I have posted recently about the Dualist sects who were such a persistent force through the Middle Ages, and who drew a sharp contrast between the inferior God of the Old Testament, and the pure deity of the New. In this, they were following on neatly from the old Gnostics, who so alarmed and disgusted the mainstream church in the earliest centuries. But where did Gnostics and Dualists get this radical idea? In large part, they were inspired by reading the Bible itself, and the moral horror they felt when they explored sections of the Old Testament.
In my book Laying Down the Sword (2011), I wrote about some of the extremely violent passages in the Old Testament – genocidal commands against the Amalekites and the Canaanites (Amorites), commands to slay those who violated racial purity laws. Modern readers usually deal with such texts by ignoring them, even pretending they don’t exist, and if they do confront them seriously, they are usually troubled. It’s easy to think that earlier generations were less sensitive to such issues, that they took the slaughter and racial violence in their stride. But they absolutely didn’t. It was the moral repugnance against such stories that drew people to blame those acts on the commands of an inferior God, from whom Jesus came to rescue us.
One advocate of this stance was the second century thinker Marcion. The main thrust of his critique was on moral grounds, directed against a God who acted like a capricious tyrant. Marcion loathed the idea of God hardening the heart of his victims, making them commit evils for which he could then punish them. He had a clear preference for those on the losing side in the Old Testament, those who appear as the villains and victims of the Hebrew narrative. He taught that Christ’s death had brought salvation to “Cain, and those like him, and the Sodomites, and the Egyptians”, while the good characters of the Old Testament did not achieve salvation: not Abel, not Noah, none of the patriarchs or prophets who had gullibly followed the lesser god.
In his critique of the Old Testament, Marcion was closely followed by the radical Dualist prophet Mani. Both men mocked the notion of a united and harmonious Bible. As Mani wrote, “Some good God of the Law! He spoiled the Egyptians, expelled the Amorites, Girgashites and other nations and gave their land to the children of Israel. If He said, ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ how could he give them other people’s land?”
Apart from Mani himself, the movement’s most famous representative was Faustus, “an African by race, a citizen of Mileum,” and a Manichean bishop. I quote the Catholic Encyclopedia:
Born at Mileve of poor parents, he had gone to Rome, and being converted to Manichæism he began to study rhetoric somewhat late in life. He was not a man of profound erudition, but he was a suave and unctuous speaker. His fame in Manichæan circles was very great. He was a Manichæan episcopus and boasted of having left his wife and children and all he had for his religion. He arrived at Carthage in 383, and was arrested, but the Christians obtained the commutation of his sentence to banishment and even that was not carried out.
His attack on mainstream Christianity called forth St. Augustine’s tirade, the Contra Faustum (c.400).
Faustus pointed out what he claimed were flagrant contradictions between the Pentateuch and the teachings of Jesus. As Augustine protested, “Faustus blames God in the Old Testament for slaughtering thousands of human beings for slight offenses, as Faustus calls them, or for nothing.” He “speaks of Moses as commanding and doing many cruel things.” To many modern eyes, Faustus was making a solid case for the prosecution.
Augustine’s response, the Contra Faustum, stressed God’s absolute sovereignty and righteousness. No matter how wrong an act might seem to human eyes, if God orders it, it can never be wrong, and must be obeyed.
Using this principle, he offered a detailed defense of the Bible. Yes, said Augustine, many of the acts described seem cruel or vicious, but they could be defended in various ways. Augustine argued that many of the most extreme stories had to be understood allegorically, but even if we did not use this let-out, God still remained uncondemned. If the violent actions were done in obedience to God, that fact in itself entirely justified them. God is absolute, and his standards above those of men. For Augustine, God “commands nothing but what is most just.” John Calvin would closely echo these sentiments.
Historically, Augustine certainly won the debate. In the sixth century, the Western church condemned the works of “Faustus the Manichean” as apocryphal, and none have survived.
Even so, many Christians remained profoundly unconvinced by Augustine’s argument, and chose to reject the whole Old Testament in the name of what they believed to be the principles put forward in the New.