The Divine Covenants:
by Archie Penner, Servant Publishers, 2001, 217 pages.
This book is the summation of a lifetime of reflection by a gifted scholar on the question of how the Old Testament must be viewed and handled by New Testament believers (10). Penner sees great difficulty in accepting both testaments on a single plane and equally applicable in a literal sense to contemporary Christians. Nor can he accept a selective application of Old Testament texts when it is convenient to do so. Nor the notion that the Old Testament serves simply as a background to the New Testament and thus lacks authority as the Word of God. Penner states emphatically that “both testaments are equally the Word of God. And if correctly understood, they share the one and the same authority of God” (13).
The problem that confronts him, however, is that “…much of what is described of the will and actions of God, and therefore the ethics of the Old Testament, are precisely those which are disclaimed or negated in the New Testament” (23). A starting point for Penner in resolving this dilemma is to affirm that “…the Yahweh of the Old Testament is the Jesus Christ of the New” (24). That is to say that “…the Lord Jesus must be committed to the same action and will the God of the Old Testament is described as having” (25). Furthermore, Penner asserts that “…in his sovereignty, God has decreed only that which is good, holy and just” (26).
Sin, with all its attendant evil and destructiveness, entered the world, says Penner, not by the will or decree of God, but by the choices of created beings capable of choice. “Since, then, God has not desired sin or evil, nor willed sin or evil, nor in any way caused them, these could have occurred only by concession, and not by commission or even permission” (27).
Thus having exonerated God of any evil, Penner still faces the difficult question of why, if something is not the will of God and consistent with his nature as revealed in Jesus Christ, God apparently commands or brings to pass such things in the Old Testament. Things like committing genocide, capital punishment for a host of offenses, child sacrifice and fornication, for example. This is a serious problem indeed if one insists that Yahweh and Jesus partake of the same nature in the Godhead.
Penner finds a clue to the dilemma in a specific example in the Old Testament. In 2 Kings 24:1 it is said that God incites David to number his people even though it is clearly not his will. However the same incident as recorded in I Chron. 21:1 has Satan inciting David to number the people. Penner’s logic appears sound when he says it can’t be both. So who did it?
To solve this problem, Penner introduces the principle of differentiation. He states that “When it has been determined that an action or activity ascribed to Yahweh is not congruent with the divine character as revealed elsewhere in the Old Testament or the New, and therefore it is concluded that he has not done it, a new element of interpretation must be sought. This new element…is the principle of concession” (56). In other words, even when the text intimates that the evil action or activity comes from God, it can only mean that God took no pleasure in it and only conceded reluctantly to it. So when Israel demands a King like the rest of the nations, God reluctantly commands the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul as King over Israel. Penner suggests that this command is not given as the directive or permissive will of God, but only by his concessive will. “I don’t like it at all, but if you insist, I will command it.”
Penner offers an illustration to help us differentiate who or what carries the blame. A person has contracted a serious illness and has been placed on life-support systems in the hospital. After it has been determined that the person can not live without these supports, the doctor disengages these life supports and the patient dies. Now the question can be asked, “Who or what killed the patient?” Was it the doctor whose action precipitated the death, or was it the disease? Penner would say it was the disease. Similarly Penner asserts we must be careful not to ascribe evil to God when it is not due him.
Yet there is much to contemplate. Perhaps that is why the book is somewhat repetitive. Penner keeps coming back to his main thesis that Yahweh cannot do or command evil and remain consistent with the nature of Jesus Christ, and keeps chipping away at the questions that still loom on the horizon. Why, for example, are all events in nature attributed to the direct act of God? Because the Hebrew language has no word for what we would describe as nature and therefore everything that happens is simply an act of God. Why does God pronounce judgement on nations and seemingly take delight in dashing the heads of their infants against rocks? It is a way of saying that these nations have brought judgement upon themselves. To say that “God’s cup of wrath is full,” is to say in other words that evil has spiraled out of control to the point at which it is self-destructive.
This book is not for the casual reader. It requires full concentration and personal involvement as the arguments are repeatedly spun out in ever widening circles – always with additional examples and renewed emphasis of the thesis that God can not initiate evil in any manner because of what we know about him through Jesus Christ. Theologians throughout the centuries have attempted to answer the question of how the Old Testament relates to the new. While it may well be possible that Penner’s thesis does not answer all our questions, he does bring a new and creative dimension to this centuries-old discussion. It has helped me personally to counteract the image of God I developed in younger years as being the God of the big stick, full of wrath and out to get me. It affirms what I am beginning to learn – that “God the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).