Saturday, January 04, 2014

Book Review: Divine Evil?: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham

For Christian apologists, the publication of Divine Evil?: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham and the 2009 conference that gave birth to this volume together constitute an exciting development. Since September 11, 2009, the so-called “New Atheists” have not been shy about their objections to the moral atrocities committed in the name of religion throughout history. Among these moral atrocities are apparently evil commands issued by Yahweh in various Old Testament passages. But despite this persistent New Atheist critique, a thorough response from the apologetics community has not been immediate. When Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? appeared in 2011, he wrote in his first chapter that “Despite the strong intellectual response to the New Atheism, one area left unaddressed is that of Old Testament ethics.”[1] Copan’s book was a long-awaited and important step in addressing this neglected area. Although Divine Evil? first appeared around the same time and addresses the same subject as Copan’s book, it has something different to offer. The editors, Michael Bergmann, Michael J. Murray, and Michael C. Rea, have produced a scholarly discussion of the character of the God of Abraham that offers an opportunity for some of the greatest minds in the philosophy of religion to directly interact on the salient Old Testament[2] passages. While discussion of these passages has long existed in other fields, in Divine Evil? we finally see the attention of contemporary Christian philosophers turning more fully to this important dispute.

The editors are fully aware of the challenges posed by the interdisciplinary nature of issues pertaining to Old Testament ethics. In the introduction, they write:
Most of the contributors to this volume are philosophers; a few are biblical scholars. In our view, the problems raised by these texts are fundamentally interdisciplinary. On the one hand, they raise distinctively philosophical questions…On the other hand, answering these sorts of questions requires a great deal of awareness of and sensitivity to… [subjects that] fall squarely under the provenance of theology and biblical studies.[3]
But although philosophy clearly has a part to play in this interdisciplinary conversation, the editors observe that
…philosophers have not been rushing to address the issue; and scholars in biblical studies seem (to us, anyway) not to have addressed the crucial philosophical questions with the kind of thoroughness, directness, philosophical sensitivity, and rigor that philosophers of religion might otherwise hope for.[4]
It is the editors’ hope that this book will encourage more philosophical reflection on these problems and generate some long-overdue interdisciplinary discussion.[5]

Divine Evil? includes of a number of papers by various authors, each of which is briefly critiqued by another contributor. The author of each paper also has an opportunity to reply to his or her critic. The book boasts an impressive list of contributors: Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Paul Draper, Eleonore Stump, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Louis Antony, Peter Van Inwagen, and others. And although many of the replies are kept frustratingly short for reasons of space, overall the book lives up to expectations.

The problematic passages addressed in the book include the usual suspects: God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, for example, and—getting more attention than anything else—the slaughter of the Canaanites as recounted in the book of Joshua. But other things are discussed too, such as the Garden of Eden incident in Genesis 3, the conflict between Israel and the Amalekites, and Israel’s sacrificial system.

The first part of the book, following the editors’ introduction, is entitled “Philosophical perspectives: Problems Presented.” Accordingly, all of the major essays in this portion of the book are written by philosophers who maintain that the Old Testament passages in question pose a serious problem for many adherents to the Abrahamic religions. It is interesting to compare the approach of these authors to that of the New Atheists. One improvement is that, overall, the scholars in this book sound more like they are making arguments, and less like they are simply ranting against God and religion, than the New Atheists often do. Furthermore, they show much more sensitivity to, and appreciation for, critiques of their arguments. This is refreshing to see. That said, there is still a lot of emotion in this book, as one of the contributors, Christopher Seitz, observes.[6] But emotion has a role to play in such discussions, and it is hard to say whether its function in this book is, on the whole, good or bad. On the other hand, the arguments of the critics in this book share at least one unfortunate feature in common with the attacks of the New Atheists: they are often based on fairly superficial readings of the texts in question. Louis Antony’s chapter is illustrative of this point. In her comments on Antony’s essay, Eleonore Stump says:
[Antony] runs through many biblical stories in short space with scant attention to the details of the text. She gives little consideration of alternative interpretations. And she avails herself of very little of the vast communal expertise that has been devoted to both the reading and the interpretation of these narratives by scholars from different disciplines, times, and world-views. What is needed for employing well a methodology combining philosophy and ancient Hebrew biblical narratives is missing in her chapter, in my view.[7]
Antony’s reply reinforces the point:
I can offer no defense against Stump’s challenges to my ‘scholarship’. But I do not claim to have produced a scholarly interpretation of the texts I discuss. I hope only to have reproduced a respectable instance of what my college English professors used to call a ‘close reading’ …So I’m fully prepared to learn that other—better, more defensible—interpretations exist. Still, I wonder: how different can these interpretations be from mine, and still be interpretations, rather than inventions?[8]
So the critics’ arguments for their own interpretations of the relevant texts sometimes leave something to be desired. But, again, one does see improvement over the typical New Atheist rant.

In the second part of the book, “Philosophical Perspectives: Solutions Presented,” a variety of approaches to dealing with these difficult Old Testament passages are voiced. Indeed, although each individual paper in the book is high-quality, the best thing about this section is the diversity of perspectives represented. Some contributors appeal to elements of skeptical theism, some offer a theodicy of God’s actions in the Old Testament, and others advocate nonliteral interpretations of either whole passages or certain offending words and phrases within the relevant texts. Many of the highlights of the book appear in this section: Mark Murphy’s paper “God Beyond Justice” with Wes Morriston’s critique, as well as Nicholas Wolterstorff’s intriguing interpretation of Joshua in “Reading Joshua.” Then, in part three, “Theological Perspectives,” there are two further essays, this time by biblical scholars. This is the section that is supposed to make the volume interdisciplinary, but it is clear that the editors were interested especially in getting more philosophers involved in the discussion, because philosophers of religion dominate the book.

One of the nice things about this book is that, despite being an academic title, it is fairly accessible, and would likely be helpful to the intelligent and interested layman. Murphy’s chapter seemed to be the most technical, but overall, anyone who has read previously on this or related subjects will probably find Divine Evil? very manageable. Furthermore, anyone interested in serious study of Old Testament ethics and the moral character of the God of Abraham should not overlook this book. It is an important contribution to the discussion.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Justin Mooney is an undergraduate art and design student from Michigan. He has a passion for apologetics and is planning to study philosophy of religion in graduate school. More of his writing can be found at

[1] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2011. p. 19

[2] The editors prefer the term “Hebrew Bible,” noting also that “there is no unproblematic term for referring to the texts that we are taking as our focus.” Bergmann, Michael, Michael J. Murray, and Michael C. Rea Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011 p. 1 n.

[3] Ibid. p. 4

[4] Ibid. p. 4

[5] For another recent interdisciplinary book on morally problematic Old Testament texts, see Thomas, Heath A., Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan. Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic 2013

[6] Bergmann, Michael, Michael J. Murray, and Michael C. Rea Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011 p. 316

[7] Ibid. p. 50

[8] Ibid. p. 54


Anonymous said...

Do any of the contributors raise the issue of allowing their moral intuitions or emotions to be corrected by the biblical text? Or do any of the contributors raise the issue or show an awareness that our moral intuitions or emotions may be off kilter via the fall (along the lines of the noetic effects of sin)?

This was one of the weaknesses I found in Copan's book. In addressing the question of whether God is a moral monster, he doesn't consider whether we might be moral monsters ourselves, in adequate to put God in the dock.

I see this pattern in other philosophical theologians too, who generally take it for granted that our values and moral sense is near infallible, or at least so reliable that it's not worth questioning whether the problem is in ourself rather than in the text.

Do the authors of this work treat our moral sense or our values as a given?

Justin said...

I’m relying purely on memory here, but I believe a couple of the contributors do make that point about the possibility of divine revelation correcting our moral intuitions. However, none of them offer an extended defense of this point, and I think the reason is that, in general, the contributors who hold to divine inspiration of the Old Testament tend to think that our moral intuitions are compatible with what the Old Testament, properly interpreted, teaches. (Obviously the text cannot correct that with which it is consistent). Whether their attempts at reconciliation are more plausible than the moral intuitions in question is a matter of debate, I’m sure! Overall, I wouldn’t say that the contributors treat our moral intuitions as a given, but rather that they treat them as something that can’t be given up without a cost.

Kyle Essary said...

I can't fault the choice of Anderson and Seitz, who are two of the premier believing Old Testament scholars alive today and represent the Catholic and conservative Anglican traditions. I am saddened though by the lack of not only theological reflection, which is somewhat provided, but the lack of exegesis of the texts in question. Wolterstorff's reading of Joshua is dubious at best, and Antony frankly admits an inability to read the text beyond a "close reading" of the English. Why argue moral problems and hypothetical solutions that may or may not be justified by the Hebrew text without first arguing them exegetically? Paul Copan does a good job of this elsewhere, but the lack of it hurts this volume.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info, Justin. I hope the contributors also recognize that some interpretations come at a cost. I'm a bit wary of some popular philosophers of religion who bring to the table a mindset of "the text is inspired and true, my moral sense is true, so now I just need to find out what this text is saying!" I don't think that treats the text with integrity. First exegete the text, then discover if it fits with your moral sense.

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