Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Old Testament Image of God???

I have increasingly been coming across people who declare that the God of the Old Testament is different the God of the New Testament. Reading things like the wars of the people of Israel and the imprecatory Psalms, they maintain that the God of the Old Testament was a harsh Judge seeking vengeance.  On the other hand, they claim that with the coming of Christ a new image of God emerges – a God of love and compassion. And so they conclude that the God of the Old Testament is different to the God of the New Testament.

Alternatively, they might sometimes suggest that the Old Testament, consisting of the writings of men, does not necessarily present the correct image of God; but rather, they claim that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is based on a perception of God which then needed to change with the coming of Christ.

Given that I have been coming across this interpretation more regularly, I thought that it might be a good opportunity to blog on the topic. Personally, I believe that these views are mistaken, and here are just a few of my reasons why…
Whilst the Old Testament Scriptures were written by men based on their own intellect and perception of God, sometimes we can tend to forget that they were men who were ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21). St. Paul was so convinced of this truth that he goes so far as to tell us that the Old Testament Scriptures were breathed by God (2 Tim 3:16).

As Christians, with our roots in the Jewish religion, we believe that there is only one God (Deut 6:4) and together with them we worship this one true God. And since God cannot change (Heb 13:8; Jms 1:17), we need to accept that in the Scriptures we are not being presented with two opposing “Gods” or even two opposing views of God.
As noted above, there is a tendency to think of the Old Testament as showing a God that is harsh; whereas the New Testament shows God as loving, merciful, and compassionate. However, I don’t think that this tendency has any real Scriptural validity. Here are some examples:

1)      In the New Testament, “Hell” (or “Gehenna”) is mentioned 23 times, or which 16 times it is from the lips of our Lord.

2)      The New Testament contains the incident where Ananias and Sapphira died because they presumed to lie to the Holy Spirit (see Acts 5:1-11).

3)      Rev 6:9-10 speaks of the Martyrs in heaven who cry out for God’s vengeance (an allusion to the imprecatory Psalms).

4)      The author of Hebrews quotes the Old Testament when he tells us that as Christians we should expect discipline from the Lord as from a Father (Heb 12:5ff; Deut 8:5). Furthermore, consider that the author also tells us that our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29). He mentions this in context of the events on Mt Sinai where the people told Moses that they were afraid to approach the Lord in fear of being consumed (Deut 5:25), and God’s own response to Moses was that the Israelites were right in thinking this (Deut 5:28).

The point of the above examples is not to show that God is full of vengeance waiting for every opportunity to spring judgment on sinners. On the contrary, God is Love (1 Jn 4:16) and He is not willing that any should perish (2 Pet 3:9); instead He showed us His perfect love by giving us His only Son to make atonement for our sins (Jn 3:16). My point is that the New Testament image of God is not different from the Old Testament because the New Testament echoes the Old when it unashamedly reminds us that God is holy and does indeed judge sin.
Now, what about the Old Testament? Is it really true that the Old Testament paints God as harsh and unrelenting? Anyone who reads the Old Testament will actually find that the opposite is indeed true. The Old Testament constantly speaks of God’s mercy, grace, patience and love. If this were not true, the Lord Jesus Christ could never be the eminent image of God’s love and also be the fulfilment of the Scriptures at the same time.

We also need to remember that in the earliest days of the Church, the only Scriptures that the Christians had were the Old Testament writings; and it was on the foundation of these writings that the New Testament Scriptures emerged within the Christian tradition. It was because the Old Testament constantly revealed God’s love that the New Testament writers were able to see that love fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, for us to be able to see the Lord Jesus Christ in the Old Testament, we need to remain within the stream of our Catholic Tradition of reading the Old and New Testaments as a unified whole:

"The Old Testament is an indispensable part of Sacred Scripture. Its books are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value, for the Old Covenant has never   been revoked.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Art. 121)

Conversely, to depart from this Catholic Tradition would be to lose sight of the Lord Jesus, because as St. Jerome reminds us: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”.

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