“Is God a Moral Monster?” A Review (Part 1)
Much has been written in recent years on the moral problems with the depiction of God in the Old Testament. Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? is a welcome entry to the literature with twenty short, engaging and informative chapters that provide a first-rate apologetic treatment of a broad range of issues from curious biblical dietary laws to the Israelite relationship to slavery and genocide.
I have decided to review Is God a Moral Monster? in two parts. The division of parts is somewhat arbitrary but is borne out of necessity to spare the unsuspecting reader from an unduly long and ponderous blog post. In this first part I’ll briefly survey the text and then summarize my main objection which I call the “press secretary syndrome”. Then in part 2 I’ll outline some examples of this syndrome and close with some final conclusions.
A brief survey of the text
Copan takes as his starting point the new atheists with their trumped up charges against the morality of the Judeo-Christian God. He sets the stage in part 1 (chapters 1, 2) by introducing the new atheists and their dizzying range of strident complaints against Christianity. Reading Copan’s summary of new atheist objections to Christianity is a little like reading Cicero summarizing Goth objections to Roman civilization: Copan does his best to be fair (just like Cicero surely would), but there is no getting around the fact that the new atheist objections are, for the most part, rooted in a positively barbaric ignorance of the subject matter in question.
Part 2 mounts a defense of the depiction of God’s character in the Old Testament. Copan argues that God is not arrogant for demanding worship (chapter 3), and that jealousy is appropriate for a divine being (chapter 4). Perhaps most significantly this section takes on God’s demand to sacrifice Isaac (chapter 5). Copan points out that a number of textual hints help the reader to see that this is a test, it is only a test. Of course one could still object that it is wrong for God to ask such an extraordinary thing of Abraham, even if it is just a test. But Copan counters that that it is not always wrong to take innocent human life. Moreover, it remains within the divine prerogative to take an innocent life, or demand the taking of one, test or not.
Part 3 is by far the largest section in the book as it spans chapters 6-18. This section deals with a broad range of topics beginning with the appeal to incremental revelation in history as a means to explain the Bible’s “ubiquitous weirdness” (chapters 7-8). From there Copan turns to address a number of topics including the treatment of slaves and women. But the real heart of this section comes in the treatment of holy war and genocidal massacre in chapters 15-17.
Finally in Part 4 Copan goes on the offensive, arguing for the necessity of God for objective morality (chapter 19) and defending the centrality of Jesus as God’s final word in Christian revelation (chapter 20).
A prefatory string of adulatory blurbable praises
Since I’m going to spend the bulk of time focusing on points of disagreement I’ll begin by placing those criticisms within context. This is an excellent book that should be in the personal library of everyone who has more than a passing interest in the topic. Indeed, I am not aware of a better book from an evangelical perspective on apologetics and Old Testament ethics. Is God a Moral Monster? is a great example of one stop shopping: get all your major OT apologetic problems addressed in one place. The book is good enough that I am leaning toward including it in the future as one of the four textbooks in the seminary apologetics course I teach (and that, dear reader, is high praise indeed).
Okay, enough syncophantic, blurbable adulation. Let’s turn now to the interesting part: the disagreements.
The Press Secretary Syndrome
My central problem with Is God a Moral Monster? can be summarized as what I call the “Press Secretary Syndrome.” The press secretary, as you no doubt are aware, is the person who serves as the face of government to the press. As such, it is the job of the press secretary to present the government’s policies and actions in a winsome manner. The press secretary’s mandate does not extend to admissions like the following: “I think my government’s policy is weak on this point. Clearly the opposition seems to be stronger on this issue. But there you have it. No government is perfect.”
That’s fine for the press secretary, I suppose. A little bit of spin is par for the course in politics. But it is disappointing when you sense spin on a topic like ethics and the Old Testament. Reading through Is God a Moral Monster? it is eminently clear that Paul Copan is an evangelical apologist and a stalwart defender of standard evangelical commitments to the authority and interpretation of scripture. That is the perspective of the governing party that he represents. In most cases that works fine. I think that for much of the territory covered the standard evangelical views of the meaning and authority of the texts in question is eminently defensible. But at key points the standard evangelical views are not the most plausible readings. Indeed, at key points the weakness of those ideological commitments shows through like the thinned knees on a worn pair of jeans. At those moments Copan seems intent on denying the denim is substantially worn through. I’m not asking him to give up the jeans: just sew on a patch or two. And if you’re not willing to go that far then, to switch back to the earlier analogy, at least say what the press secretary cannot: “I think the standard evangelical take is weak on this point. Clearly alternative readings seem to be stronger on this issue. But there you have it. No approach to the text is perfect.”
In the second part of the review I’ll provide some concrete examples of the press secretary syndrome.