Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem edited by Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013). (Amazon.com)

Holy War in the Bible
Holy War in the Bible

Marcion’s challenge to the Christian Church is alive and well: explain how the God revealed in Jesus Christ can possibly be the same God found in Israel’s Scriptures. As Stephen N. Williams says in his essay, “The theological question of the relation between the Old and New Testaments haunts us here, just as it has exercised the church since its beginning, and it will not go away just because we must banish it from discussion, along with so much else, on the grounds that it is too big to handle.” [1] While Thomas, Evans, and Copan have compiled a helpful series of essays there is a very real possibility that the reader may finish this book with more questions than answers. In fact, Evans and Thomas note in their closing essay that “…this volume will not provide the final word on the problem of war and violence in the Bible. In fact, this volume does not even provide a consensus view on the matter.” [2] This is correct: the authors do not share a unified front. What do we do about the Old Testament’s [OT] depiction of God as one who seemingly commands genocide or at least violent warfare? More importantly, how does this jive with Jesus’ message of loving one’s enemy and the apostolic imperative that Christians do not return evil for evil?

Message of the Book:

If there is a unifying message it is this: we must address the biblical depictions of God that seem tribal, violent, racist, misogynistic, and downright antiquated to modern readers. This book does not go about doing this by aligning people from the same perspective. Every author appears to be some stripe of evangelical, but as we know, this means little to nothing when gathering people into a room to have a discussion on doctrine. What this book does highlight is that evangelicalism’s identity is being pulled in different directions depending on one’s understanding of the nature of Scripture. [3] If one is an inerrantist then there are stricter limitations placed upon their apologetic, yet those of the inerrantist camp sense it to be their duty to work within the constraints that they believe have been handed to them by the historical Church: a perfect, inerrant, infallible Bible. Those contributors who do not work within these constraints may have more wiggle-room for dealing with disturbing pictures of God, but they may also be the first to find themselves in the uncomfortable position of echoing Marcion’s dismissal of the OT.

Summary of the Contents:

This book is divided into six parts: Part One: The Challenge of “Holy War” for Christian Morality; Part Two: Old Testament Perspectives; Part Three: New Testament Perspectives; Part Four: Biblical-Theological Perspectives; Part Five: Ethical and Philosophical Perspectives; and Part Six: Theological Perspectives.

Chapter 1 (Orientation Amidst the Diversity) by Geth Allison and Reid Powell functions as a basic introduction, establishing the goal of the volume, clarifying some of the overarching agreements (e.g., most contributors seem to think that “holy war” language is imprecise).

Douglas E. Earl’s essay in Chapter 2 (Joshua and the Crusades) asks whether the Book of Joshua factored into the jargon of Christian Crusaders. He finds that, “While Joshua was quoted or alluded to in the crusading literature, its use was rare and generally underdeveloped, especially when compared with the usage of other books such as Maccabees and the Gospels.” [4] In effect, arguments that attempt to make a straight line between Joshua and the Crusades must ignore that lack of evidence for such a connection being made by those involved in the Crusades.

Chapter 3 (Martial Memory, Peaceable Vision: Divine War in the Old Testament) by Stephen B. Chapman begins Part Two. This essay emphasizes that, “The phrase ‘holy war’ nowhere appears” in the OT; therefore, it “is a misnomer.” [5] Chapman explains “holy war” and he concludes that while there are concepts that might be called “Yahweh war” or even “divine war” there is nothing that makes war itself holy. Chapter 4 (The Neglected Witness to “Holy War” in the Writings) by Heath A. Thomas piggybacks on Chapman’s essay examining the OT writings to see if such a concept resides in the OT Writings. Along with Chapman he concludes that it cannot be found.

Timothy G. Gombis begins Part Three with Chapter 5 (The Rhetoric of Divine Warfare in Ephesians). If you’ve read his wonderful book The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God you may be familiar with his overarching thesis. Gombis shows how Paul transforms the OT image of the “Divine Warrior” asking how it applies to God and the Church in the New Testament [NT] and how the battle is notably different. Chapter 6 (Vengeance, Wrath and Warfare as Images of Divine Justice in John’s Apocalypse) by Alan S. Bandy wrestles with the NT’s most problematic text as regards divine violence. In Revelation Jesus himself is depicted as an agent of God bringing judgment upon the world. Bandy shows how God’s/Jesus’ actions in this text are connected with martyrdom and God’s defense of his Covenant people. He explains how the Apocalypse may have encouraged Christians who faced death because of their allegiance to Jesus.

Chapter 7 (Compassion and Wrath as Motivations for Divine Warfare) by David Lamb begins Part Four of the book. Lamb shows the reader how time and again God’s compassion and wrath are his motivation for his judgment, especially when people are cruel to the oppressed. He concludes that, “Readers of the Old Testament may continue to be disturbed by divine warfare texts and the issues these texts raise here. However, warfare motivated by compassion and by anger is less problematic than warfare motivated by other motives.” [6]

In Chapter 8 (Holy War and חרם) is by the same author as Chapter 2, Douglas E. Earl. Again, he brings his expertise on Joshua to the discussion, warning against the mistake of applying the same definition to all uses of חרם in the OT (“the ban,” the spoils). This is one of the most intriguing chapters. Earl mixes historical-critical work alongside literary studies in order to arrive at a theological position that may be more aligned with a Christian reading of Joshua.

Chapter 9 (Crusade in the Old Testament and Today) by Daniel R. Heimbach may be the chapter that left me the uneasiest. It is the first essay of Part Five. While the author does his best to defend the traditional depictions of Yahweh war, and while he does denounce modern misapplications like the Crusades of the Church, he proposes that those “who accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God” must conclude that these depictions of God in the OT affirm “the accuracy, worthiness and continuity of God’s moral order revealed in the Old Testament.” [7] In other words, he doesn’t embrace dispensationalist ideas, or those ideas that would distinguish God’s actions in the past from the present, but concludes that if the same prerequisites were to be met today then Yahweh war is something that would be justifiable again. This point is made to validate eschatological imagery of Jesus using violence to judge the world someday, which he concludes is Yahweh war reinstated. While his overall argument is not illogical, the possibility of present application is worrisome: how would one know that God was calling his people to participate in divine war? (He gives his prerequisites, but it is up to the reader to decide their merit.)

Chapter 10 (The Ethics of “Holy War” for Christian Morality and Theology) by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan explores whether or not it would be inconsistent for God to command not to kill (in general) while then commanding to kill (in particular) at other times. The authors provide many good reasons for concluding that it is not inconsistent, but unlike Heimbach, and more like Earl, these two are more akin to interpret many of God’s OT commands regarding violence and genocide as hyperbolic or as a reflection of the literature of the day where “war stories” were always told as if the enemy was completely annihilated whereas history shows that this was conventional jargon, not a reflection of actual practice (much like a high school football player may tell his parents that his team “slaughtered” the opponent and “dominated” them in a 13-7 win). This is one of the most well-argued and written chapters in the book.

Glen Harold Stassen discusses how the Hebrew prophets promoted peace and justice in Chapter 11 (The Prophet’s Call for Peacemaking Practice). Chapter 12  (“Holy War,” Divine Action and the New Atheism: Philosophical Considerations) by Robert Stewart attempts to address the rhetorical criticisms of the New Atheism (Dawkins, Harris, et al.) as they might relate to divine violence. This chapter is interesting because he shows how broadly theistic, classically theistic, and non-inerrantist Christian responses do not suffer from the charges brought forth by the New Atheism. The one group (which he represents) that has their work cut out for them are inerrantist Christians. Chapter 14 (“Holy War: and the New Atheism: A Theological Response) by Stephen N. Williams deals with the same basic subject, examining theological questions related to holy war.

Part Six begins with Chapter 13 (The Unholy Notion of “Holy War”: A Christian Critique) wherein Murry Rae defends Christian pacifism. This is a very well-written, well-researched chapter. Rae shows how the early Church was almost unanimously against Christian participation in the military citing Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, the story of Maximilianus of Numidia, Origen of Alexandria (especially his response the Celsus), Tertullian, and even Canon 12 of the Council of Nicaea as all denouncing Christian military service. He shows how this majority position became a minority (even sectarian) position after Constantine, but how it has regained supports since the Second World War. Then Rae surveys and critiques the views of Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, and Oliver O’Donovan, all anti-pacifistic (though Barth was the most sympathetic).

In the Afterward (Old Testament “Holy War” and Christian Morality: Where Do We Go from Here?) Evans and Thomas provide ideas for further study and research. As I noted above, they confess that this volume doesn’t settle the matter. It doesn’t come close. It does get the discussion started though, which may be the intent. Also, unlike someone reading just Niebuhr or just John Howard Yoder or just Stanley Hauerwas, this book will provide different takes on the same broad subject from different angles. The reader is bound to come across chapters where she does not agree with the author’s message whereas other chapters will be more agreeable.

Concluding Thoughts:

This is a daring book. It attempts to do a lot, maybe too much, but I think it succeeds overall. Whereas it has one glaring weakness—it is all over the map moving from Joshua to pacifism to the New Atheism—it’s weakness may be its greatest strength as well. It is exceptionally suited to be a textbook for guiding an evangelical discussion regarding “holy war,” divine judgement, the relationship of the OT to the NT, hermeneutics, and ethics. If someone is aiming to do a book study, a small group, or even teach a class on this broad topic this book will be very helpful for introducing people to a wide-array of opinions. Likewise, it will show the reader that one’s philosophical underpinnings are determinative for how one approaches this subject. (The major divide being between inerrantists and non-inerrantists evangelicals.) Those who are not evangelical may gain a lot from this book as well because (1) you’ll be more aware of how evangelicals are approaching these subjects and (2) you may find solidarity with some of these author’s arguments. As you may have gathered from my tone I think Chapters 5, 8, 10, and 13 are the most helpful. Others will find other chapters more fitting. It has a little something for everyone to affirm, and a little something for everyone to denounce, which makes for a good reading experience.

This book was provided for free in exchanged for an unbiased review.


[1] p. 324

[2] p. 332

[3] See pp. 336-337.

[4] p. 41

[5] p. 44

[6] p. 151

[7] p. 199