As it’s Sunday, I thought I would raise a theological question to which I have never seen a satisfactory answer, in the hope that the erudite readership of this blog may be able to supply one.*
Richard Dawkins puts one extreme of the argument:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
That’s telling us, Richard! And the corollary is that the God of the New Testament is a God of love, sweetness and light.
The traditional Christian answer is ably covered in the following video by Dr D A Carson: he points out that there are many passages in the OT where God is loving, and there are many parts of the NT in which God is stern. He says that both God’s love and his judgment are ‘ratcheted up’ in the NT to meet in the cross itself. I accept and think I understand what Carson is saying.
On the other hand, we regard it as uncontroversial that Christian theology has a history – there is even an entry in Wikipedia. Since the birth of Christianity, our understanding of the Christian God has varied through the centuries, with a series of what have been called heresies and doctrinal splits within the Christian Church.
Not only that, but there are several passages in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) which sound strange to our ears, not just because of their language but because of their theology. You may like to consider the following two prayers to be used at sea. The first clearly associates the storm at sea with God’s anger at the failure of his people to obey his commandments, not a view many Church of England vicars would advance today:
O most powerful and glorious Lord God, at whose command the winds blow, and lift up the waves of the sea, and who stillest the rage thereof; we thy creatures, but miserable sinners, do in this our great distress cry unto thee for help: Save Lord, or we perish. We confess, when we have been safe, and seen all things quiet about us, we have forgot thee our God, and refused to hearken to the still voice of thy word, and to obey thy commandments.: But now we see, how terrible thou art in all thy works of wonder: the great God to be feared above all…
The second, ‘to be said before a Fight at Sea against any Enemy‘ is a clear invitation to God to join the proper side, again probably not current Church of England doctrine:
O most powerful and glorious Lord God, the Lord of hosts, that rulest and commandest all things; Thou sittest in the throne judging right, and therefore we make our address to thy Divine Majesty in this our necessity, that thou wouldest take the cause into thine own hand, and judge between us and our enemies. Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come and help us; for thou givest not alway the battle to the strong…O let not our sins now cry against us for vengeance…Make it appear that thou art our Saviour and mighty Deliverer…
The books of the Bible were probably written between the 9th century BC and the 9th century AD. Without needing to search the text for evidence, does it seem likely that our perception of God, our theology, remained constant throughout that period? In my corner of the Church of England, we do not believe so: on the contrary, we believe that the Old Testament is a portrayal of our growing understanding of God. Pam Webster commented on the post at the Big Bible Project:
I think we always need to remember that the bible was not written out of time, but by a people in a culture, with all their cultural baggage and understanding. The inerrancy is with God, not necessarily people’s understanding and interpretation of him. I suppose a parallel would be the missionaries who took out white victorianism to Africa and God bound up in that, rather than allowing him to sit in the culture they were going to.
But then we do not believe that the Bible is inerrant.
So my question is, how does this work if biblical inerrancy is part of your faith?: do you believe that our theology did not change throughout the period that the Bible was written? (The logical problem is that if the Bible’s depiction of God is inerrant in the earliest books, it must be inerrant also in the most recent, yet if this depiction changes between the two there would seem to be a difficulty).
Christianity already requires us to believe ‘several impossible things before breakfast’: most of us manage to do so not by repeating 2+2=5 like a mantra, but through prayer and taking things on trust from a God in whom we believe. Is biblical inerrancy one of these things that just have to be accepted?
*This post is based on a piece I wrote for the Big Bible Project as a Digidisciple on 5 August.
Note: I apologise if you find the question offensive. It is not my intention to attack anyone’s beliefs, simply to explore our different views on the Bible.