Richard Swinburne: "The Violence of the Old Testament"
I recently watched an interesting video -- made available by an Australian institute called the Centre for Public Christianity -- presenting a talk by the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne as he explicates a Christian view on "The Violence of the Old Testament" (hat tip Paul Raymont).
I thought that this video might be interesting for readers here at Gypsy Scholar since my blog has often delved into the contemporary problem posed by Islamist violence in Islam. Christianity itself has at times had similar problems with violence, as perhaps every religion has, and Christian scripture itself even contains a number of problematic passages that present violence as having been condoned by God and men, so understanding how the Church Fathers dealt with such violent passages, in arguing for inclusion of the Old Testament as a Christian document, might be useful in considering the problem of violence in Islam.
Anyway, here's an edited transcript that I've copied down to record most of Swinburne's remarks in this video, "The Violence of the Old Testament":
[T]he first thing to understand about the Old Testament is why we've got it, and the objection that it depicts a vindictive God is one which was well known to Christians before they took the Old Testament as a Christian document. And there was a priest called Marcion at the end of the second century in Rome who said the Old Testament isn't a Christian document at all. We should not use it as that purpose. We ought to have just the New Testament, or just certain parts of the New Testament. So, there was a battle about whether the Old Testament should be included. In the end, it was those who wanted it included who won.This allegorical method is of obvious use for transforming a horrific sentiment into its opposite. The verse apparently doesn't mean that one should kill Babylonian children but that one should 'kill' the desire to do anything evil . . . such as an evil desire to kill Babylonian children. I wonder what Swinburne does with the doctrine of eternal damnation in Hell. More to the point that I'd like to make today, however, I wonder how Swinburne would reinterpret biblical passages on "holy war," such as the following:
But what is interesting is the reason why, or the conditions under which, they got it accepted. And the leader of the party who wanted it accepted was Irenaeus, and he said that we must understand this document not just as a -- or [not] always as a -- historical document, but as [a document] having deep metaphorical meaning. And it was with that understanding that the Old Testament was adopted as a Christian document. And what that means is that quite a lot of the parts which seem to suppose that God is vindictive in some way have to be understood rather differently as making a quite different metaphorical claim.
The example I always use is Psalm 137, verse 9, where the psalmist pronounces a blessing on those who take the children of the people of Babylon and smash their heads against the rock. And Babylon, as I'm sure my hearers know, is where the people of Israel, or the leaders of the people of Israel, were exiled to in the 6th century [BC]. And many of the Christian theologians, the Fathers, said that we can't possibly take this literally because this is not a Christian sentiment. And so, how are we to understand it?
Well, they had a big program of how you understand the Old Testament. For example, talk about Babylon was talk of [metaphor]. Babylon was [understood as] a bad place, and so it was talk about wickedness and the powers of wickedness. The rock stands for Christ. Christ said that he would build his church on the rock, and he who builds on the rock will be saved. So, we are to understand this as telling us that the people who take the children of Babylon -- and the children of Babylon were meant to be the desires in us which come from wickedness -- and smash them against a rock, the rock of Christ, are indeed blessed. So, it's nothing to do with -- they were saying, the Fathers who interpreted this were saying -- it's nothing to do at all with literal Babylon. It's telling us to smash our bad desires against the rock of Christ, which is of course a truly Christian sentiment. And a number of the Fathers gave -- indeed, the most influential ones -- gave this interpretation.
Now, from our point of view, this sounds crazy. It's not what it meant, that [is,] it's not what the people who first wrote it meant. Well, maybe, maybe not. But what we have to realize is that the meaning of a text changes according to the context in which you put it. That is to say, the Old Testament was formed in a way that, first, there were little bits, say Psalm, or some of Psalm 137, and then these were put together into larger bits, perhaps a chunk of the Psalms, and then this was put into a larger bit still, and then into yet larger bits. And when you use a bit of the text that's been written by one person, and you compile a different book which uses that text, you don't mean the same as the person who first wrote it. You mean what it means in the larger context.
And so, this verse -- and this applied generally -- has to be understood in the larger context. And the larger context for the Christian is the whole Bible itself, including the New Testament teaching. So, it has to be understood in the light of the New Testament teaching. It may not have been what the first author meant by it, but it's what quite a number of the different authors in the subsequent development of the work meant by it. And therefore, that is what it must [mean], what a Christian must understand [by] that, and it was with that sort of way of understanding [Old Testament] scripture that scripture became a Christian document.
Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy (charam) all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3)This apparently genocidal verse purports to be a direct command from God (cf. 1 Samuel 15:2), so it poses a sharper hermeneutic difficulty. Fortunately, it's not a general teaching about how to conduct warfare. It applied to a specific attack and what the Israelites were supposed to do in that particular case, but it's nevertheless a pretty horrific command and doesn't appear to reflect well on the character of God. I'd therefore like to see how Swinburne handles it. I have some notion of how he'd go about reinterpreting it, of course, but I'd still like to see him do it.
Clearly of crucial importance for Swinburne's approach to hermeneutics is what happens to constitute the relevant context. Swinburne points to the New Testament, and in a later part of the same video, he specifies the especially pacific teachings of the New Testament's Sermon on the Mount.
Given that Swinburne is a philosopher, I'd guess that he also would appeal to the larger context of a philosophical understanding of God's character as omnibenevolent and the benevolent consequences that follow from such an understanding.
Islam might also benefit from applying contextual hermeneutics to violence in the Qur'an, but my impression is that such an interpretive approach will prove more difficult since Islam does have a doctrine of warfare and since Muhammad himself served as a military leader and stands as a moral exemplar for Muslims. Moreover, Islamic theology seems quite different from Christian theology. For Islam, God often appears to be understood as pure will unrestricted by anything, thereby leaving a philosophical appeal to Allah's character unmoored.
But I'm no expert on that . . .