Why does the God of the Old Testament seem so different from the God of the New Testament? Throughout history, seasoned church goers and newcomers to the Christian faith have all struggled with this question.
In When Did God Become a Christian?, David Kalas identifies some common experiences, troublesome passages, and natural reactions that we all encounter while reconciling the God of both the Old and New Testaments. In twelve chapters, Kalas explores the unity of Scripture, biblical history, and the two primary attributes of God, love and holiness, to help readers clarify the integrity of the nature of God. With a better understanding of the Bible’s unity and of God’s integrity, they will come to love, worship, and trust God more.
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About the Author
David Kalas is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He is the author of When Did God Become a Christian?, Savior on the Cross, and has also contributed to several collections of sermons and preaching resources. Kalas is a graduate of the University of Virginia and Union Theological Seminary of Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
When Did God Become a Christian?
Knowing God Through the Old and New Testaments
By David Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2017 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Rumor Going Around the Church
Unpacking a Common Question
Have you heard what people are saying about God? There is a rumor going around, one that I've heard often. In my years of being a parish pastor — serving in churches with both conservative and liberal leanings, in rural communities, in small towns, and in larger cities in several different states — I have heard the same rumor in every place. It does not seem to be confined to a region or limited to a demographic group. It is, in my experience, a remarkably — even frighteningly — pervasive rumor.
Most rumors, of course, are fairly localized. What may be a significant matter in one church in one community would be altogether irrelevant to a different church from another community. But this particular rumor seems to be widespread in churches all over the map.
It is a rumor about God. And the fact that it is about God means that the stakes are very high — especially if it's an inaccurate one.
Here's the rumor: The God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament.
Have you heard this rumor? Maybe even believed it? We want to evaluate that claim together.
In order to unpack some of our own personal feelings on this issue, let me invite you to conduct a simple experiment within the confines of your mind. Below are pairs of words suggestive of the two testaments. Read the words one at a time and consider the following: What comes to mind when you read each word? What sort of picture or image does each one inspire? Bear in mind that it takes only a moment to read the words and react to them, but if you can, allow extra time in each case to stop and examine your immediate reaction, taking a good look at the picture in your mind that represents each word before moving on to the next one.
Did you notice a difference in the pictures that came to mind for each pair of words? Yes, the words are suggestive of the two testaments, but they are neutral. They are not loaded terms that carry strong negative or positive connotations. But you may have found that you liked some of the images these words evoked much better than others.
Meanwhile, there is one more pair of words that might be helpful for us to consider:
The Mount of Beatitudes
Mount Sinai is the place where Moses received God's Law (see Exodus 31). The Mount of Beatitudes is the Galilean hillside where Jesus famously delivered the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5). For many, these two famous mountains emotionally represent the two testaments. Hereare the images that most readily come to mind: On Mount Sinai stands Moses, holding the stone tablets on which are written God's Law. On the Mount of the Beatitudes sits Jesus, holding children on his knee. The tone of voice in the first scene is stern: "Thou shalt not." The second voice, however, is gentle and compassionate: "Come unto me."
When you and I picture Mount Sinai, the scene is probably foreboding and volcanic. There is thunder and lightning, thick smoke, and a loud trumpet. The mountain stands in the midst of the wilderness. It is rugged, arid, and ominous. The slopes of the mountain are forbidden, cordoned off. The people shrink back in fear.
When we picture the Galilean hillsides where Jesus taught, however, the scene is vastly different. The sky is blue and the grass is green. The slopes are gentle and fertile rather than rugged and dry. Birds of the air and lilies of the field are nearby, where Jesus can reference them and the crowds can see them. The space is not foreboding but inviting. The people do not cower and stand back from God; they eagerly gather around and press close to Jesus.
Sinai and Galilee. These are the pictures that tend to capture our prevailing associations with the Old and New Testaments. One harsh and the other friendly. One judgmental and the other inviting. Is it any wonder that most of us are much more attracted to the one and far less comfortable with the other?
What I've Heard
By their very nature, rumors are almost always imprecise, if not wildly inaccurate. As the word gets passed from one person to another, it picks up layers of individual insight and personal prejudice. And because rumors often have a loose relationship to facts, there is a lot of room for interpretation. As such, what I've heard of this rumor, in different places at different times, has varied. But there are some common themes.
The recurring central theme is that God seems different in the New Testament than God seems in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the Lord appears to be more angry and destructive. There is a lot of judgment and death. God seems impatient and exclusive.
In the New Testament, by contrast, the Lord appears to be kind and gracious, merciful and forgiving. God's basic posture is inviting, and the invitation is open to all.
Our natural preference, of course, is for the New Testament's portrayal of God, and so we assume that it is a more accurate representation. And that, in turn, leads to a conclusion that the Old Testament is in some way inferior. Either the Old Testament is inferior to the New Testament because it offers a less accurate portrait of God, or it is inferior because it is outdated, divinely replaced by a "new and improved" approach that is revealed and represented by the New Testament. That discounted view of the OldTestament, then, often results in a kind of dismissal of the first two-thirds of the Bible. Because we feel the Old is either inaccurate, outdated, or both, we are free to set it aside. And, either consciously or practically, we function as though there is nothing for us to learn from the Old Testament.
But what if this rumor is incorrect? What if God is not actually different in the Old Testament than he is in the New? If the rumor is wrong — and I most certainly believe it is wrong — then we need to go back and set up all of the dominoes that were knocked over by the initial misunderstanding.
I'm very concerned about this rumor. Why? Because it is a damaging business anytime we hear and believe something about another person that is not true, and it is profoundly damaging when it is about God. The problem is not merely that some people "out there" are saying these things about God, but that we — the church — have thought or perpetuated this rumor ourselves. This is serious business because it is both theological, involving what we believe about God and the Bible, and personal, impacting our faith, our relationship with God, and our daily living. Our relationships with God and the Bible affect our relationships with the community of faith. Each one enhances the other, and each is a process that moves from introduction to acquaintance to familiarity to intimacy and love.
Over the years, as I have tried to introduce folks to the Bible and help them grow, I have encountered this rumorcountless times. People come across passages that trouble or confuse them, and they come away from the Bible with the suspicion that God is different in the New Testament than in the Old.
Our endeavor in this book, therefore, is to see the two testaments more clearly so that we have an accurate picture of God. We can't walk through every chapter of the Bible in these pages, but we can walk through certain principles and themes that will help us read the whole Bible with a clearer vision and a better understanding. When we're done, we will be better acquainted with the unity of Scripture and better equipped to wrestle with difficult passages in a framework that encompasses the Old and New Testaments alike. And, in the process, we will rediscover the one who is the God of the whole Bible.CHAPTER 2
Nothing New Under the Sun
Gaining Some Historical Perspective
The rumor going around the church is going around outside the church as well. The impression that God is different in the Old and New Testaments is prevalent among the general public, and although the conversation is not as informed as in the church, we see the paradigm even in popular culture.
Consider an episode from the NBC television drama The West Wing. President Josiah Bartlet, the central character of the show, talks with Senator Arnold Vinick about matters of personal faith. They begin by wondering together whether a candidate's religious convictions should be important to the public, but then the conversation turns to Senator Vinick's own personal journey. Vinick shares that he used to be more religious, but as he began to read the Bible more seriously, he was increasingly troubled by what he found there. He laments the use of the death penalty for matters like working on the Sabbath and committing adultery. President Bartlet smiles knowingly and interjects sympathetically, "I'm more of a New Testament man myself."
Do you hear the rumor buried within President Bartlet's statement, unquestioned and unchallenged? The words of this fictional president illustrate a common sentiment: people often prefer the New Testament over the Old Testament and, without even realizing it, we may choose between them as well, aligning ourselves with one over the other.
Preference for the New Testament is not only very prevalent but also very old. In fact, as we'll discover, the common complaints about the Old Testament are not really a modern problem at all.
Not a Modern Problem
Nineteen hundred years ago, a man named Marcion was one of the first vocal critics of the Old Testament. As the wealthy son of a Christian bishop from Asia Minor, Marcion began life in orthodox Christianity. Yet as he grew and read the Bible, he came to feel that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is arbitrary and vindictive while the God revealed as the Father of Jesus Christ in the New Testament is loving and compassionate. His sense was that the Old Testament God demands to be obeyed while the Father of Jesus desires only to be loved.
I have met a lot of church folks who would agree with Marcion's observation. The question, then, is what are we to do when we encounter problematic passages or patterns in Scripture?
Marcion's response was dramatic. He concluded that the God of the Old Testament was actually a different God than the Father of Jesus Christ. In his judgment, there was a complete separation between the two testaments, and so there was no sense in which the Old Testament was Christian Scripture. Consequently, he taught that the Old Testament was to be dismissed entirely by Christians and that our faith needs to be based only on certain epistles of Paul and Marcion's own revision of the Gospel of Luke. In fact, Marcion is known in church history for creating his own version of the Bible.
In a sense, Marcion did boldly what many other Christians do covertly, or even subconsciously. Many believers have fashioned a kind of Bible of their own: the portions they read, the parts they follow. Though they would not have the courage to take scissors to the Bible, they do it in practice and without apology.
While I think that Marcion was entirely wrong, I give him credit for being intellectually honest. He carried his beliefs through to their natural conclusions. But while he was intellectually honest, he was not intellectually rigorous, because he only identified a problem; he did not solve it. Eventually, Marcion was rejected as a heretic and thrown out of the church in Rome because of his unorthodox views and teachings, but he went on to form a church of his own. In time, Marcionism became a movement, which lasted for several centuries.
This rumor about God, you see, has been going around the church for a very long time. I expect that most Christians today have never heard of Marcion and his movement. The earliest centuries of church history generally receive scant attention in most of our congregations, and so we are unaware of the doctrinal struggles that helped the ancient church define orthodoxy and forge its creeds. As a result, many Christians may actually be closet Marcionites without knowing it.
Return with me to The West Wing episode I mentioned earlier. After President Bartlet told Senator Vinick that he was "more of a New Testament man," the two exchanged comments that prompted the senator to admit, "Let's just say I struggled for a long time with that book and then finally, I just gave up the struggle." These two characters express two common responses to the same dilemma. Though they are only fictional politicians, they represent very real constituencies.
For the folks in Bartlet's jurisdiction, the challenge is an intellectual one. They struggle to harmonize the two testaments, and so they pit them against each other, as though they are in opposition. Vinick, meanwhile, represents folks for whom the challenge is or becomes a spiritual crisis. These souls are so troubled by what they read that they set aside the Bible and perhaps faith altogether. Let's consider both camps.
An Intellectual Challenge
Bartlet is a natural heir to Marcion. He does not go so far as Marcion, yet his conclusions undermine either the unity of Scripture or the character of God. And those are fundamental, doctrinal issues of the Christian faith.
I am reminded of trying to solve a Sudoku puzzle. The puzzle is a nine-by-nine grid, which is divided into nine three-by-three grids. When you start the puzzle, a few spaces in the grid have been filled in for you with single digits, from 1 through 9. The challenge is to fill in the remaining spaces correctly so that each column will utilize all nine digits once; each row will use all nine digits once; and each three-by-three grid will use all nine digits once.
If a person were to focus on only filling out one three-by-three grid, the task would be easy. It wouldn't be hard tofill in a three-by-three grid so that each number was used only once. But if you were to look down the column and across the row at the other grids you would inevitably find some conflicts there. The puzzle as a whole wouldn't come together.
Similarly, President Bartlet's statement works well within the confines of one grid. That is to say, he has chosen for himself how he likes to read the Bible. And if he doesn't look beyond himself and his own sensibilities, he'll be fine. But when we look down the column, so to speak, we discover a conflict with these two fundamental, orthodox Christian doctrines. What works for him personally creates serious problems elsewhere.
First is the doctrine that God is unchanging. Near the end of the Old Testament, God says: "I the LORD do not change" (Malachi 3:6). It is a reflection of the perfection and purity of God's character. And philosophically we wonder whether it is even possible for one who is eternal to change over time. To prefer God in the New Testament over the Old, therefore, is to come in conflict with the constancy of God's nature.
Second is the doctrine of the reliability of Scripture. If we grant that God is unchanging but insist that God seems to change from the one testament to the other, then the fault must lie in the written record. And if the written record is unreliable, then we face a larger problem when it comes to our understanding of God.
Bartlet's intellectual preference for the New Testament does not solve the puzzle satisfactorily. He has narrowly pleased his own sensibilities, but he has done so at the expense of doctrine. And he is not alone. Because many others struggle with this same dilemma, we will explore both the reliability of Scripture and the reliability of God in later chapters.
A Spiritual Challenge
While President Bartlet's dilemma is intellectual, Senator Vinick's struggle is spiritual. His statement reflects a faith crisis that has become terminal: "Finally, I just gave up the struggle." That's cry-of-the-heart stuff, and the pastor in me wants to respond to that cry. I know better than to try to keep people from their struggles, because many of our struggles are inevitable, and perhaps even necessary. But giving up the struggle altogether is tragic. Because deep inside we long to believe, and the Lord wants us to believe too. But there are so many obstacles to belief.
We need to see those obstacles in a larger context. It's easy to think our struggles are unique to us as individuals. That view isolates us, though, and may make us punish ourselves or wonder what's wrong with us when we doubt. It's also easy to think that our struggles are unique to our generation, to our time and place, but that leads to an arrogance that separates us from the wisdom of those who have gone before us.
We see in the ancient pages of Scripture how common and how old are the obstacles to belief. Job struggled when his tragic experiences seemed incongruous with the character of God. The spies who investigated the Promised Land had a hard time believing God when God told them they would easily conquer a land filled with formidable foes (Numbers 13–14). Eve failed to have confidence in God's love when she heard a misleading voice telling her otherwise (Genesis 3). The disciples in the storm found it difficult to believe when they were frightened (Mark 4:35-41). And the father who asked Jesus to heal his child recognized within himself a mixture of both belief and unbelief that Jesus could actually heal him (Mark 9:14-29), which is probably a fair description of most of us.
Excerpted from When Did God Become a Christian? by David Kalas. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Rumor Going Around the Church Unpacking a Common Question 11
2 Nothing New Under the Sun Gaining Some Historical Perspective 19
3 The Write-In Candidate Affirming the Unity of Scripture 27
4 Out on a Limb with a Saw Affirming the Reliability of Scripture 39
5 Israel's Home Movies Getting a Clearer Picture of God 49
6 A God at Odds? Clarifying the Integrity of God's Nature 59
7 Holy, Holy, Holy Seeing God's Holiness in the Old and New Testaments 67
8 Jesus Loves Me, This I Know Seeing God's Love in the Old and New Testaments 79
9 Finding True Love Exploring a Few Scriptures that Can Confuse Us 97
10 Heaven's Mission Statement Identifying the Continuity of God's Purpose and Plan 109
11 Same God, Different People Recognizing Who Has Changed 123
12 Nothing New About the Sun Considering How an Eternal God Is Unchanging 139