Isn’t God Different in the Old Testament and the New?

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“How do you reconcile who God seems to be in the Old Testament—angry and vengeful—with who God seems to be in the New Testament—abounding in love?”

What makes us think that God is portrayed differently in the Old Testament than in the New Testament? Some of the most moving depictions of God as a deeply intimate and powerful lover are found in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, it is Jesus himself who is often described as having some of the most angry, bordering on violent confrontations with people. Throughout the entire Bible, God is described as having a wide range of human emotions.

I believe there are three things to keep in mind here. First, this question is a smokescreen. Our dominant North American culture believes we are in control. This secular mindset leads us to assume that because we can control much of the world through our science, technology, economics, and politics, there’s nothing else that could possibly lie outside of our control. We are allergic to the idea that God could be angry or violent because that would mean there is someone we will never control. It’s far easier to maintain our belief in our control of the world by claiming that the Bible’s portrayal of God is inconsistent and therefore unreliable. We will only allow God to be God if God stays in God’s place, under our control. The question allows us to carry on believing that lie about ourselves.

Second, affluent and comfortable North Americans are disconnected and insulated from the harsh realities of both the ancient and the contemporary world. We struggle with the Bible’s depictions of God as angry or violent because we read them from our middle-class lives. Many in our dominant culture are divorced from this deeply broken world, full of deadly violence and soul-crushing injustice. Most of today’s world lives as nearly all of the ancient world did: under the grinding realities of a barbaric world. Anyone who has a clear vision of the state of the world as well as a heart of compassion and justice would be angry at what has happened to God’s masterpiece of creation! Most of God’s angry violence in the Old Testament is actually God’s decisive intervention of love, a shocking interruption in the status quo to bring about liberation and justice for the oppressed. From the plagues in Egypt to Jesus causing a riot in the temple, God has a habit of bringing joy and hope to those whose lives are being squandered underneath the grimy boot of abusive power. Sometimes we object to God’s righteous anger because it might spell the end of our affluence and comfort, especially if our way of life is the dehumanizing result of injustice anywhere.

Third, the American biblical scholar Greg Boyd reminds us that part of God accommodating God’s self to us on this “long road of redemption” (Our World Belongs to God, Article 18) is by using the words of sinful human beings to write his Word. Our ancestors millennia ago were a people immersed in a world of tribal warfare. It was simply taken for granted that the gods approved of wanton human slaughter. This violent human mindset is reflected in Scripture. Despite our fallen and rebellious habits, God reliably tells the beautiful story of his worldwide love in Scripture. But if we take a casual look around the world today we see that we haven’t come very far; we’re still struggling to learn the transformational lesson of love displayed in Jesus. Thanks be to God that by grace God works with us where we’re at!

About the Author

Mike Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister and professor of theology at Western University in London, Ont., and part-time New Testament instructor at Redeemer University College. He attends Forest City Community Church.

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Comments

       Thank you Mike for your insight as to why many Christians do not understand the apparent differences we see in God from the Old to the New Testament.  You suggest that Christian readers, along with our culture, believe there is little outside our own control (such as God), and that we are insulated (in our Western culture) from the harsh realities of life, and also that a violent human mind-set permeated the authors of Scripture.  Because of these we don’t really understand the scope of God’s love in both the Old and New Testaments.  And yet most Christians still see a striking difference in the character or personality of God in the two testaments.  On the whole, God is much more vengeful and less forgiving in the Old Testament with both Israel and the nations.
       Could not the obvious difference between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God be that they each represent two different religions?  The Old Testament Scriptures present the God of the Jews, whereas the New Testament characterizes the God of Christians.  The fact that Christians have been taught to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament doesn’t change the fact as to how the Jews interpret their own Scriptures apart from Jesus.  And of course, Jewish authorities would argue the Old Testament was written long before the advent of Jesus and was never meant to be read through such a lens.  Jews believe in a singular God, whereas Christians believe in a Trinity of God, or a threeness, which is reflected in the New Testament but not the Old.  Different religions - different Gods - different ways of acting.  Sure we see the anger of God, as well as the love, in both testaments. But we see an obvious difference of emphasis.  Your article seems to be an attempt to smooth over a large difference that is strikingly obvious to most readers.

Roger, thank you for your thoughts on the article. You're right that there are differences between the OT and the NT but I was attempting to show that the differences are perceived by us for a (cultural) reason and not necessarily because of some inherent difference in the text. Not all readers (those from different times and cultures, for example) see the stark differences that we see. Jews who embrace Jesus as the Messiah would certainly not have the same reading you offer. Also, I would strongly disagree with your understanding of Judaism and Christianity as being two different religions based on two different (OT vs NT) scriptures. That, according to my reading of the apostle Paul, is certainly not what the evidence points towards. And even Jesus' ministry arises from the Jewish community, is for the Jewish community, and renews the Jewish community precisely so that the Jewish community can be what God has intended for them to be: the beach-head for God's redemption of the whole world.

Thanks, Mike, for your further response.  Your comment suggests that the differences between the Old and New Testament Gods are not inherent but cultural.  I suggested they are inherent and actual.  Christianity is a piggyback religion riding on the coat tails of Judaism.  As such, Christians interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament.  This is similar to the Mormons who piggyback on Christianity, and while claiming the Bible (both testaments) as God’s word, they interpret it through the lens of the Book of Mormon.  Christians and Christian scholars have insisted that this has led to a false interpretation of the Bible.  Jews throughout history have said the same of Christianity, that the New Testament is a faulty lens by which to interpret their Scriptures.  Of course, Jews who have embraced Jesus would not have the same reading as I have suggested.  That’s because they have embraced Christianity and now read the Old Testament through the lens of the Christian New Testament.  Only by reading the Jewish scriptures through the lens of the New Testament can you come to the conclusion you suggest.  But standing by themselves they represent clearly different Gods who act differently.  Why do you think the Jews of the first century wanted to see Paul put to death?

Roger, the Jewish leadership of the first century wanted to discredit (or eliminate) the apostle Paul because the apostle Paul was offering an interpretation of the Jewish messianic hopes being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth - a claim debated then as much as now. But Paul never conceived of himself as starting a new religion, following a different God.

I'm really struggling to understand how your position is any different than the ancient heresy of Marcion who also believed that the Old Testament God (and Scriptures) were inherently different than the New Testament God.

Thanks again, Mike, for your attempt to give clarity to your position.  I think you, yourself, point out the difference between the New and Old Testament Gods.  You say that Paul never conceived of himself as starting a new religion or following a different God.  But the Jews of Paul’s day did think just that.  Their understanding of the messiah was completely different from what Paul was imagining or proposing.  Paul perceived of Jesus as divinity, as God, therefore the concept of God as a Triune being, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This changed completely what the Jews believed of God as a single, unitary being, not being made up of three persons.  And it changed the Jewish notion that the messiah would be a human (not divine) being.  And so the Jews instigated the death of Paul because, in their minds, he was changing their God and religion.  And through the course of history Christians do the same as Paul by reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New.  As I suggested in an earlier comment Christianity attempts to piggyback on the Jewish religion.
Marcion also saw the Old Testament and New Testament as portraying two separate religions and Gods simply because he refused to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament.  Read separately, they actually do portray God in very different ways, or as Marcion thought, as different Gods.  Thanks again, Mike, for your attempt to show a unity or continuity between the Old and New Testaments, but I don’t think it works.
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