Posted on Jun 15, 2009
Matthew Anderson signaled this to us, and I want to be sure we all have opportunity to look at it: a continuing discussion on the question of God and his alleged acts of genocide in Philosophia Christi.
Two of the papers are available online, both by Paul Copan:
For those who want the quick version, Jason at Thinking Matters has summarized the second of these, and fleance7 at Cloud Of Witnesses has provided abstracts to other papers in this issue of the journal.
The first of these papers, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster” places the question where it belongs, in the context of the ancient Near East (ANE). Copan points out that while God’s actions are shocking to 21st-century Westerners, they were surprising in a completely different way in the ANE. He cautions us that “We must allow the OT ethical discussion to begin within an ANE setting, not a post-Enlightenment one.” It ought to be obvious but still it needs to be said (as Copan does), that “the ANE world is ‘totally alien’ and ‘utterly unlike’ our own social setting.”
Now, does this make a difference in an ethical discussion? Relativists certainly ought to be saying Yes! to that question. But we are not talking about relativism in the case of God. We are instead talking about God’s leading his people through (in Copan’s words) “Incremental ‘humanizing’ steps rather than a total overhaul of ANE culture.” Israel was surrounded by slavery, monarchy, patriarchy, war, and more. I will quote at length here:
Rather than attempt to morally justify all aspects of the Sinaitic legal code, we can affirm that God begins with an ancient people who have imbibed dehumanizing customs and social structures from their ANE context. Yet this God desires to draw them in and show them a better way:
if human beings are to be treated as real human beings who possess the power of choice, then the “better way” must come gradually. Otherwise, they will exercise their freedom of choice and turn away from what they do not understand.
To completely overthrow these imbedded ANE attitudes, replacing them with some post-Enlightenment ideal, utopian ethic would simply be overwhelming and in many ways difficult to grasp. We can imagine a strong resistance to a complete societal overhaul. Think of the difficulty of the West’s pressing for democracy in nations whose tribal/social and religious structures do not readily assimilate such ideals.
(The second paragraph there is a quote from Alden Thompson.) Copan recognizes that some of the OT “reflects a less morally-refined condition;” yet he also notes that every questionable practice in the OT has “contrary witness” elsewhere, and that Scripture itself can guide us to discerning what was local/contextual, and what is universal.
The surprise that God’s law must have presented in the ANE was its humaneness. Copan compares the OT to other ANE codes, showing its marked superiority over the others in areas including slavery, punishment for crimes, warfare, and the sexes. Yet in keeping with the earlier point of “incremental humanizing,” there is a progression of moral expectation over the years throughout the OT period (culminating in Jesus Christ).
Copan speaks to warfare as well, and on this topic I am hesitant to summarize. It is the most involved and difficult question he tackles, and to shorten it would be to distort it, so I encourage you to read at least that much of it directly from the source. His perspective on God’s prerogatives over human life, and on the fact of the afterlife, are particularly important. They figure crucially in my own answer to the question we’ve been discussing, as is also “the seriousness of sin and the sovereign prerogatives of Yahweh.”
Copan closes the paper with three comments directed toward objections raised by “New Atheists:”
A. Naturalism’s foundations cannot account for ethical normativity; theism is better positioned to do so.
B. The new atheists ignore the sui generis [one-time only] status of Israel’s theocracy.
C. The new atheists wrongly assume that the OT presents an ideal ethic, while ignoring the OT’s redemptive spirit and creational ideals.