Bible Featured God Popular Theology

The God of the Bible is bound by one thing: merciful love

This is the final part of the 5-part series: Conquering the 'violent God' of the Bible.

Part 5 | The God of the Bible is bound by one thing: merciful love

Proponents of eschatological continuity maintain that God is not bound to anything outside Himself, particularly when it comes to human beings imposing our “limited” understanding of ethics onto God’s behavior in the world. Because God’s ethics are somehow “above” our understanding, they claim that it is ethically sound for God to command genocide, basically because He is defined by self-determining holiness.

They argue that God is justified in commanding and assisting the genocide of the Canaanites because He is righteous and they were an irredeemable culture. In other words, God had to destroy the Canaanites because their wickedness had become irreversible. Even further, they would argue that Joshua was justified in carrying through on God’s violent judgement under what is called the divine command theory. “According to divine command theory, wrongness is constituted by the property of being contrary to God’s commands.” 1 Therefore, Joshua would have been wrong not to destroy the Canaanites, because to go against God’s command would be more evil than genocide! The question now arises: does the divine command theory align with God’s character and ethics?

A Moral Dilemma: The Slaughter of Infants and Children

The argument made by eschatological continuity to justify the slaughter of infants and children in Joshua is that God is superlatively righteous (no doubt) and the Canannites were completely irredeemable (doubtful). But this line of reasoning goes against EVERYTHING that God stands for in Jesus, not to mention, severely undermines the moral capacities of God’s children, whom were created in His image. “The most glaring limitation of the irredeemable culture argument concerns the seemingly gratuitous slaughter of infants and small children,” says Randal Rauser.2 It is absolutely ludicrous to believe “that an infant could be so formed by its culture that it would have to be killed.”3 In fact, Rauser states that it “is most doubtful.”4

Proponents of eschatological continuity would agree that genocide is wrong, except in Joshua when eschatological events are foreshadowed in history—allowing for the suspension of ethics. In agreement with Rauser — and I hope you can all agree (and shout!) with him— “we do not object to a given instance of bludgeoning babies because we do not believe Yahweh commanded it; we object to it because it is evil.” 5 By arguing that God’s essence is defined by His self-determination and genocidal holiness, proponents of eschatological continuity have created a god that is violent, completely evil and should be out-right rejected.

But we know better, right? The portrait that eschatological continuity paints of God is Jesus-less. Why would any Christian theologian or bible scholar impose an ancient understanding of God’s character—especially given the extremely deficient moral capacities and theological beliefs of that ancient culture—onto the superlative revelation of God that we find in Jesus? It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s actually quite stupid to the point of heresy, that is, clearly and dangerously outside of orthodox Christian beliefs. And while we may agree that God is not bound to anything outside Himself (I’ll challenge this below), we know that God is bound to His own internal essence and to His living Word. And the living Word — Jesus our Messiah — has revealed to humanity that God’s essence is merciful love. In fancy theological terms we can say that merciful love is God’s ontological predicate. 

Defending a Christocentric Hermeneutic

The scriptures speak the truth about Jesus Christ: He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). If God’s essence is love, than, we can agree with Bonhoeffer when he says: “Where Jesus is, there is God’s love.” 6 But God’s love is not indifferent to sin. Rather, through the cross of Christ, God’s love “experiences and suffers the reality of the world in all its harshness.” 7 The cross is evidence that God takes the world’s sin extremely seriously.

Therefore, says Eric Seibert,

Just because a christocentric hermeneutic leads [us] to conclude that God is not the kind of being who commands genocide, instantly annihilates people, or judges nations by subjecting them to the horrors of war does not mean that [we] believe God is a spineless deity who could not care less about how people behave. 8

On the contrary, God deals with sin, suffering, evil and death by fully absorbing their assaults through His all-encompassing love on the cross. Seibert continues:

[U]sing a christocentric hermeneutic to reject violent, culturally conditioned portrayals of God neither diminishes nor domesticates God. Rather, it helps us move beyond barriers that keep us from seeing the true character of God more clearly. 9

Arguments that God’s essence is defined by self-determining holiness lead to a God who is violent in Joshua and Revelation. However, the violent God of eschatological continuity is conquered by the Christ of suffering love.

God’s “way of being in the world,” says C.S. Cowles, “is not that of a genocidal despot but of a creative, life-giving, life-enhancing servant. He is omnipotent Lord, but his sovereignty is the sovereignty of self-emptying, cruciform love.” 10

Summary

When it comes to interpreting the Old Testament, we should look to “adopt a more flexible view […] – one on which the most problematic passages reflect the (comparatively low) level of moral development of the human authors, and not the acts of a perfectly good God.” 11 Looking to Revelation, we can conclude that God does not wage war through violence and destruction. Rather, Jesus wages war by way of the cross. Eschatological continuity elevates God’s self-determining holiness above God’s love, causing the character of God to be extremely distorted.

And when it comes to their claims that God cannot be bound by anything outside Himself? Well, that isn’t entirely accurate if we believe in Jesus and the good news.

If we believe that Jesus reveals that God is defined by, and thus bound by, merciful love, than we must conclude that God is also bound to the ones he loves. — Josh Valley

Were not talking about the ones God loves determining for God how He should act, but rather, we are talking about a core nature of God being poured out voluntarily to the ones He loves. The cross—where God irreversibly welds Himself to his broken children—is evidence that this theological statement is sound and true. “Nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). This is the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus. This is Christianity.

This is what leads Moltmann to declare: “The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event…Here he himself is love with all his being.” 12

We can be confident in saying that God does not overcome the world through violence and destruction. Rather – as Bonhoeffer concludes – “only the consummate love of God is capable of encountering reality and overcoming it.” 13


[1] Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, “The Ethics of ‘Holy War’ for Christian Morality and Theology,” in Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem, eds. Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013), 204-205.

[2] Randal Rauser, “‘Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive’: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1(2009), 32.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 10: Barcelona, Berlin, Amerika: 1928-1931, Hans Christoph von Hasse (1991), 319.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6: Ethics, ed. Clifford J Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 69.

[8] Eric. A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behaviour: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 206.

[9] Ibid.

[10] C.S. Cowles, “A Response to Tremper Longman III,” in Four Views On God and Canaanite Genocide: Show Them No Mercy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003), 99.

[11] Wesley Morriston, “Did God Command Genocide? A Challenge to the Biblical Inerrantist,” Philosophia Christi 11, no.1 (2009): 26.

[12] Moltmann, Jurgen. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Trans: R.A. Wilson and John Bowden. SCM Press Ltd. London: 1974, 211.

[13] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 232.

Josh is an award-winning faith and culture writer and the author of the upcoming book, God Incognito: Bonhoeffer's Theology of the Cross for the Trump Era and Beyond. He holds a master's degree in theology from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and is the recipient of the Dr. Ross and Carol Bailey Theology Award. He lives in Murillo, Ontario with his wife and their two adorable daughters and has a column at ChristianWeek.org.

  1. Josh,
    If I respond with some critiques of your post, please don’t feel that I am attacking you personally. I, too, believe that God is love and is ultimately and perfectly represented in Christ Jesus. I will say that I believe the Bible is the Word of God, and should be our authority by which we understand God. I will be defending that position.
    You said, “Why would any Christian theologian or bible scholar impose an ancient understanding of God’s character—especially given the extremely deficient moral capacities and theological beliefs of that ancient culture—onto the superlative revelation of God that we find in Jesus?”

    I would seriously disagree with this statement. This is the logical fallacy known as genetic fallacy, which is a type of ad hominem fallacy that attacks the source of a claim rather than the merits of the claim itself. The fact that the Old Testament understanding of God’s character is ancient does not prove or disprove its validity.
    Here you have presupposed that the ancient society was extremely deficient morally. Are you comparing the morals of that society to those of ours today? I’m not sure how our culture would measure up, actually. Even if we did come out better morally, in the end, we still fall far short of being able to boast and rest on our laurels, especially before God. (But I doubt that we do.) Your statement seems to suggest that the Bible is simply a human book, not the word of God, and so we can judge its statements as we would human statements. In that case, who approves the parts of the Bible that we can take as true and valid for our faith, and which are distorted by human “deficient moral capacities”? Why do we get to say that the Gospels are more valid than the Pentateuch? I think that the Scripture preserved by God throughout the generations makes a better foundation than yours, mine, or anyone else’s individual judgment on truth.
    If God is really working in the world and revealing himself throughout time, he would have been able to do so accurately from the beginning. It seems more consistent to me to consider ancient knowledge of God as worthy of full consideration than to throw it aside.
    Lastly, it is inconsistent to claim to follow Jesus and yet not believe the Old Testament or hold it in the highest regard… Jesus did. He said, “If he called them gods to whom the word of God came – and Scripture cannot be broken – do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:35-36) In that instance, Jesus was referring to Psalm 82:6. If Jesus is upholding the authority of a Psalm, which could be seen as the most subjective genre in the OT, and if he is defending his entire ministry by it, then he affirms the authority of all Scripture. He also said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40) Jesus testifies that the Scriptures bear witness about him. They are not a different message, but the same message by the same God who is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, Amen.

  2. Pingback: 5-part series: Conquering the ‘violent God’ of the Bible – Jesus for Humans

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *