Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly 7. Rigid or Flexible? & 8. Distant or Near?

(See the other parts of the review at the following links: ‘Angry or Loving’ HERE,  ’Sexist or Affirming’ HERE, ‘Racist or Hospitable’ HERE, ‘Violent or Peaceful’ HERE, ‘Legalistic or Gracious’ HERE).

This post is the final installment in my review of David Lamb’s new book God Behaving Badly. These final two chapters, I must confess, are superb, and after being quite unsatisfied with the book up until this point, Lamb’s careful and balanced treatment of these final two questions is most appreciated and welcome.

In chapter 7, Rigid or Flexible, Lamb addresses the issue of divine (im)mutability. He points to a number of biblical texts that affirm the viability of each position; God is indeed atteted in the Hebrew Bible as both unchanging yet changing. This is a welcome departure from the earlier chapters in the book, wherein Lamb sought to pick a side, making the issue a matter of either/or rather than both/and (one of my main critiques of what he is doing; forcing the either/or alternative mutes dissonant theological voices in favor of those which are most complementary and amenable to what seems to be a preconceived notion of who God ought to be). But Lamb does nuance his point, arguing that God does not change in regard to divine fidelity to a word of promise and blessing–a point with which I would agree–but that God does change as a result of, for example, “prayer and tears” (141). Or, putting it another way, Lamb maintains that YHWH “changes in the context of showing compassion toward his people” (142). This is a noble observation, though I would contend it does not exhaust all instances in which God changes in the Old Testament. Terry Fretheim’s work is here quite instructive.

It is also in this chapter that Lamb makes what is my favorite statement in the entire book, precisely because he is exactly right. He writes: “When our systematic theology comes into conflict with the Bible, the former needs to be modified, not the latter” (145). Even in my own book (see “my book” tab at the top of the page to order) this was a salient issue: there seems to be a distinction between who God is as constructed by classically defined systematic theologies (which themselves are problematic for their attempts to systematize that which is unsystematic itself, the Bible) and various divergent biblical witnesses to God. Lamb is spot on in his statement; unfortunately, however, I am convinced he falls prey to his own indictment in each of the previous chapters.

In chapter 8, Distant or Near, Lamb again refreshingly takes a mediating approach, not favoring one possibility over the other. He notes that the Hebrew Bible is laden with the faithful asking where God is, yet these petitions (laments) provide a theological vocabulary with which the faithful may speak honestly and from the depth of their experience (see my sermon on “Daring Prayer” HERE). It places the struggle and questions in the context of the life of faith, and allows one to bring these questions and concerns to God. Lamb rightly reminds that Jesus too spoke this way; the most patent example would be his final words on the cross in both Matthew and Mark, both of which are questions, and both of which quote from a lament psalm, Psalm 22:1.

Yet despite seeming distant at times, the Hebrew Bible also provides numerous examples of YHWH’s nearness. God speaks with his people, walks with them, and dwells among them; these are ways the HB communicates divine closeness. Jesus, suggests Lamb, embodied an entirely different sense of closeness in his drawing near, associating, and dining with those whom the majority would aim to be as distant as possible: tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes.

In both chapters 7 and 8 I see the thought of Terry Fretheim in evidence, though Lamb does not mention Fretheim explicitly. The idea of divine mutability and closeness, coupled with the notion of the human/created order’s role in having an affect on God’s flexibility and/or nearness are important concepts that more Christians need exposure to, and I applaud Lamb for raising these issues in a thoughtful and manageable way for the intended audience of his book. I am hopeful readers of his book will benefit most from Lamb’s more balanced perspectives in these final two substantive chapters, recognizing that YHWH as portrayed in the HB is far more complex than many interpreters, lay and scholarly, give YHWH credit for being (and more complex than I think Lamb has given him credit for being elsewhere in the book).

Rounding out the book is an epilogue that summarizes briefly each chapter, followed by Lamb offering some reflective conclusions. One of these left me both satisfied and unsatisfied. Lamb writes: “Instead of ingoring passages that seem to portray [YHWH] negatively, we need to study them, discuss them and teach them to gain understanding . . . we will find that [YHWH] and Jesus can be reconciled and that the God of both testaments is loving” (178). I am in total agreement with the first part of this quotation; where I begin to stumble, however, is on the word “reconciled.” Affirming that God (the God of the OT, that is) can be “reconciled” to/with Jesus smacks of what Marcion himself attempted to do, emphasizing the loving, compassionate image of the divine manifest in Jesus, to the detriment of problematic aspects of God’s behavior elsewhere in the canon. Yes, the God of both testaments is loving; I grant Lamb that point. But what is missing here is that the observe is also true; the God of both testaments can be angry, wrathful, vengeful . . . or, more all-encompassing, the God of both testaments can be terribly disconcerting. I worry that Lamb’s statements here confirm what I have raised issues with in the other segments of this review: that the underlying motivation has been an attempt to moralize an unsettling and problematic at times depiction of God with an equally whitewashed, tame picture of Jesus. Yes, both are loving. And yes, both can be terribly unsettling as well.

Lamb concludes with three observations: 1) God is fascinating (complex, unable to be described simply); 2) God is relational; 3) God is good (all the time). I’m with Lamb on 1 and 2; the biblical text, however, I am not convinced allows one to speak as definitively as Lamb would like on #3.

Your thoughts on Lamb’s book, and my comments of it?

8 thoughts on “Blogging Lamb, God Behaving Badly 7. Rigid or Flexible? & 8. Distant or Near?

  1. Doug Chaplin says:

    When our systematic theology comes into conflict with the Bible, the former needs to be modified, not the latter

    But that is a statement of Lamb’s and yours systematic theology, not a statement of the Bible. Since, for example, the NT is full of examples of reinterpreting OT texts in the light of a (not yet systematic) theological view of Jesus, it is the case the Bible illustrates texts giving way before a later theological perspective.

    Or so it seems to me.

  2. John Anderson says:


    A fair point to raise, but let me nuance a bit. I’ll speak for myself, of course. This is certainly an assumption I bring to the text (that the text is primary), and in my new book I address this issue head on in the first chapter, laying out my presuppositions about the text. But at the same time, what you leave unsaid is that systematic theology supposes that it is derived at least in large part FROM the biblical text, and so systematic theologies are derivative (as is the Bible to some capacity, yes, but not the same as a systematic theology I would argue). What Lamb is combatting here, and I do the same in my book, is the assumption that one knows who God is and who God is not, and is thus able confidently to point to various problematic texts (take, for instance, the Canaanite genocide) and say “that’s not who God is, so this must be inaccurate or inauthentic.” The final arbiter there is one’s own systematic theology, not the text.

    And in the interest of full disclosure, I do fully recognize that I am a Protestant, and so living in the trajectory of sola scriptura.

  3. Doug Chaplin says:

    Thanks for the interaction, John.

    My starting point is that church (interpreter) and Bible (text) exist in a complex conversation where neither would be what they are without the other. In that model, I’m not persuaded that the question of “primacy” makes sense.

    Perhaps I shall work on that in a subsequent post. (Odd that giving up a blog seems to have re-energized my blogging tendencies!)

    • John Anderson says:

      Not a problem, Doug. I am actually quite amenable to your starting point, just replace “church” (since I am clearly myself not a church) with “reader.” I also describe this in the first chapter to my book (do buy a copy:; I think meaning resides in the interaction between text and reader. But two caveats. First, to reiterate, I’ve always understood systematic theology to be derivative of the Bible (or at least claiming to be). Second, I think in that exercise between text and reader, the Bible still exerts a sort of control. In other words, despite reader-response, etc., not all interpretations are fair game. The text is the final adjudicator in matters of what are and are not convincing and acceptable.

  4. David Lamb says:

    John, thanks again for the review. I appreciate your feedback, both positive and negative.

    I confess that I hadn’t read much Fretheim before writing the book, but have read many articles of his in the past 6 month for other projects that I’ve been working, and have really appreciated them. I re-wrote the Rigid/Flexible chapter for the Southeastern Theological Review (which just came out) and quoted Fretheim there, and now I’m working on an article on Wrath for the new IVP Dictionary of the Prophets, and his article on Wrath from 2002 has been extremely helpful and insightful.

    Doug, I also agree with John about Systematic theology and the Bible. The Bible is extraordinarily difficult to organize and systematize. But unfortunately many people try to make it all fit into a neat framework. It doesn’t work. Got to run to dinner. Thanks. – Dave

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