God said what?! – Part Three

light_tunnelHow did the early church fathers deal with the genocidal passages in the Old Testament? We’ll look at this as we continue our journey down into the murkier places in Scripture.

If you haven’t read the two previous parts of this series, I suggest you do so before continuing here.  For convenience, I will write out the salient parts of the passages we’re talking about:

and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. (Deut. 7:2 NKJV)

16 “But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, 17 but you shall utterly destroy them.” (Deut.20:16-17 NKJV)

Jesus-Christ-from-Hagia-SophiaThe early church fathers’ reactions

I don’t think we can overstate the upheaval that Jesus’ revolutionary teachings had on His first century followers. From the very beginning, the New Testament writers were grappling with Jesus’ reinterpretation of Israel’s view of a militaristic, retributive deity, teaching instead that God was a restorative, enemy-loving Father.

Unlike some of our modern apologists who seem content defending the divine genocidal orders and living with theological cognitive dissonance, these early leaders couldn’t just push the “Delete” button in their brain, holding that God is love and always good…but at the same time, He’s a blood-thirsty, ethnic-cleansing warlord! Here are just a few examples of how they treated these passages.

Second-century theologian, Marcion of Sinope, responded to the revelation of God through Jesus’ life and teachings by totally rejecting the Old Testament. He and his followers did not consider the Hebrew texts as inspired Christian Scripture.

According to Marcion, the god of the Old Testament, whom he called the Demiurge, the creator of the material universe, is a jealous tribal deity of the Jews, whose law represents legalistic reciprocal justice and who punishes mankind for its sins through suffering and death. (from Wikipedia)

Marcion’s Gnostic ideas were considered heresy by the church, and rightfully so. But, as Michael Hardin points out, sometimes the heretics ask the right questions! They just come to the wrong conclusions.

Later, the church fathers began to allegorize these passages. For instance, Origen (c. 185 -254 AD), an orthodox theologian in Alexandria, said that it was impossible to read Canaan conquest passages literally.

“Unless those carnal wars were a symbol of spiritual wars, I do not think that the Jewish historical books would ever have been passed down by the apostles to be read by Christ’s followers in their churches” (Hom. Ios. 15.1).

human_faces_starkBible scholar, Thom Stark, references Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395), one of the Cappadocian fathers and chief architects of the doctrine of the Trinity, in his book, The Human Faces of God: When It Gets God Wrong (And Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It):

“According to Gregory, the lesson is this: “When through virtue one comes to grips with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginnings of evil” (Mos. 2.92). Once again, the historical sense of a text about divine or divinely-sanctioned murder is salvaged by turning it into an allegory pertaining to the pious destruction of one’s own vices.” Loc. 1199 – Kindle version.

Stark also quotes John Cassian (c. 360 – 435 AD), another orthodox theologian…

“We must accept the fact that, according to the Apostle, everything that happened to them was figurative and was written for our instruction.”(Conf. 5.16).” Loc. 1176 – Kindle edition

There are obvious problems with the allegorical reading (“killing the ‘Canaanites’ in our soul”). For one, it doesn’t directly confront the text. As Stark points out, it simply disregards the historical account entirely. He also makes the point that it “diminishes the moral significance of the suffering of every victim of genocide.” Furthermore, it imagines that the original audience would’ve understood it this way (which is highly unlikely).

While it may help us symbolically in other ways, the allegorical answer renders the historical narrative meaningless, thus, we lose any benefit we might otherwise derive from it.

440px-antonio_rodriguez_-_saint_augustine_-_google_art_projectAfter the allegorical reading of the patristic church fathers, the middle ages saw a return to a more literal approach. But even the most influential church leaders of this time, like Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD), did not embrace a historical-grammatical form of literalism as we know it, as Stark points out here:

Augustine did not believe that it was possible to really know the intended meaning of a deceased ancient author. Second, and more importantly, the author’s intended meaning is irrelevant to Augustine because, as Thomas Williams explains, “what guarantees the veracity of the author, and thus the text, is the divine truth; and that same divine truth is available to us even apart from our interpretation of the text” (loc. 1222 – Kindle version).

Augustine believed that the principal truth to which scripture pointed was love, or caritas, and that this conviction must be known prior to the reading of scripture and must function as a controlling presupposition throughout the hermeneutical process (Doctr. chr. 1.40–44).” Loc. 1230 – Kindle version.

I totally agree with Augustine’s conviction in this last quote, by the way. Love (caritas) must be the “controlling presupposition” because God IS love!

With the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 337 AD) came a return to an Old Testament-type militaristic triumphalism, mixing church and state. Now, the “Amalekites” and “Canaanites” were any enemies of Christendom. I wrote about how Constantine dramatically changed the face of Christianity here.

What’s interesting here is that this militaristic ideology (“Convert or die by the sword”) was almost identical to that of Fundamentalist Islam!

Then, after the Reformation, we have the rise of Christian Fundamentalism and its response to Enlightenment period historical criticism. It’s this defense of the genocidal passages we’re probably most familiar with. (Thankfully, as Bible scholar Walter Wink has concluded, the historic biblical criticism method in scholarship has been rendered inadequate and bankrupt.)

We will look at some of these post-Enlightenment arguments next time.

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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7 Responses to God said what?! – Part Three

  1. “What’s interesting here is that this militaristic ideology (“Convert or die by the sword”) was almost identical to that of Fundamentalist Islam!” This is an interesting note, Mel. I’m reading a book now about how al-Qaeda got started and that bin Laden used the Crusaders (and America’s continuing presence in Egypt and other Middle East countries) as his excuse for targeting America.
    We’re at a point now of not knowing which came first, the chicken or the egg – and the militaristic ideology has to stop.
    It makes your study all the more important.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes, it is time for us to go to the next level. It is time that it became time. It is time.

      „O God, we are one with you.
      You have made us one with you.
      You have taught us that if we are open to one another, you dwell in us.
      Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts.
      Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection.
      O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept you, and we thank you, and we adore you, and we love you with our whole being, because our being is your being, our spirit is rooted in your spirit.
      Fill us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love.
      Love has overcome. Love is victorious.“
      ~ Thomas Merton

      I invite you to my blog:

      Blessing to you,

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks Susan. If we’re talking about violence and war in Scripture, the Bible definitely trumps any other sacred text in religion! The Old Testament, taken at face value (and out of its historical context and genre), is far more violent and militaristic than the Qur’an. The difference is, and I hope to show in this series, God isn’t really condoning it, but exposing it for what it is.
      But, unfortunately, how we’ve interpreted these warfare passages in the past, and other evil things done in the name of God in Scripture, has become the theology behind so many human atrocities (some are still going on). THIS is why we need to rightly divide the word and understand the true nature of our heavenly Father.

      • “God isn’t really condoning it, but exposing it”
        Ah, the teaser. Thanks, Mel. This makes so much more sense. It’s like the story of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. Jesus isn’t insulting her, but holding up a mirror to the way others have treated outcasts.
        Brilliant insight. Thanks again.

  2. Der Krieger des Lichts says:

    Every human being has both an inner Self or Spirit and an outer self or body. In the same way has the Holy Bibel an inner spiritual and outer literal meaning. We live in the same time outwardly in the natural and inwardly in the spiritual world. Thomas à Kempis spoke in his Imitatio Christi of “inner illumination”. The Spirit uses the word to reveal itself, he is the highest authority and without him is the Word only a dead letter. The Pharisees were so attached to the written word, learned in the Scripture, but not taught by the Spirit, that they couldn’t recognize Christ.
    “The words that I speak are spirit and life”, that’s exactly the difference. The outer word is a reflexion of the inner word of the Spirit. It is not enough to believe that Christ had come in the flesh (outer word), he must also become flesh in us (inner word), as Paul wrote in Galatians 2: “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

    “I totally agree with Augustine’s conviction in this last quote, by the way. Love (caritas) must be the „controlling presupposition“ because God IS love!”

    Deal! 🙂 maybe we should speak here about progressive revelation: God reveales itself always according to the capacities of humanity. This does not mean that the Old Testament is not true, it was not a progress from untruth to truth, it was from less information (or spiritual darkness) to more full information (access to more spiritual Light). The whole revelation of the old testament is like a preparation for Jesus.

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