A common attack that believers receive from antagonistic atheists is one that involves the Old Testament.
The challenger will often quote some law from Leviticus or Deuteronomy like not touching women during menstruation (Leviticus 15:19). Or they will point out something seemingly barbaric ordered by God. This is especially true with the herem or “the ban,” where God orders the people of Israel to slaughter all living things (men, women, children, cattle, etc.) in a condemned area. The sheer ridiculousness or savagery of such dictates is then held up for ridicule to show the absurdity of Judeo-Christian beliefs.
There is quite a bit that could be given here in response. But for the sake of this article I would like to focus on a particularly bad defense of the faith that I’ve found often regarding these attacks.
Essentially, the counter-argument I hear is “That’s the Old Testament. We don’t really follow the Old Testament. We follow the New Testament, which ignores most of those silly things.” The unbeliever is trying to use the Old Testament as a cudgel to beat over the head of the believer. The believer who uses this counter argument thinks that they are able to disarm the unbeliever’s objection by removing the force of that cudgel. But what they are really doing is cutting themselves off at the knees.
The implication is that we seem to have two different Gods: a God of the Old Testament and a God of the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament is violent, vengeful, and severe. The God of the New Testament is gentle, forgiving, and cuddly. This is a very old heresy called Manichaeism, which set these two Gods in opposition. The alternate view, which is not much better, is that God radically changed in disposition and nature. He was angry all the time, then He took His divine Prozac and became much more mellow after. I’m not sure that everyone who holds this view would articulate their positions in either of these ways, but it is nevertheless what they boil down to.
There are two main problems with this.
The first is that it denies the inspiration of Scripture. The Old Testament is just as much the Word of God as the New Testament. Christ Himself said, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. “ (Matthew 15:18) The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Old Testament is an indispensable part of Sacred Scripture. Its books are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value,92 for the Old Covenant has never been revoked. “ (CCC 121) And later: “The Church has always vigorously opposed the idea of rejecting the Old Testament under the pretext that the New has rendered it void “ (CCC 123)
If you simply dismiss out of hand anything in the Old Testament that does not fit your modern sensibilities, then you deny that it is the infallible Word of God. This denial undercuts the entire Christian faith.
If you claim that God changed radically from Old to New Testament, then you deny God’s ultimate perfection and goodness. A God that improves is a God that is imperfect, because nothing perfect needs improvement. If God changes then God lacks perfection. If He lacks perfection, then, by definition of God as the Greatest Conceivable Being, He cannot be God.
By dismissing the Old Testament, the believer may remove the cudgel from the unbeliever, but they also destroy the solid ground on which their faith is standing.
So what is the proper response?
It always comes down to context.
Catholics are not fundamentalists who take everything in the Bible literally. Be careful to avoid the overstatement that therefore nothing in the Bible is literal. To be sure, some things are literal. Just as in our everyday speech, sometimes we are literal, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes sarcastic and so on. Sheldon Cooper on the TV show The Big Bang Theory cannot pick up on social cues and so is unable to gather from the context of tone or inflection when someone is being sarcastic. Because he misses the context, several jokes are made at his expense.
In the Scriptures, we must always look at the context. First, the literal/historical.
Why would there be injunctions against contact with menstruating women or eating pork and the like? Why were the ancient Jews so obsessed with ceremonial washing? Perhaps a good and wise God understood things that they did not, like how the spread of germs and parasites through blood, improperly prepared food, and uncleanliness could decimate a society through disease. Perhaps he understood that fallen man needed a severity before he could grow.
And we must look at the Old Law in the context of the New Testament. Christ came to fulfill the law. That means that there is a transformation that occurs because of the coming of Christ. This does not mean that God has changed. It means we have.
If you are an adult, think back to when you were a child or an adolescent. Think about how often you felt that your parents were unfair or unjust and their rules were arbitrary and cruel and designed to take away your fun. And your parents being fallible humans, I’m sure not everything they did was completely fair and just. But as you grew, how often did you look back at their seeming cruelty and realize that it was actually wisdom and kindness. In that fundamental way, your parents had not changed. What changed was your own understanding of who you are.
The same occured for the people of God. As the people of God were prepared over the centuries for the coming of Christ, we see how the rules formed them into a different, unique people. And then in this context, Christ transforms the Old laws just as a parent transforms the rules of a household for a child as they grow up. The core principles are still the same, but the context changes.
The second context is spiritual.
St. Augustine, who lived in the 4th-5th century, was not unfamiliar with this dilemma. (So often the objections that unbelievers think they have discovered as radical and groundbreaking are really old problems dealt with by wise saints.) When Augustine was an unbeliever he too was horrified by parts of the Old Testament that called for the wholesale slaughter of peoples. But Augustine, through the wisdom of St. Ambrose, came to understand that there is not just a literal, but a spiritual sense of Scripture.
The Bible isn’t just a historical record (though that is part of it). It is also partly a story to relate spiritual truths. As Augustine said, “I joyed also that the old Scriptures of the law and the Prophets were laid before me, not now to be perused with that eye to which before they seemed absurd, when I reviled Thy holy ones for so thinking, whereas indeed they thought not so: and with joy I heard Ambrose in his sermons to the people, oftentimes most diligently recommend this text for a rule, The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life; whilst he drew aside the mystic veil, laying open spiritually what, according to the letter, seemed to teach something unsound “ (Confessions, 4.6.4)
Things like the herem seemed absurd to the unbelieving Augustine. But now as a believer he understood the spiritual truth: you cannot compromise with sin. When someone finishes cancer treatment one of the first questions they ask the doctor is “did you get all of it?” That is because a single cancer cell can cause a full relapse. In the same way, if we compromise with sin we are lost. “I will give up drinking, except on holidays” will not work for the alcoholic. All alcohol must be banished from his life. In the same way, sin must be totally eradicated from the soul or it risks taking over. And this is what happened every time the Israelites ignored God’s command: the evil pagans would overtake and enslave them, just as evil in the soul will overtake and enslave us if it is not conquered.
Notice this line of Scriptural defense is more difficult and nuanced. I have written more than intended because the explanation required it. It is easier to dismiss the seemingly problematic Old Testament. But to do so is to play right into the hands of those who attack the faith.
Copyright 2018, WL Grayson