Over the course of the last four weeks, we’ve explored a case study on doctrinal non-contradiction. Our examination has centered upon the text of 1 Samuel 15:2-3 in which the Israelites are commanded to kill every Amalekite man, woman, and child and how that text (from a Christian point of view) fits with the loving image of God presented in New Testament passages like 2 Peter 3:9. (To review the case, click on any of the following links: Part I,Part II,Part III,Part IV)
If you weren’t quite able to put yourself into the argument from a theological standpoint, you’re probably left with a few important and valid questions. How do texts like this influence the way Christians approach acts of war? Do passages like this mean that believers support acts of genocide or the killing of children? This week, we’re going to take a look at both of those questions, but to begin with, let me take a moment to share a few of the rules of Biblical interpretation that are adhered to by mainline denominations:
- Just because an event happens in Scripture doesn’t mean that God intends for us to recreate the event in the modern world. If this were the case, there would be plenty of cause for Christians to engage in everything from fratricide and incest to child sacrifice and cannibalism. Instead, we recognize that much of the material presented in the Bible is there to inform us about historical events in such a way as to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of others and to encourage us to continue in obedience to God’s commands. (Romans 15:4)
- Just because God commanded something in one situation doesn’t mean that it applies to all situations or even all similar situations. We recognize that God’s commands are often given chronologically, i.e., that they build both upon each other and upon the fulfillment of previous prophesies. While some commands are given to all people for all times (like the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), others are given for a specific time and place and in order to accomplish a predetermined purpose. Once that purpose is accomplished, that commandment becomes obsolete. In cases like this passage, we recognize that the command was given to Israel for the purpose of providing for the people through whom God would bring His Messiah. The command was not for all nations, nor for all times.
- When the application of a text is unclear, we don’t build a doctrine upon it. There are some wonderful verses that, quite honestly, are just plain muddy and a few Biblical stories that leave us scratching our heads. We may debate their meaning in a theological realm, but most mainline denominations refrain from turning their conclusions about them into dogma.
- We respect that while, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” (Hebrews 1:1,2) The Holy Spirit given on the Day of Pentecost now enables believers to commune with God and know His will for themselves without requiring the interpretation of spiritual leaders, i.e., each believer may think for himself and, through the Spirit, come to correct conclusions about the meaning of God’s Word.
How do these rules apply to the questions we have concerning our 2 Samuel passage? To begin with, they help to debunk some popular falsehoods concerning the way Christians interpret and apply such passages.
For example, just because infants were killed during the invasion doesn’t mean that Christians support the execution of children. Nor can it be inferred that just because an entire group of Amalekites was wiped out, Christians ought not to oppose racial warfare. We recognize that this was a command given for a specific people at a specific time. Indeed, Scripture is quite clear that human life it to be valued (Psalm 139:13, Jeremiah 1:5) and that killing and warfare are to be approached with great gravity.
Secondly, the account of ongoing hostilities between two Biblical nations doesn’t (as some claim) imply that acts of terrorism or unprovoked warfare are acceptable. While I won’t deny that acts of unwarranted aggression have been committed in the name of Christ, you won’t find any mainline denomination suggesting that this ought to be the case. There is no similarity between a war conducted against a physical aggressor and “surprise” action taken against an ideological one. Indeed, though it always seems to be the ones who don’t who make the news, many Christians today will choose to suffer rather than take physical action even against a physical oppressor!
Finally, just because an event like this took place in the Bible doesn’t mean that Christians would follow after a prophet who attempted to recreate it in the present. Indeed, the role of prophets in the end times (at least according to Revelation 11) will not be to establish an earthly people or kingdom, but to give others an opportunity to repent and turn to Christ. No conquest involved.
If you’ve managed to read through each of these pieces and put yourself in the shoes of a Christian, you’ll have a pretty good idea why we don’t see any doctrinal contradiction between God’s wrath and God’s love. (And why both sides of God’s character made it into the Christian canon!) If you aren’t quite there yet, I encourage you to reread the articles carefully and then take some time to find out what other Christians have to say about the topic. And if you’re already a believer? Well, I hope this helps you well on your way to sorting through a few of the Bible’s sticky passages.