The Old Testament and Contemporary Christian Ethics

The Old Testament and Contemporary Christian Ethics

The background issue here, of this post, is the problem I see of appealing to the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch and historical books, to establish Christian ethics.

One does not have to deny the divine inspiration of the entire Old Testament to argue that it cannot serve as a basis for contemporary Christian ethics. Jesus himself offered corrections to Old Testament ethics (e.g., divorce).

Early Christians, after the apostolic age (and some would argue during it—in some of Paul’s epistles), handled the tensions between Christian ethics (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) and the Old Testament by means of allegorical hermeneutics. They based their ethics primarily on Jesus and the apostles and sometimes on Greek philosophy.

Today, for the most part, that avenue (allegorical interpretation) is closed off to us. We have to find new ways of handling the tensions and most Christians do. Those of us in the Anabaptist tradition (which includes many Baptists who were known as Anabaptists during their earliest years) do it by “reading the Bible backwards”—the Old Testament in the light of the New. We freely and joyfully admit that much of the Old Testament, especially in the realm of ethics, must be relativized in light of the New.

Very few Christians take literally, as straightforwardly applicable to today, the entire body of God’s commandments to Israel in the Pentateuch and historical books.

This is true even of some of Jesus’ sayings which Christians have always interpreted non-literally (e.g., Matthew 5:29).

For most Christians, both conservative and liberal, biblical principles override biblical rules when they conflict.

The demand to provide clear, straightforward, explicit proof texts of Scripture to justify all ethical norms is simply wrong headed. There are many behaviors virtually all Christians regard as unethical, even evil, for which no clear, straightforward, explicit ethical prohibitions can be found in Scripture (e.g., abortion as a means of birth control, torturing a person’s spouse to extract information from him or her, birthing humans with the sole purpose of harvesting organs, selling organs for profit, etc.).

There can be little doubt that the Old Testament represents God as commanding Israel to practice ethnic cleansing—including the slaughter of non-combatant women and children. (And it won’t do to argue that it wasn’t true “ethnic cleansing” because it was limited to a certain time and place. The same could be said of much contemporary ethnic cleansing such as took place in the Balkans in the 1980s and into the 1990s.) And yet, the vast majority of contemporary Christians would consider ethnic cleansing absolutely wrong and Christian support for it and participation in it heresy.

Here’s the rub for those who wish to jump to the Old Testament and things God commanded there to establish or support contemporary Christian ethics. That makes it impossible to say that every particular contemporary instance of holy war or ethnic cleansing is unequivocally evil. How could a person know that God did not command it? The belief that holy war with ethnic cleansing (to be very specific with this case study) is always unequivocally evil must be based on a hermeneutic that bypasses and supercedes the Old Testament Pentateuch and historical books. The same could be said of many behaviors virtually all contemporary Christians condemn as evil: enforced racial segregation/apartheid, polygamy, slavery (one person owning another), totalitarian monarchy, etc.

(Side Bar: In at least one example I can think of we contemporary Christians almost all condemn as unequivocally evil, wrong, bad, condemnable, heretical something that at least some Christians (“King James Only”) think is commanded in Scripture and that nobody could argue is explicitly condemned in Scripture: snake handling as part of Christian worship.)

Just war theory, developed primarily by Christians (such as Augustine) borrowing elements from Greek and Roman sources, stands in direct conflict with holy war/ethnic cleansing as practiced according to divine commands by the Hebrews as recorded in the historical books of the Old Testament. It stands as an example of the evolution of Christian ethics beyond anything explicitly taught in Scripture. And “Christians” who practice holy war with ethnic cleansing can claim that their behavior is more consistent with Old Testament ethics, even divine commands recorded in the historical books, than is just war theory. Just war theory is a clear example of Christians developing ethics away from commands and rules found in Scripture on the basis of principles found in Scripture. (However, even those principles upon which just war theory is based have shaky biblical support. Just war theory was clearly developed for a totally new situation not found in Scripture—Christian involvement in creating public policy.)

I would even go so far as to suggest (these are my musings) that contemporary Christians need to take seriously philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (one version of it) that “One ought always to treat other persons as ends in themselves and never as means to an end” without embracing all of Kant’s philosophy. Early Christians found much in Greek philosophy that was consistent with and even helpful for Christian ethics. Capital punishment clearly violates that principle, that imperative (to say nothing of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount). The abolition of capital punishment is, I believe, an imperative now partly because it is never necessary. There may have been a time when it was necessary (e.g., to protect other life), but it is now never necessary.

  • Larry Chouinard

    Well said Roger— some ethical concerns that the Torah might shed light upon for Christians to consider: the bent toward the poor and the care of the alien in their midst; an alternative community where God speaks into every aspect of life; ethical foundations grounded in the character (e.g., holiness) and redemptive actions of God (how others are to be treated); the pursuit of restorative justice. While all of these ethical concerns might be reiterated in the NT, it is significant that God created an ethical community to model an alternative way (Israel). If only the church could see beyond an individualistic salvation experience (election) and see itself as a primary medium for giving expression to an alternative way of life (ethics). As Chris Wright points out election and ethics go together. Thanks for a stimulating post.

  • Many Horizons

    I appreciate that this post is probably connected to your previous ones about capital punishment, so I want to clarify that what I have to say is not related to that.
    Isn’t the viewpoint you have outlined in danger of no longer treating the OT as authoritative scripture? If the OT is to be read “in light of the NT” to such a great extent that it has none of its own authoritative voice, then surely we are treating the OT no differently than we would any other historical document (i.e., everything ever written should, in some ense, be read ‘in light of the NT’)? Shouldn’t rather the NT also be read in light of the OT, due to the level of authority Jesus and the apostles gave it?
    Also, doesn’t a close reading of the accounts in Joshua offer a more nuanced perspective on the kind of war Yahweh was commanding? I.e. if we ask ourselves why Yahweh commanded the Israelites to kill these particular people at this particular time in history, doesn’t it become less straightforward than simple ethnic cleansing?

    • Roger Olson

      What scenario can you imagine in which slaughtering women and children is something less straightforward than simple ethnic cleansing? And, of course the OT sheds some light on the NT–as background, foreshadowings, etc. But for Christians, anyway, it cannot stand by itself as a sufficient revelation of God’s will for ethical living.

      • Many Horizons

        Dr. Olson, thank you for taking the time to engage with my question :)

        Is it the killing of women and children that, for you, makes the difference between a “just war” prescribed by Augustine and a “holy war” which, in your view, the Old Testament endorses? Would you see the situation differently if the Israelites had only killed the men, for example?
        I’m curious because it might help clarify for me how you understand the difference between just/holy war as well as how you map those definitions onto the biblical accounts, and onto contemporary events.

        - John Ridley

        • Roger Olson

          All I can say for now is that I know an unjust (and therefore unholy) war when I see one even if I can’t decide with certainty which are just. I personally would refrain from calling any war “holy.”

  • Andrew Komasinski

    Professor Olson, I think the solution you’re suggestion here might be incomplete. Or rather I think another framing device is also worth keeping in mind that can segment out the ethnic cleansing, etc., which is that some elements of the OT can be clearly identified as God’s commands to Israel related to their nation-building whereas others are at a minimum morally informative if not worthy of being morally dispositive.

    • Roger Olson

      Of course there are morally informative commands of God in the OT. I never denied that. But they are all lifted up, deepened, and fulfilled in the NT.

  • Susan_G1

    I agree with you that the Spirit of the Law is greater than the letter of the law. Jesus gave us many examples of this.

    I disagree with you on capitol punishment. I believe there are just grounds to oppose it (the possibility of error, faulty prosecution; the racial and gender inequity of applying the sentence), but to say that it is never necessary is to imagine a perfect world. How many prisoners murder within days of being released from prison? How many, sentenced to death, kill others in prison? These people have given up their chance to kill again, their right to live.

    • Roger Olson

      It is never necessary because we can keep violent prisoners in prison for their lifetimes and because there are ways (if we will) to keep prisoners and guards safe even in prison. We just haven’t put our will to it. We’re more interested in killing people we consider beyond redemption and simply warehousing others.

  • Zach Waldis

    Aren’t there significant problems with supercessionism though? As far as I know most Bible scholars are moving away from that (i.e. New Perspective on Paul). Also doesn’t the Old Testament itself give us a lot of good stuff on politics? Reinhold Niebuhr did a good job I think of taking the message of the Hebrew prophets and applying it contemporary politics. In any case, one of my favorite evangelical OT scholars, John Goldingay, is big on the OT’s continuing relevance, so I’m torn between your perspective here (which I agree with and was raised on) and my later views which see the Gospel in the OT.

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t deny there is gospel in the OT. My point is that the OT cannot suffice as a source for Christian ethics and that some OT ethics needs to be set aside in light of the NT.

  • Joseph Kelly

    You write, “Jesus himself offered corrections to Old Testament ethics (e.g., divorce).” As I recall, Jesus offers corrections to Moses allowances for divorce by appealing to a pre-Mosaic ideal, Genesis 2:24. I’m not sure how much your post engages the work of those who are involved in Old Testament ethics. Charles Halton and I are writing a book, A Moral Vision for the Old Testament to be published by Fortress Press. Do give it a read when it comes out.

  • Curt Day

    Before applying much of what was written in the Old Testament to the post-Apostolic Church age, we have to note the areas of continuity and discontinuity. This is especially true regarding the Old Testament wars. So despite the fact that those wars included ethnic cleansing, our modern times do not share the same context as that of the Old Testament wars.

    In addition, I’m not sure that the Just War Theory itself should not be further examined by the Scriptures. This is especially true in a world where the proliferation of WMDs is inevitable.

    As for capital punishment, we have NT references to the continued use of it as being acceptable to the Apostles. But if we were to substitute another punishment for the death penalty, then the new punishment should communicate the reverence society has for the victim to the criminal. And we should also note how we employ reductionism in responding to criminals. If found guilty they are only punished. Perhaps we would do better if punishment was not our only response to criminal behavior.

    • Roger Olson

      If you are referring to Romans 13 (the only passage I’ve ever read or heard used as justification for capital punishment in the NT), it hardly justifies Christian belief in or participation in capital punishment–unless you are going to accept, say, crucifixion as a form of capital punishment Christians ought never to have opposed because rulers used it and whatever rules do is sanctioned by God. That’s not the message I take from Romans 13.

      • Curt Day

        I believe that there are other passages where Paul would not refuse the death penalty if he was worthy of death. I believe at least one such passage is in Acts but I would have to look it up.

        Also, I neither find the discontinuities that exist between the OT and now as being valid for disqualifying the death penalty nor do I find the eagerness of some fellow Christians to employ the death penalty to be righteous.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Roger,

    I feel rather badly for asking this, but (since this is about musings) I’ll go ahead…

    In your view, do God’s ethics change like our ethics change? God wanted the Israelites to wipe out the Jebusites (among others) – was God so ethically challenged at that time that He wasn’t aware how utterly abhorrent it was? Isn’t such a God worth of condemnation, not just “reform” as you say Jesus did with regard to God and divorce? (Although we, in our post-modern ethical competency, have done a good bit of “dis-reforming” Him back on the issue of divorce!)

    If we don’t stop to ask “Why” God might have commanded these things AND we get an answer that is ethically acceptable for all times, then aren’t we simply changing God instead of God changing us (when we contrast Him with the NT God)? Why not simply discard the unethical God of the OT? Shouldn’t that ethical-drag-of-a-deity be jettisoned to preserve our more Christian sensibilities? How are we to keep on progressing with such an anchor?

    If we can’t find acceptable reasons for Capital Punishment in principle, we can hardly call the OT God good. Jesus called the OT God good – the only One who was good. I shall defer to Jesus and I invite you to join me in doing so.

    -Tim

    • Roger Olson

      I am not a biblical inerrantist.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        What is the Biblical error that you are referring to? Was Jesus in error for calling God good? Was God in error for commanding these things? Was the author in error for writing them down incorrectly?

        • Roger Olson

          Of course not the first two options.

          • Timothy Rayner

            Dr Olson,

            Your response appears to imply that you do not disagree with the third option. If that is true, on what basis do you determine whether a text has been erroneously recorded or not?

            If you appeal to the character of Jesus as the final arbiter to the truthfulness of the record, how do you ascertain whether those texts about Jesus have been accurately recorded?

            I look forward to hearing your musings about my musings about your musings!

          • Roger Olson

            This is the old question always put to those of us who do not believe in plenary, detailed (biblical) inerrancy. But everyone, even advocates of plenary, detailed inerrancy have this issue. What is to be taken literally and what figuratively? What is error in all the copies we have but not in the original autographs? Etc. But also, I stand with Luther who said that Scripture is the cradle that hold Christ and that is especially authoritative for us Christians that promotes Christ (“was Christus treibt”). All that pertains to our salvation is infallible.

          • Timothy Rayner

            Thank you, Dr Olson, for responding.

            I would like to clarify my question. I am not asking what your stance is on certain texts exegetically (your first question), nor am I asking you what your position is in regards to textual-critical issues and the preservation of the text (your second question). Those questions are of different categories. What I am asking is that if you affirm the third question Tim Reisdorf raised “Was the author in error for writing them down incorrectly?” to be true, then what method of judgement do you use to determine whether a text has been recorded accurately autographically? To restate, what determines an erroneous recording in the original text of the OT and NT?

            Whilst I affirm with you and Luther that Scripture is the cradle that holds Christ, I also stand with Paul who said that the sacred writings are able to make one wise for salvation and that all of that scripture is θεόπνευστος – God-breathed (2Tim3:14-17). Based on your final statement, I can only conclude that all scripture is infallible.

          • Roger Olson

            Yes, I believe the authors of the OT “texts of terror” recorded correctly what the Hebrew people believed.

          • Timothy Rayner

            Thank you. That helps me understand your position better.

            Would you be able to tell me how you arrived at your conclusion that the OT ‘texts of terror’ reflect the beliefs of the Hebrew people but not the true character of YHWH?

          • Roger Olson

            Um, I thought I had explained that in several responses to commenters’ questions. The answer is–Jesus, the full and perfect revelation of the character of God.

          • Timothy Rayner

            I’m sorry, but I think you’ve missed my point. I understand that Jesus is the standard by which you evaluate the biblical data re the ‘texts of terror’. What I would like to understand is how do you know that the NT texts describing Jesus are a true reflection of the character of God rather than recording correctly what the writers of the NT believed, whereas a significant number of OT texts do not reflect the character of God and actually present a false understanding of God’s character?

            Asked a different way: why do you trust the validity of the texts about Jesus and not the texts about YHWH? Is there something internal to the textual data that decides it for you, or is it something external?

            The reason I ask this is that for those who hold that all the biblical data is ‘God-breathed’ and thus can be trusted when describing Jesus in His incarnation (who is identified as YHWH through OT references), and can also be trusted describing facets of the character of YHWH not fully seen in the incarnation, the position you hold seems arbitrary in trusting one text over against another.

            I’m not trying to be contentious with these questions; I really do want to understand where you’re coming from and why.

          • Roger Olson

            You are asking a question that rests on an Enlightenment-based search for certainty. I have never hidden here my Pietism which means that my Christianity is based on a personal relationship with the Savior Jesus Christ who I read about in Scripture; it is not based on the Bible as some kind of inerrant and woodenly authoritative (equally on all levels) textbook about God. Your question to me could be asked of most Christians throughout history–including Luther (who said that that is primarily authoritative in Scripture that promotes Christ). My epistemology is not foundationalist as yours seems to be.

          • Timothy Rayner

            I’m not sure whether you would agree, but I don’t see truth graded on a curve. Neither would I agree that our internal experience is able to give any form of certainty to whether something is true or not (just because the Mormon has a ‘burning in the bosom’ that confirms their teachings are true, it doesn’t affirm their claims).

            At the root of it, we would answer the question “You ask me how I know He lives?” differently. I would primarily place my trust in the external witness of the claims of an historical document that declares to be the very words of God, whereas you (based on your responses) would primarily place your trust in an internal witness and affirm with Alfred Ackley “He lives within my heart”. From those positions, I would then interpret my experience from the scriptures, and you would interpret the scriptures from your experience. (If I have misrepresented you, please correct me.)

            I have a further question for you, similar to one you have answered in a different context:

            If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn’t question or deny that the true character of YHWH actually is as the OT ‘texts of terror’ describes Him, would you still worship him?

          • Roger Olson

            First you answer my question: If it was revealed to you in a way you could not deny that God did NOT command Israel to do what the OT texts of terror report would you still worship him? It seems to me yours is a book faith that requires you to wait for every issue of Biblical Archeology Review to know whether you can still be a Christian. Mine is a Jesus faith like that of the disciples and apostles who didn’t have a full Bible yet and still knew Jesus was Lord of all.

          • Timothy Rayner

            I have no trouble in answering: yes, of course; He is God, I am not. That doesn’t mean that I may well be confused, but not understanding something because of my creaturely limitations shouldn’t get in the way of the Creator receiving the worship that is His by definition of the creature-Creator relationship.

            My faith is consistent with the God who has chosen the means of communicating His interaction with mankind throughout all history as the written words of the scriptures. It’s funny that you charge me of having a ‘book faith’; that’s exactly the same as Jesus and the Apostles. The NT verifies this by their total reliance on the OT as being the very words of God when proving who Jesus was himself and the fulfilment of redemptive history.

            I understand that your faith is centred around the person of Jesus; which Christian would deny this? My problem with your position (which you have yet to answer), is that other than a strong internal conviction in your heart that Jesus is the ‘shape’ you think He is, why do you trust the texts that back this up and, in effect, reject the texts that do not according to the understanding of Jesus you have?

            Based on your most recent article (very helpful I might add), I would put your current understanding at #7 Progressive revelation interpretation. Would this be correct? No surprise to you I’d imagine, but I would come in at #3 Literal interpretation. I have no problem with Jesus being the same YHWH revealed by the whole OT text who He Himself slaughters His enemies by the word of His mouth at the parousia (Rev 19:11-21). In fact, vs13-15 and 21 are particularly reminiscent of the OT ‘texts of terror’:

            Rev. 19:13-15 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.
            Rev. 19:21 And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.

            Since I have answered your question to me, would you please answer mine:

            If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn’t question or deny that the true character of YHWH actually is as the OT ‘texts of terror’ describes Him, would you still worship him?

          • Roger Olson

            I don’t believe you did answer my question. I have another one for you. Do you believe that when Jesus returns in the way you describe he will slaughter children?

          • Timothy Rayner

            I’m not sure how “yes, of course” is not an answer that you understand to a ‘yes/no’ question!

            It’s a shame you will not show me the same courtesy of answering my ‘yes/no’ question. Maybe you can show me how you wanted me to answer your question by answering mine.

            To answer your follow-up: since I recognise the book of Revelation as part of the God-breathed scriptures, and since I recognise Jesus as YHWH, then clearly I accept the parousia as it describes, not my description, and so, if there are children at His coming who are not His sheep, then He will destroy them by the word of His mouth, just as those who were in active rebellion against Him were destroyed in the past. You may not like that, but it is consistent with all of scripture. Thankfully, the Chief Shepherd knows His sheep, however old they are, so I know that none will be lost. I also accept the final judgement (Matt 25:31-46) where Jesus will separate the sheep and goats, based on what they are before judging them according to what they have done, being consistent with their ‘species’ (i.e. sheep had done ‘sheepy’ things because they were sheep; the goats had done ‘goaty’ things because they were goats). Those go to very different eternal places.

            Would you reinterpret this ‘text of terror’ too? Is the Jesus described in Matt 25 a ‘Jesus’ that the writer of the gospel understood as opposed to the real Jesus?

            I’m curious, was there ever a time when you accepted total plenary inerrancy, and if so, why did you come to reject it?

            (By the way, my previous post should have read #6 Progressive revelation interpretation, not #7. Sorry, typo)

          • Roger Olson

            I remember a time when I tried to and perhaps thought I did but handled many problems by simply bracketing them out and trying not to think about them. That’s not easy to do when you’re a teacher of theology. :) Once I really delved into the issues surrounding plenary inerrancy (by reading many books on both/all sides) i realized plenary inerrancy is impossible without adding all kinds of qualifications that kill it. That’s what every serious inerrancy scholar I know does. Have you followed or read my many posts about this subject in the archives? I have said I agree with John Piper’s view of inerrancy but think “inerrancy” is a bad word for it. Go into the archives and read what I wrote about that some months ago.

          • Timothy Rayner

            I’m sorry that was the conclusion you drew, that in effect, ‘plenary inerrancy is impossible’. Was there a suggestion that those scholars who hold to plenary inerrancy are not serious?! Not particularly irenic, Dr Olson ;)

            I have read your work/posts for some time (although not exhaustively), and have read your post linking to Piper’s 1976 article. In his 2006 summary of inerrancy “Is the Bible Without Error?”, the following is stated:

            2 Timothy 3:16 states that “All Scripture is inspired by God.” The term “inspired” here is not used in the sense of “Beethoven was inspired to write great symphonies.” It literally means “God-breathed.” This applies to the entire Bible, and extends to the actual words, not just the concepts (“all Scripture”). Jesus also affirmed this for the Old Testament (Matt. 5:18) and promised this for the New Testament (John 16:12-15; 14:26).

            Since God always speaks the truth, it follows that the Scriptures are without error. Jesus treated them this way, even basing his point in an argument with the Pharisees on the tense of a single word (Matthew 22:31-32; see also Galatians 3:16 where Paul does this as well) and stating “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). This is called the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration, which means that the very words (verbal) of the Bible were all (plenary) God-breathed.

            I’m not sure whether you would agree with this position? My reading of that and his other articles on inerrancy would not lead me to believe that he would consider your interpretation of the ‘texts of terror’ being the Hebrew view of God rather than the true character of YHWH as fitting his definition of inerrancy. Your understanding of those ‘texts of terror’ cannot, I believe, be derived exegetically from the plain meaning of the text, in context. It requires the importation of certain presuppositions about the character of God to understand the text the way you do.

            I do appreciate that you are trying to be consistent within your paradigm, as am I, but I don’t believe that yours is the same paradigm as the writers of the bible, Jesus, the disciples, or many of the orthodox church fathers. Scarily, the earliest interpretational framework that has similarities to what you put forward is that of the heretical Gnostic sects and in particular, Marcion. I’m certainly not suggesting that you are a 1st century Gnostic, nor a follower of the teachings of Marcion, but when a position is, in effect, setting the ‘moral monster’ Creator God YHWH described in the OT as angry against sinful man and will destroy them as and when He chooses, in opposition to Jesus, the ‘ever meek and mild’ omnibenevolent NT God, it’s hard not to see similarities in reasoning even though the conclusions vary due to temporal and cultural setting. In fact, you yourself said that ‘#6 Progressive revelation interpretation’ was subject to accusations of implicit Marcionism (I’m assuming this to be your position until corrected, since it is consistent with your writings).

            My musings are leading my to think that there is a common presupposition – that the-plain-reading-of-the-OT-YHWH is antithetical to the select-reading-of-the-NT-Jesus – and that this presupposition is manifested as Marcionism in a 1st century dualistic matrix, and as ‘some-title-I’m-not-sure-of-yet’ in a 21st century emergent, post-modern, emerging, post-evangelical, ‘post-everything’ matrix. On the one hand, the OT is totally rejected and YHWH is the evil ‘god of this world’, on the other, ‘plain-reading-YHWH’ is called a moral monster and is redefined so that the richness of the character of the triune God is cropped to parts of Jesus’ character in His self-limited incarnation, and so the OT has very little, if any, value other than to show us how not to view God’s character.

            To segue slightly, I have recently listened to a presentation by Brian Zahnd (The Gospel in Chairs) given at Renovatus Church. Are you familiar with him or his work? His presentation sounded like it was coming from the same or a very similar paradigm as yours. I’d be interested in your thoughts about him.

            Thank you for taking the time to interact with me; I know we disagree strongly, but I am finding our dialogue useful and helpful to understand a position different to mine.

          • Roger Olson

            I’m not finding it as helpful when you accuse me of Marcionism (or even coming close to it). Marcion did not interpret the OT; he denied its inspiration and rejected it from the Christian canon. I haven’t even come close to doing that. And Marcion was not a Gnostic, by the way. He shared some similar ideas with some of the Gnostics, but he shouldn’t be confused with them. I find your lumping me into those categories troubling and it makes me wonder about the sincerity of your expressed motives. Let’s move away from name-calling and heresy-hunting here. I never said I agreed with everything Piper has written about the Bible. I only said I agree with something he wrote (that I posted here) about inerrancy meaning “perfection with respect to purpose.” In that essay (which I posted here some time ago) he stresses the need to distinguish between “error” and “not literal.” My point is that the line between them is not as clear cut as many fundamentalists pretend.

          • Timothy Rayner

            Dr Olson, my previous post was explicit in not identifying you with early Gnosticism nor with following Marcion. My musings on a common presupposition are just that, musings. You yourself had stated in a more recent article that, what I am assuming to be your position, was “subject to accusations of implicit Marcionism.” I have simply explored that comment.

            I know that Marcion wasn’t a Gnostic even though there are some similarities in thought; I had intended to say that the interpretational framework that appears common to both groups was similar to what I thought you were saying based on a certain presuppositional view of Christ with regards to YHWH. On reflection, I hadn’t explained that clearly in my post, sorry.

            I’m not on a ‘heresy hunt’; I’m just trying to understand what I perceive as a growing trend of thought in modern evangelicalism with a scholar, whom I enjoy reading, hoping to understand why someone who is clearly well read comes to very different conclusions when we both have the same text. Since our fundamental presuppositions seem different, I had asked questions to try and understand what yours were and why.

            That’s why I had asked the same ‘yes/no’ question twice. I don’t want to misrepresent what you believe and think your answer to it would help clarify my thoughts. So I’ll ask once more:

            If it was revealed to you in a way you couldn’t question or deny that the true character of YHWH actually is as the OT ‘texts of terror’ describes Him, would you still worship him?

          • Roger Olson

            The spirit of your question is, well, questionable. I have no interest in allowing my own blog to be a place where people back me into a corner to answer “yes or no” questions with such momentous consequences. There are many questions I wrestle with. I don’t have absolute “yes or no” answers to every conceivable question. I detect that you are attempting to corner me for some reason.

          • Timothy Rayner

            Once again, I am sorry that is how you feel about my questions. I had asked the questions that I did so that there would be no ambiguity.

            I’m glad that you see the answer to that question has huge consequences and I respect that you may not have an answer to that question that you are comfortable confessing publicly during a conversation on a blog. I will cease and desist from that line of questioning. (Even though I would have loved to have known why you answered the one about Calvinism so forcefully yet not this one!)

            May I ask you a different kind of question: what let you to Pietism and why? Or was it something you were raised in?

          • Roger Olson

            I was raised in Pietism. It was called Pentecostalism, but now I recognize it was Pietism on steroids :) . My seminary education was in a Pietist seminary and I taught for fifteen years in a Pietist college. I am at home in and with Pietism (historically-theologically understood).

          • Timothy Rayner

            I too was raised in Pentecostalism and can affirm the über-Pietism :) I have heard a very informative lecture series on the history of Pietism by Dr Daniel van Voorhis from Concordia that traces that line.

            What do you think it is about Pietism that keeps you there as opposed to other traditions?

          • Roger Olson

            It is simply familiar Christianity as I know and understand it. Other traditions seem foreign to me. I glean things from them, but cannot merge with them.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    It is not good to condemn the way other Christians worship God (as regarding the snakes). Disagree? Fine. Heretical and evil? Such ideas are divisive in the Church and bring darkness instead of light, harm instead of healing, and bad instead of good. What good does it do you to pick a fight with a people that God has called His own? That was a regrettable sidebar!

    • Roger Olson

      Have you studied this phenomenon as I have? Many people, including women, have died as a result of being bitten by poisonous snakes handled in “worship.” I said most Christians…and I stand by that. Would you defend a snake handling group if it moved next door to you?

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I confess that I haven’t studied this as you have. I have never attended such a service. I’ve never been bitten by a snake, nor have I died as a result.

        Just because they express their faith differently and understand it differently, does that make their unusual (and dangerous) practice evil? Are they not freely and willingly choosing to worship God according to the traditions handed down to them?

        Yes, I would invite them to move next door to me. (I raise animals that eat snakes – and my guinea hens would find wayward snakes rather tasty.)

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Dr. Olson said: “This is true even of some of Jesus’ sayings which Christians have always interpreted non-literally (e.g., Matthew 5:29).”

    Oh, yes, it’s true that “some Christians” have always interpreted Matthew 5:29 non-literally, EXCEPT for that darling word “hell.” That’s one word in the New Testament that most Christians will fight like hell to preserve as a literal concept of eternal conscious torture in the afterlife. This they will insist on keeping despite the FACT that the word “hell” is a glaring mistranslation of the word ‘gehenna’ (the Greek contraction of Hinnom) which simply means: “The valley of the sons of Hinnom.” (sigh)

  • Joel Naranjo

    Dr. Olson:

    Thanks for this post. I agree with you about reading the OT in light of Jesus. I have a question, nonetheles, regard the commands of “ethnic cleansing”. Given that you say that “There can be little doubt that the Old Testament represents God as commanding Israel to practice ethnic cleansing”, I take that you reject the view espoused by scholars like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, in the sense that, in it’s biblical and Near-Eastern context, this passages shoudn’t be read as literal commands to slay every man, woman and child, but as formulaic hyberbole describing simply the defeat of the enemy. I personally find the arguments for that view convincing, so I would be very interested to know what reasons do you have to reject it. Thank you!

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t reject it; I just think it’s a bit of a stretch.

  • Fred Karlson

    I am not sure I am willing to give up Augustine’s perspective for Kant’s on serving others. Augustine, I believe, held that glorifying God is the ultimate end of service, while serving others is a means to that end.

    • Roger Olson

      I didn’t say that Kant’s categorical imperative is sufficient for Christian ethics. It’s helpful.

  • Craig Wright

    This post is so relevant in today’s evangelical atmosphere. Lay people, as well, as scholars are hazy about the use of the OT law in our Christian world. Most people don’t even understand that there is a covenant between God and Israel, and that Heb. 8: 13 has pretty strong words for that application. Although 1 Cor. 10: 11 and 2 Tim. 3: 16 remind us that the OT is valuable, people just pick and choose. I have had parents ask me about the application of Lev. 19: 28 in regards to using it against their child getting a tattoo, yet not realizing that the verse right before that forbids getting a hair cut. In light of the discussion on homosexuality, the church sometimes provides material for mockery in the public media. I just taught an adult class at church on the violence of the Bible, and you should have heard some of the weird answers in dealing with ethnic cleansing in the OT. Pastors are not clear on this issue either.

  • Sean

    I teach both theology and ethics. I get a lot of pushback when I state that while the OT law is God’s word for us, it’s not our covenant, and Christian are not bound by it, indeed are called to a higher ethic.

    On the other hand, lots of excuses (many of the major traditions have one) are given as to why we don’t have to observe the Sermon on the Mount.

    We have come to a sad state when we find ourselves being put on the defensive about keeping Christ at the center of Christian faith and practice and giving priority to his teaching.

  • tanman66

    The best example of Christ offering “corrections” to Old Testament ethics, in my opinion, can be found in Matthew 15. Here, he suggests that many of the Old Testament laws are human ideas rather than commands of God (15:9). Christ seems to introduce some doubt as to the divinity of at least some sections of the law, or at the very least points out how man has misinterpreted discipline to law as being how man honors God. In this section, Christ is addressing laws that prohibit being “unclean.” It is from this same section of the Old Testament that we find the instruction to not eat pork, and where homosexuality is considered an abomination. It leads me to question whether such prohibitions were actually divine or human ideas, and thus whether our hard line against homosexuality (while we eat pork) is rooted in the same evil misappropriation of divinity as hand washing. (It certainly makes it more difficult for us to love our neighbor when we are so dead set against their lifestyle, and Jesus said that all the laws and the prophets hung on two commandments, one of which was to love our neighbor). I was raised Baptist with strong instruction that being legalistically disciplined is how we demonstrate our faith. But as I have read the New Testament for myself without influence from conservative hard line Old Testament legalists, I see nothing in the New Testament that reaffirms the legalism that seems to jump out from the pages of the Old. Instead, what I read says, “you dummies, you just don’t get it do you? The purpose of the law wasn’t for you to follow it, but for you to realize how impossible it is to follow it and throw yourself at the mercy of the Lord.” And the more I read the New Testament, the more New Testament I see in the Old.

  • jeff miller

    Jesus affirms the authority of the Old C. Law. Jesus fulfills the Old C. Law. Jesus replaces the Old C. Law with the Gospel Commands for renewed Israel.

    • Roger Olson

      I edit out most hyperlinks because I can’t preview all of them. But maybe you’d like to explain this a bit more?

  • Jared

    I have some concerns with this treatment of this topic; it does not appear sufficiently nuanced—although I understand this is merely a blog post. The assumption that seems to undergird this post is that the OT legal genre (if one can even define it as that) was used as our modern legislation is today. To say that modern Christians should not establish ethics based on the OT discounts the Torah ethos quite prevalent in the NT ethics. The real question is: how do we get from there (i.e. OT laws/ethics) through the NT to the application in the present?

    While this is touched upon, I believe you only review systems that empty the OT ethics of any real weight. But perhaps I misunderstood what you were saying. Nevertheless, I did think your distinction between principles and rules is an important one to keep in mind. I would have liked to see it taken further into a discussion about how Ancient Near Eastern laws were actually understood/used as a framework for understanding the OT laws.

    I was disappointed to see an ad populum argument. I think we should be speaking of this topic in terms of what does God expect from us, not what does the majority expect. It seems the question at hand really is: What revelation—found in Scripture—has God provided for us to determine Christian ethics? Perhaps the ad populum was merely meant to be informative rather than supportive of your position.

    Related to some degree is the (potential) red herring about holy wars or ethnic cleansing. To be sure, this has a place in the discussion about OT ethics, but the premises of handling these specific issues are nowhere discussed. That is what left me confused as to how exactly you were understanding and using these texts. Are these texts prescriptive or descriptive? What, if any, contextual factors move these texts into the realm of eternal ethics for God’s people? Or should they be taken more contextually for that time and setting? Granted, this is a short post, but to throw out such a loaded topic to support the main argument seems to detract rather than add to the strength of your post. :-)

    I think you clarify in some of your statements in the comments section that OT ethics in and of themselves is not sufficient for Christian ethics. With that, I certainly agree. :-)

    I am always pleased to see someone give the spotlight to this topic and engage in fruitful dialogue. Thank you for that.

    Peace,

    Jared

    • Roger Olson

      I was simply trying to explain my platform, so to speak, so that readers understand where I’m “coming from” with regard to using the OT for contemporary Christian ethics. Many commenters here were appealing directly to OT commands to support contemporary use of capital punishment.

  • jetwideawake

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. I am a first time visitor to your blog. As an evangelical Christian, I oppose the death penalty. When I became a Christian, I was sold (and I bought) an absolute Bibical hermeneutic or at least 99.9% absolute. I like the idea or humility of the Spirit of the Law that someone mentioned earlier. I prefer and trust someone more who says, “it seems that The Lord…” Rather than, “Thus says The Lord…”. Well, it seems to me, based on my study of Scripture and in particular the gospel message of grace, that we ought to honor and love God’s creation and to extend grace until they come before God. Why do we so often prefer the Law just like the Galatians?


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