God’s Character in Reverse

Welcome.  We are in a little discussion series on whether or not Christians should be involved in violence for any reason.  I’m assuming that most Christians believe that unprovoked violence is wrong, so we will be spending most our time thinking about national violence (military), self-defensive violence (fighting or killing only when your own life is in jeopardy), and protective violence (done to protect another person).

It is a discussion that, apparently, is controversial for many people, especially Christians.

pacifism1Which, I admit, is kind of strange to me.  I obviously expect that many Christians are pro-national violence (at least as it relates to their own country), however it somewhat surprises me that these people are so vehemently opposed to the suggestion that Christ calls us to a life of non-violence.  I understand the general disagreement.  But, were I just to read the Gospels (the story of Jesus), I would assume the controversial issue would be that any Christian might actually think that violence of any kind was okay.

All that to say, from everything we know about Jesus, it seems weird to me that the non-violent position is in the minority, at least in Western Christianity.  But, I suppose that is why we are having this discussion in the first place.  And as Memorial Day approaches, it is a good time for us to think through these issues more fully.

Now there are many Scriptures that are debated and scrutinized in this dialogue, and we will be looking at these texts over the next several days.  Many of these surround God’s involvement in the nation of Israel’s military violence in the Old Testament.   Also, there are many philosophical challenges to Jesus’ way of non-violence that are often mentioned and we will deal with those as well.

However, I’d like to have us start by laying a foundation for all of this discussion somewhere else, before we dig into the rest of the arguments.  So, put aside all of this anxiously awaited fodder and lets begin somewhere more broadly.

In this post, then, I’d like us to look at where we gather our primary pictures and assumptions of God’s character.  In other words, what is our main source for knowing what God is actually like?

Youth pastors, preachers, and well-meaning leaders have told me since I was very little that I get to know who God is best through the Bible.  And while I have found this to be quite true, I have also found that it was not quite specific enough.  Through the Bible, God gives his very specific direction on how to know who He is and what He is like.

Let’s take a look at this direction:

reading-bible-blueIn Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”  (Colossians 2:9-10)

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  (John 14:9)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)

“No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only (Jesus), who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:18)

In other words, God says, “you want to know who I am and what I am like?  Okay, here I am.  I am exactly like this.  Like Jesus.”   He even goes so far as to say that Jesus has made God known, as if until Jesus we didn’t fully know who God was.  Apparently, as good as the stories in the Old Testament are, they didn’t reveal God adequately.

Only the Incarnate Son is an appropriate full-picture of God.

The writer of Hebrews (whoever she was) put it most directly like this:

1In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.  (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Did you catch that?  (I hope so; I underlined it and made it bold).  Jesus is the EXACT REPRESENTATION of God’s being.  Nothing defines God like Jesus.  He is not an approximate picture of God, or just one side or facet of God.  He is not the non-violent side of an otherwise “just war” God.  He is the EXACT REPRESENTATION.

hagia_sophia_vestibule_christ_mosaicNow, because Jesus is the fullest picture of God, when it comes to the Bible, I am compelled to read everything through the eyes of Jesus.   As this applies to our discussion at hand, it means that I must fit any violent stories of the Old Testament (which are problematic) into what I know of Jesus as revealed in the New Testament, not the other way around.

For instance, many people read stories in the Old Testament and glean what they perceive are “attributes” or “characteristics” of God from these stories and then apply them to their picture of Jesus.   In this case, since God involves himself in the violent battles of the Israelites, then we assume that this “necessary violence” is something Jesus would condone (even if it apparently includes mass infanticide and genocide).

However, when God directs us to know Him through Jesus most perfectly, we are called to learn His character backwards.  We learn what God is like by observing and studying Jesus and then read backward through the Old Testament through His lens.

Whatever these violent stories may mean (some are more confusing than others), through the primacy of Christ we regard them as an incomplete and inadequate picture.  Where they contradict what we see in Jesus (war, genocide, even self-defensive violence), we embrace Jesus’ way as the EXACT REPRESENTATION of God, and find some other way to make sense of them.

Interestingly, I believe this is why Jesus’ time on this earth was so long.   Certainly the death of Jesus was important in freeing us from the bondage of our brokenness, but his life was equally as important.  For in his life, and ultimately in his self-sacrificial manner of death (the final exclamation point to how we should respond to violence), God demonstrates his character and what he desires.  He lives and interacts with people and finally dies non-violent in the face of violence to show THE EXACT REPRESENTATION of God.

The problem of violence in the Old Testament is admittedly uncomfortable, but however these scenes are explained, as followers of Christ we are compelled to not use them to create pictures of God that are contradictory to what we plainly see in Jesus.

Ok.  That’s enough for today.  We’ll jump into some more tangible parts of the discussion in the next post.

Happy Thinking…

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11 thoughts on “God’s Character in Reverse

  1. I’m assuming that most Christians believe that unprovoked violence is wrong, so we will be spending most our time thinking about national violence (military), self-defensive violence (fighting or killing only when your own life is in jeopardy), and protective violence (done to protect another person).

    I wish you’d followed up on the protective violence bit, it’s a question I once tackled myself: http://alamanach.com/2008/07/16/the-dispensation-of-suffering/ Perhaps you will discuss it in a later post? I hope so.

  2. Great series, Nick. Looking forward to see what else you have to say.

    I disagree with the idea of working backwards to find the character of God, because you presume that God’s full character was presented in the New Testament alone. I think it’s obvious *because* of the dichotomy between the testaments on topics such as violence that the entirety of scripture must be used to determine the character of God.

    The directive “to know Him through Jesus most perfectly” means to incorporate the character of Jesus into our understanding of God in an additive, not substitutive, sense. Jesus did not change the nature of God; He emphasized an already existing (and revealed) nature.

    I think it is a dangerous fallacy to look at parts of scripture and say, “That doesn’t fit in to my understanding of God, so it must be wrong or unimportant.” God is who He is and has done what He has done, regardless of how it contradicts our feelings of what He should be like.

    Looking at God through the window of the New Testament is a valuable tool, but remember that it’s just a window, not the entire landscape. When you define the dimensions of the window (as through your own biases and imperfect understanding), you can make the landscape look like whatever you want.

    • Thanks for the great comment, Jason!

      I think I agree with you, at least mostly, and maybe this is a good point of clarification that you bring up.

      I am NOT saying that the “rest of the bible” has nothing to say about the character of God or that there isn’t value in getting to “know” God through other parts of Scripture, such as the Old Testament. I am also not suggesting that we throw out these more problematic texts that are in the Old Testament (as some people have endorsed). I am not trying to communicate that we get a “feeling” for Jesus in the New Testament and then try to pretend that these atrocities didn’t occur. As you say, “God…has done what he has done.” We do not have the luxury to just wipe it away.

      However, what I am saying is that we must START with Jesus as God’s full expression of who He is and then read the rest with this point of reference. Jesus is not the “additive” to our understanding of God. Jesus is the FULL EXPRESSION. The rest of Scripture is the additive. I can learn about God in all of Scripture, but ultimately God has chosen to be seen perfectly in Jesus.

      If there are seeming contradictions between what we read in the Old Testament and the non-violent Jesus we see in the New Testament, we are called to attribute the fullest revelation of God as being found in Jesus. We realize that the whole book is about Christ. And as we hold onto and wrestle with these difficult OT texts, we remain open to how they fit into the full revelation of God–Jesus. Perhaps there are things at play that at first glance we don’t realize or intentions that we do not fully understand. Perhaps God involves himself in violence because it is the way of humankind and he is willing to begin his relationship with them on their terms, by getting his hands dirty, even if it is not his preference. But, alas, we are getting into another post…

      At any rate, the task at hand for us today is to make sense of the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus. Not the other way around. You are right in saying that we cannot just “do away with” these troubling accounts. But reading the entire Bible through the primacy of Christ is what Christians do. It is how Jesus himself read Scripture; with himself as its focal point.

      Interestingly though, I believe that these texts are difficult and uncomfortable to explain for both those committed to non-violence and those who–to whatever extent–embrace violence as necessary. Most Christians that I know that accept violence as acceptable for self-defense, for protection of another, or in military conflict, still are hesitant to make sense of a God that seems to go way outside those parameters to endorse mass genocide and infanticide in the Old Testament. In this regard, I feel that “starting with Jesus” actually helps provide a better way of understanding these difficult texts. Not tossing them out, but helping find their place.

      In reference to my own personal biases and creating a “window” of understanding that is subjective to them, I am of course guilty. And so are you. All of us bring our baggage, history, and understanding to bear on Scripture. We cannot help it. I do, however, do my best to lay these things down and be as objective as I can.

      But, interestingly enough, in this case I find myself at odds with what my natural “window” is to see. Personally, I would much prefer to smack people in the mouth and send people to war. This idea of non-violence is a difficult struggle for me. It is not what I would consider my “native lens”. Every day I wrestle with how to be non-violent not only in my actions, but in my words and thoughts. In this way, it is a bit ironic that I am it’s spokesman. 🙂

      But, despite my natural “window” I cannot personally escape the picture of Jesus that comes to offer a kingdom “not of this world.” I cannot deny that he lived a life that was marked by bringing “power-under” people rather than exerting the world’s violent manner of “power-over” people. And in his death, I am clueless to contradict that this “power-under” is indeed more powerful than “power-over” could ever be; even when initially it seems that it is not.

      Anyway, that turned into something long enough for a whole other post!

      Thanks for your comments, Jason. I appreciate your thoughts and the chance to clarify a bit about what I meant. I hope you guys are doing well! I miss Southern Oregon… well, I miss the sunshine most, I think!

      Have a great day!

  3. In Rom. 11, Paul was anticipating that the New Testament God, Jesus, would come in fulfillment of Isa. 59. Isa. 59 concerned Jesus putting on the garments of vengeance and staining them with the blood of the Jews as He would come against them in judgment for shedding the blood of the prophets. In Mat. 23, Jesus said that this judgment would befall His generation.
    Nick, do you think Jesus put on the garments of vengeance and trampled His people in 70 AD or do you think this coming of the Lord, as anticipated in Rom. 11, is yet in our future?
    Either way, it sounds like its going to be a violent event. 🙂

  4. I’ve been surprised too by the apparent bent towards “just violence,” war or otherwise, in mainstream Christianity (and lets not get started on what mainstream Christianity is). I think a piece of the problem is our cultural perspective. Rob Bell points out in his most recent book (and I’m sure others have as well) that Jesus was a Jew, living in the middle east, and executed by an occupying super power who preached peace through conquest. The similarities between Rome and the empire we enjoy living in are striking and the more I learn about Jesus’ way of living, the less comfortable I am with our national policy towards violence.

    I’m looking forward to reading the following posts and the comments of the people who follow your blog. I have a feeling your comments will drum up quite a discussion of divergent views.

  5. I am neither scholarly or wise . but I am retired military.
    Thanks Ben for expressing the bottom line, cultural perspective.
    I often told and consoled myself and actions with trust in the Lord to sort out that which is hidden from me in understanding the hearts of others and what fates have placed me at the crossroads of another’s perceived destination.
    Violence in any form is not something to support however in the fluid application of social mores and for this forum the christian gospel I do not find controversy or contradiction in accepting the application of violence. Perhaps it is the word violence which in itself makes us immediately want to deny any action associated with it.
    No christian church would support abusive intentions however any person even in the un-churched would support defense of property and protection of family.
    I think maybe this subject line may be confusing inasmuch the key word of violence is used to approach (I assume United States) national and personal defense and protection.
    While ultimate results in loss of life and property are realistic and historical in defending it is a fact that nation and state do not condone violence however they protect peace through force(s). Nations, christians, and family mann and train for defense through protective postures vigilante that escalation of force may be necessary. However I beleive gospel supports and know my nation trains not to be the first responder. To clarify that I am saying we are not the first person escalating with one exception and I would believe that would be for the defense and growth of chrisitanity and then those initiating actions are inline with good old evangelical practices as understood in the western world.

    • “However I beleive gospel supports and know my nation trains not to be the first responder. To clarify that I am saying we are not the first person escalating with one exception and I would believe that would be for the defense and growth of chrisitanity and then those initiating actions are inline with good old evangelical practices as understood in the western world.”

      Do I understand you to say that the Bible teaches, as well as US national policy, that people should not be the provokers in violent acts? Are you then saying that violence to protect the expansion of Christianity is acceptable? Please tell me you are being sarcastic.

      • I’ve been really eixcted to see PV’s mentality change just in the past year from bringing people INTO the church, to encouraging the church to go OUT. This year for Christmas, rather than doing the same Christmas program its done for over a decade, we’ve themed this Christmas Christmas to GO (picture a chinese to-go box as the image . Everyone in the Northland who has ever wnted to see The Singing Christmas Tree has come to PV to see it EXCEPT those who are homeless or in prison. So where are we taking the message of Christ? To the homeless and to prisons. I’m pretty eixcted about this I think this is one small way we see the Kingdom of God expanding in a real, and practical way.

  6. I dont fully understand all this, but Im intrested in what the character of God is. Is there anyone out there that can help me. Or is there more to this than just a simple answer?

    Lance Johnson

  7. Hey, John:

    Thanks for the comment. I’m not sure I completely understand everything you are asking, but to clarify at least this point, I am saying that I believe the life of Jesus clearly teaches that we should not only NOT be provokers in violent acts but that we shouldn’t respond to violence with violence either.

    I have no idea what US foreign policy is or should be in this regard, but I do not view US policy and the message of Jesus to be the same thing anyway.

    In this way, it may be okay for the USA to be an initiator of violence or a responder to violence with violence, by its own laws and rules. But, it may still be against the Kingdom message of Jesus for his followers to participate in that action.

  8. Lance:

    Thanks for your response and actually your very excellent question.

    What we are discussing in this thread is assuming that God exists, but is asking the question: “What is that God really like?” Or what type of Character is he?

    In the case of this topic (violence & war), many people have suggested that God is okay with or even sometimes that he prescribes and empowers war. Obviously, the level of God’s involvement with war & violence suggests something about his character or what type of God he is.

    In this series of blogs, I am arguing that God takes no pleasure in war and that no matter how justified people imagine themselves to be in doing violence to others that God does not endorse their efforts to find such justification. Whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or any other religion that claims to have God on its side in their wars, my contention is that God is not truly on the side of any one (or group) that engages in violence.

    My belief is that God works to solve the dilemma of the human condition through self-sacrificial love rather than through self-promoting violence. This sacrificial love is the defining characteristic of what God is like and we see that clearly in Jesus.

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