In an earlier post, Paths from Science towards God 1: The Challenge of Science, a Resilient Faith, I mentioned that Christianity is an evolving faith, where different generations of Christians have sought to think about God and their experience of the divine in fresh ways. What if this process of constant theological revision occurs not just within the Christian community, but also within the Bible itself? In the previous post, I shared about Brian McLaren’s useful metaphor of looking at the Bible as a library of voices in tension, rather than a clear-cut constitution. Bringing these two themes together, we can now look at one of the questions Christians face in their encounters with Scripture: ‘Why is the God of the Old Testament such a violent God?’
What if the Old Testament depictions of a genocidal, tribal God in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua etc, reflect a much more ‘primitive’ understanding of God, influenced by the culture of the time? What if the theological concepts of God in the Old Testament were already a step ahead of their contemporaries?
Human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God. As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment. If we read the Bible as a cultural library rather than a constitution, we are free to learn from that evolutionary process – and, we might even add, to participate in it. ~ Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity
Brian McLaren uses a very good analogy here. Imagine opening up a primary school mathematics textbook and reading a line that says ‘you cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number’. Then in a high school textbook, we learn that we can indeed subtract a larger number from a smaller number, resulting in negative numbers. So was the primary school textbook lying? In a sense, it’s wrong, but then we teach what is appropriate for that level of understanding. The same can be said about a lot of things we learn in school. High school students still learn about Newton’s laws in physics, only to find out in university that Newton was actually wrong, and that Einstein’s relativity is a more accurate description of the world. And we still find both Newton’s and Einstein’s written works in any good library.
In the light of this unfolding understanding of biblical revelation, when we ask why God appears so violent in some passages of the Bible, we can suggest this hypothesis: if the human beings who produced those passages were violent in their own development, they would naturally see God through the lens of their own experience. The fact that those disturbing descriptions are found in the Bible doesn’t mean that we are stuck with them, any more than we are stuck with the idea that ‘you cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number’ just because that statement still exists in our school textbook. ~ Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity
Our human idea of God grows in stages. So the Bible depicts the changing nature of the human understanding of God, rather than the changing nature of God. McLaren asks, ‘Don’t we, as children, go through similar stages in coming to understand our parents?‘ And this growing understanding has never stopped; and must never stop. This way of looking at the Scriptures also sits quite well with the anthropological view of the rise of religion and culture in human tribes and (much later) in society.
This also inevitably leads us to the conclusion, that we are not there yet – that people of faith in the future will look back on our theology and find it primitive too. But isn’t it great to be a part of this great enterprise of faith?
To be a member of a faith community, in this understanding, is not to be a lucky member of the group that has finally arrived: it is to be in a cohort that is learning together. ~ Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity