Friday, February 26, 2010

God in the Old Testament

I got this question from a friend yesterday that went something like this: "I was asked today how I could reconcile the picture of God in the Old Testament with God in the New Testament. The question was along the lines of why God is vindictive and punishing in the Old Testament and yes forgiving and loving in the New Testament."

Certainly God is forgiving and loving in the Old Testament too (e.g., the story of Jonah, God sparing Israel) and God judges with punishment in the New Testament (e.g., Ananias and Sapphira; final judgment). But I don't think we can completely deflect this observation. In Joshua and Numbers, God has Israel in effect try to commit genocide down to children and even animals. In Ezra God commands Israelite men to divorce their non-Israelite wives and children. There are puzzling things in the OT from a Christian standpoint.

There are also things like the stoning of a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Saturday). Remember that strange story at the beginning of Exodus where God tries to kill Moses until Zipporah quickly circumcises his son? Moses intercedes for Israel like you would someone almost out of control trying to beat someone else up. God is sorry he created humanity just before the Flood--not possible if God is omniscient. God sits in council with the gods of the other nations in Psalm 82, having assigned them to those nations in the first place in Deuteronomy 32--sounds like Zeus in the Lightning Thief.

A point of growth here, in my opinion, is to realize that every word of the Bible is "incarnated" revelation. God reveals himself in the categories of those to whom He reveals himself. And why not? This makes perfect sense if He wants to be understood! If God revealed himself in my categories, then no one would have really understood Him in the Bible until now, when people started looking at the world through contemporary categories.

Strangely, that's how we often treat the Bible. When we say, "God revealed the Bible as timeless, absolute truth for all time," we are really saying, "God revealed the Bible in my categories, which are the same as the categories of everyone else who has ever lived." However, this is not true. The paradigms of other times and places have differed wildly from my Western categories. The person who wants the Bible to give revelation that is unparticular to the times of its original audiences is certainly unaware of how differently those of other times and places have understood the world. Myopically, we make our time the time finally when the Bible can be understood properly, which of course is wrong and rather inadvertently self-centered.

Some will remember those denominations who used to make a distinction between infallibility and inerrancy by saying that infallible meant the Bible was without error in matters of faith and doctrine, but not necessarily science or history. This was naive, for the nature of thought and language--as I have just been saying--is for all of it to be incarnated, to take on the flesh of its time. It is thus misguided to try to consider the biblical revelation transcendent, removed from human categories, in some areas and time-conditioned in others, even in those areas related to God himself.

The necessary corollary is that even the picture of God in the Old and New Testaments is time-conditioned in the sense that it relates directly to the categories of their day. Frankly, this becomes true of the "revelations" we find in the Nicene Creed as well, meaning that theology must forever be represented in new categories, realizing that my current categories are not absolute either.

It is no surprise to me, therefore, that the Old Testament is by and large more henotheistic than purely monotheistic, meaning that God is treated as the only legitimate God to worship, though not as the only God. God also cannot change His mind if He is omniscient, meaning that I find open theism naive. I will say also that I am equally perplexed by Wesleyan-Arminians who vigorously oppose it. You you have to be conservative to be an open theist because it takes the OT picture of God very literally--more literally in fact than its opponents. It also is not process theology, as some confuse it. I understand why Calvinists would oppose it, because it emphasizes free will to the exclusion of God's determinism. But why Wesleyan-Arminians have gotten up in arms about it seems likely because of ignorance on their part.

In the end, the biblical images of God must be integrated with each other and organized from a theological fulchrum point outside the text just as all other biblical teaching. A friend of mine has as his fundamental hermeneutic "What does this text tell me about God?" This is a wonderful lens for appropriating Scripture. And we must, as with all biblical teaching, also recognize that no one biblical passage has autonomy on the answer. It is what the Bible as a whole has to tell us about God, processed through the rule of faith as encapsulated in the consensus of Christian faith, that is determinative--not the localized, time-conditioned picture of God presented by an individual passage.


Caleb Landis said...

It seems to me that our understanding of the "God of the Old Testement" sometimes is way to surface or first read oriented. I have even found a merciful God in the book of Nehum. I think if we actually try more often to get to the theological points (what does it say about God as you said) we will see the same God in both the OT and NT.

Ben Garrison said...

I'm intrigued by this part of your post: In the end, the biblical images of God must be integrated with each other and organized from a theological fulchrum point outside the text just as all other biblical teaching. I'm currently a Wesleyan student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and last semester I took a seminar on Semiotics and Biblical Studies with Daniel Patte. He seemed to use this type of hermeneutic, and used the golden rule or greatest commandment as his 'fulchrum point.' He seemed to emphasis the loving one's neighbor bit more, by emphasizes the effect biblical interpretations have on people. But this often led to some interpretations of scripture that were way out of bounds for me as a Wesleyan. What fulchrum point(s) would you propose for reading scripture in the twentieth century? A Christological one, ethical one? Thanks again for thought provoking posts.

Ken Schenck said...

Caleb, I always have mixed feelings on these sorts of things. I always approve of the kinds of theological readings of which you speak. I also generally suspect that they involve not a little Christianization of these texts from their original connotations. I am always open to being shown wrong.

Ben, the fulchrum I have found most stable is the consensus of Christendom, which is far more stable than scholarly consensus on the original meaning of individual passages let alone their varied theological interpretations. The regula fidei and the law of love.

::athada:: said...

This is the Sunday School that I desire. Thanks for the concise, precise, simple yet still stretching Biblical insights.

π² said...

I can site this for my IP, right?

Joel Liechty said...

Ken, you're so smart!

Ken Schenck said...

Joel, it must be a real privilege to sit outside my office just to catch the gems of knowledge chancing out of my door from time to time. :-) Karen's back in the office Monday so we'll have to clean up the party hats tomorrow.

Ken Schenck said...

Paul, in my old age my vision's going. I kept thinking it said "N" squared and I was trying to figure out who it was :-)

Evan Hoyt said...

Well, I would like to comment in another direction, in effort to fulfill the thought of God and war. This coming from and awfully undergraduate mindset I know...would it be right to say that Christ came to change the way we (humans) relation with God, not to send signals of a changed character of God? God does not change inter-testamentally, rather, upon the life of Christ it was solely the reconciliation of our relationship with God and covered the cost of our sin. I purpose that the changes we see as God's "character" changing is simply the evolution of human society and there being less need for God to “micro-manage” His command of justice. It is fair to say that in the eyes secular history, the Roman Empire is most recognized for their development of the Justice system – that indeed followed all the expansion of the new world. Through Christ, there is a new ability for people to have relationship with God and therefore no excuse for rulers (gentile or not) to make decision unaware of God's will. If they do, this ignorance of God’s will in their decisions is on their shoulders. Not to say that God is no longer involved in the functions of this world but rather, works with humans as they advance in thought and socially. No change of God’s personhood, same God in the Old and New Testament, He simply works justice through human rulers and “their” decisions verses direct commands to conquer.
Is this a dangerous thought? Is it heretical?
Great post Doc, a much needed and thought of topic these days.
-Evan H

tim said...

Despite this creative "sleight of hand", the difference in "moral" categories across time is still problematic, imho. The OT records multiple instances of a God behaving in contradiction to Christ's incarnation. Do you see an issue with Jehovah being in council with Bacchus? 747 and chariot are different categories, but did the Holy Spirit inspire OT writers to affirm false moral categories? Or did man attribute false categories to God w/o Christ's revelation?

I believe God interacted with Hebrews and Greeks, despite pre-Christ limitations. However, the fulchrum is that we really know nothing about God aside from Christ's incarnation. NT writers are only more clear about God b/c they are closer to Christ's incarnation. The concept that the Bible is "incarnate" or "infallible" seems a dead-end to me. I agree the Holy Spirit gave encouragement/strength to Biblical writers to record God encounters/general history. However, at the end of the day, the Bible is man's fallible analysis/observations of God's movements, which are ineffable. If man was perfect, then we would see a seamless continuum from OT to NT.

I guess I would just prefer to be intellectually honest then toe the Evangelical party line.

Dan said...

Tim, if we accept that we know nothing of God except through Christ's incarnation (or God's incarnation in Christ), then we can still ask ourselves, "How did God's incarnation of himself view the Hebrew Scriptures?" Jesus treated the Hebrew Scriptures with care and referred to them as an everlasting message from God (Mt 5:17-20; 15:1-9) and unbreakable (Jn 10:35). So, it seems to me that Jesus upheld the Hebrew Scriptures as valuable and containing some sort of communication from/of God. Therefore, the Hebrews had some knowledge of God before Christ's incarnation. Whether or not it was perfect knowledge is another topic.

tim said...


As an insider, I can have a high view of scripture. I understand how theologians have generally put the puzzle together. However, put yourself in the position of an outsider. Would you accept these explanations if applied to the Koran?

For instance, you could say that the verses in Matthew simply indicate that Jesus believed that His earthly work didn't invalidate God's interaction with the Hebrew people through the Law (not necessarily the whole OT). However, this raises the issue of who gave Paul the right to decide that part of the Law was no longer required (most Orthodox Jews wouldn't buy into the purity vs. ritual time-bounded argument). Does Paul contradict Jesus? As far as the John 10 reference, it appears that the writer of Psalms 82:6 indicates that the Hebrews should view themselves as gods or children of God. Is Christ declaring His divinity or declaring that He is a mediator god and reminding his listeners that they are also gods/children of gods. Remember Christ's statement that "the kingdom is already within you."
Perhaps, Emerson was right and Jesus was preaching New Age spirituality.

I would prefer to assert that Christ comes from God because He addresses mankind's existential dilemma than defending all the loose-ends within scripture.