Regarding the Old Testament and Its “Texts of Terror”
Recently I reported and commented on a conversation with a Ph.D. student (not of the institution where I teach) who confronted me about “inclusivism” and the fact that he would not bother to risk his life in missions if he thought God had provided any other way by which people could come to know his grace and mercy unto salvation than hearing and believing the gospel of Jesus Christ (restrictivism). My point in reporting and commenting on that conversation was not to pick on that individual; it was to respond to a recurring theme in numerous conversation I’ve had with conservative Christians who claim that any belief other than restrictivism undermines evangelism and missions.
This same religion/theology Ph.D. student continued his confrontation by arguing that since God commanded Israel to slaughter all idolaters God would not save people in non-Christian cultures without them turning from their idolatry which (his point was) cannot happen without a Christian missionary bringing them the gospel.
Of course, that point is fraught with difficulties. First, where did God command his people to slaughter all idolaters? Second, it assumes that everything attributed to God in every Old Testament passage was actually God’s will. In other words, it assumes a certain literalistic view of inspiration and interpretation of the Bible (one I was taught in seminary to call “wooden”). Third, if taken to its logical conclusion, it implies that God wants his people not only to evangelize but to slaughter idolaters. There are so many problems with that argument that I find it sad that a Ph.D. student would make it.
Again, my purpose here is not to single out an individual who used a bad argument but to raise questions about the proper interpretation of Old Testament “texts of terror.” They are often mentioned by Calvinists to contradict my contention that the God of high Calvinism, insofar as that theology is consistent, is a moral monster. The question raised against me goes something like this: “In the Old Testament God commanded his people to slaughter all the men, women and children in Canaanite cities. Does that make God a moral monster?”
First, I think there is a huge difference between that and God predestining people to everlasting torment in hell. However, I admit that the texts of terror of the Old Testament are troublesome. (But no more than some “Old Testament Christians” I know should find Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount troublesome!)
Second, we have no way of knowing all the circumstances of those alleged divine commands and actions of the Israelites. All we have are reports that God told them to do these things and that they did them. The texts don’t explain the all the circumstances or reasons.
Third, nobody interprets all the texts of terror literally in the sense that they believe they are all equally God’s will. Among the most terrifying of them are the impreccatory Psalms. There the Psalmist, presumably writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, cries out to God and says he wishes his enemies’ childrens’ heads would be bashed against rocks. Surely that should reveal something about the Old Testament writers’ tendency to use “children” as a metaphor for punishment of groups of adults.
Of course, fundamentalists will cry “liberal!” against anyone who dares to question whether God literally commanded Israel to slaughter babies or slaughtered them himself (as in the killing of Egypt’s firstborn sons during the Exodus).
I adamantly reject that libelous accusation. Nobody takes everything in the Old Testament literally. Many stories in the early parts of the Old Testament especially are simply head-scratchers. The whole point of “progressive revelation” is to say that the New Testament sheds light on the Old Testament and helps us relativize some of the things attributed to God there.
Jesus said of children that “of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Should we relativize Jesus in light of the Old Testament or vice versa? What is the best clue to God’s character and will, Jesus or the author(s) of Joshua and Judges?
Whenever I ask such questions, someone accuses me of being “Marcionite.” That’s a pretty big stretch. Marcion wanted to exclude the whole Old Testament and portions of the New Testament from the Christian canon because of their “Jewishness.” That’s not my view at all. Is anyone ever called a Marcionite because she interprets the Song of Solomon symbolically?
“Liberal” identifies a certain kind of hermeneutic that is specifically accommodationist with regard to modernity. (Yale historical theologian rightly defined “liberal” in theology as “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity.”) Many of the early church fathers interpreted much of the Old Testament allegorically. Were they then “liberal?” Hardly.
I’m a baptist. (I explained my reason for using the small letter “b” in an earlier post so I won’t go over that again here.) I tend to think there are two kinds of Baptists—New Testament ones and Old Testament ones. What were the earliest baptists—before the Particular Baptists (Calvinist baptists heavily influenced by the Puritans)?
Let’s look at two early baptist Confessions: the Dordrecht Confession (1632) and the A Short Confession (Thomas Helwys) (1610).
Like many other Anabaptist statements of faith (and the early English baptists, followers of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were called “Anabaptists”) the Dordrecht Confession contains an article (Article V) on Scripture. This one is entitled “Of the Law of Christ, Which is the Holy Gospel, or the New Testament.” (See W. L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith [Judson Press, 1959], p. 70.) It says of the New Testament that in it the “whole counsel and will of His [Jesus’] heavenly Father, so far as these are necessary to the salvation of man, are comprehended. The Waterland Confession (1580) says of the doctrine to be preached and with which the people of God should agree that “It…is contained in the books of the New Testament to which we join all that which is found in the canonical books of the Old Testament and WHICH IS CONSONANT WITH THE DOCTRINE OF CHRIST AND HIS APOSTLES AND IN ACCORD WITH THE ADMINISTRATION OF HIS SPIRITUAL KINGDOM.” (Lumpkin, p. 59) In other words, not everything in the Old Testament is part of the doctrine to be preached and believed.
The very first “Baptist” confession of faith was John Smyth’s Short Confession of Faith in XX Articles (1610). It doesn’t mention Scripture at all. (It is, by the way, thoroughly Arminian. See Lumpkin, pp. 100-101.) The second “Baptist” (capital B) confession of faith was Thomas Helwys’ A Short Confession of Faith also dated 1610. Its article (27) on Scripture sounds very much like the Dordrecht Confession. It says that the doctrine to be “proposed to the people” by ministers, which “Christ brought out of heaven” is “written…in the Scripture of the New Testament, whereto we apply whatsoever we find in the canonical book of the Old Testament, which hath affinity and verity, which by doctrine of Christ and his apostles, and consent and agreement, with the government of his Spiritual Kingdom.” (Lumpkin, p. 109).
Without doubt the earliest baptists (including Baptists) were “New Testament Christians.” They did not think everything in the Old Testament was truth for Christians to believe and obey. That is, they read the Bible backwards, as it were. They relativized the Old Testament in light of the New.
John Smyth was, of course, the founder of one of the first Baptist congregations. The other one was founded by Thomas Helwys. Both fancied themselves Mennonites at times but found little acceptance by the Dutch Mennonites. The reasons were not so much theological as cultural. Smyth’s Short Confession of Faith in XX Articles does not touch on Scripture, but he did discuss the Old Testament in several of his writings including Parallels, Censures, Observations. I won’t get into it here, but Jason K. Lee, who taught church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, discusses Smyth’s view of the relationship between the New Testament and the Old in The Theology of John Smyth (Mercer, 2003).
Lee has an entire chapter on “Smyth’s Use of Typology” that makes clear by many quotations from Smyth’s own writings, that the considered the Old Testament inspired Scripture but relativized it in light of the New Testament and regarded it primarily as foreshadowing the New. “He sees the Old Testament as containing types or signs which point to a higher truth or principle. So, the types are not to be maintained, but the principles behind them are.” (p. 101) However, according to Smyth, the principles are all in the New Testament and stated more clearly there than in the Old Testament. One thing is clear: Smyth did not consider the Old Testament necessary for Christianity. However he did not think it should be done away with, either. (p. 100)
Later, among Puritan-influenced Particular Baptists, the Old Testament is elevated to a higher status and strenuous attempts are made to make the two testaments equal for Christians. However, in my opinion, no Christian has ever been able to accomplish that. Christians always interpret the Old Testament in light of the New and relativize the Old.
However, I keep running into what I call “Old Testament Christians” who seem to think it is necessary to take everything in the Old Testament literally and as applicable to Christians today. They’re never consistent, however, as they rarely believe the ceremonial laws and practices of the Old Testament are for today. I said they’re “never consistent” because, when pushed, they always admit that SOME parts of the Old Testament are not relevant to Christian belief and practice. It seems the main parts they want to hold onto and insist are still relevant for Christians (and America as “Christian nation”) have to do with killing (holy war, capital punishment, etc.). But I have never found one who believes EVERYTHING mentioned as a cause for capital punishment should be today.
I don’t have definite answers about the Old Testament texts of terror. All I can do is place question marks over them and leave them there. I will not say, as some do, that they are false records of what God commanded invented to justify Israel’s holy wars. I just don’t know how to explain them. But I certainly don’t think they have any relevance for Christians. Jesus not only set aside Israel’s ceremonial laws and practices for his followers; he also revealed a side to God’s character and will only hinted at in the Old Testament (mostly in certain Psalms and in portions of the prophets).
I will boldly say that baptists, in keeping with our origins, ought to read the Bible backwards. That is, we must interpret the Old Testament in light of the New and relativize the former in light of the latter.