From the Editor: Does God Behave Badly?
In this issue we focus on a recent attempt by an Anabaptist scholar to find a way to deal with Scripture passages that describe a God who is often fuming with anger and shockingly violent. Anyone who has ever read the Bible cannot help but be struck by the nasty things God sometimes does or commands his people to do in the Old Testament. How can a God who loved the world so much that he offered it his only son demand the summary execution of individuals for trivial misdeeds, the annihilation of families for the sins of a few, and the eradication of whole peoples to make room for his own? How can the God in whom there is “no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) be so brutal and, well, dark? Questions like these—or rather, the failure to find good answers to questions like these—is a significant impediment to many morally sensitive people who might otherwise be more ready to consider biblical answers to their spiritual questions.
Eric Seibert, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College (Grantham, PA) has written a provocative book, titled Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, in which he proposes a solution to the problem of Old Testament depictions of a violent God. He summarizes his remedy in his introductory article below. In a nutshell, he suggests that not all biblical descriptions of God accurately portray God’s true nature. Only those that accord with the God revealed in Jesus Christ can be trusted to show us what God is really like.
Among its advantages, says Seibert, is the consistency of his solution with the Anabaptist hermeneutical tradition which holds that Christ is the key to rightly understanding the Scriptures. But his answer raises other questions and difficulties which other contributors to this issue point out. Gordon Matties, Derek Suderman, and Wilma Ann Bailey (the original respondents to Seibert’s book at the “Mennonites and Friends” forum at the Society of Biblical Literature meetings in November 2010) offer their appreciations and critical appraisals in these pages. Waldemar Janzen and Ken Esau (who were not respondents at the SBL forum) present longer but equally thoughtful responses. Seibert’s second essay is his rejoinder, where he defends his argument and, among other things, challenges his respondents to examine their own assumptions and the seriousness of their commitment to Anabaptist principles.
Readers should find the conversation stimulating and will appreciate the courage and forthrightness of all the writers in addressing an issue that defies easy answers but which—in days when the New Atheists gain a following by lampooning the biblical God—we cannot afford to ignore.
Also in this issue is an essay on an unsettling passage in the Book of Job by Randy Klassen. His research touches on the topic of troubling images of God, but his more immediate concern is to highlight the way in which the concept of God as warrior serves to unify this abrasive but cohesive passage of Scripture. Less directly related to our theme but not irrelevant is Doug Heidebrecht’s paper on Mennonite Brethren biblical hermeneutics as it has developed in the last century. Our “implicit theology” leaves us vulnerable to evangelical, even fundamentalist, hermeneutical fads but allows us to devote more attention to such practical questions as how our reading of the Bible helps us live faithfully in the present.
In addition, we include a moving tribute by Elmer Martens to the late Hans Kasdorf, missiologist and much loved professor at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (Fresno) from 1978 to 1993. Our Recommended Reading section consists of an annotated bibliography of a few of the many books and articles that have lately engaged the issue of violence and disreputable divine behavior in the Bible. Dan Epp-Tiessen offers a wise sermon on living under the judgment of God in our Ministry Compass column. At the end of this issue are reviews of recently published books that will be of interest to our readers.
The recent and sudden death of Eric Wingender, a theologian, church leader, husband, father, and friend to many has stunned and saddened all who knew him. We pray that God will be especially close to his wife and sons and to his colleagues at the École de Théologie Évangélique de Montréal as they grieve his abrupt departure and celebrate a life lived in joyous obedience to Christ.