In my previous post, I introduced C. S. Cowles and his article, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” published in the book Show Them No Mercy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). In his article (p. 14), Cowles asked the following question: “How do we harmonize the warrior God of Israel with the God of love incarnate in Jesus? How can we reconcile God’s instructions to ‘utterly destroy’ the Canaanites in the Old Testament with Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemies’ in the New Testament?”
In that post I introduced Cowles’ argument and promised to answer his question on “how to harmonize the warrior God of Israel with the God of love incarnate in Jesus.” The answer to Cowles’ question is that we do not have to harmonize between the warrior God of Israel and the God of love revealed by Jesus because both Gods are the same God: “God was in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
In his analysis of the God of the Old Testament, Cowles focused on passages that emphasize God in his role of judge of nations and individuals. Most Christians only read the New Testament and when they do so, they meet a God of mercy and love, a love that was fully manifested on the cross. People who read the Old Testament struggle with those passages that show God dealing with the rebellion of Israel and the sins of its neighbors. When Christians and non-Christians read about God’s command to show no mercy to the Canaanites and to the Amalekites, they become disturbed by this image of the warrior God, an image that, in their minds, differs from the image of God revealed in the New Testament.
If the God of the Old Testament fights as a warrior for Israel and Jesus in the New Testament tells his disciples to love their enemies, are we then meeting two different Gods? To people whose knowledge of the God of the Bible is superficial, God’s behavior in the Old Testament may seem different from his behavior in the New Testament, for the God of war becomes the God of love. To Cowles and others, this difference in God’s behavior forces the reader of the Bible to try to harmonize these two supposedly irreconcilable perspectives of God.
The flaw in Cowles’ argument is that everything we know about the God of the Bible is found in the texts of the Old Testament and the New Testament. The text of the Old Testament reveals the true character of God. Cowles, however, says that what the Old Testament says about God does not reflect the real character of God.
According to Cowles, what Jesus reveals about the character of God is what matters. To Cowles, if what Jesus said about God contradicts what the Old Testament says about God, then what Jesus said is what actually reflects the real character of the God of the Old Testament. Since in his argument Cowles differentiated between the God of the Old Testament and the God of New Testament, one wonders whether the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament.
Cowles’ argument focuses on God’s command to Moses and to Joshua to conquer the Canaanites and “devote them to complete destruction” (Deuteronomy 7:2). Cowles said that the God of the New Testament, a God of mercy and grace, would never order the Israelites to commit “genocide” and destroy the seven Canaanite nations, including men, women, and children.
God’s words to Israel are offensive to modern people and they seem irreconcilable with the Christian understanding of God as a God of love. The view many people today have of God, in some respects, is different from what the Bible reveals about God. Does God’s action contradict our understanding of God or is it consistent with the character of God revealed in the Old Testament? God’s action against the Canaanites should be understood in light of what God reveals about himself in the Old Testament.
In revealing his nature to Moses, God said: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).
This is what Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament says about himself: God said that he is a merciful and gracious God, a God who is slow to anger, a God who is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, a God who keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation, and a God who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin. This is the same God whom Jesus revealed: a God of love and grace.
And yet, God also said this about himself: “by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And this is the reason the Canaanites were judged. When God made a covenant with Abraham, God told him that his descendants would spend four generations in Egypt because “the wickedness of the Amorites will not have reached its full measure until then” (Genesis 15:16).
Cowles rejected this passage as not valid for his argument, and by doing do, he also rejected God’s sovereignty over the nations. This is the reason Cowles does not talk about the righteous God who will bring the wicked to justice. Nor does he discuss the God who will bring judgment upon the nations at the end of history.
The character of God Cowles presented in his argument is contrary to the character of God revealed in the Old Testament. According to Cowles, the God whom Jesus revealed is non-violent, a God who is kind to sinners, a God who does not judge people because he is a God of love. What he fails to discuss are the many passages in the New Testament where Jesus speaks about the destiny of the wicked and the judgment that will come upon them.
Jesus revealed a God who offers mercy to the sinners but promised judgment to the unrepentant sinner. God in his mercy reaches out to humanity in love, but Jesus also emphasized the judgment to come. The God portrayed in the New Testament is the same God revealed in the Old Testament, a God who offers mercy and promises judgment.
The character of God is revealed in his relationship with Israel in the Old Testament. In dealing with Israel, God offers both mercy and judgment. In an act of redemption, God brought Israel out of Egypt into the land God promised Abraham to give to his descendants. In an act of judgment, God removed Israel from that land when they rebelled against him. When seen from a Biblical perspective, there is no difference between the God revealed in Jesus from the God revealed in the Old Testament. If Cowles has problems with the God who ordered the judgment of the Canaanites in the days of Joshua, how will he deal with the God who will judge individuals and nations when Jesus return?
In his nature, God is non-violent. It is not God’s “purpose that anyone should be destroyed, but that everyone should turn from his sins” (2 Peter 3:9), but the fact remains that the consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23). God acts violently when it becomes necessary for him to act as a judge.
In his nature God is a God of love. This is what he said about himself: he is a merciful and gracious God, a God who is slow to anger, a God who is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. And yet, the merciful God is also the judge of nations and individuals, a God who “by no means clears the guilty.”
Cowles’ problem is that he focused so much on the fact that God is love that he neglected to emphasize the fact that he is also the righteous judge. Thus, by making a distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, Cowles described God in ways that are not only inaccurate, but also antithetical to God’s true nature.
I believe that Cowles, just like Marcion and his followers, is proclaiming the gospel of an alien God.