Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The God Battle: O.T. vs. N.T.

Funny thing happened last night... I was with a group of friends outside of Starbucks, and I walked next door to grab a drink about 11:30 pm. When I came out, they had all left! Can you beleve that? They all left! What a bunch of maroons.

So instead of bringing up rousing philosophical and theological topics in person, I shall do it the old-fashioned way -- by blogging.

One of the more common discussions I have with Biblically-educated non-Christians (i.e., people who are fairly well versed on the Bible but who just don't buy into it) is the topic of the Old Testament God versus the New Testament God. They talk about how the God of the OT is a wrathful God who seems to fit the profile of a mass murderer, killing women and children and doing a lot of stuff as an Angry Powerful Being. Yet, they say, we want to reconcile that with a New Testament God -- a God of love and peace and hugs and happy trees. Is our God distant and wrathful, or near and loving?

One of the things I usually talk about in these instances is Jesus, his death on the cross, and the temple veil tearing in two. Giving us access into the Holy of Holies, God's presence. To me, it's the perfect symbol of how our relationship with God "changed."

Yet we say that God doesn't change. He is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. Joe talked quite a bit in the comments on the tithing post about how God changeth not:

    Why would he require us to be people of faith for a millennium, then cold legalists for a couple of millennia, and then people of love thenceforth? Do we have a better covenant because we got a better God? Did the Son overthrow the Father? Did Paul overthrow Jesus?
Good questions, all. In my mind, if I keep things simple, I can understand. Yet the hard truth of God's wrath is shown time and time again in the Old Testament. Do we see that today? Did God just stop killing people for either sin or because they were in the way of his chosen people?

It seems as if we've got a couple of choices. Either,
  • God still does many of those things -- He shows wrath through disease, weather ("acts of God") and war. To be honest, my 21st century, peace-loving mind doesn't much like this idea.
  • Or, he doesn't do those things any more, or at least not to that extent, and he somehow has changed. Maybe we don't call it "change." Maybe it's his evolving nature, or an adjustement to his relationship with his creation.

I agree that "God changeth not," but the fact remains that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection was a major turning point in how God interacts with his creation. If we go by what most of our churches teach -- and most of them teach the New Testament 90% of the time with a few select Old Testament verses thrown in only to back up a specific topic -- then God doesn't seem to require as much of us as he did of the Jews 5000 years ago.

I ask these questions for the sake of discussion. It's difficult to know how to respond when people ask me about "the two Gods," especially because they aren't really ASKING, they are ACCUSING the God I serve of being the architect of genocide in many cases. We don't like to think too much about death and killing -- Christians generally pride themselves on valuing life, after all.

How do we reconcile many of the actions of God in the Old Testament with how we portray God now? And how do we respond when people charge God with mass murder?


Joe B said...

So, how about you think of a HARD question next time!

Joe B said...

I'm gonna try to be real brief from now on, but that means I cannot cover my backside in detail, so be patient with me.

Just a point to consider: whether today or in days of yore, God kills everybody. There are no survivors. Every one of my days is numbered in his Outlook calendar, and he knows exactly when he pulls the plug on me.

If we accept that then death is a constant. I think most people uneasily accept that fact. The variables are WHEN and HOW God kills us.

So, if God chooses to kill me in a Tsunami today, of have me dragged from my bed and cut to peices in the street tomorrow (a la Israel of yore), or lets me die in my at age 88 gasping and wheezing, what is the difference? There IS a difference, but it is strictly perceptual.

So then, God may do "rhetorical killing", ending lives in a manner that communicates a truth. He whacked the Christians Ananias & Saphira in the New Testament, he whacked pharoah's army in the Old Testament. He "killed" Stephen at the hands of Saul/Paul. He killed Jesus at the hands of his countrymen.

Everybody dies, so everybody "breaks even" in the flesh. Every death always means something, but since EVERYbody dies differently, it doesn't always mean the same thing.

Rhetorical killing, I call it. May MY death be rhetorical, but in a good way!

(Okay, guys, beat me senseless!)

scott said...

The "God kills everyone" mantra is a good point, and a logical one. Doesn't exactly play to our feel-good emotions, but hey, it's true nonetheless.

But the WHEN and HOW are still vitally important to our frail minds and bodies. And emotions, of course. That perceptual difference is a huge difference to people.

This "rhetorical killing"... does it still happen today? Are things different, or not? Is the only difference that it's not recorded in the Bible today?

If everyone "breaks even" in the flesh, why did God choose to utilize his "rhetorical killings" seemingly moreso than he does today?

Joe B said...

It didn't really happen that much.

The biggie of course was Noah's flood. Jesus seemed open to having another judgement on that scale. The next was the conquest of Canaan when Joshua led Israel into their land. Bloody mess.

Beyond that it is just the rising and falling of nations in pretty standard form. I do not think it is necessarily an OT vs NT thing.

Is it? i mean, does it necessarily have to do with OT vs NT? Isn't it just God being the king of the world? Don't we see jesus on the horse in a robe drenched in blood?

He's the man. He's very vertsatile.

Joe B said...

Okay, it's important to us when and how we die. But it's one of those things that we just have to succumb to the soveriegnty of God. Each day we live is his, if we like him or not.

Joe B said...

Okay, it's important to us when and how we die. But it's one of those things that we just have to succumb to the soveriegnty of God. Each day we live is his, if we like him or not.

scott said...

I realize when I look at God's plan, and the whole "narrative theology" approach, that the OT and NT aren't meant to be looked at as entirely separate entities. I think I've learned a lot about that in the last 4-5 years. I guess I'm posing these questions as a devil's advocate type of thing -- these are the questions that I hear, the questions that people are thinking.

Perhaps I'm also using OT/NT when maybe I should be saying "pre-Jesus' earthly incarnation" and "post-Jesus' earthly incarnation." But then, maybe it shouldn't make a difference. God is still God. Maybe his wrath has been evident, we just haven't always *known* it was his wrath, because nothing has been recorded in the Bible in the last 1900 years.

Plus, maybe some of our churches do too much to tone down the wrath of God! It's not exactly seeker-sensitive.

Joe B said...

Let me chill your spine a little bit by wondering whether we separate the OT and the NT so because perhaps we have come to see God as a Book. Rather than as...God?

"So he was one book, now he's another book. Wow, what a relief. Good thing he lives under my arm now and says whatever I tell him to."

Anonymous said...

I used to promote a covenant approach that is for sure but I have changed on that due to the fact that God does not. I think there is a difference between killing and murder. Killing is what i would consider justified and murder is not justified. I find it interesting that God sees all of time at once and this has to play into his intervention at certain times in order to bring about the cross - (just thinking out loud in a way) - the OT is about Jesus and the NT is about Jesus therefore all things done by God, even if our perception is otherwise, is to bring about the cross and the end. I know that this doesn't answer the perception that people have of God but I guess that is why it is so vital that they hear that God loves them and we show them that we do too. Seems like a simplistic answer but I don't know if there are many people who stay away from Christ because of intellectual questions like these or these questions illustrate their frustration with mean-spirited Christians.

Anonymous said...

sorry my thoughts were so random - its late and i'm tired - you guys know the drill

Joe B said...

Yeah, they were random. But there were some great nuggets of thought in there. One is the people must hear and see the love of God thru the ekklesia, because it puts in context all the rising and falling and living and dying. Yeah.

In fact doesn't the bible say straight up that it is God's intention to demonstrate his grace and mercy throught the church?

Good words, D

Bethany said...

Don't know if I'm supposed to comment on this blog anymore, but the only explanation I've heard that can settle this subject in my mind is the one by Brian McLaren. Maybe he's wrong, but I get a little more sleep at night.

He said in A Generous Orthodoxy "if God is going to enter into a relationship with people, then God has to work with them as they are in their individual and cultural moral development. And back in those days, that meant that any group of people, if they were to survive, had to fight." (186)

desperate times call for desperate measures - sort of. God is unchanging, but he works with our condition. Israel would have been wiped out in a second if they had not fought.

Joe B said...

of course you're supposed to post, Bethy. you raise our collective IQ by about 20%.

The McLaren idea is common, and I think it does explain a bit of something. BUT!

The whole thing about grace, faith, the cross, etc is all about triumphing in our vulnerability. Polar opposite of triumphing thru strength/power. So the question remains, has God changed?

This problem of scripture (no, I do not mean error) forces one potential question about the nature of the Word as revealed in the scripture (yes, that phrase alone would trouble many people.) That question is, "is there a human-perspective element in the telling of God's story, a perspective that has evolved thru history according to God's influence?"

As you see, conservatives must go right at this point while liberals are free to go left.

Thomas Cahill's great book "The gifts of the Jews" takes this perspective, and credits the inspiration of God thru the Jews and his people for the framing of all we think of as good on earth today, with Jesus as the moral pinnacle of history.

Conservatives love to hate such talk, but it fills in a blank square with a wonderful, vivid picture.

Joe B said...

No more Brian McLaren, Bethany. Ever. Unless you read "Everything Must Change" or "The secret Message of Jesus."


Bethany said...

ok, I think I just lowered the IQ again because I read your comment like 7 times and I still don't really get what you're saying. heh.

God doesn't change, only our perspective does? How does that make more sense than God working with us differently at different times? God working with us as we are in our current situation explains a lot more than simply OUR perspective changing. Changing perspectives does not alter history or events. God ordered the Israelites to wipe out entire cities - why? To survive, or do we just not understand from our perspective?

What would "going right at this point" and "going left" look like?

The Secret Message of Jesus, eh? Is that where the heresy's at? I'm know people are mad at McLaren, but I read Generous Orthodoxy and couldn't figure out why. I agreed for the most part.

Joe B said...

Yeah, up goes the IQ again. That 4th paragraph makes sense only to the guy who wrote it. Let me try again...

A liberal could approach this interpretive dilemma by attributing the mutabilty and savagery apparent in the scripture to the humans who wrote it. He would thus defend the character of God, but at the expense of the doctrine of verbal inspiration of scripture.

A conservative would defend verbal inspiration foremost, then try to defend God's apparently contradictory actions. In effect he must reframe the question in such a way that God's action in the Canaan genocide, for instance, becomes somehow congruent with his character as it is revealed in Christ Jesus.

That's a tremendously hard task! I approach it above (Nov 21) by asserting a higher perspective of death, and a fuller picture of Jesus Christ as both redeemer and avenger. (In Canaan we see God acting as both: Toward Israel demonstrating redemption, and toward the Canaanites, vengeance.)

One could just sidestep the whole affair by saying it is a question that one should not ask at all. I seldom take that route, but this is a question that makes it look very appealing!

Joe B said...

McLaren is offensive not because he tells a different story, but because he tells the story differently. Without the hard edges and Shibboleths of evangelical orthodoxy.

I thought that The Secret Message of Jesus was the book that really laid out McLaren clearly. It is squishy. It is brilliant.

Scott McKnight (www.jesuscreed.org)says that the just printed Everything Must Change is the definitive McLaren manifesto. Amazon just dropped it on my porch this morning!

Bethany said...

ok, I see. Thanks for explaining. I'm wary of the "higher perspective of death" though.

dang, my Amazon wish list keeps getting longer...

scott said...

I understand and relate to what Bethany (and Brian McLaren) are saying -- regardless of whether we call it "change," God relates to us through our current culture. Things are 180 degrees different now than they were 4000 years ago. Perhaps he works differently because we ARE different. I don't know. Joe would probably argue with that.

To tell you the truth, I think I'd love to spend some time in a group (Starbucks, anyone?) going through the story of the Jews and how God "related" to them through time. Might be good to brush up on some OT books that get swept to the side all too often.

Or I could just keep adding to the list of books OTHER than the Bible that I need to read, when I don't spend enough time in that book as it is.

Joe B said...

Wow, I must be an Internet ogre!

I do agree that people are somewhat different over the passage of time, but essentially the same. Like if people were closets, we'd remain the same size and shape, and keep the same door. But our shelving and contents changes radically thru the ages.

You know, it might be interesting to do just what you said. It wouldn't be complicated to parse the OT into historic segments and ask the questions "how is God communicating with his people?" and "what do God's actions teach us about his nature?"

Joe B said...

Bethany said: "God is unchanging, but he works with our condition."

It just struck me that even the early church fathers made this same explanation. (I don't remember which ones, I'm not that well read.)

They thought in these terms a great deal, integrating OT, NT, and church experience in very elaborate webs of meaning. They were forced to think about these same problems.

John MacArthur and Kay Arthur and Arthur Pink would all have hated patristic bibliology!