Is the God of the Old Testament Christian?

Strange question you think? Let me explain. One of the stumbling blocks I find coming up again and again in interfaith conversations, particularly with Atheists and Gnostics, is the difficulty they experience in reconciling the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament.

I am sympathetic to this. I had similar difficulties myself before I experienced my rebirth, but it does lead me to pose the question in this way: Is the God of the Old Testament Christian?

And you know my answer? Not necessarily so.

The Old Testament in Other Religions

You see, what I am very aware of is that there are many non-Christians who also look to the Old Testament as scripture. Most obviously there are the Jews (who call it the Tanakh), but we should also remember the Muslims and the Mormons. They all affirm the Old Testament as scripture, yet understand God very differently.

This should not surprise us. Even in ancient Jerusalem and Galilee there was disagreement over how scripture was to be interpreted. The Pharisees and Sadducees and Essenes had very different ideas, very different understandings about what God had revealed and how he called them to act. We are not being particularly original in asking questions like this.

So how can people come up which such different understandings about God from reading the same writings? Well, it is important to consider what else people read as authoritative scripture.

• Christians affirm the New Testament
• Jews affirm the Talmud commentaries
• Muslims affirm the Quran
• Mormons affirm the Book of Mormon and other texts.

Quite simply, the question of revelation needs to be explored more holistically than Atheists and Gnostics are used to doing, and therein lays much of the confusion.

I find the movie Sixth Sense provides a good analogy. If you have seen that movie, starring Bruce Willis, then you’d know that the ending of the movie has a killer twist. In the final moments Bruce Willis’ character has a revelation that reframes everything that was going on up to that moment. He realises what he thought was going on was not what was really going on. The realisation affects his identity and transforms his entire story.

The Old Testament in Christianity

For Christians the coming of Christ is, similarly, a killer twist. Jesus transforms our understanding of God, and hence, our understanding of the Old Testament and how we read it. Reading the Old Testament in isolation from the New Testament is like watching Sixth Sense but walking out fifteen minutes before the climax. You’ll never understand Christianity by viewing it that way, and you’ll never truly understand the Old Testament by reading it that way.

Jesus said if we had seen him we had seen God. That means if we read the Old Testament and don’t see him then our reading is off base. We have not understood, the deeper mysteries remain hidden. If you think I am just pulling this out of thin air I invite you to read the New Testament stories of the Road to Emmaus or Philip and the Ethiopian. Both point powerfully to how the resurrection of Jesus reveals hidden depths in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament and You

Now if you are an Atheist or Gnostic, the question I have for you is, are you open to exploring the deeper truths and hidden depths of the Old Testament? Or are you content to continue reading it at a surface level? If you can’t understand the Old Testament as a Christian would, you can’t claim to be critiquing a Christian document, for the Old Testament is not intrinsically Christian. If you truly seek truth and knowledge I invite you to know more.

16 thoughts on “Is the God of the Old Testament Christian?

  1. Thanks for the invite Matt.
    In relation to your email where you mentioned the failure of Westboro Baptists to interpret the scriptures christologically I now have a clearer understanding of what you meant.
    As an atheist I much prefer your christological interpretation – obviously.
    But on to the specifics of your post. The analogy is not strong enough/ not the best fitted, to my thinking. The sixth sense is a complete narrative/story and while you no doubt interpret the new and old testament as such, I don’t. I see it more as an anthology with some evocative, poetic parts worthy of reading purely for enjoyment other parts, to be polite, less so 🙂
    But I see what you mean. And it is good to have that understanding
    In that sense, I can see the new testament as a comment not THE comment on the old.
    Personally I find interpreting an ancient text, that has a checkered history both physically and politically, that has passed through translation, that has been compiled from a number of sources, to be dubious, dubious if you want to develop any certainty about the “correctness” of your interpretation.
    Being a student of English lit. it is amazing the variety you will find in interpretation of a text,even when that text is only hours old.
    I’m not adverse to finding deeper meaning or “truths” in the bible or in other texts( it was written by people and we all have similar experiences), I just see no divine hand at play.
    I consider the suggestion that the New Testament is, for want of better word a “key” to unlocking the deeper meaning of the new testament unlikely, highly unlikely – that’s not to say it might not be interesting or worthwhile to view it from this perspective.
    I don’t agree with If you can’t understand the Old Testament as a Christian would, you can’t claim to be critiquing a Christian document, for the Old Testament is not intrinsically Christian.
    I think it is attempting to remove Christianity from criticism ie you are not criticizing a Christian document therefore your criticism is invalid.
    It would be more correct to say that we are not criticizing the christological interpretation.
    A lovely though provoking post Matt, I will return after some sleep:)


  2. Sean
    You’re correct, I do interpret the New and Old Testaments as a complete narrative, or more correctly, as a multilayered narrative.
    When I look at a book from the Bible, like Genesis, I ask myself: Is it a complete story? A series of stories? Or the introduction to some larger stories? I have to say, all of the above. How I see this is not so different from how I look at people. Are people individuals, or composites composed of millions of individual cells, or component members of whole communities? It depends on how you look at things. So, I am not denying that the books can be looked at as you describe, but I am saying is that you’ll never understand what Christians are actually saying if you limit yourself to that.
    And in that respect, whether you see a divine hand at play or not is completely irrelevant. This is simply how the New Testament itself interprets the Old, whether you reject its teachings or embrace them.
    You said, “In that sense, I can see the new testament as a comment not THE comment on the old.” From an interfaith perspective I completely agree with you, from a Christian perspective I do not, for I do not see all commentaries as equal. But to put on my interfaith hat for a moment, what this means is that there are multiple perspectives, multiple ways of reading the Old Testament, and a simple reading of the Old Testament by an Atheist does not automatically yield a Christian interpretation. That I see many Atheists making such assumptions is largely what I am critiquing here.
    I am not attempting to remove Christianity from criticism, but I am saying, make sure it’s the real thing being criticised, not a straw man. I’ll accept rejection of the real thing as a valid choice, but I won’t accept rejection of a straw man as rejection of the real thing.
    Its not enought for an Atheist or Gnostic to read the Old Testament, cherry pick out a verse that offends modern sensibilities, and say “Christians believe this”. Cause the bulk may not. Cause Jesus himself may have reframed how verses like that should be interpreted. But you’d have to take the larger story into account to see how that could be so.


  3. “The Old Testament is a problem for many Christians. Some find it puzzling, or even offensive; others seem to glibly misuse it for their own ends. There are few resources aimed at enabling ordinary Christians to understand the OT and use it in their lives as followers of Jesus.”
    No I haven’t read it Nigel but it sounds really interesting.


  4. Thanks Lex. As I said, I have no problem with people rejecting Christianity. As an advocate of believers baptism, rejection of the gospel must be a real live option for authentic faith decisions in response to the gospel to be a real live option. Church totalitarianism undermines Christian authenticity, cultural pluralism is essential for the visible church to emerge.
    What I do have a problem with though is opponents, consciously or otherwise, painting distorted pictures of Christianity and telling others that they’re universally relevant. And one of the ways I see this chiefly occuring is through misunderstandings about how Christianity relates to the Old Testament.
    For instance, when opponents claim that Christianity commands the burning of witches, that is a very distorted picture. Yes, it is true the Old Testament talks about that, but the Old Testament also talks about stoning adulterers. And what does Jesus say in the New Testament? Let those who are without sin cast the first stone! In other words, the New Testament overrides such Old Testament injuctions, we are admonished to respond to others with grace and humility, not harsh judgement. The only ‘Christians’ who actually talk seriously about enforcing these Old Testament judgements (and these are few and far between in most corners of the world) are those with a low view of the New Testament and the sayings of Christ, which in my view make them seriously unChristian. They’re serious for sure, but not seriously Christian. They’re heretics.
    Many opponents of Christianity fail to grasp the difference between Christian orthodoxy and heresy, mistaking one for the other, and then proceed to judgement without reflection. In focussing on heretics like Rev Phelps, what they’re primarily rejecting are heresies Christians also reject. The problem is not that Atheists reject heretics, its that they don’t grasp it is heresy. I suppose what I am calling for is rejection of Christianity on its own merits. Listen to Jesus, read the New Testament, reject us on that basis for goodness sake.
    Rejecting Christianity while focussing on the Old Testament over the New Testament is like rejecting evolution while focussing on Lamark over Darwin. Its sloppy and lacks integrity. Be more sharp and hold yourself to the same intellectual standards you ask of others. Before you condemn, first make sure you actually know what you’re talking about, that you actually know what an orthodox Christian interpretation of the Old Testament actually looks like. To reject Christianity you must reject Christ, not just Moses or Joshua.


  5. I wrote this a couple of days ago, but obviously didn’t get to post it, so sorry if it is a bit out of line with the thread now, but I would still like to say that I do commend you on this analogy, Matt, although, of course as with all analogies, there are limitations.
    As far as I am aware, none of the other religions claim that their leader is God incarnate in the same way that the Christians do. One of names prophetically attributed to Jesus, hundreds of years before his birth, was Emmanuel (God with us) as well as in times since, being referred to Jesus Christ, the Messiah i.e God who saves, The Anointed One, Liberating King… a very impressive array of nomenclature indeed! And a rather revealing lens through which to study the Old Testament.
    I have always found one of the Gnostic ideas that the Jehovah of the Israelites of the OT is not the God revealed through Jesus Christ very interesting. I do have some sympathy with this, as closer linguistic and epistemological studies do shed light on some interesting concepts in regard to literary terms, and all kinds of interesting things such as the Yahwist, Elohist interpretations etc etc.
    Meanwhile, I take the advice about needing to love the world as God loves the world, to the point of salvific incarnation. Fortunately the Trinitarian understanding of God provides a very helpful Spirit to keep working with us/on us/through us to make up for our mistakes and inconsistencies in this regard.


  6. To throw this back at you Lucy, would anyone realize that the Emmanuel prophecy in the Old Testament refers to Jesus without the New Testament? How do Jews interpret this verse for instance? All I am saying is that it is not clearly Christian by itself.
    As for the Gnostics, their understanding of God was so different that it prompted many of them to rewrite the creation stories with YHWH and Satan in reversed roles. The Old Testament is utterly corrupted in their estimation. Again, very different from a New Testament perspective on the Old.


  7. Probably good to talk to some Messianic Jews about that one, Matt. And actually I am going to a Passover celebration next week, so I’ll let you know what my investigations bring to light after that 🙂
    Yes, the Old Testament is a challenge. But that’s what the human mind is capable of tackling…
    Perhaps to really study it deeply with all it’s diverse parts, since it is history, poetry, narrative etc, might help.
    One thing I recently read was that we tend to come to the study of the Bible with the view that we are “reading it”, but that “it really reads us”… where we are at, what opinions we hold and what influences our actions.
    I liked that angle because it strips away a lot of pretense, shows up a lot of our motivations and removes us from the centre of our own universe, so to speak.
    I am left with the questions of who is in whose orbit? To what are we concentric and eccentric? They are also questions relevant to the records and stories of the Old Testamant and have relevance to the further bunch of diverse writings in the New Testament…
    Back to the BASIC philosophical arguments about the nature of things and the nature of God/s (if there is one – or more than one, for that matter!)
    But then, I take comfort in the fact that Philosophy means Love of Wisdom… and Wisdom is the ability to know what to do with the knowledge one has, and grows over a lifetime of observation and experience and besides references to God or Satan, there are plenty of references to Wisdom in the Old Testament as well as stories about lack of it!
    Perhaps, I’ve hit on something there… look at the thread of Wisdom in the OT and the NT… I think there is a resonance between the OT and the NT there which connects with Christ pretty big time?…


  8. We had a Messianic Jew conduct a Passover celebration at our church one year. I was fascinating. Sure you will find it likewise.
    I agree there is a very interesting wisdom threat to follow through the New and Old Testaments. I am particularly drawn to John 1 and 1 Corinthians 1.


  9. I assume you mean wisdom THREAD, Matt?!
    Although I do think some people might feel threatened by the challenges that the seeking of wisdom catalyses…
    My experience has been that too many people use the 1 Corinthians 1 passage to support anit-intellectualism and an anti-theological stance, instead of stewarding and developing the amazing rational capacities with which we have been blessed. Obviously there are several different kinds of intelligences, but wisdom with what we do with what we gather from the various ways of knowing would surely contribute to better relationships and a better world for humanity and the natural environment.
    I think wisdom gained from the various intelligences contributes to one’s opinion whether the of the God of the Old Testament is indeed the God of the Christian story.


  10. Oh yes, typo.
    As for anti-intellectualism, I read 1 Corinthians 1 as being fairly intimately connected with 1 Corinthians 13, where by ‘knowledge’ Paul seems to be talking about gifts of prophecy and revelation amongst other things. Seems to me that should put a spanner in the works for anti-intellectual charismatics.


  11. I like the bit where he talks about doing things in spirit and with understanding 1 Corinthians 14:15 is really good in the Amplified Bible.
    Then what am I to do? I will pray with my spirit [by the [a]Holy Spirit that is within me], but I will also pray [intelligently] with my mind and understanding; I will sing with my spirit [by the Holy Spirit that is within me], but I will sing [intelligently] with my mind and understanding also.
    Hey, I asked the head Messianic dude at the Passover Banquet the other night about a Jewish understanding of the word “Emmanuel”. He said that it was linked to talking about the Messianic prophecy which mentions the giving of a child through a virgin (or “young woman”, I cheekily reminded him) being a sign that God was with the people. So I deduce that if the Messiah was referred to as Almighty God and God With Us, etc etc then taking into account all the other Messianic prophecies which Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled, it’s plausible enough to ascribe him divinity status. And in line with your most recent post on the Trinity, see Jesus Christ, the Messiah as the Messianic incarnation of God.
    Then there is the subject of Christophany in the Old Testament…


  12. I am cautious about placing too much weight on the alledged Christophanies of the Old Testament but they are certainly a great example of how Christians read the Old Testament differently to Jews.


  13. Are you retarded? The The Old Testament god was an asshole. List any of the worlds most evil dictators, hitler, stalin and replace all that bad shit they did with the word ‘god’ and you will see that there is no difference.


  14. By resorting to insults and Nazi comparisons up front I take it you have no arguements of substance to lead with? Have you not heard of Godwin’s Law?
    Godwin’s Law: “There is a tradition in many groups that … whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress.”
    See and try coming back with something that’s more logically coherant and morally pursuasive next time and I might even listen.


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