The question of there being discontinuity between the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT) is an important one, and is not at all a new discussion. Certain questions plague many Christians, such as the following: Does the OT portray a retributive God? Why does the NT seem so different than the OT (especially in regards to the love and mercy of God)? How are we to reconcile the genocide of the OT with the Jesus (of love) of the NT? Doesn’t the OT portray a retributive and violent God in contrast to the God of the NT? Zahnd attempts to answer such difficult questions, but in the process leaves the reader with even more questions. Here are a few reasons why I cannot endorse Zahnd’s newest release, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.
Zahnd’s Rejection of the OT as the Foundation to the NT
The greatest offense in Zahnd’s new release is his treatment of the OT. Advocating that we focus on Jesus and the NT, he informs the reader that the OT contradicts itself over and over, leaving us completely in the fog as to who God is. Jesus, however, comes along and takes all that fog away, revealing that the OT portrait of God is actually a false one, and is rooted in man rather than in God. The OT, to Zahnd, happens to be Israel’s understanding of God but not God’s self-expression of himself. Why can’t it be both?
Throughout the book Zahnd will insist that the Bible is very important to him. He will then contradict himself by telling the reader that they should not make the Bible their “final authority” (p. 63) since this is in fact “idolatry” (same p.). This reminds me of the recent controversial statements and sermons made by prominent pastor Andy Stanley, who seems to be saying that we should focus on Jesus, and not on the many complications of the OT. In the process, both Zahnd and Stanley discount, downplay, and disrespect the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus himself grew up with and revered. Such a position also has the unfortunate tendency of adding confusion on top of confusion and thus is detrimental to the local church.
From the outset, Zahnd insists that Jesus comes to upstage the OT and “undo” it. This is because Zahnd’s understanding is that that God (as portrayed) in the OT is really a false picture of God, and happens to be Israel’s vision of God but not God’s self-expression or revelation. Israel then has a distorted portrait of God, and this distortion is what we call the OT. Jesus comes along then to show the true picture of God and to discredit the false portrait of God shown to us in the OT. To Zahnd then the OT is a false portrait of God while the NT is the true picture of God. In other words, one should stop trying to harmonize the OT with the NT. (Zahnd makes the same argument in his public debate with Dr. Michael L. Brown.)
This false categorization of the OT as being a the false picture of God while the NT being the true picture of God is mind-boggling to anyone remotely interested in the process of exegesis.
In an interview, John Goldingay, responds to the notion that the OT promotes a God of wrath in contrast to the NT. Goldingay observes that “In the OT, God is “compassionate and gracious, long-tempered, big in commitment and truthfulness, preserving commitment toward the thousands… In the NT God sends trillions of people to Hell.”
Sheer Arrogance and a Savior Complex
Besides his arguments being contradictory and illogical (exegesis being totally exempt), Zahnd’s condescending tone throughout the book becomes quite aggravating. Zahnd paints Christians who view the OT as authoritative as Bible-thumping hillbillies who want their God to be a violent God, projecting their own evil and sin onto their God. Zahnd then comes across as one who is on a mission to rescue fallen Christianity before she destroys herself.
I do think evangelicalism has many flaws; I just don’t think a flawed view of the OT is going to help.
Full of Overreactions and Caricatures
In his commitment to a nonviolent God who could never command genocide, Zahnd proceeds to repeatedly do violence to the text. Reacting to Jonathon Edwards famous and disturbing sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” it is clear from the opening pages that Zahnd is overreacting in swinging the pendulum hard in the other direction.
I am somewhat baffled that Walter Brueggeman endorsed the book, given the fact that Brueggemann is a renowned exegete of the OT, and given the fact that Zahnd seems to want to do away with the OT (as we know and/or understand it). In an interview some months back, I asked Brueggemann a question about why Christians seem to disregard the OT, and how Christian leaders can combat the marginalization of the OT. Here was his response:
“By being good informed teachers. Both conservative and progressive Christians tend to practice interpretive laziness and assume we can know the text at a glance. The text requires more work than that.”
Good exegesis is not possible when an over-reactionary lens guides your exegesis and hermeneutics.
My former colleague Jonah Sanford, co-editor of a freshly-released Greek textbook on Galatians, went through Zahnd’s book a few months back. Here’s his takeaway.
“I agree with Brian Zahnd that the Penal Substitution theory of Atonement deserves criticism. It is too concerned with categories of wrath and appeasement and not enough with the radical love and forgiveness of Christ; it is recent as far as Atonement theories go (originating with Calvin about 500 years ago, though it has its roots in Anselm’s 12th c. Satisfaction theory); and it is all but rejected by the entire Eastern Church, which should raise some flags.
I do not, however, agree with much of Zahnd’s alternative. Though he supposes to explain a more ancient way of viewing the Atonement, his theory looks much more like Moral Influence (Peter Abelard’s 12th c. response to Anselm’s theory) than Christus Victor. His use of the parable of the Prodigal Son as a canon-within-canon is an over-correction, and his total psychologizing of hell and wrath may hold kernels of truth (St. Isaac the Syrian’s thoughts on hell being the torment of God’s love to those who have rejected it is profoundly helpful), but to divorce them completely with categories of punishment and divine consequence is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Ultimately, Zahnd’s solution to Penal Substitution is largely a mix of emotional appeal and questionable exegesis. We can and should be critical of Calvin’s Atonement model, as there are far richer soteriologies to be found in figures like Irenaeus of Lyons and Maximus the Confessor. However, the path to a God of true peace, love, and forgiveness is not to be found through the interpretive gymnastics that Zahnd often employs.”
*I received my copy in exchange for an honest assessment.