A Disappointing Book . . . (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?)

I was quite excited at SBL to see that Paul Copan’s newest volume Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God was available early from Baker (it wasn’t supposed to be out until early 2011). Given my (tangential, yet increasing) interest in the topic, especially in light of my thorough interaction with my friend Eric Seibert’s recent contribution on the topic, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (watch for my forthcoming RBL review of this volume), I was quite eager to crack this one open. I must say, I am terribly disappointed for a number of reasons.

Copan is offering a rebuttal to the New/Neo-Atheist movement, which I can appreciate a great deal, though his manner of doing so is hardly convincing in my view. The book is intentionally written and pitched at a popular level, which is not a problem in and of itself, but this is not what I was expecting. Copan’s volume is comprised of a number of chapters, each addressing a particular problematic issue (i.e., divine arrogance, divine child abuse, the weirdness of the Old Testament [i.e., kosher laws, for instance], among many others). While I am appreciative for what he is trying to do–the Neo-Atheist argument is simply too facile, rudimentary, and extreme–his arguments are not convincing. My biggest complaint is that while he accuses the Neo-Atheists of arguing from their own theological a priori, I would say Copan is equally guilty of this charge. He is critiquing the Neo-Atheists for arguing from an a priori when Copan is doing just this in his attempt at a defense. He similarly employs weak exegesis in my view, for example claiming that God’s command that Abraham “Please take your son” in Gen 22  shows God as being “remarkably gentle as he gives a difficult order” (47). All this seems based upon the word “please” (‘na’ in Hebrew), a particle of entreaty that cannot so easily be translated as “please,” allowing the interpreter to move on. This is another annoyance; while Copan does not appear to know Hebrew (which is not the annoyance, mind you), he is reliant upon other scholars who do. Those he relies upon, however, are clearly in the conservative camp, and he commits the logical fallacy of citing another scholar’s work as evidence that a given point is authoritative and correct. The interpretive issues and conversations on these texts are far more diverse and complicated than Copan seems to admit. Despite this being a popular level book, engagement with both sides of the debate (and some voices in-between as well!) would be worthwhile. Things are not simply black or white (with Copan seemingly always arguing for the ‘white’).

Another big complaint I would register is that Copan frequently psychologizes the biblical characters. I am open to allowing a modicum of psychologizing in interpreting biblical texts, but only where the narrative gives the reader license to do so. Copan, however, pushes things beyond these bounds. For example, in his desire to defend the Akedah in Gen 22 Copan makes statements such as “Because Abraham already knew God’s faithful–and even tender–character and promises, he was confident that God would somehow fulfill his promise to him, however this would be worked out” (47) or “Abraham had confidence that even if the child of promise died, God would somehow accomplish his purposes through that very child. Abraham believed God could even raise Isaac from the dead” (48, italics mine). The italicized phrase highlights another concern I have: these readings are heavily colored by New Testament texts and categories. This is certainly a legitimate mode of interpretation, but how might these texts function in their own contexts, with their own integrity, as part of the Old Testament? Moreover, if the NT is the hermeneutical key to unlocking these texts (which you will see in my review of Seibert I am convinced is NOT the case and actually raises more problems than it aims to solve!) I wonder what this then says about contemporary Judaism’s continued affirmation of these texts as authoritative.

Spoiler alert!!! While I have not yet finished the book, I have seen from the table of contents that Copan is going to suggest Jesus as the answer to this all. This is a problem in itself, for a variety of reasons, among them that it runs the risk of feeding a Marcionite/supersessionist reading and that it drains these texts of any sort of theological profundity, power, or freight, relegating them simply to antiquated musings of ancient Israel that are at best ethically inferior. My forthcoming book argues these texts in fact have quite a bit to say about God, but more on that another time. I am simply not convinced such texts NEED or WANT our apologetics, and I am nearly confident we are doing the texts a severe disservice when we attempt to do so.

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6 thoughts on “A Disappointing Book . . . (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?)

  1. Jeremy says:

    If you want to read someone with a more academic and precise approach try Matthew Flannagan. He and Paul Copan are co-authoring some OT ethics pieces this coming year but from what I have read of Flannagan he is more rigorous, structured, less flowering and he does not do psycho-analysis.

    Start here: http://www.mandm.org.nz/tag/old-testament-ethics

    But make sure you take a look at this: http://www.mandm.org.nz/2011/01/god-and-the-genocide-of-the-canaanites-i-wolterstorff%e2%80%99s-argument-for-the-hagiographic-hyperbolic-interpretation.html

    • John Anderson says:

      Thanks, Jeremy. I must confess to a bit of ambivalence about philosophers trying to do OT ethics (or biblical ethics for that matter). The interpretive issues are far more complex than they give them credit for. It would be like me, as a biblical scholar, trying to write a philosophy of the Bible . . . yes, I have some expertise, but it pushes me outside my field and outside my obvious level of comfort. Please don’t confuse this as me saying Flannagan and Copan should not be up to the task and take it on with vigor; I am simply saying I am not optimistic at the success of such crossover.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Flannagan has a PhD in OT Ethics and a Masters in Philosophy so he is qualified to do both and he bridges the two very well. It is a new breed of study called “analytic theology”.

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