The God of the Old Testament


Old habits are hard to break. For years as an Anglican Christian, and a conservative, I battled with academics in the Anglican world whose primary agenda seemed to me (at the time) to be the destruction of Scripture. Their historical method generally resulted in students being told that this that and the other thing didn’t happen. This was most disturbing, particularly for those who chose to extend their scepticism to the very resurrection of Christ.

It was in such a context that I took up the defense of Scripture. But, of course, it is always the case that if you set yourself in a position of reaction, whatever it is that you are reacting against has already set the parameters of the argument – in some cases distorting all of the fundamental issues.

As years went by I became more and more familiar with the early Church Fathers and later with the use of Scripture in Orthodox liturgical settings. It was pointed out to me, when I was a graduate student at Duke, that Liberal Historical Critical Studies and Fundamentalist Literalism, were actually two sides of the same coin. Both agreed on the triumph of the historical. Both sought the meaning of the text within its historical original. History was their agreed upon battleground. To enter that battleground is already, from my later Orthodox perspective, to have surrendered the Truth as received by the Church. They are both profoundly wrong.

Learning to read the Old Testament with the mind of the Fathers, is learning to read the Old Testament not so much as historical prelude to Christ, but as Scripture, received as inspired, but seen as largely typological and always interpreted through Christ. God is as He is revealed in Christ and always has been. Thus, the NT reveals the Old and the right way for it to be read.

I offer a quote from St. Irenaeus:

If anyone, therefore, reads the scriptures this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the “treasure which was hidden in the field” [Mat. 13:44] [a treasure] hidden in the scriptures, for he was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by human beings prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet, “Shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplihsed, they shall know all these things” [Dan. 12:4, 7]. And Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things ” [Jer. 23:20]. For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is nothing but an enigma and amibiguity to human beings; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition [exegesis]. And for this reason, when at this present time the Law is read by the Jews, it is like a myth, for they do not possess the explanation [exegesis] of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God: but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of humans, and showing forth the wisdom of God, and making known his dispensations with regard to human beings, and prefiguring the kingdom of Christ, and preaching in anticipation the good news of the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the one who loves God shall advance so far as even to see God, and hear his Word, and be glorified, from hearing his speech, to such an extent, that others will not be able to behod his glorious countenance [cf. 2 Cor. 3:7], as was said by Daniel, “Those who understand shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever” [Dan. 12:3]. In this manner, then, I have show it to be, if anyone read the scriptures.

What so many moderns find difficult is leaving behind the presumptions of either modernist Biblical Criticism or fundamentalist literalism. They are deeply married to a historical paradigm. Whereas, the paradigm of the Church is Christ Himself. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is not judged by history but is the truth of history.

There are many passages in the OT that if read literally would lead us to believe in a God far removed from the one revealed to us in Christ. This is a false reading. But many are more married to their literal historical method (of whichever form) than to Christ. Unless the OT is literal, they reason, then everything else is not true.

This is not the beginning place of the Church. Truth was only ever vindicated for us in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and that alone is our Alpha and Omega. It troubles some to begin “in the middle” though Christ resurrected is not the middle but also the beginning and the ending, if we know how to read in an Apostolic manner. Many coming to Orthodoxy think it offers another historical proof of the faith, since it is the first foundation of Christ and has an impeccable historical pedigree. This is simply fundamentalism looking for another straw to erect in its support and not a true conversion to Orthodoxy.

Christ is risen from the dead and His resurrection becomes the center of all things. Only through His resurrection may the Old Testament be read. It’s historical claims (though many are quite strong) are not the issue. Christ is the only issue and the only Truth that matters. This is frightening to fundamentalists, for any loosening of their grip on historical literalism feels like failure and capitulation to modernism. But before either fundamentalist or modernist existed, the Church existed, and has always known how to read the Scriptures. Thus it behooves us not to look for Orthodoxy to support some other structure as the nature of Truth, but as witness to that which we have accepted as the Truth. Let the dead bury the dead. Read the Scriptures with the living.

36 Responses to “The God of the Old Testament”

  1. Judith Says:

    I thought that I ought to touch base as I read your blog on a daily basis. Today’s blog said what I have often thought in a particularly articulate manner. I would become Orthodox, however I depend on my livlihood, which I would lose if I converted. So I stand on the sidelines, wondering.

  2. Nathaniel McCallum Says:

    Photo is Fr. Justin Patterson at St. Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, KY. Anyone visiting the Lexington, KY area, please come join us. Fr. Steven, you can come too if you’d like. 🙂

  3. Nathaniel McCallum Says:

    Judith, losing one’s livelihood is not always a reality. Though, truth be told, it is a possibility. Have you spoken to a local Orthodox priest about this?

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    I lost my livelihood when I converted and God made a way. The Truth will always provide a way, as difficult as it may be. But do not be deterred from the Truth. Simply say to God, “I believe this to be the Truth, help me get there.” He is a good God and is indeed faithul to help us. We just need to ask. There really is a God. And that is all that matters in the end.

  5. Stephen W Says:

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you. At least for me, that clears up a few things. I think that in time and with further studies, some of the details of the biblical narratives will begin to make more sense. Does Fr. Behr’s book “The Mystery of Christ- Life in Death” explain some of the things that you are writing about here?

  6. luciasclay Says:

    That is an interesting observation regarding historical critical and fundamentalist literalism.

  7. David Says:

    I don’t mean to press, but I’d love to see someone offer up an extremely challenging passage (pick a favorite time where Israel is told to commit genocide or something equally offensive to a modern mind like the destruction of Sodom) and view it in it’s liturgical and/or Christ prefiguring context.

    I’m not trying to be argumentative (hey, I just entered the boat, I’m not trying to rock it).

    But it would be helpful to see this thought process. Particularly when some of these events have a historical presence. That is some of the scriptures sure “appear” as history and have non-biblical evidence as well. Perhaps there is there some much later (post-Davidian maybe) historically meaningful text that’s uncomfortable as historical, but salvific as Christological and/or liturgical?

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    I see the problem for many – but have no problems myself. Sodom and Gomorrah are the destruction of sin, and God’s willingness to save the many for the sake of the few. But as for the fire and brimstone, I’m not in the least concerned. God is as He is revealed in Christ.

  9. luciasclay Says:


    For me, it took a long time to see the OT acts you speak of as Love. But I do now and I see it this way.

    The mission of salvation is more important than all else. God had to create and maintain Israel and its traditions in this world so that the coming of the Christ would make sense to us. He has to do it in the middle of a world that would, due to its nature, destroy the people of Israel. That some must die to achieve this is not as terrible as it sounds unless we view life on this earth as all there is. We all die someday, God is a just God. He will judge each appropriately.

    The willingness of God to create and maintain Israel so Christ could be understood by us is to me an act of the most exceeding Love and Mercy that I can imagine.

    I start with the acceptance of the fact God is Love. I then accept that if what God does doesn’t seem loving it is that I do not understand Love and not that God is not Loving.

    From personal experience I have learned that Love doesn’t mean letting everyone you love do whatever they want, because sometimes what one you love wants to do is hurt someone else you also love and who has done nothing to deserve it. In those cases you must choose to hurt one, against your hearts desire, and protect another. I do not presume to know the mind of God but I imagine his dillema is often similar. He loves us all but those who don’t accept him force him to do things, not that man controls God though.

    I have no idea if this is Orthodox thinking but its how I presently understand it.

  10. Stephen W Says:


    I am not disagreeing but wouldn’t this view see history from only the general sense and therefore God would only be concerned for the greater good and not be interested in particular people? If we carry this logic through to today than we could justify abortion since surely these babies will be saved since they have committed no sins. In this case are they not the more fortunate ones that bi-pass this suffering and sinful world?

    Fr. Stephen, I don’t know if you saw my question about Fr. Behr above? I tried the same question on the previous post but did not get an answer there either. Sorry to pester you.

  11. William Says:

    Stephen W

    Fr. Behr’s book does deal with this topic. It’s really a great book.

  12. Chris Jones Says:

    Let me echo what William says: Fr Behr’s book deals with precisely these ideas, in great depth and with great power. It is a great, great book.

  13. Lord Peter Says:

    What we mean by Scripture as a term of art in the Orthodox Catholic Church is a certain set of writings adopt by the Church IN THE SENSE CORRESPONDING TO THE CHURCHES (as witnessed in the writings of the Fathers and symbolized in the Creeds and the Liturgy, etc.) because the Church believed that these writings, when read in the sense that the Church read them when choosing to adopt them, contained the historical Special Revelation of God, which has already been revealed in time.

    Whether the intent of the authors, or even perhaps the “historically fairest” meaning of these writings, corresponds to the sense of the writings that the Church had in mind when ratifying the writings is of no moment. What is of moment is memorialization of the Church’s understanding of what it had already witnessed. Thus, it is the Scriptures IN THE SENSE THAT CHURCH RATIFIED AND ADOPTED THEM that count to a Christian or a historian of Christianity. In any other sense, these writing has little if any significance, even if the other sense is in some sense more faithful to the author or secular history!

  14. david peri Says:

    One of the reasons I joined the Orthodox Church was their approach to Scripture. My former church, the pastors and educatiors were watering down the Scriptures into other meanings

    Judith…I hope your livlihood does not depend upon your faith in Christ. Of course in today´s economic times, this may be one way that, our Heavenly Father, may test your tender heart to chose between Him or a career. From my point-of-view, our Heavenly Father will not abandon you and it may be a better job is at hand. Something to think about.

  15. Does history matter? A response to Fr. Stephen Freeman « Torn Notebook Says:

    […] and I learn from him far more than I disagree with him. His recent post entitled “The God of the Old Testament“, though, did give me something to push against, and I hope that in pushing against it here […]

  16. damaris Says:

    An interesting insight into how we look at history, and God’s revelation of Himself through history, comes from C.S. Lewis’ article “Historicism,” which appears in the collection called Christian Reflections. He cautions us to avoid presuming we know God’s purposes through our study of history and recommends humility. I found it very challenging.

  17. Mark Epstein Says:

    Although a neophyte to the Orthodox Church’s view on Scripture, I am somewhat versed on Protestant presuppositional thinking regarding orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Unfortunately, the Protestant church loses the foundational basis for interpretation because it completely ignores the oral tradition referenced throughout the OT and NT. Additionally, Protestant interpretation also relies on what it views as the different genres found in the biblical text. Wether we accept this view of genres is not necessarily that important. For, if we take the text at its face concerning God ordering the Jews to annihilate every life in its path, we still must view this from the foundational “reason” that is clearly articulated in Scripture, but even I missed throughout my Protestant upbringing (despite being indoctrinated by Protestant theology as to its meaning). Specifically, what are God’s “reasons” for such an order to the Israelites? Just as I missed the repetitive scriptural outlining of Jewish “confession” to a Priest before any sacrifice (whether grain, animal, etc.), I also missed what God’s intent was concerning the process–an inner change. We can see this in this difference between Protestant and Orthodox views of sin. In the world of Protestantism, one will oft hear “God hates sin, but loves the sinner.” From my limited understanding of the Orthodox church, “God hates the sin dwelling within us.” This is a HUGE difference and the ontological ramifications are significant, as the difference impacts viewpoints regarding salvation, eschatology, communion, and other areas inherent to the respective systematic theologies.

    Another interesting point Fr. Stephen makes is found in the second paragraph to this post. In essence, he alludes to the juridical worldview articulated in “he who defines wins.” In other words, entrenched systems of theology are very hard to overcome–even with God’s revealed Truth.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for this enlightening glimpse into the OT.

  18. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    I lost my livelihood, my home, and suffered months of hate mail when I left the Episcopal ministry, denounced Gene Robinson’s consecration, and became Orthodox. God has restored all that I lost and ten fold!

  19. Alice C. Linsley Says:


    This is a wonderful explanation of how we should understand the God of the Old Testament. It is in the Church Fathers that I have found clarification of what the Scriptures reveal about God’s justice and correction of the false notions that I’d picked up from Reformed preachers and commentators.

    Genesis, which is foundational to the whole Bible, only makes sense when we read it through God’s promises fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ. That’s the point I make here:

    and here:

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    And welcome you are among us. Your example was and is a brave testimony to the Truth. May God help us all!

  21. Judith Says:

    In response to Alice – yes, I am a woman in the Protestant ministry – so where to go from here? I would most certainly lose my livlihood. I would come to the Orthodox for the theology, and definitely not in response to any of the current issues, including the ordination/consecration of homosexuals etc., which I actually support.

  22. Isaac Says:

    Father and all,

    I think I “get” what you’re saying (and I’ve exchanged several productive emails with Fr. John Behr regarding his books, too)… that the depth of the meaning of Holy Writ is not primarily in the historical events they are recording, but in the Crucified– for Moses wrote of Him, and all the Law, Prophets, and Psalms are fulfilled in Him.

    This is all wonderful and we can all congratulate ourselves for being “in the know” about what the Scriptures “really” mean or why they are “really” important… but I don’t think we can simply wash our hands of the historical events and ideas upon which the Scriptures are based. Torn Notebook’s response is worth reading– as I read it, he argues that the God Who descended into history and “suffered under Pontius Pilate” is the one who had been constantly revealing Himself in the history of Israel.

    The fathers, far from being dismissive of the historical nature of the events recorded in Scripture, simply refused to remain there. Do any of the Scriptures meet the standards of modern historiography? Of course not, but let’s not relegate them all to the status of fables– albeit mystical ones– either.

  23. William Says:

    It’s good of you to point that out, Isaac. I know that sometimes the conversation can come across as though we are saying, “It doesn’t matter whether this or that really happened the way Scripture says it did.” But there aren’t many Orthodox who I know who actually think that way. I think, though, that the emphasis is on the fact that the meaning for the Christian of many Scriptural accounts is not rooted in the history itself, but in the prophecy, typology, etc. that is contained in that history. This, however, doesn’t mean a dismissal of the presence of Christ (the crucified, resurrected and glorified Jesus!) in actual historical events that preceded the historical moment of incarnation.

    I think the Antiochian fathers and others helped pull the reins on the Alexandrian eagerness to turn so much in the Old Testament into little more than typology.

  24. Lord Peter Says:

    We must remember that all senses of the Special Revelation — whether historical, typological, moral, etc., — pre-existed the ratification of the New Testament by the Church. Hence, the sense or construction of the NT that counts for the Church is that in the which the Church had in mind when making the canon. And, this is true for the historical, typological, moral, and other senses or constructions of the texts — all of which were contemporaneously witnessed by the early Church and handed down (tradition). Thus, we are assured of a certain degree of material literal accuracy — to the extent the texts were chosen with the intent to reflect it. Finally, of course, we are given a lens (Christ) for truly and fully understanding the OT, which sometimes indicates that not every part is meant to be taken in a strict literal sense,

  25. fatherstephen Says:

    There is no dismissal of the historical, but a recognition that the Paschal meaning of the text takes the primary place. The historical is frequently less of a concern.

  26. Daniel Says:

    One thing to remember when thinking about reading the OT in the mode that Irenaeus is talking about is that it is vitally important to read it according to your baptismal confession. This confession (the Nicene creed for us, it was a little different in his time) provides the hypothesis that the Christian uses to understand the scriptures and gives unity to them all. This is why only an enlightened and baptized Christian can truly understands scripture in his thinking.

    When I was pondering the validity of Irenaeus manner of reading scripture it struck me that typological interpretations can have many valid applications in history but only one ultimate. There can be only one incarnation and one Alpha and Omega thus only one true and valid typological interpretation that replaces all others. No event in the history of the world can rival that of the incarnation, so all true typology points to Christ. The church fathers where not engaging in baseless typological speculation when they searched the scripture for Christ, rather then understood something that the historical-critical method can never reach.

  27. PastorS Says:

    Hi Judith. I, too, am a woman pastor in one of the Reformation churches. I’m happy to remain remain where I am but I think I have a pretty good idea of what you’re saying. It’s difficult. You have my prayers.

    On the topic of the post: this typology stuff is extremely difficult for “the Western mind” to grasp. But that was a helpful post.

  28. Collator Says:

    Two disconnected replies to some of the things that have been mentioned above:

    Firstly, I haven’t read Fr. Behr’s _The Mystery of Christ_, but he introduces the “Irenaean” teaching on reading Scripture in Christ in his book _The Way to Nicaea_. The whole book is a study of selected pre-Nicene Fathers in the light of these Irenaean principles.

    Secondly (and this relates a bit to the last entry on the Wrath of God): one thing that has always given me some comfort when reflecting on Sodom and Gomorrah, the massacre of the Midianites, etc. is St. Peter’s teaching that Christ preached to the souls in prison. Who knows if, in God’s mercy, those people were able to grasp the opportunity of repentance when first the Holy Forerunner, then the Messiah himself, appeared in Hades and drew up Adam and Eve, as we see in our beautiful Resurrection/Harrowing of Hell icon. Note that in the icon Solomon, who “died in sin” (or so it appears from the account in Scripture), stands in the company of his father David and the other righteous prophets.

    (This is just my personal opinion. I’d be interested to hear from anyone if you’ve found something similar in the writings of the Holy Fathers.)

  29. Isaac Says:

    These are good thoughts, especially Fr. Stephen who clarified by saying that the Orthodox Church doesn’t dismiss the historical– it’s simply that the focus and food of the Scriptures is in Christ, Himself the Word of God, the Logos of both Eternity and History.

    I agree with Fr. Stephen’s point and his clarification. However, as Torn Notebook says, we’ve got a real problem if those typologies don’t have some anchor in history, since it is precisely this history we claim to have found all fulfillment in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    When it comes to historical events mentioned in the Scriptures, I think we Orthodox should shun both German higher-criticism and fundamentalist insistence upon absolute literalism. But whatever we do, we should– as Fr. Lawrence Farley has put it– read Scripture on our knees. We should wish to accept, I think, even their essential historical veracity out of humility and faith.

  30. Edward Hunter Says:

    Yay Fr. Justin! I miss him!

  31. fatherstephen Says:

    We miss him here too. He’s a good man and a good friend.

  32. Nathaniel McCallum Says:

    Yay Ed Hunter! I miss him! 🙂 Good to see you Ed…

  33. jim Says:

    Forgive me father for I admit that I am a bit slow on the uptake, but are you Implying here that the O.T. is historical or that it is not, or that some of it is and that some of it is not, but that in either case it is not important as far as its meaning goes, and does this interpretation also apply to the N.T., that it too is largely symbolic or is the N.T. totally grounded in history?

  34. fatherstephen Says:

    Some of it is, some is not, some is realtively mixed. The claim of the Orthodox Christian Church is that the events in the New Testament are historical, though they have frequently been shaped in their telling for a particular purpose. Nonetheless there are many geographical details and the like that support the contention of the historical character of the New Testament (of course Revelations belongs to the “Apocalyptic” style of writing and would not be called “literal” or “historical” though it was written by one of the twelve apostles.The Scriptures are “the book of the Church” and have a very special function in the life of the Church. They cannot be removed from that context and be properly understood. This is a Protestant heresy rejected by the Church.

    Because the Scriptures are th Church’s book, the Church knows and has always known how to read them. We were taught by Christ Himself. And that reading is their true meaning. History and historical meaning were an attempt by Protestants to make the Bible independent of the Church so they would have no need for a Church in order to understand the Scriptures. The madness of 20,000 different protestant denominations proves they were simply wrong.

  35. jim Says:

    When we read the O.T. how then do we decipher which is real and historic and which is as you call it typological? For instance is the story of adam and eve true in an historic sense or is evolution true? What about Noah’s ark,because it is written as though it was meant to be true,there are no cheribum with flaming swords or trees of knowledge or talking snakes or anything like that with a mythological bent to it except all of a sudden in the middle of the story it states, if I remember correctly, that angels came down from heaven and took as many of the daughters of men as they wanted for their wives and had children with them. Should things like this be ignored as if they are mistakes or do they have some hidden meaning. Is it that we should not attempt to understand such things except through the church because without the churches interpretation it doesn’t make sense?

    God have mercy on me, I think I shall never understand.

  36. fatherstephen Says:

    I would say that part of the confusion comes from asking the wrong questions. It’s not about history versus myth, real versus fantasy. The Orthodox Christian understanding of Scripture, particularly of the Old Testament is not terribly concerned with those questions. The teaching of Jesus was that He Himself was the meaning of everything in the Old Testament. That’s a very bold claim, but he also claimed to be the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, when we read those stories correctly (from an Orthodox perspective) it is Christ that we are looking for in the story (and there are amazing layers upon layers of Christ revealed in the stories). There are some among the Fathers who held that the stories had a literal, historical basis, while others held otherwise – which is to say that there is a difference on some of these matters, that apparently doesn’t matter. There is an article on the sidebar – Six Days of Creation by Kalomiros, which is an extremely interesting treatment of Genesis, rooted mostly in the writings of St. Basil the Great. It’s a good example of some of the insights of Orthodox reading of the Old Testament.

    Protestant fundamentalism created the problem of myth versus fact, versus science, etc., because it had a flawed world view, a flawed understanding of Scripture, a flawed understanding of God and of salvation itself. But its legacy in American culture has been huge. Thus many people take the questions that were created by modern fundamentalism and think that they are the important questions about the Scriptures, while they are mostly red herrings.

    To read the Bible as a fundamentalist is to miss most of its meaning, and to spend time either trying to guard the rear, fighting off science and liberalism, or wasting time trying to guess what’s happening next in the Middle East. All of this is modern fundamentalist invention and has nothing to do with the Tradition of the Christian Faith as once and for all delivered to the saints and the martyrs of the Church – a faith which is living and continues unchanged in the life of the Orthodox faith.

    Your statement that we should not attempt to understand such things except through the church because without the church’s interpretation it doesn’t make sense, is actually quite correct. It’s not a private book, but a collection of writings that uniquely belongs to a community – the Christian Church. I would even be so bold as to say that it uniquely belongs to the Orthodox Christian Church, though some might want to argue that I’m being too narrow. When when the floodgates are opened to the insanity of modern do-it-yourself Christianity, the book becomes useless or worse.

    But it’s also true that many writings belong uniquely to a community. I would never dream of understanding the Bagavhadgita unless I were a Hindu. I would never presume such a thing.

    By the same token, there is a language and grammar of many professions, that make law hard to understand if you are not a lawyer, medicine hard to read if you are not a doctor, etc. These are weak examples – and yet they provide a certain analogy. Part of being an Orthodox believer is learnig how to read the Scriptures in such a way that they reveal to you what they have revealed to the saints through the ages. It is our only need in reading them.

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