Friday, March 21, 2008

The Violent Strand of the Old Testament and Our Picture of God

Hello fellow brave inquirers who aren't afraid of dealing with difficult issues head-on:

We’re trying to make sense of the violent strand of the Old Testament in which God is depicted as a warrior -- commanding the genocide of the Canaanites for example -- and in which barbaric violence is sometimes celebrated, as when David rejoices over Babylonian babies having their heads smashed against rocks (see the previous two postings). I’ll soon start discussing a number of proposals to address this issue, but first I want to get clear on what is and is not at stake in resolving this issue.

In my last post I argued that our faith in Christ should not be at stake in resolving this issue. Even if we feel forced to conclude that the violent strand in the Old Testament isn't divinely inspired, this shouldn’t affect our faith in Christ. It would certainly create a host of theological problems, but it shouldn't lessen in the least our confidence that Jesus is the Son of God. In this post I want to go further and argue that nothing about our fundamental picture of God should be at stake in resolving this issue. Even if we conclude that the violent strand of the Old Testament is as much a part of God’s inspired Word as every other part, this should not affect in the least how we view God.

The reason is that the New Testament presents Jesus as the final, definitive, perfect revelation of God. This is what is meant when John calls Jesus the “Word” (logos) of God. When God speaks or thinks, John is saying, it looks like Jesus (Jn 1:1). So too, Paul calls Jesus the “form” of God and the “image” of God, which means that the infinite God has made himself finite and visible in Jesus (Phil. 2:6; Col.1:15). While no one has seen God as he is in himself, the Gospel of John says, the “one and only Son, who is himself God…has made him known” (Jn 1:18). This is why Jesus responded to Philip's request to see the Father by saying, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9, emphasis added). We behold the glory of God himself in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 3:18-4:6; I Jn 1:1-3) which is why we are always to fix our spiritual eyes on him, and on him alone (Heb 12:2; Col.3:5).

The author of Hebrews sums up the matter nicely when he writes:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Heb 1:1-3).

The author is saying that while God revealed himself in a variety of ways in the past, in these “last days” (meaning simply, in this last epoch of history), God has superseded all these by revealing himself through his own Son. Unlike all previous written and spoken revelations, the Son radiates God’s glory and is “the exact representation of his being.” He is, in fact, the one through whom and for whom everything exists (Col 1:15-17).

In other words, Jesus is the point of everything – including the point of all the previous revelations (see Jn 5:39-40, 46). While others spoke and wrote about God, Jesus is God (I Jn 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13). Indeed, "in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Col. 2:9). Think about this! All (not some) the fullness (not an aspect) of the Deity (God himself-- not a lesser being) lives in bodily form (in the incarnate Son of God).

The unmistakable message these various authors are hammering home is that, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus Christ. Jesus isn't merely part of God’s revelation, as though it’s ever appropriate to line him up alongside of the Old Testament and/or our life experiences as a supplemental or competing source of revelation. No, Jesus is himself the definitive, unsurpassable revelation of God. All we need to know and can know about God is found in him. Jesus is not a way to God or a truth about God: he is the way and the truth – which is why he’s the only way to go to the Father (Jn 14:6). Jesus is not a Word, an image or a form of God. He is the Word, the image and the form of God. Now that God is revealed in Christ, there are no competing or supplemental revelations.

Now, if Jesus is in fact "the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being," and if in fact we see the Father when we see Jesus, we have to wonder why God doesn’t look like Jesus in the violent strand of the Old Testament. We’ll deal with this soon. But my point right now is that, even if we fail miserably at resolving this issue, it would constitute a denial of the New Testament's understanding of faith in Christ to allow this violent strand to in any way qualify the picture of God given to us in Christ. We would be placing the violent strand of the Old Testament alongside Jesus -- as though it stood on equal footing with Jesus -- which is the very thing Jesus and the New Testament explicitly forbid. There's only one "exact representation of [God's] being" -- and it's Jesus.

Of course, one might legitimately argue that this stance forces those of us who affirm that the violent strand of the Old Testament is divinely inspired into a contradiction. We say that the violent strand of the Old Testament is divinely inspired but we deny that it reveals what God is truly like. Perhaps this is a contradiction, perhaps not. But even if we completely fail at explaining away this apparent contradiction, it's far better to live with an apparent contradiction than it is to compromise our faith that God looks like Jesus -- period.

So, whatever else is at stake in the issue of explaining the violent strand of the Old Testament, our picture of God should not be. Fix your spiritual eyes on Jesus (2 Cor. 3:17-4:6; Col 3:5; Heb 12:2), not on the warrior God of the Old Testament.