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Two Old Testament Books (or Preach More from the Old Testament)

Two Old Testament Books (or Preach More from the Old Testament)

My company is offering special prices on all our books related to the Old Testament. I decided to blog a bit about the books we’re offering. So if you don’t want to hear about books that are for sale, this one isn’t for you. On the other hand, I promise to be wordy, tell stories, and fail to get to the point for paragraphs at a time. As usual! And by the way, this got started because we’ve put Ecclesiastes: A Participatory Study Guide, the first in the series on an Old Testament book, on pre-order. Look for it in mid-November. I’ll talk about it later in the week.

This morning I was thinking about two books, because they relate so closely to my own Christian experience and to a weakness I see in the church and the way we teach the Bible. The first is by one of my college professors, Dr. Alden Thompson. He guided me through my second and third year of Hebrew as well as any number of questions that arose. I never did take an introduction to the Old Testament, though I took several Old Testament courses other than Hebrew, but I did dig into the theology enough to keep the discussion lively.

Alden is primarily concerned with getting Christians to study the Old Testament more, and with letting people know that you can find God’s story of grace there as well as in the New Testament. His book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?, was released after I graduated, but I read it with great interest, and when I was invited to teach later in a Methodist church, I found it was no longer in print. I got some remaindered copies from him, and then later got permission to issue two different comb bound editions. These got me through a number of classes, but we referred to one of them as the “unfortunate edition.” This was also before Energion Publications had come into existence.

We issued a fourth edition, properly printed and bound, though the printer did not produce the best quality work. I purchased several thousand of those books from another organization I’d been working with and used that as the starting point for Energion Publications. So Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (now in its fifth edition) is a key part of the history of the company.

Alden’s focus can be found in two stories, I think. When I first contacted him about his book, some 20 years after we had last talked, his first question, before he wanted to talk about books, was this: “How are things with your soul?” Authors tend to care about their books, especially if there’s an opportunity to get them reprinted. But that was his first thought. Later, when he came to teach at Pine Forest United Methodist Church here in Pensacola, he told the group that the measure of his success as a teacher would be whether he left them loving God and one another more than when he came. I like that.

The book itself can be mildly (or more than mildly) controversial, as one would expect of a book that has chapters covering Judges 19-21 (read it if you don’t understand why), and another on the Messianic prophecies. It’s easy to generate an argument on those topics. But I’ve seen a lot of people spending more time with their Old Testaments after hearing Alden speak about it. If nothing else, his enthusiasm for the topic draws people in.

The second book is related, though it comes more from my present than my past. It’s written by Methodist pastor and seminary professor Allan R. Bevere. It’s based on sermons he preached from the Old Testament. Now there are those who are turned off by collections of sermons. I like them, provided they are good sermons that serve a purpose, and that they apply to a broad audience. The book is The Character of Our Discontent, I think this book has not gotten the attention it deserves. The vast majority of times that I hear sermons from the lectionary, the text is from the gospel lesson. Now I don’t have any problem preaching from the gospels. But I don’t think people will understand the whole story if they don’t get the background to the gospels by learning from the Bible Jesus used.

So I’d see two purposes to this book. First, it can be read for devotional reading. I’d take an essay at a time. You’ll find your spiritual life growing when your devotionals don’t just come from the Sermon on the Mount, but also take in characters like Samson and texts from books such as Leviticus or Ezekiel. But second, if you’re a pastor, consider looking at this pattern of presenting material from the Old Testament.

And unlike Alden Thompson, Allan Bevere is a New Testament scholar. Just because you specialize in the New Testament doesn’t mean you can’t include preaching from the Old. You may even have some special perspective.

 

 

It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases

It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases

The Christian Post has a portion of an interview with John Piper in response to the question:

Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament? How can that ever be right?

And the first sentence of his answer is the title of this post.

I can hardly tell you how many ways this bothers me. I say that just in order to get on the nerves of the folks who like to quote Paul “Who are you, o man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20). I’m just this human who, like many people in the Bible, including prophets, isn’t satisfied with leaving all the questions unanswered, even when I know I’ll hardly get started on finding the answers. It’s interesting how certain Christians quote Paul in Romans 9, while others are more likely to quote Habakkuk or one of the Psalms where people question God quite a lot.

Unless you add that God will never “please” to do something wrong, Piper’s statement makes nonsense of any idea of right and wrong. It is not meaningful to say that God is good or God is loving, both statements found in the Bible, and then to suggest that no matter how unloving or ungood an action of God may appear, it’s really OK because God willed it, or “pleased” to do it. But if mass slaughter isn’t wrong, what is wrong?

Thus the first half of Piper’s answer is, in effect, a non-answer. It states simply that whatever God does–and I’m fairly certain that for him, whatever is alleged in scripture that God does is something God actually does–that is acceptable. And for many people this seems to be adequate.

In one way I don’t mind that. I too believe God does what is right (ignoring, for now, the question of whether it’s right because God does it or God does it because it’s right), and if he doesn’t do what’s right, there’s nothing I can do about it in any case.

But in this case we’re bringing different arguments in scripture together.  The Bible says both that God has commanded the death of many, many people, or has killed them himself, and also that God is good and that God is love. Put up against what I might think about God, perhaps Piper’s answer has a point. Put alongside the Bible’s indications of how God cares about humanity, I think it fails completely.

It’s beyond a simple blog post such as this to give my own response, but I will point to a book I publish, by my former teacher Dr. Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?. Alden takes quite a conservative approach to scripture and yet takes both of these items, the stories of God’s destructive acts, and the assertions of God’s love, care, and goodness. Piper, on the other hand, empties any assertion of God’s love and goodness of any meaning.

Piper regards the question of God’s commands to kill as more difficult than that of God killing directly, but I think with this he makes an even more dangerous error:

With Joshua there was a political, ethnic dimension, God was immediate king, and he uses this people as his instrument to accomplish his judgment in the world at that time. And God, it says, let the sins of the Amorites accumulate for 400 years so that they would be full (Genesis 15:16), and then sends his own people in as instruments of judgment.

From this I would conclude that being ruled closely by God would make atrocities committed right, and very likely more common. This is consistent with the first part of Piper’s answer. I must concede to Calvinists this: They are philosophically consistent. I just don’t believe that consistency is a very good indicator that a philosophy reflects actuality.

On the contrary, I believe that we must either find some better reason why these stories occur in the Old Testament, or we must seriously back off of any pretension that “God is good” or “God is love” has any meaning at all.

We regularly argue that it must be that all the Canaanites deserved to die. A Calvinist will certainly note that we all deserve to die. Yet what is the basis for this? Were they more wicked than others? Pointed out the 400 years, as Piper does, suggests that. But I don’t think the evidence would support such a claim. What effort was made to bring them to God? What reason might there be to suggest that Israel could not have brought the Canaanites to repentance through proclamation?

This latter is not, in fact, what I would suggest as a solution. But I do think it points out the difficult with Piper’s solution.

As I have time, I do intend to address this topic some more. Even the smallest portion of an answer requires many threads brought together.

Seeking Sinless Perfection

Seeking Sinless Perfection

Stripped image of John Wesley
Image via Wikipedia

Because I have some online watches for names of Energion Publications authors, I found the post In Search of Sinless Perfection, which quotes Alden Thompson. This comes from a Seventh-day Adventist background, but I must mention that I have been surprised by how much from my own SDA background simply translates into Methodism. One may easily underestimate the impact of the fact that Ellen White, early SDA leader viewed as having the prophetic gift, was a Methodist before she joined the Adventist movement.

In any case, Ellen White quotes aside, Loren Seibold, author of the article gives a number of the reasons I have for questioning the idea of sinless perfection. Certainly the Wesleyan doctrine as actually taught by Wesley (try here for more, though you may find the account less plain than you imagined) seems less problematic than its various descendants.

I love the introductory story, which ends:

Then the perfect man hung up on me.

Perhaps not the ending one imagined for a conversation with a perfect man!

I too am a believer in sanctification. Where I must get off this particular train, however, is where one gets a personal knowledge that one is perfect. I just can’t see how that would work.

 

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Do You Deserve a Light or a Heavy Beating?

Do You Deserve a Light or a Heavy Beating?

I’ve probably mentioned a few times that I studied under Dr. Alden Thompson at Walla Walla University (then WWC).  He’s the one who taught me Hebrew, though actually I joined his class in the second year, and also introduced me to Aramaic.  But more importantly, he introduced me to what I believe is a very constructive way of dealing with Bible difficulties.

He’s just written a book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other which pulls together many of the things I’ve heard him teach over the years.

I’ll get around to referencing some of those on this blog as I have time, but today I just want to share a video put out by the publisher in which Alden discusses how he goes about understanding some passages from Luke. Now Alden is an Old Testament scholar (PhD, University of Edinburgh), but his passion is for Bible study amongst the laity.

I’m delighted this little book has been published. My major regret is that it may be neglected because it is published by Pacific Press, a Seventh-day Adventist publisher. Though it was written to help address conflicts within that denomination, the ideas are applicable elsewhere as well. I’ve heard Alden teach some of this material to rooms filled with United Methodists, for example.

Alden Thompson is also the author of Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? which my company publishes, besides being one of my teachers, so perhaps I am not fully free of bias.

Nah. This book is good!

On the Old Testament and Vengeance

On the Old Testament and Vengeance

Peter Kirk linked to my post on “an eye for an eye” in responding to David Ker’s post What to do with the vengeance in the Old Testament? Skip it!

As a result I’ve been able to follow a rather substantial number of posts discussing this issue.  One of these comes from John Hobbins, who tells us that one can’t be a “New Testament only” Christian.  I’m glad he used the word “only” because we all should be New Testament (or covenant) Christians.  As it is I can agree with him completely.  Dr. Platypus gets somewhat more helpful as he discusses the value of some of the difficult passages, especially in the Psalms.  Bob MacDonald also provides some good thoughts and resources.

I emphasized Old Testament rather strongly in my studies and would certainly not want to be without it as part of my spiritual life.  I wanted to link in three more posts that provide videos of presentations made recently by one of my undergraduate professors, Dr. Alden Thompson.  I also am the publisher of his book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?  You can regard this as a semi-commercial announcement.

I have not yet watched this set of videos, but having both taken classes from Alden as an undergraduate, and must more recently hosted him as teacher of several seminars, I have no doubt that he will make a valuable contribution to this discussion.  One of the things he says regularly is:  “You may not like the Old Testament, but Jesus did!”

Links to the videos:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The presentations were at the Toledo First Seventh-day Adventist Church.  If you’re harboring some denominational prejudices I’d urge you to lay them aside for the time it takes you to benefit from Alden’s teaching.

Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?

Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?

When I teach people about how to study the Bible, and especially when I talk to them about handling difficult passages, there is one category of passage that dominates:  Violent and sometimes difficult to understand passages from the Old Testament.  How can a God of love command the slaughter of thousands, even women and children?

Christians have many different ways of handling these passages.  Some will say that we live in the New Testament era, and that things are different now, which both tends to dismiss the Jewish scriptures as a poorer set of writings, and also to leave open the question of why God would have behaved so poorly then.  It’s comforting to think he doesn’t do it now, but does that really answer the question?
Others positively revel in the violence, joyful that not only is God a powerful God, but he’s willing to exercise that power and wipe out the bad guys.  Fortunately for the world, most of these people are far less violent in reality than they sound when preaching.  Doubtless most would be horrified to see some of these stories actually take place.
There was one book that was critical when I was developing my view  of scripture, and especially of the difficult passages:   Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? by Dr. Alden Thompson.   I generally find that Alden’s views are a bit more conservative than mine, and also that he is usually a bit more gentle in presenting them, which is not a bad thing.

I was Alden’s student at Walla Walla University, then just a college,  in the years before he first published the book, but we dealt with a number of the same issues in his classes. The book is now in its 4th edition, and I’m now the publisher as the sole owner of  Energion Publications.  There have been few changes through the editions, except for some adjustments of style and language. I find that new readers find it as relevant today as its first readers did in the early 1980s. Christians have struggled with these types of issues for a long time, and many have either been told not to question or have been given pat answers. Sometimes these answers are given as “offers you can’t refuse.” The attitude is “who are you to question God?” and thus if you don’t accept the explanation your faith is weak, or you may even be an infidel.

Alden takes these issues head on, and finds grace in the Old Testament where others find anger. He doesn’t tell you that you shouldn’t ask such impious questions.

He starts by suggesting that we need to see the Old Testament for itself (Don’t let your New Testament get in the way of your Old Testament), then puts the entire discussion in a Biblical context through discussion of creation and the fall. This is a fairly traditional chapter, and evangelical Christians should find themselves quite comfortable with this outline. He points to the “very good” of Genesis 1 and the “totally evil” of Genesis 6 showing the deterioration of humanity, and then asking how God is to deal with this state of rebellion. He uses the “great controversy” or “cosmic conflict” theme as a background. Some will want to get right to chapter 3, “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?” and here there is a unique view of the role of Satan in scripture.

Then he gets down to the meat of the problem, successively dealing with the apparently strange laws (Strange people need strange laws), relationships between Israel and the Canaanites (Could you invite a Canaanite home to lunch?), and then the worst story in the Old Testament, Judges 19-21. I’m not sure this is the worst story, but it is certainly an excellent example. Alden applies his approach to questions of why such a story is included in the Bible, why God would allow such things to take place among His people, and what it is that we are to learn from the story. If you haven’t read it, do so now, possibly even starting with Judges 17 (Micah’s Images). If you find it difficult to see God’s grace in action in those chapters, you might find it valuable to read Alden’s discussion–it might transform your view of Old Testament history.

From there Alden turns to “The best story in the Old Testament: The Messiah.” Here he discusses the Messianic prophecies and their application to the ministry of Jesus. Both conservatives and liberals will find some things to question here, because he neither affirms every Old Testament prophecy in the way that many conservative Christians would prefer, nor does he discard the notion of fulfilled prophecy. This chapter in itself is a worthwhile study for anyone who plans to discuss these Old Testament prophecies and their application.

Finally, he deals with the prayers in the Psalms. We tend to read the Psalms a bit selectively, sticking with thoroughly comforting passages. But what about Psalm 137:8-9? How comforting is that? Is such vengefulness Christian? He titles the chapter, “What kind of prayers would you publish if you were God?”

A common theme throughout the book, though it is not addressed head-on, is Biblical inspiration. Why are there things that are this difficult in the Bible if God is trying to communicate with us? How can we be sure of getting truth from the Bible. Alden doesn’t address Biblical inerrancy by that title, but he does look at the process of inspiration and how it works, and helps us find an anchor in the two laws (love God, love neighbor) as presented by Jesus to help us work our way through passages that are difficult to interpret.

I have thoroughly appreciated this book from the time I first read it. I have taught a number of classes using it. I have found that it consistenly is a faith building book. At the same time it is honest, and allows the reader to question and feel confident in doing so. I would especially recommend this to Christians who have never been able to enjoy reading the Hebrew scriptures. It will help you get comfortable reading those passages and letting them speak for themselves.

[I am editing and adapting this review from a post on my personal blog, reviewing the same book.]