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)
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.”  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.”  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.  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.”  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.”  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.” 
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.”  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.
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.
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 See pp. 336-337.
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I challenge you to think again about the implications of chapter 9. The day of the Lord throughout the Old Testament prophets is a non-supernatural military disaster brought on as a tool of God’s judgment against a nation. In the later prophets this is threatened against Judah. In the New Testament Jesus, Peter, and Paul threaten the generation living at that time with a day of the Lord without hinting at a change of definition from the Old Testament usage. Nowhere in scripture is the day of the Lord redefined, so that the final climatic day of the Lord (synonymous with the concepts of the Second Coming or Second Advent, though these terms don’t exist in scripture) of eschatology is nothing more than a military disaster. There are no scriptural grounds for amplifying these events into something in which the entire physical universe is melted and then rebuilt.
Thank you for the challenge.
Above “ … how would one know that God was calling his people to participate in divine war?”
Let’s see. We are called:
– to go into the world [Matt 16:15].
– to uphold values the world hates [John 8:23][John 15:19]
– proclaim a Gospel that testifies to the world its works are evil [John 7:7]
– to model ourselves on a saviour the world hates [John 1:10][John 15:18]
– to become hated for Christ’s sake because of our love of Christ [John 17:14]
The logical conclusion can be nothing less than peace in Christ IS enmity in the world (so divine war)
Jesus Himself said “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33]
If a nation seeks to be in Christ, it will also inevitably be in enmity with the world – which again is divine war. The rejection of worldly values demands nothing less than divine war.
The only Christian theology that doesn’t demand divine war is one that seeks to appease the world, but appeasement with the world means enmity with Christ. Are Christianity’s leaders really so blind, or so in love with with the world, they don’t see how we are called to participate in divine war? Wow.
Glad to know that you’ll know when God is telling us to go kill the pagans. I’ll keep my eye on you and follow your lead!
Thanks for the review. I’m looking forward to Boyd’s new book on the same subject.
Brian did I say that? I said that one cannot be both in Christ and in the World. That dichotomy is directly in the bible as cited.
The bible calls us to not be enamoured with the world. I notice that you didn’t deal with that.
Tell us – is the natural state of sinful man to be at peace (with God or one’s neighbour), or to wage war?
You’re welcome. I think I’ve heard of Boyd’s book, but I don’t remember the details now.
In response to my question about a particular chapter you wrote “Seriously?” Then you went on the give a reply. Unless I’m mistaken you are upset that I don’t know how to wage divine warfare, and you do, so you’re telling us how to do it. If you mean figuratively, metaphorically, spiritually, or whatever then see my summary of Chapter 5 where Gombis does discuss divine warfare from that angle.
My mood is an irreverent ad hominem consideration. It is a rhetorical distraction.
I’m not actually upset, but whether or not I am it wouldn’t improve or detract from the validity of the argument I make. I am, however, expressing surprise that any professing Christian would deny Christ’s call to be at enmity with the world, or deny the consequential requirement to participate in a ‘divine war’ (against its values, its rejection of God).
You twist my words (in a defensive way). I don’t claim”God is telling us to go kill the pagans“. Our own sinfulness already does that. The world is at war with itself and God. God does not need to tell us anything of the sort. Rather than commenting on my mood, how about commenting on the assertion that “If Christ is an anathema to the world and we are like Him, so are we.”?
When we stand for a redeemer-saviour, and advocate for His holy life, we also testify that the works of this world are evil. Do you really think that this warring world is going to peaceably accept such a testimony against it?
At the heart of pacifism is humanism which contains a denial that man in his current state is fundamentally sinful. Christian pacifism IS worldly because it seeks peace with a world that hates and rejects Christ … except that without Christ there can be no peace. A world that rejects Christ cannot be at peace (either with itself or those who testify against it). These themes are all found in Christ’s words.
If you’re going to advocate for peace you’re going to have to pose a theology that grapples with the world’s rejection of it’s creator.
This will be my last reply to you on this thread. It is merely a book review. I’m not aiming to debate the merits of holy war, just war, or pacifism here. Obviously, I have my views, but I don’t hold them as dogmatically as you might think. I realize there are complexities involved and I take that into consideration.
Also, I didn’t say your attitude detracted from your argument. I didn’t know that you made an “argument.” I see a few assertions though. So, no, it is not ad hominem for me to mention you seem a bit upset, even aggressive, though this is the case with many of your comments. Maybe I can’t read you through your writing, but you appeared geared up for a fight. I’m not interested. If you think this book may interest you, great, read it, enjoy. If not, fine. If you have questions about the book I’d be happy to clarify those since that is what this post is about.
Brian, sorry. I thought this post was about the subject of the book (Holy War), rather than the book itself (and I wish you would stop crediting me with wanting to start a fight). Christ was truth. I value truth above favour. I may not esteem opinions above valid reason, I am, nevertheless, mindful of them, and try to be irenic. Like you, I am not dogmatic (meaning I give up currently held beliefs given adequate reason), however I am not afraid to point out faulty logic.
I would like to build on your irenicism by asking about Christ-likeness (which I’m sure we both completely agree upon). Although ‘divine war may be a consequence of a call for evangelism and sanctification’, Christ calls us to be like him, adopting a spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
The God of the OT is credited with not exhibiting any of those traits – and certainly your review makes it seem that’s what motivates people who wrestle with this issue.
Did any of the authors in this book speak directly to the issue of whether or not Christ and the God of the OT exhibit similar traits? Do any of them speak to the challenge of exhibiting these properties while proclaiming truth to a world that rejects truth?
I’d say that is an overarching concern of this book. Chapter 5 addresses what it means to participate in divine war as a Christian and how Christ has transformed divine war. Chapter 6 wrestles with Christ’s role in the Apocalypse and what that means for Christians. Chapter 9 is more eschatological in focus, but does ask what it might mean for God to declare divine war now. Chapter 10 deals with whether or not God’s commands are consistent. Chapter 13 takes a strong pacifistic stance based on the resurrection of Christ.
A lot of our problems with the OT is our flawed view of Jesus, IMO. For example, He pronounced the worst judgment in history on Jerusalem(Matthew 24,Mark 13) and Josephus wrote a nice book detailing the revolting details of it. That was after His sacrificial death. That doesn’t sound like a Johnny Appleseed pacifist Jesus to me that we’re “comparing” to OT pre Incarnate “meany” Yahweh like Marcion did.
Same God that smacked down Sodom, 180,000 Assyrians before Jerusalem, caused the flood, commanded Joshua to wipepout the nephilim, etc. Jesus said His judgment on Jerusalem was the worst of the worse folks, way worse than any previous calamity we’re questioning . So, are we sure Jesus is a pacifist compared to the OT Yahweh since He said 70 AD was the worst calamity in history and He pronounced the judgement?
There are warnings in the NT about us receiving potential death judgments ourselves for evil conduct as well and sometimes our innocent infant kids get caught up in these judgements as well, it happens all the time. What happens if God decides the US must receive deadly judgment, will lots of infants die? Sure will. That is Christ doing that folks. He is the King of the earth with all power and all judgment in His hands.
Indeed, these are things to consider, and the contributors do that. Christ’s role as Judge (especially as it relates to the Apocalypse) receives a lot of attention in Chapter 6. Chapter 9 is another one that touches on this, especially as it relates to eschatology.
The question is, how far does Jesus predict judgments past what Patrick describes?
Indeed, there are many questions. You may enjoy this book!
Before Christianity was an idea floating around Judaism about the ‘two Messiahs’. Basically people saw in the Messianic literature the ‘suffering servant’, the meek shepherd motif. However they also saw the Davidic King, the conqueror.
We see in the New Covenant text itself the hope of the disciples for the latter (the conquering King). We now know that Jesus came as the former (the lamb).
Christianity has no problem with two messiahs because it sees in the Missional Christ the lamb of God who was slain who brought redemption. Revelation has another view of the returning Messiah who brings judgement – the Davidic King.
The dilemma is that we see these two kings as very different, but in fact (as James says) God does not possess shade or variation. In fact Mercy and Wrath were both there at the Cross, and Mercy and Wrath (I would argue) are both found in the OT God as well as the Messianic Christ.
That’s how Messiah is variously portrayed, both the suffering servant and the Davidic king who rules with an iron rod. One thing that is confusing is seeing Christ on the cross and then seeing historic judgments with all the attendant disastrous historic stuff.
Christ paid for our sins, but, we still get to pay partially here if we’re bad enough. From that human view, I can see how some folks are confused by the totality of God’s interaction with man.
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