The trouble with violence in the Old Testament: My take on Eric Seibert

Yesterday I participated in a panel discussion at Southern Seminary discussing the controversial issue of violence in the Old Testament. Along with Albert Mohler, Denny Burk, and Owen Strachan, we tackled the topic in general but also paid special attention to recent works by Messiah College Old Testament Professor Eric Seibert.

What follows is a brief assessment of Eric Seibert’s scholarship that notes some strengths and concerns. In the meantime, you can watch the panel here:

The whole panel agreed that Seibert’s arguments are some of the strongest we’ve seen emerge from the non-violent and postmodern camps as it relates to violence in the Old Testament. Some of the strengths of his case include:

  • A clear diagnosis of the problem – Better than most scholars, Seibert clearly understand the depths of complexity related to the issue of violence in the Old Testament and communicates them clearly.
  • A good grasp of the literature – Seibert has an excellent grasp of the most significant literature in the field and interacts with it effectively.
  • A genuine concern on the issue – Seibert genuinely cares about seeking to address the complicated moral issue of violence in the Old Testament.
  • A unique approach to the challenge – Seibert’s solution to the issue is unique, as he employs postmodern and historical critical interpretive methods to untangle the challenge of Old Testament violence. But even fellow non-violence advocates like open theist Greg Boyd believe his approach compromises too much in the process (for Boyd’s critique, see page 17 of this pdf).
  • A Christ-centered attempt at the solution – Seibert employs what he considers a Christ-centered lens to interpret these controversial violence passages in the Old Testament, but in reality that lens simplifies being Christ-centered into being non-violent.

Though these strengths are present in Seibert’s arguments, there are several concerns that riddle his approach with weakness including:

  • The problem of God – A result of Seibert’s enterprise is a muddled picture of God. For example, Seibert makes a distinction between the “textual” God and the “actual God” in chapter 9 of his book Disturbing Divine Behavior. The result? What’s revealed about God in the Old Testament must be re-interpreted non-violently in order to rightly understand who God is through those texts.
  • The problem of Scripture – A result of Seibert’s enterprise is a compromised picture of Scripture. For example, Seibert’s recent blog post contends that “not everything in the ‘good book’ is either good, or good for us.” Along the way he jettisons inerrancy and infallibility while defending a “functional” view of the Scripture’s authority that is not based on what Scripture is but on what it does.
  • The problem of historicity – A major feature of Seibert’s efforts is to reject the historicity of many (if not all) of the Old Testament’s accounts of divine or divinely sanctioned violence. He contends in Disturbing Divine Behavior that the Old Testament authors “massage facts” in their accounts for the purpose of persuasion (108). How do you reconcile this view with Jesus’ affirmation of the historical actuality of Old Testament accounts, including holy war events (e.g. John 3:14-15)?
  • The problem of method – Another major feature of Seibert’s efforts is to employ postmodern and historical-critical methods to aid his non-violent re-interpretation of the Old Testament. He admits using postmodern methodologies in his most recent book The Violence of Scripture, including reader-response and feminists hermeneutics (74). As a result, Seibert leverages an egalitarian, non-violent, culturally informed moral standard as the grid to understand complicated Old Testament passages.
  • The problem of eschatology – A final flaw in Seibert’s approach is its inconsistent account of eschatology. Most importantly, though Seibert re-interprets non-violence in the Old Testament, he admits that “God may resort to violence at the end of the age” (Disturbing Divine Behavior, 253). But how can Seibert reconcile eschatological violence with the non-violent view of Christ that guides his interpretive strategy?

As Dr. Mohler asserted in our panel, Seibert’s arguments are the most comprehensive and compelling of its kind in print. However, the theological cost of his perspective is far too high. Plus, it isn’t necessary. In coming posts, I’ll take some time to flesh out some big picture thoughts on how to offer a Christ-centered account of Old Testament violence from a conservative evangelical standpoint.

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