If you were hanging out on Twitter last Friday and Saturday, you may have come across a flurry of tweeting regarding David B. Hart and his controversial 2019 response to Peter Leithart. That response elicited from many the charge that Hart is guilty of Marcionism. If you do not know who Marcion was, he was a second-century bishop who distinguished the God of Israel from the God of Jesus. He was scandalized by the violence and evil of YHWH. He rejected the Old Testament as Scripture and excised those sections of the New Testament that he and his followers found offensive. Marcion was excommunicated as a heretic around A.D. 144. It appears that the Leithart–Hart exchange was not seen by everyone three years ago, given its recent resurrection by the Byzantine Scotist:
This tweet was retweeted by Edward Feser and . . . BOOM . . . suddenly everyone was talking about Hart, the Old Testament, YHWH, and Marcionism. When extracted from David’s article and read just by itself, it’s understandable why so many found the quoted paragraph offensive. (I confess I cringed too when I first read it.) What these folks apparently did not do, though, is read the entire article with its important three paragraph explanation:
Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time. Neither was ever literalist in the way you apparently are. The only ancient Christian figure whom we can reliably say to have read the Bible in the manner of modern fundamentalists was Marcion of Sinope. He exhibited far greater insight than modern fundamentalists, however, in that he recognized that the god described in the Hebrew Bible—if taken in the mythic terms provided there—is something of a monster and hence obviously not the Christian God. Happily, his literalism was an aberration.
Much of the Judaism of the first century, like the Christianity of the apostolic age, presumed that a spiritual or allegorical reading of the Hebrew texts was the correct one. Philo of Alexandria was a perfectly faithful Jewish intellectual of his age, as was Paul, and both rarely interpreted scripture in any but allegorical ways. Even when, in the New Testament, the history of God’s dealings with Israel is united to the saving work of Christ—as in Acts or Hebrews—it is in the thoroughly reinterpreted and intenerated form that one finds also in the book of Wisdom (a worked audibly echoed in Romans, incidentally).
In short, you want me to account for myself in a way answerable to the hermeneutical practices of communities gestated within a religion born in the sixteenth century. But those practices are at once superstitious and deeply bizarre. They are not Christian in any meaningful way. They are not Jewish either, as it happens. They are a late Protestant invention, and a deeply silly one. From Paul through the high Middle Ages, only the spiritual reading of the Old Testament was accorded doctrinal or theological authority. In that tradition, even “literal” exegesis was not the sort of literalism you seem to presume. Not to read the Bible in the proper manner is not to read it as the Bible at all; scripture is in-spired, that is, only when read “spiritually.”
When I read these paragraphs three years ago, I did not fully appreciate what David was saying, but more on that below. Anyway, I jumped into the fray with a series of tweets of my own. Where angels fear to tread, bloggers recklessly rush in:
To accuse DBH as not being a Christian on the basis of his response to Leithart is unwarranted. He is not saying anything that historical critics of the Old Testament have not said over the past 150 years. If his response has a weakness it lies in his failure to clarify how the Old Testament can be Scripture. The answer lies in the patristic hermeneutic which insisted that the difficult passages–those passages that depict YHWH as engaging in ways that would be unworthy of the God of Jesus–are to be read figuratively, typologically, allegorically. They must be read in and through Christ. Only thus are they truly Scripture. To read and preach the Old Testament only through a critical-historical lens is to read it as historical artifact, not as Scripture.
This does not make DBH a Marcionite, though I concede his blunt words leave him open to that charge. But as John Behr has stated a number of times: if you aren’t reading the Bible allegorically, you’re not reading it as Scripture.
The key and revealing question: Did the Father of Jesus Christ really order the massacre of the Canaanites? If you say yes, then, yes, you have a hermeneutical problem. For the same reason, if you believe that the God of Jesus damns the wicked to eternal suffering and torment, you have a hermeneutical problem. The Bible is not rightly read and proclaimed if it contradicts God’s self-revelation in Christ as absolute love.
Interestingly, it was the philosopher Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation that helped me to understand that the literal sense of the Bible can only be discerned when it is read through Christ. The Song of Songs is the example par excellence. In his On Christian Doctrine, St Augustine’s states:
“We must show the way to find out whether a phrase is literal or figurative. And the way is certainly as follows: whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as metaphorical. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbor; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbor.”
That is the patristic hermeneutic and we see it worked out again and again in the Fathers. Exegetes who use this hermeneutic may differ on the interpretation of a specific text, but they are united in their recognition that the Scriptures must not be interpreted in a way that is unworthy of the God made known in the crucified and risen Christ.
So instead of accusing DBH, or the rest of us, as not being Christian, it would be more accurate to say that he is not a Roman Catholic and therefore not obligated to interpret the Bible as Catholics do. And be careful, for you may also find yourself excommunicating a host of saints.
The Byzantine Scotist was apparently not impressed by my erudition and repeated his accusation:
I also tweeted several quotations from Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. I read this book back in the early 90s, and I found his approach to the interpretation of Holy Scripture instructive and adopted it as my own:
“So there was this wide tradition in the early Church of reading the Bible metaphorically and not always also literally; it was the Church of those centuries, the Church of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine, which established the canon of Scripture which taught that this was the way in which it ought to be read. It was the Bible understood in this way which they declared to be true.”
“But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Bible came to be interpreted by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants in perhaps the most literal and insensitive way in which it has ever been interpreted in Christian history. This literalism was encouraged by the basic philosophical mistake of equating the ‘original meaning’ of the text, gradually being probed by historical inquiry, with the meaning of the text in the context of a Christian document. We may hanker after the ‘original meaning’ in the sense of the meaning of the separate units before they were used to form a Bible, but that sense is not relevant to assessing its truth; for the Bible is a patchwork, and context changes meaning.”
“Of course, if we are misguided enough to interpret the Bible in terms of the ‘original meaning’ of the text, that original meaning is often false: there is scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the Bible, if it is so interpreted. Of course, if we are misguided enough to interpret the Bible in terms of the ‘original meaning’ of the text, that original meaning is often false: there is scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the Bible, if it is so interpreted.”
“Yet, as the Church of the first 1,500 years of Christianity always taught explicitly, the Bible must be understood in the light of the Church’s teaching, and this will mean at least what I have called central Christian doctrines. And the rules for interpreting passages seemingly disconsonant with Christian doctrine or known truths of history or science are there, sanctified by centuries of use by those who claimed in accordance with Christian tradition that the Bible was ‘true’. If we wish to take seriously claims for the truth of the Bible, we must understand it in the way that both philosophical rules for interpreting other texts and the teaching of the Church which gave canonical status to the biblical books indicate; and this includes their admission that it contains deeper truths which future generations wiser than themselves might detect by using their rules.”
The next day the tweet storm continued. Roberto De La Noval helpfully contributed a citation from the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan:
This is an illuminating quote, which I promptly retweeted. It confirms the hermeneutical rule stated by St Augustine: if a biblical text contradicts either the moral teaching of Jesus or the nature of God, it must be interpreted figuratively. In this way the Church retained the Scriptures of Judaism as her own.
The Thomist scholar Taylor Patrick O’Neill also jumped into the fray:
From this followed a fascinating exchange between O’Neill and fellow Catholic theologian Jordan Daniel Wood:
Taylor: I’m not saying that DBH isn’t a Christian. But this is absolutely scandalous stuff for a Christian to write [when asked by someone if the Canaanite genocide really happened as depicted in the book of Joshua]. Yes. One has two choices here: either it happened as described or the way in which it is described doesn’t merely obscure the truth about God but positively perverts it. So either that part of the OT is demonic propaganda or else it speaks to something true.
Jordan: Wild to read here what I was forced to read in Ken Ham books at my fundamentalist Bible college. Some of us were reared in fundamentalist reactionary traditions. We know where this leads: rejection of biblical scholarship or rejection of the faith, since both assume an dangerously naïve view of both hermeneutics and revelation. This can’t be the future of catholic theology. Thankfully the tradition itself is far richer than such foundationalist either-or’s: not only did Clement, Origen, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine, Maximus et al., consider it possible that there are “obstacles” and inaccuracies on the literal level, so did Kierkegaard! And what nonsense to presume admission of a literal obscurity means inattentiveness to the letter. Does not the letter instruct precisely when it “fails” too? How absurd to accuse Origen of denigrating the letter! Have you yet composed your Hexapla, O great seer of scripture? In fact, these figures say that the Holy Spirit might well have arranged for such obstacles precisely to rouse your sluggish spirit from assuming you know in advance how God just reveal himself—so that you know to move beyond the letter which kills for the spirit that gives life.
Taylor: The gulf between what I said in that tweet and Ken Ham makes it hard to take this tweet seriously. That’s very uncareful thinking.
Jordan: You said quite plainly that we have two choices when faced with God’s command of genocide—either it happened that way or else we cannot trust the text reveals truth about God, right? That is the exact premise of Ham’s *Why Won’t They Listen?* Perhaps you should consider why.
Taylor: Yes. I don’t maintain that God reveals things about Himself that are false. It’s one thing to subvert a command He’s never portrayed as actually wanted fulfilled (the sacrifice of Isaac). It’s another thing for Him to deceive about Himself.
Jordan: Well that’s Ham’s position too, like it or not. It’s definitely not the Fathers’ position, not even Augustine, who says that when something vile is attributed to God in scripture—so it does happen!—such texts “are to be read figuratively.” And also your first proposition is so abstract as to be beside the point. Who maintains that God reveals what’s not true of God? In fact that’s precisely what lead the fathers to reject the literal sense in places in view of what’s “worthy of God.”
Taylor: Well then I guess Ken Ham says exactly one thing that makes sense.
Jordan: You should consider why you agree with Ken Ham rather than St Augustine on this point.
Taylor: I don’t think this actually has anything to do with whether the passage is literal. Yes, I am aware that Augustine rejects exhaustive literalism. The question is whether “Scripture errs in portraying God as evil.”
Jordan: Let’s be precise: Augustine rejects exhaustive literalism precisely because sometimes “vile things are attributed to God and the saints” in scripture. You have made his very assumption an impossibility. So why do you disagree with Augustine here?
Taylor: St. Augustine does not say what you’re attributing to him, nor does he speak in any way similar to David above.
Jordan: De doctrina christiana III.11-12: “Matters which seem like wickedness to the unenlightened, whether merely spoken or actually performed, whether attributed to God or to people whose holiness is commended to us, are entirely figurative. Such mysteries are to be elucidated in terms of the need to nourish love.”
Taylor: Yes, and within the context it’s clear that he’s speaking about things like “wrath of God” which attribute vices to God. But the particular interpretation of commandments like the ones given to Joshua are not necessarily included in this passage.
Jordan: That’s an unbelievable stretch there, bud! How else to discern wrath except through wrathful actions. Anyhow you’ve already betrayed your original position: now you say that scripture does falsely prevent God as wrathful in the literal level, right?
Taylor: Hey, bud [sic]. What do you make of St. Augustine’s actual commentary on the passage? “16 (Jos 11,14.15). Joshua did not leave anyone alive in it. As the Lord had commanded his servant Moses and Moses had commanded Joshua in his turn, so Joshua did: He did not let anything of all the things that the Lord had commanded Moses go through. We should not think that this was a cruelty, that is, the fact that Joshua did not leave anyone alive in the cities he conquered, since God had ordered him to do so. Those who draw from this the conclusion that God was cruel, and therefore do not want to accept that the true God was the author of the Old Testament, judge as perversely about the works of God as of the sins of men, ignoring what each one It deserves to suffer and thinking that it is a great evil that is torn down that has to fall and that the mortal dies.”
Jordan: When was this written? I ask because it’s clear that he does change his specific interpretations as later controversies heat up. But still, on your original view, you’ve stated a principle that such texts either reveal God literally or not at all. Did Augustine abandon his principle that some vile things are attributed to God and the saints? (Presumably not since book 3 of DDC was written late). So it’s better to say he applied it differently. But his principle still clashes with your own. On all these matters I prefer other fathers to Augustine, no doubt. Augustine’s Ad Simplicianus vs Origen’s Princ on Jacob and Esau makes this clear to me. But it’s striking then that Augustine, who doesn’t mind genocide here, still doesn’t take your hermeneutical view broadly.
Taylor: I didn’t state that they have to reveal God literally, but that specific commandments attributed to God are not going to be precisely the opposite of what God wishes. This is very different from calling God “wrathful.” I disagree that [Augustine] doesn’t take it. He takes it precisely as I’ve laid out the distinction above. The context of the passage you’ve laid out is anthropomorphic language about God. And his interpretation of Joshua is precisely what I said I thought it would be. This also doesn’t square with what you said just recently, i.e. that this was a stumbling block for St. Augustine who only converted after Ambrose taught him to take it literally. Why would his next position after conversion be to take it literally?
Jordan: That’s actually not the context since he specifically mentions the saints too—why would it be a problem to anthropomorphize the saints? It’s is rather the wicked deeds attributed to “God or the saints” that call for figurative interpretation in the direction of love…
Taylor: I think we could at least agree that Augustine’s view isn’t as clear as one might think, since he, as you say, has no problem with genocide.
Jordan: I agree that his practice is inconsistent across his many works. But I still maintain that the principle you stated is foreign to Augustine, let alone many Greek fathers who outright oppose it in theory and practice. It’s true that literalism was an obstacle to [Augustine’s] conversion—he says so himself!—and also that certain doctrinal disputes made him reconsider *specific* points. But I’ve never seen your broad either-or even on Augustine’s lips. Where does he say the literal sense is always true?
Taylor: I didn’t say that the literal sense was always true. I said that passages which have a literal/historical sense would not be portrayed as the opposite of the historical fact.
Jordan: That means that they must be literally true! Otherwise they are deceptive and “pervert” (your word” divine revelation. And that is precisely the principle that no father stated, even if, as in Augustine’s case, specific interpretations betray the general principle.
Taylor: I don’t think that I’m stating something earth-shattering here. If the Gospels say, “Then Jesus walked to the next town,” which seems to have no value other than the literal/narratival, and then it turns out, actually Jesus never did walk to that next town, we have a problem.
Jordan: I’m not even sure that’s true, since there are many chronological discrepancies across all four gospels. We may as well reject all scholarship at that point. Anyhow, there’s difference between whether it’s true that Jesus walked somewhere and if Jesus commanded genocide in the past.
Taylor: Look, I have to run to Mass. Here are my final thoughts: if it turns out that God never actually instructed Joshua to leave no Canaanites standing, that’s great. I don’t like the literal interpretation of the passage. It doesn’t make me feel warm and cozy inside.
Jordan: Then you share the moral and spiritual motive that made many fathers—sometimes even Augustine in practice, certainly in principle—to reject that the literal sense is true, seeing that the “letter kills” but the spirit within gives true life and is thus “useful” (2 Tim 3.16).
Taylor: But setting that aside for a moment, even if it were true that it is presented so the NT can subvert the expectations (which I think happens in the OT!), I maintain my original point that describing God’s self-revelation as revealing Himself to be a “blood-drenched” pagan demon is scandalous. This is why I did not accuse DBH of Marcionism or not being a Christian but of being scandalous. If you show me multiple places where the Fathers describe Yahweh in this way, and I’ll change my mind.
Jordan: Two things here: (1) surely biblical scholarship has clarified limitations of the text premoderns might not have known; (2) DBH’s rhetoric aside, it was common to note that literal interpretation might lead to conceptions of God that we wouldn’t attribute “to even the vilest human being” (Origen, Princ 4), a common point that pagan philosophers and Jews and Christians (cf Basil’s Letter to Young Men) made when reading Homer’s depiction of Zeus. After all, if scripture attributes “any cruel word or deed” to God (Augustine), it presents him as evil. But I also suggest that the claim that scripture reveals God either literally (God must have commanded genocide b/c the story sounds historical) or not at all is just as scandalous. I’m not just provoking: I know from much personal experience the damage such a view does to faith. It is a scandal to tell people that God is both pro-life and has commanded the genocide of infants in at least 5 occasions. It’s not a matter of warm and cozy feelings for me, but if positive scandal against those seeking to see the beauty of God revealed in Christ’s face.
Taylor: This is where you and I disagree (and it affects the universalism question too). I don’t think that God is a moral agent in the way that creatures are. Note I’m not saying that God is beyond good and evil or that God can do anything (voluntarism). God cannot cause evil, e.g. command blasphemy. But I do take it seriously that God is the God of Life and Death. He permits the death of all men, even children. So executing death among men is not necessarily among the “vile things” Augustine mentions. HOWEVER … my biggest issue is that men are commanded (even as instrumental causes) to execute something which is intrinsically disproportionate to human nature. And it is for this reason that I’ve disagreed at times with St. Thomas’ interpretation of certain difficult passages.
Jordan: Yes, we do disagree profoundly on these points. I think it’s a disproportionate command to murder thousands of infants, given that (I thought) both natural law and the Christian faith prohibit this. Making an exception for God because he’s “the God of life and death” certainly sounds scandalous (scandal is always relative to the scandalized; cf. 1 Cor 12 etc), since it sounds like God is capable of violating his own natural and revealed law. Here one senses that our own epistemological anxieties have taken precedence over the anxiety over God’s beauty, goodness, love, mercy, justice, all as they are revealed to we who are not only rational and thus capable, in principle, of knowing the difference between these and their opposites, but also who have the mind of Christ and the Spirit, who searches even the depths of God–that means that the Spirit searches those depths *in us*, Oh the depths of God’s humble kenosis! It is a matter of historical fact that many in the tradition *have* sensed the profound problems on the literal and historical levels of holy scripture. Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, the Capps, Maximus (for whom all of this wouldn’t be in the slightest controversial), and even Augustine in principle at the very least. It is no modern unease which moved them to judge several passages as “unworthy of God”–indeed this was precisely a sign of their humility before the complete self-revelation of God in Christ, who alone reveals the truth and depths of scripture (Lk 24; 2 Cor 3). Therefore, precisely because this unease is both traditional and touches on the very ability of many to maintain faith (“trust,” not just obedience!) at all, it is imo positively scandalous to lay it down that if one doesn’t accept God as literally commanding genocide of infants then one is denying God’s self-revelation. For it’s just the reverse.
Taylor: I’m sympathetic to portions of this. I cannot imagine God commanding such acts today, and I think this has much to do with the fact that we are now able to know God (still mostly obscurely) with much greater clarity.
Jordan: Agree, and it was precisely this greater clarity that led the fathers to refute Marcion *not* by doubling down on the heinous portrayals of God sometimes found in scripture, but to refute Marcion’s own absolute literalism as “slavish to the letter, which kills.”1
Jordan states the key point in his last tweet: the Church responded to Marcion’s heretical jettisoning of the Old Testament not by justifying or rationalizing the herem command to slaughter the Canaanites (as many theologians and exegetes do today) but by insisting that, when necessary, the Old Testament must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. As Origen repeatedly stated in his writings, we may not attribute to God that which would be unworthy of him.2 The Church did not try to rationalize away the obvious evil of God commanding evil, but instead adopted a metaphorical hermeneutic. In this way, the identity of the God of the Old Testament (YHWH) and the God of the New Testament (the Father of Jesus)—and therefore the unity of the two covenants—was maintained.
The controversial biblical text is Deuteronomy 7:12:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir′gashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Per′izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb′usites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.
How is this command to be reconciled with the gospel revelation of God as absolute love? Over the centuries Christians have adopted various hermeneutical strategies, but the Eastern Fathers insisted that the herem directive, and its consequent horrors, should not be interpreted literally. The Father of Jesus would never issue such a command. He does not do evil; he does not ordain evil. There is no dark Lord hiding behind the back of Jesus. Nor need we await the eschaton to learn how the heinous acts of YHWH are somehow compatible with God self-revealed in Christ as absolute love and mercy. As Jesus has taught us:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:43-48)
So much more needs to be said, but such is beyond my competence. But this much may be said: the Scriptures are only interpreted rightly when read through a hermeneutic of love—or what I have termed in previous articles, a hermeneutic of Pascha. The God and Father of Jesus is the same God who summoned the twelve tribes of Israel to himself. His character and nature did not change over the centuries. He always acts in love, for he is love. Even his wrath is an expression of love, intended to summon sinners to repentance and faith. For all eternity he is the good and omnibenevolent Creator, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
 My thanks to Aaron Jordan for copying the O’Neill–Wood Twitter exchange.
 On Origen’s critique of Marcionite literalism, see Jordan Daniel Wood, “Origen’s Polemics in Princ 4.2.4: Scriptural Literalism as a Christo-Metaphysical Error.” Also see Mark Chenoweth, “Origen’s Interpretation of Violence in the Book of Joshua.”