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.