A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Once Again, the Problem of War in the Old Testament: Some Wisdom from the Late Peter Craigie (Part 1)

Peter C. Craigie (August 18, 1938 - September 26, 1985) was a British biblical scholar, whose writings had an influence on me as a young seminary student. His untimely death was a great loss.

Craigie published a small book in 1978 (reprinted in 1983) entitled, The Problem of War in the Old Testament. It was the first book I encountered on the question of God and violence in the Old Testament texts. With some of the recent debate as to how to understand these narratives, particularly God's place in them, I think it would be good to review the arguments he made decades ago as they remain very valuable.

I am going to publish a series of posts, which will mostly be quotes from Craigie's book (which will be presented in italics), but I will also insert some of my own comments as well in parentheses in standard block type.

At the beginning of the book, Craigie outlines the dimensions of the problem of war in the Old Testament (pp. 11-12). Craigie sees three dilemmas:

First, there is the problem of God, or the theological problem. Stated succintly, the problem lies in the fact that one of the dominant representations of God in the Old Testament is that of God as a Warrior. (which means that its dominance is not easily dismissed and is integral to the Old Testament doctrine of God). It is not easy to reconcile this conception of God with the New Testament description of God as loving and self-giving. (Craigie is absolutely correct. The dilemma must not be easily dismissed either.)

Second, there is the problem of revelation. The problem here is complex; it is related in part to the manner of God's self-revelation in war, and in part to the preservation of war literature within the corpus of the written Word of God. (Again, we simply cannot dismiss this literature as primitive projections on God, nor can we simply accept them as if there is no serious tension between these writings and the New Testament.) Granted that wars took place in ancient Israel, as they do in the modern world, why was it necessary for so much of the literature of war to be preserved as a part of the revealed Scripture? (As a somewhat counter-question, How can these accounts not be included since all human history, including Israel's, has been written in blood and tears?)

Third, there is the problem of ethics. Once again, the problem is complex. Are ethical teachings in Christianity to be based on the New Testament alone? (No, the Old Testament was Jesus' Bible as well as Paul's. It is, therefore, our Bible too.) Or may they be developed on the basis of the whole Bible? (Yes.) If all the Bible has relevance for ethics (the Ten Commandments, after all, are contained in the Old Testament), does it not follow that war may be pursued legitimately? (I think this is an important question, but a question that at this point may divert us from the problem at hand-- namely what do do with these particular Old Testament texts.) But if war may be pursued legitimately, would this position not appear to be somewhat in conflict with the New Testament? (I say, yes, but Christians have disagreed over this for 1,700 years.

In the next post, we will take up Craigie's discussion of the first dilemma-- the problem of God.


Taylor W. Burton-Edwards said...

So what if we were to take just as seriously the apocalyptic metanarrative that lies behind the rhetoric of the kingdom of God in the NT? I would submit the NT does not at all present God as simply loving, but rather absolutely determined in love to deliver us and all creation. Such deliverance is often portrayed within the rhetoric of warfare.

Allan Bevere said...


I agree completely.