I have very much enjoyed engaging the comments of those who have remarked on my post from yesterday, “What Kind of God Do You Believe In? An OT Perspective.” They have led me to think further on this issue. It goes without saying that a vital component (THE COMPONENT!) of the Christian faith is belief in Jesus as the Christ. But again I ask, how is one to negotiate this perspective while still honoring the Hebrew Bible? Moreover, what is the connection between Jesus and God against this backdrop? Terry Fretheim posits an answer that I think rings quite true and needs to be taken quite seriously:
“The preaching and teaching of the church have commonly been so focused on a certain portrait of Jesus that many of the biblical imags for God have been neglected, and stereotypical images have been allowed to stand unchallenged. It is almost as if faith in Jesus were thought to take care of the picture of God automatically; thus, one need pay no special heed to it. But this assumption has commonly created inner tensions for the faithful, perhaps even intolerable tensions; for the picture of Jesus presented often stands at odds with the commonly accepted picture of God. Attributes such as love, compassion, and mercy, accompanied by acts of healing, forgiving, and redeeming tend to become narrowly associated with Jesus, while the less palatable attributes and actions of holiness, wrath, power, and justice are ascribed only to God. What tends to fill the mind is God as Giver of the Law and Judge of all the earth. If God is not the cause of all the ills in the world, God is still seen as the one who is to blame for not really doing anything about them. It is the goodness of God that is ignored, not the goodness of Jesus . . . . People often seem to have a view which suggests that Jesus is friend and God is enemy. An understanding of the atonement gets twisted so that Jesus is seen as the one who came to save us from God” (Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 2).
Fretheim is spot on here. It is this neo-Marcionite tendency that still pervades some scholarship and many’s reading of the Bible, unfortunately.
Fretheim continues, making an especially poignant point:
“When this influence [of the Christian creeds] is combined with a common tendency to ignore the reading of OT lessons, and an absence of regular preaching on OT texts, people tend to continue with their stereotypical images of God, which become even more deep-seated in the process. Such perspectuves regarding God and the relationship between God and Jesus, even if exemplified in nothing more than a tendency in language and thought, have probably commonly led to a kind of ‘Jesusology,’ in both naive and more sophisticated forms. God remains at a distance as someone to be feared, while Jesus lives tenderly in one’s heart. Or, when combined with an idea that God is really unknowable, one is led to a notion that Jesus is finally all we have, and commonly only in a very human form: Jesus, not Jesus Christ. A very close correlation bcan be seen between the idea of a God who is ‘wholly other,’ totally removed from the world, and ‘God is dead’ proclamations, whether the last phrase be understood literally or figuratively. This tendency is reinforced by secularistic trends which have made the activity of God in the world problematic, while Jesus continues to be seen as an actual historical figure; hence one can talk about his spirit living on in the hearts of the faithful with less difficulty” (Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 3).
I have said it before and I will hazard to say it again: preconceived notions about who God is are ultimately unhelpful if they are not supported by the biblical text. To dismiss a portrait of God simply because it is problematic by our modern sensibilities and mores is not only presumptuous, it also fails to take into account the witness of that which should . . . . indeed, must! . . . . serve as the basis for theology: the biblical text. Any good, responsibile theology must be grounded in the text.
And on the matter of God and Jesus: I have made it clear I don’t always think God is a nice guy (see the post below). But I would like to raise two points here:
1) While God is no doubt an unpredictable and scandalous character in the biblical text, the OT also points to a God that is utterly loving and compassioniate. Think of the covenant with creation. With Noah. With Abraham. With Israel. Think of the countless instances in the prophets where YHWH employs the metaphor of a spurned husband in relation to wife Israel. If there is one thing that becomes patently clear by the end of the OT (whether you read it as the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible!), it is that God feels–despite the near incessant failings of Israel–that this people of the promise should continue. On that point I will not waver. God in the OT, as the ultimate paradox I have described him as being, is both wrathful AND loving. And . . . .
2) I don’t think Jesus was always a nice guy. In my undergrad I worked with Richard Swanson, one of the pioneers in what has now come to be known as performance criticism. Put simply, we would embody . . . . physically act out and stage biblical stories as a means of interpretation. It added a whole other dimension. Voice inflection and tone, pace, gestures, setting, etc. Every minute detail became important. And it is here that I realized Jesus is an equally difficult figure at times. Is his chastisement to those in the house when the woman comes and wipes his feet with her hair to be read in a stoic, plaintive, or even monotone way? Hardly! When we acted this scene out (I was Jesus!), we decided the best way to embody it was to have Jesus move very quickly from a perturbed tone to outright screaming, the elevation in volume matching his rise from the table. I also highly doubt Jesus uttered his “end of days” prophecies in the later chapters of Matthew in a happy-go-lucky way. And what about Matt 15:21-29 (Jesus and the Canaanite woman). He essentially refuses to heal the woman’s sick child, calls her a dog (or as a colleague of mine has put it, the equivalent derogatory title for a female dog) and dismisses her. I once watched Swanson’s team embody this scene. In one setting Jesus’ retort to the woman, calling her a dog, is met with a hard slap to his face. An audience member asked what it would look like if the role were reversed. So the scene was rewound and this time Jesus slapped the woman. It was a powerful image. I don’t mean to imply this is how it went down, assuming historicity of the story, but that these interpretive possibilities and ambiguiuties exist also very much for Jesus.
I simply don’t get the God of wrath/God of love distinction. Both Jesus and God, I would argue, have their moments of both.