Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Revealing the Horror of War: Review of Craigie, Part II.

Hello Blogging Friends,

I’m in the process of critically reviewing various perspectives on the problem of violence in the Old Testament. My goal is to extract principles along the way to hopefully arrive at a comprehensive explanation for why the warrior portrait of God in the Old Testament seems so radically different from the God revealed in the crucified messiah. I've appreciated all the feedback I've gotten on the posts thus far.

In my previous post I began reviewing Craigie’s book The Problem of War in the Old Testament. We saw that Craigie holds that the metaphor of God as a warrior reveals that God is not above getting involved in sinful human activity -- even activity as sinful as war. As much as God hates war, he is willing to use it for his own purposes. God’s involvement in war reveals his remarkable willingness to accommodate and utilize human sin, but it reveals nothing about God’s true moral character, according to Craigie. To discover this, we must look above all to Jesus Christ.

So, what are the purposes for which God involves himself in war, according to Craigie? This is the question that this and the next post will address.

War is Hell
According to Craigie, one of purposes Yahweh had in getting involved in war was to expose its true, horrifying character. Craigie discusses the views of the famous Prussian soldier and philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). In his book On War, Clausewitz argues that the main objective for any nation going to war is to utterly demolish the will and ability of their opponent to ever rise up against the nation again (Craigie, 47). He held that “to introduce into the philosophy of war itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity” (Clausewitz, On War, Penguin edition, 1968 [1832], 102). The only type of war that makes any sense, according to Clausewitz, is one that is willing to do whatever is necessary to permanently vanquish the enemy.

In this light, Craigie criticizes Just War theory which attempts to spell out the conditions under which war can be justly entered into and fought. Following Clausewitz, Craigie holds that the idea that war can be moderated in a just manner is “unrealistic,” for the truth is that war is “essentially lawlessness” (53). As General Sherman so eloquently put it, “war is hell.” It’s not a “game played by rules," Craigie says. Only after a war has ended do we pretend that there were rules people were supposed to abide by. In this way the victors (and only the victors!) can “indict the loser for ‘war crimes’” (53).

Craigie interprets the several divine commands given to Joshua and others to slaughter all the Canannites (e.g. Deut 2, 7; Josh. 6) to be a “massive and solemn warning” about the true, hellish nature of war. They reveal that, as much as we might try to sanitize war with our unrealistic theories, there are, in truth, “no half-measures in war” (53). The macabre warfare narratives of the Old Testament “destroy any illusions we may have about war being 'not all that bad,' a kind of sport played by gentlemen.” (As I mentioned in the previous post, this is why Craigie refuses to follow the tradition of calling these “holy wars”). These narratives, Craigie argues, are “a safer guide to the reality of war than are the various formulations of the “Just War” theory that have emerged in the history of Christianity” (53).

Any person who is committed to taking all their cues about what God is like and about how humans are to live from Jesus Christ must be completely revolted by the Old Testament narratives in which Yahweh commands the extermination of the Canaanite people. If Craigie is right, this is precisely the point of these passages!

I’ll say two things in response to this aspect of Craigie’s book.

First, I believe Craigie is largely correct in his critique of Just War theory. There is something profoundly “unrealistic” (and, arguably, “evil”) in the common assumption that declaring a war “just” lessens its horror in any way. Among a multitude of other problems, there is no objective, universally agreed upon criteria for what constitutes a “just war” or of what constitutes “just behavior” of soldiers while battling in war. The concept of “justice” that a nation or tribe uses in their Just War theorizing is largely, if not entirely, culturally conditioned. Not only this, but the concept of justice as applied to war is always employed to protect and further the interests of the nation or tribe that is doing the theorizing. Not surprisingly, every nation or tribe that has ever gone to war has felt justified doing so. After all, who would kill and be willing to be killed unless they felt their cause was justified?

While believing one is justified in going to war may ease the conscience of leaders and warriors in killing other humans and may help motivate warriors to kill more valiantly, we have to free ourselves from the illusion that this belief lessons the horror of our killing. This illusion that our killing is "not all that bad" because it's "justified" keeps us from being as revolted by war, and thus as passionately opposed to war, as we’d otherwise be. In this way, just war theorizing -- which is intended to minimize war -- actually contributes to the perpetuation of war! (I offer further criticisms of Just War theory from a Christian perspective in my book, The Myth of the Christian Nation, chapter 9).

Not only this, but as Craigie argues, we have to free ourselves from the illusion that the realities of war actually conform to the rules of decency our Just War theorizing stipulates soldiers should abide by. Now, I seriously doubt Craigie is suggesting that wartime rules of conduct are useless or that prosecuting people for war crimes when these rules are violated is always hypocritical (though I may be wrong about this). For my part, I think it's good that soldiers are trained – and forced, if need be – to act as decently as possible while engaging in battle. But Craigie’s main point remains a good one. We mustn’t allow the existence of our Just War rules to conceal the "essential lawlessness" of war. War is hell, and we need to see it as such.

Craigie’s point is that, if the "Yahweh wars" (not "holy wars") in the Old Testament don’t conform to our Just War theorizing – and they certainly don’t -- maybe we’re starting to get the point of these Old Testament wars. Pull back the veneer of civilized decency of our Just War theorizing and one discovers that the heart of war is hell.

Second, in contending that the point of the passages in which Yahweh commands wholesale slaughter is to reveal the hellishness of war, Craigie is, I believe, onto something profoundly important. Unfortunately, he falls far short of making his case in his book. Indeed, Craigie spends remarkably little time developing and defending his thesis. The point needs much more developing and defending, however, since it's certainly not obvious from the passages themselves that this was one of the reasons Yahweh was willing to engage in Israel's warfare.

Craigie’s thesis only becomes plausible when we adequately understand and appreciate two other important biblical truths.

1) There is an ever-intensifying theme in the Old Testament itself that Yahweh is not a God of war but is rather a God of peace whose vision for the world is one that is completely free of violence (e.g. Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3). Only when we appreciate the full force of the Old Testament revelation that God loves peace do we begin to appreciate the truth that God absolutely and unequivocally hates war – which in turn leads us to suspect that God is using something like reverse psychology in the war narratives of the Old Testament. Craige deals with the strong peace tradition in the Old Testament (ch. 8), but unfortunately doesn’t use this material to substantiate his claim that God is exposing the true horrors of war in the process of participating in it.

2) Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God, superseding all previous revelations (Heb. 1:1-3). With his radical teachings about unconditional love for enemies and unconditional refusal to engage in violence, Jesus brings to a pinnacle the unfolding peace tradition of the Old Testament while further confirming that this tradition (not the war tradition) expresses the true heart of God. This beautiful revelation of God’s heart in Christ contrasts with the grotesque divine commands to slaughter people in the strongest possible way. And it’s from this perspective (but only from this perspective) that we begin to suspect that perhaps Craigie is right: given the revelation of God in Christ, Yahweh's willingness to participate in the sinful debacle of war couldn't have been to in any sense condone war. To the contrary, it must have been to expose how horrifying war really is and to thereby reveal why it is so contrary to his will.
Unfortunately, and surprisingly, Craigie never fleshes out the way in which the revelation of God in Christ contrasts with the war material of the Old Testament. In my opinion, the plausibility of his insightful thesis suffers accordingly.

Yet, there is a second purpose that Yahweh had for involving himself in the sinfulness of war, according to Craigie. This is the most important, and I believe most insightful, point of his book. We'll discuss this point in the next post.

Until then,
stay centered in his peace.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Speaking of Faith

The discussion with Greg, Shane Claiborne and Chuck Colson can be found here.

We encourage you to listen to the unedited version.

Posted by your friendly Admins. ;-)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Craigie: The Problem of War in the Old Testament, Part I

Hi folks.

Today I’m returning back to my “thinking out loud” about the problem of violence in the Old Testament. My posts on Vernon Eller's War and Peace From Genesis to Revelation produced some interesting reactions in readers. On the one hand, I received a number of e-mails from people who were quite relieved to find that I ended up rejecting Eller's view that the divinely commanded violence of the Old Testament should be understood to be merely part of its cultural packaging. I apparently had them worried. Others, however, were disappointed (and several even angered) that I ended up rejecting Eller's thesis. I want to reassure these latter folks that I fully understand where they were coming from. I would love to embrace Eller's perspective. But, at least at this point in my life, I honesty just can’t reconcile it with my submission to Jesus as Lord.

In the next few posts I want to assess Peter Craigie’s views expressed in a small but insightful book entitled The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Wipf and Stock, 2002 [orig. 1978]). (All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in The Problem of War).

To begin, Peter Craigie doesn't pull any punches in laying out the problem of war in the Old Testament. When we read of God commanding the literal slaughter of men and women, young and old, it is (and should be) disturbing (10). This material poses three distinct sets of problems, according to Craigie.

First, it creates a theological problem, for the portrait of “God as Warrior” seems incompatible with “the New Testament description of God as loving and self-giving” (11.) Second, it creates a problem of revelation, for we have to wonder how a book so filled with ruthless violence can be considered God’s word (11). Third, the war material in the Old Testament creates an ethical problem, for, in contradiction to the New Testament, this material has often been used to justify killing – and in God’s name. (11-12).

This last problem is particularly challenging, since throughout Church history “the opposition to war has been proclaimed by lonely voices” (15). Indeed, Craigie briefly traces the influence of the war tradition of the Old Testament throughout history and shows how it influenced the violent tendencies in Islam as well as in Church history (chapter II). Starting with Augustine’s appeal to political authorities to punish heretics and extending through the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation, the Conquistadors, and even going up through the American civil war, Christians have relied on the Old Testament war traditions to justify Christians butchering enemies rather than serving them, as Jesus taught (27-29). Indeed, many still skip right past Jesus and appeal to the Old Testament violence to justify Christians participating in war or using violence for other reasons.

Craigie acknowledges that one might be tempted to simply dismiss all the war material in the Old Testament as a residue of the barbaric cultural packaging revelation had to come in (34-35). (This is basically the avenue Eller and many others take). But Craigie argues we have to be very hesitant to do this. For one thing, the warfare material is central to the Old Testament (36-37). Rejecting this would require dismissing a good deal of the Bible! Even more importantly, Jesus and the first Christians regarded the whole Old Testament as God’s Word (12, 35, 37-38). For Craigie, therefore, dismissing this material is simply not a viable option for Jesus' followers (38). At the same time, given the significant problems this material poses for theology, revelation and ethics, we have to study it very carefully to make sure we are not misunderstanding and misapplying it. (32).

Craigie’s small book contains a number of insights that I believe can help us begin to reconcile the "God as warrior" motif of the Old Testment with the self-sacrificial God revealed in Jesus Christ. In this post I’ll discuss the first of these insights, to be followed by several others in subsequent posts.

God is Not Above Participating in Sinful Human Activity

Craigie notes that the Hebrews always believed that God is present in, and revealed through, the events of human history. Though they knew God was transcendent, they also were convinced that “the living experience of the immanent God is to be found within the fabric of human history”(39). “[T]he self-revelation of God was not to be seen primarily in miraculous events,” Craigie argues, “but simply in his working through the human activities of his chosen people”(40). The people God works in and through, however, are always fallen, sinful people (41). This insight “provides a clue to understanding the conception of God as Warrior” (39).

War is the quintessential expression of this sinfulness (41). When Old Testament authors describe God as a warrior, therefore, they are simply acknowledging that God is willing to stoop even this low. “Words such as ‘warrior’…point to the [violent] realities of human existence.” When the words are metaphorically applied to God, Craigie argues, “they point to his involvement in that [violent] existence and history” (95). To call God a warrior, therefore, is to say that God is willing to fight “through the fighting of his people” (40). God is not above using sinful people and even a quintessential sinful human activity to achieve his own purposes (41, 96). To call God a "warrior" is to say that “God participates actively in the human institution of warfare…” (95).

It’s important to note that God’s willingness to participate in the sinfulness of war “does not primarily afford us a glimpse of his moral being,” according to Craigie. It rather “demonstrates his will and activity” (42, cf. 96). In other words, it tells us nothing about who God really is, except that he is willing to compromise his ideals and get his hands messy by entering into and working through the violence in the human heart and human society (43).

Craigie argues that, given how intrinsic violence is to human society, it would be impossible for God to reign as king over the world unless he had “some kind of relationship to war” (43). If “the prerequisite for divine action were sinless men and sinless societies,” then, Craigie argues, "God could not act through human beings and human institutions at all” (96). More specifically, Craigie agrees with Jacques Ellul (referring to Ellul's masterful work Political Illusion and Violence: Reflections From a Christian Perspective) that violence is intrinsic to the establishing and preservation of states and nations (69- 74). If God was going to try to establish his kingdom through the nation of Israel, therefore, it had to involve violence. (This is a point that we’ll see becomes extremely important later on).

The bottom line is that that Old Testament war tradition teaches us that God is willing to compromise his ideals to work in and through the violent, fallen world. So, even in something as diabolically horrendous as war, God is present. He is at work to use this violence both to judge human fallenness and move the world forward toward his redemptive purposes (95). God’s presence in such a diabolic situation does not justify it or make it holy (unlike most Old Testament scholars, Craige refuses to speak of a “Holy War” tradition, for he argues war is always sinful, even when commanded by God.). But God's presence in war should provide us “hope in a situation of hopelessness" (43).


One of the most fascinating aspects of God as revealed throughout the Bible is his willingness to compromise. Though he is an all-holy God, throughout the Biblical narrative we find God making concessions to accommodate humans in their sinful situations.

For example, when God’s ideal for monogamy was no longer feasible for the Israelites because women and children were being left without a provider and protection (due to men being killed in war), God compromised his ideal and allowed for polygamy and even concubines. So too, because of the hardness of the human heart, as Jesus said, God compromised his ideal and allowed for divorce. And, most incredibly, when humanity was desperately enslaved to sin and the devil, the all-holy God accommodated humans by becoming one of them, taking on all the sin of the world and letting himself be ravaged by the devil. "God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us" (2 Cor. 5:21). This is not a God who's afraid of getting dirty!

According to Craigie, something like this must be said about God’s involvement in war in the Old Testament. It reveals that the all-holy God of perfect love is not above getting his hands (and reputation) dirty by working in and through the quintessential expression of human sinfulness – the institution of war. God of course could have instead decided that he is too holy to be involved in such disgusting activity. But the God revealed in Jesus Christ and anticipated in the Old Testament is not that kind of God. His holiness doesn't exclude being related to sinful humans. Rather, his holiness is his unique love for sinful humans and willingness to be involved in -- and even tainted by -- sinful humans. This is why the holiness of Jesus attracted sinners (while the false holiness of the Pharisees repelled them). As the incarnation reveals, God dives into humanity at its worst and he wisely uses humans at their worst to achieve his sovereign purposes. And humans are never worse than when we are at war, killing other humans. This is the first aspect of what the revelation of "God as Warrior" teaches us.

I think it's interesting to observe how close Craigie is to Eller in his views on God's willingness to compromise. We earlier saw that Eller argued that Joshua and others were right in believing that God wanted them to conquer, but wrong when they thought God was telling them to conquer with violence, for Jesus reveals that God hates violence. Yet, Eller argued that God was not above using the violence of the Hebrews (and other nations) to further his sovereign purposes in the world. As the Bible uniformly testifies, God is willing to use even things that he detests.

This is essentially Craigie’s position, except that Craigie argues that God didn’t wait until Joshua and others started engaging in violence to decide to use it. Rather, God decided to use it ahead of time, and this is why he was willing to stoop so low to the point that he directed them how to use it.

I could make my point this way. Both Eller and Craigie agree that God was willing to use the violence of the cultures of the day to further his purposes because there was no alternative -- given how barbaric the people of this day were. (As we'll see in a later post, things haven't changed in the world [Romans 13:1-7] -- though they definitely have for God's people [Rom. 12:17-21]). Unless God is going to simply override human free will and reduce humans to automatons, then he has to work with us and through us as he finds us. And he finds us to be almost incurably violent. The only difference between Craigie and Eller, then, is that the latter tries to get God a little more “off the hook” by having his sovereign involvement in sinful activity kick in after the killing begins. Craigie, by contrast, simply grants that God knew he’d have to be involved in sinful violent activity from the start, so he went ahead and steered the violence to his sovereign advantage from the start. The difference between the two, we see, is not all that great.

Of course, this leaves unanswered the question of what sovereign purpose God might have had in getting involved in war in the first place. And this brings me to what I regard to be the greatest contribution of Craigie’s book. I’ll discuss it in my next post.

Till then,
Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Eckhart Tolle’s "A New Earth" Book Review

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm going to suspend our discussion of violence in the O.T. for one more post in order to review Eckhart Tolle’s new book, A New Earth. The book has become an overnight sensation thanks largely to Oprah's enthusiastic endorsement. In fact, Oprah is in the process of hosting a 10-week on-line course conducted by Tolle. Over two million students are participating in this! In response to this, there’s been a frenzy of e-mails and video clips being sent out by conservative Christians warning people that Oprah is a false prophet, the heretical pastor of the world's largest mega-church, a leader of a new cult, etc…

Hearing the buzz I decided to pick the book up at the airport and read it on the plane ride out to the conference in California I attended last week. Here’s my review.

Insights in A New Earth
I have to start by saying I found nothing in this book that hasn’t been said many times before by others who espouse various forms of eastern spirituality. More specifically, it struck me that many (if not most) of Tolle’s ideas are simply restatements of ideas espoused by J. Krishnamurti -- though, curiously enough, Tolle never refers to him. At the same time, Tolle is a much better mass communicator than Krishnamurti (or any other promoter of eastern spirituality I've ever read). He has an ability to package esoteric ideas in ways that westerners can easily understand and absorb, and this undoubtedly goes a long way in explaining Tolle's success.

As was true whenever I've read Krishnamurti, I found some aspects of Tolle’s book very helpful. For example, his analysis of the false and futile ways the ego tries to give itself worth is superb. His insights on judgment, the origins of violence and the causes of relational dysfunction were wonderful. His strong emphasis on “living in the present moment” is full of wisdom. And he is brilliant at helping readers identify ways in which they get stuck. I can easily understand why many readers experience “aha” moments as they read this material. Tolle masterfully names issues all of us wrestle with, usually without knowing it. One can't help but feel like Tolle is telling their own story.

But this is also why this book deeply concerns me. For, while Tolle is a master at identifying the universal human problem, the solution he offers to address this problem is, from a Christian perspective, as misguided as any proposed solution could be. I’ll say three things.

Individuality, Relations and Love as Maya

First, Tolle espouses a rather typical eastern metaphysics in which the true "you" is not the "you" that is distinct from other people, but the (alleged) "you" that is one with the universe. To grasp this, imagine waves on an ocean. Your individual ego is one such wave, but the true “you" in the eastern religious worldview is the ocean itself – as it is for me and every other “wave.” The wave -"you" is limited and temporary, but the ocean-"you" is unlimited and eternal. According to Tolle and the eastern worldview in general, every problem we have, individually and as a collective whole, is the result our tendency to identify with, cling to and fight for the limited, transitory wave instead of with the unlimited, eternal ocean.

In fact, for Tolle, as for most who espouse eastern spirituality, our individuality is something of an illusion – Maya, as the Hindus call it (9 -- all page numbers refer to A New Earth). What is ultimately real is our essence, which is the infinite ocean, the“Source” and (yes) “God” (see e.g. 26). If we can remain consciously aware of our essential oneness with all things on a moment-by-moment basis, we will find that the perpetual striving and anxiety that attaches to our individual ego disappears. We will thus be free, fulfilled, peaceful, etc... The three words that are “the secret of all success and happiness” are “One With Life” (115). Instead of living with an ego-centered awareness of how we (as individuals) are distinct from all other things, we must cultivate an ego-free awareness of how we are one with all things on a moment-by-moment basis. And when this happens, there is no longer an awareness of a "we" that is distinct from others at all.

This eastern worldview that Tolle espouses fundamentally contradicts the biblical worldview. It's important we understand why this is so. For Tolle, the world of distinct things and distinct people is only quasi-real. Ultimate reality is one, “formless,” “pure potentiality,” "pure awareness," etc. This means that relationships are only quasi-real, since relationships must take place between distinct persons. And this means that love is only quasi-real, since love is obviously a relationship.

This is why Tolle says that the biblical teaching that “God is love” is “not absolutely correct.” The truth, according to Tolle, is that...

God is the One Life and beyond the countless forms of life. Love implies duality: lover and beloved, subject and object. So love is the recognition of oneness in the world of duality (106).

In other words, since duality is not an ultimate reality, love is not an ultimate reality – which is why God can’t be said to be love. Love is rather a means to an end –the end being the recognition that you and all other people are not really distinct. Love thus helps us transcend the world of duality and enter “the light of consciousness itself.” "To love," Tolle says, "is to recognize yourself in another" (105, emphasis added). For, ultimately, there is no "other" to love. There is only the self.

By contrast – sharp contrast – the biblical worldview affirms that the teaching that "God is love" is not only “absolutely correct” but is the most important and correct truth there is (1 Jn 4:8). In the biblical worldview, God is an eternal, perfect, loving relationship. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is eternal, perfect love shared between a plurality of "persons." Love and plurality are not pen-ultimate realities: they are ultimate reality!

Not only this, but out of perfect love, God created a world filled with ultimately real individuals with the hope that they'd share in and reflect the joy and ecstasy of his eternal, perfect, and ultimately real love. The goal of life, therefore, is not to dissolve all individuality into oneness but to eternally affirm individuality in loving relationship with all other individuals and with God. The goal is not to realize you are God, but to be eternally related to God with a love that participates in the perfect love that God eternally is.

This fundamental difference is clearly manifested in the way Tolle teaches people to "stay awake" and "live in the now," in contrast to the way Christians such as Brother Lawrence (The Practice of the Presence of God) and Frank Laubach have helped people "stay awake." Tolle encourages people to cultivate an on-going awareness of their essential oneness with life. The goal is to transcend the ego and lose any distinct awareness of yourself. By contrast, Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach encourage people to cultivate an on-going awareness of the presence of God and to surrender to this presence on a moment-by-moment basis. Tolle aims at experiencing one's own divine "I AM" on a moment-by-moment basis. Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach aim at experiencing a loving relationship with the I AM on a moment-by-moment basis.

Clearly, Tolle's eastern worldview fundamentally contradicts the most important aspect of the biblical worldview.

Freedom From A Religious Belief System?

Second, there’s a profound inconsistency that pervades Tolle’s book (which, not coincidentally, I've also found in all of Krishnamurti's writings). Both in his book and on the Oprah show, Tolle claims he is not promoting a “belief system” (17). This is why he and Oprah claim his book -- and his course -- is compatible with whatever belief system a person might already have. Whatever you believe, Oprah says, Tolle's technique to become self-aware and live in the moment will make it better -- "like seasoning on a meal," she says. In fact, Tolle claims we are entering a new age in which we will witness the end “not only of all mythologies but also of ideologies and belief systems” (21). For, in keeping with Krishnamurti's life-long teaching, Tolle believes that belief systems are ego-centered interpretations that we impose on reality and that therefore hinder our pure awareness of reality. To the extent that one attains pure awareness in the present moment, one transcends beliefs.

Ironically, every page of Tolle's book contains beliefs -- that is, interpretations of reality. For example, the belief that belief systems are ego-centered interpretations that we impose on reality is a belief. So too, when Tolle announces that the belief that “God is love" is incorrect, he is obviously announcing a particular (mistaken) belief.

Along the same lines, a couple of sentences after prophesying the eventual demise of all belief systems, Tolle announces:

If evil has any reality – and it is relative, not an absolute reality – this is its definition: complete identification with the forms – physical forms, thought forms, emotional forms (22).

Correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems to be a (mistaken) belief about the nature of evil.

In the very next sentence Tolle goes on to explain that the reason identifying with forms is “evil” is because it causes us to forget our “intrinsic oneness with every 'other' as well as with the Source” (22). This is yet another (mistaken) belief.

Several sentences following this, Tolle announces that when Jesus talks about “heaven” he is referring to “the inner realm of consciousness” (23). This is yet another belief -- and one that anyone who understands Jesus' words in their original first century Jewish milieu will easily identify as profoundly mistaken.

So too, when Tolle proclaims that "[a]ll religions are equally false and equally true, depending on how you use them" (he is apparently an expert on all of them) and that anyone who believes "only your religion is the truth" is "using it in the service of the ego" (70-71), he's clearly espousing a religious belief -- and note, one that he clearly believes is the only true one!

Finally, when Tolle repeatedly teaches that one should accept every experience as something that is good for them -- for "life," he claims, is helping their consciousness to evolve (e.g. 41, 57, etc.) -- he's espousing a particular religious that I would suspect parents of kidnapped children as well as the kidnapped children themselves might find disagreeable.

I could go on, but enough has been said to demonstrate that Tolle's claim that he is not promoting a "belief system" is far from true. As a matter of fact, he is promoting a particular religious worldview buttressed by a plethora of religious beliefs. What's particular aggravating is that Tolle never supports these religious beliefs with evidence or argumentation. (How could he? He apparently isn't even aware he's propounding beliefs in the first place!) Tolle just announces these dogmas as though they were self-evident truths. While there are some aspects of this religious belief system that are consistent with Scripture and are even helpful, as I said above, its core is as antithetical to the Christian worldview as any religious belief system could be.

Tolle's Teaching on Jesus and Christianity

Third, the belief system Tolle espouses is at its very worst when he starts talking about Jesus and Christianity. According to Tolle, Jesus, like the Buddha, was an “early flower” in the evolution of human consciousness whose message was misunderstood and distorted (6). For example, Tolle suggests (without proof) that Jesus' message was distorted when people began to worship him as a god (15). If this is a distortion, it happened very early since its clear from the letters of the apostle Paul that Jesus' followers started worshiping him several years after he lived! Where Tolle got his "inside information" about a non-distorted version of Jesus' message that predates this he unfortunately does not tell.

Along the same lines, Tolle claims (incredibly!) that gnosticism and mysticism in the Christian tradition were movements that recovered the original insights of Jesus (16). The fact that all of the New Testament documents are thoroughly Jewish -- not gnostic -- and that we have no evidence of gnostic influenced Christianity until the second century (well after the New Testament documents were written) doesn't seem to concern Tolle.

So too, Tolle claims that when Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he meant to say "[t]he very Being that you are is Truth" (71, emphasis added). He was speaking of the “I AM” that forms “the essence identity of every man and woman, every life-form in fact." This is the same as our “Buddha nature” our “Atman” or “the indwelling God” (71). Good to know.

Not only this, but when Jesus told us to deny ourselves, he meant to say that we were to “[n]egate … the illusion of the self” (79). Similarly, when Jesus referred to “eternal life” he was actually referring to “the dimension of the formless within” you (81). And, most fantastically, when Jesus died on the cross he was giving us “an archetypal image” of how our evolving consciousness is “burning up” our “ego” (102).

A hundred more illustrations of Tolle's remarkable pronouncements about Jesus and Christianity could be given, but I think you get the point. Two things are clear from all of this.

First, Tolle is promoting (without any supporting evidence or argumentation) an assortment of very particular religious beliefs about Jesus and Christianity that he clearly believes are the only true ones-- in sharp contrast to all the wrong beliefs that Christians have embraced throughout history. Now, I honestly would have no problem with any of this if Tolle was simply upfront with what he was doing. If Tolle came clean and admitted, "Folks, I'm trying to sell you a religious belief system that contradicts Christianity in the most profound ways imaginable," I'd applaud his effort and honesty! I'd think his alternative doctrines silly, of course. But I'd respect the candor. Unfortunately, whether by intention or just lack of self-awareness, Tolle is not forthright about the religious beliefs he promotes.

Second, as is clear to anybody with even a cursory understanding of the original context in which Jesus’ lived and even a modicum of information about Church History, Tolle's claims about Jesus and Christianity are demonstrably wrong. Indeed, a little sound exegesis (on the meaning of what Jesus taught) and historical research (on the early church) reveals his claims to be, frankly, comical. The only thing that is perhaps more comical is his apparent lack of awareness that he’s espousing an alternative set of religious dogmas in the first place -- and this from a man whose whole agenda is about becoming self-aware!

I am left, then, with deep concerns about this book and with the fact that Oprah (who explicitly identifies herself as Christian) is so enthusiastically supporting it. Again, I'm not denying there are some very good insights in this book. Nor am I joining the rank of those who are castigating Oprah as the new pastor of a new, heretical, internet "mega-church" or "cult." I believe both Oprah and Tolle mean well and are sincerely trying to help people improve their lives. But I am nonetheless very concerned that the masterful way Tolle identifies and diagnoses the struggles we all wrestle with will make readers more gullible in accepting the strongly anti-Christian religious belief system he's intentionally or unintentionally slipping in the back door.

I would thus encourage anyone who wants to read this book to do so with a very critical eye (c.f. 2 Tim. 4:3-4; 2 Pet. 2:1).

Better yet, if you're interesting in a Christ-centered way of learning how to live "in the present moment" -- and we all should be -- forget about Tolle and read Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach's Practicing His Presence and/or J. De Caussade's The Sacrament of the Present Moment. Yes, live in the now! But do it in loving relationship with God rather than by believing you are God.



Tuesday, April 15, 2008

More on Evolution as Cosmic Warfare

I spend the weekend hanging out with some of my openness friends attending a Science and Openness Theology Conference in southern California. We all presented essays we've been working on since last summer for a book on Science and Openness Theology. After each presentation other Conference participants offered critical feedback.

As I mentioned in my previous post, my essay was entitled Evolution As Cosmic Warfare. Given the incredible stature of Satan in the N.T., I argued, we have grounds for interpreting the massive carnage and waste found in evolution as largely, if not completely, the work of Satan, not God. (I refer to Satan as a shorthand way of referring to Satan, principalities and powers and demons, since I think all play a role in corrupting nature).

A lot of people loved my argument. Others not so much. A few seemed to loath it (especially those most heavily involved in the natural sciences). One line of criticism went something like this. If the evolution-as-cosmic-warfare thesis is right, then the animal kingdom today is the result of the activity of both God and Satan. So a tiger, for example, reflects both the glory of God as well as the malevolent character of Satan. But it's not clear that this "co-designer" model is coherent. Even if it is coherent, how are we to decide which characteristics should be attributed to God and which to Satan? On top of this, one person argued that for my thesis to be regarded as plausible, it was incumbent upon me to offer a compelling scientific account of how Satan corrupted natural processes to produce things like malevolent parasites and carnivorous predators.

I responded by saying I could see no difficulty in admitting dual spiritual influences in the evolutionary process. Consider the glowing bunny that scientists have created by splicing together the DNA of jellyfish and rabbits: It reflects the creative influence of both God and humans. Since we lack specific information about how God and Satan were involved in the evolutionary process , it may be impossible to trace specific characteristics back to their spiritual source -- assuming there is a spiritual source behind a specific characteristic or set of characteristics (often these may be merely the result of natural processes). If we didn't know that rabbits didn't originally glow, for example, we'd have no way of knowing that the glowing rabbit had been tampered with.

Still, I argued, all other things being equal, to the extent that something in nature reflects the character of "a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet 5:8) rather than that of the benevolent Creator, we ought to at least entertain the possibility that this is due to the corrupting influence of Satan.

Turning to the final criticism, it's true that I can't give a scientific account of how cosmic warfare produced malevolent parasites, predators and the like. But this is hardly a strike against my thesis since it applies equally to those theists who deny Satan's involvement in nature. For example, defenders of Intelligent Design who accept evolution hold that God's intelligence was involved in the unfolding of evolution, but they cannot give a scientific account of how he was so involved. This is the same boat I'm in, except that I simply add that we have no reason to assume God is the only spirit-agent affecting this process.

The bottom line is that no one can provide a scientific account of how supernatural agents affect the world for the simple reason that the methodology of natural sciences doesn't concern itself with supernatural agents. I rest my case!

Anyway, the entire conference was fun and informative. At the end of the conference I spent a fun afternoon with Ralph Winter and a team of mission-minded folks who work with him. We discussed and debated an assortment of topics, including the openness of the future, the nature of Genesis 1, the problem of evil and the theological foundation of missions. It was invigorating.

On my plane ride out to California I read Eckhart Tolle's new book A New Earth that has been heavily promoted by Oprah Winfrey and is causing an uproar among many Christians. I'm going to suspend our Old Testament and Violence discussion one more post to report on this book in a day or two.

til then,

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Evolution As Cosmic Warfare

Well, believe it or not, I'm going to take a break today from obsessing on the problem of violence in the Old Testament and instead obsess on the problem of violence in nature. (I promise to return to the O.T. soon -- we'll deal with Peter Craigie's The Problem of War in the Old Testament).

Some of you who have been visiting this blog for ten months or more may recall that I was part of a three week science and theology conference last summer. It focused on integrating science with the open view of the future. (I blogged on the conference and topics surrounding it from June 18 to July 30, 2007). Among the many topics we discussed was the issue of explaining how an all-good Creator could have designed -- or at least allowed for -- a system of evolution that contained, if not necessitated, horrific violence, suffering and waste. This is the problem of "natural" evil, and it's eloquently expressed by Tennyson in his famous poem In Memoriam.

Man…trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law –
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shrek’d against his creed.
In Memoriam

Neither nature today, nor the evolutionary process that led up to it, look like they they were designed and governed by a non-violent God of love!

Why am I obsessing on this now? Well, in about an hour I'm catching a plane to California to attend a follow-up conference to the one I attended last summer. All who attended last year's conference will be delivering papers on aspects of science and the open view of the future that were in whole or in part inspired by that conference. These papers will then be edited and (hopefully) published in a book. My essay addresses the problem of violence in nature and is entitled "Evolution As Cosmic Warfare: A Biblical Approach to So-Call 'Natural' Evil." (I know this will aggravate some readers who hold to a young earth creationist view, but my paper assumes that the earth is roughly 4.6 billion years old and that some form of evolution was involved in bringing about humans and the animal kingdom as we find them today).

As my title suggests, the rather controversial thesis I will defend in my essay is that, given what the Bible has to say about Satan and other fallen angels, Christian theists have no reason to assume that the carnage and waste that characterizes the evolutionary process and nature today is all the result of how God designed nature. Indeed, I suggest we view evolution as a sort of epoch-long warfare between the life-affirming creativity of an all-good God, on the one hand, and the on-going corrupting influence of malevolent cosmic forces, on the other. The fact that God is nevertheless able to achieve his creational objectives (for example, the creation of humans in his image) through this corrupted process reflects God's sovereign wisdom in bringing good out of evil and overcoming evil with good.

I end my paper by defending and tweaking a proposal put forth by Ralph Winter and a team of colleagues at the Roberta Winter Institute that reconciles this evolution-as-cosmic-warfare perspective with Genesis 1 and 2. Some of you may recall that last summer I announced I felt I had to modify my "gap" interpretation of Genesis 1 because it conflicted with the geological evidence. At the same time, I began to consider an alternative reading of Genesis 1 that I'd recently come across, proposed by Ralph Winter (I posted on this topic 7/30/07). Well, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that Ralph Winter's interpretation offers the most plausible way of resolving the problems my old "gap" theory faced. (You can read Winter's proposal -- entitled "Unfinished Epic" -- here).

I don't necessarily agree with everything Winter proposes, but in my essay I use the basic framework of his work to depict Eden as the first expression of "the mustard seed kingdom." It was a supernaturally created "Kingdom oasis" that God carved out in the midst of a demonically oppressed and corrupted world. Eden was to function as a sort of beachhead from which humans were to partner with God, expand his Kingdom against the kingdom of darkness and ultimately transform the whole earth to become the domain over which God reigns -- the Kingdom of God. The beachhead was unfortunately lost to hostile forces, thanks to the failure of the original humans. But defeating malevolent forces, winning back the earth, and having humans reign with Christ over the earth (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 5:10; 20:6; 22:5) remains God's primary objective and the primary calling of humans.

One of the things I'll be doing out in California is meeting with Ralph Winter and his team to brainstorm about the evolution-as-cosmic-warfare thesis and this new way of reading Genesis. It should be a very interesting time. I'll let you know how it goes.

Right now I've got to go catch a plane!

Blessings on all you co-rulers with Christ!!


Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Critique of Eller's Thesis

Hello Bloggers,

These days I'm "thinking out loud" about the problem of divinely sanctioned violence in the Old Testament. (If you're new to this blog, I encourage you to go to the 3/14 post and start at the beginning of this series). I've recently given an overview of Vern Eller’s view that the Old Testament warriors and authors simply got it wrong when they thought they “heard” Yahweh commanding them to slaughter people (see 3/29 post). In the previous post I noted that there are at least five rather strong arguments that can be made in support of Eller’s thesis (see 4/1 post). In this post I want to offer six arguments that can raised against Eller’s thesis.

1. Cultural Relative Packaging Verses Culturally Relative Teaching?

First, as I noted in my previous post, I think Eller’s point that we don’t have God’s “unmediated voice” in Scripture is undeniable. God’s revelation is always packaged in, and conditioned by, the cultural and personal limitations of the biblical authors. At the same time, Eller’s claim that the cultural and personal limitations of the biblical authors led them to claim Yahweh told them to do something (e.g. slaughter the Canaanites) that Yahweh didn’t in fact tell them to do takes this principle to a whole new level. It’s one thing to claim that a true biblical teaching is expressed in a culturally relative way and quite another thing to claim that a biblical teaching itself is culturally relative.

For example, the psalmist is obviously expressing the limitations and barbarism of his culture when he celebrates the prospect of Babylonian babies having their heads smashed against rocks (Ps. 137:9). But his barbarism (fortunately) wasn’t the point of the passage. By contrast, when Joshua claims that Yahweh told him and his warriors to utterly destroy the Canaanites, this seems to be the central point of the passage. Dismissing Joshua’s claim as culturally relative thus seems to be a much more significant move than dismissing David’s incidental expression.

On the other hand, Eller could perhaps respond that the destruction of the Canaanites wasn’t in fact the central point of the Holy War passages: the central point was God’s victory. So, Eller could argue, the destruction of the Canaanites was how Joshua (mistakenly) expressed God’s victory, in the same way that David's delight in smashing babies was how David (mistakenly) expressed God’s victory. In both cases we have to say that there’s something right, and something wrong – something timeless, and something culturally relative – expressed in these passages.

I have to grant that this is a strong response -- to the point that I’m not sure how to refute it. Yet, I can’t help but feel like there’s something amiss here. The Psalmist doesn’t claim God told him to smash the heads of Babylonian babies, but Joshua (and others) explicitly claim God told them to slaughter the Canaanites. Indeed, in passages like Deuteronomy 7, God (reportedly) goes to great lengths to make sure they spare no one -- and then gets very irate when they disobediently let some live.

2. Why Couldn’t Yahweh Be Clearer?

Second, as we've seen, Eller believes that Joshua and other Old Testament warriors got it right when they heard Yahweh tell them they were to only fight the battles he wanted them to fight and that they were to place their complete trust in him when they fought. They were not to fight with the “Nimrodian” mindset of other nations (viz. fighting out of insecurity, self-interest, etc.). Unfortunately, according to Eller, these warriors mistakenly thought this entailed that they had to slaughter anyone who stood in the way of Yahweh’s will being done.

It seems to me there’s something rather peculiar about this view. How is it that Yahweh succeeded into getting Joshua and others to refrain from placing any trust in their sword and to not fight out of insecurity and self-interest and yet failed to clearly communicate that they weren’t supposed to kill anyone? Why would it have been so hard for Yahweh to clearly say to Joshua, “Don’t kill people?” If anything, one might have thought it would have been harder for God to get Joshua and other ancients to see that they weren't to fight out of insecurity and self-interest and harder for God to get them to place all their trust in him alone for victory than it would have been to simply get them to obey his command not to kill people. In fact, at various points throughout his book (War and Peace from Genesis to Revelation), Eller himself contends that most today still don't get the first two points, even when they understand the point that humans aren't supposed to kill others. (This is why he praises Joshua and other Old Testament warriors over modern day anti-war protesters, as I noted in my post on 3/29). So, even by Eller's own analysis, it seems Yahweh succeeded at the harder task (viz. getting his warriors out of their "Nimrodian" mindset) but failed at the easier task (viz. getting them to refrain from killing).

3. The Slippery Slope Argument

Less strong is a third argument that several readers of this blog expressed to me. They argued that once one grants that any biblical passage might be mistaken, we have no means of deciding what is and is not the "true voice of God" in Scripture. We have embarked on a slippery slope toward total relativism, they fear. More specifically, if Joshua was wrong in thinking Yahweh told him to slaughter the Canaanites, then Paul might have been wrong in thinking God told him we’re saved by grace or in thinking God told him fornication was a sin. If humans have to decide what is and is not the true voice of God in the Bible, they argue, then it seems it's “every man for himself.” We can choose what we like and discard what we don’t like. Eller’s thesis, in other words, throws us into an epistemological, theological and moral abyss. (I find this worry lies behind the passion of many evangelicals to uphold "biblical inerrancy").

I empathize with this concern, but I'm not convinced it's a sound objection. Two things are worth mentioning.

First, everyone already has to decide what is and is not “the true voice of God in the Bible" -- at least to the extent that we all have to try to discern the timeless teaching of the Bible from its cultural packaging. For example, no one today (including those who espouse "inerrancy") feels compelled to believe that the earth is surrounded by water and held up by pillars, despite the fact that biblical authors clearly believed this. And few people today feel compelled to insist women shouldn't wear braided hair or jewelry and call their husbands "lord." Yet these beliefs and instructions are in the New Testament. The central point being taught in these passages is timeless, but the way they're expressed is culturally relative.

Now, we may disagree with Eller’s claim that the reports of Yahweh telling the Israelites to slaughter people are culturally relative. But I don’t think we can argue that Eller’s claim straps us with a new "slippery slope" problem. It’s the same old “timeless teaching verses culturally relative packaging” problem all over again.

Second, while there is obvious disagreement about what is and is not culturally relative in the Bible, the issue is not as subjective as people simply “accepting what they like and discarding what they don’t like.” There are reasonable criteria to assess this. (On this I recommend the marvelous book by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth). For example, one way to assess whether something is timeless or culturally relative in the Bible is to ask, “Is the matter uniformly presented in Scripture or are their variations throughout the biblical narrative?” So, granting that there are culturally relative aspects of Scripture doesn’t land us in an epistemological, theological and moral abyss -- even if we end up agreeing with Eller that the reports of Yahweh commanding the Israelites to slaughter people are among these culturally relative aspects of Scripture.

4. Jesus’ View of the Old Testament
A fourth objection that can be raised against Eller's thesis is, in my mind, much more forceful. By far and away, the most compelling reason I have for believing the Old Testament is inspired in the first place is that Jesus (like almost every other first century Jew) viewed it as such. He uses the expression “Scripture says” and “God says” interchangeably, for example.

Now, I have very good reasons for thinking Jesus was the Son of God (for an exploration of these reasons, see Eddy & Boyd, The Jesus Legend). I thus have very good reasons for thinking Jesus couldn’t have been mistaken in his view of the Old Testament. As a follower of Jesus, therefore, I feel compelled to accept his perspective. This doesn’t rule out viewing aspects of the Old Testament as culturally relative, but it does seem to rule out concluding that any scriptural author ever “got it wrong.”

Yet, so far as I can see, accepting Eller’s thesis forces us to just this conclusion. When Joshua and others reported that Yahweh told them to slaughter people, they were wrong. As compelling as Eller’s argument is, therefore, I feel I have to choose Jesus’ view over his.

5. God’s Use of Violence

Fifth, throughout his book (War and Peace From Genesis to Revelation), Eller has no problem conceding that Yahweh uses the violent tendencies of nations -- including the Israelites -- to achieve his sovereign purposes. To be sure, Eller stresses (rightly) that God always does this reluctantly, and that whenever God brings judgment on Israel or any other nation, it's never an end in and of itself. God’s heart is always to heal and redeem people. Violence is a tragic but necessary means to a loving, healing and redemptive end (e.g. 72-77). Moreover, Eller brilliantly highlights the fact that throughout the Old Testament God inspires prophets to paint a picture of the future in which violence will no longer be necessary. Still, Eller grants that God is willing to use violence for good ends when necessary.

Given that Eller grants this much (and how could he not, since this motif runs throughout the Old Testament?), it’s not clear to me how he can balk so strongly at the Holy War tradition of the Israelites. True, there’s a difference between God commanding his people to violently slaughter others, on the one hand, and God using the violent tendencies of nations as he finds them to slaughter others. But I’m not sure how significant this difference really is. In Isaiah 10, for example, God used Assyria to harshly judge the Israelites, but he nevertheless spoke in terms of Assyria being his “rod” and “servant.” Other times in the Old Testament narrative God “calls” nations (e.g. Assyria, Babylon) to rise up against Israel – even though he sometimes punishes these nations for being the kind of barbaric nation that would be useful for this purpose.

So, it seems there is a rather fine line between God commanding violence and using violence. If we grant that God is willing to engage in the latter, it seems a bit odd to balk too strongly at his willingness to engage in the former. Even more to the point, the claim that God uses violent-tending nations to engage in violence against people is arguably as inconsistent with the picture of God revealed on Calvary as the claim that God commands a violent-tending nation to engage in violence.

6. What of God’s Own Violence?

A sixth and final objection to Eller’s view is that it's not clear how much it actually accomplishes in terms of reconciling the view of God in the Holy War traditions with the picture of God presented on Calvary. Yes, if accepted, Eller’s thesis allows us to dismiss the claims that Yahweh commanded his people to slaughter others. To this extent, Eller's view removes the inconsistency of how God expects his people to treat enemies in the Old and New Testaments. This is no small accomplishment. Yet, Eller's view doesn’t do anything to help us reconcile the picture of God himself slaughtering people with the view of God presented on Calvary.

Think about it. Even if Eller's thesis is accepted, we still have to accept that God wiped out almost the entire human race – including little children – with a violent flood. (Even if one holds that the Genesis flood was local, not global, we’re still talking about massive carnage). Even if Eller's thesis is accepted, we still have to accept that God incinerated entire cities -- populated with infants and little children (Sodom and Gomorrah). We still have to accept that God killed the first born sons of all Egyptians, drowned the entire Egyptian army in the Red Sea and carried out a host of other episodes of massive slaughtering. Even in the New Testament we find Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, being struck dead by God (Acts 5)! (One might also want to appeal to the carnage in the book of Revelation, but I shall later argue that Revelation actually presents no such picture).

These episodes of God causing carnage seem no more consistent with the God revealed on Calvary – the God who chooses to be killed rather than to kill – than the episodes of slaughtering that involve human agents. Hence, while Eller's thesis nicely removes the inconsistency between the Old and New Testaments regarding how God wants his people to treat enemies, it doesn't at all help remove the inconsistency regarding their portraits of God.

So folks, from where I sit, we're pretty much back to the drawing board. Eller's view (shared by many others) seems promising on the surface. But once you critically examine it, I'm afraid it comes up short.

How could the loving, non-violent God revealed in Jesus Christ -- the God who prayed "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" -- be one and the same with the God who said "slaughter them all" and "show them no mercy"? In the next post we'll consider another proposal.

Until then, remember that our picture of God is to be rooted in Jesus Christ alone, and our attitude toward enemies is to be derived from Jesus Christ alone.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Defense of Eller's Thesis

Hello internet friends,

In my last post I reviewed Eller’s proposal for reconciling the warrior image of Yahweh found in the Holy War tradition, on the one hand, with the self-sacrificial image of God revealed in Christ, on the other. We saw that Eller basically argues that the Old Testament warriors (and authors) were right in understanding that Yahweh had called them to fight his battles, but wrong in thinking this entailed killing other people. In this post I'll offer five arguments that support this view. In my next post I'll raise several arguments against it.

First, I have to applaud Eller’s Christ-centered approach to reading the Bible. Eller rightly sees that we must read the Old Testament in light of Christ, not qualify the revelation of God in Christ on the basis of the Old Testament. He rightly sees that the Old Testament is authoritative to disciples of Jesus only insofar as it points toward, and concurs with, what we learn about God and the Kingdom through Christ.

Second, it has to be conceded that Eller’s proposal in principle solves the problem we’re addressing. In fact, I have to frankly confess that, so far as I can see, it solves the problem more simply, and possibly more effectively, than any other proposal we’ll consider. (Yet, as we'll see in the next post, it also faces some formidable objections). The gap between the way God sometimes appears in the Old Testament and the way God appears in Jesus Christ is explained by the culturally conditioned perception of God in the Old Testament, which means we no longer need to wrestle with any apparent duplicity in God himself.

Third, the fact that the New Testament clearly reveals that the warfare God wants us to fight is "not against flesh and blood" but against principalities and powers (Eph 6:12) lends support to Eller's view. Since we're supposed to read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, it makes sense to suppose that God wanted the Israelites to engage in spiritual warfare rather than "flesh and blood" warfare. And this supports the conclusion that the Old Testament folks simply erred in allowing their "Nimrodian" mindset to adversely affect the way they heard Yahweh speak to them.

Fourth, we've seen that Eller argues that the biblical warriors and authors were products of their cultural conditioning when they (mistakenly) thought they heard Yahweh telling them to slaughter others. Some evangelicals may find this to be a shocking proposal and possibly in conflict with a belief in the infallibility of Scripture. At the same time, it must be conceded that, regardless of one's view of Scripture, everyone has to in principle accept Eller’s crucial insight that in reading the Bible we’re not hearing “the unmediated voice of God himself” (78).

For one thing, everyone grants that some aspects of the Old and New Testaments are culturally conditioned. For example, no one today believes the earth and sky are held up by pillars, that the earth is surrounded by waters populated with threatening sea monsters (Rahab, Leviathan), that the sky is as hard “as a molten mirror” (Job 37:18) and holds water above it, and that this sky has windows in it that God opens up so it can rain on the earth (e.g. Gen. 7:11). This is clearly the view of the cosmos reflected in many Old Testament passages, but we of course realize this is just part of the Bible’s cultural conditioning.

So too, when the apostle Paul says -- in God's inspired word -- that he can’t remember whether he baptized anyone outside of Stephanas' house (I Cor. 1:16-17), and when he offers opinions -- in God's inspired word -- that he acknowledges he didn’t get directly from the Lord (1 Cor. 7:25ff), or when he instructs women not to wear jewelry or have braided hair (1 Tim 2:9), it's clear we’re hearing God’s voice mediated through the personal limitations and cultural conditioning of a first century Jewish male. It's not like the Bible was dictated directly by God.

Let's take this reflection a step further. I honestly don't see how a disciple of Jesus could avoid concluding that at least some of the warfare material in the Old Testament is culturally conditioned by the barbarically violent culture in which the authors were living. For example, the Psalmist sings, “Happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:9) and “The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked” (Ps. 58:10). The central God-inspired point of the passages is to assert that God will be victorious and wickedness will be punished. But, in light of God’s self-revelation in Christ, it seems rather obvious that the particular way the Psalmist expresses these points is culturally conditioned. The Psalmist would apparently be happy to wade in the blood of his enemies and smash their babies against rocks, but we can’t imagine Jesus being happy about this attitude. He commands us to love, bless, do good to and pray for our worst enemies!

The basic point is that the Bible does not give us the unmediated voice of God. It gives us God’s voice mediated through culturally conditioned human witnesses. In this light, it doesn't seem too outlandish to suppose that certain Old Testament warriors and authors were right when they heard God telling them to fight his battles, but reflected their cultural conditioning when they interpreted this to mean they were to slaughter men, women and children. They expressed a God-inspired truth when they affirmed that God wanted to fight for them and give them the victory. But the way they expressed and applied this truth was culturally conditioned.

Finally, there may be some precedent in the Old Testament for Eller’s contention that the Israelite warriors were partly right and partly wrong when they engaged in their holy wars. In a superb article entitled “I was only a little angry” [Interpretation 58 (2008) 365-75], Terrence Fretheim notes that a “remarkable number of prophetic texts speak of divine judgment on those nations that have been agents of God (Jer. 25:12-14; 27:6-7; Isa 10:12-19; 47:1-15; Zech 1:15)” (p.372). He notes that in these texts the agents God used “exceeded their mandate, going beyond their proper judgmental activities in vaunting their own strength…” (ibid). This is perhaps most explicit in Zechariah when the Lord says, “I was only a little angry; they made the disaster worse” (ibid). In other words, while God wanted to use these violent-tending nations to achieve certain ends, “They overdid it!” (373). In a sense they obeyed God, but they allowed their own violent tendencies to take them beyond what God intended, and thus make themselves the objects of God’s judgment.

Fretheim notes that these texts reveal that God doesn’t meticulously control the behavior of the nations he uses – not even Israel. And the reason this interests us at present is because it reveals that a nation can be said to carry out God’s will, in one sense, but to also, at the same time, rebel against God’s will in another sense. In this light, one could argue there’s precedent for Eller’s contention that the Holy War tradition of the Old Testament represents Israel obeying God’s will while at the same time going against his will because they fused their admirable obedience with their own culturally conditioned assumption that people were the enemies. God told them to fight his battles and to inherit the promised land, but the Israelites themselves interpreted this to mean, “slaughter everyone.”

It seems to me, therefore, that a surprisingly strong case can be made in defense of Eller's thesis. I confess I am tempted to embrace it. But, as I'll show in my next post, I also think it faces some serious, and possibly unsurmountable, problems.

Till then, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus,