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Not Just a New Testament God
Image: Michelangelo

An image is burned into my memory: an incandescent lamp on my mother's night stand illuminating the open pages of her well-worn Bible. Though teetering toward the sentimentality of a Thomas Kinkade painting, this image reaches as far back as my childhood memories allow. My fundamentalist upbringing was Bible-saturated. Whatever the limitations of this "saw-dust trail" ecosystem were, the love of Scripture was not one of them.

It came as a surprise, then, when my pious mother confessed to me some years later her discomfort with the God of the Old Testament. God in the Old Testament seems a bit cranky, she confided, whereas in the New Testament his hard edges have worn off. My first thought after hearing her honest confession was: Et tu, Mater? My second, properly re-directed thought was: Curse you, Marcion!

In fairness to my mother, I teach enough in local churches and hear enough banter on the Bible to recognize that her feelings are common. Devoted, Bible-believing folks hem and haw regularly around this issue. Admittedly, there is enough fodder in the Old Testament for such sentiments. It's the severity of God that frightens us, and the Old Testament is rife with it. Sure, the Lord is Israel's shepherd, but when he steps off his throne and places his foot on the mountains, they melt under the heat of his anger (Mic. 1). How exactly does a "rod" comfort me?

John Updike's literary creation, the Reverend Clarence Wilmot, gave up his theism after reading Robert Ingersoll's Some Mistakes of Moses. The hurdles of belief became too high in light of Moses' God and the evils of our world. Reverend Wilmot is not the first or the last to crack under this strain.

One option for avoiding Wilmot's demise is the quiet sequestering of the Old Testament to the ancient history of Israel: the Old Testament is a relic of the ancient world, sealed in time and space. Another option, memorably articulated by a former teacher of mine, is to treat the Old Testament as the booster rockets of a space shuttle. Once in New Testament orbit, they fall back uselessly into the ocean. The first option is a species of modern criticism's interpretive approach. The second runs the danger of pious passivity where Jesus is our guide but his Scripture is outdated and superfluous. In 19th-century German biblical interpretation, New Testament critical scholarship was always a generation or two behind Old Testament critical scholarship. What can be read under the surface of this history of research is a theological instinct: fiddle with Moses all you want but keep your hands off Jesus.

Marcion's Misstep

The second-century heretic Marcion is remembered for his rejection of the Old Testament god in favor of Jesus Christ. The god of the Old Testament was too wrapped up in the messiness of human affairs: he was a sub-deity at best, but not the supreme God. Moreover, Marcion's dualistic philosophy predisposed him to favor the spiritual world over the material world. God as creator and God as redeemer were set against one another. Thus, Marcion took a Jeffersonian-type approach to the Bible and began to excise its "tainted" bits, namely the Old Testament and the parts of the New Testament unduly influenced by the Old Testament. A Pauline Bible was essentially the finished product. Even then, Marcion's Old Testament detector was not dialed in very well. If it had been, Paul would not have made the final cut either.

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Not Just a New Testament God