Friday, April 11, 2008

Try it, you might like it: A Theological Exercise in Critical Thinking

I's not as fun as watching Kansas beat Memphis in overtime, but now that March Madness is well behind us, football season is a distant land far, far away, and only meaningless baseball games can fill the void, why not try your hand at some theological reasoning? I was recently asked to write a brief "case study" or scenario that could be used to assess critical thinking skills for seminary students. The first one is posted below. Try your hand at it. You just might like it. If you think the scenario (or questions that follow) could be improved, please offer any suggestions for modification:

Does God sanction violence and vengeance against others?

The book of Numbers tells us that God commanded Moses to “take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites” (Num 31), because they had cursed Israel and conspired to seduce the Israelites to worship their false gods rather than Yahweh. Israel obeyed God’s command and went to war against them, killing all Midianite men and all Midianite women who were not virgins. On the other hand, in the New Testament, Jesus (who, as God incarnate is the perfect image of God), commanded his disciples to not resist evil people, but to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:38) and to “love your enemies” and “do good to them” (Matt 5:44). There appears to be a fundamental discrepancy between God’s will and character as described in this Old Testament passage and his will and character as delineated in the New Testament. In response to this problem, many argue that, though there is a progression of revelation from the OT to the NT, God is always just when he commands that people take vengeance on the wicked or does so himself. Others respond that the ethic of the OT was superseded by Jesus’ interpretation of the law and his explication of God’s character. They conclude that God no longer commands or condones violence against others.

Questions for Reflection:

How should we understand the meaning of God’s command in the OT to commit what appears to be genocide, motivated by vengeance, given what Jesus commands in the New Testament?

In what sense is Num 31 still valid for Christians today? How does your interpretation intersect with your view of the Bible’s authority and nature (inspiration, inerrancy, etc.)

If you agree with the first perspective above (God is always just in taking life and commanding the taking of it), how do you explain Jesus’ non-violence against the apparent violence of God in the OT? Furthermore, how would a God who commands violence be understood as a God of love and mercy?

If you agree with the second position, in what way is the Old Testament still relevant for us today?


califorty said...

Look buddy, do you have faith? If you do, then I shouldn't have to remind you that we are God's children and as such, are not qualified, no matter how gifted or educated we may be, to psycho-analyze and question our father. Just as we do not understand the guidance of our parents, we are not capable of understanding the reasoning behind the guidance of our almighty father and his son.

Kyle A. Roberts said...


The point of this exercise is most certainly not to "psycho-analyze" God (whatever that means). Rather, it is to provide an opportunity for serious reflection and theological interpretation of Scripture. You may know that many people are bewildered or even angered by some difficult, "violent" narratives in the OT, as well as violence in history and the contemporary world in the name of "God"; many folks are turned off to Christianity and religion because of that. Is the best answer to such people "just have faith and don't think about it", or should we try to help them arrive at coherent understanding of God in light of the progression of God's revelation in Scripture? Whatever answer you give, I know where I stand.

But thanks for weighing in and for the reminder that our human minds will never be able to completely "figure out" God and God's ways.

Sports Dave said...

This is an excellent test case for theological critical reflection, imho. As you're well aware, this touches a very hot theological issue (that of evil, suffering and violence) and you ask very appropriate follow up questions. (myself, I tend to land on the second option - which, as you correctly point out, means that I've got some thinking to do about how (if at all) the HB is relevant for us today.

How many of these test cases are you planning on writing?

Kyle A. Roberts said...

Hi Dave,

Glad you liked the test case. By the way, I just discovered that Greg Boyd has been doing some wrestling with this very issue over on his blog. He 's done some constructive critique recently of Vernard Eller's take on God and war in the OT.

I have one I've already written (on Christology) which I'll be posted soon. If these generate good discussion, I may do several more.

silas and laura said...

A significant theological omission in the framing of the question is the absolute absence of covenant, and thus it seems to assume that God's identity and thus agency can be understood apart from the logic of covenant. If we understand the nature of the Scriptures to reflect the historical progress of redemption, (the second option) than such narration of progress must have at its center, covenantal relations. Also necessary to note is the logic of natural religions, where the identity of peoples/nations is conflated with the identity of 'god(s)', and thus the causes of God become the causes of the people. For example, it could be argued that identifying God as commanding Israel to attack the Midianates is a rhetorically motivated textual interpolation meant to provide theological support and justification for their own political action. This ties the logic of national religion to the logic of colonialism, where the eschatological ethics of Europe inscribed the name of God as the justification for their exploitative impulses. This seems to belong to a possible (and perhaps more realistically, plausible) third option.

In terms of Jesus' demand for the renunciation of violence as being incompatible with the vision of God that we see in moments like this in the OT, the frequent tendency to want to take NT vision of God's will and character over against the OT as if they are necessarily incompatible. This is usually hand in hand with questions of Christian identity and the theology of covenant. This supersessionist move problematizes the question significantly. What would the question look like if we sought to find the continuity of the NT with the OT as the standard?

Finally, I believe that there is no way God walks away unimplicated. Honestly, there are major flaws in either of the two options you presented. Either way, one is forced to make significant theological concessions that I for one are unable to make. To put it very simply, God must be ethically implicated. God is not pure, and not ethically 'clean.'

Along with Barth, I say that the God who has elected Israel into chosenness, has first elected God’s self to this people. This God is first and foremost the elected One. God first chooses God’s self to be in relationship with this people, which God’s choosing of this people to be God’s partner: This is the Covenant. God has chosen to be in relation with that which is not God, not God’s self. (creation) The world as world is the effect of this divine decree.

We can speak about God choosing God’s self because God is not a singularity. God is already and always an ‘impure’ transgression, always relating to God’s self through (genderd) inflections. God, in choosing God’s self is impure. God as God is not ‘sameness.’ There is no ‘purity’ – God is already related to another in God’s self in the relations of the persons-in-community. This speaks against the fetishism of racial, sexual and cultural purity. And also against the highly structuralist notion that God must walk away from this concern unscathed in order to protect the integrity of Scripture, and preserve the ideal of God that we so venerate.

Kyle A. Roberts said...

Silas, You get an A on this theological exercise.

Seriously, thanks for engaging with this. I agree that this third option needs to be considered, as challenging as it may be to our (evangelical) assumptions regarding the connections between history, narrative and culture--and more pertinently, to how we articulate notions like inspiration, inerrancy and authority. I wonder, for the purposes of this exercise, though, whether it is better to leave the third option out? If students arrive at the third option, themselves, then they definitely show an ability to think critically and theologically!

silas and laura said...

I totally agree with your thoughts about leaving the third option out. Most (evangelical) students are going to be looking for the sweet-safe spot where they hang their theological hat, and feel good about their consumerist choice. This would be a great opportunity to leaving them perhaps unsatisfied with the options given to them, leaving them struggling through to a better, more complete answer that fits their contemporary situation.

Erik K. said...

Jesus’ non-violent ethic and the loving character he displayed through his words and deeds in the Gospels do seem contradict the apparent violence of the God in the OT. But I can’t help but notice that in the most loving act of Jesus’ life we see the convergence of his non-violence and the violence of the OT God. Jesus did not try to defend himself or resist the injustice that lead to his crucifixion, and all the while we are taught (according to some models of the atonement) that his death for us on the cross somehow satisfied God the Father’s wrath and justice in relation to sin (which is also in continuation with the sacrificial system of the OT). The book of Revelation not only reveals the ultimate wrath and justice of God in the final battles against sin and evil in our world, but it portrays Christ as an active and violent warrior in that battle (which continues the warfare motif against sin at the national level in our passage in Numbers and elsewhere). The God of the OT also displays love and mercy on many occasions, like his sparing of the city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah. So I do not think the sharp distinction some people draw between the God of the Old and New Testaments in terms of character or ethics is warranted.

Even with all of this in mind I still admit that there seems to be a disparity between the ethical teachings of Jesus and acts of violence on the part of God in both the OT and NT. The way I resolve that tension personally involves my understanding of Jesus’ life as a human (I don’t want to get into the two natures deal, but I believe he was fully human as we are with the real potential to sin). From my Pentecostal heritage I have gleaned an understanding of Christ from Luke/Acts as a model for us in terms of being vessels of the Holy Spirit. The emphasis on the Spirit in Luke/Acts is unparallel in the rest of the NT. In Luke we have Christ as the ultimate Spirit filled human, and in Acts we see his followers doing the same things he did as vessels of that same Spirit. It is the Spirit that enables us to live the life of love and non-violence that Christ did, while leaving the vengeance part to God. So that leads to the question if any violence on God’s part is ethical, or at least calls into question his goodness. The spiritual warfare motif that is found throughout the Bible makes it seem difficult to image how God could refrain from any sort of violence given the forces of evil (both human, and yes, demonic!) that are actively and violently at work against his loving plans. Of course one could get into all the “possible worlds” talk here, but I prefer to just go with the one we have.

Well those were just a few of the thoughts I had on this perplexing issue. I would not say that I have a definite view, but I would lean more towards the first if those two were my only options and a gun was placed to my head.