This is the question asked by author Mark Buchanan in the July-August issue of Christianity Today.
His article is part of the cover story called Grappling with the God of Two Testaments. I was excited when I saw the cover story because I have been greatly interested in this topic for many years. I wanted to see how he addresses the disparity between the angry, violent God of the Old Testament and the loving Father Jesus talks about in the New Testament.
When I re-subscribed to Christianity Today a couple years ago after a lapse of many years, I was surprised how often the magazine entertains progressive ideas that would have had no support when I was a subscriber long ago. I rushed in eager anticipation to discover what Buchanan might say about the God of genocide.
On page 20, I found his answer in the sub-title: “Yes—If we set our eyes on the Cross of Christ.“
Buchanan’s Argument for an Angry, Violent God
My disappointment was heavy. I had hoped for an explanation of why the Old Testament depictions of God were incomplete and distorted, but instead Buchanan accepts the violent accounts as accurate portrayals of God.
He begins with a discussion with a young man about whether the young man trusts the Bible. He does not. When asked why not, he responds: Hosea 13:16,
The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.
Buchanan captures the question rather well when he says,
What is not easy is explaining what appear to be the deliberate acts of divine cruelty. God’s virulent rage. His hair-trigger vindictiveness. His apoplectic jealousy. Why would God make women and children pay for the sins of despots or the apostasy of priests?
Buchanan admits the difficulty of reconciling this image with the God revealed in Jesus, but he goes on to affirm the ‘fundamental assumption of the unity of scriptures.’ He insist that the New Testament gives us a clearer and deeper revelation of God, but not of a different God as the ancient heretical bishop Marcion claimed. Buchanan states that God’s dreadful wrath, fierce justice, and burning jealousy are found in the New Testament as well. In fact, he says that ‘the road is even steeper now, the judgment of God sterner, and the cost of refusal greater.’
His conclusion is to quote the old theologians: ‘We take refuge from God in God. The only escape from God’s wrath is God’s mercy.’
Response to Buchanan’s Argument
After many years of grappling with the angry, violent, and vindictive God of the Old Testament, I can no longer accept Buchanan’s fundamental assumption of the unity of scriptures.
The New Testament is informed by the insight Jesus gives us into the nature of the Father; I accept what he tells us. However, his perspective on the Father seems to conflict significantly with the perspective of much of the Old Testament. But the answer is not that of Marcion, who understood the accounts to described two separate beings, with the Old Testament god being an inferior being.
Marcion and Buchanan share a common assumption—that the Old Testament accurately describes a being called God. I contend that the Old Testament was written by people who were very interested in God, and felt a strong connection to him, but whose understanding of his character was woefully inadequate. They described what they understood God to be like and interpreted their history in terms of that understanding.
For those who believe that the Bible is consistently the word of God throughout, the only way to resolve the violent god of the Old Testament is to defend or explain his behavior. The better understanding is that he never behaved that way at all.
The Nature of the Old Testament
During the time in my journey as a believer in which I struggled with inerrancy, I despaired the loss of God’s very existence for over a year. One of the things that brought peace and faith back into my life was the book, Holy Scripture, by theologian G. C. Berkouwer.
Berkouwer suggests that the Bible is the product of both divine and human effort, so he recognizes the element of human witness. As I think about the Bible as a mix of divine and human, I realize that it is impossible to determine the proportion of each in the mix. In regard to the violent actions of God we find in the Old Testament, I believe they are human understandings and not revelation from God.
Jesus seems more qualified to describe the character and actions of the Father than the writers of the Old Testament. Therefore, I accept Jesus’ portrayal of the Father over the Old Testament portrayal and resolve the discrepancies by understanding that the Old Testament portrayals are very inaccurate.