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The Heresy of the Two Testament God

“The God of the Old Testament is angry and vengeful. The God of the New Testament is loving and forgiving.” This premise is one of the few points about God that under-educated Catholics think that they “remember.” It carries potentially fatal implications. First, it renders the Old Testament, with its portrayal of God working in history along with its moral prohibitions and prescriptions for relating to God, irrelevant. Second, it trivializes sin and cheapens the salvation Christ won for us by His blood.

This premise is, of course, false. I call it the Heresy of the Two Testament God. God, by nature, is immutable. If He were to change His character, He would not be God but a shape-shifting transformer who is dishonest at his core and unworthy of worship.

How, then, can we account for what at the minimum seems to be a superficial distinction between the God who “rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire” (Gen 19:24) and the God who “sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him”? (John 3:17)

The difference between the Old and New Testaments lies not in God’s nature, but in His approach to us. In the former, God declares, “I will surely hide my face on that day on account of all the evil which they have done.” (Dt 31:18) For its whole history, Israel repeatedly commits the same sin as Adam – the repudiation of God for one’s own ways. An unbridgeable gap between God and men followed from Adam’s sin. God is present to Israel, urging it to fidelity as it wanders, triumphs, and is crushed; yet He conceals His face from it.

The New Testament is the record of God’s next phase of tactics, ones He eternally foresaw: “the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” (John 1:18) The Son reconciles Israel, and the world with it, to God through the Cross, a reunion that the sin offerings of Jewish Temple sacrifice could not accomplish. Now all may gaze upon God’s face: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

Remarkably, though the nature of our union with God changed with the Incarnation, what God demands of His children in both Testaments is identical: complete devotion to Him.

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God’s covenant with Israel commanded that He alone be worshipped. “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” (Ex 20:5) The Old Testament chronicles recurrent cycles of Israel’s infidelity to the covenant, followed by punishment, and then repentance. Israel never seemed to learn from its mistakes. But we see that the allegedly vengeful and angry God is, in fact, loving and forgiving: “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting mercy I will have compassion on you.” (Is 54:8)

In Christ, God inaugurates the new and eternal covenant that extends beyond Israel to all nations. It is a covenant of love and mercy, for sure, but woe to him who rejects the God who remains as jealous as ever. “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” (John 3:36)

In an age of religious indifference, when even some Catholics equate belief in Christ with belief in other deities or anything else, Christ’s repeated demands for fidelity to Him – or risk of damnation – are ignored. It’s no wonder so many unwittingly imbibe this Heresy of the Two Testament God. If we read the whole Bible, we find that the Son’s commands sound eerily similar to His Father’s:

God the Father in the OT and God the Son in the NT at times are both “jealous” and vengeful. No coincidence there.

Ancient Israel showed its fidelity to God by obeying the old covenant, the Mosaic law. The new Israel, which is the Church, shows her fidelity to God by obeying the new covenant, Jesus Christ. Disobedience brought destruction to Israel, just as disobedience destroys the Church today.

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16) In the Old Testament and the New, God shows His love and mercy to those who seek it – Abraham, David, Zacchaeus, Peter, Mary Magdalene, the Good Thief.

But those who refuse God’s love by refusing to repent of their sins – Saul, Solomon, the Pharisees, Judas, the Bad Thief – experience God’s wrath, and justifiably so. God offers them life, yet they “loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)

St. Augustine famously wrote that the New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old is revealed in the New. Our understanding of God must unify, not divide, the two Testaments. If we postulate a contradiction in God, our understanding is skewed. God may have waited to reveal His face, but He has revealed the same message from the time of Abraham down to our own day. That message is clear: receive God’s love, freely offered; but woe to him who rejects it.

 

*Image: Holy Trinity by Hendrick van Balen the Elder, 1640 [St. James Church, Antwerp, Belgium]

You may also enjoy:

Randall Smith’s The “Fuller Sense” of Scripture [1]

Robert Royal’s A Little Clarity on Some Big Questions [2]

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.