OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.

NT Wright is seriously wrong

I have come to the view that there are serious mistakes in NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God.

One error is that Wright presents a view of salvation history which is anachronistic at key points; and which fails to notice the difference in the portrait of God in the New and Old Testaments.

Wright wants to present God as having had a plan from the time of the fall for defeating evil. The plan involves the selection of Israel to be a light to the world. There are a number of problems with this. 

Wright says that God’s idea was from the outset that Israel would be the light of nations. But this idea is first found in Second Isaiah, about the mid 6th century BCE, and is a reaction to the apparent abandonment of Israel by God: if God will not restore us to our former national sovereignty perhaps he means us to have spiritual leadership. It is anachronistic to suggest that this is what God intended all along.

Further, God’s promises to Abraham, Moses and David were generous and far reaching covering everything that Israel could desire in terms of national sovereignty, prosperity, good health and fecundity. Of course, they were only partly realised because Israel was disobedient, but the answer to that was to repent of the disobedience and resume the promised idyllic existence. What is the inner logic in God’s deciding to develop an entirely new grand plan (Israel as the light of nations) in which all the earlier promises are simply ignored?

Thirdly, the idea of evil is a critical element in Wright’s understanding of the divine plan. But evil is not an OT biblical notion and enters into Jewish thought by way of Zoroastrianism and apocalyptic writings in the last two or three centuries before Christ. It is grossly anachronistic to make it an element of God’s plan for Israel from the outset. Also the idea of evil is treated as though it is a straightforward one but it is far from that.

I have suggested in the preceding paragraphs that Wright, in an attempt to find a divine grand plan for humanity, has constructed a spurious continuity between Jewish tradition and Jesus. But he is even more assiduous in ignoring the possibility that Jesus rejects major elements of Jewish tradition as found in the Old Testament.

For Wright, God is faithful, loving and merciful, the picture of God that might be derived from Jesus. It is important to his overall thesis that God is portrayed in this way, since otherwise it is hard to sustain the idea that God had the same plan of salvation all along. But the OT God is quite different from the picture painted by Wright.

The God of the OT is a God of power who throws his weight around in earthly affairs. Jesus’ concept of God’s activity in the world is much more like the period of after the Babylonian captivity, when God is absent, than the period of Abraham and Moses when God is constantly intervening in the world. Wright’s suggestion, that God uses the Romans as a means of bringing down destruction on the Jewish nation in 70 AD for failing to heed Christ, is an appeal back to that primitive God and is quite foreign to the NT account of Jesus.

Further, despite his protestations to the contrary, the God of the Old Testament exercised power with little regard for issues of justice and mercy. Sometimes he is deliberate in the exercise of his power, seeking to advance his interests through planning (as when he hardens the heart of Pharaoh or leads the people out of danger or gives them success in battle); at other times his power is vented in anger or pique or is cruelly whimsical. His use and abuse of power comes to a head when Job demands an explanation for the torments that God has allowed to be inflicted on him. God’s only response is that he is immensely powerful and Job is puny. Job’s final words say, in effect, that God condemns himself out of his own mouth. 

Wright says that Jesus accuses Israel of being possessed by Satan in part because it prefers the path of violence to that of peace. Now there is no doubt that Jesus was against violence but was his criticism directed at the Jews of his own day or the tradition to which they were heir? Wright must claim it was directed at the Jews of Jesus’ own day if he is to protect his version of God and the constancy of his salvation plan.

But in most of the Old Testament, God is a warrior God and the Lord of Hosts- certainly in the Pentateuch, Judges and Kings; and also in the Psalms. If Jesus was claiming that he was going to restore Israel, then Jesus’ hearers had good reason to expect that the Lord of Hosts would come in power and might to sweep away the occupying Romans and restore Israel to its rightful place of supremacy among the nations. They could also legitimately anticipate that he would achieve this by the means he had employed so often in the past, a massive intervention in the natural order of things- for example, use of the elements to destroy enemies, supernatural enhancement of Israel’s military prowess, manipulation of the minds of Israel’s enemies to advance God’s plans. These expectations were not some nationalist perversion of the scriptures but their constantly repeated and explicit claims. It is therefore difficult not to conclude that in attacking violence, Jesus had the mainstream Jewish tradition of the OT in his sights, not its current custodians.

My second major criticism of Wright is his view that it Jesus is mistakenly thought to have been an innovative teacher of timeless ethical truths. Wright rejects this for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus’ ethic may have had a different slant but it was not distinctively new. In fact everything that he preached can be found in the OT scriptures, at least in germ, if they are read with sufficient sensitivity. Occasionally he asks the reader whether Jesus may have been denouncing the OT tradition as distinct from its current custodians but he rejects the idea out of hand. In my opinion this is mostly wrong but I will leave that for another post.

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Comments

N.T.Wright is seriously formidable

I’m pleased Paul has posted this comment, as I’ve felt for some time there has been very little critical discussion of N.T.Wright’s views - maybe because his output is so prodigious and formidable that few dare to lift a pen against it!

Having said that, I largely concur with Wright’s views - or at least his approach, which is to engage in biblical interpretation through a reconstructed worldview of Christians and Jews in New Testament times. Like Paul, I have also noticed that one of Wright’s first assumptions is that spanning the entire biblical writings is an interpretation of covenant - that God’s plan through all its covenantal stages had always been to reverse the damage done by the fall, and to fulfil his ambitions for creation. Since I find this very compatible to myself personally, I tend to accept it, but it is always open to question.

The view that ‘God’s righteousness’ means ‘His faithfulness to His covenant’, as so interpreted, provides a major key to unlocking Paul’s letter to the Romans, and to Paul’s thinking generally. It also provides a key to unlocking the gospels, as suggested in ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’. In a broad sense, Wright’s approach depends on an understanding that 1st century Jews were anticipating an imminent breakthrough of ‘the kingdom of God’ - a phrase which points back to the ‘glory days’ of the Davidic kingdom, and the promise to David that a future king would surpass this glory.

Wright’s interpretation is that while 1st century Jews tended to expect a triumph for Israel on the stage of national and international politics, Jesus brought a message of judgment on Israel, and the promise of salvation through a people of God reconstituted around himself. All that was needed for a Jew like Paul (not to be confused with paulhartigan elsewhere in this post referred to as ‘Paul’) was proof that Jesus had risen from the dead and that therefore his credentials as Messiah were intact. For Paul, and the early Christians, Jesus’s credentials of course went considerably further than this, as the significance of his redirected fulfilment of Israel’s destiny was pondered.

My point is that Wright is investigating the significance of Jesus’s life, teaching and claims within the reconstructed context of the various strands of 1st century Judaism - which should be the starting point for an understanding of his significance to us today. It is this perspective which provides an interpretation of the OT writings. Whether Wright, Paul, Jesus, 1st century Jews and Christians had all got it wrong is another matter. I don’t personally think so - and it is perfectly possibly even within Paul (hartigan’s) terms of reference that the OT presented an incremental understanding of God’s purposes, so that by the time of (second) Isaiah, Israel was beginning to see her role as of significance to the nations, in line with the development of God’s purposes for her.

I agree with Wright in the main - but I’d be interested in further critical discussion of his views.

The fall?

I’ve always found within myself a sense of dissonance when the start point of assumption for emerging theology is this amorphous concept referred to as, “the fall.” Now I get it as a metaphor, a narrative, a way of speaking about the condition of ourselves, however we find ourselves here. But when it’s the absolute fundamental unit of a narrative theology spanning human history, I get sort of twitchy, because I kind of think the story isn’t literal. Honestly, I think evolution is more likely factual than Genesis 1 & 2, just as I think Genesis 1& 2 can tell us more about who we are than evolution. And yet people are talking about “the fall” as though it is obviously historical incident, like, “the fall picnic last october, during Henry proposed, leading to your marriage, your children and your difficult decision about whether to divorce him now that you know he’s cheating.” For those of us who are spiritual, as well as scientifically minded, I think we need to examine the implications of treating OT narrative as assumed fact, especially when we are using it as a basis for drawing conclusions about God’s redemptive plan for the world, and the entire way we conceptualize the meaning of Jesus —and who we are as Christians. When we do narrative theology, where is the line between entering into the story and assuming it to be literal fact?

 

I’m looking forward to hearing all your thoughts.

"The fall"

My proposal about NT Wright’s thesis does not depend on a particular view of the historicity of the OT. What I have tried to do is examine his argument in terms of its coherence with the dominant themes of the Old Testament story. Essentially, my argument is that Wright is extremely partial in the use he makes of the Old Testament. Bits that do not fit his preconceived ideas about God (eg the violent and unforgiving God to be found in the OT) are simply ignored; while other bits that are minor themes (Israel as light of the world) but important for his thesis are assigned normative significance for the bible as a whole.

It all depends

This is getting away from the subject of discussion on the thread - but with regard to Genesis 1-3, it all depends what you mean by ‘literal’, or ‘factual’ representations of events. What we tend to call ‘scientific’ accounts tend to assume that ‘science’ is without bias, independent of ‘faith’ or conjecture, and Genesis 1-3 fails to fall within these categories.

Genesis 1-3 is clearly not setting out to satisfy the expectations of modern scientific or historical enquiry, and neither is it falling into the totalitarian assumptions that these modes of enquiry tend to make. On the other hand, as a way of explaining traits and patterns of behaviour and psychology that many, including myself, find convincing, it continues to work. These chapters provide a frame for the entire biblical narrative - and the events described echo throughout the OT writings, in the history of the patriarchs and Israel, and provide Paul with the perspective which governs his thinking, as well as providing the profoundest insight into the death of Jesus on the cross as a theological phenonemon.

paulhartigan hasn’t convinced me of his position yet; he is taking an interpretation of the OT writings which is just as much open to question as that of Wright, or what we are able to piece together of the worldview of 1st century Judaism and Christianity, which I think Wright does thoroughly and successfully.

But on what does it all depend?

Hi Peter

I have been away from OST for quite a while because it suddenly disappeared from cyberspace. Quite by accident I found it again. Anyway it is very nice to be back.

To the issue at hand.

You say that I am “taking an interpretation of the OT writings which is just as much open to question as that of Wright, or what we are able to piece together of the worldview of 1st century Judaism and Christianity, which I think Wright does thoroughly and successfully.

I have no quarrel with Wright’s work on 1st century world views but that is not all his thesis depends on. It also depends on a view of the Old Testament which ( in my view) is seriously deficient .

As I said in my response to Quirky Grace, essentially my argument is that Wright is extremely partial in the use he makes of the Old Testament. Bits that do not fit his preconceived ideas about God (eg the violent and unforgiving God to be found in the OT) are simply ignored; while other bits that are minor themes (Israel as light of the world) but important for his thesis are assigned normative significance for the bible as a whole. You suggest that these views are as open to question as those of Wright.

In what way?

I am also very interested in the issue you raise about Genesis but I will come back to that- perhaps in a new thread

PaulH

Perpend

Paul - I did try to break free from the site, and attempted a short detox in rehab, but things kept getting in the way. Anyway, it’s nice to resume contact with you again in your remote fastness in the Australian outback. If we carry on like this, we might see Ivan back on the site as well.

My point about Wright is that his view of the OT is an attempted reconstruction of 1st century views - which would be paradigmatic for understanding the ministry and message of Jesus, and the early church. So his work on the 1st century is not incidental to his own views on the OT. The two go together. I’ve no idea what he thinks about the supposed violence and unforgiveness of God in the OT, but that seems to me to be the subject of another discussion which he has not entered, as far as I know.

I’m not sure that ‘Israel as a light to the world’ is a minor theme, or that it was a late concoction of (second) Isaiah. The covenant with Abraham was that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The narrative may be a long and winding road, but is not without reminders that God is the God of the whole earth, and that Israel’s destiny was always bound up with the destiny of the whole earth. At this point, Wright’s view would be that Israel got it seriously wrong at the time of Jesus, that the evil embodied in Rome was also resident in Jerusalem, and that this led inexorably to national catastrophe.

My ‘open to question’ comment was not so much on your views about Wright, but the views which you hold on which you base your stated disagreement with Wright. One such view would be that the God of the Old Testament is ‘violent and unforgiving’. Another is the hint that any coherence to be found in the narrative of Israel (and the OT) is spurious, and a later addition. (I know you didn’t say this, I’m just piecing it together from what you say). I don’t think any such coherence is spurious, and Genesis 1-3 is foundational for the rest of the narrative, and God’s described involvement with Israel’s history.

But as far as Wright is concerned, my perception is that he is saying this is how 1st century Jews understood their history, this was the grid through which they interpreted the OT, that this is the grid against which we can better understand the ministry of Jesus, and that Jesus came to redirect that history and understanding of it, which led to the reconstituted Israel, which became the light for the world as God had intended it.

Tim

I see the “light of the world” as a calling to Israel rooted in the “call of Abraham.” In Genesis 15, following an intriguing covenant ceremony in which Abraham is completely asleep and God does all the promising, we see that Abraham is assured of: land, offspring and BLESSING. Abraham’s family is to be an intrument of blessing, a light to the nations so to speak.

Later, Israel is called following the Exodus to live in such a way that the nations are drawn to God.

Then, David is promised a “house” or dynasty. Several prophets talk about how the nations will pilgrimmage to Jerusalem to Zion and the holy temple. There they will learn the ways of God (see Micah and Isaiah, for example). Once again, Israel/Judah is to be a “light” to draw the nations to God through the witness of their lifestyle.

Of course, the OT has passages highlighting the “wrath of God,” a just anger against those who should be light but instead live darkness. How I understand this- perhaps I’m taming the OT too much here- is that God’s anger/judgment/wrath is in the service of healing and getting Israel/creation back on the right track. [I’m thinking of how I am angry with my own children when they are off track. The anger is rooted in my love for them and wanting the best from and for them.]

Thanks for allowing my participation in this vital conversation!

Duh-sciple Tim

A violent and unforgiving God?

Tim

You comment that

Of course, the OT has passages highlighting the “wrath of God,” a just anger against those who should be light but instead live darkness. How I understand this- perhaps I’m taming the OT too much here- is that God’s anger/judgment/wrath is in the service of healing and getting Israel/creation back on the right track. [I’m thinking of how I am angry with my own children when they are off track. The anger is rooted in my love for them and wanting the best from and for them.

I have taken the following from a website (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/atrocity.html)which itemises cruelty in the OT. There are many more pages of it

LE 26:29, DT 28:53, JE 19:9, EZ 5:8-10 As a punishment, the Lord will cause people to eat the flesh of their own sons and daughters and fathers and friends.NU 11:33 The Lord smites the people with a great plague.

NU 12:1-10 God makes Miriam a leper for seven days because she and Aaron had spoken against Moses

. NU 15:32-36 A Sabbath breaker (who had gathered sticks for a fire) is stoned to death at the Lord’s command.

NU 16:27-33 The Lord causes the earth to open and swallow up the men and their households (including wives and children) because the men had been rebellious.

NU 16:35 A fire from the Lord consumes 250 men.

NU 16:49 A plague from the Lord kills 14,700 people.

NU 21:3 The Israelites utterly destroy the Canaanites.

NU 21:6 Fiery serpents, sent by the Lord, kill many Israelites.

NU 21:35 With the Lord’s approval, the Israelites slay Og “… and his sons and all his people, until there was not one survivor left ….”

NU 25:4 (KJV) “And the Lord said unto Moses, take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord against the sun ….”

NU 25:8 “He went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly.”

NU 25:9 24,000 people die in a plague from the Lord. NU 31:9

The Israelites capture Midianite women and children.

NU 31:17-18 Moses, following the Lord’s command, orders the Israelites to kill all the Midianite male children and “… every woman who has known man ….” (Note: How would it be determined which women had known men? One can only speculate.)

NU 31:31-40 32,000 virgins are taken by the Israelites as booty. Thirty-two are set aside (to be sacrificed?) as a tribute for the Lord.

DT 2:33-34 The Israelites utterly destroy the men, women, and children of Sihon.

DT 3:6 The Israelites utterly destroy the men, women, and children of Og.

DT 7:2 The Lord commands the Israelites to “utterly destroy” and shown “no mercy” to those whom he gives them for defeat.

DT 20:13-14 “When the Lord delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the males …. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves.”

DT 20:16 “In the cities of the nations the Lord is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.”

DT 21:10-13 With the Lord’s approval, the Israelites are allowed to take “beautiful women” from the enemy camp to be their captive wives. If, after sexual relations, the husband has “no delight” in his wife, he can simply let her go.

DT 28:53 “You will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you.”

JS 1:1-9, 18 Joshua receives the Lord’s blessing for all the bloody endeavors to follow.

JS 6:21-27 With the Lord’s approval, Joshua destroys the city of Jericho men, women, and children with the edge of the sword.

JS 7:19-26 Achan, his children and his cattle are stoned to death because Achan had taken a taboo thing.

JS 8:22-25 With the Lord’s approval, Joshua utterly smites the people of Ai, killing 12,000 men and women, so that there were none who escaped.

YHWH in the OT

Paul, it’s good to have you back on OST. :-)

One of my favorite OT scholars is Walter Brueggemann, in large part because he isn’t afraid to admit the violence attributed to YHWH in the OT. Many passages do in fact describe pretty horrible events. The worst, as far as I’m concerned are when Israel wipes out entire people groups. To be fair though, the vehemently anti-Christian website you quote isn’t known for balance. For example, they say:

DT 21:10-13 With the Lord’s approval, the Israelites are allowed to take “beautiful women” from the enemy camp to be their captive wives. If, after sexual relations, the husband has “no delight” in his wife, he can simply let her go. ”

But the passage reads:

21:10 When you go out to do battle with your enemies and the Lord your God allows you to prevail and you take prisoners,21:11 if you should see among them an attractive woman whom you wish to take as a wife, 21:12 you may bring her back to your house. She must shave her head, trim her nails, 21:13 discard the clothing she was wearing when captured, and stay in your house, lamenting for her father and mother for a full month. After that you may have sexual relations with her and become her husband and she your wife. 21:14 If you are not pleased with her, then you must let her go where she pleases. You cannot in any case sell her; you must not take advantage of her, since you have already humiliated her.” (NET)

Sure, it ain’t glorious, but it’s at least minimally civilized and shows remarkable restraint compared to other plundering practices…

Christians do tend to gloss over the bad stuff… but non-Christians do tend to gloss over the good stuff and the contextual stuff… as Christians we should be aware of both.

Cheers,

-Daniel-

Suspend

 Peter,

You say

I’m not sure that ‘Israel as a light to the world’ is a minor theme, or that it was a late concoction of (second) Isaiah. The covenant with Abraham was that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The narrative may be a long and winding road, but is not without reminders that God is the God of the whole earth, and that Israel’s destiny was always bound up with the destiny of the whole earth. At this point, Wright’s view would be that Israel got it seriously wrong at the time of Jesus, that the evil embodied in Rome was also resident in Jerusalem, and that this led inexorably to national catastrophe”

My suggestion is that the relevant major theme of the OT is the Mosaic covenant with its benefits to Israel, if obedient, and penalties if disobedient. The role of other nations is to be Israel’s footstool. Of course, monotheism implies that God is the God of all but this notion receives little attention in the OT even in the post exilic period when Israel is desperately searching for an explanation of God’s failure to deal with Israel’s oppressors.

You also say that

My ‘open to question’ comment was not so much on your views about Wright, but the views which you hold on which you base your stated disagreement with Wright. One such view would be that the God of the Old Testament is ‘violent and unforgiving’. Another is the hint that any coherence to be found in the narrative of Israel (and the OT) is spurious, and a later addition. (I know you didn’t say this, I’m just piecing it together from what you say). I don’t think any such coherence is spurious, and Genesis 1-3 is foundational for the rest of the narrative, and God’s described involvement with Israel’s history”

As regards my statement that God of the Old Testament is ‘violent and unforgiving’.I do not claim that this exhausts the OT characterisation of God (Jack Miles brilliant book shows how complex the OT God is) but I do say that this is a major theme, one that has been systematically ignored in Christianity

There is of course an intimate bond between the NT and the OT: the formers’ authors saw their credibility as depending on the references to Christ to be found in the OT. But you don’t have to dig deep to find massive fault lines between the one and the other. Traditionally, Christianity has not wanted to know about the fault lines (Marcion being the major exception and he of course went to extremes). In my view, if we are to understand the riches for faith of the scriptures we must not bowdlerise them.

Wright, 1st century Judaism, Mosaic covenant & Israel's destiny

The Mosaic covenant is certainly a major theme of the OT - massively relevant. But it isn’t just a flat theme; historically, Israel repeatedly violated the covenant - or at least, her national misfortunes are presented as being so explained within the OT writings. However you look at it, the OT is presenting Israel’s history in relation to the covenant as one of failure. In this sense, the covenant did not benefit Israel at all, and her history is presented as a complex developing relationship with these realities.

Because the OT (and therefore the significance of the Mosaic covenant) is presented within a historic narrative, it is a questionable stance to maintain that ‘later’ interpretations of the covenant and Israel’s destiny (such as those referred to in Isaiah) are less determinative than ‘earlier’ presentations, where the covenant appears, in the absence of any other emphasis, to be mainly concerned with Israel’s internal peace and stability (mainly, but not exclusively, since a key to understanding the covenant is the contrast with the lifestyle of neighbouring cultures).

The historic perspective is precisely that within which N.T.Wright seeks to understand the worldview of 1st century Judaism, and within which he presents the ministry of Jesus. From this perspective, the 1st century Jewish understanding of the covenant was that loyalty to the covenant presented the best (and only) means of reversing Israel’s national and political fortunes, and fulfilling her divine destiny. The covenant was, in this sense, regarded as the great end of her national and historic destiny.

By contrast, an emphatic theme of the NT writings is that Israel had consistently covered a supposed (and frequently not so supposed) religiosity with murder and violence towards those who called her back to true loyalty to YHWH, Jesus being no exception, and the Mosaic covenant as it was understood was not in itself the great terminus of Israel’s history - since it highlighted problems in the people for which the Mosaic covenant in itself did not provide a solution.

In this sense, the Mosaic covenant always acquired significance within the wider context of the Genesis narrative, and always suggested of itself a temporary, or incomplete quality, in that there needed to be a way in which God’s plans for his people (and therefore for his creation) were not constantly being undermined by his people’s failure to adhere to the covenant. When Paul provides his amazing commentary on these issues in Romans, especially in chapters 6,7, and 8, he is not inventing a level of moral consciousness which Israel had never exhibited in her history. The OT writings are a record of Israel’s failures - on a national and individual level - and of Israel being brought at frequent intervals to an awareness of those failures. The writings are in themselves calculated to present to Israel her failures - since they are such a dominant theme throughout.

The ‘fault lines’ between OT and NT writings are less conspicuous where the NT writings are seen within a historical context, in which Jesus and the NT writers related to the OT narrative as it was understood by Jews in the 1st century. One has only to look at the arrangement of the texts in the Hebrew scriptures to see this more clearly - the former prophets, which incorporate writings from Joshua to 2 Kings, provide a theologically edited account of Israel’s history which is emphasised in the latter prophets. From Daniel especially (located in the writings rather than the prophets), Israel obtained its belief in an ultimate national vindication and triumph - coloured by her historic experiences under the Maccabees - which form the backcloth to the worldview of Israel in the time of Jesus.

Again, I do feel this is a different argument from the issue of the supposed violence, or sanctioning of violence, of God in the OT - but there again, I suggest that historic context (ie the context of Israel in relation to the practices of neighbouring cultures) may provide at least one key. But I can’t at the moment see the direct relevance of this particular topic (violent and unforgiving God) to the views of N.T.Wright.

two gods?

Certainly Wright isn’t unique among Christian theologian to reconcile the OT God with Jesus’ teachings. Marcion made quite a stir back in the 2nd century claiming the contrary. Two gods, not one, said Marcion; Jesus came to deliver us from the vengeful god of the Jews and the Law. Marcion was excommunicated, but he was a great evangelist — Marcionite churches were a big thing for a few centuries, especially in Asia Minor. Sound intriguing? Check out Marcionism in this Wikipedia entry.

I wonder how far the emerging theological boundaries extend. Does the movement find room for incipient bi-theism?

Wright is right

I read your entry here twice and I still am not sure exactly what your beef is with Wright. Is your problem with Jesus himself or with Wright’s description of this Jesus? And if Wright is the problem, why do we care since most of us recognize that NT Wright is just another fallible Biblical scholar with sometimes great insights into the Scriptures, and other times in error.

Wright is not proposing anything that is breaking news here - he just says it much better than many of us would, so I am simply confused over your problem being with traditional Christian painting of covenantal differences or with something that is specific to Wright’s analysis only.

A violent and unforgiving God!

Peter

You say

it is a questionable stance to maintain that ‘later’ interpretations of the covenant and Israel’s destiny (such as those referred to in Isaiah) are less determinative than ‘earlier’ presentations”

My characterisation of the Mosaic covenant as more determinative than “Israel as light of the world” is not based on the fact that the former predates the latter. It is based on the fact that “Israel as light of the world” is found in only one verse of the OT whereas the theme of Jahweh as the warrior God of Israel who rewards obedience and punishes disobedience is constantly reiterated.

You say

By contrast, an emphatic theme of the NT writings is that Israel had consistently covered a supposed (and frequently not so supposed) religiosity with murder and violence towards those who called her back to true loyalty to YHWH, Jesus being no exception, and the Mosaic covenant as it was understood was not in itself the great terminus of Israel’s history - since it highlighted problems in the people for which the Mosaic covenant in itself did not provide a solution”

Jesus preached a message of peace and love for every human being without exception. He told us to forgive without condition, even our enemies. What Wright says- and, I think, you also say in this para- is that this was also the message of Jahweh. This simply cannot be sustained. Jahweh not only did not encourage love for all mankind but repeatedly acted with murderous violence both towards Israel and her enemies(see my response to Tim for a few of the hundreds of examples to be found in the OT).

You say

I can’t at the moment see the direct relevance of this particular topic (violent and unforgiving God) to the views of N.T.Wright.”

See my preceding comment

Not a violent and unforgiving God

If Jesus preached a very different message from the YHWH of the OT, why did he, and his followers, not emphasise their abhorrence of the God of the OT, and that they were branching out in an entirely new direction? Rather, Jesus and his followers consistently affirmed the OT and the God of the OT - who to Jesus was the Father with whom he shared such an intimate relationship.

I appreciate your point, Paul, which is about the violence in the OT, but I think there are ways of approaching this issue without suggesting that YHWH himself was, essentially, violent and unforgiving.

For instance, we view many of the sanctions of the Levitical holiness code as unduly harsh in comparison with our western humanistic understanding of justice, though I suspect our society and culture is in many ways as violent as anything experienced by ancient Israel. But is that a fair point of comparison? Shouldn’t the comparisons be with the neighbouring cultures of those times - with which Israel was living cheek by jowl even within the borders of Israel? If this is the comparison, then much of Israel’s case law is very advanced and enlightened. Also bearing in mind that God works through cultures - rather than creating some kind of culture that bears no relationship with its historical context.

Likewise the commanded ‘cleansing’ of Canaan by the invading Israelites can seem harsh in the extreme - until we begin to understand the practices of the indigenous inhabitants (as brought to light by contemporary archaeology), the time they had been given to turn from their practices - Genesis 15:16, and that this was a command given at a particular time and context which has not been repeated since.

I don’t think this is trying to defend the indefensible. What amazes me most about the OT is that in key places we get very close to an understanding of YHWH in which we find He is not the savage God at all - but very much in accordance with the picture of God presented and modelled by Jesus.

You overlook that Jesus did not always preach “a message of peace and love for every human being without exception”, but called down violent curses on the Pharisees, and foresaw the most extreme violence coming to Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, in consequence of her refusal to ackowledge his coming as “the day of (her) visitation”, and it could be said, did nothing to prevent it.

In fact Jesus’s reaction to Israel’s coming disaster is very revealing - he wept over Jerusalem, and lamented her refusal to choose for the things which would have brought her peace. This is not far removed from the picture of YHWH in Genesis 6, the early chapters of Jeremiah, Hosea, and the God who revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 34 - who Moses alone, not Israel, saw - Psalm 103:7.

I’m getting on a roll here, but I think you will take my point, which I make whilst conceding that there are, certainly, to our western liberal humanistic mindsets, issues and problems with what God appeared to sanction in the OT, but which is very much not at variance with the positions of any of the NT authors in relation to the OT: not even a squeak of disagreement or protest.

Defending the indefensible?

I don’t think this is trying to defend the indefensible”

Sorry, Peter, I do

What amazes me most about the OT is that in key places we get very close to an understanding of YHWH in which we find He is not the savage God at all - but very much in accordance with the picture of God presented and modelled by Jesus.”

Not often.

There is much in the OT that I love, especially the Psalms and Isaiah. Other large slabs of it, I find repellent- which may well be because I do not understand them properly. However, I find it suspicious that Christianity has tended to pass over Jahweh’s more outrageous manifestations. My main point is that we must take the whole story and not just cherry-pick the bits that suit us. In particular, I think we need to be very careful about explaining away the disagreeable bits by pointing to eg cultural relativities or the particularly heinous sins of those who got zapped (it did not take all that much in the way of being heinous for Jahweh to zap you). The danger with cherry-picking is it works both ways ie it can be used to relativise Jahweh’s nasitness but also his more attractive features

You overlook that Jesus did not always preach “a message of peace and love for every human being without exception”, but called down violent curses on the Pharisees, and foresaw the most extreme violence coming to Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, in consequence of her refusal to ackowledge his coming as “the day of (her) visitation”, and it could be said, did nothing to prevent it.”

I did not draw attention to this in my post but I am well aware of it. Last year I made the following comment on an OST poll

I am asonished at the results of this poll- that 51% of respondents think that those who die without belief in Christ will suffer eternal conscious punishment or worse. This suggests a degree of hubris and callousness that is very disturbing. ”

My view has not changed

Inconsistencies

OK Paul, but there are some serious problems with your position (which is largely to reject the OT deity in favour of a NT deity introduced by Jesus), and I think you would be more consistent by rejecting the whole package.

There are also many passages in Isaiah, not just one verse, in which a future for Israel in relation to the world is predicted - and the OT covenant is increasingly seen within an eschatological context: loyalty to the covenant will precipitate a climactic supernatural intervention of YHWH on Israel’s behalf. This is not a new development in kind, since YHWH had always responded to Israel’s return to Himself by defeating her enemies, but in degree - an ultimate exchange of power would take place in the whole earth through YHWH’s intervention on behalf of Israel.

It is not inconsistent to struggle with the problem passages in the OT in the light of the NT. I simply don’t think you have engaged with the issues I have raised (I don’t actually think you are willing to so engage). I’m not sure Chris’s suggestions offer a better solution (eg YHWH offers Israel “power and privilege” in return for obligations concerning himself). I’m still less sure that it can be said that the old covenant succeeded; in the light of Paul’s comments in Romans, and the outcome of Israel’s national history, that statement needs considerable qualification.

I don’t particularly pick up an openness to discussion in your presentations, Paul. But then, hunkered down in the sands of the outback, the long days broken only by the evening walk to the bilabong, the very harshness of the landscape breeds a certain obduracy.

(Don’t take that personally; in the mythology of this site I have been characterised as a Trappist Cistercian frequenting the company of dubious personalities in murky beer halls in central Europe. It makes the exchanges more interesting).

Two covenants rather than two gods

I agree with you that Wright is mistaken on many points. He would probably grant you that himself. Further, I am critical of the position that Israel was meant to be a light to the nations in the sense that the church is. I appreciate Wright, however, for breaking out of the dominant old paradigm of Protestant theology (forensic justification), and for moving in a better direction.

I do believe the New Testament portrays that God has had a single plan all along; consider, e.g., John 17:24, Ephesians 1:4, 1 Peter 1:20, or Revelation 13:8. However, this “single plan” has to mean that the Fall was planned and expected, rather than throwing a wrench in the works. It also has to mean that the old covenant was never intended to do what the new covenant is designed for. The old covenant may be shown to be inferior to the new covenant in regards to the new covenant agenda: relationship with God, forgiveness, eternal life, the Holy Spirit, etc.; however, I believe the old covenant succeeded in its purpose.

The old covenant, ISTM, was implemented to create a People for YHWH. Out of the polythesitic milieu that existed, God needed to create a People with a strong sense of identity with YHWH, who would develop a history of experiences that would reinforce his leadership, consistency, and covenant faithfulness. God was not only willing to be violent to accomplish this, he promised violence on Israel’s behalf. God was not only willing to provide material rewards for this, he promised health and wealth to Israel. He also threatened violence against Israel, along with poverty and sickness, for covenant-breaking.

Although Israel tended to be polytheistic, the old covenant worked. By the time of Christ, the Jews were by-and-large monotheistic believers in YHWH and intent on doing his will. Far from being lost in the recesses of some dusty temple, God’s law was being reproduced massively and the various religious factions of the day debated how best to follow it. This was the condition God set out to create in the old covenant, so Jesus was born and shortly thereafter Israel’s narrative took a confusing turn (with the destruction of the temple and the loss of Canaan). God moved on to a new stage of his plan, while non-believing Jews did not.

Israel was by no means abandoned, but rather was the first-fruits of those blessed by the new covenant. All of the first Christians and many of the early Christians in the first couple of centuries were Jews.

Where you see two deities, I see two covenants. In the first, God promised people what they wanted (power and priviledge) in exchange for providing him what he needed. In the second, God promises what we need (reconciliation and relationship) in exchange for our agreement to do what he wants (ministry of reconciliation). Jesus was offered political victory right at the outset, but he eschewed it in favor of pursuasion. Yet in the end we see more violence described, and Jesus leading armies, wearing blood-covered clothing, with a sword coming out of his mouth “to smite the nations” and an iron rod with which to rule them. God is not either all blood and violence or love and blessing. God is both, consistent with his self-revelation.

alternative reconciliations

This thread has been crossing others in my mind the last few days. I was somewhat disheartened when Paul rejected the Marcionite two-gods suggestion. If one is persuaded that the cruel and punitive OT God is irreconcilable with Jesus’ God of love and forgiveness, what other alternative interpretations suggest themselves besides the usual variants on Christian orthodoxy? Here are a few that come to mind, roughly arrayed from less to more heretical.

1. Mankind became progressively more enlightened, gradually coming to a kindler, gentler understanding of who God is. This progressive enlightenment is reflected in evolving Scriptural representations of God. Perhaps God always reveals himself in the same way and our eyes gradually open to who he is. Or maybe God progressively reveals himself more clearly through history, as we become increasingly better able to comprehend him. This is the usual liberal Judeo-Christian trajectory, I believe.

2. God himself became progressively more enlightened, gradually becoming a kinder and gentler version of himself. Maybe before he had full self-awareness he thought of himself as multiple gods. Then he consolidated his persona and became monotheistic. Then he became obsessed with his power, righteousness, justice, etc. Later he realized that only a God worthy of the name can forgive and love the unlovable. There’s a sort of Hegelian theme to this one.

3. God made some mistakes in the past, but he repented and changed. Maybe Christ wasn’t just an atonement for man’s sins; maybe he was also a token of God’s own repentance for his former big-bad-daddy ways. I’ve never actually read this interpretation before, but I’d bet big bucks it’s been thought of many times over the centuries. On a related note, here’s a reflection by Pete Rollins called “Sins of the Father.”

On judgment day a summons went forth to the sea, commanding that she give up her dead, and a voice called out to Hades that the prisoners be released from their chains. Then the angels gathered up all humanity and brought them to the great white throne of God. All creation waited as a great angel opened the books. The first to be judged stood up and approached the text. As the accused looked at the charges all humanity spoke as one, ‘When we were hungry you gave us nothing to eat. When we were thirsty you gave us nothing to drink. We were strangers and you did not invite us in. We needed clothes and you did not clothe us. We were sick and in prison and you did not look after us’. Silence descended upon all of creation as the people pronounced their judgment on God.

 

Rollins founded Ikon, a self-proclaimed cyndicate of emergent Christian heretics that meets irregularly during business hours at some Belfast pub. Apparently Ikon has put together a whole liturgical installation based on Sins of the Father, involving hip-hop and God knows what other distasteful youth-culture detritus. Rollins wrote a book, How (Not) to Speak of God, that’s been subjected to protracted and often tangential discussion here.

Surely there are other alternative reconciliations to be considered; perhaps someone else can add to the list. I’m wondering which one is favored by our persistent antipodean friend.

Alternative Reconciliations

John, I wonder about these things every time I go to pray.

I tend to think God has always had some kind of ultimate oneness that is potential and love and the I AM part of God. Mystics of every persuation seem to affirm this. But whenever anybody starts going potential to to expression…well that’s where it gets tricky. Perhaps G-d as in the Ultimate Isness That is Love developed a personality, or personalities in process of creating Something out Isness, or nothing, and the personality, or personalities are on changing, while the ultimate Source, which is ultimate love and oneness - but unexpressed — remains steadfast. And though this may sound New-Agey, maybe the whole point of creation and life and allowing manifestation of potential to lead to imperfection and various responses to that imperfection is for God AND those made in God’s image to become consciously manifest through expression and relationships. So perhaps in a way, we are helping God in God’s journey, just is helping us, transforming us and redeeming us on ours.

Thoughts?

The long silence

The extract from “Sins of the Father”/Peter Rollins is so similar to “The Long Silence”, that I assume it must be a conscious parody. In case anyone on the OST website has not come across “The Long Silence”, here it is:

The Long Silence

At the end of time, billions of people were seated on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with cringing shame - but with belligerence.

Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?”, snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror … beatings … torture … death!”

In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no crime but being black !”

In another crowd there was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault.” Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world.

How lucky God was to live in Heaven, where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man.

Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind.

Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.

At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved.

For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.

Persistent and antipodean

1. Mankind became progressively more enlightened etc…”

The trouble with this is that it does great violence to the text- instead of being about God’s dealings with man, it is about man’s changing viewof God. I think I’m agin this one.

2. God himself became progressively more enlightened, gradually becoming a kinder and gentler version of himself. Maybe before he had full self-awareness he thought of himself as multiple gods. Then he consolidated his persona and became monotheistic. Then he became obsessed with his power, righteousness, justice, etc. Later he realized that only a God worthy of the name can forgive and love the unlovable. There’s a sort of Hegelian theme to this one.

3. God made some mistakes in the past, but he repented and changed. Maybe Christ wasn’t just an atonement for man’s sins; maybe he was also a token of God’s own repentance for his former big-bad-daddy ways.”

This deals much more honestly and comprehensively with the text and is very close to the picture presented in Jack Miles’ two brilliant books (God a Biography and Christ a Crisis in the Life of God). I find it a very fruitful and challenging way of looking at the bible and in particular of understanding why Christ had to die ( far more persuasive to me than penal substitution).

However I do not accept it completely, I suppose because of reservations about the idea that God changes.

So I am afraid I cannot answer your question.

fair enough

That’s a helpful narrowing down. These books by Miles I’m not familiar with, but they sound interesting — I’ll try to track down one or both.

link repair

Oops, I messed up my html. Try again on the online discussion of Rollins’ book: it is here.

Taking it personally

I simply don’t think you have engaged with the issues I have raised (I don’t actually think you are willing to so engage)”

I don’t particularly pick up an openness to discussion in your presentations, Paul”

Don’t take that personally”

Er…how else can I take it?

The questions you pose are ones that can always be posed to the participants in discussion, especially website discussion. Do I understand and take seriously what my collocutor says? Do I admit the points that ought to be admitted and change my mind accordingly? Is the whole thing an ego trip in which I am less interested in arriving at a better understanding than asserting myself. However, when such charges are laid as generalities, they act merely as conversation stoppers. My own assessment is that I have tried to respond to your points (eg by picking out particular sections of your posts and specifically commenting on them) and I have admitted the cogency of several of them, as against what I have had to say. However, I will try to do better.

your position … is largely to reject the OT deity in favour of a NT deity introduced by Jesus, and I think you would be more consistent by rejecting the whole package”

I reject nothing.

What I am trying to do is get an appreciation of the Bible which is comprehensive and balanced and which does not distort it in the interest of piety or pre-established positions.

There are also many passages in Isaiah, not just one verse, in which a future for Israel in relation to the world is predicted - and the OT covenant is increasingly seen within an eschatological context etc….”

I am still of the view that this is a minor theme by comparison with Yahweh Israel’s Lord of Hosts who punishes and rewards. Perhaps I am wrong- do you want to spell it out?

A hot day in the outback

Paul - well, thanks - I think. Taking your last point, you seem to be saying still that eschatology is a minor theme in Isaiah and the OT generally, and that the central theme is a God who punishes and rewards.

I concur with your view that we have, in OT and NT, a God who punishes and rewards. Is that in itself the heart of the problem? It is my view, however, that this is a very reduced way of looking at what are, perhaps, more overarching themes within which the issues of punishment and reward are couched. Eschatology becomes a far greater theme, especially from Greek period onwards, but not disconnected from the elements of punishment and reward. But eschatology always was a significant theme in the OT. This is uncontestable, isn’t it?

I must think my points are weightier than you seem to have conceded - eg that Jesus and the NT authors never allude to difficulties with the OT presentation of God, and clearly think their understanding presents a fulfilment of His purposes on the basis of His presentation in the OT. Why do you think this was the case? (Eg was there a conspiracy by the early church to cover up the scandal of YHWH’s character?)

The issue of context in the sanctions for the Leviticus holiness code is again not alluded to by yourself. Again, it is a serious issue; it would be unlikely that a God who was working through cultural realities of the times, which He clearly is in the OT, would suddenly present a set of cultural requirements which had no connection with those realities and expectations.

My view is that much of the OT case law is not what Moses bore direct from God on Mount Sinai, but was an outworking of principles so received within the cultural context of the times. Further, the penalties were severe, as a deterrent from adopting the practices of neighbouring peoples within the land (not just outside the borders of Canaan), which in themselves were (according to assertions elsewhere in the writings) the outcome of several generations of unchecked decadence. Again, archaeology has illustrated what some of these practices were, and tended to confirm the view suggested in the OT.

It is also not conventional piety to argue that the severity of the sanctions, and demonstrations of severity, had a great deal to do with the importance attached to maintaining the distinctiveness of a people through whom YHWH wished to express His eschatological purposes as given to Abraham. Many of the sanctions only make sense if they are viewed within such a cultural context - ie the need for differentiation and distinctiveness.

Returning to Isaiah - eschatology is a major theme of the book, eg. Isaiah 2, 4:2-6, 9:1-7, 11, 12:1-6, 24-27, 28:16ff, 29:22-24, 30:19-33, 32-36, 40-44, 49, 50-55, 60-66. Much of the prophecy concerning future blessing for Israel is also couched in terms of Israel being a blessing to the whole world - hence the phrases ‘ends of the earth’, ‘light to the gentiles’, etc. It is not insignificant that Isaiah especially resonates through the language of the NT - in the gospels, acts and letters. Paul himself identifies his commission to the gentiles in Isaianic language. He clearly thought Isaiah was being fulfilled in himself, and in the phenomenon of the church. Jesus demonstrated much of the same. (Eg his answer to the envoys from the imprisoned John the Baptist is in terms of Isaiah’s eschatological vision).

Having said all this, there would have been no Marcion and no Marcionite church, and presumably no protest from yourself, if there had been no hint of culpable vengefulness in YHWH in the OT. Likewise Gnosticism in its various forms has always tended to contain a ‘two gods’ dimension, which arises from a similar reaction. If you are not going down this route, it’s interesting that you observe weaknesses within alternative views presented by the authors you refer to.

I personally feel the issues you raise have to be faced head on, on the basis of not just a few isolated glimpses into a compassionate YHWH, but threads running throughout the OT. (Eg the ‘compassionate, gracious God’ formula, taken from Exodus 34 and recapitulated throughout the OT, the insights given to Abraham, Moses, and throughout the prophets). So I wouldn’t resort to saying simply that the ‘harsh’ YHWH is simply how hardened Israel as a whole saw him, through their own distorted lenses. Israel’s lenses were certainly distorted, but YHWH was also severe.

My personal conclusion is that the ‘severe’ YHWH has to be seen in the light of presented realities which shed a very different light on his person in the OT, and which do lend a coherence to the whole. Which is the core person? I suggest that Jesus and the NT authors saw no discrepancies within the person of YHWH, and that if they are to be taken seriously, this should be a guiding principle in looking at YHWH in the OT. If not, then there is something flawed about the whole package.

Returning to Wright, which is where the thread began, I still draw attention to the issue that whatever one thinks about YHWH as a person in the OT, the most significant interpretive keys have to be what Jews in the 1st century thought about the OT as the paradigm for their history at the time, and how Jesus and the NT authors subsequently related their own interpretation to the Jewish worldview and mindset. I haven’t yet seen on this thread a convincing attempt to bring a critique to Wright’s methodology and arguments.

To return to my very first contribution on this thread, I would be interested in pursuing such a critique - as I’m not aware that anyone has brought serious objections to Wright. With all due respect to Paul, I think the issue of YHWH’s character in the OT is throwing up a lot of dust which is obscuring the issue which was first raised. The dust thrown up has got us onto another, equally interesting track, but I don’t think it is one which particularly engages with Wright.

More tales from the outback

I read somewhere that to every complex problem, there is a simple answer which is wrong. My characterisation of the ‘light of the world’ theme as being a single verse in Isaiah is plainly wrong. The theme of Israel as the means by which the world is to be saved is obviously a lot weightier than that. Your comments, and those of Andrew have led me to think harder about the objection I want to bring against Wright.

However, as you will see, I have not really resiled from my position.

My objection to Wright’s thesis can be summarily stated as follows

1. Wright says that Israel was to be the means by which the world was to be saved and evil defeated.

2. Israel’s specific role was to be the light of the world (it is often unclear whether Wright, in making this statement, is saying that that is what the scriptures reveal; or that it is what many first century Jews thought; or that it is what Jesus thought).

3. Being the light of the world meant, for Jesus, forgoing the use of violence and choosing the path of peace. However “[the Jews} had misread the signs of their own vocation and were claiming divine backing for a perversion of it” p.446 JVG. Hence they declined Jesus’ invitation to choose peace

4. Wright acknowledges that the zealous holy war was a tradition belonging within Israel’s story from its earliest days. He implies without quite saying that it was a temptation to which successive generations in Israel succumbed, contrary to the warnings of the prophets. p.448 JVG

5. But what he fails to bring out is that the use of violence was one of the central themes of the Old Testament. Jahweh is Lord of Hosts, a Warrior God who deals in death and destruction and encourages- in fact, demands- that Israel to do likewise.

6. Accordingly, Jesus has no right to attack the Jews who refused his message of peace on the grounds that they were pursuing their own unscriptural agenda, for the scriptures gave every warrant necessary for just such an agenda.

7. Since Jesus did obviously passionately promote the way of peace he must have been attacking not the Jews of his day as such but rather the scriptures they used to defend their program of violence

It is this which Wright does not front up to and which is my objection to his thesis.

You say

I must think my points are weightier than you seem to have conceded - eg that Jesus and the NT authors never allude to difficulties with the OT presentation of God, and clearly think their understanding presents a fulfilment of His purposes on the basis of His presentation in the OT. Why do you think this was the case? (Eg was there a conspiracy by the early church to cover up the scandal of YHWH’s character?)”

I agree that the NT authors never allude to difficulties with the OT presentation of God, and a very puzzling thing it is too: the God of the NT is very different to the God of the OT. John Doyle in his post in this thread titled ‘alternative reconciliations’ gave some very interesting possibilities. They say the mark of maturity is being able to live with ambiguity. Well, that’s what I’m doing on this issue.

There are other points in what you and Andrew have said which I’ll try to come back to.

Jesus and God

I am very hesitant to jump into this fray especially as the topic is one that requires real scholarship. Still, Paul’s comment on the surprising lack of OT critique echoes one of my concerns, so here goes.

The key is Jesus’s teaching and the new covenant that He declared. The apostles take it as given that the OT has been ‘put in perspective’ by Jesus. We have John to thank for “he who has seen me has seen the father” yet this is implicit in all the four gospels. From what I can understand of Jesus’s approach to the OT, it is that the OT definitely reveal God but that the interpretation or understanding of who God is, is lacking. That is, lacking in the scriptures themselves.

He clearly separates out what God intends for the law and what the people instead made of it. This is clearest in His teaching on divorce but it comes through on many points that He raises in the Sermon on the Mount.

The way I reconcile these clues is to see the OT not just as a record of God’s saving acts (that would accurately reflect God’s character) but also as the voice of the people in response to what God is doing.

Very insubstantial and I admit very lacking in rigorous method, but that’s what my understanding is.

Live to serve : Serve to live

violence: divergence, convergence, emergence

Paulhartigan’s recent post was the first time I’d ever heard of Jack Miles’ books; within 24 hours I came across another reference to Miles. Chance or Fate: you decide.

To assemble all of Scripture into an internally coherent systematic theology has always been the challenge facing Judeo-Christian orthodoxy. Many systems have been put forward over the centuries. I learned Calvin’s; Wright’s is another. Perhaps Wright does a better job of it, though I’m not in a position to judge. These orthodox systems require that all of God’s actions as recounted in the Bible be deemed consistently and perfectly good, even in instances where a modern mind might read jealousy and petulance and cruelty into God’s actions.

I suppose one of the questions facing emergent post-evangelicalism is whether, to what extent, and on what grounds theology will move away from traditional orthodoxy. Some of the early chapters of Genesis have always seemed at odds with the generally-accepted understanding of how the world works. Recently the emergent church has been more tolerant of non-literal understandings of these texts. For example, the Creation and Flood narratives are now commonly regarded as exemplars of a mythopoetic literary genre common in ancient Near Eastern writings. Presumably God is able to speak truth through myth, if we have ears to hear.

What about passages where God acts violently? Other tribes attributed success in warfare to their gods: perhaps the Biblical God’s warlike actions should be understood in the context of a warrior-god genre, where the writer creates a battle myth to illustrate Yahweh’s dominance over all gods and peoples. This sort of maneuver preserves Biblical inspiration at a price that seems to be getting smaller all the time. It’s possible to go very far in this direction; e.g., post-liberal John Caputo says in The Weakness of God that Jesus’ life as presented in the Gospels should be read as an extended parable.

I doubt whether “mainstream” post-evangelical hermeneutics will shift so radically any time soon. It’s partly a question of how much variation on a theme will be tolerated by the new protectors of the faith. There’s already a surprising amount of variability even within the old boundaries, as evidenced by some of the threads on this blog. Some suggestions have been put forward regarding the core elements of the Christian faith, yet even those are probably debatable. For the foreseeable future is the emerging trajectory liable to be one of convergence or divergence?

OT, NT

Something I see as problematic for Caputo’s hermeneutic is the substantial differences between the Old Testament texts and the New Testament texts. The latter pose far fewer questions of origin and context (from what I understand). Similarly, though arguments for Christianity from Genesis are usually pretty weak (though I don’t wish to revisit the evolution ‘debate’ here), arguments from the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are substantially stronger (though clearly not enough to provide any kind of foundational ‘proof’ for Xn belief).

I do believe that covenantal considerations moderate the ‘evils’ of YHWH in the OT testament to a significant extent. He does have a ‘wild side’ however, and I think that Jesus’ “he who has seen me has seen the father” is the appropriate interpretive lens for understanding YHWH in the OT. Whatever part of YHWH in the OT is inconsistent with the vigorous covenantal love expressed in the life of teachings of Jesus should be rejected. To me, this seems consistent with the ways in which the NT writers re-appropriate the Hebrew Scriptures (with their talk of ‘fulfillment’).

God: violent or benevolent?

Maybe the challenge to us today - it doesn’t seem to have been a challenge to the NT authors - of the apparently questionable ethical activities of God in the very varied assembly of texts of the OT writings, raises another question: how else should the deity have acted, given the groundplan for his basis of operations through a nation living amongst other nations? (That’s assuming he is open to suggestions).

Nation states and their rulers engage in violence with competing nation states and empires. That is as true today as it was then. It’s part of the territory of realpolitik - ‘war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means’. It’s part of the system - unless one could visualise Israel as a contemporary Sweden or Switzerland living as lambs and doves amongst the voracious wolves and serpents of the ancient middle east. Jesus radically changed the groundplan, for reasons which could be enumerated. But it seems to me one should take seriously the issue of the OT deity (or any transcendent deity) working within the national, political and cultural contexts as they existed - in all their fallenness. He (YHWH) didn’t create these contexts - they were the product of a world spinning out of control, as portrayed in early Genesis. Israel of course was something he created - but it still operated in the same world dimension as other nation states, though with YHWH’s apparent intention of presenting an alternative model.

I suppose the OT deity could have created an entirely other-worldly nation state in Israel, in which non-violence was always protected from the predations of other states by magical supernatural intervention. But that the deity worked through warrior people in armed conflict, and was described as a God of war, seems more in keeping with his policy of working along the same grain or in the same worldly dimension as the nations of the world, rather than operating continuously through magical supernatural interventions - although the OT contains its fair share of these too. If the latter were to be the norm, the question would arise: at what stage does a nation cease to belong to this earth at all (if God always supernaturally imposes his will, ethically and supernaturally, on his own people, as well as on others)?

One could say the same, or something similar, about YHWH’s sanctioning of violence as penalties for internal infringements of law within the state he brought into being. Given the contextual, cultural norms of the time (concerning laws and penalties), and the need to bring home the seriousness with which YHWH (through Moses) took opposition to the practices and behaviour of neighbouring peoples (even within the land, as Israel’s neighbours), how else was the imprimatur of YHWH to be given to these laws? What alternatives were there to death by stoning for infringements which required capital punishment, and maybe an expression of the collective will of the entire community? There are good reasons why particular laws and their penalties are not normative for today, although it’s interesting that a similar kind of imposition of law and penalty has brought an end to the anarchy of lawless militias in the Mogadishu of Somalia. The more lawless the society, the greater the need for harsh sanctions? The harsher the sanction, the greater the emphasis on the nature of the offence so penalised - in Israel’s case, its association with the cultic practices of the neighbouring communities?

It’s interesting to note how YHWH’s attitude to violence, when examined carefully, is often at the least ambiguous, if not explicitly disapproving of it. One thinks of the prohibition on David building the temple, on the grounds of his being ‘a man of blood’. Or how often kings who engaged in armed conflict for national protection or advancement, and who may have been, on the whole, national role models, had their blind spots, feet of clay, Achilles heels, whichever way you want to look at it. Even monarchy seems not to have been a direct intention of YHWH, and the deliverers of the book of Judges to have been stop-gap provision for the failures of Israel rather than the blue-print for Israel’s national identity through her warrior credentials.

I’m suggesting that apparently obvious ethical problems (from our perspective) concerning the nature and mode of operations of the OT deity, are often not quite so simple when examined carefully. Also on the issue of systematic theologies, which we all have in one form or another, I’m not sure the object is “To assemble all of Scripture into an internally coherent systematic theology”, or that “These orthodox systems require that all of God’s actions as recounted in the Bible be deemed consistently and perfectly good”. I think that is overstating the case. There is still room for uncertainty - even within systems which seek to provide harmonising perspectives. It is perfectly possible (to my mind) to hold that God is essentially benevolent, even when some actions seem not to agree with such a belief. New, and previously hidden or undiscovered perspectives can provide different understanding. My assumption, taken from the unifying perspective provided by Jesus, is that YHWH is essentially benevolent. Evidence which belies this belief may eventually undermine it altogether, but the proof from my own experience (increasing with time), combined with the experience of the church from over two millennia, and the combined perspective of both on the relationship of OT writings to the NT, suggest that the belief may actually not be without foundation. But it’s always fascinating and instructive to have the view challenged, and always worth further debate.

Incidentally, I’m slightly disappointed, having now realised that John Doyle is not an English armchair theologian descendant of Conan Doyle. The spelling of ‘maneuver’ in the previous post gave it away.

Alia tempora alii mores?

Peter,

You suggest that Jahweh’s behaviour is to be excused on the grounds that he had to work in an environment of violence. His only option if he were not to use violence would have been to manufacture a peaceful Israel by supernatural interventions.

There is no reason to suppose that the environment in Jahweh’s violent period was unique in human history. Violence has always been with us. If Jahweh was justified in wreaking death and destruction 2800 years ago, the same applies at any period before or since.

Further, you suggest the only options available to Jahweh were to accept that violence was the way the world worked or to protect Israel from its necessity by supernatural interventions. But as you also point out, Jahweh intervened supernaturally in the path of violence, so why not in the path of peace. In any event the dichotomy is a false one. Christ showed that these were not the only options- that there was a way of dealing with violence that involved self renunciation, love and forgiveness.

The same considerations apply to your suggestion that the brutal punishments for ethical infringements legislated by Jahweh were justified by the practices of the times. Are we to suppose that human beings are morally worse in one period than another and that Canaa 2800 years ago was particularly sunk in moral turpitude? Is our society better than the Canaan societies of those times- and if not should there be similar penalties for moral infringements?

You say

Also on the issue of systematic theologies, which we all have in one form or another, I’m not sure the object is “To assemble all of Scripture into an internally coherent systematic theology”, or that “These orthodox systems require that all of God’s actions as recounted in the Bible be deemed consistently and perfectly good”. I think that is overstating the case.”

It is important get a clear understanding of the facts about the differences in the New and Old Testaments before attempting interpretation- and the tendency of Christianity has been to ignore or gloss over the facts of violent Jahweh.

Christianity has done this in part to protect the idea of an unchanging God - and that (I would suggest) lies behind your own defence of God’s behaviour: it’s the same loving God but he had to deal with a particular situation that required him to be violent. An alternative view is that God’s character develops- this is the view of Jack Miles. A third is that the scriptures are about man’s changing understanding of God and not, as they purport to be, about God’s dealings with man.

Alia tempora, alii mores - yes, up to a point

Paul - I accept the general thrust of your criticisms of my defence of ‘violence’ in the OT: but purely because I share the same liberal, humanistic distaste of violence as yourself.

I do think it is anachronistic, however, to assume that societies and cultures of 1500 AD in the middle east can be viewed with the identical lenses, assumptions and mindsets we apply to society and culture today. At the very least, we have to make the effort of historic contextualisation, which I don’t think you have done.

You oversimplify the alternatives in setting a God who intervened in the path of violence against a God who failed to intervene in the path of peace. My point is that the supposed endorsement of violence by YHWH is not quite so simple and wholesale as this kind of dichotomy suggests. The cracks in the argument are overlooked by yourself.

Concerning the harmonisation of OT and NT, and God in particular, an outstanding problem (for your position) is that it is not just Christianity in more recent times which has attempted such a harmonisation, but a harmony was assumed and practised by Jesus himself and his immediate followers. The God of Jesus was the God of the Old Testament. At the very least, this should prompt us to return to the OT and look again at the picture we obtain of God.

I think there are parallels between, say, Somalia today and ancient OT society. Application of law with severity of sanctions becomes increasingly necessary according to the lawlessness of the conditions and the subjects to whom the law applies. The severity of strategy which was enjoined by YHWH concerning the inhabitants of Canaan could, of course, be an invented self-justification by the bloodthirsty and land-hungry invaders, but it does equally find some explanation in what archaeology has made known about the original societies and their culture, and in a much overlooked incident in the narrative history hundreds of years earlier concerning YHWH, Abraham and the destiny of the Amorite inhabitants of Canaan - unless that too is said to be a backward rewriting of history by the same self-justifying invaders. The problem with such a developed line of thinking is that it undermines entirely the history of the people of God on which their identifying narrative purports to stand. All well and good perhaps, but this perspective also requires that we call into question the integrity and credibility of the entire NT, including Jesus. To which I would say, if that’s the position you adopt, adopt it consistently. You can’t have a credible Jesus and an OT narrative resting on distortions, fabrications and a deity who has to be rejected or modified in the light of subsequently greater moral enlightenment.

Not having read Jack Miles, it is impossible for me to comment on what he says, but the idea that God’s character itself changed is one which I think you yourself felt was a weak argument. However, it is credible to argue that, in the light of the coming of Jesus, and his actions, some aspects of God’s character came more to the fore than had previously been the case, or had previously been possible. As John has it, the law came through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (And from his fulness we have all received grace upon grace). It can also be argued that what God had wanted came through Jesus - toward which the law (Torah and apodictic) was tending. This is precisely what the NT affirms. What had gone before did not mean the non-existence of grace, peace and love, but that these expressions of God’s person were less obvious, because less possible. Less possible, because of the conflict in the early sections of the narrative history, as well as its subsequent development, between the actions of a benevolent deity, and the power-hungry actions of a human race, skewing the intended divine outcome for creation, and causing it to spin out of its intended orbit. The conflicts necessarily, in my view, invoked a different face of God from the face which came into view through the appearance of Jesus. The conflicts received a climactic resolution in the actions of Jesus - especially in his death and resurrection, facilitating a face of God which has changed not only the lives of those who believe in him but also the mode of operation of God in the world ever since. In short, God could express himself more completely, because the actions of Jesus enabled such a more complete expression.

The idea that people’s understanding of God also changed with the coming of Jesus undoubtedly contains some truth - since Jesus clearly understood God differently from many of his contemporaries. A careful reading of the OT shows that much of Israel’s history, and the means through which God worked, were not necessarily his preferred method of working; even Moses was vouchsafed a revelation of God which was far removed from the severe God whose nature seemed to be encapsulated in the covenant of harsh punishments and rewards. Jesus however was not presenting a different narrative with a different God to believe in; it was a continuation of the same narrative; the conclusion to which he took it cast a different light on the nationalistic assumptions of his compatriots - which they had acquired from their history. Incidentally, I don’t accept the view that it was entirely reasonable for Israel to believe that God’s destiny for her would be along the nationalistic lines which had dominated the history in the OT. There is too much honest doubt cast on that line of thinking throughout Israel’s national history. Nowhere in the NT is the suggestion, however, that the God who acted through Israel’s history in the OT had either essentially changed, or had been misrepresented by those writings.

Nevertheless, there remains a YHWH who either directly sanctioned extreme violence, or in whose name violence was sanctioned, without any subsequent retraction. So is there an issue? I’m arguing that it does not prove, and has not proved, as intellectually credible to dislodge this God or bring his credibility into question, as it might appear, and that the OT writings themselves are much more complex than the ‘dislodging’ or ‘credibility’ scenarios allow.

Jesus & the OT

Philip Yancey has said that he gets away with so much in conservative circles because he just quotes scripture at the fundamentalists. What if Jesus had some of his own thoughts about God’s portrayal in the OT, but had a calling to work within his own tradition to bring to redemption, truth and grace to the world into which he was born?

I can’t say one way or the other how much truth the OT narrative speaks about God versus man’s interpretation of God, but either way, it seems possible Jesus utilized the Scriptures to work God’s purpose for both Israel and the world without necessarily endorsing everything attributed to God in the OT. Or maybe, Jesus’ human side wrestled with the very questions we are askin and simply chose to be faithful to his calling even in the face of unanswered questions, just like he was faithful on the cross, whilst still quoting the psalmist and expressing a sense of being abandoned by God…

war and God

Yesterday’s elections have thrown a spotlight on the ambiguous relationship between God, nation, and war. Though a significant proportion of my fellow-countrymen might disagree, Americans are not God’s chosen people. The majority of American evangelicals supported the war in Iraq, and I would venture to assert that most of them believed God had specifically directed Bush to launch the war. Of course the gradual decline in popular support for the war means nothing as to whether Bush’s discernment of God’s will was accurate. Still, even entertaining the idea that God would promote a pre-emptive war in order to protect the homeland is surely an Old Testament idea transported into New Testament times. Our individualistic, humanistic era clearly hasn’t extinguished the all-too-human instinct of powerful nations and rulers to invoke God’s blessing on its military exploits.

In criticizing Yahweh’s Old Testament violence it’s possible that we’re anachronistically imposing a more enlightened ethic on a more barbaric historical era. It’s also possible that God’s support of his own people may at times have required him to crush the other nations militarily. It’s also possible that, once Christ came, God stopped taking sides in wars. Practically any interpretation is conceivable. The overriding issue is whether the Old Testament writers are reliable in ascribing responsibility to God for human undertakings and outcomes. I have no new insights to offer on how best to answer that question. Hopefully the canonical authors received clearer signals than everybody else who has overinterpreted God’s intentions in human warfare down through the ages. (Maybe God really did tell Bush to go to war in Iraq, but now he’s punishing America for its corruption and hubris?)

The original post tied God’s O.T. violence with Wright’s theology, and perhaps there is a connection. Christ’s atonement and resurrection made it possible to graft non-Jews individually into the collective people of God: isn’t that Wright’s idea? We are dead to the Jewish Law and its severe system of punishments. But does God still act on behalf of his collective people in a way that’s continuous with his Old Testament dealings on behalf of Israel? If so, does that suggest that God might support holy wars, crusades, etc. in the New Testament era? Or perhaps I’m off the track here.

Is God on our side?

John

The original post notes that Wright argues that Israel is being disloyal to its real vocation in refusing Jesus’s invitation to reject the way of violence. My objection is that this simply ignores that Jahweh is a warrior God with a very large investment in violence; and that the Jews of Jesus’s day cannot be accused of being disloyal to their real vocation by declining to embrace non- violence.

You ask

But does God still act on behalf of his collective people in a way that’s continuous with his Old Testament dealings on behalf of Israel? If so, does that suggest that God might support holy wars, crusades, etc. in the New Testament era?”

In my view the answer is a strong ‘no’. God-supported holy wars are completely at odds with Christ’s teaching that we must act in the world with love and forgiveness, including for our enemies.

Anachronism and the OT

Peter,

You say

I do think it is anachronistic, however, to assume that societies and cultures of 1500 AD in the middle east can be viewed with the identical lenses, assumptions and mindsets we apply to society and culture today. At the very least, we have to make the effort of historic contextualisation, which I don’t think you have done”.

What do you mean by “anachronistic” here?

It could mean that I am not taking sufficient account of the difference in circumstances-eg that I do not appreciate just how depraved the Canaan peoples were and hence that God had to really sock it to them.

My response to that is twofold

- It is unreasonable to suppose that the Canaan peoples were morally worse than many others in mankind’s violent past and where God has not acted similarly;

- Whether or not the preceding point is valid, Jesus showed that violence was not the way to deal with violence. It is precisely the God revealed by Jesus which stands in such sharp contrast to the Lord of Hosts.

You also suggest that I am judging the interaction between Jahweh and Canaan society from the vantage point of 20th century Western liberalism (I would add, as that has been formed by the Christian tradition). And you are of course right.

But then, you are doing exactly the same thing

- in claiming that the difference in conditions justified Jahweh’s behaviour you are assuming that our society’s views of morality are the standard by which Jahweh should be judged

- in suggesting there are parallels between Somalia today and ancient OT society (ie brutal measures have been shown to work now just as they did then), you are likewise assuming that there is a neutral vantage point from which morality can be judged- namely, the one we occupy.

Alternatively, “anachronism” could refer to the idea, drawn from social anthropology, that societies of 1400-600 BCE are hugely different from the ones we live in today and in many ways are impenetrable to our eyes. In particular, the notion of moral right and wrong is very different, indeed incommensurable so that it is impossible to use our ethical criteria to apply to those cultures. By the same reasoning, Jahweh is a social construct of those times and cannot be judged from our point of view.

While the view of social anthropology is perfectly reasonable, it approaches God from the point of view of science (or, if not science, then human reason), whereas we as believers approach God with the eye of faith. But where that leaves us, in terms of violent Jahweh, I am not quite sure.

You say

Concerning the harmonisation of OT and NT, and God in particular, an outstanding problem (for your position) is that it is not just Christianity in more recent times which has attempted such a harmonisation, but a harmony was assumed and practised by Jesus himself and his immediate followers. The God of Jesus was the God of the Old Testament.

This is a problem for my position but it is matched by an equivalent problem on your side; namely what to do with the mass of material which portrays Jahweh as violent, unforgiving etc.

As a possible means of escaping my horn of the dilemma, I might perhaps argue that the writers of the New Testament saw their credibility as depending on a strong connection between Jesus and the scriptures and they therefore ignored what appears to be Jesus’s radical critique of some of the tradition to be found there. The problems from your point of view, and possibly mine, are obvious.

Your response, in attempting to escape the other horn of the dilemma, is that Jahweh is not really all that bad if you take account of the circumstances etc. For the reasons I have given, this is not persuasive to me.

Anachronism, contexts and joined-up thinking.

My use of the word ‘anachronism’ was fairly straightforward and simple: before we import values and standards of our own with which to judge attitudes and actions of previous eras, there needs to be some effort to understand the context of that era, its practices, attitudes, worldview. Liberal, humanistic attitudes are a product of several centuries, and have only fairly recently settled around what we in the western, developed world take to be normative. These values are also, as you have pointed out, greatly influenced by the spread of a Christian ethic and value system, which have permeated and changed cultures across the world. Your response to my point was to sidestep it by mockery (of a gentle kind, of course).

I am no more neutral than you in my value judgements; I do not think that all ethical systems are value-neutral, and do think that some are better than others. I was simply pointing out, through the example of Somalia, that context has a great deal to do with which courses of action may become ethically applicable in different circumstances. It seems to me unarguable that cultures where lawlessness is endemic require a different application of law and penalties from those where rule of law is generally accepted.

I don’t take the view that ancient societies and cultures are impenetrable and that we cannot evaluate them according to different ethical standards. I do take the view that such a process (of evaluation) needs to be done with much more awareness of context than you seem to allow, or think possible.

Your final point is the most interesting. I don’t think you would get far with an argument that the writers of the NT were engaged in a sophisticated scam - a disingenuous use of scripture to cover up what they knew was actually a rejection of one kind of religious belief in favour of another. But there is undoubtedly a discontinuity as well as continuity in the redirection the OT narrative by Jesus, and the interpretation of the governing ethical standards which were to accompany that redirection.

Did that discontinuity extend to a view of God? Jack Miles seems to argue, from an entirely misconceived though engaging literary approach to the OT and NT writings, that God decided to change the ground rules as an act of desperation over their failure. Hence Jesus’s ethic of loving one’s enemies, in the face of a previous ethic of putting them to death. But I don’t think anybody would deduce such a view of God from Jesus himself. Jesus brought a suprising turn in many of the things he said and did, but in nothing did he suggest that the God of the OT had become a changed person, or should be re-evaluated according to some different and better ethical standards.

Again, I think contextualisation is necessary in understanding what Jesus said and did; the context was an apocalyptic understanding of Israel’s history; the Mosaic covenant was being interpreted within this context. On one level, the covenant was seen by many as a means to an end: the restoration of God’s favour to Israel in which her national identity and supremacy were uppermost. This interpretation had been moulded by Israel’s history, especially in relation to the surrounding nations, in the intervening years since the giving of the covenant.

On another level, equally born out by her history, was the emphasis brought by Jesus that the ‘blessing/punishment’ interpretation of history failed to take fully into account the accumulating failures of Israel, and that developments hinted at in many of the prophets, but especially Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were being fulfilled in himself - again, in a surprising way. The apocalyptic climax was not to be the restoration of national Israel, but its demise in favour of a reconstituted people of God around her messiah, Jesus.

This development entailed an ethic which was not the rejection of the foregoing ethic, but building upon it. I think that becomes clear from Jesus’s ethical teaching, which does not reject the ethics of the Mosaic code, but develops it. But the ‘new’ ethics would have been impracticable without the developments which accompanied it, namely the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Spirit, the reconstituted people of God, a worldwide mandate and significance. A new context, a developed ethics.

Another way of looking at this would be to say, as I said in the previous post, that Jesus was inaugurating developments which brought more fully into view the face of God. Seeing more of God’s face does not mean seeing a different God. A context which facilitates the fuller expression of who a person is does not mean that a different context with a more limited possibility of such expression automatically entails the existence of a different person within the context.

You didn’t address this final point at all from my previous post, Paul. You will also note that I do not pretend that everything is harmonised between the OT and NT, and that nothing is left unexplained or problematic. Jack Miles is very quick to disabuse us of that notion. From the extracts on his website, I think I would enjoy reading the rest of the books, but even the extracts reveal a tendentiousness which would have to be seriously questioned.

I would like to point out

I would like to point out that most of God’s violence in the Old Testament — both in terms of his harsh indictments and punishments against Israel and his genicidal tendencies toward foreign nations ending with “ite” were in relation to idolatry.

Now perhaps it is anachronistic of me to state that idolatry is not lawlessness on a societal scale because it does not seem inherently connected with social chaos, and in fact sometimes serves to foster social cohesion.

Perhaps the problem with God’s anger had to do with expectations. I’ll admit outright I’m projecting human emotions onto God, but certainly I feel most engraged when people I love break important commitments to me, or expectations I have for them. Granted many expectations contained in the OT were for Israel only, but let’s just say Yahweh had a “subconscious expectation” that all of humanity should love, recognize and worship him, on account of the fact that this was perhaps always God’s deepest heart’s desire. And maybe that’s why God got so T—d off when people were unfaithful to him or didn’t treat one another properly, worshipped cute wooden dolls etc. Perhaps God coped with his anger over unmet expecations through various means, from ritual sacrifice to prophets and occasionally losing i and wanting to get rid of the whole human project and start over (like someone who wants to escape a relationship, only to find that the next one will have the same difficulties.) All this was of no avail until he accepted the way of the cross. It turns out, accepting suffering and death — the consequences of someone else’s sin — is the only way to heal our own anger and turn toward the one who hurt is with open arms of compassion.This approach would explain both the congruity and incongruity of the two testaments without dismissing either one.

I would also like to point out that there is a difference between suggesting that Jesus and compatriots intentionally scammed the Jews into accepting a new religion and postulating that, like many Christian liberals today, Jesus may have loved his tradition but also criticized or disagreed with certain Hebraic interpretations of history or even God.

How many scholarly pastors particpate in the liturgy, “This is the Word of the Lord” after a scripture reading, without holding a belief in biblical inerrancy? Perhaps Jesus did a similar thing as a Rabbi in the 1st century.

Tidying up the loose ends

On anachronism I would summarise the position this way: we both judge the behaviour of Jahweh to Israel and the nations by the same standards. However you say the times justified Jahweh’s violent behaviour and I deny this.

You say“Your final point is the most interesting. I don’t think you would get far with an argument that the writers of the NT were engaged in a sophisticated scam - a disingenuous use of scripture to cover up what they knew was actually a rejection of one kind of religious belief in favour of another”

This is not a fair reading of what I said: I neither alleged a sophisticated scam nor a disingenuous use of scripture. I said the NT writers “ignored what appears to be Jesus’s radical critique of some of the tradition to be found there”. According to the views of the time about the use of scriptural texts (midrash?) such interpretation was perfectly OK- and maybe it still is.

You say

Jack Miles seems to argue, from an entirely misconceived though engaging literary approach to the OT and NT writings, that God decided to change the ground rules as an act of desperation over their failure…… Jesus brought a suprising turn in many of the things he said and did, but in nothing did he suggest that the God of the OT had become a changed person”

It will not do to dismiss Jack Miles’ work as “entirely misconceived”. He asks us to read the scriptures as a narrative, setting aside the usual historical preoccupations (he does not deny the desirability of the latter but simply asks us to suspend that interest in order to see the story). This results in a rich reading of scripture and one that does much more honour to the text than eg NT Wright.

Miles of course is well aware that Jesus does not acknowledge the change that God has undergone- one of the strengths of Miles’ reading is that it charts the developments in the character of God but in the case of none of them does God explain himself.

Miles’ work is superb and I think no one, no matter what their take on the Bible could read it without benefit .

You say

Jesus’s ethical teaching, …. does not reject the ethics of the Mosaic code, but develops it”

This is also the view of NT Wright and I think it is quite wrong. It was to be the second of three major objections I wanted to bring against Wright. However, I think I’ll leave it a while, and let the dust settle on the current discussions.

More generally, Peter we obviously have different views about things but I relish our exchanges as a means of bringing into light issues in my own position that otherwise go unnoticed and undiscussed.

 

NT-Ot exegesis

Would you flesh-out a bit, your brief comment: the NT writers “ignored what appears to be Jesus’s radical critique” perhaps with an example or two.

This is a fascinating aspect for me and I would like to get your perspective.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Brief comment on Jesus's radical critique of the OT

Samicarr

This is a response to your request to flesh-out my comment: the NT writers “ignored what appears to be Jesus’s radical critique”

I had intended to post a much lengthier version of what I have written below but felt that the dust should settle on my initial post on NT Wright.

I am well aware that some at least of what I have written is controversial. If there is sufficient interest I will post a longer statement in support of my position.

In my view Jesus attacks and dismisses a core part of the Jewish tradition. He rejects the picture of God as a despot who issues orders and punishes any infringement and substitutes in its place a loving father. His God does not intervene in the world as Jahweh did and is not a God of power and might.

He says that a true follower of God acts out of love not out of obedience compelled by fear; and that God forgives us without limit or condition, just as we must do to those who offend us- unlike Yahweh whose punishment is swift and to the fourth generation.

His love ethic does not allow us to quarantine our response to God and neighbour to behaviour, as the law does.

Indeed Jesus’ attack on the Law seems to destroy it as a guide to morality for his followers. He abolishes several of the most important laws; he suggests that the letter of the Law is not the last word, but must be interpreted in the light of the purpose for which it is made; he roundly condemns the Law’s concern with behaviour only; and his notion of punishment is feeble by comparison with that of the Mosaic covenant.

Obviously the NT writers did not simply ignore Jesus’ critique, since it is on the basis of the NT that I make my comments. Rather they did not draw attention to just how different the OT and the NT are.

How radical is the NT?

The NT writers’ view of the OT is one of the most important areas of study especially after New Perspective scholars such as Wright, Dunn and Sanders shook the establishment with really fresh readings. I would be very interested in your “much lengthier version!

My own doubts about Wright’s reconstruction lie not so much with his (proper) emphasis on the covenantal understanding of Judaism as with how Jesus’s new covenant changes the ‘ground rules’.

Jesus own contention is that His Father is clearly visible in the scriptures. That would include His analysis of the Mosaic Law. In fact his prime contention with the teachers of his day is that they have failed to see God as He is in the scripture, and are therefore teaching burdensome rubbish. If so, then our understanding of how to read the OT is faulty when we come up with a picture of God who is significantly different from the Father whom Jesus proclaimed.

The NT authors do not contradict Jesus teaching. I think they are in fact building upon it. If the earliest believers are to be understood as a movement from within Judaism, Paul’s teaching on the function of the law, as a basic signpost to sin, is revolutionary. Stephen’s powerful historical indictment also assumes a God who prefers a better way.

In the face of extreme human stubborness, terrible things happen to innocent people. This is no less true today than it was 3 or 4 millenia ago. In our own times we have seen mass starvation in Ethiopia, genocides take place before our eyes - Rwanda and now Darfur, and in even the most highly technologically advanced nations thousands can die through stupidity as we saw in New Orleans. Other wars such as in Iraq, Uganda and the Congo continue to extract their tolls on civilians with the women and children bearing the brunt.

Looking back on colonial history shows that even supposedly enlightened and civilised nations are capable of terrible barbarism. If we hesitate to blame God for these things today, why should we feel that we should apply a different standard to God in the OT?

 

Live to serve : Serve to live

Just a couple of things

Paul - I think we are missing each other on the issue of OT, context and anachronism - but never mind.

Apologies if I misunderstood you over the relation of NT writers to Jesus’s ‘radical critique’ - though plenty of grounds for disagreement still.

Jack Miles - I think I have understood him right, in treating YHWH as a literary figure, embedded in the texts as if the texts themselves were arranged in a particular literary order; the gospels as a rose-window, to be looked at rather than through. There is a place for bringing literary considerations to an understanding of OT and NT texts, but it is naive to approach texts with only one set of critical lenses, when all texts and their content require a preliminary understanding of the genre which will guide their understanding. A literary understanding is only one of many approaches required for biblical texts, and the underlying guiding principle is not literary but narrative history.

But anyone whose standpoint is literary criticism has my attention immediately - even if the fundamentals are misconceived (as I believe them to be). A.C.Bradley and L.C.Knights are in the pantheon of my early heroes of Shakespearean criticism, so Miles was pressing the right buttons for me.

Why not roll out your other arguments concerning N.T.Wright - or whatever? I find them really interesting and worth discussing.

Wright on terror and Iraq

Relevant to the “God and violence” discussion on this thread, here’s a lecture presented by NT Wright on what he regards as the appropriate Christian response to terrorism. The overall thrust is consistent with what I understand of his broader theological position and I think with most “post-evangelical” thinking. Though no remarkably new revelations made themselves evident as I read this essay, a few things did catch my eye.

Wright seems to identify the USA as the “bad guy” in the current international drama, wielding its uncontestable power without restraint, altruism, accountability or good sense. He regards the Christian right as complicit in America’s disastrous foreign policy. Wright also interprets the Democrats’ victory in the recent elections as reflecting a widespread sense that American policy toward Iraq has been wrong all along. Toward the end of the essay Wright issues his first call to Christian political action: “The challenge now, and one of the central answers to ‘where is God in the War on Terror’, is this: to provide a critique of American empire without implying that the world should collapse into anarchy, and a fresh sense of direction for that empire without colluding with the massive abuses of power which the American people themselves have this week discerned, named and shamed.”

Though the Americans receive a stern rebuke, they fare better than the French. Here’s a comment from very early in the lecture: ” Some of last century’s greatest atrocities, notably the Gulag and the Holocaust, stood in the ignoble tradition of the French Revolution itself, killing for reasons of militant atheism.” Britain, and British Christians, come off relatively unscathed (though not completely so) in Wright’s critique.

Partly to serve as a restraint on American hegemony, Wright supports a revitalization of the Unitend Nations and the World Court. These organizations should serve as a worldwide police force. “It is time to make the transition globally that we in this country made in the 1830s when we moved from local militias to a credible national police force.” Wright does support the use of governmental force in the pursuit of justice and peace on earth. Consistent with his theology, where the nation of Israel is succeeded by a kind of multinational kingdom of God, the secular governing force too should be multinational.

First, the creator God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic. And the order in question is to be a human order: that is to say, God intends that there should be structures of government. God does not want anarchy. Just as God intends the world of plants and crops to work under human management, so God intends that human societies should be wisely ordered under human stewardship. This pattern, of delegated authority if you like, corresponds to the pattern of God’s action in and through Jesus Christ. That is what Paul says in Colossians 1. The alternative, that you either have anarchy or theocracy, has given us our present fixation on what we think of as left-wing and right-wing political leanings; if we could only understand how these have grown up within that false theological antithesis I spoke of earlier, we might be able ourselves to grow up beyond the sterile to-and-fro our our present western political life. But that’s another story.”

A revitalized UN would be the organization to intervene in places like Iraq and Zimbabwe. Wright contends that government is part of God’s plan for an orderly creation. For Wright, “the establishment of some kind at least of authority in Baghdad is better than chaos.” Presumably he doesn’t believe that the Iraqis could ward off chaos without Western presence, nor does he believe that the occupying force might be the source of chaos — though I confess that here I’m drawing inferences from what isn’t explicitly said.

I would conclude based on this essay that Wright does support multinational military interventions in world hotspots, as well as the establishment of multinational governments that rule with an iron fist if necessary to prevent chaos. He sees these multinational governmental interventions as compatible with the eventual establishment of Jesus’ kingdom of God on earth.

 

War and the American evangelicals

Here’s an article from the Washington post evaluating religous voting patterns in the just-concluded American elections. White evangelicals voted 70% Republican and 28% Democratic. It’s a bit of a swing toward the Democrats since Bush’s re-election, but hardly a mass enlightenment and repentance. The big religious shift toward Democrats came from Catholics and black Protestants, historically strong Democratic supporters who apparently have returned to the fold.

Re: Does God favor world government?

Wright wrote:
First, the creator God wants the world to be ordered, not chaotic. And the order in question is to be a human order: that is to say, God intends that there should be structures of government. God does not want anarchy. Just as God intends the world of plants and crops to work under human management, so God intends that human societies should be wisely ordered under human stewardship.

I am inclined to contest this. At several key points God seems to express reservations about order. (Consistent perhaps with “power corrupts”?) God’s response to united human endeavor at Babel was to create chaos, and the biblical narrative seems to show that God embraces the continued chaos of distinct tribes and language groups. Further, when Israel in 1 Sam. 8:4-20 sought to constitute a kingdom (in contrast to the period of the judges), God took it as rejection and enumerated ways in which the new order would be oppressive.

World government - any government?

There has been an inclination by many Christians to regard involvement in political and governmental organs of power with suspicion - for the very reasons Chris expresses. But if Chris’s viewpoint expresses a negative view of involvement in worldwide political and power structures, do we perhaps also need something of a better theology of how the church should relate to politics and power?

N.T.Wright seems to be expressing in his 9 November lecture a view which has its roots in historic reformed theology, which takes a high view of politics, and the politician is regarded with respect as an agent in God’s purposes. Political and governmental structures are regarded as highly important in God’s means of bringing order to the world.

Clearly checks and balances are needed - as experiences of Christian involvement in the political arena across the world show. But the dangers seem to me to be at the extremes: at one extreme political involvement is rejected altogether because a conflict of interest is perceived between politics and a kingdom ‘not of this world’. Pursued further, involvement in extra-territorial power structures, such as the United Nations, International Courts etc is regarded with even greater suspicion, boosted by apocalyptic fears of a ‘one world’ government led by an apocalyptic anti-Christian figure. Part of the remedy here is an improved eschatology rather than avoidance of international political action.

At the other extreme is an undue identification with power structures as a means of enforcing a Christian agenda. The church may identify itself too completely with a right wing or a left wing political agenda, when some kind of balance between the two in which the strengths and failings of both groupings and their emphases needs to be kept in view. Right wing politics tends to be the domain of privilege for the wealthy, small government, low taxes, and emphasises personal morality - such as legislation concerning abortion, marriage, family, work etc. Left wing politics tends to be the domain of support for the under privileged, and has a focus on social morality, in which support for marginalised groups, such as the unemployed and the socially vulnerable, gay people, immigrants, can receive greater attention. It is not too difficult to see these issues transposed to a worldwide arena.

I can’t help thinking, in Wright’s case, and the views he expresses, of Archbishop Cranmer at the court of Henry VIII in England, faithfully preaching ‘the truth’ to a court whether it was willing to hear it or not. I somehow think this is a tradition which Wright is calling on - the traditional Church of England involvement in the organs of power, and its unique position still today to speak into those organs of power. I don’t see why this sense of involvement with politics should not extend, as Wright makes it extend, to worldwide politics, in an age when worldwide co-operation and solutions to international problems are not only needed but possible through international organs of power.

If the church retreats from the arena of politics, territorial or worldwide, won’t it be filled by others with their own, perhaps less benign power agendas? Isn’t there a need for a right involvement in the political arena, rather than non-involvement? A better theology of political power? Wright is only scratching the surface of things, in a lecture heavily weighted to theoretical theology, with one or two practical suggestions appearing only briefly at the end.

2-2=1

I’ll try to reconstruct that thought. Our primary aim as citizens of another kingdom will be determined by the demands of that kingdom. Our actions in this world, towards for our family, workplace, nation, community, neighbors, fellowships…will be determined by a higher politik.

While some may feel that there is difficulty in determining what the kingdom demands, to my mind, the emerging experiment throws up limitless possibilities precisely because of the diversity of freely expressed differences of perspective and opinion that we share.

The conversation is of critical importance and the framework provided by N.T. Wright and others, revitalising hermeneutics while driving a more narrative approach to the bible, really is very promising on all sides.

i look forward to seeing this conversation fleshed out in days to come, for without a grounding in our kingdom, we will be at sea in the world!

Live to Serve : Serve to live

God can use what he does not favor

I do not equate belief that “God intends that there should be structures of government” with “Christians should be involved in political and governmental organs of power.” While I question the former claim, given that there are such organs of power, I think it is better for Christians to be leavening such organs than not. While God saw the move toward monarchy as a rejection of himself, God allowed it and given that there were to be kings it was better for the king of Israel serve God and promote the Torah and Temple than not, and God could call David a man after his own heart. While God clearly did not think there should have been monarchy, he nevertheless worked with and through it.

Applied to Iraq, however, I wonder if it might not be better to reach for smaller organs of power (partition into Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni states), and if such a move might decrease the need for violent intervention by a supernational organ of power.

Re: NT Wright is seriously wrong

I really don’t think anyone is wrong when it comes to their interpretation of the scriptures. I believe it’s all in the mind of the reader. If a person feels otherwise, then let him/her be. But this? What Wright is talking about, I find it disturbing. But, I respect everyone’s ideas, so I guess to each his own.

Re: NT Wright is seriously wrong

Thank you for your evaluation of NT Wright

I have heard that Wright has been lecturing about the Gospel of Thomas and the Davinci Code as these seem to represent Gnosticism in a nutshell. While Wright appears to be speaking out against the ideas expressed in the above, he, in most of his writings - including Simply Christian - actually reinforces misguided notions of Gnosticism in a variety of ways, as Gnosticism stands opposed to faith in Jesus Christ.

I wonder if he does this intentionally or not. On one hand he is posing as a defender of the faith, but on the other hand, his historical technique only revisits Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus because of his overly religious (superstitious) assessment that Paul was basically reaching out to sensitive seeking gentiles, who must always be regarded as Gnostics. Why must they be regarded as Gnostics? Because Paul makes reference to secret and hidden wisdom. But part of this secret wisdom is only that the Christian grows in grace from the knowledge that a conscious adherence to law in many cases inflames an ungodly passion for justice. It’s a shame that this internal dilemna always is affixed to an official religion rather than being a universal predicament.

Wright seems the newest incantation on a list of Liberation and hope theologians who always assign sin to the political realm. This is true and we are compelled to deal with it. But if sin is only externally addressed, which it is in any church, then a necessary scapegoat must be found. For Wright it is middleclass, suburban Americans. He is successfully turning those in big city churches in America also against this group of people. He is a big destabilizer. Perhaps for a while this is a good thing. But I have grave concerns in the long run.

What’s more, the emerging or emergent church, with it’s postmodern skepticism of metanarratives readily accept Wright’s…metanarrative. He’s defining what the faith actually is. Since he defines what the faith is, anyone who does not fall in line is not a christian. This is already the problem in some US churches. Still, I have heard that the emerging church has yet to grapple with Paul’s “adaptation” to the gospels. Too bad they will get the New Perspective before they really formulate organic interpretations.

Baptism also plays a role in this programme. On one hand Wright paints a picture of the creator god (is this not gnostic?) when writing about what Baptism signifies in Simply Christian. This captures the imagination of many, while at the same time linking covenant themes in a liberation sort of way from Abraham apealling to Reformed ministers. The scapegoat here, as I read responses to his book at a certain website, would have to be the evangelical in the classic sense. Almost all the respondents enjoyed the freedom of baptism to explore their inner self, while at the same time pitting baptism against regeneration supposedly defined by evangelicals.

Generally it is considered that evangelicals preached, converted, and then went home - leaving the needy to fend for themselves. This is a vast generalization. I have missionary realatives that have been put into concentration camps, along with the indigenous poplulation in Cambodia, China, Turkey; too many countries to name.

So the likely trajectory is that evangelical christians will be looked at as gnostics and non christians in the future. This is gospel truth.

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