The Dilemma of the Schizophrenic God

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A few weeks back, I commented on some difficult passages of the bible wherein we are told that God told the Israelites to slaughter all of a certain group of people for one reason or another. I have to be very, very honest. No matter what his sovereignty, I reject a genocidal god who goes back on his own word to his own people.

But, honestly, I don't think that is what the Bible portrays. I had to spend some time and ask myself, "How do I really deal with these passages without rejecting Biblical inerrancy?" My answer my be akin to verbal sleight-of-hand, I don't know, but it works for me.

Let me give the full answer. Most honestly, I largely used to deal with these passages by eliding them or pretending they don't exist. I still tend to avoid them because they provide a stumbling block, but as I considered the data and Church teaching, I think I've reached a conclusion that is viable.

What I say to myself in the course of these passages is that while the Holy Spirit inspired what was written, it was interpreted through faulty men and women who were desperately trying to understand God, but who had not yet had complete knowledge of God's revelation. These people interpreted events and actions and their understanding in such a way as we get these awkward passages--passages that hint at God's abiding love for at least one group of people, but which fail of the mark of true, all-encompassing love.

I go back to one of St. Thomas Aquinas's most persausive arguments (if I understand it properly) God is triparite, but uniate and simple. That is God is of one essense, there is nothing mixed in Him. Anger and malice do not blend with sympathy and love. When we say that God is Love, that is to say that God is entirely love--the essence of God is love. There is nothing about God that is not love. If God is love, God must be love for all people, not just for me. If I understand God ever to say that He hates anyone then I am just not hearing God, because God is simple, uniate, love. That God "hates" or rejects sin is entirely commensurate with love because sin rejects love, but that God "hates" a person is not commensurate with love, because a person is a creation of love.

So, when I hear someone say that "God hates homosexuals," I think I'm hearing a modern echo of part of the Old Testament. The rulers and leaders and military persons of Israel would naturally assume that God hated what was not Israel.

However, when we get to the prophets, while we still do not have the fullness of the revelation of Jesus Christ, we get far closer to the real message. Jonah is sent to the Ninevites--not a people of Israel, not one of the chosen race. Hosea writes to Israel, but reveals Gods tender and compassionate love, most particularly in chapter 11. Isaiah promises a savior to all of us, lion and lamb shall lie down together both literally and figuratively.

So, while I am an inerrantist, I am not, nor ever have been a literalist. There are faulty narrators and faulty hearing throughout the Old Testament.

Now, does this refute the fact that God may, indeed, choose to punish individuals? No. Entire nations? I am less certain--but I am absolutely certain that He would not do so through genocide. If we can bring ourselves to believe that, it is only a short step away to accepting abortion as a near-sacrament. Why would it be okay to slaughter women and children and yet we would be required to spare children in the womb? Obviously, it doesn't make sense. Nor does a God who, now or then, orders genocide to preserve racial purity (sounds frighteningly familiar, does it not?)

No, the way I see it is that the Biblical text is inerrant, but reading bits in isolation does not allow for the complete image of God. And the complete image of God MUST be simple, uniate, complete. God is love--it is impossible for Him now or ever to be anything other than love or to express anything less than love. It is not in His nature.

At least, this is how I talk my way around this extremely difficult passages. Maybe, as I said, a verbal sleight-of-hand. But I don't think so. I'll research it and come back some time soon if I arrive at any astounding conclusions or find anything that accepts or refutes the notions I have proposed above.

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This was helpful. I don't know how to take those passages, either, nor the Psalm ones that want God to smite our enemies. WE can understand that the enemies are our sins, but David had real enemies and I think he was referring to them.

You got me a few inches farther along to understanding this puzzle.

Interesting and thought-provoking. One thing I am curious about is this paragraph:

"Now, does this refute the fact that God may, indeed, choose to punish individuals? No. Entire nations? I am less certain--but I am absolutely certain that He would not do so through genocide. If we can bring ourselves to believe that, it is only a short step away to accepting abortion as a near-sacrament."

I've heard the argument that since nature is cruel, God must be cruel, and so we can be cruel. Abortion advocates say that because a third of embryos fail to plant, a third of babies in the womb are already killed, naturally, so what's the fuss?

But it doesn't follow that we can kill just because nature does. Nor does it follow that we kill just because God can. Nor does it even follow that God hates who he kills. In the NT he slays Ananias & his wife. That doesn't mean God doesn't love Ananias and his wife. Physical death is not metaphysical death. I believe God was sending a message to the church and that Ananias & wife are now in Heaven (as St. Augustine believed) and they are both GLAD God slayed them because they see the big picture now and they see they were of incredible use to the early Christian community.

It appears from the 09/15/05 New York Times report that the Vatican has initiated The Inquisition of the 21st century. I am ashamed to have been baptized a Catholic and, in good conscience, must renounce all association with the Holy See. The Pope has declared a "holy war" and the German Shepard's action legitimizes, and will lead to, the increased persecution and slaughter of gay and lesbian people. The Church is purging its sins of negligence by crucifying a scapegoat, a familiar story to every Christian and Jew. Has a Nazi risen to the Throne of St. Peter? History shows us how the tragedy will end - charred pink triangles scattered amongst the ashes. Others will surely perish too. All who do not speak out against inhumanity share the shame and the sin. Will no one stand up against this horror?
I am in a profound state of fear and despair.


If you're wondering what someone who studied theology would think, your thoughts are entirely in line with what Dei Verbum demands of a Catholic regarding what we are to believe about divine inspiration and the inerrancy of the scripture.

Underlying the entire text is the revelation of a God who loves us enough to die for us. Every word is directed to telling the story of this loving God's work in history.

But you are absolutely right. The divine inspiration is filtered through a human being who used human language with all its idioms and nuance to convey a message that the author, himself, may have felt was directed precisely to his or her own time, place, and culture.

Every word is divinely inspired, and every word is historically conditioned.

But taking the whole, we see a progressive revelation (and I don't use the word "progressive" because I define myself that way, but because the Vatican defines revelation that way).

As Saint Jerome put it, "Christ is hidden in the Old Testament, and what is hidden in the Old Testament is made plain in the New Testament."

We must interpret what God really was trying to say through the lens of Christ, or else it won't make sense to us. (I'm sure the Jews have a different opinion, but at least for us, it won't make sense apart from Christ).

Would the God revealed in Jesus seek to liberate me from oppression, or protect me from an unjust enemy, or lead me into a land flowing with milk and honey?

Sure he would.

But does the God revealed in Jesus really hate the oppressor, desire vengeance on the unjust enemy or want me to steal a land flowing with milk and honey from another?

No, he doesn't, and so I need to see these sorts of texts as have a double edge: the divinely inspired revelation of a God passionately in love with his people, but also a historically conditioned text written by a man who did not fully understand the very Being who was revealing herself to him, and who fumbled with words and even ideas to express the mystery of this God.

Is the text in error?

Not in the divinely inspired meaning - which is embedded in every word.

But when viewed solely in the light of the human author's mind and word-choice, yes it can have a sort of error - or, more precisely, express a limitted understanding.


Dear TSO,

You will note that I did not preclude the possibility of punishing individuals either on their own or for the message it may send. But metaphysical or physical death, I find it extremely difficult to fathom a God who says, "I cherish you as the apple of my eye. . . I love you and you are mine but these people over here are the chosen ones and so I'll send them in to slaughter you all in direct contradiction of my explicit commandments given them because we need to maintain ethnic purity, even if you all are really okay guys."

I'm not objecting to your points, but to the illogic of this view of God.



Dear Mr. Russell,

First thing I would suggest is don't trust a newspaper account of anything done by the VAtican, particularly not a New York Times account. It may very well prove to be true, but investigate carefully what it is the Church really did say.

Once done, then deliberately and calmly make whatever decision you need to in order to stay true to conscience. I pray that it is not so dire as you report here. But if so, you must not follow an order that is expressly against the will of God. Not even a pope can order you to an unjust war against people.

I'll be praying for you and I will look at this report. I hope that it is the usual media hysteria that accompanies any release of something not in conformity with present secular standards.

In the meantime, even if true, here's one Catholic who isn't participating. You will be welcome here.



Dear JCecil3,

Thank you. That was a delightfully coherent, succinct explanation and it really added to the discussion. I really appreciate it.



Your conclusions puzzle me. "So, while I am an inerrantist, I am not, nor ever have been a literalist. There are faulty narrators and faulty hearing throughout the Old Testament"
There are at least two logical, and at least one theological problems here. First, the Scripture cannot be inerrant if the narrators are faulty or the hearing is faulty. The definition of inerrancy is without error. Since the Scriptures are Records of events, the records themselves must be accepted as correct if they are cinsidered inerrant. Second, to be an inerrantist but not a literalist is problematic. Inerrancy must be applied, as stated above, to the elements of the text itself, and if that is true, the reader must be able to understand what the text means. If there are errors in the literal sense of scripture, but apparently not in some unliteral sense, the question could be posed, "How then, are we to interpret scripture so as to understand which meaning of it is inerrant?". All of this is directly linked to a theological difficulty, namely, that the church affirms the inerrancy of the Scriptures in four senses, one of which is the literal the others which derive from the literal. To be an inerrantist but not a literalist is inconsistent with Church authority.

I will offer a few observations. Firstly, two facts must be kept in mind as we read these Old Testament passages. 1. God is merciful. 2. God is just. If God ordered the destruction of these peoples it was just because God cannot be unjust. It was merciful because God is love. These are not easy answers, but the fundamental realities of God's nature must trump our somatic, emotional response. Consider this. God would not have destroyed them if there was any hope of their conversion. The children, rather than growing up to share in the evil of their parents, were killed in their innocence and I believe went to heaven. Third, We do not see the big picture. A parent has to hurt a child to help it, whether spanking them or letting them get a shot. the child has to hurt for its betterment. As parents see the big picture better than the hurting child, so God sees the big picture beyond our understanding. That evil can be a good in ways we do not understand. Remember that God's justce is executing an innocent man on a cross for the guilty. His ways are not ours.

Dear Mr. Aftholter,

Let me take just one point.

"First, the Scripture cannot be inerrant if the narrators are faulty or the hearing is faulty. The definition of inerrancy is without error. Since the Scriptures are Records of events, the records themselves must be accepted as correct if they are cinsidered inerrant."

So, if I demonstrate that one date is off by a year, the inerrancy of scripture collapses? I do not think it so fragile a thing as all that. The inerrancy of scripture is with reference to its revelation of the fullness of God's message. Where there are things patently in contradiction to that message, as are these passages, one must look to the human intervention and understanding of God at the time. No one verse of scripture is meant to be read alone. Inerrancy refers to the body of work as regards Gods ultimate revelation--Jesus Christ.

Do you really believe that God who gave us Jesus Christ ordered the slaughter of children? Then why is it not done today. If God ordered it, then it must be okay to do it, correct? Why has it suddenly changed. We can't claim the imposition of the commandments as that occurred before the order. So suddenly, we have a God who is not the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He changes His hat to suit His mood. If so, how can we be certain that the god worshipped by those who blow up innocent people is not this season's God?

I think the answer lies in the fact that God is changeless, and being changeless, it is beyond the realm of probability that He countermanded his own commandments to slaughter children.

I won't press the point further because we will most probably never see eye to eye on this. But I would rather see that the human time and factor subtly altered the language, than that God once countenanced the "slaugher in love" of His Children. Where do our arguments against unjust war go? How do we defend the weak and elderly from the gentle ministrations of those who would lovingly euthanize them?

God is changeless. Ever and always the same, every and always just, merciful, and loving. Ever and always inviting the sinner to repent and leading him in that way. The God of Jesus Christ does not countenance the slaughter of children because they could grow up in "evil ways." Equally they could, like the Ninevites, hear his voice and repent.



I would question the description of the scriptures as a "record of events". Surely they are a record of the Truth of God's relationship with us?

That Truth does not depend on historical accuracy.

Look, for example, at the story of Noah, which contains internal contradictions, or the story of Jonah, which most scholars agree is metaphorical. Whether one believes they occurred as written is independent of the lessons they teach, the Truth about God that they reveal.

Scripture is made up of many genres of literature: history, allegory, adventure, romance, poetry, erotica. Even the history is not recording, per se, but retelling. The writer records the story he heard that might have been retold for generations, and honed to deliver a certain Truth, of which God alone is the author.

I think it is very dangerous to consider Scripture the way one would a rule book, such as the Catechism. That's not really the function of Scripture, in my opinion.

Okay, so I completely ignored the ethnic cleasning aspect of your post. You got me. We commenters love to skirt the red flag of the matador's cape.

That is a difficult issue, but my point remains: God is less impressed by length of life than we are. We are focused on it like a laser beam and I think that is an example of humans thinking like humans ("your thoughts are not my thoughts"). But I'm still digressing. Okay so I'll cry uncle. I don't get it either. Give me a few minutes though and I'll get back to you.

Still cogitating. Have your people call my people.

Yes, these are troubling, even horrible passages - and that's just what they form, a passage we must pass through. I have no answers, other than to say that I'm not convinced God would not have commanded such a thing. Beyond that, I've got nothing - James Barr's discussion in that, (Bibiliccal Faith and Natural Theology? something like that, his Gifford Lectures) took me aback and I haven't figured out what to do. That and David Hart's work.

As for the enemies and their little ones being dashed against stones in the Psalms, I suggest that we can pray them because, well, we do have hatred and anger in our hearts, and there's no guarantee that God will in fact do just that - we pray 'em to be honest, to face who and what we are. Our God sorts it all out. Perhaps I'm an exception, but I actually do want my enemies' brains blown out - there's no use hiding that from God, and I'm assured he will do with my prayers whatever he sees fit to do.

How's that for unhelpful? Peace.


If I were to say to a twenty-first century American that it is raining cats and dogs outside, nobody would suspect that I literally mean that animals are falling from the sky!

When the Church teaches that there is a literal sense to scripture, the literal sense does not mean taking words at face value as we interpret them today. It means that we are to understand the literal sense according to the mind of the author in his time, place, language and culture.

As far as dates, almost all Biblical scholars in the Catholic Church, the mainline Protestants, many Evangelical Protestants, and the Orthodox agree that people in the ancient world did not tell history the way we do today. They siomply were not concerned with the details (like exact dates or exact number of troops, etc...).

In the ancient world, the historian did not have his work vetted for factual accuracy, and nobody cared whether his facts were correct at all!

The way the ancient historian saw his task was to tell the MEANING of events, rather record the facts. Indeed, the historian who could make the meaning clearer by playing a bit fast and loose with the facts was ADMIRED, rather than dismissed as a fabricator and fraud.

Thus, if the perceived underdog won a battle, the historian who said ten men won a battle against a hundred thousand by the help of the gods, that historian was admired more than the historian who simply reported the facts. The facts may have been that it was 100 men fighting 150, and there were no gods involved, but that's not a great story.

This is difficult for us Americans to understand, and when we speak of inerrancy, Catholics and certain strains of Protestants mean two different things.

Catholics mean that the MEANING the author intended to convey is innerant. Thus, whether Moses led 600,000 slaves out of Egypt or 60, the MEANING is that God is a liberator of the oppressed, as the author intended to convey.

Certain strands of Ptoestanism, by contrast, reject the notion that other times and cultures might have expressed truth differently than we do. Thus, if the text says Moses led 600,000 slaves out of Egypt, it is a denial of faith to suggest this isn't exactly what occurred. Nevermind that if you lined up 600,000 people the way Exodus describes it, you'd have a chain of people stretched from Gaza to modern day Cairo. Faith must supercede any rational exploration that denies a literal innerancy.

Steven - as I indicated earlier, your view meets the demands of what the Catholic Church teaches. It does not meet what some Protestants mean by innerrancy, but it IS the Catholic view.




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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 16, 2005 9:21 AM.

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