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God in the Old Testament [repost]

burning bushI’ve had many discussions under the title of “Christ in the Old Testament.”  But perhaps the issues would be seen more clearly if we labelled the debate: “God in the Old Testament.”

And actually, the fact that those two titles sound quite different tells you everything you need to know about the dire Christlessness of modern God-talk.

We (and I include myself here in my knee-jerk western deism) imagine that there’s a bed-rock deity called “God” who is obviously the God spoken of in Genesis.  And then we discuss whether the Patriarchs also knew this shadowy figure called Messiah.  And we debate how 'Messianic' certain discrete verses are, and to what degree the author was aware, and to what degree the first audience was cognisant of specific promises and appearances, etc, etc.  But we almost never challenge that view of “God” which we all signed off on in the beginning!

Thus from the outset God is defined as – essentially – ‘the God of monotheism’ (broadly conceived) and Christ is defined as a nuance to a more foundational divine reality.  Then we spend all our time debating how clear the nuance was!

But what if... from the beginning, Elohim was not the god of Aristotle!  It’s a shocking thought I know, but let’s run with it.  What if... He makes all things by His Spirit and Word and says “Let us”?  And what if this is not something that needs to be kept in check by a hermeneutic that expects only an omnibeing?  And what if Yahweh Elohim stoops down and breathes into Adam’s nostrils and what if, under the name “Voice of the LORD”, He walks in the garden in the cool of the day and encounters the couple as a divine Person.  And what if Adam and Eve weren't blind/idiots/default-unitarians?

How much clearer Adam and Eve saw God than us!  Without the “benefit” of our western theistic presuppositions, they see the “very God from very God.”  They don't think in that exact language, but they certainly don’t think in unitarian categories either.  They think of Elohim who creates through His Word and Spirit.  They think of Yahweh Elohim - the hands-on God - who breathes life into man.  They think of 'the Voice of the LORD' who walks in the garden with them.  And in Genesis 4:1 they think they have begotten the LORD-Man at the first attempt (the timing was wrong, but the hope was not, cf 1 Pet 1:10).

They simply didn't have a monadic sub-structure to their doctrine of God.  They were not proto-Arians, labouring under a philosophical strait-jacket.  To imagine that the Divine Messiah was something extra to their simple belief in “God” fails spectacularly to get at true Old Testament faith.  But it does reveal some disturbing assumptions about who we think “God” is.

Who is this “God” for whom His Word/Messenger/Messiah is an addendum?  Why on earth would we begin the Scriptures with that “God”?  And if the primary truths about God are unitarian, is our own faith primarily unitarian, just with a Jesus nuance?

The question is deeper than “Christ in the Old Testament.”  It’s deeper even than “God in the Old Testament.”  It’s the question of God.  Which explains why the issue can get quite heated at times.  But also why it’s so crucial.

10 thoughts on “God in the Old Testament [repost]

  1. Brian Midmore

    God in the OT is not primarily defined as the only god. He is one, yes but primarility he is defined by his deeds. First he is the God who made the earth, second he is the god who delivered Israel from Egypt. There may be other gods but they have,nt done this. Dont we see primarily a functional view of God rather than an ontological understanding which came with the church fathers? Of course both these functions are Christs functions (creation and salvation) but the OT writers couldnt know this at the time.

  2. Elizabeth Scrivener

    Hi Glen - not your mother. I'm preparing for summer school tomorrow with Vaughan Roberts as keynote speaker for the week.

  3. Brian Midmore

    The other often asked related question is 'Do muslims and christians worship the same God?' The answer y or n is expected but probably a PHD thesis is actually needed. One could answer yes in that he made the world and no in that the muslim God is not the God and Father of our LORD Jesus Christ who is also GOD. Here of course I have primarily identified GOD as God the Father which has some scriptural backing eg Heb 1v1.

  4. PRB

    Brian, I think the attempt to look at function rather than ontology is possible in the New Testament but is clearly not in the Old Testament. In Exodus 3 the specific question is "WHO? Who are You?" The Angel of the LORD in the non-burning bush identifies Himself with His personal Name. Notice how Hagar so easily identifies the Angel fo the LORD as the God who sees her. It is as if from the very early records in the Hebrew Scriptures there is a very basic, foundational knowledge that THIS God is not like the pagan gods of the Babylonians, Greeks, philosophers, Egyptians or Canaanites. Allah also deliberately and specifically identifies himself as NOT the God who begets or is, whoever Allah is, he knows that he is not the Hebrew God who can be physically and personally present on earth in the flesh, sent from the Unseen God in the heavens.

    In my experience people who don't really talk to Muslim theologians tend to assume that Muslims are basically the same as Old Testament saints. However, as soon as we turn to Scriptures like Genesis 16 this falls apart. Muslims do not worship a God like Hagar and Ishmael do. Muslims are very clear that their god is one single person who cannot mediate himself on earth. When we go back to the very earliest Hebrew doctrine of God we find a basic, instinctive awareness that there is One God who can speak int he plural, who is not only an Unseen one in the highest heaven, but is also a Seen one on the earth and is also one who indwells and anoints His people. If anybody can find a Hebrew doctrine of God that is earlier than that - a doctrine of God that is precedes this one, please show it!

  5. Jonathan

    Love this post Glen. With you all the way. I find the unitarian assumption built into the very structure of my mind. I would like to be able to hear the name 'God' differently. It's not easy to change it. But I hope that the breathtaking Trinitarian gospel is slowly remaking me. Yes, I think it is.

  6. John Meredith

    Cheers Mum...I thought it was a bit strange that I never got a link you purportedly sent!

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