Review of @ivpacademic’s Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem

There is an unfortunate but constant refrain from both inside and outside Christianity. From the inside, we wrestle with what we perceive to be a barbaric God, complete with genocide and other murderous mayhem. From the outside, we are roundly attacked, ridiculed, and mocked by those who take a rather strict reading of Joshua and Judges to portray not just Christianity, but Judaism, as a religion of evil. There are still others who would seek to use tales of divinely sanctioned war — because if it is in Scripture, then it must be divinely sanctioned — to justify a military devoid of the Just War Doctrine. To each of these I commend this book.

The book is an anthology of essays by some of Evangelical Christianity’s sharpest minds including Paul Copan, Matthew Flannagan, David Lamb, and a personal favorite, Timothy Gombis. While they include an international set (Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders), there is not a single female voice among them. I have to wonder here how this might have shaped the book, or what this tells us about the overall theological bent of the book.

The book has six parts, focused on varying areas including the Old and New Testament; theological (including Biblical Theology); and ethical and philosophical perspectives. After an introduction by Geth Allison and Reid Powell to the problem to be answered by the volume, Douglas S. Earl (who has two chapters in this work) breaks new ground on the history of contextualizing the religious propaganda surrounding the Crusades. By far, this is one of the most eye-opening chapters of the book. Earl, surprisingly but with substantial evidences maintains the Book of Joshua was not used to justify the Crusades. What then? Did our ancestors of the faith have a better understanding of Holy War than we?

This is followed by a chapter directed towards the holy war concept as found in the Old Testament. The author maintains it is a theological concept rather than a historical fact, something many will find troubling giving concurrent issues with biblical literalism. With this in mind, the author proposes some new terminology, and while I could agree with much of it, I was hoping to see something more akin to YWHW Victor (thus connecting it to a particular trend in Christian theology). This chapter is followed by one focusing directly on the Old Testament Writings wherein Heath Thomas (also an editor of the book) posits the holy war concept as one of justice. This is meant to give way to a (Reformed) Christian understanding of justice through Christ.

As the Old Testament as now given way to the New Testament perspective, Timothy Gombis and Alan S. Bandy examine Ephesians and Revelation respectively. Gombis carries on with the theme from his previous book on Ephesians whereby he positions the divine war not as one opposed to temporal powers, but to those things in the spiritual ether. Bandy relies on theodicy to give Revelation’s violence some meaning. Here, he sees God as the divine warrior rescuing the persecuted. I am not Reformed, so as much as I enjoyed Gombis’ entry into New Testament perspectives, I found Bandy’s view of Revelation rather outside my level of acceptance.

David Lamb writes chapter seven to argue for a more encompassing view of the wrath of God. He sees it as a last measure of God to maintain his will in the world. Thus, divine war becomes the last resort of a God seeking to salvage his will. This chapter is well placed given Earl’s return by discussing the ban. This is a very heated concept, with many finding or losing their faith here. How could God order the completely genocide of a people? Earl follows Origen in reading the historical nugget as an allegory, filled with rhetoric and imagery not meant to be taken literal. Over all, the model is in line with Christian tradition, even if it is still difficult to digest.

David Heimbach argues Israel, unlike her other ANE neighbors, had the moral authority to go to war. But does that mean we have the same authority today? Instead of relying on Just War history and tradition, Heimbach gives new criteria to test whether or not war is justifiable. Following this is Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan’s chapter where they argue that war may allow for the murder of innocents (meeting certain conditions of course). They also argue (as Flannagan has done in countless internet-based discussions with Thom Stark) that much of the language in the Old Testament relating to war, bans, and murder was not divinely sanctioned because the language is too hyperbolic to figure out. For those to whom this may be somewhat unsettling, Glen Stassen replies with his chapter on peacemaking. He argues war is a sign of judgment against those involved; thus, peace should be achieved if possible. Robert Stewart, in his ethical chapter, attempts to argue against the New Atheists.

In part six, Murray Rae begins by arguing for Christian pacifism. His arguments almost seem out of place in a book such as this, but more than others, this is the essay most needed. Rae is followed by Stephen Williams who argues against the irrationality of the New Atheists and in favor the required rationality of Christianity arguments. Like Stewart before him, Williams gets caught up in a web of polemical attacks not easy defended.

Without a doubt, this book is to going to ruffle feathers, hurt feelings, and raise blood pressure. Many, from different sides, will attack it but I hope those attackers will read the book first. In the United States, we are engaged in several fronts and live with a constant fear at home of terror attacks. Even now, Congress is considering action in Egypt with Syria not yet past. War, it seems is in our nature — and we trumpet ourselves as a Christian nation. Do we have the right to way a holy war? Will God defend us? Against what? While you might not fully agree with the points raised in the book, they are food for thought and you will see them again.

Post By Joel L. Watts (10,172 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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One thought on “Review of @ivpacademic’s Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem”

  1. My problem with the book is that it is stultifyingly conservative. It’s as if lots of talking about the problem of violence in the OT (and emphasising ad infinitum that Holy War is a misnomer) will magically make it go away. A lot of this book (with the exceptions of Copan, Flannagan and Earl) is just waffle.

    Try Eric Seibert for a more satisfying approach.

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