How to integrate the Old Testament revelations of God into the singular New Testament revelation of God incarnate in Jesus Christ has been a long-standing point of controversy in the church. It continues to produce lively discussions today.
For anyone who has read the Bible cover to cover, or even for someone who is only vaguely familiar with some of the stories from the two Testaments, the issue comes down to this: How can the peaceful, non-violent, and self-sacrificing portrayal of God through the person of Jesus as found in the New Testament, be harmonized with the Old Testament since there are so many, many, MANY, instances in which God is portrayed as vengeful, wrathful, and intentionally murderous.
This dichotomy is impossible to miss.
In what seems like two different personalities of God, the two Testaments have left many people questioning how to reconcile them—or wondering if reconciliation is even possible. For many, the tension between the Testaments is so devastatingly incongruent that it has caused them to simply give up on the Christian faith altogether. I’ve heard people say that they can embrace the teachings and life of Jesus, but they can NOT embrace the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as witnessed in the Old Testament. They struggle to find the Old Testament God up to par with Jesus’s teachings on unconditional love for fellowman, forgiveness, and non-violence.
Jesus is at the center of Christianity. His life, death, resurrection, and teachings are at the heart of our faith and must be fully embraced. The New Testament, then, has not been the primary focus of reconciliation. Therefore, the resolution to the tension is usually focused on how to interpret the Old Testament.
Abolition: The first well documented dispute regarding the Old Testament came only a few decades after Jesus’s original twelve apostles died. Around 140 A.D. a man named Marcion led a popular Jesus-centered movement that took a quite drastic approach—Maricon completely abolished the Old Testament, and even did away with a few of the New Testament books as well!
Marcion saw the God of the Old Testament as a secondary, lower, and inferior belligerent God. This God punished people for their sins through death and suffering whereas the God of the New Testament was a higher, transcendent God who was merciful and benevolent. He considered the two Testaments completely incompatible and tossed out the entire Old Testament, citing it as grossly inferior to the love of God as seen in Christ.
Even though classical Marcionism has never been accepted as a mainstream orthodox option, this should be comforting to those of us who have raised the same objections. You are not alone. And despite what conservative Christians might say, you are not feeling this way just because you have been indoctrinated by liberal, post-modernist thought. Followers of Jesus have had these same thoughts from almost the dawn of our faith.
Allegorical: The Early Church Father Origen also held a more radical view on Old Testament scripture. He is one of the first widely-known, early theologians to look at the Old Testament from an allegorical point of view. While he did embrace the full canon of scripture, he believed that the Old Testament stories and characters need not be real (and from His view probably were not real) and they may not represent actual historical events. Instead, the goal of the Old Testament is to draw deeper meanings from the text—meanings that point us to Christ.
Origen believed that the Old Testament could be fully accepted as canonical scripture. But his view allowed one to be free from taking it as a literal depiction or description of God.
Both/And: In this view (which is taught by the majority of orthodox churches) God’s character is multi-faceted and displayed in perfection across both Testaments using a flat reading of scripture. It is a belief that, at its core, holds that God sees humankind as horrible, despised, wretched creatures whose sins are so atrocious that it is only by God’s grace that we are all not burning in the fiery pit of hell right now. Therefore, God can be angry, wrathful, and is fully just to inflict death and suffering on sinful people whenever He wants, however He wants, in any manner He wants, without their consent. Yet at the same time He can also be loving, compassionate, and merciful to sinners whenever He wants, however He wants, and in any manner He wants, just as we see through Jesus’s example in the Gospels.
The thinking goes that only God can see the whole picture of the human condition/situation perfectly. This means that, in His infallibility and omniscience, He is the only one who can dole out judgement to each person in a measure that gives exactly what they deserve in a perfectly just way. All acts in the Old Testament, including those attributed to God that may rub us the wrong way, are exactly what God did and wanted to happen. Those acts were just, and perfectly displayed His true character. Similarly, every act that Jesus did in the New Testament was equally righteous—for God can have mercy on whom he wants and He can have compassion for whom he wants (Exodus 33:19/Romans 9:15). It is all arbitrarily up to God as to what happens—for an innocent baby to die at birth, or for a serial murderer to be granted forgiveness and go to heaven—however God’s sees fit. God does this to show forth His glory, and His glory is shown by letting us know He can do whatever He wants.
In this both/and view, we are instructed that the two Testaments show God’s perfect will, perfectly. There is no real incongruence. It just may appear to us that there is. We have an inability to make sense of God’s vast wisdom in our minds due to our limited understanding as mortal, fallible, and sinful beings. If we saw the world from God’s perspective, then we would read the whole Bible straight through like a textbook and see zero dissonance between the two Testaments at all.
Even though this is the view that most orthodox Christians hold, many parishioners, and perhaps unsurprisingly even many church leaders, will admit that despite the orthodox demands for accepting this view, they continue to struggle with this understanding. Jesus just seems to be so opposite from how God acts in the Old Testament. It’s not always an easy sell—even to those in leadership.
It is also important to mention that within the both/and view there are also certain acknowledged changes that took place with the coming of the New Testament. These changes allow us to wriggle out of some Old Testament practices and understandings. While we believe that God’s character hasn’t changed between the Testaments, we are allowed to believe that He can now deal with us differently. Most of these changes are believed to be the result of the work and sacrifice of Jesus’s death and resurrection (i.e., the elimination of the demand for animal sacrifices, plural marriage, no longer striving to obtain righteousness by your good works, but by faith in Jesus instead, the role of women, the understanding of God’s will for physical healing, whether to keep the Saturday Sabbath and food laws, etc.). However, the same depth of change is not accepted across all denominations universally. Each denomination holds to different changes.
While there is some wiggle room as to how the commands and teachings of the Old Testament are practiced today in light of Jesus’s work on the cross, it is generally accepted that the Old Testament is still a perfect representation of God’s nature and character on a surface level. Every action that God did and every word that God said is, just like a text or recipe book—an accurate depiction of God that you can read verbatim and apply to any circumstance. In this view, all the revelations of God in the Bible put together make up the full picture of God. Simply throw all the Bible passages into a mixing bowl, blend, and what you have at the end is the correct picture of God. No digging is needed to be done when we come across passages that may seem disturbing to us (like when He willfully orders the execution of men, woman, unborn children, and animals in I Samuel 15:1-3). Yes, Jesus may have changed some of the ways God relates to human beings now, in a post-resurrection dispensation, but everything in the Old Testament still shows God’s character and nature perfectly at face value. The picture of God might be unsettling to us, but it is not our job to understand His character, it is to accept His character as it simply lays before us in the holy Word.
Accommodation: Whether the content recorded in the Old Testament is literal, allegorical, or fictional is immaterial. The main point in this view is that God entered into the existing mindset and culturally conditioned views of the people that existed at the time of revelation and worked within their view to slowly bring about the absolute truth the would be revealed in the incarnation of Jesus. In the accommodation view, Jesus alone embodies the full revelation of God, and all other revelations and interpretations must submit to Him—this includes any conclusions about God that we might take away from the Old Testament that go against the incarnation of the Son of God. We don’t understand God’s nature by throwing all the contents of the Bible into a mixing bowl and blending it up, but we set Christ up on a pedestal and make every other revelation of God conform to Jesus’s image.
Instead of forcing or finessing a correct view of His nature, God works within the constructs and systems that are already in place among the people of the Old Testament to bring about the true revelation of His nature, character, and will, though non-coercive means. For example, God does not appear at the top Mt. Sinai in thunder, lightning, and smoke because that is where God lives and that is what He is like, but because that was the culturally conditioned view that the people carried about God at the time. Additionally, as God bears the sin of the people, He enters into solidarity with them and fully takes on the false persona(s) that the corrupt powers of this world have led people to believe about Him. God puts on the bloody, vengeful mantel that the culture has imagined Him to wear and works to change it from the inside out. In bearing the ugliness of our sin, God is able to slowly raise up a people of faith who bring about the final revelation of His glory though the physical birth of His own Son, Jesus Christ. It is only in Jesus that the final, full, and lasting revelation of who God truly is presents itself. The Old Testament is inspired and authoritative, but only when it is filtered through the revelation of God’s true nature as witnessed in Christ. Troublesome passages must be thoughtfully examined in the light of Christ to try to find Jesus’s non-violent, non-coercive, others-directed love. Those who open the Old Testament, like Origen suggested, must keep digging until Jesus is found
I grew up ingesting the Old Testament straight out of the womb. As I grew, I lived, breathed, and ate it for breakfast. That’s how strong my church was when it came to knowing the Bible and specifically the Old Testament. Every major Old Testament story was drilled into my head and heart through our weekly sermons at church, the daily teachings from my parents, and our intensive, youth Bible lesson program. We took every story as literal history, and saw the Old Testament as a true reflection of who God was at at fundamental level. The New Testament was just a contributing story/act that helped move the Old Testament understanding of God along. If you would have met me back then, and asked me who I thought God was, I would have opened my Bible and shown you excerpts from the Old Testament.
I learned that God possesses absolute power, and then coercively/forcefully rules with that power proportionally—even violently if necessarily. And boy, if you tick Him off things could get really bad for you. The loving Jesus of the New Testament was a part of God’s plan for the world, but ultimately it was Jesus’s Father in heaven, the violent and wrathful God of the Old Testament, who Jesus submitted to and whose authority He recognized. Jesus expressed God, but not in fullness. That was how I was brought up to picture God.
As I grew older, I never questioned or left my faith. However, the only life I found in this view was judgmental pride. It was a pride that arose from believing that our church alone was in better favor with God because we knew the real truth and thereby were obedient to the correct religious practices that pleased Him. Yet accompanying that confidence was a constant fear of what would happen if I didn’t obey God perfectly—because I knew how angry and much righteous indignation the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could have.
When I finally heard the orthodox gospel of Jesus in my late teens and began to read the New Testament, I couldn’t help but be drawn into the forgiveness and goodness of Jesus. I soon accepted Jesus’s offer to embrace Him as King and Savior. But I still had the inconvenient truth of having to reconcile those Old Testament stories of judgement/violence with the love found in the New Testament. I wished I could just lay the Old Testament aside. But I couldn’t. I saw that Jesus endorsed a God-breathed view of the Old Testament, and I felt that if I was going to embrace Jesus then I would need to embrace the Old Testament with its vengeful/angry, surface-level view pictures of God that I had learned from childhood as well.
I heard various orthodox doctrines on how to interpret, isolate, embrace, or even explain away parts of the Old Testament. Sometimes I would feel settled and move on, but there would always be some verse, or some story that would come up that would leave a pit in my stomach. But since Jesus was at the center of our faith, we would always come back to Him and put our focus there, leaving the dissonance of the Old Testament in a cloud of fog and smoke—a cloud that seemed to follow me like an inconvenient shadowy figure who I wished would just go away.
It wasn’t till later on in life and after years of exploring my faith (with the help many Christian teachers and leaders) that I found myself looking at the issue differently: if God’s end-goal from the beginning of the world was a Jesus-looking Kingdom of God on earth, then I needed to look at the Old Testament in a different way because the Old Testament certainly didn’t look like Jesus—at least not on a browse-through, surface-level reading.
So, then, if a surface-level reading did not reveal Christ, then what was this Old Testament all about?
According to the Apostle Paul, the Old Testament was only a temporary measure that God instituted until Jesus could come (Galatians 3:19) — much like an airplane stuck in a holding pattern waiting for the runway to be cleared so it can land. God’s interactions and dealings with humankind were less than perfect in the Old Testament. His interactions didn’t bring life (Galatians 3:21). In fact the Old Testament brought death (Romans 8:2) because only Jesus brings life (John 5:37-40, 10:10, 15:5). Therefore, to take the Old Testament and view it as a mirror of God’s character and nature would be to deny the perfection that the Apostle said God needed to be brought through Jesus. A holding pattern came through Moses, but God’s truth, including His nature and character in fullness, wouldn’t come until Jesus (John 1:17).
This was a profound insight. I now understood that the Old Testament wasn’t a perfect reflection of God to be matched with the revelation of Jesus equally. It was a temporary period of time in which things did NOT reflect God perfectly that was meant to be done away with once Jesus came and established God’s truth-looking Kingdom. Did the burning bush have all of the qualities of God displayed in it? No! Did the whirlwind that spoke to Job have the fullness of God displayed in it? No! Perhaps in part, or in a shadowy form, but the fullness of God wasn’t put on display until God became incarnate in Jesus— “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form.” Colossians 2:9. Jesus is the only revelation the showed God in fullness.
However, knowing that God had a Jesus-looking Kingdom in mind from the beginning of creation (Ephesians 1:4-6), and that everything in between the fall of mankind in Genesis 3 until Jesus’s incarnation wasn’t God’s best by any means, I still struggled with how evil some of the things were that were directly and indirectly attributed to God.
Along my journey I heard plenty of teachings as to why God acted so un-Christlike in the Old Testament:
- Our sins weren’t forgiven yet until Christ’s sacrifice, thus God was just to act in judgement toward unrighteous sinners in whatever manner He liked.
- God needed to wipe certain people off the map, just as a good doctor would cut out a piece of cancer from someone’s body. Certain people/nations were so sinful that if left alone to their own devises everyone else would become infected with sin and die before could Christ come and bring redemption.
- God was trying to continue to rid the earth of the Nephilim, a demon/human breed of humans from Genesis 6:1-4. There was a partial resurgence after Noah’s flood so the evil and violence had to continue even after the flood.
While that third explanation must seem so utterly ridiculous to some, I did consider and accept the plausibility of all three explanations for quite some time. They never sat entirely at peace with me, but I had to find some way of incorporating the violence and suffering of the Old Testament into my view of God. And those were the best options orthodox Christianity seemed to offer.
In the second half of my 30’s I started hearing about another option— the accommodation view of God.
After leaving Calvinism in my late teens, I believed that God never forces His will upon people. He is always inviting us to relationship with Him. As much as He may have the power to do so, He never changes our views of Him coercively. When humans walked away from God (as described in the Genesis 3 story) they began to exchange the truth of God’s loving nature for their own, distorted view—a view that most probably originated from the demonic realm. Humans had veered way off course from knowing the true nature of God.
How would God now redeem His people from their false view without coercively or forcibly changing it? He would have to enter into their own sinful picture of Him, accommodate their false perceptions, and slowly work over time to change their views of Him until Jesus could be revealed. For it would only be when Jesus entered the world that God could finally act exactly as He is without resorting to force or coercion. God would then be free to reveal and reflect His true nature, since He Himself would be incarnate in a body.
My transition to this view was a slow process over time; I suppose similar to how the revelation of Jesus slowly unfolds in the overarching Biblical story. But now I find that when I view the Old Testament in a way that doesn’t accept those Bible stories merely on face value, and instead see them as events where God stooped down and entered into the sin of the people, carrying and bearing the ugly nature of violence, death, sickness, and suffering until Christ could be revealed, I can see Jesus in that.
I can see a God who would rather drive out the indigenous inhabitants of the promised land little by little by using the effects of wild animals and confusion (i.e, Ex 23:27-30), yet accommodates the Israelites lack of faith for that approach and bears their sin in appearing to endorse violence and force instead.
I can see a God who fervently loves His creation and its animals, who enters into a culture that believes animal sacrifices appease deities and remove sins. God appears to endorse these live sacrifices by giving commands to continue to have the people do so, but only to eventually show/teach that forgiveness of sins is a matter of the heart, not of sacrifices (Psalm 40:6, 51:16-17, Hosea 6:6).
I can see an all-powerful, almighty God, creator of the universe, one who is worthy of full worship and devotion, who finally reveals His fullness to us not in a show of glory or might, but through the birth of a fragile human baby. A God who loves His people so much that he would stoop so low as to appear weak, impotent, and common. A God who carried our sins so greatly to the point that He was beaten, flogged, and left dying between two criminals on a cross. A God who doesn’t use absolute sovereign power to force or coerce but to persuade, serve, and lead by example.
I can see a God who hates slavery and indentured servitude, yet who acts within these false systems by modeling non-coercive love toward those who reign over and rule these systems to bring about their end.
I can see a God who is entirely non-violent, who allows His followers to freely walk away from Him and His protection to experience the built-in consequences of their sin. A God who allows His people to ascribe to Him all the blame for the evils, sufferings, and destructions they encounter, when all the while it is they themselves who are ultimately creating negative consequences and opening up the door for Satan’s kingdom to wreak havoc.
I can see a God who finds Himself in a system of male chauvinism and enters into it by choosing twelve close male disciples, only to later reveal His glorious resurrection from the dead to women—to women whose testimonies weren’t even something that were held in regard or deemed worthy of consideration during Jesus’s time.
This is a God who enters into our sufferings, into our false notion of redemptive violence, and into our incorrect views about Him, and both slowly and non-coercively molds our view into His true image. After all, did not Jesus tell us that His kingdom was one that was like a mustard seed that slowly grows and grows till it fills the whole garden (Matthew 13:31-32)? And is not Jesus’s kingdom one that is like a small bit of yeast that eventually works its way through the whole dough (Matthew 13:33)? And does not Jesus describe His kingdom as something that first is planted like a corn seed that slowly breaks forth from the ground as a tiny sprout, then it grows into a stalk, and then finally a full ear of corn ready for harvest (Mark 4:26-29)?
While I do support an accommodation view of the Old Testament, it doesn’t immediately solve every mystery that the Old Testament presents to me. I have more digging to do, and more of Jesus to find—something that I think I will spend the rest of my life doing. The Apostle Paul wrote that, “[in Jesus] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). Therefore, I’m going to continue to seek Christ and ask Him to reveal Himself more and more to me as I read the scriptures with my Jesus spectacles on.
The holding pattern is over. The runway is clear. And I am inviting Jesus’s revelation of God to land in my heart.
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!