An interesting book on divine violence

Ted Grimsrud—August 16, 2018

What follows is a review I have written responding to a recent book on the ways Christian theologians have responded to the issue of divine violence in the Old Testament. This book does little directly to help us know how to resolve the problem. But having an understanding of the history of Christian attempts to resolve it is important.

Christian Hofreiter. Making Sense of Old Testament Genocide: Christian Interpretations of Herem Passages. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

One of the most vexing moral issues that has challenged Christians over the years has been the question of what to do with the teachings in the Bible that portray God as one who commands and empowers horrendous acts of violence. Despite continual attempts to find resolution, this issue remains as unresolved today as ever.

In this book, Christian Hofreiter’s revised Oxford University dissertation, we are certainly not given a quick and easy answer to the dilemma of divine violence. However, what we are given is a most helpful sketch of how various Christian theologians have, over the centuries, struggled with the issues.

Hofreiter frames his account as an exercise in “reception history,” the discipline that “consists of selecting and collating shards of that infinite wealth of reception material in accordance with the particular interests of the historian concerned, and giving them a narrative flavor” (p. 10). He limits his focus, as a rule, to Christiantheologians.

Even so, Hofreiter casts the net pretty widely, choosing more for a sense of comprehensiveness over depth of analysis of any particular thinker. Still, he does spend a bit more time on the two thinkers who provide what seem to be the two main historical options: Origen and Augustine.

The dilemma: Holding together five points

He helpfully summarizes the dilemma in terms of five points. The question is how many of these points are affirmed. (1) God is good. (2) The Bible is true. (3) Genocide is atrocious. (4) According to the Bible, God commanded and commended genocide. (5) A good being, let alone the supremely good Being, would never command or comment an atrocity.

Each one of these points, taken in isolation, would seem likely to be true, at least for what Hofreiter calls “a pious Christian.” Things become difficult, though, when they are combined. Can they allbe true? And, if not, which one(s) should be denied? What problems arise when one of the points is denied?

The texts that are at the heart of this discussion are what Hofreiter calls “genocidal texts,” especially texts that commonly use the Hebrew word herem(defined by the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament as the call, “in war, [to] consecrate a city and its inhabitants to destruction; [to] carry out this destruction; [to] totally annihilate a population in war,” pp. 1-2). In other words, Hofreiter suggests, herem meansto commit genocide.

Interestingly, the first Christians, at least as represented by the New Testament, do not seem to have been troubled much by the problems those genocidal texts raise. Nor, going farther back, do the writers of the Old Testament. Likewise, with the early generations following New Testament times.

The two key Christian alternatives

The first known major figure who addressed this issue as a dilemma was Marcion in the second century CE. He attempted to resolve it by essentially eliminating the problematic stories from the Bible. That resolution was rejected by church leaders and Marcion labeled a heretic.

Not long after Marcion, a non-Christian critic named Celcus challenged the truthfulness of Christianity in terms of its illogical affirmation that God is good andthe Bible is true. He argued that if the Bible is true then God must have commanded and commended genocide. But that would mean that God is not good. And if God is not good, then Christianity cannot be true.

The great early Christian defender of the faith, Origen, responded to Celsus with what became, in various forms, a classic answer to the dilemma. Origen affirms that God is good and that the Bible is true. However, affirming the truthfulness of the Bible does not require Christians to accept that God did, in history, command and commend genocide. For Origen, those difficult Old Testament texts could be spiritualized and read allegorically in light of Jesus’s message. When read this way, those texts have to do with eradicating sin in our lives, not historical acts of extreme violence.

A second major response came a few generations later in the thought of Augustine. Augustine accepted each of the five points of the dilemma except the third one. BecauseGod is good, the Bible is true, God commands genocide, and a good being could never command an atrocity, therefore a God-commanded genocide must not be an atrocity.

Most of the theologians Hofreiter mentions down to the present offer versions of either Origen’s or Augustine’s approach. In his too-brief Summary and Conclusion chapter, he points out that in our contemporary world, most people (including “pious Christians”) have a strong gut feeling that “it is wrong to bludgeon babies.” This leaves them with the challenge to “simultaneously affirm the goodness of God, the truthfulness of scripture and the atrociousness of genocide” (p. 250).

Helpful but limited

This is a helpful book that gives a good account of the history of wrestling with these difficult questions—a history very relevant for our necessary continued wrestling. Hofreiter does not discuss the importance of such wrestling for those who are not “pious Christians.” However, given the continued significance of religiously sanctioned violence in our world, it’s not hard to see how widely relevant this discussion is.

Hence, it is a bit disappointing that we are left with the dilemma so unresolved: “There is therefore, in my view, no simple solution to the challenge these texts pose” (p. 251). That may be true, but hasn’t the perceptive analysis of proposed solutions from the past 2,000 years provided us with at least some guidance?

5 thoughts on “An interesting book on divine violence

  1. Ted, what are your thoughts regarding the answer to your ending question, “… hasn’t the perceptive analysis of proposed solutions from the past 2,000 years provided us with at least some guidance?”
    I’m not familiar with your writings, so maybe you could provide a link to something you have written regarding this.

    The genocidal passages of scripture are troubling. My personal reflections on them have tried to view them metaphorically but that hasn’t really felt satisfying.

  2. Harold Kushner, in “When Bad Thing Happen to Good People” found a resting place in forgiving God. Infinite potentials bound up in relation and actualizing (evolving) in finite manifestations in the context of Eternity find forgiveness, again and again, to be an essential tool for all concerned since good and evil are so dynamic. A whole lot is going wrong even as a whole lot more is going on as we seek to manifest a whole lot better Way to celebrate our Being Together. Carry on.

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