Over at Anxious Bench (a Patheos blog discussing evangelical thought and church history), Philip Jenkins has an interesting post up on the controversy between “the Dualist sects who were such a persistent force through the Middle Ages, and who drew a sharp contrast between the inferior God of the Old Testament, and the pure deity of the New.”
I’ve talked before about what philosophers and theologians call the problem of evil. The basic gist is that either God didn’t realize some action would result in suffering, in which case he’s not omniscient; or else he realized it wouldn’t be good but let it happen anyway, in which case he’s now all good; or else he would have stopped it if he could but he couldn’t manage it, in which case he’s not omnipotent. At root, the question boils down to: how could a good God, the God religious people think is worthy of worship, let these horrible things happen?
The early Christians didn’t phrase the question in quite those terms but they did struggle with how God could do things that just seem so wrong. Usually they looked at this question in terms of biblical massacres, like the conquest of Canaan and the genocide that God commanded as part of that. How could the same God they encountered in the New Testament have ordered those things?
One answer: he didn’t. Jenkins describes Marcion, a second-century heretic who taught that the “God” of the Old Testament and of the New Testament were really two different people.
The main thrust of his critique was on moral grounds, directed against a God who acted like a capricious tyrant. Marcion loathed the idea of God hardening the heart of his victims, making them commit evils for which he could then punish them. He had a clear preference for those on the losing side in the Old Testament, those who appear as the villains and victims of the Hebrew narrative. He taught that Christ’s death had brought salvation to “Cain, and those like him, and the Sodomites, and the Egyptians”, while the good characters of the Old Testament did not achieve salvation: not Abel, not Noah, none of the patriarchs or prophets who had gullibly followed the lesser god.
This approach was taken up by others in the centuries to come. It’s not hard to see the attraction, since you don’t have to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to work out how your God could command such evil acts if you don’t think the dude doing those things actually was your God. Obvious problem, though: it’s pretty clear from the Biblical record that Jesus saw himself as following the God of what we call the Old Testament, not resisting him.
The other option, as outlined by Jenkins, is to think those things aren’t really so bad – because God did them. Jenkins describes how St. Augustine answered Faustus, an inheritor of Marcion’s line of thought:
Augustine’s response, the Contra Faustum, stressed God’s absolute sovereignty and righteousness. No matter how wrong an act might seem to human eyes, if God orders it, it can never be wrong, and must be obeyed.
Using this principle, he offered a detailed defense of the Bible. Yes, said Augustine, many of the acts described seem cruel or vicious, but they could be defended in various ways. Augustine argued that many of the most extreme stories had to be understood allegorically, but even if we did not use this let-out, God still remained uncondemned. If the violent actions were done in obedience to God, that fact in itself entirely justified them. God is absolute, and his standards above those of men. For Augustine, God “commands nothing but what is most just.” John Calvin would closely echo these sentiments.
What fascinates me about all this is how closely it parallels the way we contemporaries talk about the Canaan genocide and about suffering generally. I’ve met my share of progressive Christians who when they think about Canaan just dismiss it. That’s not the God they are trying to build their lives around. Or from the more evangelical or pentecostal side of things, they make a sort of God out of Satan and blame anything bad that happens on him. The other approach seems to be that that whatever God does cannot possibly be bad. I’ve seen this more in mainline Protestants and among Catholics, including my own Methodist church. They won’t say that a child’s caner or the sudden death of a much-loved father is good simply because God ordained it, necessarily. But they are apt to appeal to a divine plan or that a greater good will come through their suffering. Often you see a certainty that if God allows it or commands it, it can’t be so bad after all because God would never command us to do truly bad things.
At the risk of bashing the time period (which I hate when others do), I do see religious folk today making a little bit of progress on this count, or at least trying out new explanations alongside the old. Some Christians take a more historical approach, suggesting the Canaanite genocides were done by the Israelites on their own who invoked God’s name to cover up. Others take a progressive approach, not in the sense of liberal but in the sense of history progressing. According to this line of thought God works within the culture as it is at that point of time, and that things like the Canaanite genocide are in some sense necessary to move that process forward. Or they seem outrageous to us but wouldn’t from that point in history. Something along those lines.
I’m not sure I find either argument entirely convincing. I’m more drawn to the “effing ineffability” option, as a friend of mine calls it: that there is an explanation but not one we can know. Intellectually, that’s frustrating, maybe even a bit of a cop-out, I guess. But speaking for my personal psychological comfort, I still find it encouraging that this is something Christians have struggled against for pretty much as long as there were Christians. And I like thinking that these people who lived nearly 2,000 years ago also struggled with these same things. It makes me seem a little less isolated in my frustration over this issue, somehow.
An interesting glimpse at church history, in any event.