This is the second in a six-part series of essays from a cross section of leading scholars revisiting the place of the “First Testament” in contemporary Christian faith. —The editors

I did not always feel a certain loathing for this phrase. The church tradition in which I grew up emerged from the frontier revivals. One of the marks of good revival preachers lay in their skill of placing sinners in the hands of an angry God, often “the God of the Old Testament,” and then transferring them into the gracious and loving hands of “the God of the New Testament” revealed in Christ Jesus. This strong contrast was basic to my understanding of God throughout my youth.

Only in college and in pursuing work on a master’s degree in the Old Testament did I come to see that this contrast was a false construction at more than one level. In his posthumous collection Letters from the Earth, the theological provocateur Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he observed that the God of the New Testament, who apparently invented hell, must be “a thousand billion times crueler than he ever was in the Old Testament.” Or how about G.K. Chesterton’s observation in The Everlasting Man that it’s difficult to mesh Jesus’ love and pity for Jerusalem with his dropping Bethsaida lower in the pit than Sodom?

But it was not just that Jesus was much harsher than the Sunday school flannelgraphs let on. On the other side, “the God of the Old Testament” proved more loving, gracious, forgiving, and compassionate than I had heard from the teachers and preachers of my youth.

God of Motherly Compassion

If we do not read the Old Testament, we miss a lot of good stuff, and not only ...

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