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God in the Old Testament


A repost from 2011

I'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 Christlessness of much of our 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 wasn't 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 the omnibeing?  And what if the LORD God 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.

How much clearer Adam saw God than us!  Without the "benefit" of our western theistic presuppositions, he sees the "very God from very God."  He doesn't think in that exact language, but he certainly doesn't think in unitarian categories either. To think of "the Son" as something extra to his simple belief in "God" betrays disturbing assumptions about who we think "God" is.

Who is this "God" for whom the Son is an addendum?  Why 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."  In fact, it's deeper 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.

3 thoughts on “God in the Old Testament

  1. Paul

    Yes, very helpful Glen. Over the years this is a subject I have discussed many times with all kinds of people. It is strange how the very non-Christian people seem to get the heart of it better than the vaguely Christian or the acclimatised Christian. The very non-Christian person assumes that when I speak about God I am speaking about Jesus... because they [rightly] assume that I am a "Jesus-freak". So, they assume that when the Old Testament says 'Lord' that I will think that it is speaking about Jesus. Yes, they naturally reject that and perhaps even laugh at me... BUT they do expect me to think like that.

    Little kids also think like that. I have often found that little children in Sunday schools use the word Jesus and the word God almost completely interchangeably... almost as if Jesus really is God and always has been God. "Please, I know the answer... it was Jesus who saved His people from Egypt... Jesus met Moses and told Him to rescue the people... Jesus was very angry when Adam & Eve didn't listen to Him." Little kids are great like that... until they are 'educated' to talk about 'God' rather than Jesus with His Father and the Spirit.

    The longer I go on the more I feel that the most important Christian confession is this: 'Jesus is LORD'. NOT 'Jesus is in charge' - which is something that cults confess too... BUT 'Jesus is the LORD God of Israel'. Notice how Paul uses the word 'Lord' in 1 Corinthians 11.

    When I was in my mid-teens I was reading far too much of the 2nd century church leaders... and perhaps that is how I picked up such a deep sense that God the Father really does not directly engage with the world - that it is God the Word who is at work throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Notice how Justin and Ireneaus and Tertullian take it for granted that whenever God speaks or acts in the world throughout the Hebrew Scriptures it is God the Son, the Divine Mediator. Their doctrine of the one God has a transcendent Father enthroned in heaven, the Son who is the LORD God of Israel and the Holy Spirit.

    A couple of years after I went down to London to do my degree I begin to notice a very different account of the history of the world - something that was new to me, but a story that has become all too stale ever since. Essentially the Old Testament was seen as 'God'... who 'obviously' directly talks and acts in the world... but who gives occasional and mysterious hints of a future 'big event' when the Old Testament people would be saved from... from what? I have literally heard many presentations where it sounded as if they were being saved from the ... Old Testament. The talk was basically about how rubbish the Old Testament was with its ineffectual law, its inadequate kings and its fixation on earthly kinds of salvation ... but how wonderful Jesus is because He saved people from the deficient ways of the Old Testament. I remember asking... only slightly facetiously - whether it was better to be an out and out pagan rather than a person trapped under the tyranny of the Old Testament with its guilt inducing law that couldn't save anybody. I heard people say that in the Old Testament there was no new birth, no church, no going to heaven, no proper prayer, no indwelling of the Spirit, no assurance, no holiness.... in effect no genuine salvation at all.

    So, it is inevitable that such a theology needed to think of some kind of limbo for the Old Testament folk to wait in gloomy darkness... and then Jesus could bring them real salvation once He had saved them from the Old Testament. So, we end up with those strange kinds of extra-Biblical fantasy fiction where Jesus goes down into Hell after His death and fights His way out from the inside, leading a vast crowd of Old Testament Limbo dwellers up to Paradise with the thief on the Cross. Where is all that coming from... yet it is surprisingly common.

    Look, perhaps that sort of 'gospel' presentation isn't done so much any more... and we should be thankful for that. BUT, I still hear the kind of thing that Glen is speaking about.

    It is not all that rare to hear this kind of thing: God wanted humans to submit to His will, but when that went wrong He began to work out a scheme of rescue, slowly, working up to some kind of moralistic monotheism and then looking ahead to even better things. God got on with speaking to the world [not needing a mediator back then] and giving hints about a future 'king' who would be a bit like Solomon or David ... and occasionally a prophet would get a bit excited a drop a few verses that really do [retrospectively seen of course] sound like on some other level than the author's intention a bit like a very special kind of King or [weirdly] some kind of Priest or even, but this really would be far beyond those Old Testament dullards, a sacrifice. Then Jesus came ... though in some sense, we suppose, He probably had been there all along unknown or barely imagined by those poor Old Testament folk. NOW we can see how God is not just a great big monolithic omnibeing but in some mysterious sense after 300 years of the cleverest people thinking about it, a kind of mathematically impossible Trinity. AND... and this will really blow your mind... if you squint at the Old Testament in just the right way when the lights are turned down and you do that whole Magic Eye 3D kind of look into the distance, you can even get suggestions of the Trinity in the Old Testament too.

    If we can have a true picture of God without Jesus - even it is a partial picture - then Jesus really is not essential deity. That is the bottom line here. If the Old Testament really is describing a God without Jesus - at any point - then in what sense is it Christian at all?

    When those older theologians said that God is either completely revealed or completely hidden, they were trying to articulate this kind of truth. If God is genuinely revealed at all, then He is revealed as He really is - Father, Son and Spirit --- or if THAT vocabulary trips us up [and there is always some that immediately get upset about Father, Son and Spirit language in the Old Testament], then go with something like Most High God, LORD and Spirit... or some other suitably Hebraic set of titles.

    It may be helpful to think of the New Testament as the revelation of the Father NOT the revelation of the Son. Jesus is LORD - and He has always been the front man - the visible form of the invisible God. When we speak of the LORD God in the Hebrew Scriptures we have the Son in mind... BUT it could be argued that the Father, who was perhaps so much more hidden in the Old Testament, comes into much clearer view after the Incarnation.

    So, yes, Glen. Glory to Jesus! What if Adam met Jesus in the Garden of Eden and he is the proof - as Paul says in Romans 1 - that humanity really did once have the knowledge of God but we did not retain it.

  2. Michael Baldwin

    Hmph..funny how these things always seem to come back to doctrine of God! As you've said before- everything unravels from there.

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