Christianity Today’s Grappling with the God of Two Testaments

I subscribe to Christianity Today and recently my subscription arrived in the mail. I was immediately taken with the cover consisting of an intermixing of 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (Old Testament) and Luke 6:27-31 (New Testament):
This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘But I tell you who hear me: love your enemies,” I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel do good to those who hate you, when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Bless those who curse you, now go, attack the Amalekites pray for those who mistreat you. And totally destroy everything that belongs to them. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. Do not spare them; if someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Put to death men and women, children and infants, give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

A powerful and visual contrast of the apparently conflicting messages of the Old and New Testaments. Christianity Today endeavors to provide an explanation and reconciliation of the profound differences apparent in the OT and NT article in this edition (July / August 2013).

Their endeavor consists of a brief and honest note from CT editor Mark Galli. This is followed by Mark Buchanan’s pastoral response entitled “Can We Trust the God of Genocide?” Then Phillip Cary argues “Gentiles in the Hands of a Genocidal God” and Christopher J. H. Wright’s article “Learning to Love Leviticus” and sidebar “Sex in Leviticus.”

I was saddened that CT didn’t take the opportunity to cover this topic even more extensively – I would have loved to see the entire magazine dedicated to the subject for this issue. Still, the articles are fairly interesting.

Mark Galli’s Editorial

I appreciate Galli’s honesty in acknowledging that there are really difficult passages that trouble Christians. He also provides us with several titles for further research on the topic including Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?, David T. Lamb’s God Behaving Badly, and Eric A. Seibert’s The Violence of Scripture.

Can We Trust the God of Genocide?

Massacre of the Innocents painted by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1610-1612.
Massacre of the Innocents painted by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1610-1612.

Mark Buchanan offers a ‘pastoral’ response to the troubling texts involving genocide in the Old Testament. A ‘pastoral’ perspective as I commonly understand it is one which spends more time expressing empathy for the emotional components present in individuals’ difficulties with Scripture rather than a more intellectual/philosophical approach (at least, that is what I mean when I attempt to explain something in a ‘pastoral’ manner).

He aptly notes the difficulty we face, “What’s not easy is explaining what appear to be deliberate acts of divine cruelty. God’s virulent rage. His hair-trigger vindictiveness. His apoplectic jealousy. Why would God make women and children pay for the sins of despots or the apostasy of priests? God’s behavior at times appears to the skeptic, and even to the devout, as mere rancor, raw spite. There are passages in Scripture that make God look like a cosmic bully throwing a colossal tantrum.”

He suggests this raises the question “Can the Bible be trusted?” Which is really a more personal question, “Can the God of the Bible be trusted?” And finally, the real heart of the question, “Jesus, is that really you?”[1]

Buchanan provides an interesting analysis of Hosea 13:16 and its relation to John and James desiring to call fire down from heaven – and this along with his explanation of the problem are probably the strongest portions of the article.

From here on, I found the article less satisfying. Buchanan argues that, “But he’s the same God. Indeed, here’s a surprise: The road is even steeper now, the judgment of God sterner, and the cost of refusal greater…Jesus opens a new way to the same God. But Jesus, rather than lessening the stakes, heightens them. His blood speaks a better word than Abel’s, or any other’s, but his message is only an intensified version of what God has always said: Do not refuse me when I am talking to you.”

Buchanan does find the key to our interpretive paradox, “My pastoral instinct is that this all resolves at the Cross. All talk of God must filter there. All views of God must refract there. All theology must converge there. At the Cross, God’s own wrath falls on God. The God of the Old Covenant meets himself in the Christ of the New Covenant, and in a way superior to everything that has come before, he enacts a deep and lasting reconciliation.”

But he then suggests, “But here’s the strangeness of it: The Cross is mostly God’s defiance of himself. God erects a nail house against his own wrath. What the Cross defies, what the Cross defeats, what the Cross pushes back, is as much the wrath of heaven as it is the power of hell.”

I found the nail house to be a distracting illustration – but more importantly, I find this picture of the meaning of the cross as God’s defiance of himself as inadequate. It is perhaps a natural corollary of  penal-substitutionary atonement, which I believe in but also believe is inadequate to describe the fullness of Christ’s sacrifice (thus why the NT writers use so many different analogies and terms to describe what Christ accomplished).

I’ve written somewhat of a pastoral/personal reflection which focuses on the cross here.

Gentiles in the Hands of a Genocidal God

Of all the articles present in CT on this topic, I was most disappointed by Phillip Cary’s article. While it provides a good explanation of herem (the Hebrew term for genocide) and hesed (a Hebrew term for lovingkindness). Cary’s article might be summed in this statement, “How then shall we read the Canaanite genocide? I would say: as Canaanites, prone to lead Israel astray, yet blessed by the faith of Abraham. This is a faith shared by Rahab in her lovingkindness toward Israel, and offered to Gentiles in Jesus Christ who is, as his genealogy attests, the son of Rahab as well as the son of David (Matt. 1:5–6).”

In my humble opinion, Cary punts the ball. He argues that the genocidal commands of God should result in us being thankful we have been spared rather than upset that God would command such genocide. But I’m not sure (okay, I’m certain) that being the recipient of a genocidal command in any way changes the morality of the genocide.

I understand what Cary is saying, I just wish he had taken us a little farther down the road.

Learning to Love Leviticus

The article and sidebar (“Sex in Leviticus”) by Christopher J. H. Wright are my favorites on this topic. Wright provides an interesting, reasonable, and understandable explanation of how the OT applies to our lives now. Statements such as this are representative of his sentiment, “To imagine that ‘living biblically’ means trying to keep as many ancient rules as possible just because they are in the Bible misses the point of the law in the first place. Old Testament law was not just about rules but also about relationship with God, founded on God’s grace and redemption, and motivated by the mission of living as the people of God in the world, so that the world should come to know the living God.”

Wright’s explanation of why we no longer follow the sacrificial and dietary laws of the OT are especially helpful. He concludes with a series of questions we can utilize when trying to connect the ancient laws of Israel with our current context which are insightful and extremely practical.

Overall, his article reminds me of Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton’s Old Testament Today: A Journey from original Meaning to Contemporary Significance – which I’d highly recommend as being a more extensive guide to understanding the OT.

Wright’s sidebar on love (hetero/homo) is interesting, controversial, and far too short. He takes the traditional position on homosexuality (it is sinful) based on Genesis 2:24 but qualifies by noting, “that the Bible has far more to say about all forms of disordered heterosexual sexual activity, including nonmarital and extramarital, than its prohibition of same-sex intercourse.”

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, CT provided a good introduction to the topic. I think there are a few things CT could have done to strengthen their coverage of the topic besides those noted above, specifically:

  1. Where was the historical perspective from Mark Noll? This could have provided an overview of other understandings of the atonement (ransom theory, Christus Victor, moral influence, satisfaction, and penal substitution) as well as traditional understandings of the cohesiveness between the OT and NT (for example, some inkling of the allegorical understandings of the early church fathers).
  2. Where was the more liberal perspective? If not providing it from a liberal author, at least a summary of this perspective would have been helpful (John Shelby Spong as an example).
  3. While the articles regularly mention that there are difficult passages in the NT on a similar level to those in the OT, there could have been article specifically dedicated to this topic. I’d especially like to see something looking at Jesus as portrayed in Revelation in contrast to Jesus in the Gospel and in comparison to the OT difficulty passages.
  1. [1]Which reminds me of Malcolm Boyd’s Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Whether this allusion is intentional on Buchanan’s part, I don’t know.

2 Replies to “Christianity Today’s Grappling with the God of Two Testaments”

  1. Thanks for sharing about these articles Dave. These are definitely issues that still challenge me today after being a believer for a long time. I wouldn’t mind borrowing that issue so I could take a closer look at some of the articles.

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