Reader Question: God of the OT Really Be God of the New? Spin it for me.
The NT makes sense (mostly)! So why does the OT make it so hard to be a Christian? A lot of it is so contradictory. What makes it worse is when preachers read too much into an OT passage to support something in the NT, and then you find that in the next chapter or book God does something horrific such as wiping out people or judging people because of what someone else did. Seems the Judge of the OT is not the loving Father of the NT no matter how much spin you put on it. Rant over
A pillar Lutheran theologian by the name of Joseph Sittler once said that he was too good a theologian to think that he was a great one.
I’m of the same mind, which is why, instead of taking this one on alone, this question that has so many key layers, I contacted a truly great theologian to help respond to it with clarity and savvy.
Dr. Murray Haar was a colleague of mine when I taught religion at Augustana College in Sioux Falls. Although we are no longer colleagues at the same institution, I am grateful that we are yet friends.
He is Jewish, but for a time served as a Lutheran pastor before he returned to the faith of his family and that had once been his.
So he was a perfect fit to send this fine question–and one that has crossed many a Christian mind.
Murray wrote this in candid and pithy and pointed and provocative response:
What some Christians sometimes forget is that for Christians, Jesus is the God of the Old Testament become flesh. So the Old Testament God is really no different than the New. Both care about justice and love. Both are gracious and yet condemn sin. In point of fact, in the whole New Testament Jesus does not smile once. He does not sing camp songs. In fact, he rarely acts with grace or talks about how much he loves people. His first words in the Gospel of Mark are ones that make him sound like an O.T. prophet, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” So what we have are charicatures of Jesus as being loving and kindly and sweet and the O.T. God as lacking grace and being violent. The fact is in the Bible God is God is God, mysterious, ineffable, perplexing, ambiguous, with both a passion for justice and grace.
Thank you Murray.
I recall making a similar point as the questioner to my New Testament professor in seminary. His steely response is still seared into my little brain: “They are the same God.”
One of my favorite quotes from Despicable Me (love that movie) is “It’s so fluffy I’m going to DIE!”
I think that’s how many Christians view Jesus: meek and mild, and, well, ultimately fluffy.
But he wasn’t.
He got ticked. Turned tables over. Called people vipers.
That is, I think that this question–which conveys some common beliefs about Judaism, Christianity, and their respective Holy Scriptures–conveys some misunderstandings about them all as well.
The Old Testament, of course, was not written for people to become Christians. It was written for Jews. So the questioner is correct that it is disrespectful to read into the OT for NT “prophecies.” The writers were writing for their time to their context.
That said, the Germans have a great word, one Heilsgeschichte. It means “God’s salvation history,” or God’s saving acts in history. The idea has a longstanding place in Christian theology, and is meant to show that God has acted on behalf of God’s people in the past, and continues to do so in the present.
And so it is appropriate to look to the Old Testament to see the continuity.
While it is absolutely true that there are troubling stories in the Old Testament, it is key to recall that there are also troubling tales in the New of apparently merciless and capricious judgment (Parable of the Bridesmaids) or perplexing rewards (Parable of the Unjust Steward).
And it is also true that even now, the question of how God can be loving and yet seem to abide, allow, or even create suffering is real to Jew and Christian.
And one more key piece we Christians ought not forget: Jesus was not a Christian, but was a Jew. And the Scriptures to which he referred were those we commonly call the Old Testament. So as Dr. Haar notes above, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, the assurance that the One would come, Emmanuel (a Hebrew word), God-With-Us.
It isn’t as simple as dividing God up, splitting God up the middle between the Old and New Testament, as if God were just going through an Old Testament, adolescent-like God phase.
In fact, the more that one pays attention to the relationship of the Old Testament to the New, and that the God of the Old Testament is the same God in the New, the more we’ve got a shot at tamping down anti-Semitism, misrepresentation of Jewish beliefs, Christian triumphalism, and “Bibles” that don’t include the very Scriptures to which Jesus referred.
Upshot of the thumbnail sketch: the notion that there are two Gods just like there are two Testaments is widespread. But the more you peek at it and poke around in it, the more one notices that there are more consistencies than inconsistencies, more relation than disconnect, and therefore less to rant about and more to reflect upon!
So did I spin out or weave together?
Peace, and thanks to the questioner.