SEBTS professors Heath Thomas and Jeremy Evans are at it again. This time, they have co-edited with Paul Copan a new book Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem (IVP, 2013). Essay contributors include Stephen B. Chapman (Duke University), Daniel Heimbach (SEBTS), Glen Stassen (Fuller Seminary), and Alan Bandy (OBU). Why do I recommend the book? It is a collection of essays which wrestles fruitfully with the question of holy war in the Bible, draws upon scholars from multiple disciplines and traditions, and possesses one of the best front cover graphics in recent memory.
In a nutshell, Holy War in the Bible addresses “the challenge of a seemingly genocidal God who commands ruthless warfare has bewildered Bible readers for generations.” This challenge arises from biblical stories such as God’s dealings with the Canaanites that in turn give rise to perennial questions for Bible readers. Some of these questions include: Why does God apparently tell Joshua to wipe out whole cities, tribes or nations? Is this yet another example of dogmatic religious conviction breeding violence? Did these texts help inspire or justify the Crusades? What impact do they have on Christian morality and just war theories today? How does divine warfare fit with Christ’s call to “turn the other cheek?” Why does Paul employ warfare imagery in his letters? Do these texts warrant questioning the overall trustworthiness of the Bible?
The book’s approach is cross-disciplinary, with contributions being made by scholars in biblical studies, ethics, philosophy, and theology. As the introduction states, “The variety of responses and approaches that emerge in the volume are warranted. Such a difficult and delicate topic cannot be cleanly ‘answered,’ as if theological questions such as these can be resolved in a simplistic manner. Biblical, moral, philosophical and theological threads inevitably weave together in arguments laid before the issue of divine war” (p. 18).
An example of this interdisciplinary approach, and its practical value, can be found in the discussion “holy war” in the Writings (Ch. 4) In the chapter, Heath Thomas argues that “the Writings provide a human response to the issue of divine war (YHWH war) not particularly advocated or explored in the rest of the canon, and this perhaps may provide a shape to Christian response in regards to the theme of Old Testament ‘holy war’ and Christian morality” (p. 68). As Thomas makes evident, a major component of that Christian response becomes clearer from a text like Lamentations 2. This passage shows us that lament has a place in the Christian life, especially lament over issues like “holy war.” Thomas states, “too often, in honest attempts to deal with the issue, some may tend to move outside of life before God and address challenging issues, like divine war, as if God would not actually respond to the prayers and tears of humanity” (p. 82). Thus while Christians may struggle to “figure out” such issues, Scriptures like Lamentations teach that Christians must first remain devoted to God in prayer and that he willingly hears their cries.
Such discussion provides a window into the nature of this fine volume by Evans and Thomas. For this reason, students at the college and seminary levels in biblical studies, philosophy, and ethics courses will find the discussions illuminating, and teachers will find much in the way of resources for guiding such students. The editors and contributors take on a complex issue with skill and Christian wisdom. For this reason, we recommend you purchase this book and put it to good use.