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.
cf. Stephen Prothero’s excellent /American Jesus/ for the cultural tranformation of Jesus from being himself to being an American icon that supports individualism, consumerism, and general “fluffiness.”
Great post Anna. I think that we are not very well served by three things #1 Our preconceived notions of Jesus (I call him the Sunday School Jesus – Jesus as a First Century Mr. Rodgers- so nice and kind), but also by #2 Our English translations of the New Testament (NRSV included). When I learned to read Greek I was amazed at how much “harder” Jesus comes across in the Koine. Our English translations tend to “soften” Jesus just through their use of language. And #3, pastors who shy away from presenting the difficult things about Jesus in their preaching and teaching for fear of offending their listeners. Take off the confrontational edges and we end up with Jesus meek and mild, and folks are left asking the question of your post. Keep up good work.
I really see Christian “stereotyping” of God and Jesus as partly responsible for the problem of fundamentalism as described by the author of the letter at this link:http://johnshore.com/2011/?07/17/the-patriarchal-ego-?fortifying-psyche-destroyi?ng-soul-crushing-domineeri?ng-brain-washing-fear-indu?cing-manipulative-spiritua?lly-abusive-world-of-the-f?undamentalism-i-know/
That said, it’s not limited to fundamentalists. I do wonder, though, how much atonement theories that insist that Christ’s death is some kind of payment for our sins require a “before” wrathful God and can only admit a “gracious and merciful” God after Jesus’ death by torture.
Thanks for the great post, Anna. I have recently been reading through the Old Testament devotionally, and some things that have struck me are, yes, some of the troubling stories, but at the same time these people are described as the are, for good and bad. They are a decidedly mixed bag of saints and sinners, not necessarily better or worse than any other collection of people, and that is who God works through. Since that time, human nature hasn’t changed, and the grace of it all is that God still works through us, who continue to be a decidedly mixed bag of saints and sinners.
And thank God for that, say I! Whew! Thanks, Karl-John.
Murray’s comments definitely give one pause (though I’d argue that He probably did smile) . Because he’s right, and often theological liberals (such as myself) and the larger culture, who want ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ forget this in our pursuit of of the kindly God we long for. The God of the OT and the NT is the God of reality, not of wish-fulfillment; sovereign Lord over the good, the bad, and the ugly. And the Jesus we meet in the NT is nothing like the Jesus we imagine–in fact, I strongly suspect that if modern liberals (and, it goes without saying, fundies) met him we’d be offended by him. He wasn’t very PC (gentiles are “dogs”?). He didn’t make nice with his enemies (apparently that’s not a requirement of loving them, which is good to know–and the proper response to the student who wants to know why a Christian teacher is giving him an F!). Apparently he considered the non-violent peace of God’s kingdom as sharp-edged as any sword, and his own life and all history since then have provided ample enough evidence thereof.
Jesus’ style and message were shaped by his eschatological awareness of the coming Kingdom. To paraphrase Bruce S, he came for us, for us, but we do not like his urgency. He seemed aware that His time on earth was short, but more than that, that human history’s time was short. We needed to live by the Kingdom’s values NOW, and compromise was unacceptable. At the same time He didn’t want us to just do it because He said so–he wanted us to get it, to own it, to believe it in our hearts. I like the Jesus of Mark, who is like a zen teacher, speaking elliptically to His disciples through parables and growing increasingly frustrated that they JUST DON’T GET IT. And it’s that sense of the urgency of the time, the urgency of NOW, as much as anything that drives him to turn His face to Jerusalem and the Cross. he simply didn’t know how else to make them–us–get it.
There’s no way to pretty up the God of the cross except with the resurrection. And that’s the way the world is, too. It’s not pretty and we aren’t making progress. We want a God of unicorns and puppies but even if we find that God, He/She would be useless because we live in The Real World and that God is absolutely no help when we face real suffering and sin, our own and those of others. Nothing less than the God of the Cross and the Resurrection will do.
Fritz, glad you are chiming in on the site!
I think that one can absolutely make the case that Jesus is more like what is represented in the OT than what is represented in many contemporary depictions of him. Yes.
Because I like quibbles, and to raise the questions, and to go off-topic, your last statement, namely “Nothing less than the God of the Cross and the Resurrection will do,” made me wonder about what you think of other faith traditions…including the one from which Jesus came. So again, bowing to and borrowing from Murray, if Jesus is the Messiah, pray tell, where is the redemption?
Just curious, not meaning to put you on the spot.
Thanks for not putting me on the spot, Anna!
Redemption. That’s my word. (I didn’t actually invent it, I’ll admit.) It’s the word that says what I believe in, more than anything. My mother was mentally ill, and she committed suicide the week after my daughter, our first child, was born. For years, both living with her (sadly, an often monstrous presence) and in the aftermath of her death, I had (and still have) lots of questions that don’t have answers, including the big ones: Why was her life so terrible? and Where did she go after she died?
It seemed to me neither she nor God came out of the whole experience smelling like roses.
Then I read a wonderful rabbinical story. One of the legends about why Moses didn’t get into the Promised Land goes something like this: When God told Moses to redeem God’s people, Moses at first balked. “What? Those people? those intransigent, stiff-necked people? Nobody can redeem those people!” And so God kept Moses out of the Promised Land, saying, “If God says someone can be redeemed, who are you to question it?”
I realized, my mom can be redeemed, because God says she can be redeemed. I’m the one who’s questioning it, not God.
I’ve held on to that as a pastor. When I’m feeling, as Hauerwas likes to say, that ministry is like “being nibbled to death by geese,” I’m tempted to say, “these people can’t be redeemed!” And then I remember, “If God says the church can be redeemed, who am I to question it?”
Redemption is the theology of the Old and New Testaments. Jews believe in Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world. That means the world is damaged, broken, sick, definitely as crazy as my mom, and maybe dying. But it also means it can (and by God’s grace shall) be healed, and in fact that’s God’s work in the world. And if God says it can be redeemed, who am I to question it? I just need to keep on believing it in spite of all the evidence to the contrary and keep at it.
Redemption means that things get broken but God doesn’t throw them away–God fixes them. It’s the essential ingredient in the world we live in. And it’s God’s work. When I say “nothing less than a God of the Cross and the Resurrection will do” I don’t mean it exclusive of anybody (because who am I to say who God can’t redeem?), and especially not exclusive of Jews (in fact, I tend more and more to view Christianity as a type of Judaism). What I mean is that, for me, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus embody redemption in its most powerful form. If Jesus was in fact God, or even God’s Son the Messiah, then our nailing Him to the cross was an act of apocalyptic proportions. None of those who did it were bad people by their lights–in their own ways, the Romans, the Sanhedrin, the Disciples, Judas, all thought they were doing the right thing. But they killed God. How could humanity stand after that?
We stand because Jesus rose. It was the ultimate act of human brokenness (something that must be said with great humility in the light of so many other acts of human brokenness since then, the Holocaust, genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, God knows what)– but God turned it around, completely, and turned it into our salvation. God redeemed us.
And we who know that we stand only because Jesus rose have both the responsibility and the power to be healing agents in the world, antibodies in humanity’s bloodstream, a reverse contagion of God’s grace.
I wonder if you’re asking what I believe we should do, or if there’s any hope given the state of the world. I absolutely believe it. We can and do perform God’s healing, redemptive work, and it does make a difference.
When, here in Fort Worth, the Night Shelter, on whose board I serve, decided that it was going to revise it’s mission from simply sheltering to moving the homeless out of homelessness and into a home, what we were doing was driven by a belief that a Believer’s job was not simply to offer a hand-out–as if these folks were irredeemable–but to give them the opportunity to stand for themselves–because if God says they can be redeemed, who are we to say, no, we can only give them a roof and hot ’cause they’re hopeless?
But we aren’t going to end homelessness, I don’t think (though, who knows? We have a pretty amazing board and staff). We act redemptively, but it doesn’t make the ultimate difference, the difference of actually completing redemption.
That’s okay. I know my limitations. I’m a fallen guy in a fallen world, redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb. My most important job in the world, my ultimate job in God’s economy of redemption, is to KEEP BELIEVING IN REDEMPTION. If I believe it, then I do it, and I spread it, so like Journey says, don’t stop believin’.
God can redeem my mother, even if it’s only after death, and that’s fine, because I didn’t do a good job of it while she was alive.
I believe in redemption because I know I’m never going to be good at it, anyway, so I trust that God redeems my shortcomings, and that God succeeds where I fail.
And that God will heal me, my mom, and the world.
“Redemption means that things get broken but God doesn’t throw them away.”
Yes. Exactly. And who is the operator and who is the one operated upon?
God operates, and we are operated upon.
Basic subject/verb/object stuff.
Dead people can’t do anything, even those who have not killed themselves, but who have killed themselves and others in other ways.
The thing about death is that it can be so easily contagious. The ripple effects, that is, from a tragic childhood can lead into a tragic act as an adult…which then have the potential to ebb into more lives.
I am very drawn to the thinkings within process theology, which emphasizes that every single moment is redeemable. And even when we make a choice that is not as God would intend it (we miss the lure), even that moment is drawn into God and is redeemable.
Even without our conscious acquiescence.
Kind of like when a person is dead, say.
Thanks for your story, which in its own way contributed to someone’s redemption, assuredly.
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