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?”1Which 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.

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.

The Problem of Evil

Introduction

I’ve experienced my fair share of heartache and suffering in this world…but I do not consider myself to have suffered anywhere near what others have suffered and I feel disoriented, sick, and weak when I even think of some of the ways in which individuals suffer. I think of a small child being taken into a dark room by a parent and there forced to engage in painful, strange, and disturbing acts. This occurs not just once – but repeatedly. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

Or I think of the children who are sold into sexual slavery. Prostituted from infancy on – pushed into the arms of sick individuals who hurt them and use them over and over and over again. A constant stream of faces that do things that are practically unspeakable.

The fundamental questions that arises in the midst of all this evil is, “Where is God?” If God exists, if God is good, if God is powerful – why does He not intervene?

I’ve heard and read many of the logical and philosophical answers offered by Christians to explain the existence of evil, but I have none to be satisfactory. There have been times when I have nearly abandoned my faith. Not because I stopped believing in God, but because I didn’t know how I could believe that He was good.

I do not think that we can provide a satisfactory philosophical answer to the question of evil. No equation can stand against the realities of evil in our world. Yet, I still believe in a good, even more, a perfect God. How? For what it is worth I want to share how I believe.

Before I do, let me note that it is not that I do not struggle with the problem of evil. Sometimes I am a man in the midst of an ocean of evil and pain and I am drowning. I can’t see my way out and no logical explanation will suffice. But I have found that this answer – at least for me – is enough to keep me from drowning. It does not dry up the ocean and I still slip below the surface with frequency, but it is something to hold onto – with bloody finger nails that scrape into hope with all their might.

So, here it goes…

Life Raft

God the Father 05
God the Father 05 (Photo credit: Waiting For The Word)

When evil, pain, and suffering overwhelm me. When I find myself drowning, hopeless and lost I center my mind upon the cross. I transport in my mind’s eye back to that day as Christ hung upon the cross. I look upon his blood drenched and naked body. I sit at the feet of the cross and let his blood splash onto my head and face and as I sit there on that horrible, horrific day, I experience something – love and joint experience.

I can’t explain why we suffer. I can’t even explain why Jesus had to suffer. Yes, yes, I know all the proper theological answers – but there is an experiential aspect, a fogginess to it all, that leaves me feeling as if my understanding is only partial. That God has yet to unveil to me the depths of His mind on this matter.

What I do know is that as I sit at the foot of the cross with my agony and with the agony of the world bearing down upon my mind and shoulders, His blood drips onto me and I know. Jesus is God. God is suffering. God has chosen to enter into suffering with me.

While I have been tempted at times to think that God was a sadist – enjoying inflicting pain on others, I have never been tempted to think that God is a masochist – receiving pleasure from suffering Himself. So, here is God and He is suffering with me. He does not explain to me why suffering is necessary, why evil must run rampant, but He also is willing to enter into that suffering and allow that evil to ravage His mind and body as it does ours.

This in and of itself could be enough. That God chose to suffer as we suffered, but I do not see God suffering only during the cross, nor only during His earthly life – I see God suffering today, yesterday, and forever – until evil has been stomped into the ground, never to arise again.

Sometimes I feel despair for those I love. I ask God to heal them, to save them, to help them and they remain in the midst of their suffering. Then the reality comes to me, “I love them more than you do.” I don’t understand why He allows them to suffer – but I know that His heart aches more deeply and thoroughly than mine ever can.

What does all this mean? That God, from the beginning of time till the end, has chosen to suffer. He suffers not only my pain and your pain, but each of the billions of humans on this earth’s pain – and I think, the pain of the animals and of everything that has life and breath.

So What?

This belief allows me to be actively pursuing the good for myself and others. I know that God desires the good for us, yet at the same time I do not feel responsible when I cannot make the good happen. I know that God is in control and that whatever suffering we must face as a result will be suffered with Him. That the tears on my face, on your face  – are matched by the tears of the Father.

I’m Afraid

I’m still afraid at times. I know when the evil comes it throws me against the wall, tears my heart out, rips my intestines and ties them in knots, squeezes my heart till it bleeds, crushes my brain till is splatters. I see others suffering and I am thrown into desperation. I want so badly to make a real difference. I want so badly to help. Yet so often I am incapable. And I always know that as I am in the midst of the ocean my bloody fingers are only holding onto that old wooden cross – the symbol of a God that suffers – with the barest of strength.

Sometimes I lose my grip and begin to drown…and when I am not in that moment, I know, I know, that the Savior will come for me. That He will catch me and bring me back. He loves me more than I love myself. He loves you more than you love yourself.

Notes

Cairn University’s Church Leaders’ Conference.

Overview

Cairn University held its first annual Church Leaders’ Conference today and I attended along with three parishioners – John Broglin, Kevin Miller, and Augusto Fiallo. We left together from CCC at 8:30 am and arrived a few minutes later at Cairn University. The conference was being held in Chatlos Chapel, a few Biblical Learning Center classrooms, and the lobby outside of the chapel.

Synopsis

Morning

Photo of Dr. Kent Hughes from Preach The Word. IMHO, Kent doesn't look like this anymore, he is clean-shaven and his hair is completely grey.
Photo of Dr. Kent Hughes from Preach The Word. IMHO, Kent doesn’t look like this anymore, he is clean-shaven and his hair is completely grey.

It took only a moment or two to register – picking up lanyards with name tags, a Cairn bag with a few items within, and our first book for the day. Then it was over to the continental breakfast spread – donuts, mixed fruits, danishes, banana bread, and so on along with a number of hot and cold beverage options.

I was very satisfied with the breakfast – though I wish we’d been invited into Chatlos Chapel while eating so that we could have sat at the tables they had setup and which we would eat at for lunch.

At 9 am everyone filed into Chatlos Chapel and Benjamin Harding (with accompaniment) led us in musical worship. It was encouraging to stand amongst eighty or so other pastors and lift our voices in union to the Lord.

Jonathan Master briefly introduced our speaker, R. Kent Hughes, a well-known pastor and author, and the main selling point for me in deciding to attend the conference. Hughes gave an hour long sermon focusing on 2 Corinthians and discussing the nature of suffering and its value for exemplifying Christ in the midst of suffering.

We took a brief break from 10:30 am – 10:45 am and then chose to attend one of several parallel sessions. The options were “Given Over to Death for Jesus’ Sake: Ministry in the Midst of Physical Suffering” by Pastor Matt Ristuccia, “Christ’s Model for Handling Destructive Criticism” by Pastor John Stange, and “The Necessity of Godly Sincerity” by Dr. Jonathan Master. I attended Ristuccia’s session and was blessed to discuss how we can continue to exemplify Christ even in the midst of significant health problems – seeing I have my fair share. John attended Master’s session and reported back positively, Kevin and Augusto attended Stange’s session and also had positive things to say. So, all three sessions seemed to be of high quality.

Afternoon

Now it was time for lunch. This lasted from 12 pm till 12:50 pm. It consisted primarily of sandwiches (tuna fish, chicken), I think some salad (I didn’t have any), maybe some mixed fruits (I think I ate some…), and some dessert pieces (brownies, chocolate chip, peanut butter, and oatmeal cookies). Once again, a satisfying meal and a good time for us to catch up with one another on how the sessions had progressed.

At 1 pm Hughes began the section half of his message which lasted until 2:30 pm and focused on his personal spiritual biography and some of the lessons he had learned in the midst of it. For some reason, throughout the day I was feeling particularly fatigued, so I may have missed some points, but here are a few highlights from Hughes’ second half that I found either insightful or humorous.

  • “She may be wrong but she is never in doubt.” (speaking of his wife, who had played a significant role in encouraging him to continue in the ministry at a difficult time, and with the assurance to us that his wife was “okay” with him saying this)
  • “God is a servant.” (urging us to contemplate how God’s decision to be a servant affects the way we think, live, and minister)
  • “Success is serving with a foot-washing heart.” (no commentary needed)
  • “I don’t know what the heart of a bad man is like, but I know what the heart of a good man is like and its terrible.” (quoting, I think, Ivan Turgenev)
  • “You can do more after you pray, but you cannot do anything until you pray.” (quoting John Bunyan)
  • “At this moment God…loses all reality…  Satan does not fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God.” (quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
  • “There is no success apart from holiness.” (emphasizing that numbers and other achievements in a ministerial context are worthless apart from personal holiness)
  • “This is not the overstated professionalism of the three-piece suit and the power offices of the upper floors, but the understated professionalism of torn blue jeans and the savvy inner ring. This professionalism is not learned in pursuing an MBA, but by being in the know about the ever-changing entertainment and media world. This is the professionalization of ambience, and tone, and idiom, and timing, and banter. It is more intuitive and less taught. More style and less technique. More feel and less force.” (quoting John Piper, explaining that the churches of the past with their CEO style and marketing techniques are bygone, but that the new / emerging church has its own professionalism to beware of…to not mistake for authenticity and truth and holiness)
  • Hughes suggested that this new type of church might be described as a mixture of “Bonhoeffer, Bono, and Mother Teresa.” Both of these statements were very thought provoking for me.
  • “Success is weakness.” (as we rely on Christ, as we live in Christ, we succeed – faithfulness is our call, not to determine the results)

I enjoyed the second session (above) better than the first session, and probably the highlight was at the end when Hughes opened it up for QA.

At 3 pm the conference was over and we headed out. I was well-satisfied. It had cost me $25, but I’d received two good meals, heard several hours of encouraging teaching, been amongst ministry peers, and received a nifty number of items to boot, the most important being Preach the Word (edited by Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson), Preaching the Word: 2 Corinthians Power in Weakness by R. Kent Hughes (a commentary), and Kent and Barbara Hughes’ Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. All look like fascinating reads and probably are worth more than the cost of the conference. Smaller items included the Cairn bag and a Cairn coffee mug.

Overall

This was a good conference, especially for a first conference. I plan on returning next year and applaud Cairn’s endeavors to reach out to pastors. I also appreciated the gentle way in which Cairn promoted itself. Literature was available on the table, information about the graduate degree program (including auditing free courses) was included in the goody bag, and Todd Williams made a very brief appearance to discuss the University and its desire to interact with pastors. This was all good – it felt like Cairn genuinely was interested in us as pastors and not simply in using us to garner additional students.

Recommendations for Improvement

Still, everything can get better, so I will make a few small suggestions regarding what I’d personally like to see regarding future instances of the conference:

  1. While the title of the conference was “Church Leaders’ Conference” I felt a bit like it was really a “Pastor’s Conference.” I think anyone could benefit from the material and the presentations, but that it was focused particularly on pastors. That is fine, but I’d encourage more specific naming if that is the direction Cairn is heading, or more diversified material if it wants to attract other church leaders (e.g. elders and various other volunteer leaders).
    1. I’d also like to see a much larger representation from the female gender if it remains a “Church Leaders’ Conference” – I believe only two women were in attendance. This is another area where clarification of the desired constituency of the conference would be desirable – for example, if it is a “church leaders” conference I’d want to bring my nursery directory, children’s ministry director, secretarial volunteers, and so on – all of which are staffed by women.
  2. I’d like to see breakfast moved into Chatlos Chapel just like lunch was, giving us the opportunity to sit while eating.
  3. I’d love to see some vendors there and have some time to walk through displays, etc. from various vendors that have products and services that would help the church – whether this be a bookseller, custom printer, counseling outsourcing, church management software, or so on. Of course, most likely, the biggest section would be books…and from my personal experience, most pastors LOVE books.
  4. I’d love to see some activities or other methods for encouraging the pastors to interact with one another more and to learn more about one another’s ministries. Understanding the challenges and successes of other ministers can be a great encouragement. Perhaps a “forum” of sorts in which individuals could share very briefly (5 mins.) their experiences to provide a very “quick-fire” approach to allowing a number of folks to share.
    1. The topics which are most common or which attract the most interest might make for good sessions for the next year’s conference.
  5. I’d recommend not having one speaker for 2.5 hours, but instead have another breakout session with various options – perhaps including a session by the main speaker. The main speaker could then close up the entire day with perhaps a 30 min. conclusion. I wouldn’t want to be speaking for 2.5 hrs!

Be Jealous!

I’m exceptionally excited about two of the books I received. First there is Preach the Word which contains essays by Paul House, Leland Ryken, Wayne Grudem, John MacArthur, Duane Litfin, J.I. Packer, D.A. Carson, and Philip Ryken – to name just those I am familiar with.

The second is Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome – something which I think is so important for every minister of the gospel and for the entire church congregation to understand and apply.