The Textual God and the Actual God? Reflecting on an Aspect of Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior

Recently I have been working through various parts of Eric Seibert’s brand new volume, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God.  This issue–which long-time readers of this blog will know is of keen interest to me as it pertains in a way to my dissertation project–seems to have become quite prominent in scholarship recently.  Seiberts is among the most recent treatment.  I was excited about the title of the book.  Methodologically, though, I am disappointed.

Seibert’s main contention is that one may–nay, must–distinguish between the “textual God” and the “actual God.”  For Seibert, the OT images of God are not divine portrayals but rather human  depictions of the divine which “both reveal and distort God’s character” (170).  God, therefore, did not say and do everything the Bible says God did.  Fair enough.  I’ll follow. 

How then does one adjudicate what is and is not the true (and I hesitate to use that word) portrayal of God in the text?  How does one distinguish the “testual God” from the “actual God”?  Seibert proposes a Christocentric hermeneutic.  He writes:

“I wil argue that the God Jesus reveals should be the standard, or measuring rod, by which all Old Testament portrayals of God are evaluated.  Old Testament portrayals that correspond to the God Jesus reveals should be regarded as trustworthy and reliable reflections of God’s character, while those that do not measure up should be regarded as distortions.  Using a christocentric hermeneutic in this way employs a principled approach to determining the degree of correspodnence between the textual God and the actual God that keeps us from simply making choices based on our own preferences” (185).

This hermeneutic is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it relegates these problematic images of God to utter meaningless and drains them of any theological import.  Nevermind history . . . the theological ramifications of these portrayals evaporate as well.  I will not here engage in a thorough, systematic refutation of Seibert’s proposal; I hope the difficulty is patent as it stands.  But I would like to raise a few questions that I think press the issue in an important way:

1) What makes the NT and/or its portrayal of Jesus ‘infallible’ and more reliable than what we have in the Hebrew Bible?  Could one not advance just as well the possibility (likelihood?) that the NT is shaped in a highly theological and intentional way, often in line with and as a reflection of Israel’s Scriptures, and that it also may be prone to the same difficulties of differentiating “textul” vs “actual.”

2) To piggy-back off #1, who is the “textual” and who is the “actual” Jesus?  To clarify, I think it is quite clear from the gospels that Jesus’ character also should not be whitewashed.  What about Matt 15 and its parallels, where Jesus calls a woman seeking healing for her sick child the French equivalent of a ‘female dog’?  Even if you want to advance the idea that Jesus is testing the woman (a reading I find terribly wanting, especially in Matthew) then you still have to wrestle with Jesus’ harsh rhetoric.  There are other examples I could offer . . . many stem from my past work in Performance Criticism, where along with a group we embodied, staged, and acted out various texts and even the entirety of Matthew.  Every decision, from clothing to facial expression to tone and intonation became decisions loaded with interpretive import.  I came to the conclusion here that Jesus probably yelled sometimes too.  He should hardly be whitewashed himself.  So, is there a textual Jesus and an actual Jesus?

3) I am troubled by Seibert’s use of the phrase “measuring rod” in the quotation cited above.  My difficulty resides namely in what this language evokes.  The Greek word kanon, meaning precisely that–measure, rod, reed–is where we get the word “canon.”  I do not wish to imply Seibert intends this, though he may, but saying Jesus’ revelation of God should be the “measuring rod” may just as well be put that Jesus’ revelation of God is the canon.  I can’t make that move.

4) Lastly, Seibert tackles perhaps my biggest worry head-on: Marcionism.  He seeks to distance himself from what Marcion did in the following way:

“I want to draw a clear distinction between what I am doing and what Marcion did centuries earlier. Rather than rejecting the Old Testament, I have proposed an interpretive appraoch that can help us evaluate the appropriateness of various portrayals of God in the Old Testament.  Since some Old Testament portrayals of God do not accurately reflect God’s character, these particular portrayals should not be used to determine our beliefs about what God is really like.  This is consistent with the way Jesus used various images of God in the ‘Old Testament.’  Although Old Testament texts were obviously very important to Jesus–he quoted from them and referred to them on numerous occasions–he did not embrace every portrayal of God contained in them.  Instead, he endorsed some and rejected others.  Like Jesus, we too can reject certain portrayals of God without consequently rejecting the Old Testament.  Just because we find some portrayals of God problematic, we should not repeat the mistake of Marcion.  Marcion treated the Old Testament as though it came from one cloth, so to speak, equally bad and problematic from start to finish.  In doing so, he robbed himself of many valuable and unobjectionable insights that can be derived from the pages of the Old Testament.  Moreover, by failing to appreciate the rich diversity of the Old Testament, Marcion lost the opportunity to hear the Old Testament’s own critique of certain problematic portrayals of God” (211).

I see the difference, and I agree Seibert is not advocating a jettisoning of the entire OT.  He is, however, jettisoning much of it that is not consistent with the NT.  There is no place for tension in Seibert’s understanding of things.  What’s more, there is no place for recognizing the “rich diversity” of the OT of which Seibert writes above.  His explanation here distances him from Marcion, yes, but I am still reticent to say it justifies his approach, which at least, latently, seems to have neo-Marcionite underpinnings.


(For other reflections that may inform your reading of this post, see HERE and HERE)


15 thoughts on “The Textual God and the Actual God? Reflecting on an Aspect of Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    Perhaps our understanding of Jesus should be measured by the first record of covenant. This was the way the NT authors proceeded – not at all the other way round. You might enjoy Jesus and Yahweh by Harold Bloom for analyses of the characters of each. Here’s a line from the book (several more on my blog under ‘Harold Bloom’)

    Yahweh is person and a personality – Divine Man. Jesus is theomorphic in ways that transcend the subtle complexities of his predecessors.

  2. Mike Koke says:

    Very interesting John. It seems to me that Seibert’s method has some theological legitimacy in that, for Christians, God is fully revealed in Jesus incarnation in a way that He had not previously before and therefore the crucified God could be the standard by which we judge all of the diverse biblical portrayals. But then do we need to be consistent and apply this same standard to violent imagery in the New Testament as well, such as the wrathful image of Christ in Revelation. Does that mean we should go all the way with someone like Walter Wink and argue that the deity is inherently non-violent (with violent images as distortions)? Or do we hold the different biblical images of God in tension and always let the violence trouble us?

  3. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    Seibert’s thesis aside, I would like to press you on the same issue: how does one navigate the portraits of God in the Hebrew Bible for a church context? Sadly, based on your quotes, this context appears to be what governs Seibert’s trite christocentric hermeneutic. (BTW – is this point his primary contribution? If so, it’s not very original, is it?) Regarding your own thesis, however, there are certain readers even at Baylor that would no doubt want to know how you plan to bridge the context from the textual divine trickster to the contemporary God of faith.

    Me? Well, I feel no compunction in skirting this issue, as I feel it is a misgiven conflation of Religionsgeschichte and contemporary religious imagination. As much as some scholars, pastors, laypeople, etc. would like to have unmediated knowledge of God’s character and being, it simply isn’t within the realm of philosophical possibility. Consequently, whether one picks a christocentric or a torah-centric (or whatever other “-centric” one can imagine) paradigm, arbitrariness — or in Seibert’s words “choices based on our own preferences” — is inescapable.

    Moreover, at the risk of sounding reductionistic, I find it rather ironic that so many Christians feel the need to resolve these issues to begin with, to have actual “knowledge” of God’s being and character. (Seibert’s paradigm, after all, merely appropriates the Jesus-es of the NT to accomplish this resolution, Jesus being [ontologically?] closer to God and all.) For me, the embrace of the unknowable is intrinsic to faith being “faith” instead of “knowledge.” Yet so many “Christians” are uncomfortable with this level of ambiguity. Instead, for many faith is exactly the opposite: a personal “knowledge” of all that God is through Jesus Christ and the Bible.

  4. John Anderson says:

    Mike: Consistent application of the method would only be fair and strengthen his case, I would think.

    Roy: Briefly . . .
    -This is the main contribution the volume is seeking to make, though he takes a long while to get there. It is a careful study in that he outlines very clearly the problem as he sees it, but I remain unconvinced of his overall method.
    -On bridging the gap, I would ask first why it is that the Bible is not the base from which the God of faith would/should emerge.
    -Interesting and thoughtful points on “knowing” vs “faith.” I tend to agree.
    -I also don’t think it is our job to explain away these difficult portrayals but rather to wrestle with them theologically. Knowing my work as you do, I trust you are aware of my interest in this area. In a way, there is no ‘bridging’ to do; so as not to run into pick-and-choose theology, the biblical text ought to be the necessary starting point (and control for?) doing theology.

  5. Jason says:

    Excellent review, John. The title also caught my attention when I first saw it on your sidebar some time ago. I completely agree with your assessment of the whitewashing of Jesus. The whole “Jesus is my boyfriend” perspective annoys me, to say the least. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve struggled with many of the depictions of God in the bible, especially in the HB, and as I’ve mentioned before, your posts have been a sort of “spur in the flank” to help me understand these issues better. It’s interesting how quickly we (Christians) sometimes jettison the OT as irrelevant, yet fail to fully see the NT as often equally as troubling to our modern sensibilities. Better stop here or I will have start a post of my own!

    • John Anderson says:

      Thanks, Jason. I very much appreciate your kind words on this post, but even more so your remarks about how I have helped you understand or at least think about these issues more productively. That seems to be a wholly worthwhile task to me!

      “Jesus is my boyfriend” <—that made me laugh.

  6. Jason says:

    John: You’re welcome. I always look forward to your posts because they are thoughtful and provocative (in the good sense). I wish I could take credit for “Jesus is my boyfriend,” but alas, I heard it somewhere else first!

  7. mike says:

    this is a good conversation. before you mentioned your second numerical criticism above, i was already thinking about Jesus’ portrayal in the gospels. his words are often harsh, his temper often seems hot, his rebukes can be quite forthright, and his humanity – including emotions – is obvious. throw the apocalypse into the discussion, and any arguments that Jesus is drastically different than HB portrayals of God seem to be at least open to discussion, if not questionable.

    some of his arguments seem not too far away from those used to support the impassibility of God, i.e. the long-standing doctrine that all emotions shown by God in the bible are communications of condescension for humans to grasp an infinite God.

  8. robgreid says:

    Excellent discussion John. Within your first several paragraphs, I was gripped by the implausibility of his Christocentric hermeneutic, as you were. As a budding NT scholar, I view this as terribly anachronistic for one, not to mention the fact that it flies in the face of diachronic evolution within Israelite religion… That is to say, (a) it fails to adquately deal with the Hebrew Bible as such, (b) it fails to take into account the development and history of ideas within Israelite religion, (c) would seem to run rough-shod over any hopes of progressive revelation, serving reductionists ends to smooth out many rough edges that must be adequately nuanced, and other concerns. These arise well before we even come to the NT and whether in fact there is a central picture of Jesus. In my view, if what you have described of his work is correct, he fundamentally dismisses essential nuances in both disciplines (HB and NT) in his project of seeking to develop his own argument that somehow stands with a foot in both camps!

  9. Rick Wadholm Jr says:

    If your reading of this work is correct, then I would have to disagree with Sieberts analysis. I don’t believe a Christological emphasis and reading of the HB necessitates any abrogation of the “God of the HB”. Instead, a Christological reading should personalize and make ever more concrete the “God of the HB”. He IS the revelation of God. I think to set aside some HB understanding of God in place of a “Christological” God is to set as antithetical what shouldn’t be. It is to misread both the HB and the NT.

    However, I would not set aside a Christological understanding of God in the HB. I view the two as complementary and revelatory, with Christ as THE revelation of God in the HB. With the Holy Spirit as pointing us to Christ, who points us to His Father.

  10. telos104 says:

    Yeah, I dont think I’ll buy Seibert’s book…seems like we’ve been down this road before (esp OT God vs. NT Jesus and ‘textual’ vs. ‘actual’), and it didn’t start with Marcion! I got to thinking both testaments contain some brutally honest questions directed AT God. Sometimes he condescends to explain further; sometimes he says ‘just live in mystery; you don’t need to know everything’ and sometimes he says – and I’m loosely here – ‘who the hell are you to question me? Just shut up for 2 seconds, already!’
    My conclusion – God’s totally normal, we’re (humanity) the ones who are disturbing…LOL

  11. Joshua Blanchard says:

    One issue I have with christocentric hermeneutical principles (present also in popular writing, like that of Greg Boyd) is that it makes it difficult to understand how the people of God before Jesus could have properly understood their scriptures. Was the revelation God gave of himself insufficient?

    In fact, the christocentric principle blurs a problem, similar to the one you state about there being a real Jesus and a textual Jesus. Presumably, the textual Jesus should also be consistent with the real God of Israel, so why not use him as our starting point? In fact, wasn’t it important for the early Jewish followers of Jesus to know that Jesus was consistent with the great truths about God they inherited from their scriptures?

  12. slaveofone says:

    Based on your review of the book, I get the impression that Siebert muddies the waters to the point of complete fatuity. First of all, there never was and never has been one canonical list of texts agreed on by all Christian or Jewish groups, let alone one particular text form of a great many extant texts, and all the ancient manuscript codices or collections extant do not agree concerning the same texts, the same text languages, the same text forms, or even the same textual orders. Seibert is dealing with a completely arbitrary and, indeed, chimerical concept that he calls “OT.” Second, if one wanted to know what any of the possible “biblical” or “extra-biblical” texts that could come under the umbrella of this fictitious term “OT” had to say about YHWH, one must come to those texts on their own terms. If one wanted to re-interpret or re-imagine such texts according to some outside and external influence, dogma, or perception, then fine, but don’t go calling that the meaning of the text in question. Third, I think it is not taking things far enough to say that Seibert overlooks or bypasses inherent tensions. To say that an any ancient Israelite text’s portrayal of YHWH must be conformed to Yeshua’s portrayal of YHWH (however that is accomplished), conflates all the above problems with the fact that there is nothing in Yeshua’s words or praxis that makes us think he ever had any intention of becoming the “rule” by which any Israelite texts were judged in such a way. Yeshua did not say or demonstrate that he had come to show people how they might better understand what is true about the character of God in this or that text. If anything, he claimed that this or that text might have said something about himself (Yeshua) and what he (Yeshua) was doing! And I think this leads to a final basic problem with Seibert’s arguments—he gets things completely backwards in terms of relationship. If anything, Yeshua and/or the authors of the texts who speak of him, were speaking from within a culture and context defined, given meaning and shape, or influenced by various Israelite texts and associated traditions that could fall into the category of “OT.” And thus if anything, one should not understand those texts by looking at Yeshua, but should understand Yeshua by looking at those texts. So at best, Seibert’s argument is question-begging and converse to the relationship between Yeshua and ancient Israelite texts as revealed in the very writings that tell us anything about Yeshua, and at worst, is entirely relativistic and phenomenological both in terms of what texts are considered “OT” and what they might have to say about YHWH.

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