PAUL COPAN’S IS GOD A MORAL MONSTER? MAKING SENSE OF THE OLD TESTAMENT GOD

Who is Paul Copan?

Paul Copan is a familiar name to those formally engaged in the defense of the Christian worldview.  He has authored ten books on topics related to Christian apologetics and edited eleven others.  Copan was formerly on staff at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries where he served as a lecturer, writer, and researcher, and at First Presbyterian Church of Schenectady, NY where he served as a member of its pastoral staff.  He has held professorships at several institutions; Copan is currently a “professor of philosophy and ethics…at Palm Beach Atlantic University”[1] where he occupies the Pledger Family Chair.  Copan holds an MDiv from Trinity International University and a PhD in Philosophy of Religion from Marquette University.

Copan’s Assumptions and the Book’s Purpose

Is God a Moral Monster? is essentially a book about Christian ethics, specifically Old Testament Ethics, with an apologetic flavor.  Copan wrote the book because he saw a “vital need in the Christian community, which is often perplexed and sometimes immobilized by…difficult Old Testament texts.”[2]  Old Testament ethics, a subject which Copan sees as a hot topic, has been pushed to the forefront of theological and apologetic discussion by the New Atheism movement.[3]  According to Copan, tackling the this hot topic is a challenge because there is a much territory to cover in the biblical text and extensive background discussion is required to make sense of an ancient Near Eastern culture that can seem “strange and…otherworldly.”[4]  In Is God a Moral Monster?, Copan attempts to present, in an accessible manner, “sober-minded explanations and angles that present helpful resolutions and responses to perplexing Old Testament ethics questions”[5] so that the challenges of Old Testament ethics can be addressed.

Copan wrote Is God a Moral Monster? in four parts. In these four parts, he progressively builds his case for the moral virtues of God as presented in the Old Testament. Part 1 explores Neo-Atheism[6] and addresses the focus that members of the New Atheism movement place on “the God of the Old Testament”.[7] Part 2 contrasts the negative claims about the nature of God as presented in the Old Testament made by Neo-Atheists with the positive understanding that Christian theologians have about the nature of God as presented in the same scripture.  Part 3 presents the cultural practices portrayed in the biblical text in the context of ancient Near Eastern culture as a whole.  Part 4 explores the philosophical implications of accepting or denying God as the Giver of moral law.

As is the case when reading any work of biblical scholarship, the reader should approach the text with an understanding of the author’s assumptions and methods.  Copan is not only a Christian theologian but also a Christian philosopher. As a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society[8], Copan affirms that, “the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the original manuscripts. God is a Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.”[9]  Copan’s ethical assessment and apologetic must, therefore, stay within the frameworks of biblical inerrancy (which presumes continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament).  To state the matter simplistically, Copan can fairly be considered a “conservative” biblical scholar and writes from such a perspective.  That is not to say, however, that Copan’s hermeneutic strictly adheres to that of other conservative Christians (as illustrated by his treatment of the genre of Joshua).  Furthermore, Copan’s outlook cannot rightly be described as one of scholarly disinterest given that he “hopes and prays” for the success of the book in helping Christians address Old Testament difficulties.[10]

 A Summary

As he opens Part 1 of Is God a Moral Monster?, Copan recounts his personal experience of interacting with, Daniel Dennett, who, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (now deceased), is considered one of the “four horseman of the Neo-atheistic apocalypse.”[11]  A notable difference between “New Atheists” such as “the four horsemen” and the atheists of days gone by is the evangelistic zeal with which the New Atheists seek to spread their views and the sometimes winsome way in which they make their case.[12]  Whereas atheists of the past were happy to quietly disbelieve in God and sit out religious life, New Atheists seem hell-bent on eradicating religious life altogether[13] and in a very opportunistic manner.  “…the New Atheists have capitalized on evil done ‘in the name of religion’ to tar all things religious with the same brush… capitalizing on the West’s increasingly ‘post-Christian’ status…Neo-atheists are the new public, popular face of atheism—a topic no longer seemingly limited to ivory tower academics.”[14]  Despite their zeal, the intellectual value of new atheist arguments pales in comparison to those of well-known-atheists-past such as William Rowe.[15]  Copan observes three major weaknesses about the New Atheist mindset: (1) they do not express themselves in an angry and defensive manner, (2) their arguments against God’s existence are “flimsy”[16] and exhibit a low degree of “intellectual rigor,”15 and (3) they don’t hold atrocities done in the name of atheism to the same degree of scrutiny to those done in the name of religion.  Copan asserts that strong intellectual responses from the believing community have exposed each of these three weaknesses.  However, Christians must still contend with the arguments New Atheists have made about the wrongs done in the name of religion, specifically those wrongs that New Atheists perceive to be evident in the Old Testament. “New Atheists commonly raise questions about strange and harsh Old Testament laws, a God of jealousy and anger, slavery, and the killing of the Canaanites…”[17]

In Part 2, Copan responds to the distorted picture of God that Neo-Atheists paint using an Old Testament brush.  New Atheists view “the God of the Old Testament” as arrogant, petulantly jealous, full of rage, abusive, and bullying.  In order to paint this distorted picture, New Atheists must first lower God to a human level.  After doing so, they use His own words (as recorded in the Old Testament) to make Him sound like a ruler, neighbor, or family member that no one would like to have.  Copan addresses God’s self-presentation in the Old Testament from the perspective that God is the greatest possible being. God is not arrogant or proud, argues Copan, He just “has a realistic view of Himself.”[18]  God can demand worship because He, and He alone, is worthy of it.  Furthermore, God demonstrates humility and self-giving by  interacting with humans, going as far to become incarnate in Jesus and experience a humiliating death upon a Roman cross.  Just as God is not arrogant but possesses a reasonable self-understanding, God is not petulantly jealous but jealous in a righteous manner. “Jealousy can be a bad thing or a good thing. It’s bad to protect the petty; it’s good to fiercely guard the precious.”[19] God fiercely guards the precious.  This is demonstrated by the marriage analogy which permeates scripture. “(God) is an engaging, relational God who attaches himself to humans. He desires to be their loving Father and the wise ruler of their lives. In Israel’s case, God’s love is that of a passionate husband.”[20]  Any anger or jealously demonstrated by God is of loving and protective nature.  Just as God’s anger is just so, too, are His commands.  Of all God’s commands in the Old Testament, the one that perhaps receives the most criticism is His command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah; Richard Dawkins forthrightly calls the command “child abuse and bullying”.[21]  In addressing criticisms of this command, Copan invites readers to consider both the broader and narrower contexts of Abraham’s call as it relates to faith as well as the New Testament crucifixion of Jesus which was foreshadowed by the events on Mount Moriah.  Ultimately, Abraham was not forced to sacrifice his son and God’s loving character was magnified by the self sacrifice He provided in Christ, His own son.

Copan digs deeper into contextual exploration in Part 3 of the book, by examining the ancient Near Eastern backdrop against which the Old Testament was written.  Neo-Atheistic objections to God’s goodness based on Old Testament law are grounded in what they perceive as God-ordained barbarism and sexism.  Furthermore, not only do Neo-Atheists find the practices of Old Testament Israel barbaric, they find them downright strange.  They are as outraged about slavery and war as they are perplexed about the Levitical holiness code.  Copan, echoing C.S. Lewis accuses Neo-Atheists of engaging in chronological snobbery, which is the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”[22]  Neo-Atheists simply attempt to overlay contemporary ways of thinking about societal operations onto an ancient one.  Furthermore, Neo-Atheist critics make little effort to contrast ancient Jewish laws with the laws of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, against which the Jewish laws come out looking favorable.  Additionally, Copan points out that Neo-Atheist critics fail to understand what he calls the “redemptive movement of scripture,”[23] asserting that “Israel’s Old Testament covenant wasn’t a universal ideal and was never intended to be so”[24] and that “the Mosaic covenant anticipated a better covenant.” 22  Arguments about divine covenants aren’t apt to go over as well with atheists (who presuppose that there is no God to give such covenants) and that is likely why Copan must spill more ink defending against accusations of barbarism and weirdness.  Copan makes sense of the Jewish holiness code by illustrating the depraved practices of Israel’s ancient Near Eastern neighbors; the holiness code was meant to keep Israel separate (literally a people “set apart” for God) from the vile cultures around them.  Copan then uses the practices and laws of the wicked cultures that surrounded Israel to put Israel’s own laws into perspective.  Upon close inspection in historical context, Israel’s laws were much more just to women, foreigners, the weak, the poor, and those found guilty of torts.  To deal with one of the most daunting objections of Neo-Atheism, the slaughter of the Canaanites, Copan argues that the genre of Israel’s war narratives implies a military victory but not a complete annihilation and slaughter.  Whereas Neo-Atheists present the taking of the Holy Land as ethnic cleansing, Copan presents it as just war.

In Part 4, Copan explores the philosophical implications of making moral judgments without divine grounding and the role of Jesus as the Fulfiller of the Old Testament.  Copan agrees with New Atheists who claim that they can do good things without God.  However, he points out that, without God, there is no way to define what good is.  Copan sums up his philosophical argument very nicely: “Intrinsically valuable, thinking persons don’t come from impersonal, nonconscious, unguided, valueless processes over time. A personal, self-aware, purposeful, good God provides the much-needed context that a God-less universe just can’t…. atheists who believe in real right and wrong make a massive intellectual leap of faith.”[25] Having stripped the atheist off all philosophical authority to proclaim God a “moral monster,” Copan presents the (New Testament) Gospel of Jesus as the culmination of the story of redemption and faithfulness that the Old Testament only begins to tell.  Stopping at the Old Testament, writes Copan, impoverishes the biblical reader. “If we stop with the Old Testament”, he states, “we won’t see the entire story line as it’s brought to completion in Jesus…if Jesus truly brought a new covenant for the true Israel and has begun to renew the creation as the second Adam, then we ought to concern ourselves with how his incarnation, ministry, atoning death, and resurrection shed light backward on the Old Testament, with all its messiness.”[26]  So ends Copan’s treatment of Old Testament ethics and apologetic for “The God of the Old Testament.”

Analysis and Evaluation

Copan’s philosophical argument that God’s existence is a necessary condition for a state of affairs in which morality can be objectively grounded is a strong one.  In itself, it is a simple refutation of the Neo-Atheistic claim that God is a “moral monster”.  Such an argument can be made by the Christian apologist even if he doesn’t not possess a thorough understanding of the of the deep, contextual Old Testament ethics that Copan presents in his book.  However, such an argument falls short if one seeks to address Old Testament ethics specifically.  A group such as non-Christian theists, for example, may ground morality in God but reject Christianity due to the “moral monster” God of the Old Testament.  Thus, Copan’s extensive treatment of Old Testament ethics is not only extremely helpful to building a strong biblical ethic but also useful for building a useful apologetic.  Unfortunately, some of Copan’s ethical arguments are quite tenuous.  His argument that Old Testament law, in its entirety, accommodates the hardened hearts of ancient Jews relies heavily upon William J. Web’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic.[27] If one does not agree with this hermeneutic one may find it difficult to agree with Copan on some points.  More troublesome, though, is Copan’s position that Joshua’s reports of the battles of with the Canaanites exhibit “ancient near eastern war rhetoric.”[28]  According to Copan, the biblical author was merely using hyperbole, fish stores as it were, when he wrote of utterly destroying the Canaanites. “Utterly destroy” didn’t really mean “utterly destroy,” it meant defeated soundly.  Copan has admitted that his reading of the text as an ancient war narrative genre “is not well attested in church history amongst biblical commentators.”[29]  Furthermore, even if the Canaanites were not complete slaughtered by the Jews, they were still disposed from their homes on God’s orders.  Even if the Canaanites were exceedingly vile, in the mind of the Neo-Athiest, such a divine land grab as the one present in the Joshua narrative may still be objectionable.

Essentially, Copan’s treatment of the slaughter of the Canaanites as presented in the Old Testament seems more like a contrived apologetic response to Neo-Atheism than a soundly exegeted biblical position.  It mars an otherwise masterful and well-written work of Christian scholarship.  Despite the flaws inherent in a couple of Copan’s arguments, this book belongs in the library of any serious student of Old Testament ethics and apologetics.  It’s worth reading and will encourage readers to become better students of the biblical text.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Institute for Christian Apologetics, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Speakers. http://nobtsapologetics.com/defendthefaith/speakers.html (accessed January 5, 2015).

Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

Evangelical Philosophical Society. Membership – Evangelical Philosophical Society. 2015. http://www.epsociety.org/about/membership.asp (accessed January 5, 2015).

Palm Beach Atlantic University. Copan, Paul. http://www.pba.edu/index.cfm?fuseaction=faculty.detail&contactID=795 (accessed February 2, 2014).

[1] Palm Beach Atlantic University. Copan, Paul. http://www.pba.edu/index.cfm?fuseaction=faculty.detail&contactID=795 (accessed February 2, 2014).

[2] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011. p. 12

[3] For more on The New Atheism movement see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article about the subject at http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/

[4] ibid p. 11

[5] ibid p. 11

[6] This appears to be Copan’s preferred term for the “New Atheist” movement.  I use the terms interchangeably in this review.

[7] In a slight against biblical continuity, New Atheists often use this term to imply that the Old Testament and the New Testament present different gods.

[8] Institute for Christian Apologetics, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Speakers. n.d. http://nobtsapologetics.com/defendthefaith/speakers.html (accessed January 5, 2015).

[9] Evangelical Philosophical Society. Membership – Evangelical Philosophical Society. 2015. http://www.epsociety.org/about/membership.asp (accessed January 5, 2015).

[10] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. p. 12

[11] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. p. 15

[12] Dawkins notwithstanding

[13] Christopher Hitchens, himself, made a powerful statement about Richard Dawkins’ dedication to eradicating religion which can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ma8X-mU4yMA

[14] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. p. 16

[15] Rowe is notable for his argument against God’s existence from what he calls “Gratuitous evil.”  This argument demonstrates more philosophical rigor than those made by New Atheists.  For more on Rowe’s argument see http://faculty.wwu.edu/howardd/istheismcompatible.pdf

[16] Ibid p. 17

[17] Ibid p. 19

[18] Ibid p. 28

[19] Ibid p. 34

[20] Ibid p. 35

[21] Ibid p. 52

[22] Ibid p. 58

[23] Ibid p. 59

[24]  Ibid p. 64

[25] Ibid p. 210-211

[26] Ibid p. 221

[27] For more on this particular type of Hermeneutic see Webb’s website at http://redemptivechristianity.com/?page_id=11

[28] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. p. 170

[29] Copan admitted as such, at the very least by omission, in response to a question asked by Dr. Tawa Anderson at the 2015 Defend the Faith Conference at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary.  I was a witness to this exchange.

*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.

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