Good God? A Rejoinder
October 16, 2019

Thanks to David Bentley Hart for responding to my critique of his book, and for the bracing clarity of his response. I think we now know where we stand. I hope I achieve similar clarity below, as I briefly sketch a few lines of rejoinder.

1) Of course, the Old Testament must be read spiritually. Origen is quite right to interpret Joshua as an anticipation of a second Joshua who surpasses Moses, to regard the first Joshua’s conquests as shadows of Jesus’ war against the flesh, to see herem fulfilled in the mission of the church, as we follow the greater Joshua, who fights with the sword of His mouth, the sword that kills and makes alive.

Three cheers for spiritual reading. It’s my day job.

But 2) for pre-moderns, spiritual readings often emerged from naïve confidence that the Old Testament records real events involving real people in real places. Does Origen lapse into fundamentalist literalism when he devotes several pages to an analysis of the dimensions and architecture of Noah’s ark (Homilies on Genesis, 2.1), or when he researched the geography of the Holy Land? Origen’s Homilies are Joshua are thoroughly allegorical, but there are moments when he acknowledges the things written as accomplishments of Joshua: “also must we believe these things, which were accomplished as written through Jesus [i.e., Joshua], and, even more, these things that are now being accomplished in us through our Lord Jesus” (13.3). De Lubac says Origen wouldn’t have “dreamed of questioning” the literal accuracy of most of the Old Testament. Henri Crouzel says the same.

Origen resorts to an exclusively spiritual sense when he finds the literal sense absurd (Contra Celsum 7.19), but in his view relatively few passages have an exclusively spiritual sense. He states the principle in de Principiis (4.3.4): “In most cases, one can and must save the truth of the story. . . . The really historical episodes are, in Scripture, much more numerous than those that contain a purely spiritual sense.”

Whatever the fathers believed about Noah’s ark or the conquest, none believed there were multiple Yahwehs, or dismissed the Old Testament as “polytheistic gallimaufry,” or saw Israel’s God as “quite evil: a blood-drenched, cruel, war-making, genocidal, irascible, murderous, jealous storm-god.” David’s mash-up of patristic spiritual reading and critical revisionism serves his theological aims, but it hardly represents “pre-modern orthodoxy.”

3) Augustine at least explicitly defends both Moses and Yahweh against the charge of cruelty. In Contra Faustum 22.74, he distinguishes between actions done out of greed or passion from those done out of obedience to God “who knows what he should permit or command, and when, and to whom, and who knows what is right for each person to do or to suffer." Thus, we "should not be surprised at or horrified by the wars that Moses waged. For, in following the commands of god in them, Moses was not cruel but obedient, nor was God cruel when he commanded these things. Rather, he was giving punishments that they deserved to those who deserved them and was striking terror into those who deserved it.”

Augustine applies this line of reasoning to herem. Commenting on Joshua 11:14-15, which states that Joshua did not leave anyone alive in the cities he conquered, Augustine writes: “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 deserves to suffer and thinking that it is a great evil . . . that has to fall and that the mortal dies.”

4) David doesn’t address the latter part of my critique, where I argue that David doesn’t escape the charge of cruelty, since on his account God created a world with the possibility of unjust suffering and hell. Doesn’t such a God fail to measure up to David’s standard of pure goodness? And if so, why not worship a God who conforms more fully to transcendent Good?

Addendum: David Hart points to this this article in response.

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