Thursday, May 22, 2008

Questions Raised in the Hitchens/Prager/d'Souza Debate on God

On May 1, I had the pleasure of attending a debate in Orange County, California, sponsored by Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Temple Bat Yahm, and Fieldstead & Co. The debate considered whether the truth was in the Christian God, the Jewish God, or in no god at all. As with most debates, there was perhaps more heat than light generated in some instances. But this was a very good debate by debate standards. While I don’t agree with Hitchens, I must admit he is a masterful debater both in terms of his fair and unfair tactics. Dennis Prager has great presence, popular appeal, and is an insightful thinker, and Dinesh D’Souza is both polite and bright. Hearing the discussion in the debate made me want to discuss a few of the issues raised.

Question 1: Is the New Testament more deferential to Christians than the Old Testament is to the Jews? Dennis Prager made the claim that the Old Testament is constantly complaining about how bad the Jews are, but that the New Testament makes Christians look fantastic.

I think that Dennis must have missed much of what is actually in the New Testament text. It is true that the Old Testament is hard on the Jewish people. They are always rebelling against God. But then this is because human beings tend to rebel against God. As it says in the New Testament, “Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” I Cor. 10:11. We see the Old Testament Jews in their sinfulness and rebellion because we are all sinful, rebellious and stiff-necked people who would just as soon reject God if He did not call us to Himself. The New Testament clearly recognizes that Christians are no better than their Jewish forbears at being the people of God.

Throughout the Gospels, the disciples are always making foolish mistakes, misunderstanding Jesus and failing to get the point of whatever He is telling them in fairly clear terms. In the books of Acts and Galatians, we see Peter move away from the revelation God has just given him about His relationship with the Gentile Christians because He is cowed by those who demand obedience to the Jewish law. Paul has to rebuke him and there is a big argument.

Paul himself is “no saint” in that he has an argument with one of his co-workers so severe, they split up and start working separately. Perhaps under God’s guidance, or perhaps just because he was difficult, Paul also rejects a variety of prophecies warning him of the dangers of returning to Jerusalem.

Nearly all the epistles of the New Testament are written to churches or individuals who are having trouble obeying God and have allowed one type of heresy or misconduct or another to creep into their lives. In the book of Revelation, Jesus speaks to the seven churches of Asia Minor. He has severe criticism for five of them, and none is described as holy, strong, hearty and pleasing to God in every respect.

So I don’t think it can really be said that the New Testament is any easier on the people of God than the Old Testament. It, too, depicts us as sinful human beings, entirely dependent upon God’s grace, forgiveness, mercy and sanctifying power. One of the major differences is that the emphasis in the New Testament makes it even clearer than the Old Testament that God is concerned not only about outward conduct, but about the deepest thoughts of mind and heart.

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