Thinking matters – Shame on His Name

Welcome to the final instalment in my series on why thinking matters greatly in the life of the Christian. In part 1 of the series, we looked at the spiritual malnourishment that Christians put themselves through to avoid the ‘lifeless endeavour’ that is theology (or, putting-God-in-a-box-ology). We learnt that the Bible creates a vital link between thinking and spiritual health. Part 2 expanded this intellectual famine out into the watching world – theologically starved Christians do not tend to provide a stimulating case for belief. And now, in part 3, we face the consequence of these two errors.

To put it bluntly– thinking matters because not thinking dishonours God and is therefore, a sin. Few professing Christians would be comfortable with the idea of bringing God’s name into disrepute, yet fewer seem to have made the connection between glorifying God (making Him look great) and engaging in the life of the mind.

A disdain for thinking in the Christian life is not merely a spiritual boo-boo, but a brazen refusal to live and love God in the way that He has prescribed. When Jesus stated that the greatest commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37) he was in effect saying, “Love me with all of your being. Love me in all the ways I have created you.” Never—in Jesus’ mind or in Scripture—is there a splitting of head and heart; they are always meant to go together. 1

Christians (and humanity in general) tend to concentrate on the activity of their hearts and hands – on what they are feeling and doing. We are hard-coded doers. Value is rarely attributed to thoughts or beliefs, but rather to desires and deeds. Few think about their thinking. What I have aimed to achieve in writing these articles is not for Christians to forsake the pursuit of devoted hearts and generous hands, but for the correct paradigm to be restored. Truth enters through the gateway of the mind, is accepted, believed and treasured, and then the rest of the body follows suit, instinctively obeying. This is demonstrated with the following adage:

Head > Heart > Hands. 2

Removing or rearranging any component in this progression will cause the whole thing to collapse. Only with all three in the correct order is the Christian able to live in a way that brings glory to God’s name. The very fact that God ordained His words of eternal life to be written down in a physical book shows us that He first aims to take our minds as willing captives before wooing the rest of our being.

Conclusion

Just like every other sin, Christian anti-intellectualism brings shame to God’s name and is worthy of punishment. We can’t blame our lack of thinking on our culture, our brains, or just try to pretend it isn’t important. The Bible is clear and it will not alter its wording for you. The natural response here should be to mourn.

However, there is one more glaring similarity to all other sins – it is not beyond the all-encompassing reach of Jesus Christ. When Jesus died on that cross, he bore the punishment for every sin that his people had and would commit, including the sin of anti-intellectualism. I don’t know about you, but that glorious gift of grace makes me want to exercise my intellect so I can learn even a touch more about this beautiful God who saves.


1. “The Church Needs Philosophers and Philosophers Need the Church” Paul Gould, The Gospel
Coalition (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-church-needs-philosophers-and-
philosophers-need-the-church), accessed on 11 October 2014

2. This wee maxim has been borrowed from David Murray’s blog of the same name.

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Thinking matters – What’s in a Worldview?

Welcome to the third instalment of my series – Thinking matters. If you are a newcomer to this ongoing conversation, I recommend reading here and here to catch up. Moving right along to the next reason why thinking matters. If we do not think seriously about what we believe and why we believe it, we are left with a hollow worldview. Before we delve deeper, let’s define some terms.

What is a worldview?

I searched far and wide for a good definition but alas. So, here is my best shot at what encompasses a worldview –

Worldview: the framework of presuppositions, ideas and beliefs through which an individual or group interprets reality.

To put it simply, a worldview is the personalised lens through which you see and understand the world around you. From this definition, we pick up on one really important aspect of worldview – everyone has one. Whether you are a sleek and smooth investment banker, or a member of an unreached Amazonian tribe, you interpret the world and everything you see in it through the lens of your own presuppositions.

What does it then mean if a worldview is hollow? Just as you knock on someone’s head to ensure there is indeed something inside, a close examination of a hollow worldview will reverberate emptiness. Presuppositions can be groundless and therefore lead to a false conclusion or vice versa, with hopeful beginnings leading to absurd endings. Sometimes, the starting and finishing lines of a worldview can tickle the ears and appeal to our deepest human desires, but when challenged by the harsh realities of life, they fall like a house built on sand.

Hollow examples may include:

  • A naturalist is in awe at the wonder of the physical world in all of its intelligibility. The logical conclusion for worship is the Designer behind the design, but their naturalistic presuppositions closed the door on this option before the conversation even starts.
  • The spiritual type who turns his back on evil and suffering in an attempt to rid them of their power and influence. They are quickly found out in this painful world.
  • The nihilist, disillusioned by the excessive agony he sees around him, intellectually denies meaning or purpose in life, but struggles to practically live in a way consistent with his conclusion.

And probably the most common:

  • The average secularite who seeks to treat others as they wish to be treated while refusing to acknowledge the source of such universal truths.

If you have read my previous two articles, you will have heard me wax repeatedly on the tendency for Christians to have their minds and actions influenced by the dominant thought trains of the day. Regarding the development of worldview, this is no different.

The harm of a hollow worldview

In a standard marketplace, goods and services are purchased with cash and if the consumer is pleased, he or she will often recommend the product to others. This increases the influence of the retailer, enabling them to spread their product through larger client bases and make more money. In an analogous way, Christianity, like any other view of reality or belief system, is competing in a global marketplace of ideas. Interpretations of reality and the meaning of life are legion and the competition is often fierce. These products are not bought with physical or digital capital, but with our allegiance

Christians stand in the midst of a world with some heavy baggage. Open them up and you will find objections of various types – intellectual, emotional, moral. Today’s idea consumers simply walk past the Christian stall, oblivious to what it has to offer. Not just oblivious, but convinced that it has nothing to offer. By not thinking seriously about what we believe and how it makes sense of the world around us, we add more fuel on an already raging fire seeking to purify the world of the Christian voice.

Towards a Christian worldview

What is the solution? How do we develop a cohesive Christian worldview that is credible, answers people’s questions, and brings honour and glory to the name of Jesus? I am in no way in a position to give exhaustive answers to these questions, but can offer a few suggestions that I am convinced are part of getting back on track.

Philosopher Douglas Groothuis proposes 8 criteria to evaluate a worldview

  1. Able to answer life’s big questions
  2. Internal logical consistency
  3. Coherence
  4. Factual adequacy
  5. Existential viability (doesn’t shy away from our everyday experience)
  6. Intellectual and cultural fruitfulness
  7. Does not make radical ad hoc readjustment
  8. Simple is better than unnecessarily complex.

An entire article could (and probably should) be written on the importance of each of these criteria, but for now they provide a good starting point for exposing the flaws of today’s dominant worldviews, and demonstrating the power of the Christian alternative.

There is one more thing we can do to begin to see change – we can pray. The task before us is enormous and we simply will not see success if we rely solely on our own ability and inventions (including the criteria above). When it comes to articulating the jaw-dropping panorama that is the Christian worldview, we desperately need the God at its centre to help us.

The Fine Tuning of the Universe

Reasonable Faith have put out a new video explaining the fine tuning argument:

Scientists have come to the shocking realization that the fundamental constants and quantities of our universe have been carefully dialed to an astonishingly precise value – a value that falls within an exceedingly narrow, life-permitting range. If any one of these numbers were altered by even a hair’s breadth, no physical, interactive life of any kind could exist anywhere. There’d be no stars, no life, no planets, no chemistry.

What is the best explanation for this fine tuning? Does chance, the physical necessity of these constants, or design best explain this phenomenon?

Thinking matters – Our starving souls

“We live in what may be the most anti-intellectual period in the history of Western civilization”.[i]

These words from theologian, R.C. Sproul, seem a harsh diagnosis. Anti-intellectual seems an odd adjective for the age that has seen numerous advancements in the fields of science, politics, and human rights. University attendance in New Zealand is rising with every new year, and yet here is Sproul arguing that these statistics do little to stem the tide of anti-intellectualism.

So what then is meant by anti-intellectualism? If it doesn’t mean anti-scientific (as demonstrated by the leaps of mankind in scientific understanding and technological development), and it doesn’t mean anti-academic (as demonstrated by the authoritative role tertiary education continues to play in the Western world), what does it mean?

Sproul argues that anti-intellectualism is defined as the general distaste of, and aversion to, acute reasoning and solid logic in developing good answers to big questions.[ii] We live in a society today where a particular argument is deemed truthful not because it is true, and has shown to be so through logic and reasoning, but rather because it is helpful. You can choose your various beliefs and convictions from here and there, like a greedy and uncomprehending child running for the Pick N’ Mix. Little do you know that the more you grab, the less sense the final package will make (and the sorer your tummy will be). No serious thought of any kind is put into distinguishing between views of reality that make sense and those that don’t and can’t. The sovereign self reigns supreme. You call the shots on what is true or false often with blaring contradictions. That is anti-intellectualism.

As mentioned in my last article, the Church has allowed itself to be enticed by this way of thinking (or rather lack of thinking), resulting in a body of believers that looks identical to the world. One of the first things to go down the gurgler when the Church falls into this mire is a biblical view of Christian spiritual growth.

What is spiritual growth?

This is a huge question with a vast number of key biblical texts that need to be considered in order to even begin formulating a definition. Due to the nature of this forum, I will only consider one and try to let the text do the talking for me. Consider Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, looking specifically at chapter 12, verses 1 and 2:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

In these two verses, we have been graciously given an overview of what the Christian life should look like. Paul appeals to the Roman church to completely devote their lives to God in worship. On what grounds? Because this is the path to acceptance and favour with God? Because then He will love us? No. Paul appeals to them on the basis of God’s mercy, clearly expounded from chapter 1 through 11 of Romans.

  • The depraved and sinful state of man, and the just punishment he faces in hell (chapters 1-3)
  • The love that God demonstrates in dying for sinners, and the realisation that He loved the same before time itself and will never, ever, let them go (chapters 3-11)
  • The brain and heart melting statement that God “justifies the ungodly” (chapter 4).

All of these truths and many more sing out of the pages of Romans, providing the reader with a glimpse into life as it truly is.

The point is this – Paul spends 11 chapters stating truths upon which he will build his calls to live and grow in Christian discipleship (expounded in chapters 12-16). Rather than thinking like the world does, with its countless man-centred ideologies, we are commanded to have our minds continuously renewed with the truths of the gospel; truths that couldn’t be more against the current of modern thought. In other words, Christian discipleship and growth is made possible when we believe the right things/ have correct theology. When we believe, and consequently cherish, the truths of Christianity, our whole lives are transformed. And because I can’t help myself, here are a few other references that make the same point (Matt 22:37, 2 Cor 3:18, Eph 1:15-22, 3:14-20, 2 Peter 3:18).

Objection

A false dichotomy is often drawn at this point by many Christians. They see the study and pursuit of good theology as “necessarily lifeless, spiritually draining, and prone to head-knowledge without heartfelt passion”.[iii] A distinction is drawn between theology and devotion; head and heart; being a Pharisee or being a devoted disciple of Christ. The problem with this view is simple – the Bible is silent on it. In fact, God’s Word speaks overwhelmingly in the opposite direction – theology (literally, the knowledge of God) is to be at the core of the Christian life.  R.C. Sproul responds to the objection in a way that few people can:

“Christianity is an intellectual faith. This does not mean that it flirts with intellectualism or restricts sainthood to an elite group of gnostic eggheads. But though the Word of God is not limited to intellectuals, its content is addressed to the mind. There is a primacy of the intellect in the Christian life as well as a primacy of the heart… The primacy of the intellect is with respect to order. The primacy of the heart is with respect to importance.”

To conclude, thinking matters. The answers we have (or don’t have) to big questions can tell us a lot about the health of our Christian walks. As demonstrated above, the Bible clearly places the utmost importance on believing the right things before we do the right things. In fact, the things we do (loving our neighbours through acts of mercy, being good at our jobs, stewarding our gifts well) are made right only through the things we believe (that none of those things can save us, but we do them out of gratitude for God’s grace in saving us). If we as the Church allow ourselves to be swayed by the dominant thought patterns of today’s culture, rather than having our minds shaped by the Word of God, then we stunt our spiritual growth and miss out on the intellectually fulfilling and passionate faith that our Father desires for us.

[i] R.C. Sproul, Burning Hearts are not Nourished by Empty Heads, Christianity Today, Sept. 3, 1982

[ii] ibid

[iii] Trevin Wax, Why You Should Love God With Your Mind, The Gospel Coalition, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2007/08/29/why-you-should-love-god-with-your-mind/, accessed on 1 August, 2014

Thinking matters

The world is changing. I feel it in my fingers. I feel it in my toes.

Anti-intellectualism is sweeping through Western civilization and there is no high ground, no safe haven from the rushing tides. Constant technological advance is making modern life easier and more convenient every day, and while there are definite benefits to this, there is also a clear downside.

Shaking the lucky-8 ball of Google whenever a question arises has taken the effort out of thinking, and the ease with which modern people can get the answers has actually been demonstrated to have a negative impact on intellectual health. Even universities, the institutions of knowledge and learning are not free from this unstoppable force, albeit in a different way. While culture at large falls prey to not thinking hard about much at all, many academics have fallen prey to only thinking one way, blind and deaf to the cogent and coherent alternatives of opponents.

As with most cultural contagions that ravish the Western mind, the Church also falls victim, despite our allegiance to Another Land. I have seen this most notably in the following ways:

  • A separation between theology and piety (what you believe and how you live)
  • Redefining childlike faith as childish faith
  • A disdain for the past and the history of the Church
  • An over-emphasis on being led subjectively and directly by the Holy Spirit, to the neglect of his promised means of grace (the Word preached)
  • The belief that doctrine divides (an example being the existence of denominations)

I don’t sound the alarm as a concerned scholar, sitting in my ivory tower and nodding at all your indiscretions, but rather, as Mark Noll put it, a “wounded lover” of the intellectual gold mine that is Christianity. Apart from missing out on having your mind absolutely blown by the truths that the Bible teaches, an aversion to thinking in the Christian life is actually a sin. The command to love the Lord our God with all our hearts does not stop there, but is a call to devote every fibre of our beings to the pursuit of grace and knowledge, given to us through Jesus Christ. Attempting to love God without knowledge of Him is tantamount to attempting to love your partner or spouse while avoiding learning any of their hobbies, joys or deepest fears.

The way I see it, anti-intellectualism in Christians will result in three things:

  1. Stunted spiritual growth
  2. A hollow worldview
  3. Robbing God of glory that is all His.

I pray that you will join me as over my following few articles, I attempt to delve into these consequences, demonstrating not only the harm they are causing us, but also the joy and satisfaction that we are missing out on.

Towards Belief Launched in New Zealand

Towards Belief

Karl FaaseThis high quality Australian produced resource has been launched in New Zealand and Thinking Matters is proud to partner with the producers – Olive Tree Media – to promote it throughout the country.

This ten-episode DVD series follows Australian pastor and host, Karl Faase as he travels the world and interviews over 30 leading authors and speakers about the top “belief blockers” of our time.  It is designed for both a wide audience and church groups, intending to attract both Christian and non-Christian viewers equally.

Contributors include John Lennox, Os Guinness, Richard Swinburne, Michael Ramsden, Amy Orr-Ewing and John Dickson – along with many others.

Topics

The ten half-hour episodes include the following topics:

  1. Suffering: Presents both an intellectual and personal response to the issues posed by the existence of suffering.
  2. The Bible: Looks at whether what the Bible contains is historically accurate and can be trusted.
  3. Supernatural: Explores belief in the supernatural and looks at a specific case where it seems that supernatural intervention is undeniable.
  4. Religious Violence: Explores whether Christianity, as a religious worldview, causes wars, atrocities and genocides. How does the Church respond to this charge?
  5. Exclusive Faith: Christianity’s claim that Jesus is the only way to God is viewed as arrogant, intolerant and a significant blocker to personal belief. In this episode, guests give plausible reasons for the Christian worldview.
  6. Church Abuse: Abuse scandals, particularly in relation to children, have rocked the Church, leaving it open to the charge of hypocrisy.
  7. Science & God: Eminent and experienced scientists explain how and why they can have scientific credentials from the world’s leading universities, as well as having a Christian faith.
  8. Homosexuality: In this episode we look at the Biblical view on homosexuality and what is the Christian response in the current social environment.
  9. The Church: There is a public perception that the Christian Church is dying. We talk with leaders who are seeing the Church grow and they give their perspective on the future of the Church.
  10. Towards Belief: In the end, there is still a step of faith to be taken. This episode looks back over the personal stories of some of the guests and seeks to clarify that choice.

For a more in-depth outline of each episode, drill down on each from this page.

Thinking Matters Involvement

This series will become a long term strategic resource for Thinking Matters as we seek to equip the New Zealand Church with accessible and high quality training to help us make a sincere and clear defence for the Christian worldview.

We envision the resource being used in several ways:

Community Outreach Events

We would like to see churches promoting screenings of the series throughout their communities – to see people becoming more open to the Gospel through them.

Do you want to run an event at your church for your community? Talk to us for help and advice with promotion.

Home Groups / Small Groups

We would like to see Church leadership and discipleship programs promote this resource within churches for use in home-groups and small-group discipleship.

Do you have a home-group who might be interested in viewing this? Talk to us for advice.

Curriculum Development & Christian Schools

We would like to see individual episodes being used as components in wider curriculum and training programs in apologetics and worldview subjects at theological colleges and Christian schools.

Are you associated with training, a tertiary institute or a Christian school?  Review individual episodes here for suitability of use within your curriculum.

Purchase

You can purchase the full set for $59.95 (free freight) from Life Resources in Christchurch, or rent or buy for download individual episodes directly from the Towards Belief website here.

The full DVD set also comes with an 80-page Discussion Guide – and key quotes for each episode can also be downloaded from here.

Book Review: True Reason

One of the most frustrating things about new atheists is their use of slogans, rather than arguments, to convince people to listen to them. This book comprehensively shows how their position is not reasonable and rational simply because they say so. Nor can they make Christianity irrational by fiat.

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True Reason starts by documenting some of the major arguments used by new atheists like Dawkins and Harris, and assesses them for the qualities new atheism claims to embody: reason, logic, rationality, scientific investigation and so on. This is an inspired way to open the book. It is humorous, because it hold Dawkins’ and Harris’ own arguments (even their own words) up to the bar they themselves have set, and shows how comically short they fall; but it is also serious, because from the very outset it leaves no room for doubt that the image of intelligent, carefully-researched opposition to religion which they project is a pure sham.

Subsequent chapters step us progressively through the various ways in which metaphysical naturalism—the foundational assumption of new atheism—undermines itself; before moving us into various new atheist critiques of Christianity itself, to show how and why these fail, and what the truth of the matter actually is. Each chapter is an essay by an individual apologist, and each is strong in its own right—however, because they are separate papers arranged topically, occasionally I felt like the book meandered a little and repeated itself unnecessarily. This is not a serious drawback, especially if you just want to brush up on one or two topics instead of reading it beginning to end; but it’s worth mentioning for people who are looking for something more systematic.

Perhaps because I like systematic approaches so much, David Wood’s chapter on the explanatory emptiness of naturalism (chapter 8) particularly stood out to me. I found it noteworthy because it dissects all of the ways in which naturalism fails to justify the scientific enterprise itself, starting with the existence of the universe, and moving very logically all the way through to the existence of consciousness. It was an excellent summary of the major arguments against naturalism, and lucidly demonstrated the staggering cumulative case new atheists have to overcome to even lay any claim on rationality whatsoever (let alone gain a monopoly!)

However, the whole book is a powerful summary of the major arguments against the new atheist worldview; the major ways in which they misrepresent or falsely attack Christianity; and several of the more powerful arguments for the truth of the Christian worldview. It is an excellent book for Christians who are new to apologetics and want a single primer that will offer well-rounded instruction on all the issues they’re likely to face against atheists. But it will be equally helpful to experienced apologists who want a quick-reference manual to keep on hand for future debates. Although I would not strictly endorse everything in it (for instance, I think Matt Flannagan overstates the case against taking the extermination of the Canaanites literally), it is an exceptional resource for understanding how irrational and implausible new atheism is compared to Christianity.

Buy True Reason on Amazon.

Cross-posted from my blog.

Can a Scientist Trust the New Testament? by N. T. Wright

wright

N. T. Wright recently spoke at St Andrews University on the trustworthiness of the New Testament. The message was a part of the James Gregory lectures, a series of public talks by eminent national and international speakers on a wide range of contemporary issues in science and religion.

Why Belgium’s vote for child euthanasia should grieve us all

chair

Joni Eareckson Tada, writing for Time on the decision to allow euthanasia for terminally ill children in Belgium:

“The law can be interpreted to include many medical conditions, and as a quadriplegic advocate for persons with disabilities, this alarms me. Children in all cultures tend to approach adults in authority with trust. They look to us for comfort, advice, and support. To have an adult in authority approach them and suggest euthanasia as an alternative to life is swinging the compassion pendulum to the outer edges of horror.

It should be in our nature as adults to protect our young. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child serves as our global monitor to safeguard children – especially boys and girls who suffer from illnesses or disabilities. Article 5 states, “[The child] has a right to special care if handicapped in any way.”

Is “special care” now three grams of Phenobarbital in the veins if that child despairs of his handicapping condition? I don’t understand how civilized society can defend the right to life of a child with a serious medical condition while abandoning that child at his greatest point of need.

We have long held that children do not have the cognitive ability to make adult decisions; this is why they are considered minors. We limit a minor’s decision on tobacco, drugs, and alcohol until they are adults; yet somehow Belgium believes that a minor can make a decision about taking his or her own life.

Giving little ones a choice usually means that they make decisions based on what they think their families want to hear. When it comes to a choice to die, that’s a terrible burden to place on a child. Boys and girls do not take into account the future; they cannot project what life might be like with a permanent disability or a long-term illness. We adults understand how our decisions impact the future, and we understand that we need to teach this skill to our children. It’s distressing that a life-or-death choice is being granted to young ones who haven’t yet learned this critical life skill.

So, yes, we are outraged by the Belgian Parliament’s decision, and I pray that we never become so calloused in this country as to allow our children to opt for death over their personal hardship. Neither we – nor the suffering child – can fully understand all that is at play in one’s life or in a family who strives to find positive meaning in pain, and we should never be in a position to play God and determine who lives and who dies.

However, before I hold our society up as more righteous than Belgium, I am reminded of a situation in which we are allowing our children to be killed, based on an unknowable prediction of perceived suffering.

An estimated 92% of all women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate their pregnancies. People’s fears of disability – of the perceived suffering it might cause – has created a genocide among an entire population of individuals who, for the most part, are characterized as joyful and loving. But no matter; someone has deemed life with Down syndrome not worth living.

So while we can rightfully condemn Belgium’s decision, our own judgment turns and devours us. Our selfish desires and fears of disability have led our own culture to choose a similar transgression, condemning the “defective” unborn to die, without giving them any say in the matter. At least Belgium gives their children a vote.”

Read the whole article here.

HT: Trevin Wax

Michael Horton addresses common questions about the Christian faith

horton1

Michael Horton recently sat down and answered five of the most common apologetics questions people get when they share their faith with their friends and family. Horton is a professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, co-host of White Horse Inn and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine.

How Can Jesus Be the Only Way?

Read more

William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll debate God and Cosmology

GodAndCosmology

If you missed the livestream of this year’s Greer Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum on Faith and Culture, Tactical Faith have begun to make the videos from the event available.

The main debate, titled ‘God and Cosmology: The Existence of God in Light of Modern Cosmology,’ was between Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and atheist physicist Sean Carroll.  The forum also featured a second day of lectures by Tim Maudlin and Alex Rosenberg (arguing in favor of Carroll’s side of the debate) and Robin Collins and James Sinclair (for Craig) addressing issues brought up in the debate.

Here’s the final session with summary remarks and Q&A with all the speakers.

I’ll update the post when more videos go online.

For commentary on the Craig/Carroll debate, check out Wintery Knight and Randy Everist’s reviews.

 

How do we reconcile the “violent” Old Testament God with Jesus?

The slaughter of the Canaanites is one of the most troubling passages in the Old Testament. Not only has it been used to justify colonialism and ethnic violence, it also seems to reveal a picture of God that appears at odds with Jesus’ portrayal of God in the New Testament.

How should we try to understand this apparent contradiction?

Branson Parler, writing for the Missioalliance blog, offers some good thoughts about this question and particularly the attempt to downplay or dismiss the accuracy of the Old Tesament portrait.

“One popular answer is that the conquest narratives record Israel’s projection onto God rather than God’s actual instructions to Israel. God is not really judging the inhabitants of Canaan with Israel as his instrument, its proponents say, Israel is simply rationalizing its own selfish drive to possess the land. In order to transcend Israel’s faulty and murderous self-justification, they then encourage us to read later texts, such as the Gospels, over against these problematic earlier texts. The more this interpretation prevails the more popular it has become to speak of “God’s violence” rather than “God’s justice” or “God’s judgment.” After all, if unseemly OT texts simply amount to human projections onto God, then we create “God” in our violent image rather than witness to a God who is just in all his ways…

Yet there is a fatal flaw with this interpretive approach. In the biblical narrative, the logic of conquest, exile, and cross are actually tied together. The way we approach one determines how we approach all three.

….If you think the conquest narratives are problematic, the exile narratives are more so. In terms of sheer volume, the Bible talks far more about God’s judgment on disobedient Israel through Assyria and Babylon than it does about God’s judgment on the Canaanites. In terms of judgment and terror, the narrative in Joshua is quite tame in comparison to the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28, which promise Israel that the destruction of one’s family, land, and property will drive people mad, that the horror experienced by Israel will become a “byword among the nations,” and that parents will cannibalize their own children. As Jeremiah laments, “With their own hands, compassionate women have cooked their own children, who became their food when my people were destroyed” (Lamentations 4:10). If the idea that “God judges sinful people through a chosen instrument” is a projection, then no one is projecting more than the biblical prophets who warn God’s covenant people repeatedly to turn or suffer the consequences.”

Parler points out that explaining away the conquest passages also has implications for how we understand Jesus and his mission:

“…[I]f accounts of God’s judgment are mere projections, of course, then Jesus’s beliefs about the exile and his own role in bringing about the end of exile were wrong. … if Jesus’s account of Israel’s covenant and his role in relation to it was wrong, then Jesus doesn’t reveal Israel’s God. Far from it, he reveals his own confusion and ignorance by projecting onto God the idea that he had to die for the sins of his people (a confusion then perpetuated throughout the rest of the New Testament). And of course if Jesus was confused about what the Father wanted, then he was neither the Messiah nor the eternal Son. In other words, if you pay close attention to the biblical narrative, you cannot consistently interpret Joshua as a projection onto God and Jesus as the full revelation of God.”

But what about using these passages to justify violence today?

“Many people think that if one affirms that God commanded Israel to do what they did in Joshua, then it implies God’s stamp of approval on any and all actions of war (or at least just war). But this is not at all the case. I affirm God’s providential use of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome to judge, but that does not mean that the actions of the rulers or armies of those nations were morally good. For example, after Isaiah notes that God is going to use Assyria to judge, his application of the message is not “Go join the Assyrian army”; for they too will be judged in turn for their wickedness (Isa. 10). Likewise, when Jesus notes that Jerusalem will be judged, he doesn’t encourage his followers to defect to the Roman armies…

The point of all this is recognizing God’s proper place and authority to judge. God has the right to do this; we do not.”

He concludes,

“[H]ere’s the rub: the God created by those who insist on talking about divine “violence” is more a projection than the God attested to by Joshua, Jeremiah, and Jesus. A violent God rather than a just God is the product of the contemporary failure to read Scripture closely, faithfully, and directionally.”

Read the whole thing here. It’s a great post.

For more books on the topic of the Old Testament wars, check out Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan, God Behaving Badly by David Lamb, The God I Don’t Understand by Chris Wright, and Holy War in the Bible edited by Heath A Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan.