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“There is no effrontery in burning to know, out of faithful piety, the divine and inexpressible truth that is above us, provided the mind is fired by the grace of our Creator and Savior, and not inflated by arrogant confidence in its own powers” ~ Augustine (354–430)[1]

“The proper rule of things to be believed and disbelieved is not the apprehension of their possibility or impossibility, but the Word of God” ~ Francis Turretin (1623–1687)[2]

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Nothing New under the Sun

Marcion (85–160 AD) is still with us.

Armed with a strong disdain for Judaism and a virulent hatred of the material world, Marcion didn’t like what he read in the Old Testament. Not only was he unwilling to accept what the Bible revealed about God as creator of the world, he also didn’t care much for its portrayal of God executing judgment on people. So, Marcion did what any “reasonable” person would do: he dismissed the Old Testament out of hand and insisted that God is only love. And according to Marcion, Jesus’ teaching is all about love—except for those portions of Jesus’ teaching that didn’t comport with Marcion’s definition of love. Apparently those sayings were “interpolations” inserted by those desiring to subvert Christ’s original message.[3]

Alas, nothing is new under the sun.

A recent conversation with someone brought Marcion’s views back into the limelight for me. This person insisted that the God of the Old Testament is different from the sweet and tender Jesus of the New Testament—except for when the Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t seem so sweet and tender.

When confronted with the “hard sayings” of Jesus, my conversation partner retorted that those texts had been corrupted by the church. After carefully pointing out how often Jesus and other New Testament writers spoke of divine judgment, my friend could only sigh and confess, “I guess I need to read the Bible more.” Still, this person kept returning to Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37–39: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This, according to my friend, is the heart of Jesus’ message. However, I kindly pointed out the following verse: “On these two commandments depend the Law and the Prophets” (v. 40). To point out the obvious, Jesus was quoting the Old Testament (Deut. 6:5).

I proceeded to highlight for my friend that the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37–39) was not the gospel. Indeed, we need Christ’s sacrifice precisely because we neither consistently nor authentically live out the Great Commandment. Visibly frustrated by my comments, my friend asked, “Why do you keep talking about sin?”

In truth, what this person struggled with is not new. It’s consistent with what most Americans (and perhaps even what some people in our pews) believe. The gist of it is this: God is all love and no wrath . . . and people get to define “love” however they want.

Help from a Dutchman

Enter Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), the eminent Dutch theologian who succeeded Abraham Kuyper at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902. In the third volume of his Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck provides a biblical response to Marcion and his contemporary intellectual descendants.

Let’s consider his response together.

First, Christians have always held that the Bible tells one story. Scripture unfolds the triune God’s unwavering commitment to have a people for himself through Jesus Christ. The law, the prophets, and the Psalms point to Christ (Luke 24:25–27, 44; see also Jn. 5:39–47), predict his coming, and illuminate the scope and significance of his mediatorial work (think Old Testament sacrifices). Hence Paul’s insistence that the types and shadows of the old covenant have given way to the substance—which is Christ (Col. 2:17). Since the entirety of the Bible tells one story, the early church rightly judged Marcion’s teaching heretical.

Secondly (and building upon the first point), Christian reflection entails patiently attending to the entirety of the biblical witness. Thus, Bavinck observes: “it is one-sided and conducive to error if one takes one of these names [attributes of God]—disregarding all the others—to be the full revelation of God.”[4] Faithful biblical exposition, therefore, necessitates declaring not only “God is love,” but also God is holy, righteous, and just.[5] According to Bavinck (along with the Bible, incidentally) the problem with Marcion was his faulty assumption (based upon his failure to attend to all of Scripture) that justice, holiness, and wrath were not perfections of God. Instead, he wrongly maintained that “only love describes his being”[6]—a love that’s never properly defined.

Thirdly, Bavinck noted that Marcion (along with his intellectual offspring) failed to properly understand grace. While he loved to beat the drum of God’s love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, he failed to provide biblically informed definitions for these attributes. For example, we need answers to the following questions: How is God forgiving? What is he forgiving? What is grace? What is mercy?

In his response to those with Marcionite tendencies, Bavinck cleverly noted that the attributes of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness assume God has sin to forgive; they presuppose his wrath and demonstrate the need for atonement. In one of his more profound paragraphs, Bavinck noted:

Remember: grace is that perfection in God by which, for some reason or other, he relinquishes his rights. Hence, if as the righteous and holy one he did not have the right to punish, we cannot speak of grace in relation to him either. Similarly, the highest love in God, that is, forgiving love that is revealed in Christ, is no longer love if in God’s righteous judgment sin did not deserve to be punished. Those who deny justice thereby also deny grace.[7]

Without realizing it, in their zeal to exterminate any notion of God’s judgment, they simultaneously strip God’s love of meaning.

If one cares at all about following the storyline of Scripture, it’s impossible to miss that Scripture specifically links Christ’s death to our sin (1 Cor. 15:3).[8]  He was made a curse for our sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). He’s the propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 2:2; Rev. 5:9; 7:14). He offered himself up for our redemption, which implies sin (Heb. 1:3; 2:17; 7:27; 9:12; 10:12; 1 Pet. 1:18; 2:24). Jesus himself stated that he came to give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Identifying himself as the Son of Man figure in the prophet Daniel (7:13–14), Jesus declared that he came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). He announced that his mission was to call sinners to repentance (5:32). Indeed, his incarnation was not a self-serving act, but a necessary component of his salvific work: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” as the angel told Mary (Matt. 1:21, emphasis mine).

The biblical testimony, therefore, does not depict Christ as a martyr, and neither does it portray him as a naïve prophet who, though sincere, was mistaken about the timing of the kingdom’s arrival. Rather, he’s revealed as knowing beforehand what was to take place. He specifically indicates that Judas’s handing him over was . . . wait for it . . . determined by God (Luke 22:22). His suffering was necessary (Luke 24:26), so that he might bear the sins of many (Matt. 20:28), thus procuring forgiveness for his people (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13)—all points which Peter reiterated during his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:23; cf. 3:18; 4:28).[9]

An Old, Old Story, A Question of Authority

However you slice it, this is an issue of authority. Marcion and his progeny dismiss the Old Testament because they dislike what it says. Finding the teaching of Scripture amenable to our tastes, however, is not the criterion of truth. Our vocation as image bearers means we’re not at liberty to reject what God reveals.

Therefore, engaging in “canonical amputation”[10] entails arrogating to ourselves authority we do not possess. We are receivers of revelation, not commanders who decide what we will accept from God.

As E. J. Young pointed out years ago, “If God is the creator, and man the creature, there is no way in which man can set himself up as a judge of what God has revealed.”[11]

Those divorcing the Old Testament from the New Testament think they know better than God. They hold the Bible up to their standard of thinking and find God wanting. This has been the tack of Protestant Liberalism from the beginning. And as J. I. Packer poignantly observes, liberalism is subjectivism trying to be Christianity.[12] Whereas fallen humanity “craves a thought-life free from the rule of God,”[13] Christian theology is the faithful articulation of the entire biblical witness—both Old and New Testaments—“the two lips by which God has spoken to us.”[14] Christians, therefore, are stewards of the mysteries of God, not sovereigns who get to select what they will or will not accept as sacred Scripture.

Conclusion

Not only are the so-called “texts of terror” in the Old Testament understandably difficult to digest, but readers also naturally recoil at the gruesome details described in the various wars recounted in the Bible, along with the passages describing rape and other sexual sins—to say nothing of the despicable behavior of some of the patriarchs.

Nevertheless, ditching the Old Testament is not the best way forward. Instead, bringing our questions before the Lord honestly and admitting our perplexity at what we read is the way of faith seeking understanding. On our knees before God, sitting in holy silence, only able to voice our laments as we contemplate God’s Word and ways is appropriate. But standing over God’s Word, itching to excise large swaths of the sacred text is not becoming to our humanity.

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[1] The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill, The Works of Saint Augustine (Brooklyn, NY: New City, 1991), 51.

[2] Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 1. 8. 19.

[3] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, rev. ed.(New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 1:74.

[4] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 372.

[5] In addition to having a biblically informed definition of love, people also need to learn that the Bible speaks about God’s love in more than one way. I highly recommend reading D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000).

[6] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 374.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 390.

[9] Again, Bavinck’s masterful treatment of this topic is worth reading in its entirety. See ibid., 368–417, especially.

[10] Language borrowed from Michael Allen, “Disputation for Scholastic Theology: Engaging Luther’s 97 Theses,” Themelios 44:1 (2019): 105–119.

[11] E. J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth: Some Thoughts on the Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration (1963; Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 189.

[12] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 153.

[13] Ibid., 171.

[14] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust), 26.