In discussions of violence and the nature of God, one of the biggest issues before us is that of sorting out the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Also, as it happens, sorting out that relationship is critical to a host of other issues as well — from baptism to church government, from church government to sabbath keeping, from sabbath keeping to military service. Not only so, but as a general rule, the Church at large has not really done a superb job in understanding this relationship between the Mosaic administration and the reign of Christ. That means that many if not most of our controversies and perplexities go back to this one issue.
No Christian can say there is no difference between the covenants — the whole point of being a Christian is to affirm that Christ’s coming was the advent and promise of real glory, a coming that put everything that came before into the shade. That much should be a fixed given in all our discussions. But we still need direction; we still need to sort out what that glory actually means in a Christian era. In a Christian era, now that Christ has come, the glory far surpasses the glory that was. So much we know. But what does that glory look like exactly?
If someone died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses under the law of Moses (Heb. 10:28), how much more, the author of Hebrews urges, will certain offenses incur punishment under the new (Heb. 10:29-31)? So why do we tend to assume that while a murderer was executed without mercy under Moses, now that Christ has come, murderers will be reconciled to everyone in the world in one great Ophrified group hug? Might not the glory of the new covenant ethic mean that in a Christian republic a serial murderer will be caught faster, tried more justly, and hanged from a higher tree?
Our problem is that we glibly assume that we know what the greater glory of the new covenant means. But we need to establish these assumptions from the text of Scripture. Many years ago, I had an instructor at a secular university who was putting the class through its paces when it came to his application of a basic anabaptist catechism, although he didn’t know that this is what he was doing. “The God of the Old Testament was basically a god of what, class?” “Wrath!” the answer was supposed to be. “The God of the New Testament is basically a god of what, class?” “Love!” was the expected chorus. Somewhere between Malachi and Matthew, somebody successfully got YHWH to start taking His meds. No more divine mood swings, and general indulgence for our sinful ways is supposed to now prevail.
But of course the Bible teaches nothing like this, not even close. The New is concealed in the Old, and the Old is revealed in the New, as Augustine taught us. But there is full and complete consistency between the two. When the New arrives, we should expect everything to ramp up, but it does so harmoniously. And this is just what we find.
This means that the mercy and lovingkindness that is typified and foreshadowed throughout the Old comes to a full and everlasting fruition in the New. In the same way, the violence throughout the Old that typifies and foreshadows the ultimate violence of everlasting hellfire is, comparatively, chump change violence. “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7).
All ye residents of the new covenant era! Look at Sodom, and look at Gomorrha, and do what? Anyone who who looks at texts like this and concludes that we should be glad that this kind of thing can’t happen anymore is someone who simply is not paying attention. In the Old, the mercies are smaller, although they are true mercies. In the Old, the judgments are smaller, although they are true judgments. The terrifying doctrine of eternal judgment that Jesus taught means that if we make comparisons, as we should, the God of the New Testament is more violent than the God of the Old. Of course, we are talking about the same God — if we are faithful believers — but He is a God who revealed Himself progressively throughout the centuries. But this progressive revelation does not mean that He reveals one part of Himself in the Old, and completely different part of Himself in the New. No, He reveals every aspect of His being in the Old, although no completely, and much more of every aspect of His nature in the New, although even now not completely. We still look through a glass darkly, and when Christ comes again, we will know even as we have been known. But at every stage of this self-revelation, God is giving us every aspect of Himself.
So He did not reveal the unity of His being in the Old, and His threeness in the New. He did not reveal His wrath in the Old, and His mercy in the New. He did not reveal His law in the Old, and His grace in the New. Persistence in believing nonsense like this is at the root of many of our doctrainal troubles.
The doctrine of the Trinity is plainly taught throughout the Old Testament, although the full glory of Trinitarian revelation had to wait for Christ to come. The Old Testament is no more Unitarian, even comparatively, than it is comparatively “polytheistic.” The implicit glory of Trinitarianism is not Unitarianism. The revelation of God’s wrath and His mercy in the Old Testament is overshadowed by the full revelation of His wrath and mercy in the New. It is overshadowed, not contradicted. Everything we see about God in the Old Testament grows to maturity in the New.
The destruction of the cities of the plain occurred in the first book of the Bible. By the time we get to the last book of the Bible, is the violence all gone away, in quiet deference to our sentimentalist sensibilities? Not even close — it is here we learn about the lake of fire. And keep in mind that this is a lake that can hold the devil and all his angels, and multitudes of godless empires, not to mention all the claptrap ever written about the wrathful “God of the Old Testament.”