Tuesday, February 08, 2011

An Old Testament God?

I was preparing for our study of Islam, which I'll be leading tomorrow.  We're using Adam Hamilton's Christianity and World Religions (Abingdon) as our foundation (has video and leaders guide).  My point is not to talk about the series, but to raise a point (Hamilton is a centrist United Methodist in theology).

Hamilton does something -- something I hear Christians do fairly regularly -- and that is distinguish between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament (of Jesus).  In his discussion of Islam, which is really quite fair when it focuses on the teachings of Islam, he suggests that the Muslim view of God is a step backward toward the God of the Old Testament.  That is, the Old Testament portrayal of God is one that, unlike the NT, is more violent and less loving.  He uses God's command to Elijah to slaughter the priests of Baal.  Jesus doesn't do this (though Hamilton and many other Christians forget about what happens in the Book of Revelation). 

The problem here is one that has plagued Christians almost from the beginning.  We want to see ourselves improving upon Judaism.  We may not go as far as Marcion, who suggested that the Creator God was a "demiurge," a lesser God than the God of Jesus, who is the God of love.  Marcion went so far as to create a truncated canon of Scripture that would support his claims.  

But what are we who are Christians saying when we say that the God of the OT is a more violent God than the God of the NT?  Obviously there is doctrinal development in the OT and the NT.  Both testaments come out of particular contexts, but is the Christian understanding of God better than that of Judaism?  And is Muhammad's view a step backward to a Jewish view?   Or, would it not be best to say that all three religions give different perspectives on God, some more violent and some more peaceful? 

I end with this word from Disciple theologian Clark Williamson:
In their post-Shoah teaching documents, the churches affirm that the God whom Christians worship is the living God of the Bible, the God of Israel, worshiped by Jews.  They assert that Christians have come and still come to know this God in Jesus Christ -- that in, through, and by means of Jesus Christ Christians are again and again confronted with the promise and command of the God of Israel.  That the God of Israel was incarnate in Jesus Christ, the Jew from Nazareth, is a claim that further makes it clear that the God of Israel "is not an isolated God without relationships, but a God who turns toward humankind and who is affected by human destiny."  God, who dwells not only in transcendence but in the midst of God's people is subject to distress and persecution "as Lord, Father, Companion and Redeemer." The covenantally related God of Israel, whose covenant love (hesed) involves God in interacting with all God's creatures and particularly with God's people, is here asserted against the church's tradition of construing God as in all respects unrelated to and unaffected by events in the world.  (Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel, p. 202)
The quote is to a German Roman Catholic document from 1979.  Clark Williamson asserts that the God of Jesus is the God of Israel?  If Jesus is understood as the incarnation of that God revealed in our Old Testament, how can we make such a distinction between the God of the OT and the God of the NT?

8 comments:

Gary said...

If the God of the O.T., or the Jesus of Revelation bothers you, just do what you usually do, and "metaphorize it". Pretend it means something other than what it says. There, problem solved for the "progressive mind". :)

John said...

As I have read over Hamilton's book I have been repeatedly put off by his tendency to represent Christianity as monolithic and I have been extremely disturbed by the conservative doctrinal positions he asserts on our behalf.

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John, Hamilton is a theological moderate, but I agree that he offers up his views in a rather monolithic way. That said, the materials are helpful, but the theological perspective has to be broadened in discussion!

John said...

The problem I had with him is that if the views of Christianity which he compared to, say Hinduism, were not views of Christianity which I subscribed to, how reliable were his teachings on the other faiths?

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

Believe it or not, they're pretty fair. It's really only in the contrasts that he becomes narrow in his views.

What he does is say, these are good people, who love God as they understand God, but the Christian way is better. Of course, he offers a fairly narrow perspective. But, as a leader, I try to broaden out the conversation. Would I have done this differently, probably, but it's a good conversation starter nonetheless!

Sam said...

Rather than God in the Hebrew Testament being more violent than God in the Christian Testament, I think God's people in that time were more violent. Long after God brought them into the land of Israel, God was calling God's people out of Egypt. Physically they were in Israel but spiritually they stayed in spiritual bondage a very long time.

Reading through the Hebrew Testament, one almost sees that God changed from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to David to the Elijah to the later Prophets like Micah. But instead of God changing, it was God's people's encounter with and understanding of God that was evolving. Step by step by step God was leading the people out of bondage.

Forever and ever God wanted burnt offerings and then Isaiah and other later prophets said God didn't want burnt offerings. Living in a world where burnt offerings were the norm, God simply wanted Israel to offer their worship to the true God in the only way they could understand worship in that world view. And step by step God was leading them out of their spiritual bondage to a world view... to a God view.

God is still leading God's people out of spiritual bondage.

Sam
sam-betweenhereandthere.blogspot.com

keithwatkinshistorian said...

Professor Clark Williamson has written a strong essay dealing with theologies of the atonement. In the latter part of the article he states that the Bible presents two views of God--violent and non-violent. They extend throughout Old and New Testaments. He says that we have to choose between the two views. Clearly, Williamson chooses the non-violent view and this theology undergirds his analysis of theologies of the atonement. It was published in "Encounter," the journal published by Christian Theological Seminary (71.1 Winter 2010). Information: rfurnish@cts.edu

keithwatkinshistorian said...

Professor Clark Williamson has written a strong essay dealing with theologies of the atonement. In the latter part of the article he states that the Bible presents two views of God--violent and non-violent. They extend throughout Old and New Testaments. He says that we have to choose between the two views. Clearly, Williamson chooses the non-violent view and this theology undergirds his analysis of theologies of the atonement. It was published in "Encounter," the journal published by Christian Theological Seminary (71.1 Winter 2010). Information: rfurnish@cts.edu