The Character of the Christian God: The Christian Bible in the Future of Christianity

You can read across the entire Christian Bible, from one end to the other, from Genesis through Revelation, and draw up two contradictory lists on the character of the covenantal God. In one list, God is a God of non-violent distributive justice who expects and commands humans to act in similar fashion. In the other, God is a God of violent retributive justice who expects and commands humans to act in similar fashion. (That holds, by the way, whether you imagine God as a Person or, more profoundly, as a personified Process.)

Compare, for example, these two messages. On the one hand, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4 = Micah 4:3). On the other, "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, I am a warrior'" (Joel 3:10).

How are those two visions to be reconciled theologically? Are Christians to imagine a God of both violence and non-violence combined in whatever proportions are dictated by denominational tradition or personal conviction? Since both divine aspects are certainly present throughout the entire Christian Bible, it would seem wrong to focus on either one alone—for example, on only what is promised by Isaiah and Micah or only what is commanded by Joel.

Maybe, that combination of violence and non-violence belongs validly to the divine character alone so that humans must leave violence to God? But humans are made in God's image so divine violence must generate and vindicate human violence. Christians can hardly be the non-violent people of a violent God? What, then, is Christian faith's answer to that impasse in the Christian Bible's doubled or even contradictory vision of its God?

My answer comes from Christianity's own claim about the incarnation itself: that Jesus is the lamb of God, the word of God, the son of God; that Jesus is the image and revelation of God; that Jesus is our closest vision of God's divine character; that Jesus is what God looks like in sandals. That is why Jesus is named "the Christ" by "Christians" who take their very name from that confession of faith.

That answer seems obvious on the character of Christianity's covenantal God. The human character of Jesus reveals for Christians the divine character of God. But that only raises another question, deeper and even more intractable.

When we speak of Jesus as Christ do we intend the historical, the evangelical, or the apocalyptic Jesus as Christ? What do we imagine as our ultimate vision of God's character: the historical Jesus of non-violence—as, for example, in Pilate's assessment; the evangelical Jesus of rhetorical violence—as, for example, in Matthew's presentation; or the apocalyptic Jesus of physical violence—as, for example, in Revelation's consummation?

My proposal is that there has always been but one and only one Jesus—reconstructed by scholars as the "Jesus of History" and accepted by believers as the "Christ of Faith." But, for Christians, the former is normative over the latter, incarnation is normative over apocalypse, and life-of-Jesus is normative over text-about-Jesus.

In other words, that same single person, called the Historical Jesus by the academy and the Incarnate Word by the church, is the norm and criterion of both the evangelical and apocalyptic Jesus Christ and of the entire Christian Bible. That is why we are called "Christians" and not "Biblians." That is why God so loved the world that he sent us a Person—not a Book. That is why we are always and ever the People of the Person and the People with the Book rather than the People of the Book. That is why Evangelicals say WWJD and not WDBS (What Does the Bible Say?). That is why we Christians count time "down" to and "up" from that historical Jesus.

The historical Jesus launched a non-violent revolution against violent imperialism (excuse that redundancy) in its contemporary Roman incarnation. In John's climactic parable, Pilate and Jesus are imagined in conversation and Jesus explains that, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over" (18:36). Clear enough: Your Kingdom of Rome, Pilate, is based on violence; the Kingdom of God is not, and will not use violence even to free me.

That was parable, an incident that never happened but that accurately summed up all that was at stake. But this now is history and confirms that parable: Pilate crucified Jesus as a non-violent revolutionary. He was to be crucified because he was a revolutionary against Roman law and order. But his companions were not to be crucified with him because he and they were non-violent.

12/2/2022 9:10:31 PM
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