I suspect that my review of chapter 4 of The Human Faces of God will unsettle many of the believers I know, should they happen to read it. The argument of that chapter, which I found to be utterly convincing, was that Israel’s ancient understanding of God’s nature developed from the worship of a tribal god in competition with other deities in a pagan pantheon to the worship of a single God of all creation with all those superlative attributes we associate with Him. It’s to those who were somewhat persuaded but disturbed that I submit these thoughts.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, most Christians have long assumed what is sometimes called a “progression of revelation.” The main idea is that we who have come later in history have learned certain things, and indeed, certain important things, of which the earliest believers were unaware. A not insignificant portion of evangelicals will not wince when they discover that most Old Testament believers had no concept of an afterlife, or at least of heaven and hell in those terms. In many cases our most finely formulated Christian doctrines are present in the Old Testament only through hints and shadows. In fact, most evangelicals will have little trouble understanding that the Old Testament saints had little to no concept of a triune godhead.
In short, no evangelical should be burdened by the simple idea that Israel developed in its understanding of God, even in crucial details. However, I can think of two objections that do arise.
The first is that the view of Yahweh as a subsidiary, tribal Canaanite god who was conceived of as defeatable by other gods and, like other Canaanite gods, occasionally desirous of human sacrifice (on this assertion, look out for my review of chapter 5) is not relegated to a dark period of Israelite history existing alongside the more accurate understanding of God found within the Bible. No, it’s actually firmly biblical, in the most commonly accepted sense; that is, the old “pagan” view of Yahweh was held by authors of various portions of the Old Testament, and it occasionally shines through in our text unchallenged by its author. In other words, the first objection I envisage is one that naturally arises from within a presupposition of inerrancy. My answer, obviously, has been to discard that presupposition.
The other objection is a little more sticky. It should be easy enough to envisage a scenario in which people were allowed to misunderstand certain things, but were guided into others via gradual special revelation. However, the development in understanding God as a preferred one-god-among-many into our vision of God as Lord of the Universe did not necessarily develop by overt divine revelation. In fact, if Stark and many other biblical scholars are correct, the centralization of Israelite Yahweh worship into Second Temple monotheism was a politically motivated and viciously implemented process, a seminal part of which was the bloody Josian reform. Would the active and personal God evangelicals claim to know have really remained so aloof and obscure that He would tolerate human sacrifice in His name for centuries, only to have such barbaric conceptions corrected via a violent power grab on the part of a cabal of the religious and political ruling elite?
Yes, this is the rub. But as I search my heart, I know such scenarios are hardly unprecedented. We all recognize that, in many ways, God is a non-interventionist: few of us suppose His miraculous hand in the formation either of hurricanes or of babies in the womb although we don’t usually deny that their existence itself is something He has allowed and for which He has purposes. And Christians say all the time that God is able to bring good things out of evil; we merely reserve the right to tell God which evil things He’s permitted to allow in service of the good.
One who maintains that God is primarily a non-interventionist will inevitably be accused of being a Deist whose God is remote and removed from human existence. But a god that cannot do his necessary work within the laws of nature is a god himself subject to nature, a god too small; a god that is in no way testified to from within even the darkest pagan conceptions arising from the human heart is too otherworldly. A God who participates in the affairs of this world, not as puppet-master but as sufferer alongside us, who takes any opportunity to reveal His true nature to the childlike is not the deity of the Deists. That form of theism which seeks to wean us off dependence on God’s continued guidance through our own moral development and instead insists that we unswervingly rely on precepts and belief systems dictated by an otherwordly book seems best prepared for just such a universe in which God is wholly Other and for all practical purposes altogether detached from His creation. Perhaps God is not a software developer whose work has to constantly be stopped until he debugs it; perhaps he has written himself into the code. This is consonant with a view of the incarnation that shows God as wanting to participate in our world, to birth His heart within ours.
I expect, I hope, by faith I believe that no evil will go unrevoked, that there will be no wound whose healing will not result in strength and beauty. I don’t claim to understand His ways and His thoughts, but I am far more troubled by a God who demands adherence to, shall I say, un-Christian beliefs about Himself than I am of a God who is large enough to redeem all evil in the name of self-sacrificial Love.
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object of which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of higher animals directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
~ Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1860