The Violence of God
As a pacifist I’ve looked into this question before, but I love the fact that it is becoming a more common conversation in the emerging church. In its simplest form: is God violent? The big theme here is progressive revelation, which is a controversial one amongst Christians for reasons I touched on in A New Kind Of Christianity Question 2: Biblical Authority – basically because most Christians view the Bible as a legal constitution which means that every word must agree and that every word is equal legal authority over us. Therefore saying that one part of the Bible is a more complete picture of God than another isn’t easy to swallow. McLaren argues and I agree that every word of the Bible is not equally mature but rather that the culmination is in Jesus. To put it in another way that most Christians throughout history have often affirmed but not necessarily practiced: Jesus is the complete Word of God, and the Bible is not the Word of God in the fullest but it helps point us to the Word of God. If you’re a regular reader you may have noticed I do not refer to the Bible as the Word of God because I think it creates that confusion that the Bible is on par with Jesus, although most Protestants historically have done exactly that in practice even if not in doctrine (see my post Which Trinity Do You Follow?).
Anyway, so with those guaranteed objections out of the way from those who didn’t read the previous post, I move on to the idea of progressive revelation. The idea here is simple: God reveals herself more and more over time in different circumstances. This doesn’t mean that God evolves (that’s process theology which I don’t accept and neither does McLaren) – it means that our idea of God evolves as we evolve. As we develop in our individual lives we get a steadily more mature view of God (generally speaking) and the same is true of the human race as a whole. We never get the full picture, just like you never get the full picture of your spouse even after years of marriage. You get a pretty good picture, a steadily better picture, but never a full picture and that’s just the nature of relationship.
Jesus regularly talked in this kind of way. He extended the laws of the Pharisees (“the law says this, but I tell you”) and even contradicted Old Testament law like breaking Sabbath rules. Jesus reinterprets Scripture in light of himself repeatedly. Assuming you believe that both he and the Old Testament are revelations from God, he quite clearly says that this new revelation over-rules the previous revelation, or perhaps more accurately it gets at the heart of God which the old revelation was pointing toward. He says he fulfills the law – ie. provides a larger and more mature revelation.
So this leads us back to the question of violence. It is obvious to readers of the Old Testament that in the earliest books, God allows and even at times commands violence. Not just violence, but mass genocide including women and children in some cases. In the later books of the Old Testament, there is not the same kind of mass violence but there is still some. For the most part, especially in the prophets, there is a consistent pointing forward to an age of peace. Fast-forward to Jesus, and nobody can really argue that he was a pacifist. Some might argue that he didn’t teach pacifism for his followers, somehow reinterpreting stuff like “love your enemies” to mean things like “drop a bomb on them”. Some might argue that he has now changed his mind on the whole nonviolence thing and will come back to destroy all the bad guys in the future. But nobody can really argue that his life on earth was a pacifist one.
So if we accept that Jesus is the fulfillment, the most complete representation of God to us, why is that when it comes to violence we side with the least mature, less-complete, version of God we see in the genocidal version? Presumably because that is the God that we want to support our own goals of violence. McLaren makes another great point, though. We tend to interpret Jesus in terms of our preconceptions of God – usually our Greco-Roman preconceptions of God. Instead, the biblical paradigm tells us that we should be getting our idea of God from the fullness of God we see in Jesus, which fundamentally includes nonviolence. In other words as in the book, quoting the Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood:
The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.