Can We Reconcile the God of the OT with the God of the NT? – 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Can We Reconcile the God of the OT with the God of the NT?

In 2011, Christian theologian Paul Copan published a book entitled Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, intended as a response to the New Atheism.1

That Copan saw the need to write such a book suggests modern Christians still feel vulnerable whenever the OT’s depiction of God is criticised by unbelievers. The problem is compounded by negative Christian interpretations of God’s character in the OT, and their prevailing influence on Christian soteriology.2

In answer to popular stereotypes, this paper will argue that the three defining characteristics of God in the OT are mercy, justice and faithfulness. Together they comprise a balanced depiction of God which demonstrates theological continuity with the New Testament.

The consequences of misunderstanding God’s character in the OT are illustrated by Marcion, a 2nd Century heresiarch. Unable to reconcile the OT account of God with the NT teachings of Jesus, he concluded two gods were in view: a furious, evil, legalistic Jewish deity and a loving, compassionate Christian deity, represented to humanity by his son, a docetic Christ.

This dualism underpinned Marcion’s entire theology, leading him to reject any part of the NT which appeared ‘tainted’ by association with Judaism and proving Leahy’s observation, ‘We shall be in error in every doctrine of the Faith if we hold an erroneous doctrine of God.’3

Echoes of Marcion’s heretical legacy persist within evangelical theology at the popular level. Throughout What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997) Christian author Philip Yancey characterises the Law of Moses as a brutal regime imposed by an older, angrier version of God from whose wrath we are saved by Jesus.

On the subject of forgiveness he says, ‘I can understand your refusal to forgive. This is entirely in accordance with the spirit of the Bible, with the spirit of the Old Law. But there is the New Law, that of Christ as expressed in the Gospels.’4 On morality, ‘As society unravels and immorality increases, I hear calls from some Christians that we show less mercy and more morality, calls that hark back to the style of the Old Testament.’5

Other Christians are concerned by this Marcionic undercurrent6 and its impact on contemporary Christian thought,7 recognising that the OT depiction of God is far more complex than Yancey allows.

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  1. The New Atheism is a militant atheist movement which emerged from the work of Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor J. Stenger and Christopher Hitchens during the early 21st Century. []
  2. Leahy (1996, p. 23) exemplifies this influence when he writes, ‘If, for example, we do not believe that God is a God of wrath as well as a God of love, and that his essential holiness means the inevitable punishment of sin, then we shall not believe in the substitutionary and vicarious nature of Christ’s death on the Cross. That is why the doctrine of God’s holy wrath borne by his Son at Calvary is repugnant to the liberal theologian. He has an erroneous view of God.’ []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Yancey, P. 1997. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (112). Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI. []
  5. Ibid., 158. []
  6. Commenting on Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), Christian reviewer Greg Gilbert says, ‘Try as I might, I have not been able to put much distance between Philip Yancey and Marcion. It is clear from this book that Yancey believes Jesus to have come to earth in order to correct the hard and unsavory edges of the Old Testament.’ []
  7. Vlach (2010, p. 16) highlights the issue thus, ‘Soulen asserts that there has been a deeply engrained bias against the Jewish Scriptures of the OT on the part of modern Christians.’ Soulen describes this phenomenon as ‘structural supersessionism.’ []

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