How do you understand the violent portrayals of God in the Old Testament, especially in light of the love and mercy revealed in Jesus Christ?
We are working our way through some of the theories regarding this biblical dilemma, before I eventually propose an idea of my own (for your theological target practice). The view for this post is this:
One view is that the descriptions of God in the Old Testament are accurate descriptions of what people wrongly believed. That is, the Bible is an inerrant guide to the bad theology some people had during the Old Testament era, and now that Jesus has come, we can see where and how they were wrong. The Bible includes these ideas, not to encourage us to emulate and copy their thinking and their actions, but to show us how their incorrect theology led to poor actions and destructive behavior.
In this way, much of the Old Testament is not a positive example to follow, but a negative example to avoid. It is not showing us what we should believe and do, but is showing us what people in the past thought about God and what they did as a result, and now that Jesus has come and shown us what God is really like, we can follow His example in not following the example of much of what the Old Testament says.
Different people who hold this view have different ideas about how involved God was in the whole process of the inspiration of the Hebrew Scriptures. Some believe that God inspired the human authors to write incorrect theology and ideas about Himself so that later generations could see the damaging effects of bad theology, while others think inspiration has little to do with it, and the human authors simply recorded what they thought God was saying and telling them to do, even though they were incorrect in what they thought.
When read this way, the Bible is not exactly an accurate record of what people should believe, but instead, an accurate record of what people did believe
The Bad Theology of Job’s Four Friends
This view sounds pretty far-fetched until you actually begin to realize that many passages of Scripture function in exactly this way. Take the book of Job as an example.
Whether you believe the Book of Job is historical fiction or historical fact, everybody agrees that it is a theological masterpiece which was written to teach the readers something about God. And note that even if you believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, you can still believe that Job does not describe an actual historical event, but is a theological epic designed to get people thinking about how God works in the world. For myself, I do believe that there was a man named Job, and that the events described in this book did happen to him. But learning the message of the book of Job does not depend on accepting it as historical fact.
But regardless of what people think about the book of Job, even those who believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture believe that Job contains some incorrect ideas about God. We don’t even have to debate the first couple chapters of Job to see this. Throughout most of the book, all of Job’s friends present paragraph after paragraph of bad theology. Throughout most of the book of Job, everybody is spouting incorrect ideas about how God works and how the world functions. Even Job gets it wrong, as he admits at the end of the book.
So most of Job contains very bad theology. Job and his four friends have errant and incorrect views about God and how God works in the world. Yet those of us who believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God do not have problems believing that God inspired the author of Job to write these errant and incorrect views of God. God inspired the author of Job to write incorrect things that people believed about God so that we could learn from these ideas. The book of Job teaches by negative example. Most of Job teaches incorrect theology, not so that we can believe it ourselves, but so that we can see the damage such ideas cause.
Proponents of this view argue that just as the book of Job contains page after page of inspired and inerrant error, much of the rest of the Bible contains similar inspired and inerrant error. The Bible is inspired because God led someone to write it, and it is inerrant because God helped the author write an accurate account of what people thought and believed. But what they thought and believed was wrong, which means it is in error.
Why does God do this? In Job, it is because God wanted to show the truth of Who He really is and how this world functions. So also with the rest of the Bible. God inspired inerrant error because at the end of the book, or at least, in the Gospels, He wants to show us Who He really is and how He works in this world.
In this way, the task for biblical theologians is not to find agreement between Jesus and the God of the Old Testament, but disagreement. Where there is disagreement, Jesus trumps the errant representations of God in the Old Testament, showing that these were things people thought God was like, but were wrong.
So, for example, when Moses writes in Deuteronomy 7 that God wants the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites and show them no mercy, this is not actually what God was saying, but is nevertheless an inspired and inerrant account of what Moses thought God was telling the Israelites to do.
Frankly, this view has a lot going for it.
It retains the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture in a way that fits with other incorrect but historically accurate depictions of God in Scripture (such as in the book of Job) and easily does away with all the discrepancies between the God of the Old Testament and the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
My eventual proposal will include some small elements of this view, but with a twist that makes the inspiration of God much more intentional in getting human authors to write what they write. In my proposal, God is not just getting human authors to write the incorrect ideas about Him which they already have, but God is actively inspiring the ideas themselves.
I know… I know… it sounds a bit like heresy! I warned you about this in that first post! But it isn’t. At least, I don’t think it is. The twist is what makes all the difference. So hang in there, just a few more posts to go before the big unveiling…
Until then, what do you think of the view presented in this view? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Have you read any scholars or theologians who hold this view? If so, who?