“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 51)
“Come to think of it, I don’t believe in a God like that either. In fact, I don’t know anybody who does.” (Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Deslusion?, page 75)Sometimes I feel like I'm standing in the middle of a battlefield, taking hits from opposing armies on either side. Because of my non-literal interpretations of Genesis, my Christian friends aim their artillery at my “liberal” view of Scripture. They worry that I have abandoned the true faith. Meanwhile, many of my skeptic friends, with whom I interact in cyberspace lob bombs at an easy target, the Christian God, as they perceive him. And their perception often matches that of Richard Dawkins.
My response to Dawkins is much like that of Alister McGrath: thankfully, such a god as Dawkins imagines does not exist! But can such a god be found in the pages of the Old Testament? Well, that is a little more difficult to deny.
First, to my atheist friends, I must make this point clear. Christians do not worship two god’s, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. We worship one God, who declares about himself that he is unchanging. How we harmonize the Old Testament divine descriptions with those in the New Testament involves the science of hermeneutics. I summarized some of my own hermeneutic principles in a post on Progressive Revelation. In today’s post, I wish to elaborate on that earlier one.
The Bible reads like an unfolding revelation of God. Like a Polaroid picture (children, ask your parents what that is), the image of God becomes clearer and clearer with the passage of time. The more focused and accurate image of God does not fully emerge until Jesus reveals the Father, and the New Testament witness to his coming is compete. Click on the following video for a brief overview of my views on Progressive Revelation:
This overview details how faith relates to revelation, and how growing faith relates to growing revelation, and understanding. It also highlights, chronologically, four Biblical authors: Moses, David, Isaiah, and John. The God I have come to know as my Lord is more clearly understood and described by John than by Isaiah. But Isaiah provides a more focused picture than does David. And David gives a more accurate rendering of the Father than does Moses. And Moses gave us a clearer, far more accurate rendering of God than did the competing theologies from the pagan cultures of his day. Each new revelation builds upon prior revelation. The ultimate “Word” or “exegesis” of God is to be found in Jesus himself (John 1:1-18).
God reveals himself to man, not in categorical declarations, not in systematic dissertations, but in relationship. As an ancient people, the descendants of Abraham, began to pursue relationship with the one true and living God, he responded. He then began, through a growing relationship, to dismantle the false theological concepts of their neighboring cultures, and to replace those corrupted images with a more correct one, that of a monotheistic, providential, creator God. Did Moses get it all the details right? No. But God knew that faith would grow upon the earth, and with it, a deepening relationship with his children, and more profound appreciation of his character, leading to a clearer understanding of himself.
The Bible represents God as one who desires to reveal himself to man. It is a longing of his heart. But the Bible is clear about this: he reveals himself primarily within the context of relationship (see 2 Chronicles 16:9, Psalm 25:14, Proverbs 3:32, John 14:21).
Paul teaches us that all Scripture is inspired, and it is all useful. (2 Timothy 3:16). For me, this means that God inspired his people to keep a developing journal of relationship (even though in its early stages the picture was not always perfect). Thus, he inspired Moses to record what he was learning, and each subsequent author to do likewise. And the result is the Bible, a growing, living journal of God relating to man, opening his heart to man, and revealing himself to man. In stages. In steps, even if at times those steps were halting and imperfect.
I am thankful for Moses. By his faithful obedience, he brought man significant new understandings about God. When compared to the other Ancient Near Eastern god-concepts, his was clearly on the right track, a track that ultimately leads us to Jesus.
Yes, Moses portrays a God who is on occasion angry, rash, and seemingly capricious, given to warfare. If the language of Dawkins in the above quote is a bit over-the-top, it is not entirely inaccurate. But if Dawkins would keep reading, he would see the Polaroid image develop before his very eyes. And he would find that the God of the Apostle John (the last of the Biblical authors) bears no resemblance to his caricature. But John would have never seen this wonderful loving Father without the help of Moses, David, Isaiah, and all the other faith-filled pursuers of God to whom the Father revealed himself progressively.
To my Christian friends, who may be startled at my ready admission of theological inaccuracies in the Bible, I will respond with a positive statement of my belief in the Bible:
I believe that the Bible is a unique book, inspired from Genesis to Revelation. I believe it is the very book God wanted us to have. I hold to the authority of the Scriptures in matters of faith and practice. I believe the Bible provides a solid and dependable foundation for Christian living. I read it. I study it. I love it. I teach it. I find that it is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). I believe all the Scriptures are infallible. Infallibility, as I use the term, means that the Bible, in its totality, does not mislead on issues of faith and practice, though it may not be without error in all respects. In my years of reading and studying the Bible, this view is more consistent with the Scriptures themselves than what I consider a forced claim of inerrancy.
I believe that in the process of inspiration, God did not override any author’s memory or knowledge base. [Paul, writing the inspired book of 1 Corinthians, included a little misinformation, then corrected himself, then said he was uncertain because he could not remember (1:14-16); the variations in the reporting of events during the life of Jesus which are found in the Gospels are best understood as resulting from inexact recall of events]. It was not God’s intention to produce a supernaturally perfect book. Many have wondered why it is that the leader of the Christian faith, Jesus himself, never wrote a book. The answer is quite simple for me. If Jesus had a written a book, the church would have fallen into worship of that book. It would be venerated. It would be legalistically applied. God has chosen not to give us “the perfect book” because our faith is not about words on a page, but about a growing, dynamic relationship with the Lord of the Universe! However, the Bible does give a faithful and accurate account of this growing relationship with God from Abraham through John, the Apostle.