed under some umbrella organization, headed by a scholarly elite who ruled on the correct interpretation of the Bible, how could such an organization enforce its decrees?  By excommunication?  How will that in any way prevent the multiplying of different groups with different creeds, confessions, or forms of church order?  In the Middle Ages, the church had power to enforce its decrees and to prevent in some measure, the multiplying of different groups, by relyng on the power of the state to punish heretics.  That was an effective means of maintaining a visible, superficial, ‘unity’ in Christendom—but at what price?  The price of freedom of conscience.  The price of atrocities committed against people who could not in good conscience assent to the beliefs of a group they did not agree with.  Surely you would not send us back to those days, would you?  The lack of visible unity in the church is lamentable, but the solution is not some mega-church organization with a magisterium that rules on doctrine, as you propose (continued)


Martin Rizley - #38220

November 3rd 2010

The solution is a better educated body of believers who are growing in their understanding of the Bible, and therefore, growing TOWARD a unity in truth.  In the meantime, before total unity is acheived, God’s people, distributed in different ecclesiastical bodies, must maintain a unity in the Spirit by learning to distinguish between primary and secondary issues in doctrine, between theological error and heresy.  Among conservative evangelicals in the United States, there exists an amazing degree of spiritual unity—despite denominational differences—based on a common understanding of the gospel.  Teachers like John MacArthur (a dispensationalist), James Kennedy (a Presbyterian), R. C. Sproul (a Presbyterian), John Piper (a Baptist), and J. I. Packer (an Anglican) commonly sit together on the same platform in Bible conferences, because despite denominational differences, they share the same faith in Scripture as the Word of God, and in the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  Total visible unity will be attained only when Christ returns to consummate history at the end of the age.


Jon Garvey - #38221

November 3rd 2010

@leadme.org - #38199

“Anyway, what it still comes down to for me is that when I look at the overall scope and message of Jesus’ ministry, it doesn’t appear possible to me to genuinely reconcile that with the image of God painted in certain parts of the OT.”

“How” is different from the acceptance that it’s “possible” to reconcile. Maybe it’s worth, in addition to Jesus’ own stated attitude to OT Scripture, to consider the apostles’ teaching. Possibly earlier than the gospels, for a start, and one has no right to deny they were at least as close to Jesus’s thought as we are.

Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, and is vanishingly unlikely to have advocated Gentile genocide, slave wives or whatever you pick on. And yet writing to the Romans he is able to say (to Gentiles) that one advantage of being a Jew is being “entrusted with the very words of God”, meaning principally Torah. Clearly he saw no contradiction in the nature of Yahweh and the nature of the Son he had met personally, though he may well have found “tensions” that needed resolving. There’s no sign that he saw them as problems, however, any more than Jesus is recorded to have done. And as far as I know Paul wasn’t a Western Protestant!


Rich - #38228

November 3rd 2010

Martin:

I wasn’t recommending any “umbrella organization.”  I was merely pointing out what all Churches, whether the medieval Roman one, or the Genevan one, or some little congregationalist one, must in fact do if they are to maintain theological and intellectual coherence.  They must say, from time to time, that this doctrine is right and that doctrine is wrong; and since doctrines always purport to be based on the Bible (Arius, Pelagius, Arminius etc. all thought they had Biblical grounds for their views), the Church must at times rule on the correct meaning of the Bible.  That is what I mean by saying that the Church must have interpretive authority. 

The theoretical problem you are not seeing is that Protestantism requires, to get started, a spiritual individualism whereby one is encouraged to pit Scripture against previous tradition, and judge tradition by Scripture; but once Protestantism succeeds, and becomes institutionalized itself (as Luther and Calvin accomplished), it discourages the very individualism that started it.  If you know Church history you know the attitude of the magisterial Reformers toward Bible-quoting Anabaptists, for example.  I’m not offering solutions, just indicating the paradox.


Rich - #38229

November 3rd 2010

gingoro:

Correction to a statement about Luther above:  “He sought not unity but reform” should have been “He sought not schism but reform.”


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