God’s Goodness and How We Read the Scriptures

Note on provenance: The main content of this post was compiled from Twitter by Aaron Jordan. He shared it in an online group and gave permission for his work to be re-shared here as well. Aaron is a full-time music educator, a part-time choral conductor, a some-time film composer, and a voracious reader, especially of theology, spirituality, and poetry. He lives with his wife and two boys in eastern Nebraska.

Aaron Jordan: “There was a fascinating conversation on Twitter between Thomist scholar Dr. Taylor Patrick O’Neill (Taylor below) and Maximus scholar Dr. Jordan Daniel Wood (Jordan below) that was prompted by David Bentley Hart’s now infamous excerpt on the Old Testament God.”

Taylor: I’m not saying that DBH isn’t a Christian. But this is absolutely scandalous stuff for a Christian to write [when asked by someone if the Canaanite genocide really happened as depicted in the book of Joshua]. Yes. One has two choices here: either it happened as described or the way in which it is described doesn’t merely obscure the truth about God but positively perverts it. So either that part of the OT is demonic propaganda or else it speaks to something true.

Jordan: Wild to read here what I was forced to read in Ken Ham books at my fundamentalist Bible college. Some of us were reared in fundamentalist reactionary traditions. We know where this leads: rejection of biblical scholarship or rejection of the faith, since both assume an dangerously naïve view of both hermeneutics and revelation. This can’t be the future of catholic theology. Thankfully the tradition itself is far richer than such foundationalist either-or’s: not only did Clement, Origen, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine, Maximus et al., consider it possible that there are “obstacles” and inaccuracies on the literal level, so did Kierkegaard! And what nonsense to presume admission of a literal obscurity means inattentiveness to the letter. Does not the letter instruct precisely when it “fails” too? How absurd to accuse Origen of denigrating the letter! Have you yet composed your Hexapla, O great seer of scripture? In fact, these figures say that the Holy Spirit might well have arranged for such obstacles precisely to rouse your sluggish spirit from assuming you know in advance how God just reveal himself—so that you know to move beyond the letter which kills for the spirit that gives life.

Taylor: The gulf between what I said in that tweet and Ken Ham makes it hard to take this tweet seriously. That’s very uncareful thinking.

Jordan: You said quite plainly that we have two choices when faced with God’s command of genocide—either it happened that way or else we cannot trust the text reveals truth about God, right? That is the exact premise of Ham’s *Why Won’t They Listen?* Perhaps you should consider why.

Taylor: Yes. I don’t maintain that God reveals things about Himself that are false. It’s one thing to subvert a command He’s never portrayed as actually wanted fulfilled (the sacrifice of Isaac). It’s another thing for Him to deceive about Himself.

Jordan: Well that’s Ham’s position too, like it or not. It’s definitely not the Fathers’ position, not even Augustine, who says that when something vile is attributed to God in scripture—so it does happen!—such texts “are to be read figuratively.” And also your first proposition is so abstract as to be beside the point. Who maintains that God reveals what’s not true of God? In fact that’s precisely what lead the fathers to reject the literal sense in places in view of what’s “worthy of God.”

Taylor: Well then I guess Ken Ham says exactly one thing that makes sense.

Jordan: You should consider why you agree with Ken Ham rather than St Augustine on this point.

Taylor: I don’t think this actually has anything to do with whether the passage is literal. Yes, I am aware that Augustine rejects exhaustive literalism. The question is whether “Scripture errs in portraying God as evil.”

Jordan: Let’s be precise: Augustine rejects exhaustive literalism precisely because sometimes “vile things are attributed to God and the saints” in scripture. You have made his very assumption an impossibility. So why do you disagree with Augustine here?

Taylor: St. Augustine does not say what you’re attributing to him, nor does he speak in any way similar to David above.

Jordan: De doctrina christiana III.11-12: “Matters which seem like wickedness to the unenlightened, whether merely spoken or actually performed, whether attributed to God or to people whose holiness is commended to us, are entirely figurative. Such mysteries are to be elucidated in terms of the need to nourish love.”

Taylor: Yes, and within the context it’s clear that he’s speaking about things like “wrath of God” which attribute vices to God. But the particular interpretation of commandments like the ones given to Joshua are not necessarily included in this passage.

Jordan: That’s an unbelievable stretch there, bud! How else to discern wrath except through wrathful actions. Anyhow you’ve already betrayed your original position: now you say that scripture does falsely prevent God as wrathful in the literal level, right?

Taylor: Hey, bud [sic]. What do you make of St. Augustine’s actual commentary on the passage? “16 (Jos 11,14.15). Joshua did not leave anyone alive in it. As the Lord had commanded his servant Moses and Moses had commanded Joshua in his turn, so Joshua did: He did not let anything of all the things that the Lord had commanded Moses go through. We should not think that this was a cruelty, that is, the fact that Joshua did not leave anyone alive in the cities he conquered, since God had ordered him to do so. Those who draw from this the conclusion that God was cruel, and therefore do not want to accept that the true God was the author of the Old Testament, judge as perversely about the works of God as of the sins of men, ignoring what each one It deserves to suffer and thinking that it is a great evil that is torn down that has to fall and that the mortal dies.”

Jordan: When was this written? I ask because it’s clear that he does change his specific interpretations as later controversies heat up. But still, on your original view, you’ve stated a principle that such texts either reveal God literally or not at all. Did Augustine abandon his principle that some vile things are attributed to God and the saints? (Presumably not since book 3 of DDC was written late). So it’s better to say he applied it differently. But his principle still clashes with your own. On all these matters I prefer other fathers to Augustine, no doubt. Augustine’s Ad Simplicianus vs Origen’s Princ on Jacob and Esau makes this clear to me. But it’s striking then that Augustine, who doesn’t mind genocide here, still doesn’t take your hermeneutical view broadly.

Taylor: I didn’t state that they have to reveal God literally, but that specific commandments attributed to God are not going to be precisely the opposite of what God wishes. This is very different from calling God “wrathful.” I disagree that [Augustine] doesn’t take it. He takes it precisely as I’ve laid out the distinction above. The context of the passage you’ve laid out is anthropomorphic language about God. And his interpretation of Joshua is precisely what I said I thought it would be. This also doesn’t square with what you said just recently, i.e. that this was a stumbling block for St. Augustine who only converted after Ambrose taught him to take it literally. Why would his next position after conversion be to take it literally?

Jordan: That’s actually not the context since he specifically mentions the saints too—why would it be a problem to anthropomorphize the saints? It’s is rather the wicked deeds attributed to “God or the saints” that call for figurative interpretation in the direction of love…

Taylor: I think we could at least agree that Augustine’s view isn’t as clear as one might think, since he, as you say, has no problem with genocide.

Jordan: I agree that his practice is inconsistent across his many works. But I still maintain that the principle you stated is foreign to Augustine, let alone many Greek fathers who outright oppose it in theory and practice. It’s true that literalism was an obstacle to [Augustine’s] conversion—he says so himself!—and also that certain doctrinal disputes made him reconsider *specific* points. But I’ve never seen your broad either-or even on Augustine’s lips. Where does he say the literal sense is always true?

Taylor: I didn’t say that the literal sense was always true. I said that passages which have a literal/historical sense would not be portrayed as the opposite of the historical fact.

Jordan: That means that they must be literally true! Otherwise they are deceptive and “pervert” (your word” divine revelation. And that is precisely the principle that no father stated, even if, as in Augustine’s case, specific interpretations betray the general principle.

Taylor: I don’t think that I’m stating something earth-shattering here. If the Gospels say, “Then Jesus walked to the next town,” which seems to have no value other than the literal/narratival, and then it turns out, actually Jesus never did walk to that next town, we have a problem.

Jordan: I’m not even sure that’s true, since there are many chronological discrepancies across all four gospels. We may as well reject all scholarship at that point. Anyhow, there’s difference between whether it’s true that Jesus walked somewhere and if Jesus commanded genocide in the past.

Taylor: Look, I have to run to Mass. Here are my final thoughts: if it turns out that God never actually instructed Joshua to leave no Canaanites standing, that’s great. I don’t like the literal interpretation of the passage. It doesn’t make me feel warm and cozy inside.

Jordan: Then you share the moral and spiritual motive that made many fathers—sometimes even Augustine in practice, certainly in principle—to reject that the literal sense is true, seeing that the “letter kills” but the spirit within gives true life and is thus “useful” (2 Tim 3.16).

Taylor: But setting that aside for a moment, even if it were true that it is presented so the NT can subvert the expectations (which I think happens in the OT!), I maintain my original point that describing God’s self-revelation as revealing Himself to be a “blood-drenched” pagan demon is scandalous. This is why I did not accuse DBH of Marcionism or not being a Christian but of being scandalous. If you show me multiple places where the Fathers describe Yahweh in this way, and I’ll change my mind.

Jordan: Two things here: (1) surely biblical scholarship has clarified limitations of the text premoderns might not have known; (2) DBH’s rhetoric aside, it was common to note that literal interpretation might lead to conceptions of God that we wouldn’t attribute “to even the vilest human being” (Origen, Princ 4), a common point that pagan philosophers and Jews and Christians (cf Basil’s Letter to Young Men) made when reading Homer’s depiction of Zeus. After all, if scripture attributes “any cruel word or deed” to God (Augustine), it presents him as evil. But I also suggest that the claim that scripture reveals God either literally (God must have commanded genocide b/c the story sounds historical) or not at all is just as scandalous. I’m not just provoking: I know from much personal experience the damage such a view does to faith. It is a scandal to tell people that God is both pro-life and has commanded the genocide of infants in at least 5 occasions. It’s not a matter of warm and cozy feelings for me, but if positive scandal against those seeking to see the beauty of God revealed in Christ’s face.

Taylor: This is where you and I disagree (and it affects the universalism question too). I don’t think that God is a moral agent in the way that creatures are. Note I’m not saying that God is beyond good and evil or that God can do anything (voluntarism). God cannot cause evil, e.g. command blasphemy. But I do take it seriously that God is the God of Life and Death. He permits the death of all men, even children. So executing death among men is not necessarily among the “vile things” Augustine mentions. HOWEVER…my biggest issue is that men are commanded (even as instrumental causes) to execute something which is intrinsically disproportionate to human nature. And it is for this reason that I’ve disagreed at times with St. Thomas’ interpretation of certain difficult passages.

Jordan: Yes, we do disagree profoundly on these points. I think it’s a disproportionate command to murder thousands of infants, given that (I thought) both natural law and the Christian faith prohibit this. Making an exception for God because he’s “the God of life and death” certainly sounds scandalous (scandal is always relative to the scandalized; cf. 1 Cor 12 etc), since it sounds like God is capable of violating his own natural and revealed law. Here one senses that our own epistemological anxieties have taken precedence over the anxiety over God’s beauty, goodness, love, mercy, justice, all as they are revealed to we who are not only rational and thus capable, in principle, of knowing the difference between these and their opposites, but also who have the mind of Christ and the Spirit, who searches even the depths of God–that means that the Spirit searches those depths *in us*, Oh the depths of God’s humble kenosis! It is a matter of historical fact that many in the tradition *have* sensed the profound problems on the literal and historical levels of holy scripture. Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, the Capps, Maximus (for whom all of this wouldn’t be in the slightest controversial), and even Augustine in principle at the very least. It is no modern unease which moved them to judge several passages as “unworthy of God”–indeed this was precisely a sign of their humility before the complete self-revelation of God in Christ, who alone reveals the truth and depths of scripture (Lk 24; 2 Cor 3). Therefore, precisely because this unease is both traditional and touches on the very ability of many to maintain faith (“trust,” not just obedience!) at all, it is imo positively scandalous to lay it down that if one doesn’t accept God as literally commanding genocide of infants then one is denying God’s self-revelation. For it’s just the reverse.

Taylor: I’m sympathetic to portions of this. I cannot imagine God commanding such acts today, and I think this has much to do with the fact that we are now able to know God (still mostly obscurely) with much greater clarity.

Jordan: Agree, and it was precisely this greater clarity that led the fathers to refute Marcion *not* by doubling down on the heinous portrayals of God sometimes found in scripture, but to refute Marcion’s own absolute literalism as “slavish to the letter, which kills.”

Joshua attacking the Canaanite city of Ai, painted in the mid-17th century by a member of the circle of Spanish painter Juan de la Corte.

2 thoughts on “God’s Goodness and How We Read the Scriptures

  1. Here’s a better solution to your little dilemma with a God who obviously commands and endorses mass murder: accept that the Bible is, from the beginning to the end, a collection of fiction and folktales, containing nothing of value.


  2. Another infamous moment in Joshua was the case of Achan and his family. When Achan committed a capital crime against God, the Bible says the children were stoned along with their parents, and then “they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones” (v. 25). Yet the Scriptures insist that God does not punish the children for the sins of their parents (Ezek. 18:20), nor destroy the righteous with the wicked (Gen. 18:23). Is this a contradiction?


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