Swinburne on Interpretation of the Old Testament


The modern world… has become very conscious of the fact that some passages of the Old Testament cannot be treated [in a literal or straightly historical way]; for they state (and not merely presuppose) scientific and historical falsities, or they represent God as commanding immoral conduct (not merely conduct which might seem less than the best), or otherwise behaving immorally. It has therefore tended to say that the Old Testament contains a mixture of truth and falsity, revelation and misunderstanding; and that attitude of course leads to a fairly low view of the sacredness of Scripture. And if one reads the books of the Old Testament on their own, either straight or historically, one must certainly say that, if God was inspiring the development of Israel and its recording in the Old Testament, his inspiration got mixed with much error. But what the modern world has forgotten is that the Church, which followed Irenaeus and subsequent Fathers in proclaiming the Old Testament to be Scripture, also followed the way which he initiated in interpreting in metaphorical senses many passages of that Testament which were not edifying if taken in straight or historical senses. As noted above, Irenaeus himself tends to assume that all such passages are to be understood in straight or historical ways, even if they had also a more important metaphorical meaning. But his successors took the logical step of maintaining that these passages had only a metaphorical meaning (or more than one metaphorical meaning). This metaphorical meaning is a meaning forced on the passage, not by considerations of the need to make sense of that passage as a passage of the biblical book taken on its own, but by the need to make sense of it as part of a Christian Scripture.

Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy p 265


13 Responses to “Swinburne on Interpretation of the Old Testament”

  1. Martin Says:

    On the Energetic Procession blog you mentioned: “If you have any further questions, (which I assume you will) please feel free to inquire, and I will do my best to answer them using Swinburne’s method.”

    Using Swinburne’s method, how would you understand the account of Sodom and Gomorrah? In this account, we learn something about the mercy of God and his willingness to spare these cities for the sake of a few righteous. Additionally, the righteous Lot and his family who are in Sodom appear to have been removed by the angels prior to the destruction. However, the difficulty arises when one considers the actual destruction of these cities. One answer which is popular in some Protestant circles and writings (e.g., Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) is to suggest that these people are sinful, including the children and infants, and that the just wrath of God is glorified in retributively burning them alive for their sins. Of course, if God tortures men, women, and children for eternity in retribution for their sins, the destruction of Sodom doesn’t look so cruel in comparison.

    As for explaining it in a way where God does not literally destroy the city, a couple of options seem to be:
    1) To entirely discount the destruction of Sodom as a real historical event.
    2) To grant the destruction of Sodom, but attribute it to naturalistic causes (e.g., a volcano) or a cause other than God.

    Both of these options lead to another question. Why does the author of the narrative appear to attribute the destruction to God?

  2. MG Says:


    You’re absolutely right; the allegorical method for dealing with these issues would commit us to either 1) or 2).

    The issue of why the author seems to attribute the destruction to God has to be approached from two sides. First, if the text were read literally, would the destruction implicate God in evil? Second, if this would indeed implicate God in evil, then would it be legitimate to question the literal read (or would it be ad hoc)?

    I won’t try to answer the first question.

    As for the second question, this leads to a host of considerations. Lets take a contextually-careful look at the larger framework of interpretation into which this verse needs to be inserted. Consider (I will briefly summarize the way Swinburne might use these):

    1. New Testament attitude (Jesus’, Paul’s) to Old Testament texts. For one thing, Jesus doesn’t seem to think that the OT represents a perfect morality (“Moses permitted this because of the hardness of your hearts”). It is not the pinnacle of a perfect religious morality. In terms of specific treatment of the OT text in question, it is true that Jesus speaks of how some cities are worse than Sodom and Gomorrah which would have repented if given a chance to see the miracles of Christ. But we need to be careful to distinguish between the expression of a proposition and the cultural assumptions of the interpretive community that expresses it. Clearly when an intelligent adult mayer of a city says to his people “Santa has been generous to the poor of our city this year” he doesn’t literally endorse the existence of Santa himself; he is trying to express the graciousness of the residents of the city in a poetic and pointed way. Similarly it is possible that Jesus is expressing a proposition such as “these miracles should be received by anyone who sees them” by using the assumptions of narrative tradition of his culture, without actually intending to endorse the literal existence of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or perhaps he does accept their literal existence, but is making no claims about the particular divine judgment that a literal read of the text in Genesis would imply.

    2. Jesus’ moral teachings. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and do good to those that hate us. He tells us to turn the other cheek. He prays from the cross “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. A kind of nuanced nonviolence seems to be presupposed. Unnecessary harm is to be avoided. This doesn’t amount to an unqualified pacifism, though. Otherwise why would Jesus tell his disciples to take a sword? And why would John the Baptist (who presents the same morality as Christ) tell soldiers to accept their pay? And why would Jesus praise the faith of a Roman Centurion, and not ask him to repent of his violations of a pacifist ethic? So a kind of assumption that unnecessary violence is wrong, and that peaceful solutions come first and are inherently more effective for realizing the human good, seems to be driving the teachings of Christ.

    3. Patristic interpretation of the OT problem texts. I suppose that taking a look at the Fathers would reveal some allegories of Sodom and Gomorrah; and I would also guess that some of them read it as non-historical (and note: by Fathers, I don’t mean Origen). I will have to look into this, and get back to you. But lets assume that we don’t actually have an example of patristic allegorization of this text to the exclusion of its normal, literal meaning. The fact that some Fathers allegorized other “problem texts” (to the exclusion of an historical meaning) by invoking the same exegetical principles could imply that the same approach can be taken with this text as well.

    4. The rule of faith. The rule of faith tells us about God’s unqualified goodness in sending his Son to humbly die on a cross. The theological assumptions about divine goodness that are behind its statements about the Father, Son, and Spirit are that God loves all human beings and actively wills their life and salvation.

    5. The interpretive order of biblical books. The New Testament comes first, especially the Gospels. The image of God we see in Jesus would lead us to at least question whether or not God would do something such as actively taking the lives of innocent people.

    6. The rules of allegorical interpretation of texts. If we are treating the Bible in a commonsense sort of way, we should be willing to consider the possibility that under some circumstances (that would be reasonable independently of whether or not we were dealing with *the Bible* specifically) we should resort to allegory to the exclusion of the literal meaning of a text. The principle rule of allegorical interpretation is this: if an author had a sentence in his or her book (or other literary work) that, if read literally, would be more absurd (in context) than the idea that this author actually intended the sentence to be read allegorically, then it is best to allegorize it.

    For instance, lets say we are reading the letters of a woman to her sister about her life. We read ten letters by this woman which reveal her to be a morally outstanding person. She is an example of virtue that is hard to match–or at least, so we infer from reading her letters; and we have no reason to think otherwise. Now, if a normally-amiable female writer went on a two-sentence rant about how she wanted to kill her husband, and immediately afterwards she said “I love him so much”, and we did not have good reason to think the author was insane, then this would be good grounds for not taking the author literally in those two sentences. Based on what is clear about the author, we should conclude that she did not intend herself to be taken literally.

    Perhaps the same can be said with respect to the OT incident in question. If we start with what is clearly (or at least, more clearly) Christian teaching–the rule of faith, the actions and teachings of Jesus, the primacy of the NT, the moral imperfection of the OT–then one might think (analogously to the example above) that the Sodom and Gomorrah incident should be seen as not literal. If what is clear about the Christian vision of God should lead us to suspect that God (as one of the authors of Genesis) would not want to literally mean what the author seems to say (prior to taking other considerations into account) then this makes it reasonable to think that we shouldn’t take it literally. Notice that this wouldn’t imply we should allegorize and deny the historicity of the whole OT–just the parts that, if taken literally, would be in tension with Christian morality.

    7. Our moral intuitions and understanding from the natural world of who God is. Swinburne thinks that it is most reasonable (even apart from special revelation) to think God is morally good. I would agree that God’s grace and revelation in the natural world attest to this, but I can’t get into why at this time.

    8. The Christological meaning of the OT. The fact that Jesus himself implies that the OT is *about him* (John 5:39, I think), and that Paul thinks all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in Christ, should lead us to think that a Christian would want to use Christ as the interpretive key to the Scriptures. If we start with Christ as the most clear revelation of God, then this might give us reason to think that some things that seem to conflict with Christ’s own life and teaching in the Scriptures should be allegorized.

    9. Jewish interpretation of the OT problem texts. This shouldn’t factor in as big, but it is something important to consider, if we can find ancient (pre-Christian) Jewish interpretations of the incident (I’m not aware of any).

    I forgot to add a 10th factor, which Swinburne himself brings up. This is information internal to the biblical books in question, or their independently-known historical context, that could undercut a literal reading of the text in question. Sometimes these considerations can imply that, even before considering a biblical book in the context of the Christian canon and its interpretive tradition, there are reasons to think that specific passages from it should not be read literally. I will try to offer Swinburne’s example (where he deals with “how joyous it is to dash the heads of the little ones of Babylon upon the rocks”) next time I get a chance to look up the references. I will also try to include Swinburne’s argument that the NT engages in at least one case of “pure allegory”.

    To sum up: the human author of the narrative may have tried to mistakenly attribute some act to God that He did not do. If we give a “yes” answer to the first question I posed, then it may imply that the human author simply got something wrong when the text is considered by itself, apart from its insertion into the Christian canon and apart from its partial authorship by the God revealed in Christ. But when the narrative is inserted into the larger interpretive framework of the Scriptures (as I explained above); and we take into account that God is the author of the narrative in question; and we consider what we clearly know about God’s character in Christ; then it may be legitimate (and not ad hoc) to say that the sense in which God wants us to read the text is other than what it seemed at first (when read literally). So perhaps the reason the text seems to attribute the destruction to God is because the human author was actually trying to do this. But on a second look, through the lens of Christ and the Church’s interpretive tradition, this is seen to not be the actual meaning. The clarity of the love of Jesus Christ illumines what seems confusing, and we can realize in retrospect that perhaps God’s decision to include this book in the biblical canon means God’s implicit suspension of the literal meaning of this text as a part of the content of Christian revelation.

  3. Martin Says:

    Thank you for fleshing out the principles with this example. This will certainly provide a head start for when I get to reading Swinburne’s book.

    Within the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah there are some interesting passages that seem to require a non-literal reading. For example, God says he will go down to see if the inhabitants are guilty according to the outcry. Well, God doesn’t need to go down to Sodom to find this out. I’m not sure the author believes God needs to do this either. So, what is the meaning of saying this? I’m not sure. Perhaps this is to indicate something about God and how he personally deals with mankind.

    The destruction of Sodom in general invokes theodicy. Even if God passively permits the destruction, as opposed to actively causing it, there is the question of how that is reconcilable with who God is. The only way to entirely circumvent this is to render the account entirely allegorical so that the destruction of Sodom is not a historical event at all. However, if we do grant the destruction of Sodom in history, then the impetus may come down to whether an active destruction can be reasonably avoided through allegory. The question of whether an active destruction on the part of God would be evil, itself seems somewhat difficult. I’m not certain that it would or would not be evil. However, I am certain that God does not commit evil.

  4. MG Says:


    That’s a good point about there being non-literal elements, I didn’t think about that. However, even taking into account the fact that some of the language can’t be taken literally if read according to its historical meaning, it does seem like the historical meaning of the text as including active divine judgment can be called into question.

    But you’re right about theodicy. Even if some of the things that the OT seems to describe God actively doing can be allegorized to imply that God was not willfully acting to bring about the destruction, it still has to be true that God would not be immoral in permitting the event to occur. And even if we considered the text allegorical to the exclusion of any similar historical incident happening, this doesn’t mean there aren’t horrible things that happen that any theodicy (or other strategy for dealing with the intellectual problem of evil) should account for.

    I think the function of pure allegory as an apologetic strategy in instances like these is to try to deny divine involvement that would implicate God in evil. The idea is that God may not be culpable for permitting the many horrible things that actually happen, but doing something that involves trying to actively harm the innocent (or something else that seems morally questionable) would implicate God in evil. Assuming some kind of defense can be given for the existence of gratuitous evil (both moral and natural), it would still be incumbent on a Christian to deny that God can be implicated in any of the evils that occur. I agree that God does not commit evil; I’m just not sure exactly what that implies about the allegorization of the Old Testament, because I’m not sure if any of the stuff that is recorded in it is divine evil, if read literally.

    One of the weird things about Swinburne’s strategy, if successful, is that it implies that as soon as it becomes implausible for an interpreter to think that a good God would do what the text literally says, the apparent problem goes away. So even if one hasn’t come to any kind of conclusions about whether or not God would have been immoral in actively harming the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, the interpretation is always available. That is, of course, assuming that Swinburne’s approach isn’t implausible. There are certain assumptions about the Bible that make Swinburne’s solution untenable for a Protestant: historical-grammatical method is the only or primary way to interpret; the interpretive history of the text has little bearing on how it should be read; there is no “order of interpretation” to how texts should be read–except perhaps “don’t start trying to understand what salvation is by reading Jesus; start with Paul, who is clearer” (did anyone forget 2 Peter 3:15-16?); the text is to be read as divorced from the teaching of an authoritative oral rule of interpretation. And there are assumptions about the goodness of God that many (note: not all) Protestants accept that would lead them to insist that there is no need to allegorize if God appears to do evil: divine voluntarism (the Good is “whatever God wills”); God’s will is inscrutable so even if he appears to do evil that just shows that we have a radically messed-up understanding of the good; inherited guilt; etc. But once we jettison these assumptions about biblical interpretation and divine goodness, I can’t see what’s so bad about Swinburne’s approach.

  5. A. C. Gleason Says:

    I was recently reading the four views book on Canaanite Genocide and when I reached the Wesleyan view I thought “I bet Michael believes something similar to this.” And it turned out to be true! You might want to take a look at that book when you get the chance. It would be interesting to see some of your criticisms of the non Wesleyan views.

    The conversation hasn’t gone this way yet but what scientific errors do you think exist in the Old Testament? Because I was recently introduced to a view of Genesis 1 and 2 that I think (if true) solves many evangelical bible vs. science concerns, but are there other things you find troublesome?

  6. MG Says:


    Hey, thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your interaction, as always. And we should hang out sometime soon if you’re still in the area.

    I will have to get that book and read it. I’ve seen it floating around before in libraries and book stores. But now that you’ve said that some Wesleyans might agree with me, I’ll have to look into it.

    By the way, just to clarify a few things, in case it wasn’t clear from the above discussion, and in case you’re interested: I think the OT is predominantly historical. I also think many of the things that modern people think are “unfair” or “brutish” of God to do actually are *not* when we consider the situation more carefully; so Swinburne’s (or shall we say, the strategy used by some Fathers) approach doesn’t come into play with all apparent instances of divine immorality, because some aren’t actually immoral. Also, I don’t claim to know one way or the other whether there are in fact any such passages that need to be allegorized; I have my suspicions but I don’t have strong beliefs on these subjects because I’ve seen the Scriptures vindicated from apparent problems in the past so many times. And, finally, I don’t claim this is *the* Orthodox view, just *an* Orthodox view, held by many (but not all) Fathers (including some very significant ones).

    As for scientific errors, I think that some ways of reading Genesis 1-2 make for problems, but not all. Something that seems more clear to me is that there are probably some beasts mentioned in the OT that don’t actually exist. There’s also statements about human biology that seem false. Much of the issues in the OT with science can be handled using Swinburne’s method of distinguishing between the assumptions under which a statement is expressed, and the actual content of the statement; but I think I agree with him that probably, not *all* of them can be handled like this. As with divine immorality, there might be a small remainder of cases that need to be allegorized. That’s what comes to mind at the moment.

  7. David Kaufmann Says:


    I’m fairly certain that Michael would ultimately reject Dr C.S. Cowles’ thesis presented in ‘Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide’. Granted, I read the book years ago and had to draw the book off my shelf to review Cowles’ essay and compare it to Michael’s tentative ‘Swinburnean’ position outlined above. Now, while in certain particulars Michael’s and Cowles’ respective positions would approximate one another, on the issues of paramount importance I think they would part company. Cowles holds to an essentially ‘Anabaptist’ hermeneutic of pacifism (see in this regard Yoder’s ‘The Politics of Jesus’), which, coincidentally, many Methodists and other mainline Christians have appropriated (see the rather fruitful work of Hauerwas). On this matter, see David Bentley Hart’s review, ‘Ecumenical Councils of War’.

    Moreover, and far more disquieting, Cowles appears to unwittingly adhere to a Marcionite dialectical, oppositional dualism of discontinuity which minimises or even eschews the authority of the Old Testament (Cowles’ protestations notwithstanding). Many times throughout his essay, Cowles impugns not simply the prophetic, charismatic integrity of the leaders of Israel (whether Moses, Joshua, or David) but it seems the very infallibility and inspiration of the Scriptures themselves. On certain occasions he calls into doubt the distinct ability of Israel’s rulers to discern the voice and will of God as recorded in the Tanakh and upon other occasions he appears to possess a certain dubiety regarding the inspiration of the text (though, as is probably plain to all, to hold the former position leads inexorably to the latter). Though Michael leans toward the view that there may be a certain small level of (historical and scientific) error in the Scriptures, I do not believe he would deny the very infallibility and inspiration of certain passages of the Old Testament (perhaps Michael might wish to clarify, if he has arrived at a more solid position on this matter). In addition, Cowles’ deep discontinuity between the testaments might appear unattractive to Catholic Christians. Nevertheless, Cowles does commend an allegorical reading on pp. 36-37 though appears subsequently to reject it in favour of a position which he describes as ‘the progressive understanding of God’s self-disclosure’ (cf. pp. 38ff.), a phrase which may sound orthodox as far as it goes, yet holds a sinister portent once Cowles has fleshed it out.

    Having rehearsed the difficulties I have (and think Michael would share) in accepting Cowles’ thesis, I would wish to emphasize points of congruence in which I felt solidarity with Cowles (if in spirit alone). Cowles displays a deep moral abhorrence of genocide, a repugnance which I share. Indeed, he appeared to be the sole contributor in the entire volume who seemed deeply agitated about the sheer abomination of genocide, especially as we stand in the shadow of Auschwitz and the current struggles in Sudan and other nations, with all of the lost hopes, charred pasts, and extinguished futures, of all those innocents who thus suffer; and an ingenuous attempt to seriously and soberly discuss its ethical status. The other three authors appeared overly clinical in their respective presentations. Dr Longman’s essay (the ‘spiritual continuity’ position) was especially exasperating, if not almost perverse, in its discussion regarding the celebratory and oblatory characteristics of ‘harem’ warfare. Nevertheless, it was Longman’s paper which I ultimately found the most persuasive. Moreover, his Christocentrism was absolutely refreshing (though this took a direction in the course of the argument to which I would demur), an absence I found particularly anomalous in the Lutheran contributor’s paper.

    Aaron, concerning Genesis 1 & 2 what position have you recently become acquainted with which appears to heal the rift between evangelicals and modern science? Would it be the ‘Framework’ view (especially as presented by Meredith Kline)? I hope you’re doing well, my brother.


    I own the book Aaron speaks of. I plan on driving down to visit very shortly and can bring the book along with me if you would wish to borrow it. Nota bene, the book does not address the ethical/moral dilemma of genocide in Scripture and its relation to Christian tradition but rather if such Yahweh or ‘harem’ warfare is still applicable to the Church today. This was a realisation which proved unfortunate.

    I must admit your post has provided me with much to consider about these matters; in a fashion more profound then I had hitherto engaged in. For that, I thank you. Though there is still much more to meditate upon. It is a pity I haven’t visited your blog more often (a mistake I shall attempt to remedy). In any case, I find Swinburne’s suggestion highly stimulating and a fascinating proposition; a position I was aware of concerning Genesis 1-11 but not extending to other parts of the Tanakh. I am especially curious as to the degree of acceptance to which such a view has begun to acquire within the field of biblical exegetics (as opposed to theological hermeneutics). However, I think I have gone on quite long enough and I hope you are in good spirits.

    Pax in Christi et Domina nostra,

  8. MG Says:


    Thanks for the comment. Yes, please bring the book down if you are coming to visit. And comment and read over here more often!

    I am likewise fascinated by Swinburne’s solution to the issue of OT immorality, and the fact that it isn’t overwhelmingly implausible (once we jettison Protestant assumptions about the Bible–which are not themselves plausible). Its especially helpful because, unlike some other attempts to deal with what is morally implausible at face value in the OT, it doesn’t require compromise on biblical inerrancy at all. Swinburne’s view is perfectly compatible with inerrancy *properly understood*. It preserves intact various apparent tensions in Christian thought: the goodness of God, the full inspiration of the entire OT, the inerrancy of inspired Scripture. The one Christian conviction that it has tension with is the clarity of Scripture. But this conviction has to be strongly nuanced in order to be plausible in the first place. And Swinburne’s thesis does not commit us to the idea that the interpretation of the OT will be completely arbitrary. We can’t invoke pure allegory just whenever we find something remotely uncomfortable that dissatisfies our modern obsession with “tolerance” (of the contemporary, post-Lockean sort) and “being nice”.

    In fact, Swinburne’s method might be, despite its considerable plausibility, equally offensive to the modern attitude. This is because, first, it requires us to treat a text as more than a scientifically-scrutinized history. And second it demands we view the Scripture as a constituent of a tradition, not something to be grasped by the hands of any ole’ Joe. Thirdly, it requires a trans-historical view of the biblical text as having a fundamental unity of thought, instead of “Paul’s and Jesus’ morality” being different from “ancient Jewish morality” or something else like that.

    I doubt that this view is taken very seriously by biblical exegetes in this day and age generally. But that may be because biblical exegetes in this day and age generally are Protestants of an Evangelical or liberal variety. So I guess the Orthodox need to populate academia more, so that more plausible and morally-sensible understandings of Christianity are talked-about and thought-about and considered more often by intellectuals. 🙂

    This subject (OT immorality) is especially interesting because it is the overlap of so many subjects: peace studies, sociology, anthropology, ethics, theological hermeneutics, apologetics, patristics, and pastoral theology… the list could go on. So I look forward to the interaction of these other disciplines with Swinburne’s suggestion… I have a feeling it will fare well when they consider it.

  9. A. C. Gleason Says:


    Yes I realized that Michael actually didn’t agree with Cowles’ view in light of his response to my original comment. We actually had a phone conversation about it.

    In regards to the view of Genesis 1 and 2 that I recently came across it is not of the reformed framework variety. It is in fact Sailhamer’s narrative view that Genesis 1 only describes the creation of the “land” (aka the promised land). I think this view has great theological merit, especially in light of the fact that Moses lived in a pre-global, pre-scientific world. This view actually lends explanatory power to the entire pentateuch and can be combined with the temple view of Genesis 1 to make an even stronger argument. But when discussing it with my father a few nights ago he pointed out a pretty big problem in the hebrew grammar, so I still read Genesis 1 with fear and trembling.

    Michael you said:

    “I am likewise fascinated by Swinburne’s solution to the issue of OT immorality, and the fact that it isn’t overwhelmingly implausible (once we jettison Protestant assumptions about the Bible–which are not themselves plausible).”

    What assumptions are you talking about?

    Also you said:

    “I doubt that this view is taken very seriously by biblical exegetes in this day and age generally. But that may be because biblical exegetes in this day and age generally are Protestants of an Evangelical or liberal variety. So I guess the Orthodox need to populate academia more, so that more plausible and morally-sensible understandings of Christianity are talked-about and thought-about and considered more often by intellectuals. :)”

    I realize this is partially a joke, but evangelicals do treat the scriptures “as having a fundamental unity of thought, instead of “Paul’s and Jesus’ morality” being different from “ancient Jewish morality” or something else like that.” Why would they publish a four views book discussing the application of Canaanite genocide to our era if they did not believe this?

    Also could you maybe give an example of a “problem” text and then apply Swinburne’s solution to it. Because rereading the snippet which started this whole thing off I’m actually more confused as to what we’re dealing with here specifically.

    What exactly is the position of the Greek church on Canaanite Genocide?

  10. MG Says:


    You wrote:

    “What assumptions are you talking about?”

    I mentioned some of them above: historical-grammatical method is the only or primary way to interpret; the interpretive history of the text has little bearing on how it should be read; there is no “order of interpretation” to how texts should be read–except perhaps “start with Paul” (which has always seemed to me to sit awkwardly with 2 Peter 3:15-16); and the text is to be read as divorced from the teaching of an authoritative oral rule of interpretation. I consider these to be implausible principles at best.

    You wrote:

    “I realize this is partially a joke, but evangelicals do treat the scriptures “as having a fundamental unity of thought, instead of “Paul’s and Jesus’ morality” being different from “ancient Jewish morality” or something else like that.” Why would they publish a four views book discussing the application of Canaanite genocide to our era if they did not believe this?”

    Sure; Evangelicals wouldn’t want to say something like that. But there is the issue of whether or not they can consistently maintain this.

    For instance, think about how Reformed theology seems to slip into divine voluntarism (aka radical divine command theory). There seems to be a tendency to think that God can have quite different standards of morality (both how they should act and how God has declared He will act toward them) for different collections of people based on the fact that some have a certain extrinsic relationship to God, and others have a different extrinsic relationship to God. God’s treatment of some people differently than others is a matter of God’s will, as arrived at by His secret counsel—not a matter of the constitution of the persons He relates to. This implies that God’s morality toward different people can be radically different based entirely off of God’s secret counsel. Even if the “good” is not defined as “that which God wills” per se (though sometimes it is), whether or not someone is good is based entirely on whether or not God wills to regard them as such.

    I’ve also heard people say things like “Paul’s understanding of righteousness is different from Matthew’s understanding of righteousness”. This may not be saying anything thats actually false, but its treading on dangerous ground because sometimes this is used as a license to go beyond what is initially meant by this.

    There’s also, for example, a quote that one of my professors said which I consider to be representative of evangelical biblical scholarship as I’ve understood it: “we don’t primarily interpret the Old Testament in light of the New, but the New Testament in light of the Old.” This seems false, and disruptive to the fundamental unity of the Scriptures on my read of what Jesus and Paul say about the OT, as it did to the Fathers. Though the situation is surely more complicated than just “only interpret the OT in light of the NT”.

    You wrote:

    “Also could you maybe give an example of a “problem” text and then apply Swinburne’s solution to it. Because rereading the snippet which started this whole thing off I’m actually more confused as to what we’re dealing with here specifically.”

    Sure. The slaying of the firstborn of Egypt might be an instance of Moses attributing to God an action that might be immoral—killing innocent people to punish a nation that killed some innocent people within God’s covenant. But we know that God doesn’t do anything immoral, because Jesus shows us this. God does not even will the death of the wicked—much less the innocent. So St. Gregory of Nyssa says “do not be surprised if this did not happen”. He allegorizes the situation: Egypt is a kind of symbol of evil (this is, interestingly, true according to the historical meaning in Scripture—the historical sense of the text does bear this out sometimes, in the prophets for instance). The “little ones” of Egypt are bits of evil—they are our evil desires. But they are also firstborn—so they are our first impulses towards evil. The slaying of the firstborn is therefore teaching that we must cut-off our impulses towards evil as soon as they arise, not giving them time to grow. He doesn’t specifically say “the only way to interpret this is that it is allegorical”, but he is open to the possibility of excluding the historical meaning.

    You wrote:

    “What exactly is the position of the Greek church on Canaanite Genocide?”

    To apply the basic idea behind the above interpretation of the slaying of the firstborn, it is possible to interpret a genocide text allegorically. It could be teaching the necessity of destroying our passions through participation in the cross—the weapon whereby God destroyed the power of corruption. But we should only exclude the historical meaning if indeed there is reason to think that, read according to the meaning intended by the historical author, the text entails that God did something evil. This is just one possible interpretation of the Genocide, and it is not necessary to read it exclusively-allegorically if a non-literal interpretation is not forced on us as a demand that results from Christology and New Testament theology.

  11. Bo Says:

    Is this open to just anyone?

    If so, how would this ‘view’ parse among y’all:

    The Canaanite Genocide is literal truth, but our understanding of its ‘evil’ is not proper.
    (I’m in the ‘if God wills it, it is Good camp)

    Perhaps among the reasons for the counsel of God for issuing what to us seems so harsh a command:
    He knows the ‘total evil production’ of Canaanites remaining in the land vastly exceeds the that of the required action. (The Jews killing fewer innocent children than a continued Canaanite religious presence would have for example.)

    Those not guilty of actual sin (the innocents) suffer momentarily in body, but their spirit (like that of the son of David by she who had been Uriah’s) are glory bound.

    The Canaanites had a 400 year ‘warning period’ (from Abraham’s sojourn until the exodus) to amend their ways – a period they refused to utilize.

    There is more ‘corporate cohesion’ in reality than is common in ‘Western’ thought. We Westerners tend to think in terms of the individual, while it appears that at many levels God thinks in terms of groups – for covenant and for action. The model prayer has no 1st person singular pronouns for example. The oneness of the husband and wife, and of the Church for two others.

    In other words, in addition to ‘God Willed It’ there are other means of reconciliation of God’s Grace with the Orders – some of those means include aligning ourselves with a different understanding of the ‘totality of the event, some require us to change our understanding of culpability, and some may require us to reorder our list of ‘evils’ – bring our understanding of what is most vile into accord with His.

    I’m no seminarian, I’m sure that this position has a ‘nice title’ somewhere and has been brought forward before, but I’ve not yet read of it, nor how it was thought of by others.

  12. A.C. Gleason Says:

    I just checked out a blog that I used to follow but haven’t for a while. In any case the topic being discussed here (ages and ages ago I know) seems to be pretty much resolved in at least one case: canaanite genocide. I mean you can argue with anything but this is the best case I’ve ever seen that comes from an inerrantist literalist perspective. Also its caused quite a stir apparently because the author was invited to EPS/ETS to present his work (all the way from Australia). Pretty awesome. Its a cool blog you should check it out anyway but as regards this discussion look here:


    and here:


  13. Excellent Posts on the Problem of Genocide in the OT « The Well of Questions Says:

    […] I don’t think this is the only possible solution to the problem of the Canaanite Genocide (because I hold to the moderate allegorism defended by Swinburne and used by some of the Church Fathers), I think this is a very plausible explanation of the text […]

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