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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 The second runs the danger of pious passivity where Jesus is our guide but his Scripture is outdated and superfluous.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.

The church's earliest theologians unloaded their theological and rhetorical guns on Marcion. The significance of Marcion's position in the history of heresy cannot be overstated. The battle against Marcion was waged to protect not only the Christian canon but also the identity of the God whom Christians worship.

Brevard Childs frames the matter well when he identifies the early church's struggle to conceptualize the Triune God as a struggle for the Old Testament, not against it. Marcion's fundamental misstep, however, wasn't his rejection of the Old Testament, though that was his most notorious act. No, his rejecting the Old Testament was a by-product of a greater problem: his desire to theorize God and his unwillingness to allow the entire canon—Old and New Testaments—to shape his concept of God and thus challenge the deity of his own making.

I bait my students with a provocative turn of phrase from Hans von Campenhausen, a phrase with which I was challenged during my doctoral studies: "The problem in the apostolic era and early church was not, 'What do we do with the Hebrew Scriptures now that Jesus is here?' The problem was actually the reverse: How do we properly understand who Jesus is in light of the assumed authority of the Hebrew Scriptures?"

The force of von Campenhausen's formulation is located at the critical crossroad Christians throughout history have faced when wrestling with the Old Testament canon. How does the Old Testament shape our understanding of God?

There was never a time in the church's history when it operated without a governing canon, despite recent attempts to attenuate this claim by appealing to the uncertain status of the New Testament canon until the fourth century. The Old Testament rendered its Christian subject matter right off the surface of its complex, befuddling, yet Spirit-guided witness to God's Triune identity.

The Triune Solution

The one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reveals himself to us in the Old Testament as both severe and merciful. The Bible leans against our tendency to construct a god after our own image. We cannot approach the delicatessen of God's person like we approach a buffet—taking a heaping of this and a dollop of that, while passing over what we deem unpalatable. Neither God's severity—"Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger?" (Nah. 1:6, ESV)—nor his mercy—"Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression?" (Mic. 7:18)—can be diminished or pitted against each other in our reading of the Old Testament. As Habakkuk pleads, "[I]n wrath remember mercy" (Hab. 3:2). C. S. Lewis described Aslan as good but not safe. The same is true of God. Just ask Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:7).

If Marcion's lingering ghost is to be exorcised from the church, it's not enough to simply retain the Old Testament in the Christian canon. Rather, we exorcise Marcion's ghost by identifying the severe yet merciful God of the Old Testament as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And it is in the person and work of Jesus Christ in triune fellowship with the Father by the Spirit where the mercy and severity of God meet and are on full display.

I make sense of the whole Bible in this Trinitarian framework. And this sense-making is more than locating Jesus in every nook and cranny—an aggregate attempt to prove his identity as the Messiah and Son of God. Rather, by recognizing God as severe yet merciful, we come to understand more fully who Jesus is. His identity is one and the same with the God of Israel. Reading the Bible in its totality, as God's triune self-disclosure, is the amulet against Marcion's pestering ghost.

Sometime last year, I heard screaming from my son's room in the middle of the night. Jackson was five at the time and in an obvious panic. "What's wrong?" I panted out in my own frenzy. "The paintings!" he screeched.

In May of 2012, my wife and I, along with my father, dragged our three young sons through the Alte Pinakothek gallery in Munich, Germany. The protestations from my philistine children were visible (and audible) for all onlookers. The collection of 14th- to 18th-century paintings made its impression, though our children grew antsier by the minute. However, their mood changed once they saw Peter Paul Rubens' magisterial work. Their disinterest turned to fascination as they gawked at the bigger-than-life angels, demons, and skeletons. The evocative paintings had a profound and haunting impact on all my sons, especially Jackson. He was scared, and so was I.

We do no favors for God or ourselves when we lessen his severity, even in our attempts to make him acceptable to non-believers. While many of our worship songs today speak of touching and seeing God, most biblical characters did not line up for such an opportunity. Isaiah knew his life was over after seeing Yahweh. Jacob never walked the same way again. Job asked for a day in court with God and then regretted it.

God is indeed an overwhelming mystery. His severity cannot be separated from his mighty love. Although the prophets speak constantly of Yahweh's anger and judgment, they also picture him as a loving and faithful husband. After Israel's affairs, after the divorce, after the fragmentation of the covenantal relationship, Yahweh's love wins out. Not because he ceases to be severe, but because his severity is an aspect of his unending love for and faithfulness to his people, despite our sinfulness. "Having loved his own ... he loved them to the end" (John 13:1).

As long as we see the God of the Old Testament as none other than the one Christians call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then Marcion's voice will remain where it belongs—buried in the second century.

Mark S. Gignilliat is associate professor of Old Testament at Beeson Divinity School and canon theologian at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama.

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