Some Thoughts on God’s Relation to Violence

Last night I put together this list of approaches to God’s relation to violence, especially in the Old Testament. This is off the top of my head. I doubtless have missed some, and perhaps misnamed others, but the list gives us an idea of the variety and attention being given to this important matter these days.

God’s Sovereignty

-the Bible accurately reflects what happened
-God is sovereign and just in all his actions
-therefore there is nothing problematic here even if we today have trouble accepting it


-the Bible accurately reflects what happened
-God meets his people where they are and deals with them in terms of national, political, and religious realities of the time
-God is willing to “get his hands dirty” (that is, act in ways that do not fully reflect his character and will) in order to move with his people toward fuller and clearer expressions of who he is and what he does (e.g. Jesus)

God allows his people to tell his story

-the Bible tells the story of God’s relation to violence in terms of what its authors understood and could express
-later revelation (esp. Jesus) brings more clarity to the way God’s works in the world
-we honor the intent of these stories (to honor and affirm God’s greatness and sovereign power) while not necessarily claiming the literal truth of their stories


-the Bible is a story made up of various chapters. How God has dealt with the his people and led them in earlier chapters of the story do not prescribe how he does that in later chapters
-God did what he is described as doing in these earlier chapters of the story (the so-called Conquest). But since Christ we live in a new and later chapter of the story in which he has revealed God’s will and way for us. This new later chapter is organically related to the earlier chapters. That is, it is the same story that has grown out of the earlier chapters. Indeed, it would not be the story it is without them!

God misunderstood approach

-here the claim is that the authors of the Old Testament have misunderstood what they believed God had done or asked them to do
-therefore, the biblical stories did not happen as portrayed and we are free to set them aside in our effort to understand and follow God


-the biblical authors of the Old Testament intended to portray the consequences of faithfulness (Joshua) and unfaithfulness (Judges) to YHWH
-their accounts are literary stylizations of these pictures of faithfulness and unfaithfulness that reflect their theological convictions rather than historical reality

God is “recovering” from his “addiction” to violence

-I heard this from Walter Brueggemann (though I have not read his written work on this so I may be misunderstanding him).
-He seems to be saying that God himself “changes” in the course of the biblical story from a God who uses violent means to effect his purposes to one who acts and is known as the “God of peace” we meet in Jesus Christ

As you can see from my cursory and inadequate survey here there is much ferment presently in this area. My categories can be mixed and matched together in a variety of ways. History, exegesis, and theology work together in different ways in these constructs. Much remains to be done but perhaps my little typology will get you started in getting into this crucial discussion. Again, this typology is inadequate and inelegant, flawed and simplistic – but just maybe it might help someone.


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