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God at war?

Benjamin Boivin

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Detail of a medieval manuscript illustration depicting Saul and his army slaying the Ammonites in battle. One of many battle scenes from the 13th-century French Maciejowski (or Morgan) Bible. MS M.638, fol. 23v. Source: Wikimedia Commons
For Christians living in the 21st century, properly understanding the significance of violence in the Old Testament is a challenge.
Fr. Stephen De Young, in his most recent book, God Is a Man of War, hopes to provide answers. An Orthodox priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, Fr. De Young is also the author of Religion of the Apostles, a book of Orthodox Christian apologetics published just last year. Also a blogger and a podcaster, Fr. De Young has been involved in an ongoing conversation about notions of reenchantment.
Violence has become somewhat foreign to us, in a very interesting way. This comes as the reflection of a general trend in the Western world which, after centuries of wars, enmity, and violent conquests, came to reject violence, or at least the appearance of violence, in most of its forms. That does not mean that violent actions do not happen in this world, or that wars have become defunct, quite the contrary.
What it means is that we have developed a remarkable sensitivity and that we now tend to consider any expression of violence as intrinsically repulsive. Wars of the past seem senseless to us; those of today are fought far from the Western public eye and often given a veneer of respectability through a combination of word choice (e.g., “conflict” or “operation”) and declared purpose (e.g., bringing freedom and democracy). Violent or aggressive behaviours among young men are now understood to be signs of psychological issues and no longer tacitly allowed as a normal and acceptable – or even cherishable – expression of raw masculinity.
This particular feature of contemporary Western culture can be described as a result of the residual influence of Christianity in societies where, even if religious practice has declined sharply, many of its unique features remain. Christianity has a very long half-life, so to speak. Indeed, Christianity emerged in a world where violence was everywhere to be seen, in a world where for many, life was quite often a waking nightmare.
In so many ways, as this world slowly converted to Christianity, it became more egalitarian, more just, and also less violent. Christianity, for example, provided it with an understanding of what is a just war and what is not. In the world in which we live now, for many reasons, even that has turned into a remote possibility.
Contemporary Christians are somewhat blind to all of this. We hardly ever think of how violent and wicked the human heart can be tricked into becoming. In a largely successfully pacified world, we have become clueless in understanding the prevalence of violence in the previous ages of history, in Christendom, and chiefly in Scripture. Indeed, the Old Testament contains violence to a sometimes disturbing level of gruesomeness, the worst of which is largely set aside in the liturgy.
There are reasons for that, of course. These passages as a whole are often difficult to understand and put into their own context, ironically as a result of how successful Christianity was at bringing some measure of peace into a broken world. Having radicalized to misleading conclusions the longing for peace contained in the Christian faith, we have become largely unable to approach these passages and see them for what they are.
For these reasons and many others, Fr. De Young's book is proving very useful.
With a strong background in ancient history and languages, Fr. De Young makes the case against what he associates with modern forms of Marcionism, an early Christian heresy characterized by an understanding of the merciful God presented in the New Testament as different and opposed to a supposedly brutal and vengeful God presented in the Old Testament.
As De Young points out, this superficial understanding of the Old Testament, condemned as a heresy in the first centuries for its arbitrary application of a hermeneutic of rupture to the history of salvation, is nowadays very common.
On the one hand, the Old Testament is often described in this way by non-religious voices, sometimes so as to discredit the Christian faith. On the other hand, it is also present in a naive sort of way among Christians who, for a variety of cultural reasons previously discussed, are largely deprived of a proper analytical framework in understanding how Jesus Christ – far from the sometimes sentimental portrayals we entertain – cannot be readily understood apart from the Old Testament as he fulfills its promises and speaks its language.
In a relatively short book, De Young discusses notions of divine justice, spiritual warfare, death, and holy war. He also looks closely at sin, showing how it affects the material world in very concrete ways, comparing it to an infection.
Fr. De Young's way of approaching these topics, notably by looking at the ancient world and its propensity for violence in light of the hierarchy of beings within God's Creation, will surely prove unsettling to some readers, who will in turn benefit from a much more thorough understanding of the nature of the cosmos which Christ, Our Lord, emerged to save.
De Young also discusses in particular certain passages of the Old Testament whose brutality can be harder to understand. The genius of the book, though, and more generally of the works of Fr. De Young, lies in the author's ability to illustrate the continuity between the Old Testament and the New, between nature, law, and grace, providing an account of the Christian faith which ecompasses realities and experiences we are used to disregarding.
In the remarkable developments of a public Christian conversation about such issues in the last few years, some of which can be associated with discussions of reenchantment, we are especially grateful to our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. Let us take part in it with the generosity of our Tradition as the best way of expressing our gratitude.

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